Monday, August 11, 2008

Do you hear what I hear?

When I was on the top of the the hillside perch of Castle Carreg Cennen in Wales (pictures of it in this post), I made a little video with my camera not for what you can see, but what you hear. In that video you can hear sheep baa-ing and you can see them move in the field some 400 feet below. You also hear, incidentally, the motorway in the distance and the air moving past my compact digital camera's miniscule microphone.

I wanted to post the video for you, but the direct Blogger video posting tool won't allow over 100 MB, and my clip is just over that (and I don't have any editing program to cut it, alas). It's just as well, since listening to sheep baa isn't very exciting, and you don't really have to see and hear the clip to get what I want to say about it.

At the time we were there visiting the castle, someone remarked that the sound of the sheep was the sound of medieval power -- the lord of the castle could look around below him and not only see what he controlled, but also hear it as well, maybe even hear every word spoken down there. At the time, I thought, "Hm. Yes."

But later, upon reflection, I thought, "Wait. No." If Carreg Cennen was ever a bustling castle, even if it only served defensive purposes, and not as a full time residence (and unlike Kidwelly, it had no town grown up around it), it would have been full of its own noises. Those noises might have easily drowned out the sound of sheep just as surely as modern mechanized noises could. After all, where I stood when I shot that video was where the former outer ward lay. In the outer ward would have been the stables, blacksmiths' and armourers' workshops, the lime kiln (its ruins are still there) and all sorts of general hustle and bustle. Would you have been able to hear the sheep above that clamor?

I've been a little obsessed with the sounds of the Middle Ages lately, not in any way that I'm going to write about it professionally (which is probably good, because I hear Claire Sponsler *is* writing about it), but just in a musing sort of way that I sometimes bring up in class. I think some of my students assume that the Middle Ages was a quiet and still place -- like Castle Carreg Cennen today -- so I like to draw their attention to noisiness in the literature, whether it's noise being depicted in literature (the jingling of the bells on the Monk's bridle in the Canterbury Tales, for instance, both described and imitated by the poetry), or the kinds of environmental noises one might encounter while experiencing medieval literature such as the York plays (church bells, the pageants at the stations before and after the one where they were watching, other playgoers, etc.), or the noise of the literature itself as it was declaimed or read aloud. This interest was spurred long ago by my interest in drama, but also by the "Medieval Noise" cluster of Exemplaria (Autumn 2004, no longer available online, alas), which included an introduction by Jeffrey J. Cohen with a title, "Kyte oute yugliment: An Introduction to Medieval Noise," taken from one of my favorite moments in medieval drama, where the Herod of the York plays breaks down into utter nonsense in the face of Christ's silence.

But only recently has the interest risen to the level of obsession. And lately I've been thinking of medieval sound as ghosts. One of my friends suggested I might mean echoes, but I really mean ghosts. Sound travels in waves, right? So once those sheep baas reached me up on the crest of Carreg Cennen, the sheep who made them might no longer be baaing. They could, theoretically, have uttered their last baa, and I might be hearing it in past tense, so to speak. And so when I or my students read Chaucer aloud in my class, and read of that Monk's bridle "Gynglen in a whistlynge wynd," even though our reconstruction of Middle English is an approximation at best, there's a sense of a very old sound traveling across time and space, perhaps distorted by the distance it has traveled, but reaching my students and me nonetheless, haunting us in a way.

But it's not just medieval literature that's ghostly. In a sense, all poetry consists of ghosts, for all poetry deals in some way with sound (well, good poetry does) and asks to be read aloud. And having already been written, each subsequent reading, even by the poet him- or herself, is a bit of the past coming forth to the listener in the present. Every reading of a poem is a little bit haunted.

What do you think?


L.C.McCabe said...

Have you tried uploading that video to YouTube?

I haven't done that before, but in checking their website it says that they allow videos "up to 1GB in size and ten minutes long."

You could then either do the cut and paste in the HTML function of Blogger to embed the video or just post a link on your blog.

I only uploaded a video to Blogger once and it took FOR-EVAH to load. Doing the cut and paste embed of an existing YouTube video on my last post was quick, easy and painless.

Having been close to some sheep recently, I was surprised at how freaking loud they can be. It's definitely not the "and the sheep says baaah" that kids are taught growing up. Instead it is closer to "BAAAAAAAAAAAH."

Good luck on uploading on YouTube should you choose that route.

Anonymous said...

Funny--I've been thinking about something similar lately: both how sound helps create a sense of place, and how sound can be a form of...time travel, I suppose (though I like your "haunting" much better!). This is probably because I've been reading about the underground remains of London, and imagining what it would be like to recover sound as well as objects.

But this post also reminded me of a bit from one of my favorite children's books, _King of Shadows_ by Susan Cooper, in which a boy is sent back to the original Globe Theatre:

"More than anything from that first day, I remember the noise. You'd think that we have more noise today in the everyday world, what with traffic and airplanes and so many different kinds of machines that didn't exist then, not to mention radio and TV and cassette players. But the London of that time was full of church clocks striking the quarter-hours, and church bells ringing for services; of watchmen ringing handbells in the street and shouting out the time, and town criers calling the news. . . . People have always been noisy, I guess, in towns at any rate."

I think there's also a recent picture book that tells little stories based around typical medieval sounds. I wonder if there's a lot of this sort of thing in children's historical fiction?

Anonymous said...

Aha. The book is called _Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices From a Medieval Village_, by Laura Amy Schlitz:

And Bruce R. Smith has written about "the acoustic world of early modern England," in a book by that title (or something near it).

The Pastry Pirate said...

another post from you underscoring why i wish i'd had you for a teacher at some point.

but why would some of your students assume the middle ages were quiet? i always imagined them as more cacophonous than modern times, what with the smiths and the livestock and the roaring fires and the horses... noisier and smellier for sure!!

as for the rest of your post, well, you know how i am about poetry. though maybe if i'd had you for a teacher i'd fell differently.

The Pastry Pirate said...

er, i mean, i'd "feel" differently. I prolly still "fell" the same way... sorry, too much high mountain air today.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

It's funny, I had that same reaction to sound-as-surveillance at the castle. It's an attractive hypothesis because it is so simple (to hear the countryside is to enforce one's power over it), but when set in a particular time and place all of a sudden the castle seems a lot less like a panopticon and more like temporary garrison of indeterminate, intermittent use that it was. And in a way its very noisiness when occupied could be a more an exertion of power than its eavesdropping abilities ...

This is a great project, Dr V, and I hope you will continue following it. I don't know what ever happened to Claire's book -- and she has a very specific environmental criticism take that will make it her own. So there is plenty of room in the field for a Dr V tome on the subject, and you'd have appreciative readers ...

Anonymous said...

In a sense, all poetry consists of ghosts, for all poetry deals in some way with sound (well, good poetry does) and asks to be read aloud. And having already been written, each subsequent reading, even by the poet him- or herself, is a bit of the past coming forth to the listener in the present.

The same is true of any text, surely? Hasn't there been a discussion here in the past, in fact, about how much the dead speak through our evidence? If, in fact, there is a single methodological task for a historian, that all our theory and practice (and very occasionally both) aim to make possible for us, I would say that it is to make ourselves a working conduit for the translation of the past into the understanding of the present. I don't think there's anything specifically oral about this. After all, a written text demands to be read from the page in the same way that a poem demands to be read aloud, and most medieval texts would have been read aloud whether verse or not.

Dr. Virago said...

JJC -- Thanks for the vote of confidence! But as I tell my students, I have no idea at this point where I'm *going* with this little obsession. I think this is one that I'll let percolate for a few years while I work on other stuff. If someone beats me to it, so be it.

I hadn't thought of the castle's noisiness as an exertion of power. That makes much more sense than the panopticon. But you know what's even more an exertion of power? -- building a ginormous edifice at great expense to use it only intermittently! But that has nothing to do with noise...

Pirate -- I still maintain that you like *narrative* poetry (Beowulf, for example), though you ignore the poetry part and gravitate toward the narrative part (except, maybe, for the epic speeches -- you seem to like those and they're a poetic element). I think when you say you don't like poetry you -- like my students when they say this -- mean lyric poetry. And it's probably because, as you suggest, you didn't have the right teachers for it. I was lucky to have fantastic teachers of poetry in high school and so at 14 I was digging Wallace Stevens and e e cummings. And maybe one of these days I'll show you what's cool about lyric poetry.

Tempests -- Thanks for the nifty gift ideas for my friends kids! Man, I wish I'd read kids lit like that when I was a kid! And you made me think that there's something childlike (in a good way) about tuning into the sounds of a place. As an adult, we learn to tune things out. Hmm...something to think about.

L.C. - Yeah, I thought about using YouTube. But then I thought I'd rather not bother! But in the future, I will. Thanks!

Dr. Virago said...

tenthmedieval - Yeah, I thought about this applying to all texts, too. (And yes, I was the one who started the whole 'speaking for the dead' discussion.) I think what I'm trying to get at here -- and which I need to think about more, clearly, to be able to express some shade of difference that I *think* is there -- is the way poetry specifically and consciously invokes and evokes sound. But then again, a prose text like Wulfstan's Sermo Lupi does, too, as do later medieval prose writings (and probably not only sermons, either). So maybe you're right. Or maybe what I really want to follow through on is how sound figures in Chaucer alone, because that's where most of my inspiration is coming from. And remember, I'm a lit person (though frequently mistaken for a historian!) and so I'm also trying to work out issues of genre and form and aesthetics here. And what I'm interested in has less to do with oral expression (what's said) than sound and noise (what's heard), which I *think* is an important distinction. But I've got a long ways to go before these musings become anything substantive, so I'm sure I'm not really being clear on what these distinctions are or if they matter.

TheCrankyProfessor said...

I like it!

I deal a good bit with inscriptions, and think about the as the voice of the absent author - if we think of much (most) early medieval reading as taking place aloud we are giving the absent author voice - and when the author switches persons from 3rd to 1st or such it's really vivid!

I hadn't thought of GHOST, but it makes a lot of sense.

meli said...

i meant to comment this ages ago but it got eaten for some reason and then i abandoned it - so better late than never i suppose.

i really like this post. the sound of medieval poetry was what got me hooked in the first place.

the ghostliness of all poetry is complicated by accents i think. i'm thinking of some australian poetry and some poetry written in northern england - if it's not read with the accent it was written in, it sounds very different and some of the original poetry is lost.