From his study, musicologist Karl Kügle looks out on the roofs of the historical city centre of Utrecht. Partly thanks to an ERC Advanced Grant, the professor and his research team will spend the years ahead studying the late-medieval court cultures of Europe. In an approach that’s already yielding fresh insights, he integrates musicology with literary, architectural, artistic and socio-economic history.
Text: Youetta Visser
‘We’re all experts in our own field, but we’re still not collaborating enough’, explains Kügle. ‘Literary academics study medieval poetry without considering the role played by the speaker or singer’s voice. Art and architecture historians often know too little about the music and texts that can be found in the manuscripts alongside miniatures. It may indeed be the case that historians, for their part, have a good understanding of social relations, but they devote little attention to the arts. There’s also an imbalance between the various disciplines. Sometimes a certain artist, such as Guillaume de Machaut, has an extremely good reputation in musicology circles, but he’s clearly much less interesting to literary academics. In my project, I’m attempting to understand these various perceptions and contradictions, and to tie them together’.
In the past sound played a completely different role in society than that which we’re now accustomed to. ‘Music, with its intervals composed of harmonious ratios such as 2:3 for the fifth, provided the medieval person with audible – and therefore physically perceptible – insight into the divine organisation of the world, the musica mundana. People also assumed that creating and listening to music had a direct influence on the body and soul (musica humana). Audible sounds – what we understand to be ‘music’ – are embedded in a much larger philosophical whole’.
Transdisciplinary and transnational
Kügle’s research is both transdisciplinary and transnational. He and his team are concentrating on the courts of Prague, Salzburg, Avignon, Savoy, Cyprus and the triangle of France – the Low Countries – England. This offers insight into the diversity, but also the lines of communication between a selection of court cultures within Europe in the ‘long’ 14th century (c. 1280-1450). The research team is supported by an advisory council (an international, multidisciplinary group of experts). ‘We’re essentially trying to develop a paradigm that will enable us to study an entire culture in all its facets’.