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  • Writer's pictureTim Braithwaite

John of Salisbury on Florid Singing (12th Century)

Updated: Jan 11, 2021

‘It pollutes the very practice of devotion that in the sight of God... by the debauchery of their wanton voices, by their self-display, by their womanish manner of making little notes and their chopping up of phrases, they try to remove all manly firmness from the dazed little minds of their listeners. When you have heard the effeminate melodies of those praecinentium et succinentium, concinentium et decinentium, intercinentium et occinentium, you would think it was the singing of Sirens, not humans...that facility, if such it is, of going up high or down low that dividing up or multiplying of short notes, that repetition of phrases and endless reinforcing of individual sections, all so mingle the high notes, even the very highest [acutissima], with low and ultra-low notes that the ears almost lose their power to judge. The mind is lulled by the attraction of all this sweetness and has not the strength to assess the merits of the sounds it hears. When they go beyond due measure, these things will more readily arouse itching in the genitals than devotion in the mind.’

‘Ipsum quoque cultum religionis incestat quod ante conspectum Domini... lascivientis vocis luxu, quadam ostentatione sui, muliebribus modis notularum articulorumque caesuris, stupentes animulas emollire nituntur. Cum praecinentium et succinentium, concinentium et decinentium, intercinentium et occinentium praemolles modulationes audieris, Sirenarum concentus credas esse non hominum... Ea siquidem est ascendendi descendendique facilitas, ea sectio vel geminatio notularum, ea replicatio articulorum singulorumque consolidatio, sic acuta vel acutissima gravibus et subgravibus temperantur ut auribus sui iudicii fere subtrahatur auctoritas ... Cum haec quidem modum excesserint, lumborum pruriginem quam devotionem mentis poterunt citius excitare’

John of Salisbury, Ioannis Saresberiensis Episcopi Carnotensis Policratici, ed. Clement Charles (New York: Arno Press, 1979), 41-2. Translation from Simon Ravens, The Supernatural Voice : A History of High Male Singing (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2014), 26

The image is the beginning of the preface to Denis Foulechat’s French translation of John of Salisbury’s 'Policraticus' in the manuscript Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Ms. français 24287, fol. 2r. The miniature shows King Charles V of France.

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