Conferences Features

Discovering hidden music in the Bestiary of Love

The Annual Meeting of the Medieval Academy of America kicked off yesterday with a keynote paper by Elizabeth Eva Leach of the University of Oxford, where she reveals how one can find the traces of music in medieval text, which once would have been very obvious to its contemporary readers, but would be difficult to spot for a modern audience.

Elizabeth Eva Leach

The paper ‘Richard de Fournival Across the Disciplines’ takes a look at the 13th century scholar Richard de Fournival, who was well know for his works as a poet and musician, and who at the same time wrote about alchemy and served as the personal surgeon to King Philip Augustus. His most famous work was Bestiaire d’amour The Bestiary of Love – a French prose work that combines a love letter with a bestiary.


Leach finds that although you cannot find a single musical notation in this work, The Bestiary of Love is filled with references to music, something that those who read it in the 13th century would have quickly seen, but that we in the 21st century would be unaware of.

One way this is done is through the presentation of various animals in the bestiary. Fournival does not pick the usual creatures that are found in these kinds of works, but chooses those that are known for the noises they make, such as the cock and the ass, who are awful to listen too, and the wolf, cricket and swan. The text explains how the cricket sings too much causing it to become hungry, and perhaps starve to death. Meanwhile, “the song of the swan dispenses with hunger topos and simply inverts the relation of singing and death so the imminent death prompts singing ad thus beautiful song is indicative of the signer’s imminent death.”

The most obvious song reference in The Bestiary of Love is when he the narrator cites lines from a recently written song to support his views about the necessity of equality in love. The lines are taken from a 1230s song written by a French troubadour named Bernart de Ventadorn, although Fournival slightly garbles them, probably intentionally.


Elizabeth Eva Leach wolf

The final inclusion of music in the text comes at the very end of The Bestiary of Love, where the author adds a refrain that opens a well known polyphonic motet:

Mercy, from which I
expected help and aid, is so
far removed from me.

Leach explains:

Outside the Bestiary of Love, these three lines continue to become a fourteen-line poem, set to music. Arguable the musical nature of the refrain aids the memory of the entire text. I’m going to use some modern examples to show how the refrain citation works: If I said ‘regrets, I’ve had a few’ you might think – or even sing, at least in your head – ‘but then again, too few to mention’. Or ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’ might lead to ‘how I wonder what you are…’ and so on.

In these ways, Richard de Fournival gives his readers, who often will be reading their text out loud to an audience, spots where music can come out. Leach finds that


The Bestiary of Love shows how music provides intertextual and subtextual information for illuminations, prose and citations. That music could do this without needing to have its own kind of notation was important in eliciting sounds from the memories of its original audience. This lack of music notation means that it is all to easy for this kind of musicality to remain silent in the context of modern academic disciplines; the benefit of attending to the songs an unsung text conjures up is potentially great.

Elizabeth Eva Leach, who is a Professor of Music at the University of Oxford, has some more details about this text in her blog posts Richard de Fournival’s Bestiary of Love and Refrains in odd places. You can also follow her on Twitter @eeleach


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