Jean-Claude Schmitt, already one of the foremost cultural historians of medieval Europe, has produced in Les rythmes au Moyen Âge a strikingly original and ambitious book. Defining rhythm as “une structure périodique en mouvement” (65), Schmitt demonstrates its ubiquity in the Middle Ages. As shown in the book’s opening two chapters, medieval authors discussed rhythm in a limited range of contexts, largely confined to poetry and music, whereas their nineteenth- and twentieth-century counterparts discussed rhythm more expansively. Nonetheless, Schmitt argues, the “periodic structure” of rhythm shaped most every form of medieval cultural production and practice, and many facets of existence. Les rythmes is divided into six “days” (journées), with each “day” consisting of several chapters (there are twenty-one in total). This structure is unconventional, but not without precedent—Schmitt’s acknowledged model is the biblical book of Genesis, whose rhythmic account of the six days of creation frequently inspired medieval authors to employ six-part divisions. The first day juxtaposes what modern and medieval authors wrote about rhythm, and discusses how rhythm functioned in medieval music and literature. The second day examines rhythms associated with the natural world and the human body, including rhythmic movement of the feet (walking, dancing) and hands (writing), as well as rhythmic medical and procreative practices. Day three examines calendrical and temporal rhythms associated with the passage of years, days, and hours. Day four examines rhythmic travel such as processions and pilgrimages. Day five examines rhythmic elements in medieval historical writing and thinking. The sixth day, “Changes of Rhythms,” consists of three chapters showing how innovations, individualization (individuation, defined here as ontogenesis, or the continuous development of the human individual), and interruption (arythmie) affected medieval rhythms. The chapter on innovations discusses a bevy of changes, including how the imposition of seigniorial dues brought new rhythms of peasant payments to lords, the spread of wage labor brought new rhythms of remuneration for workers, the growth of government brought new bureaucratic rhythms, and the emergence of Jubilee years brought new rhythms of religious observance. The chapter on individualization examines rhythms associated with personal religious items such as rosaries or with commemorations of individual life events such as birthdays. The chapter on interruption focuses on the threats to rhythm posed by insufficiency, excess, natural catastrophe, ecclesiastical sanction (sentences of interdict that suspended religious services), and workers’ strikes. It also addresses how medieval utopian thinkers, as represented in the Fabliau de Cocagne, understood utopia in terms of the suspension or sometimes the acceleration of rhythms. Schmitt’s book is a tour de force. Without doubt the author is right to claim that he has shown how people in the Middle Ages, like people today, lived their lives in accordance with multiple overlapping rhythms. The field of exploration is vast, and the considerations of topics as varied as monastic chanting, the Bayeux Tapestry, and how frequently clerics had to shave the tops of their heads in order to maintain their tonsures are absorbing. Les rythmes is gorgeously illustrated, and Schmitt makes good on his promise to use the illustrations as sources to be analyzed rather than as decoration. The elegant prose is as luminous as the pictures. Part of the book’s appeal is its ability to surprise the reader continually; at any given moment, it is just about impossible to predict what Schmitt will discuss next. The unpredictability and the reason for it will also be a problem for some readers. Schmitt regards the medieval centuries (for him, the fourth to the sixteenth inclusive) as constituting one longue durée. To study it, he employs a methodology that he calls “histoire transversale,” described as follows: “At different moments within this very long historical period … I proceed by cuts which slice through and thereby put in relation many different strata of social, cultural, and ideological reality, all of them animated by diverse rhythms” (687). Schmitt’s methodology works best if one shares his belief in the existence of a single medieval longue durée that one can cut into at any point. Readers who do not accept its existence, or would not extend its existence to the realm of culture, will find the book’s chronological jumps disconcerting, and there are moments when the book calls out for more chronological consideration. In day six, “Changes of Rhythms,” the changes date almost entirely to the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries. Why did the changes cluster in those centuries? Schmitt does not pose the question or even acknowledge the clustering. On a rare occasion when Schmitt does note a chronological overlap among various cultural phenomena pointing toward increased numeracy, he skips the question of why the overlap existed and shrugs at the question of how the phenomena related to one another (“none of them can be presented as the cause of the others”), then moves on (686). Schmitt’s indifference to causation may leave some readers unsatisfied. Just as Les rythmes homogenizes the Middle Ages as a period, so, too, does it tend to homogenize medieval culture by regarding every text, every work of art, and every behavior as a manifestation of rhythm. People in the Middle Ages followed and employed rhythm in many different contexts, but they did so as a means to often divergent ends, not as an end in itself. The means deserve the brilliantly perceptive exposition that they receive in this book, but one wonders whether, by privileging the means over the ends to such an extent, Les rythmes obscures even as it reveals. Regardless, this book merits admiration. There is every reason to believe that it will come to be regarded as a landmark text in the fields of medieval and of cultural history. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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