McNelis (2018 Congress)

Rachel McNelis
(Case Western Reserve University)

“Traversing the Labyrinth in Song:
Textual, Musical, and Visual Discourse in En la maison Dedalus

Abstract of Paper
Presented to be at the 53rd International Congress on Medieval Studies
(Kalamazoo, 2018)

Session on
“Manuscript (Trans)formations: Transmission and Reception

Sponsored by the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence
Organized by Derek Shank and Justin Hastings
2018 Congress Program

[Published on 7 January 2018]

The anonymous chanson En la maison Dedalus, included on the final folio of the Berkeley Theory Manuscript (Berkeley, University of California Music Library, MS 744, or BEm-744), is unique because it is notated in the form of a labyrinth.  The manuscript, compiled in 1375, contains five music treatises that discuss various aspects of practical and speculative music.  These texts interweave musical exercises, intercessory prayers to the Virgin Mary, and discussions of tuning the universe.  In this paper, I provide the first comprehensive analysis of the chanson within the context of late-medieval visual culture.  I also challenge the universally held view that the chanson is ancillary to the manuscript’s other contents.

The notational form of En la maison Dedalus mirrors Cathedral labyrinths, which were used to reenact Christ’s Harrowing in Hell.  These architectural masterpieces were considered reflections of the divine intellect and signifiers of salvation and purification.  Their eleven tracks symbolized the eleven cosmic spheres.  By traversing through these ‘spheres’ in song, the performer of En la maison Dedalus engages in celestial music, comprehends the divine intellect, and imitates Christ’s Passion.  The five treatises, when interpreted in light of the labyrinthine chanson and its constellation of theological meanings, present a rhetorical explanation of the way in which musical performance on earth may lead towards knowledge of the divine.  The chanson serves as a performative summary of the theoretical texts. En la maison Dedalus, through both its visual form and function within BEm-744, is a reflection of cross-disciplinary connections among late-medieval music, visual art, theological discourse, and cosmological inquiry.