The whole company, ladies and gentlemen alike, were in favour of telling stories.
- The Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio (translated by G. H. McWilliam)
Every year a large group of musicologists gather for the Conference of Medieval and Renaissance Music, both for the purpose of presenting new finds of their own and to learn of new finds by fellow researchers. This group encompasses both the very seasoned professors and the undergrad neophyte, and the range of subjects being treated is delightfully diverse. This year, for instance, there were papers on topics such as the office for Saint Catherine, the liturgical programme of Reconquista Spain, a song from the Cambridge Songs and late medieval English carols.
Via Boccaccio, from Palazzo Pretorio
The MedRen conference was this year held in the Tuscan town of Certaldo, allegedly the hometown of Giovanni Boccaccio, and my supervisor for my Master's thesis invited me along to participate in a session arranged by one of his colleagues. Naturally, I accepted the offer gladly, and for a few days in the beginning of July I sauntered among musicologists in the medieval old city of Certaldo Alto overlooking the Tuscan denes and hills and soaked up knowledge.
The reason why I - a mere historian - was invited to a conference for musicologists was as follows. For my thesis I had looked at various texts for Edward the Confessor, and in particular a set of liturgical texts contained in a manuscript from the turn of the 14th century which had until then been ignored by scholarship. In the course of my work I managed to date one of these liturgial texts - an hexameter couplet - securely to the timeframe 1161-66, and this was one of the major discoversies of my research. The item in question belonged to the liturgical repertoire of Matins - known as the historia or the part of the liturgy recounting biographical details of the saint - and since the session in Certaldo took the historia as its subject, I was asked to contribute.
The conference lasted four days was comprised of 52 sessions. Each session was about 90 minutes long, and four sessions ran parallel at their alloted hours, with intermingled coffee breaks, lunches, book presentations and concerts. I went to a number of these sessions, but I could only manage two sessions a day since in many cases the papers given dealt with details far too technical for me to grasp or follow at great length. I felt very much like a fish out of water, but then again, that was how evolution started, so I absorbed as much knowledge as I could master and I did indeed learn a great deal. When I was not listening to papers, I walked about the old medieval town in exploration of its museums, churches, streets and gelaterias, or socialised with fellow academics who, like me, had come to present their findings. I met a great number of interesting people, and I almost learned as much from these sociable chats as from the papers themselves, and although I acknowledged the gap between their mastery of the subject and my own feeble clutching at straws, I found it very inspiring to be in the presence of such a great number of brilliant people.
Unfortunately, this was the last day of the session, so some people were already leaving town, while others were perhaps drawn more to the parallel sessions. Whatever the reasons, the turnout was not great and I would have liked a more numerous audience. Nonetheless, it was a good and attentive crowd - with the exception of two rude cretins who walked out in the middle of my paper (seriously, you don't do that) - and I very much enjoyed presenting my findings.
The Chiesetta, dedicated to Saints Thomas and Prospero
The conference experience was, in sum, a very encouraging experience, and it reinforced my belief in the necessity of interdisciplinarity in medieval studies, for although I am no musicologist I nonetheless found it extremely rewarding to exchange experiences and knowledge with the brilliant minds in the field of musicology, and I do hope that the musicologists, too, will see the benefits in such an exchange - which I'm confident that they will, because they are brilliant.
Coffee break in the courtyard of the pretorian palace