At a little over 20 months, our toddler is a constant source of chatter and chirps. He “talks” through his meals, “reads” aloud, and blows bubbles in the bathtub.
And now that I’m spending longer days on campus, I’m noticing how much sound matters to my work. I love the humming of the elevator and the beeps that echo from the floors below. The rustle of paperwork, the clanking of office keys, the squeak of wet shoes on the linoleum floors– they’re all important markers of company, if not fellowship. Yet when I check my monitor app on the nights I’m not home, it’s the sound– or more precisely, the voice– of my son that evokes equally powerful but seemingly conflicting feelings of gratitude and longing. I love being a working mom; I’m happier now than I’ve ever been. And yet this Schrodinger-like situation, in which I miss him and am happy to be back at work, is sometimes difficult to understand.
So I can’t imagine what it must have been like for those early medieval monks who, leaving their homes and relatives, set off for a life of isolation and prayer. For these peregrini, or pilgrims, turning away from the world to face God was an act that affected all senses. And to me, the full experience of the sacrifice is beautifully expressed in the literary longing for sound. Anglo-Saxon poetry famously romanticizes the man adrift in a piece we call The Seafarer (here excerpted from Sian Echard’s translation) :
There I heard nothing but the roaring sea,
the ice-cold wave. Sometimes the wild swan’s song
cheered me [?], the cry of the gannet
and the sound of the curlew, in place of the laughter of men,
the singing mew instead of mead-drink.
þær ic ne gehyrde butan hlimman sæ,
iscaldne wæg. Hwilum ylfete song
dyde ic me to gomene, ganetes hleoþor
ond huilpan sweg fore hleahtor wera,
mæw singende fore medodrince.
Yet sonic solace and solitude are not limited to poetry, or the vernacular, or even proper peregrini. In the Anglo-Latin lives of island hermit-saints Cuthbert and Guthlac, boating visitors often “sound the signal at the landing-place” to announce their arrival to their hosts, who cannot see the beach from their isolated enclosures. Nowhere is sound more evidently vital to the isolated men than in the closing scenes of the Life of St Cuthbert, when the aging monk has hobbled out of his monastery and down to the shore so that his visitors will be sure to see him. Even to the committed solitary, the sound and sight of others was a welcome reprieve from the torments of earthly existence.
My impression is that the seventh and eighth centuries saw the peregrinatio pro Christo (pilgrimage) become a kind of holiness-marker for clerical and episcopal travel undertaken neither alone, nor with the intention of sustained isolation.
In Huneberc’s Hodoeporicon, for instance, the intrepid St Willibald sails (with this brother and father) on a hired ship from Southampton to the mouth of the Seine, “with the west wind blowing and a high sea running, amidst the shouting of sailors and the creaking of oars” (Talbot, 157).
Stephanus writes that Bishop Wilfrid, who died when Willibald was still a child, had narrowly escaped persecution in the east because he was a transmarinus de Anglorum gente ex Britannia— a foreigner of the English race from Britain. As he and his companions travelled west across the British sea, they sang “psalms and hymns, giving the time to the oarsmen” until a storm chased them off course (Colgrave, 27). In both these examples, the sound of sailing is explicitly positive, when in the former two it is anxiously bittersweet.
I found this small detail of the priests keeping time for their rowers remarkable– what did these psalms sound like? To find out, I spoke with Samantha Arten, who put me in touch with a specialist, who recommended 30:30-36:40 of this Gregorian chant performed by Cistercian monks. It’s no wonder that the regularity of this calming rhythm kept the crew in synch.
Still, I’m not the only one wondering about the sounds of ancient worship. Just last week The Atlantic published an article on the recent scholarly collaboration among an art historian-archaeologist, a music producer-engineer, and the founder of the USC Immersive Audio Laboratory (yes, it’s a real thing). This super-interdisciplinary team was able to “map the acoustic fingerprint of several [Byzantine] churches,” which were shown to have been deliberately “designed to shift a person’s sensory experience”(Lafrance). Now, the USC member explains, they can record a chant, “process it … and all of the sudden we have performances happening in medieval structures”(Kyriakakis, in Lafrance). They can actually rebuild the sounds of our ancient past.
But could this work in an open space? Or at sea? Just how different was sound across the cooler, wetter climate of the early Middle Ages? Were the hearers’ auditory contexts drastically different in a pre-modern world? To what effect?
I think the stakes of these questions are rather high, since the poignancy of sound is often imbedded in its transitory nature. After all, aren’t we more accurately captured in our selfies than in our voicemails? When my son grows up to watch– and hear– the baby videos we’ve taken, will our old voices sound new to him? Or will he be used to hearing the past in the present?