Patience in Adversity: The Courtly Lover and Job in Machaut's Motets 2 and 3

By Huot, Sylvia | Medium Aevum, Fall 1994 | Go to article overview

Patience in Adversity: The Courtly Lover and Job in Machaut's Motets 2 and 3


Huot, Sylvia, Medium Aevum


Guillaume de Machaut has long been recognized for his intellectualization of love poetry. In his oeuvre, love is a rarefied and sublimated meditation, in which sexual consummation plays but a minor role.(1) Machaut's narrative poetry in particular has been studied for its treatment of love as the paradigmatic human experience, a vehicle for moral teachings of larger implications. The Remede de Fortune, for example, has been analysed as a recasting of Boethian philosophy in the guise of the Roman de la Rose; the Fonteinne amoureuse and Jugement dou roy de Navarre have been linked to the tradition of the speculum principum.(2) Less attention, however, has been paid to the literary analysis of Machaut's lyric poetry. This critical neglect is most striking with regard to the motets, which pass virtually unmentioned in many accounts of Machaut's literary production.(3) Yet his motet corpus is far from insignificant, comprising twenty-three compostions, each with two texted voices: six Latin, fifteen French, and two bilingual. Of these, twenty employ Latin tenors, while three feature French songs -- a rondeau and two virelais -- as tenors. The Latin motets treat political and devotional themes, but the French texts offer a series of variations on the traditional themes of the courtly love lyric. The use of amorous material in conjunction with a Latin tenor allowed Machaut to set courtly rhetoric against a different rhetorical tradition, that of Scripture and liturgy, and to elaborate a moral and spiritual critique of fin'amor. In this light the motets can be seen to reflect concerns similar to those of his narrative poetry.

The vernacular motet already had a long and illustrious tradition by the time of Machaut. The majority of Old French motets in the thirteenth-century repertoire fit the general pattern of combining secular texts for the upper voices with a Latin tenor derived ultimately from the liturgy, usually by way of the corpus of organa and clausulae.(4) The creative juxtaposition of sacred and profane discourse was thus a central feature of the motet as a vernacular literary genre, and thirteenth-century poets and composers -- nearly all of them anonymous -- explored many thematic parallels between the two registers. An examination of the corpus of thirteenth-century French motets shows that the tenor plays a decisive role in textual dynamics. As a citation of a familiar liturgical text -- whose ultimate source is usually the Bible -- the tenor is the explicit link between devotional and secular discourses. A given motet must thus be read according to two different interpretative contexts: that of the vernacular lyric tradition exemplified in the upper voices, and that of Scripture and liturgy.(5)

The motet was not, of course, the only literary form to explore these issues. The allegorization of erotic discourse was a well-established practice in mediaeval literature and biblical exegesis; and, conversely, the eroticization of scriptural passages is a feature of much mediaeval parody. Thus the maiden pining for her lover can become a figure of Ecclesia, bereft of the Bridegroom; the suffering lover, cruelly rejected by his chosen one but continuing to love anyway, is an image for the Man of Sorrows, betrayed by his bride Synagoga. These and other parallels are exploited in thirteenth-century motets, with varying degrees of irony. In some examples the upper voices can be read as an allegorical recasting of the sacred event commemorated in the tenor, while in other cases the relationship is one of parody. In many motets, in fact, it is difficult to choose between allegorical and parodistic readings: the two possibilities coexist, resulting from the motet's fundamentally hybrid structure.

None of the tenors used by Machaut figures in the thirteenth-century motet corpus. Like the thirteenth-century tenors, however, Machaut's Latin tenors are of liturgical origin, consisting of a word or phrase from the chant. …

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Patience in Adversity: The Courtly Lover and Job in Machaut's Motets 2 and 3
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