Last week, Anne Heminger delivered her Dissertation Oral Presentation at the Burton Tower between soundings of the carillon at quarter-hours. Her sizable audience, held in rapt attention, learned about shifting musical practices that attended the turbulent period of 1540–1560 England and how liturgical music both reflected and facilitated religious perspectives during this time (see abstract below). Congratulations, Anne, on your stimulating work, and all the best as you draw your dissertation to a close!
What can the musical practices of communities and individuals tell us about their religious orientations, especially during periods of turmoil? Although musicologists typically consider the reigns of Edward VI (1547–53) and Mary I (1553–8) as distinct “Protestant” and “Catholic” periods, respectively, historians including Christopher Haigh, Susan Brigden, and Diarmaid MacCulloch have shown that society remained remarkably heterodox well into the reign of Elizabeth I. This dissertation examines music and religious identity in mid-sixteenth-century London, investigating the cases in which local parishes and individual inhabitants turned to music—in a variety of forms, styles, genres, and contexts—to make sense of the doctrinal and liturgical transformations imposed on them by a rapidly changing succession of monarchs in the two decades from c. 1540–1560. Through a study of archival documents, popular print books and broadsides, contemporary diaries, and manuscript and print sources of music—undertaking research into topics and repertoires not usually studied in musicological scholarship—I not only show that music played a larger role in the early English Reformation than has been heretofore acknowledged, but also demonstrate that it was the versatility of music as a communicative medium that allowed it to facilitate, reinforce, and reflect religious change in this heterodox society.
A basic assumption underlying this study is that the transformation of religious life in mid-sixteenth-century London entailed a radical rethinking not only of religious dogma, but also (and more importantly) of the phenomenology of ritual as a sensory experience. Drawing on theories of ritual, space, and place by writers such as Michel de Certeau and Catherine Bell, as well as work in sixteenth-century sensory theory by Matthew Milner, this dissertation highlights how Londoners used music and sound to sacralize formerly Catholic (and then recently Protestant) spaces, corroborating Jonathan Z. Smith’s contention that “ritual is not an expression of or a response to ‘the Sacred’; rather, something or someone is made sacred by ritual.” In sixteenth-century England, the church was omnipresent; people attended mass on Sundays, read from prayer books in their homes, celebrated with their trade guilds at special worship services, and sang religious ballads together. Beginning with the parish church, this dissertation offers evidence that polyphonic music—whether in Latin or English—was foundational rather than incidental to liturgical as well as domestic religious expression. Text-oriented forms of religious music, especially that issued in print for wide circulation, provided an important means for articulating confessional teaching during these years. Both reformers and conservatives also saw the potential of music and sound to render profane places temporarily sacred; those on either side of the confessional divide used public performances including celebratory religious processions and theatrical productions as opportunities to invite religious conversion. By investigating music making across these confessional, performative, and contextual boundaries, this dissertation demonstrates that mid-sixteenth-century Londoners used both new and old music to anchor contemporary practice in the past and mediate between shifting religious orthodoxies, providing a window into what historian Christopher Marsh has called “the view from the pew.”
photos: Stephen Lett and William van Geest