Suggestions & Links

Suggestions for Reading

Humans are complex and contradictory. We tend to operate on at least two, radically different, levels: the emotional and intellectual. The emotional encompasses intuition, love, belief, religion, and philosophy; the intellectual the realms of science, knowledge, craft, technique. One often expects that history can be objective, putting aside prejudice and preconception, but we inhabit our bodies and our worlds. We live in habit, tradition, our past experiences and comfortable expectations. The most we can hope for is to arm ourselves with knowledge and information which, combined with the desire to overcome our limitations, may enable us to see the unexpected. I would like to suggest readings for anyone interested in going beyond the usual understanding of the world of medieval Spain. There are many histories of the Middle Ages and specialized studies of medieval philosophy, art, and music. I assume you have read some or all of these. But I have found unexpected insights, flashes of light, in books my professors did not tell me about. I want to pass on some of this en-light-enment so you may move from knowledge to understanding

All learning involves change and, frankly, change can be unsettling, confusing, disorienting, even painful. To understand others we must step outside ourselves. Until you read and understand the works of Ananda Coomaraswamy you cannot see the world in any way other than the way you see it presently. For thousands of years, the Traditional world operated in ways which were essentially opposed to our modern ways. And much of the world still does. Coomaraswamy endeavors to teach us about those ways, which were the shared inheritance of both East and West, of the Indian Vedas as well as medieval European Christian philosophy. It is not an easy journey but absolutely necessary. I recommend the tiny Dover paperback of his essays, “The Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art.” It’s only 130 pages and many of the essays cover the same ground but the repetition is helpful: you may not get it the first time. I have read the book dozens of times and I get something new out of it each time. If you don’t “get” Coomaraswamy you won’t “get” the Middle Ages.

If you don’t already know Walter J Ong’s work you cannot go further without reading “Orality and Literacy.” If Coomaraswamy tells us about the thought of Eurasia, and the non-Western world in general, Ong explains How the traditional, oral world thinks. And, more importantly, how that way of thinking differs from ours. The reason for the difference is Literacy, which now pervades every aspect of our modern world and separates us from an understanding of those who came before. Ong’s work provided much of the structure for the research I had done for my dissertation.

The most important, as well as the most controversial, Spanish historian is Américo Castro. This is another writer, I believe, who is critical to understanding the dynamics of the convoluted, painful, and ultimately self-destructive, evolution of medieval Spain. You will find the surprising answers to the questions of Arabic influence in the music of Spain and the Cantigas. (And you will learn why “Spain” didn’t even exist in the time of Alfonso X.) Castro’s masterwork is called, simply, “The Spaniards.” Ironically, Spaniards are among the least likely to read him, but “Know Thyself” would not be a challenge if it were easy.

Even if my name were not already Curt, I would probably have adopted Curt Sachs as my patron saint. I highly recommend familiarizing yourself with all his standard works, “World History of the Dance,” “History of Musical Instruments,” “Rhythm and Tempo,” and the underrated classic “The Rise of Music in the Ancient World.” But the last chapter, “Progress?” from his posthumous work “The Wellsprings of Music,” should be read and reread by all of us to restore humility and balance.

Of all the works about Islamic Culture I cannot praise too highly Marshall G S Hodgson’s “The Venture of Islam,” if for no other reason than stressing an understanding of the concept of the Oikoumene, the ancient Civilized World. This world, which stretched from Spain and Morocco to India and Southeast Asia, was centered on the Middle East. Those of us who derive our worldview from the European tradition need to be reminded of the peripheral and provincial nature of our relationship to this ancient, and medieval, center.

Read in the context of the books above, “The Arab Mind” and “The Jewish Mind” by Raphael Patai will provide important psychological insights into ancient as well as modern attitudes which may otherwise seem impenetrable. The basic beliefs are relevant to the much wider Mediterranean world and help elucidate the political, religious, and artistic worlds of medieval Iberia. Patai’s other works, likewise, repay reading manyfold.


Sources & Links

Most of the illustrations used on this site have come from web collections of the Cantigas. The quality varies greatly and at least one of the illuminations only exists on one site. (I had not been able to find a clear, detailed example of the landscape scene when I completed my dissertation and was unable to identify the instruments shown.)

A few of the pictures are from published sources which I have but the complete Edilan reproduction is beyond the budget of anyone I know. Somewhere among my boxes I have slides I took years ago from a book by Ramon Perales de la Cal, “Del Ars Antiqua al Renacimiento en España,” published in Madrid in 1979 by Editora Nacional. I haven’t been able to find the book since but it has 18 large color reproductions and would be worth searching for.

After 40 years of performing cantigas from the Anglés transcriptions and painstakingly writing out the other verses from the facsimile volumes, I finally have more than my amateurish attempts at translations. Kathleen Kulp-Hill’s “Songs of Holy Mary of Alfonso X, The Wise,” is well worth buying at any price. I find something new and interesting every time I read through it.

The most commonly referenced site on the Cantigas is by Greg Lindahl. With all its limitations it is still the place to start.

The only site which has all 40 of the musician illuminations, though in rather low resolution images, is by Satoshi Shimada of Japan. The internet is indeed a marvelous place.

I had tried, unsuccessfully, for years to get copies of pictures from what I suspected would be a treasure house of information: Alfonso’s “Book of Games.” Now it is on the web, though, not always as clear as one would wish. But it is done with love and offered to us all freely for study and research.

Another spectacular enterprise sponsored by Medieval Tymes is the site devoted to all the illuminations from the Maciejowski Bible, otherwise known as the Shah Abbas Bible. In the spirit of wealthy benefactors of the past it is intended for the free use of posterity. (Maybe they could take on the various Cantigas manuscripts?)