Sonic Bodies: Text, Music, and Silence in Late Medieval England - Tekla Bude. Hamburg: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2022.


By James G. Mansell


Sonic Bodies: Text, Music, and Silence in Late Medieval England by Tekla Bude (2022) is the second book published in the University of Pennsylvania Press’s “Sound in History” book series. Like the first in the series – Miranda Eve Stanyon’s Resounding the Sublime: Music in English and German Literature and Aesthetic Theory, 1680-1850 (2021) – Sonic Bodies is really about relationships between music and literature. It is a history of ideas about music found in philosophical, mystical, and poetic texts. The book’s introduction draws from scholarship in medieval music rather than sound studies. As a reader from the latter field, specializing in the modern period, I found little of familiarity at first. My only formal education in medieval music came in the form of a lecture and tutorial that I attended while a first-year undergraduate student, many years ago, on Guillaume de Machaut’s Messe de Notre Dame. And yet, as the pages turned, I found much to interest me in Bude’s book.     


It opens with a series of intriguing but also potentially rather puzzling arguments, at least to a reader with little familiarity with the subject matter. Music and the body are said to be “entangled practices that emerge out of social and textual environments so diverse that these musical bodies reach the very limits of what we understand music and the body to be” (p. 3). And, further, that “matter might be at the heart of this body, but so too might immateriality” (p. 5). Bude asks: “What are bodies if (im)matter is sound?” (p. 5). By the end of Chapter 1 I was less at sea. Some knowledge of medieval cultural and intellectual history is required to catch Bude’s drift. Angels and the songs they sing – embodied in a sense, since angels have bodies – were reference points for thinking about music and hearing in late medieval England in a way that they have simply ceased to be today. The centrality of spiritual and mystical thinking to ideas about music, and the potential interconnection between physical and spiritual bodies in medieval thought, stands in stark contrast to the secularized world views of the modern age. Chapter 1’s fascinating discussion of the text Musica Celestis by Jacobus and the idea of canor from the writings of mystic Richard Rolle shows that late medieval writers had a much more expansive notion of bodies, flesh, and resonance than modern thinkers do. Angelic songs were physically silent, but potentially hearable by the earthly bodies of men and women, and this conundrum was debated and discussed by late medieval writers. Angelic bodies and celestial sounds are what Bude has in mind when provoking readers to think beyond conventional notions of music and the body. Music can be “speculative” and “metaphysical” in this context, physically silent but spiritually resonant, yet no less real in the minds of the medieval writers who Bude discusses.     


By the end of Chapter 1, I was convinced that I had much to learn from late medieval music theory. Having written about twentieth-century composers such as John Foulds – who steadfastly believed in angelic communication, the ability of human beings to hear cosmic harmonies “clairaudiently” rather than physically, and of the power of music to draw from and impact the spiritual as well as the physical body, all despite the weight of post-Enlightenment rationalism bearing down on him – I began to recognize much that was familiar to me. As the chapters progressed, I realized that many themes of wide interest to sound studies scholars – not only the persistence of mysticism – are present in the texts Bude analyses. 


Chapter 2 goes on to show that discussion and debate about the status of angelic song played a role not only in late medieval theories of music but also in socially and politically situated discourse about bodily sensation, the spiritual sensorium, and religious orthodoxy. This chapter examines connections between speculative music theory and ideas about touch and synesthesia, a “sonorous haptics” (p. 60) in late medieval writing, which will be of interest to historians and theorists of the senses. Chapter 3 turns in a different direction to more familiar ground for sound studies scholars and deals with the status of music in relation to silence and noise. The chapter is a close study of The Boke of Margery Kempe, a text whose female author’s “vocal virtuosity dismantles heteropatriarchal authority” and whose noisiness is “the fifteenth-century eruption of a punk aesthetic” (p. 66). Just such a rebellious text is indispensable for understanding the parameters of normative thinking about music, noise, and silence. The chapter shows that silence was not only a metaphysical formulation in late medieval thought but also a lived sonic category with social and political meaning, for example in the gendered expectations of feminine sound which Margery explores. Placing speculative music theory’s ideas about silent music in the context of these wider cultures of silence in medieval culture delivers powerfully on the “Sound in History” theme of the book series. The “radical feminist politics” (p. 90) which emerge out of the Boke’s deployment of silences has much to interest a wide sound studies readership. Chapter 6, focusing on Chaucer, continues the theme of sonic normativity by examining music’s role in imagining able and disabled bodies. Here, again, readers with no particular specialism in medieval literature or music will find much to interest them. Chapter 5 is the same in its treatment of “sound objects.” Many readers will find a ready access point via discussion of twentieth-century composer Pierre Schaeffer’s ideas about sound objects.            


The point of Sonic Bodies is to show that, as Chapter 6 explains, “the dominant frameworks of medieval music theory and performance – that flesh and mind are distinct loci of musical experience” could be “at least momentarily, deactivated, held in suspension, or disabled” (p. 146) by speculative and metaphysical ideas about music and silence. Bude activates an alternative corpus of writing about medieval music and the body to the one usually relied upon by scholars of medieval music. This seems like an important contribution to the study of medieval music and cultural history; Bude’s argument is certainly nuanced, sophisticated, and underpinned by a deeply scholarly approach. What I can say for sure is that, even for a reader like me, Bude provides a welcome and, in the end, accessible way into the world of medieval music and sound.