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Courtly Song Re-made: Political Parodies from thirteenth-century France

Meghan Quinlan completed her doctorate in musicology in 2017 at the University of Oxford under the supervision of Elizabeth Eva Leach. Her dissertation examined the vast variety of functions and meanings contrafacture held for medieval audiences, combining close musical, literary, and palaeographical analysis with contextual research. She is currently working on a monograph on political song (serventois) in King Louis IX's France, funded by the Bernadotteprogram and Torsten Söderbergs stiftelse. Alongside this, she recently took up a four-year postdoctoral research position at Uppsala University for her project ‘Musica Mapped and Unmapped’, funded by Vetenskapsrådet. 


Many of the trouvères of thirteenth-century France were not only famed poet-musicians, but also powerful aristocrats in their own right, whose intricate and ever-shifting networks of alliances shaped French politics. It is fitting, then, that among the lavish sources that preserve their songs are not only courtly chansons, but also political songs (serventois). Fashioned, for the most part, from pre-existing trouvère love songs, these serventois typically adopt not only the melodies of the original songs, but also prominent phrases of their texts, transforming courtly song into music of political persuasion. Through contrafacture - the shaping of new texts within pre-existing musico-poetic forms - they effect a parodic layering of associations that both valorises and subverts the conventions of courtliness, disseminating a political message not only in the serventois themselves, but also in the original, courtly songs, in which the new songs cannot be ‘unheard’.

This paper examines the serventois that circulated during the years 1226-31, when the French baronage was in revolt against the regent of France and mother of Saint Louis, Blanche de Castile. Through a historicisation and close reading of their texts and melodies, I examine the songs’ representations of Blanche and her allies, considering what can be gained from re-making courtly song for the purpose of political critique. 

Sociopolitical literature in Władysław Konstanty Wituski’s book collection at Skokloster Castle: Łukasz Górnicki’s Rozmowa Polaka z Włochem (ca 1587) versus Wacław Kunicki’s Obraz szlachcica polskiego (1645)

Joanna Zatorska-Rosén, PhD student in Polish culture and literature at the Department of Slavic and Baltic Studies, Finnish, Dutch and German, Stockholm University. Art and culture historian. Deeply interested in Polish-Swedish relations, with the focus on Polish cultural heritage objects in Swedish collections. Currently writing a dissertation on Władysław Konstanty Wituski’s (c. 1603 – c. 1655) library at Skokloster Castle.


Skokloster castle library contains eighty-three printed texts that have been identified as formerly belonging to Władysław Konstanty Wituski (c. 1603 – c. 1655), a Polish nobleman, who having conducted an educational peregrination through Europe, went all the way to Brazil as one of the first Poles. Back in his homeland, Wituski became valet de chamber of king Władysław IV Vasa, held several public offices and was elected to the Sejm (legislature of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) a few times. On his deathbed, Wituski could not have known that the library he had assembled was soon to end up among Carl Gustav Wrangel’s books as a war-booty at Skokloster Castle in Sweden. Wituski’s collection survived as if closed in a time capsule in the mid-seventeenth century and did not suffer from consecutive wars, as many historical book collections kept in Poland often did. An investigation of its content, conducted from a microhistorian perspective, results in the exposure of the political and religious issues and the scientific concepts that occupied the minds of the educated elites that Wituski was a member of. Moreover, it yields an insight into intellectual needs and preferences of the nobility. 

In my presentation I shall discuss two socio-political texts from Wituski’s book collection, namely Łukasz Górnicki’s Rozmowa Polaka z Włochem o wolnościach i prawach polskich [A Conversation between a Pole and an Italian about Polish Liberties and Laws] (ca 1587) and Wacław Kunicki’s Eques Polonus… Obraz szlachcica polskiego [A Portrait of a Polish Nobleman] (1645). While Górnicki’s dialogue contains trenchant criticism of the infamous Golden Liberty of the Polish nobility who were granted numerous political and economic privileges, Kunicki’s text honours and glorifies the nobility and provides a behavioural model for an ideal nobleman. I aim to juxtapose both texts in order to shed light on the different contemporary evaluations of the highly complex cultural phenomenon of Polish Sarmatism and political formation of the Noble Republic (i.e. the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth). 

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Äldretextseminariet vid Stockholms universitet är en ämnesöverskridande träffpunkt för litteraturvetare, idéhistoriker, filologer, språkvetare, historiker och många fler med intresse för antika, senantika, medeltida och förmoderna texter. I maj firar vi 20-årsjubileum. Varmt välkommen till Biblioteket i Humanistvillan!

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Helena Bodin, professor i litteraturvetenskap, Institutionen för kultur och estetik, helena.bodin@littvet.su.se.