Capturing Senses: The Sound of the Middle Ages


Historical novelists draw on a wide range of research to help them touch the past and create credible fictional worlds. They employ the findings of documentary, archival, cartographic, literary and genealogical research; evidence from material culture in archaeology, artefacts and images; the results of contemporary technological research including radiocarbon dating, X-rays, dendrochronology and subsurface radar. Novelists have joined re-enactment and role-play societies to gain lived experience. Some writers have turned to more unusual means of research, such as Elizabeth Chadwick’s work with Alison King, tuning in to the Akashic Record of persisting historical energies.

Archaeoacoustics is a branch of archaeology studying the sonic nature of sites and artefacts. It has mainly focused on prehistoric eras, examining cave sites, Stonehenge and Mayan temples. Since my own writing is focused on the early Middle Ages, I wondered what might be recovered of medieval soundscapes. David Hendy’s series of BBC Radio 4 programmes and his book, Noise: A Human History of Sound and Listening, focus on the social history of noise, including medieval sounds.

It is not that difficult to imagine or even (to some extent) hear medieval sounds today. Walk into one of the cathedrals from the period and listen to the choir; visit one of the surviving great halls and imagine bards tuning their instruments, the crackle of the fire in the hearth. We might soon start to populate the stagnant volume of air with the clink of cutlery at a feast, the buzz of conversation. Most medieval domestic interiors did not offer much privacy and eavesdropping had a significant role to play in this society. In the medieval castle or manor we might hear the hiss of steaming cooking pots or hooves on the courtyard cobbles.

A medieval port and city, such as London, would have been a babel of languages heard in the street with the voices of Fleming, Norwegian and Danish traders. The medieval urban soundscape included the splash of urine thrown into the street, barking dogs, crying babies, squawking chickens, the chatter of throngs of students and apprentices, and the toll of the curfew bell. Citizens might hurl good- or ill-humoured abuse at one another in the alleyways – ‘fils a puitan’ (you son of a prostitute) (Mohr, 2013). On feast days and at pilgrimage sites, there would have been a hubbub of crowding visitors. The city sounded to the noises of games, plays, drummers, singers and street musicians. At Henry I’s twelfth-century palace at Woodstock, the morning chorus of local birds would have contended with the dawn bellows, howls and growls of the king’s menagerie.

I live in southern France and the weekly markets held in the cathedral squares in surrounding villages and small market towns are not dissimilar to the bustle of a medieval market. Market vendors still hawk their wares with witty and melodic cries that have become incomprehensibly slurred over time.

The French village where I live has three churches, which all (asynchronously) ring the quarter-hour, half-hour, chime the hour, and the bells launch into cheerful peals to call the workers to breakfast at 8am, to lunch at midday, and then to dinner and down tools at 7pm. Medieval London had hundreds of churches. Imagine the cacophony of those pealing bells. Most medieval settlements were within earshot of an abbey or monastery, and both day and night was punctuated with bells for the frequent prayer services. Sound culture in monasteries and nunneries also comprised silence.

You only have to go to Venice or recall the recent coronavirus lockdown to know what an extreme difference is made to the soundscape by the absence of cars. The Middle Ages were less populated, landscapes were more forested, and there may have been some different species of birds and perhaps more of them, but still the birdsong you hear now gives you some approximation. Some things have not changed much or at all: the sounds of the river in its seasons and at its different legs along its way from shallows, to rapids, to waterfall, and estuary. In ‘A Description of London’, written towards the end of the 12th century, William Fitz Stephen describes the ‘running waters, which turn revolving mill-wheels with merry din’ (p. 50). Medieval people heard the wind in the trees, rain beating down, the crack and rumble of thunder, and the sounds of the sea. They experienced the ominous bellying and slap of a ship’s sail in a storm and the cheerful jangle of rigging when they made safe harbour. Crickets chirped, frogs croaked in the mating season, the bells of sheep and goats sounded in mountain pastures, bee hives buzzed, and the neighbour’s cockerel woke you up too early. In May villagers beat the bounds, perambulating in a procession, banging boughs on the boundary markers.

I look at the now deserted and stagnant lavoirs, the communal washing places, in the Lot Valley in France and can almost hear women singing, gossiping about mistresses and neighbours, and slapping wet laundry against the stone papillon slabs. Bruce R. Smith coined the term ‘historical phenomenology’ (2000) to describe the study of sense experience during a specific historical past. Despite some contemporary parallels, different contexts mean that sensory experiences vary: ‘feeling and sensing have a history. The way we feel sad is different from the way Shakespeare felt sad; the way we smell perfume is different from the way Queen Elizabeth smelled perfume’ (Curran & Kearney, 354). Increasing scholarly exploration of historical aural cultures (along with the visual, tactile, olfactory and emotional) gives historical novelists a wealth of material to draw on and adds another valuable resource to their research toolbox.

1. Curran, Kevin & Kearney, James, ‘Introduction’, Criticism, 54:3 (Summer 2012): 353-364.
2. Fitz Stephen, William, Norman London (New York: Italica Press, 1990).
3. Hendy, David, Noise: A Human History of Sound and Listening (London: Profile Books, 2013).
4. Mohr, Melissa, Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).
5. Smith, Bruce R., ‘Premodern Sexualities,’ PMLA 115 (2000): 318–29.

About the contributor: Tracey Warr teaches on MA Poetics of Imagination at Dartington Arts School. Her fifth early medieval novel, The Anarchy, has just been published by Impress Books.

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 93 (August 2020)

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