French-American Bridge for Medieval Musical Iconography

Representing the Music of Minnesang


By Mike Ford (Columbia University)

In his presentation at INHA’s seminar “Arts et musique au Moyen Age”  in January 2018, Henry Hope (Universität Bern) argued against the widely-held belief that music (as opposed to poetry) did not enjoy a position of privilege in the minds of the German aristocracy of the fourteenth century. Earlier scholars posited this view based on the small portion of images in the Codex Manesse that contain musical iconography and that only the text appears—not any musical notation.

However, Hope disputes this view in a variety of ways. Firstly, he notes that most of the images that depict musical instruments actively avoid depicting performance; indeed, only two images feature instruments being played. This kind of deliberate disuse of instruments leads Hope to believe that the instruments carry iconographic meaning instead of purely musical, highlighting the stature or class of the Minnesanger rather than portraying him as a musician, which is implied by his title and inclusion in the codex. In addition to alluding to the power of the Minnesanger himself, musical references also point to power relations between various figures in the images. For example, Hope discusses an image (found on 13r) in which Margrave Otto van Brandenburg plays chess against a lady; their agon is musically reflected by performers in a panel below their game: two trumpeters (with either military or courtly connotations) support the Margrave by blowing in the direction of the lady, while she is supported by a bagpiper (with pastoral connotations). The lady, holding one of his chess pieces, is unshaken by his show of authority.

Music often also takes on an allegorical function or harkens back to the ancient theories of musical harmonies (which Hope argues is an attempt at legitimation). While some of these allegories might be static in nature, many other images depict actions, rather than still-lives; Hope maintains: “Almost all the images in the codex can be sounded out,” by which he means that one can image the soundscape with ease.

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