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Spielfrauen im Mittelalter. (Musical Women).

Spielfrauen im Mittelalter. By Walter Salmen. Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 2000. [124 p. ISBN 3-487-11234-5. DM 37.80.]

In this slim and readable volume, Walter Salmen has synthesized a broad range of evidence on female minstrels in the Middle Ages. Despite the limits that the title could suggest to some readers, the study covers an exceptionally wide chronological and geographic range, evoking societies as diverse in time and place as the ancient Phoenicians and Egyptians, the late-antique Copts, the entirety of the ancient Mediterranean, the Arab-inhabited Iberian peninsula in the early Middle Ages, and medieval Mesopotamia, as well as medieval and early-modern Western Europe. Salmen surveys the role of women as musicians, entertainers, and dancers in these cultures within the narrow compass of only sixty-five pages of text and fifty black-and-white illustrations. Caveat lector: the table of contents is misleading, presenting in boldface the first subheading of part 2 ("'musicae' before the sixth century in Mediterranean lands") as if it were the main subject of the remainder of the book, whereas it is just one of several to pics.

The introduction (roughly a third of the book) deals with the social position of musicians and particularly minstrels, pointing out the philological difficulty of identifying female minstrels in the textual sources. Salmen notes (p. 4) that many languages have no distinct word for female musicians, but that this fact naturally does not preclude their existence. He describes the social status of female minstrels, particularly the pervasive perception (mostly on the part of clerics) that associated them with prostitution. Salmen's discussion of the social context includes consideration of female minstrels' clothing, performance venues, and relationships with their male performance partners. He outlines the role of women as performers in early-medieval Islamic courts, then reviews the evidence for women as singers, instrumentalists, and dancers.

Salmen employs a rather broad definition of the Middle Ages, expanded here to encompass the period from late antiquity through the early seventeenth century. Many of the texts cited are from the fifteenth century or later, and some of the information Salmen presents pertains primarily to female singers or instrumentalists from the ancient world. The wide range of evidence adduced brings out well-known continuities in the history of women as performers, but Salmen's tendency to jump between centuries and places within a single paragraph tends to obscure chronological differences that could turn out to be important, if examined more closely.

Having written several books on music and dance in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Walter Salmen knows his material, but Spielfrauen im Mittelalter suffers from the absence of a separate bibliography. A perusal of the footnotes suggests that the book is based mostly on secondary literature, which provides most of the primary texts Salmen cites. While some of the Latin passages and all the Old Provencal ones are translated into German, the texts in Old French, Middle High German, and early modern German are not translated, excluding the generalist audience that would otherwise be well served by the synthetic character of the book. Without translations of all passages in medieval languages, or full citations of secondary sources, Spielfrauen im Mittelalter will be of limited use to some readers but will reward extra effort if one is willing to meet it halfway.

One of the most interesting components of this volume is its wide-ranging iconographic evidence. The illustrations include a variety of media, including sculptures, manuscript illuminations, woodcuts, engravings, broadsides, panel paintings, wall paintings, ceramics, textiles, and even a photograph of a live performance. Of the artworks in the fifty illustrations, twelve postdate 1500, while three predate the fifth century C.E.; in other words, nearly a third of the visual evidence Salmen offers for female minstrels in the Middle Ages skirts the edges of the historical period in question. This state of things may reflect the available iconography as well as the author's choices. A few of the illustrations are problematic, however, because of incomplete information or incorrect dating. The caption for plate 8, which shows a sculpture described as representing a female lyre player, states only that it is an "early Phoenician ivory sculpture from Lebanon," without providing a date or identifying the collection t o which the sculpture belongs. Without more specific information, one cannot judge the value of this visual evidence, and to this reader the statue appears just as likely to be a man as a woman. Plate 24, a depiction of a trobairitz, the Comtessa de Dia, in a troubadour chansonnier (Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, ins. Vat. Lat. 5232), is referred to as "around 1160" although the manuscript itself is from the thirteenth century. It seems likely that the date refers to the lifetime of the Comtessa de Dia rather than to the production of the manuscript, but this is not clear in the text.

The author's use of iconography inspires more serious objections, however. Salmen ignores not only the texts that the images illustrate, but also the historical contexts in which they were made, thereby failing to address the issues of patronage, audience, and reception that could inform and even determine their meaning. For instance, why do dancing women disport themselves in liturgical manuscripts (plates 5 and 45)? What is the textual basis for depicting a female dancer with a male fiddler in a thirteenth-century Bible (plate 6) or psalter (plate 43)? Is it significant that a comparable pair of figures appears a century later in a legal manuscript (plate 47) and in a manuscript from Battle Abbey that appears to contain diplomatic texts (plate 44)? Similar images have been the subject of analysis and commentary by art historians such as Michael Camille and musicologists such as Tilman Seebass. The conventions of the iconography are so intriguing as to merit more sustained discussion than Salmen offers when he invokes them only as examples of clothing minstrels wore or dances they performed.

Since the author's method consists primarily of synthesis, and the book is so brief, it remains on a taxonomical level rather than dealing critically with the sources, Salmen neither raises the problematic question of "woman's song" (an umbrella term for popularizing poetic genres associated with performance by women), nor reflects on whether female minstrels were composers as well as performers. While one could argue that such issues were not the focus of his book, they would have enriched his narrative and raised further evidence for him to consider.
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Author:Boynton, Susan
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 2002
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