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Bristol: Records of Early English Drama.

Ed. by Mark C. Pilkinton. pp. xxvi + 382. 'Records of Early English Drama'. (University of Toronto Press, 1997, [pounds]94. ISBN 0-8020-4221-X.)

The serious study of urban history in Britain began later than in other European countries. For native nineteenth-century historians, towns in the British Isles were not thought to have played a role in central national traditions and hence were not considered legitimate objects of study. By the 1970s, this situation had changed. A new 'school' of Urban History was founded, under the guidance of H. J. Dyos, at Leicester University. The process of urbanization and the site of its development - the town - was now considered to be of great importance and an identifiable object of the historian's concerns (see Exploring the Urban Past: Essays in Urban History by H. J. Dyos, ed. David Cannadine & David Reeder, Cambridge, 1982, pp. 203-22).

Proud of its interdisciplinarity, urban history in Britain has continued to flourish. Many other disciplines - art history, sociology, archaeology and literary studies - have contributed to its field of knowledge in order to facilitate the interpretation and re-creation of (as Dyos demanded) the 'totality' of the urban experience. Yet surprisingly, the contribution of musicology to this sub-field of British history is at present relatively disappointing, even though music was often an important part of the religious, social, economic and political cultures of urban communities and musicians featured in the occupational profile of the built environment. Significant aspects of the late medieval and early modem town-dweller's society therefore remain largely unexplored (see Fiona Kisby, 'Musical Culture in English Towns to c. 1600 . . .', Proceedings of the Herzog-August Bibliothek Wolfenbuttel Symposium, 1997, forthcoming).

However, one series that has drawn preliminary attention to the forms and functions of musical culture in British towns is that produced by the Records of Early English Drama project (REED), an enterprise begun by a group of literary scholars in Canada in the 1970s. Based at the University of Toronto, the aim of the REED project is to 'locate, transcribe and publish systematically all surviving [documentary] evidence of dramatic, ceremonial and minstrel activity in Great Britain before 1642' in order to make available 'primary research tools for the writing of histories of early theatre, music and entertainment'. With the publication of this book on Bristol, the project brings to completion its thirteenth volume in an ongoing series which covers towns and counties from Norwich to Newcastle and from Somerset to Shropshire (REED Newsletter, 1/i (1976), 1-2; 11/ii (1986), 7). This volume is particularly welcome, since Bristol's wealth and economic importance made it the chief provincial town of England after London during the later Middle Ages and the third town (after Norwich) by early Tudor times (p. xii).

The arrangement of the contents of Bristol largely follows that of the earlier volumes. An extensive introduction presents essays on the town's historical background and its drama, music and ceremonies. It also includes a basic description and listing of the documents upon which the book is based, together with an explanation of the policies of selection and editorial procedures used. Notes to all these sections are then given, together with a select bibliography. Several historical and modern maps are included before the 246 pages of transcription, which are followed by translations of Latin sources used, endnotes to the transcriptions, a useful glossary of Latin and English words and a detailed index.

It is the comprehensiveness of the introductory and appendix material that constitutes the special strength of Bristol and indeed all the REED volumes. The section on historical background provides a reliable introduction to the most important secondary literature, although its particular format, whereby the references are split between the notes to the introduction and the select bibliography, further complemented by the endnotes to the transcriptions, perhaps makes the compilation of a basic bibliography by the interested reader unnecessarily difficult (pp. lxxi, lxxix, 269). For the musicologist unfamiliar with urban history archives, the source listings and descriptions provide a user-friendly introduction to the corpus of available primary material and give some indication of the types of information they contain. Although the emphasis of REED is on transcription rather than interpretation, references to other articles that deal with problematic issues relating to the latter are included (p. lxxvii n. 139; p. 324 under 'A. Young'). These are of special relevance to musicologists, since entries encountered in the documents relating to performance practice, instruments, music and performers are often ambiguous and require careful thought.

In so far as REED is a project aimed primarily (but not solely) at literary scholars interested in the history of theatre and drama it is perhaps only to be expected that its references to musical culture are largely concerned with the identities and activities of minstrels and waits. Yet this is hardly a restriction, for, as even a cursory scrutiny of the index shows, a variety of entries are transcribed relating to important wider themes in the little-explored field of the history of music in towns, such as those concerning civic ceremonial, guilds and fraternities, musical personnel, social status, education and training, patronage and the interactions between city and court. It cannot be denied, though, that the one major limitation of the REED project from the musicologist's perspective is the omission of references to liturgical ceremony and associated music (see Sally-Beth Maclean, 'Drama and Ceremony in Early-Modern England: the REED Project', Urban History Yearbook (1989), 38-48, at p. 38). For example, in a prosperous city such as Bristol, music played a prominent role in urban religious life, especially through bequests for post-obit intercessory commemorations such as chantries and anniversaries (Kisby, op. cit.). Much more could also be said about the richness of liturgical repertories and 'lost' books of prick-song (notated polyphony) and interactions between city and church. Yet it is to the credit of the compiler of Bristol that, while these themes are ignored, many of the relevant primary and secondary sources for the study of them are included in the bibliographies (pp. lii-lv). Indeed, the principal significance of this and other REED volumes lies in its role in highlighting areas for further study in musicology and other disciplines.

In his inaugural lecture in 1973, H. J. Dyos made the distinction between true urban historians - characterized by the degree to which they were concerned with 'cities themselves [and] the ways in which their components fitted together' - and other scholars who were merely 'passing through' their territory (in Exploring the Urban Past, ed. Cannadine & Reeder). Musicologists who make use of the Bristol REED and earlier books in the series will never, of course, write 'urban history'. But they will, it is to be hoped, make significant contributions to one of those 'fields of knowledge' upon which Dyos - in his search for the totality of the urban experience - would perhaps have liked but, it appears, was never able, to draw.

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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Kisby, Fiona
Publication:Music & Letters
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1998
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