Facing a global public health emergency, we are living in unprecedented modern times. Yet throughout the past, countless plagues have affected, and often drastically changed, the course of history. How have these diseases influenced art, and specifically music, of the past? This month, we’ll take a closer look at Guillaume de Machaut, who survived Europe’s most deadly outbreak of the bubonic plague between 1346 and 1352.
One of the most celebrated composers of the fourteenth century, Machaut was a key player in the transition from early polyphony to the increasingly varied styles of the Ars Nova period, which was defined by greater notational textures, more complex rhythmic combinations, and a rapidly expanding range of secular song and form.
Machaut was born near Champagne, and began serving as secretary for King of John Bohemia in 1323. Repaying Machaut’s faithful service, King John made him canon of the Reims Cathedral in 1338. However, Machaut also continued to serve the Royal descendants of King John, and they became some of the most important patrons for his poetry and compositions. He worked in Reims for the rest of his long life, living through many of the calamitous events experienced by Europe throughout the fourteenth century.
Though the 100 Years’ War between France and England had only just begun when Machaut was made a canon, the more distressing years of Machaut’s life were still to come. The bubonic plague appeared in Southern Europe in 1347, traveling westward from Asia. By 1348, it had wreaked havoc throughout the continent until it finally reached Northern France – hitting Paris, Reims, and many cities in between. Without an understanding of germ theory, Machaut and his contemporaries were at a loss for what to do or how to help. However, some scholars say that Machaut did attempt to advocate for quarantine as the only effective form of defense. Machaut, like many others, believed that the plague was a punishment from God for a morally corrupt world. In response to the immense confusion and desperation of the times, much of society was in turmoil and some began to live life lavishly – eating, drinking, partying, and playing music – a phenomenon illustrated in Boccaccio’s Decameron.
Composers like Machaut turned to poetry and music as an outlet during this harrowing period, writing some of his most famous works, such as “The Judgment of the King of Navarre.” After the plague, secular song began to play an increasingly larger role in Europe’s musical environment and Machaut embraced the new secular forms such as the virelais, ballade, and rondeau. His subject matter primarily consisted of courtly love, and his works were specifically heralded for their pairings of text and music. Along with other significant compositions like Messe de Nostre Dame, which stood as a benchmark for the outline of the Mass going forward, Machaut led the way for the development of music and style during the fourteenth century. Without the horrors of the plague, which pushed survivors to consider and understand the world in new ways through their trauma, it is impossible to know how art and music would have progressed to reflect society.
For more on Machaut and the effect of the plague on Art, see:
The Encyclopedia of the Black Death, by Joseph P. Byrne, and The Strange Case of Ermine de Reims: A Medieval Woman Between Demons and Saints, by Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski