Voice and Voicelessness
“Lessons in Listening:
Hearing Voices in the Early Fifteenth-Century Melos amoris“
In this paper, I amplify the concert of voices contained within and circulating about Richard Rolle’s mystical treatise Melos amoris, a virtuosic text irresistibly pitched towards actual vocal sonorities and radically reliant on their operation for the efficacy of its spiritual appeal. I reveal how this text and the spiritualities it inspired encouraged late fifteenth-century readers to encounter the material book, that seemingly voiceless witness, as a vital object perched on the verge of voice. I conclude by suggesting how such modes of reading might inform our own critical practice.
Composed during the second quarter of the fourteenth century, Melos amoris explores the rigors, outrages, and rewards Rolle experiences in pursuit of his idiosyncratic brand of contemplative eremitism. The hermit offers his own life as a model of spiritual achievement as he progressively works up a textured evocation of spiritual rapture at whose pinnacle lies a state of transcendent musical being, a constant co-participation with the angelic choirs that Rolle terms canor. A commanding text, Melos amoris thunders with its author’s brazen accent, silencing detractors as it strives towards a magisterial and self-authorizing univocality.
The Melos also employs the most extreme version of Rolle’s rhythmic and alliterative Latin prose style. Rejecting facile equations between the text’s verbal music and the angelic music the text relates, I propose a more nuanced approach that locates the fulcrum of the text’s efficacy precisely in the incommensurability of these two musics and their different relations to the voice, its perception, and its cognition. In my reading, Rolle deliberately plays with the phenomenality of the heard voice and its complex mediation by the material book to generate meaning, a textual mode that I term canoric aesthetics.
Melos amoris thus deploys sophisticated strategies to prescribe the conditions of its reception among its mid-fourteenth-century learned religious audience. As the text reaches new audiences in the early fifteenth-century, however, its canoric aesthetics and univocal textual command grow increasingly unstable. Thanks to Rolle’s flourishing cult and the popularization of his discipline through affective channels of devotional piety, the experience of canor spread far beyond its original domain, so much so that Walter Hilton, a mystic of the following generation, felt compelled to corral canor running amok through his epistle “On Angels’ Song.”
I uncover analogous concerns in one crucial and hitherto ignored early fifteenth-century manuscript witness to Melos amoris. The marginalia of MS Lincoln College Latin 89 express with Hilton wariness over the imaginary audition of canor; at the same time, however, the dialogue between scribal margin and authorial text itself repurposes canoric aesthetics and revalues vocality towards new ends. Hearing voices, in both the divinely affirmative and imaginatively pejorative sense, becomes the text’s express concern; the manuscript brims with vocal potential, promising and threatening in equal measure to spill into unprecedented sonority. Thus, beyond the insight it offers into the anxieties and longings threaded through late medieval experiences of voice, this early fifteenth-century Melos amoris instructively suggests critical modes of textual engagement sensitive to the potential for vocality embedded in the late medieval folio.
Or click on the transcription/link below to hear a recording of the second passage in Professor Albin’s handout:
Frustra fundantur falsi fideles quia funditus finietur fiducia fenerantis, et fumo inferni ficti ferientur et omnes utique umbra honoris operti ut appareant in aulis avaris. Fervebunt fetentes formidine futura; formosus et fortis in feno falluntur et ideo imbuti impio instinctu fervore felici nunquam fruentur quia federati fuerunt in factis falsorum ut fixi in fervore finiendi favoris feruntur cum furibus in facibus frementes: horum fornax fetidus fauces iam fringet, nam fugiunt fidem famamque fugant; sic filii feroces firmantur fortiter ut fundum furencium penetrent post pauca et penas percipiant perpetuo perdurantes.
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