The Music of the Medieval Body in Pain

The Music of the Medieval Body in Pain

By Jody Enders

Fifteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 27 (2002)

Introduction: At first glance, what can be seen is an exquisite image. The orator is a master musician, his body a lyre as Cicero describes him “playing it” during a rhetorical performance by striking the chords of its harp:

The whole of a person’s frame and every look on his face and utterance of his voice are like strings of a harp, and sound according as they are struck by each successive emotion. For the tones of the voices are keyed up like the strings of an instrument.

Cicero is talking about delivery (actio, pronuntiatio, or hypokrisis), the rhetorical canon which classified and hierarchized a vast repertoire or non-verbal signs by virtue of their power or communicate effectively and pleasurably.

But some six centuries later, Isidore of Seville would speak of a different kind of bodily harp in his discussion of torture. In the vast cultural compendium captured by his widely disseminated Etymologiarum, the victim of a particular sort of “questioning” is brutalized by means of he stringed instrument known as the fidicuale: “Haec est fidiculae, qui his rei in eculeo torquentur, ut fides inveniatur” (And these things are called the strings or the reins, because, in order that the truth may be found, these kind are tormented on the rack). Later still, Hildegard of Bingen finds in her Causae et curae that the woman’s body is “open like a wooden frame (lingum) in which strings have been fastened for strumming (ad citharizandum)”; while, in the devotional context of his Speculum cairtatis, Aelred of Rivaulx notes with alarm that the singing voice was often twisted, even “tortured” (torquetur et retorquetur) into unnatural histronic acts as “the whole body is agitated by theatrical gestures, the lips are twisted, the eyes roll, the shoulders are shrugged, and the fingers bent responsive to every note.” Finally, in the fifteenth-century Passion d’Auvergne, the rounding up of martyrs for persecution inspires torturer Maulbec to teach his cronies the words of a hunting song which imitates the cries of wounded animals. His friend Mallegueype is a quick study, strumming the strings his instrument (fugiendo ad cordas) while he sings a threatening tune:

Betorary, Bertrand, betoray!
Hay, hay, hay, hay, hay, hay, hay, hay!
Betorary, Bertrand, betoray!
Hay, hay, hay, hay, hay, hay, hay, hay!
Ou poeray yo fugir, meichante?
Elle a le langage estrange,
Malbec. Michiau, betoray!

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