The Cultural Context of Medieval Music

By Nancy Van Deusen | Go to book overview

5
Silva: Inner and Outer
Substance, Music, and
Material Culture

Let us start anew, bringing out in detail each one of the aspects introduced within the overview. We begin with a notion of stuff and Plato’s Timaeus. Not only was Plato’s text of great importance in the Middle Ages but also the priorities explained by the commentary from Chalcidius, who translated the Timaeus from Greek into Latin. The influence of the Timaeus was great from the early to the later centuries of the Middle Ages. We know this for certain from the manuscripts in libraries still available today.1 It appears that nearly every medieval library of any note had at least one, if not several, copies of the Latin translation of the Timaeus, often with the commentary by Chalcidius as well. This commentary makes Chalcidius’s priorities plain as he interacts with Plato’s writing. Further, Chalcidius’s attention to and discussion of the topics he has selected as important, also provided a collection of terms and concepts that remained central throughout the Middle Ages, influencing how music was regarded, its disciplinary function, and its position relative the other disciplines that made up a well-organized educational system.

With the Timaeus in hand, one needed to look no further to fix the boundaries, settle the issues, and decide on terms to be used to open up for inspection what we might call a medieval mentality, as well as the place of music within this mentality and to what its principal terms refer. We are dealing here with a mental culture to explain the world in which one lived, both in terms of invisible as well as visible reality, and to make this world comprehensible, even to young students. One should also add in this context that there is, perhaps, no factor that divides cultures—both geographical as well as temporal—as decisively as the topic treated by the Timaeus, namely, material (materia/substantia/ natura): of what it consists, how to describe it, and how to work effectively with it.

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