Medieval Calendar c 1400

History of Rhythms in the Middle Ages

For more than four years Jean-Claude Schmitt has been writing on a new book about medieval rhythms telling us about how people in the Middle Ages experienced this in their lives. As might be expected, the differences between them and us are remarkable.

Les rythmes au Moyen Âge
By Jean-Claude Schmitt
Gallimard , May 2016
Series: Bibliothèque des histoires
ISBN-10: 2070177696
ISBN-13: 978-2070177691


Les rythmes au Moyen Age (medieval Rhythms) by Jean-Claude Schmitt Rhythm is the feeling of continuity caused by repetition of motifs created by sounds, colours, visual vignettes, acts, gestures, clocks – and then broken. Such patterns may be found at all times. But the patterns, they lived by in the Middle Ages were never the same as those, which we live by today.

In our time, we live in a world where rhythms are everywhere: just listen to an American news-real from a sports event or even a documentary of life in the Middle Ages, and the drum-drum-drum stops us from dozing on the couch; should the worst happen, the incessant increase of volume, when the rhythm is broken by a series of ads, brings us back to the present. To this should be added the rhythms sported by work-places (taylorism), schools (clocks), politics (elections) and the ruptures: management consultants, excursions and the many instances of corruption. Occasionally, our lives might be enlivened by breath-taking events like births and deaths inviting us to glimpse what might be, if we embarked on a metanoia. Generally, however, we are caught up in the modern hamster wheel, attuning us to move between the different rhythmically organised parts of life of which the daily hum-drum is constituted.

Not so, in the Middle Ages, writes Jean-Claude Schmitt. Here, the notion of rhythm, inherited from the Greco-Roman antiquity, seemed to affect only the music, poetry and dance, basically mirroring the rhythm established by God though the Creation covering seven days – with the last for resting. Occasionally, when this rhythm was broken, the church would work to heal the ruptures by yet another circle of rhythmical miracles and liturgical interventions (consisting of music, poetry and dance). In general, though, the world presented itself as much more holistic fashion.

This book borrows this particular scansion as its basic ordering principle, thus opening up with an exploration of the alternations of seasons, days and nights, the tides of the sea and the rhythms of the body. Then follows an exploration of the medieval social forms of rhythms – the calendars, the alternating types of work, leisure, prayers, memoria, pilgrimages and processions. But what were the functions of all this? Creating different social landscapes, social differentiation and not least certain a certain ethos of conformity, Jean-Claude Schmitt answers. However, having outlined these rhythms, the time has come to focus upon the ever-present echo of arrhythmia – the ruptures, the shifts, the breaks. Which finally leads to the sixth part: the implosion of the medieval rhythms and the accompanying changes forcing Jean-Claude Schmitt to write a history proper of the rhythmic and seismic shifts heralded by such devices as mechanical clocks appropriated not only by churches but also rulers and burghers from the 14th century an onwards. At which time, the word rhythm gradually began to be used in wider contexts than music, colonising the future to come.

This is obviously a grand book in the “old” tradition of the Annales-School. As such it should be greeted with a proper fanfare. One wonders, when it will be translated?


A History of Rhythms During the Middle Ages.
By Jean-Claude Schmitt.
In: The Medieval History Journal 2012, Vol. 15 no. 1, pp. 1-24


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