Discourses in Music: Volume 4 Number 2 (Spring 2003)

Music, Body, and Desire in Medieval Culture: Hildegard of Bingen to Chaucer. By Bruce W. Holsinger. Stanford: 2001. [357 p., $24.95 US paperback/$65.00 hardcover]

The most recent generation of medieval musicology and broader musicological studies, often referred to as the "new musicology," has seen an effort to qualify (and often, consequently, problematize) the understanding developed by previous generations of researchers. In this spirit, Bruce Wood Holsinger offers the monograph, Music, Body and Desire in Medieval Culture, as an attempt to temper the generally accepted idea of medieval musical aesthetics as locating "the beauty of music and musical experience in number;" in other words, the interplay of numeric ratios abstracted from sensual considerations (p. 5). In the past, many scholars took the Platonist disdain of the "flesh" so prominent in medieval thought and projected a theoretical divorce between music and the material, embodied world. However, one cannot blame earlier musicologists for such a construction; there are very few extant sources to work from and many of them are ambiguous or contradictory. The beauty of Holsinger's book is that he does not attempt to deduce a "right" answer from these sources but instead merely seeks to demonstrate that a diversity of aesthetics existed during the period, employing hermeneutic, thick description based on the interpretive examples of contemporary writers. A reworking of his 1996 dissertation,1 the book itself is divided into four main parts (excluding introduction and epilogue) that look at various aspects of this revised musical aesthetic: 1) late classical and early Christian foundations, 2) desire and sexuality, 3) pain and suffering, and 4) a sort of reception history of musical corporality as told by the life of the Orpheus myth.

The first part is divided into two chapters; the first concerns itself with a rather ambitious review of the patristic tradition of the early Christian church and late classical Rome as it pertains to music. The images Holsinger finds of music as body, desire and pain are compelling, especially when presented together as a network of received wisdom, laying the groundwork for the chapters to follow. This effort to provide background is brought into focus in the following chapter, as the author presents a kind of case study of the writings of Augustine of Hippo. Focusing mostly on the City of God and De Musica, he traces the lifelong development of Augustine's opinion on music as he first seeks to "free music from all body" but ultimately finds musical presence (as musical ratio) in "all body," even as a cadaver (p. 82).

While the first two chapters are the most impressive in their thoroughness and depth of analysis, it is indeed the contents of the second part (Chapters Three and Four) that are most interesting - and problematic. In these chapters Holsinger deals with what he terms "sexual dissidence," although his agenda is clearly to highlight homoeroticism in particular, by investigating the expression of sexual desire in the monody of Hildegard von Bingen and in the polyphony of Leoninus of Notre Dame. While he makes some very convincing arguments regarding this expression of desire, his zeal for investigation occasionally leads him to over-interpretation; an example of this would be his assessment of eroticism in Hildegard of Bingen, as considered below.

This chapter is a somewhat distilled version of an earlier article, published in 1993;2 Holsinger opens the original article with a recounting of the "onset" visions of several female mystics of the period, underlining the connection between celestial music and bodily rapture. The article's opening is pared down in the book's corresponding chapter (Chapter Three), focusing only on Hildegard's recounting of her visions, but Holsinger nonetheless preserves the main body of the original article - an examination of her musical, literary and scientific output.

Of course, Holsinger is not examining Hildegard's body of work without any idea of what he might find; in other words, he (like many scholars) has decided upon a particular theme or topos that he is looking for before he attempts a close reading of Hildegard's works. Such an investigative strategy, arguably necessary, makes the scope of one's research manageable; however, it also puts the researcher in danger of begging the question, as the saying goes, and projecting one's expectations of meaning onto a musical or literary text (or any other object, for that matter). With this in mind, it is interesting to note that the subtitle of the original article was "Embodiment and the Homoerotics of Devotion in the Music of Hildegard of Bingen," whereas the subtitle of the corresponding chapter in the book is "The Musical Somatics of Hildegard of Bingen." This more cautious wording is also reflected in a caveat added to the book (but not present in the article): "...any attempt to interpret the contours of medieval monody (especially sacred monody) as expressive of practically anything must be made with a great deal of caution." (p.108) These emendations, however, seem merely perfunctory and cosmetic, as the abovementioned cautionary statement is followed shortly by interpretation that is wanting in such caution. Holsinger first attempts to connect Hildegard's description of female sexual desire and the female body in Causae et curae to the melodic contours of her hymn Ave generosa based on his own aesthetic understanding of how "sensuous, erotic, and fertile qualities" are to be expressed in melody (p. 115), suggesting an expression of erotic desire towards the Virgin Mary and Ecclesia. This is especially dangerous, since he does not make these personal interpretive decisions explicit or take ownership of them. Similarly, he starts with Hildegard's description of the female body's "openness" and looks to the intervallic leaps and range in the abovementioned hymn to find a feminine presence (p. 107) (although he retreats from his original interpretation from the 1993 article where he also identifies "an active and restless desire for the hymn's subject, the Virgin Mary"3); this assumes, however, an understanding of medieval interpretive communities which I don't think any of us can pretend to. Finally, Holsinger notes the wordplay Hildegard establishes between virgo (virgin) and virga (branch, rod, stem) and connects the modes of desire expressed towards virga in Hildegard's texts to an eroticized virgo (p.124). He dispenses, conveniently, with the possible heteroerotic connotations of virga, a word in use as a euphemism for the phallus since classical Rome. While it is indeed arguable that the Virgin Mary is not only venerated but longed for in a somatic, sensual way, the same can also be said for the cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary throughout most of Europe in the late medieval period. Indeed, it is not the erotic that I find problematic so much as the homoerotic, to the exclusion of the heteroerotic or the possibility of something that is both or neither.

In the chapter on Leoninus and the Notre Dame repertory (Chapter Two) Holsinger considers a compelling intersection between diatribes against sodomy among the clergy and those against polyphonic practice (or, more specifically, the singers of the polyphonic practice). Common to both discourses is a vocabulary of sexual inversion, effeminacy, excess and "penetrability," which he suggests may be evidence of a metaphorical connection between the two in the interpretive community inhabiting France at that time. With the piling up of interpretive layers, he manages to arrive at the idea that the layout of organal voices in the Magnus Liber Organi in fact represents the amorous same-sex coupling of the two soloists (p. 173). Holsinger admits that his interpretation is impressionistic, to say the least, but he then points to the impressionistic interpretations of his cited sources as justification. What is deafeningly silent in this self-exoneration is that these other sources are not taken at face value, but are interrogated for bias, secondary gain, and the possibility of polysemy. His impressionistic reading must also be submitted to self-reflexive interrogation; one should ask whether such suggestions would be clear (or possible) to the interpretive communities surrounding this repertory, or if they reflect a personal desire to find homoerotic meaning ("begging the question"). Unfortunately, Holsinger's rather romantic interpretation detracts from his otherwise masterful analysis of Leoninus' homoerotically charged poems and correspondence. His analysis, which precedes the discussion of a sodomy-polyphony connection, considers the erotic poetry of classical writers such as Ovid, and finds resonance (and sometimes outright quotation) in Leoninus' letters and poems, most of which are directed to or on behalf of his "special [male] friend." (p. 143)

Holsinger relies less on conjecture and extended interpretation in the following sections, perhaps because, as many medievalists can confirm, it is often easier to find examples of pain and suffering in medieval sources than sexual desire. He looks towards religious sources to find intersections between musicality and pain (as well as a certain ambiguous correspondence between musical pleasure and musical pain). The first chapter of this section (Chapter Five) concludes with an excursus on an illustration from the late medieval Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymous Bosch ("Infernal Musicians", p. 254), depicting a scene of musical torture that is both enlightening and morbidly fascinating. This analysis of pain and music is then extended in the following chapter to a very interesting discussion of pedagogical violence in later medieval England. Holsinger first contemplates the inherently violent vocabulary of musical production (striking, plucking, twisting as tuning), and then suggests a resonance in the use of the same rhetoric to recount scenes of pedagogy. He finds a convenient symbol of this correspondence in the Guidoninan Hand, which represents both musical authority/pedagogy and the threat of violence and physical authority.

The final chapter (Chapter Seven) is both a summary and case study of the Orphic myth as well as an exploration of musical embodiment through time; the author here constructs a reception history of Orpheus tracing how his story, much like his body and its gruesome fate, is fragmented and renewed over roughly two millennia. This chapter is difficult to summarize in any detail, since it is not unified under one putative goal, but rather functions as a grand overview of everything that had already been offered in previous chapters. Nevertheless, it serves the reader well as a moment of cohesion - a "gelling" of this monograph's varied ingredients.

That Holsinger's research is fresh and interesting is without doubt, but its communication to the reader is frustrated by his inordinately dense prose. It has been this critic's experience that this particular weak point tends to arise in research that delves into new and uncharted territories; from John Boswell's Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe to Susan McClary's Feminine Endings, complex syntax and specialized terminology become the obstacle that one must hurdle to achieve understanding. Perhaps Holsinger foresees resistance from established medieval scholarship and has compensated by employing a specialized and, therefore, exclusive language to construct an authoritative voice. Regardless of cause, such impenetrable writing obfuscates meaning, suppresses the reader's enthusiasm, and limits the pool of readers who can access and critically analyze the research. Indeed, one gets the impression that Holsinger himself is remarkably absent from his own writing; self-reflexivity/auto-ethnographic writing4 is not solely the domain of ethnographic/ethnomusicological endeavors and I think that his writing would benefit greatly from an examination of his own motives, goals and interpretive filters. Nevertheless, Holsinger's study of carnality and corporality in musical culture is a welcome addition to the "new musicology" of the medieval period.

-Luis-Manuel Garcia

Works Cited

Alsop, Christiane K. "Home and Away: Self-Reflexive Auto-/Ethnography." Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung/Forum: Qualitative Social Research 3, no. 3 (2002). Available at [cited February 10, 2003].

Ellis, Carolyn, and Arthur P. Bochner. "Autoethnography, Personal Narrative, Reflexivity: Researcher as Subject." In Handbook of Qualitative Research, edited by Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, pp. 733-68. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2000.

Holsinger, Bruce Wood. "The Flesh of the Voice: Embodiment and the Homoerotics of Devotion in the Music of Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)." Sings: Journal of Women in Culture and Society Vol. 19, no. 1 (1993): 92-125.

---. "Music, Body and Desire in Medieval Culture, 1150-1400 : Hildegard of Bingen to Chaucer." Doctoral dissertation, Columbia University, 1996. Reed-Danahay, Deborah E. "Introduction." In Auto/Ethnography. Rewriting the Self and the Social, edited by Deborah E. Reed-Danahay, pp. 1-17. New York: Berg, 1997.


1. Bruce Wood Holsinger, "Music, Body and Desire in Medieval Culture, 1150-1400 : Hildegard of Bingen to Chaucer" (Doctoral dissertation, Columbia University, 1996).

2. Bruce Wood Holsinger. "The Flesh of the Voice: Embodiment and the Homoerotics of Devotion in the Music of Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)." Sings: Journal of Women in Culture and Society Vol. 19, no. 1 (1993).

3. Ibid.: 107.

4. "In the wake of colonialism anthropologists came up with the term self-reflexivity to understand ethnographic limitations and potentials. The concept and method called auto-ethnography is an attempt at practicing this self-reflexivity by having a closer look at one's own longings and belongings, with the familiarity that-when viewed from a distance-it can change one's perspective considerably." Christiane K. Alsop. "Home and Away: Self-Reflexive Auto-/Ethnography." Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung/Forum: Qualitative Social Research 3, no. 3 (2002): pgh. 2. Available at [cited February 10, 2003]. See also: Carolyn Ellis and Arthur P. Bochner, "Autoethnography, Personal Narrative, Reflexivity: Researcher as Subject.," in Handbook of Qualitative Research, ed. Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2000), p. 739;Deborah E. Reed-Danahay, "Introduction," in Auto/Ethnography. Rewriting the Self and the Social, ed. Deborah E. Reed-Danahay (New York: Berg, 1997), p. 9.