Machaut in the Book: Representations of Authorship in Late Medieval Manuscripts

Principal Investigators

  • Deborah MCGRADY, Associate Professor, Dept. of French Language & Literature, University of Virginia
  • Benjamin ALBRITTON, Digital Medieval Projects Manager, Stanford University Libraries


The project will bring together digitized surrogates of the Machaut corpus, many of which have never been seriously studied by scholars and have yet to be digitized, to explore a series of pressing theoretical concerns, ranging from medieval authorship and collaborative creation to the notion of manuscripts as “textual beings” and the power of context, form, image, and annotation to recreate text and textual experiences. Access to digitized versions of manuscript copies of Guillaume de Machaut’s works will allow scholars to approach these issues through the rich and complex history of their material legacy.

Background: Guillaume de Machaut looms large in the field of late medieval literature due to the general scholarly consensus that Machaut, in an unprecedented manner, was deeply self-aware of his status as an author. Indeed, a number of his works, most famously the Voir dit, establishes as a principal character a literary double whose writing experiences becomes the primary thrust of the narrative, thereby replacing the traditional princely lover protagonist with an aged literary cleric. The late medieval writing community reinforced Machaut’s self-promotion through elegies in which he was identified as a poète; placed in the company of established writers, including Ovid, Boethius, and Jean de Meun; and virtually identified as the father of French vernacular literature. Some manuscript copies of Machaut’s writings reveal bookmakers similarly interested in valorizing the author through the production of single-author manuscripts that depend heavily on author portraits and authorial naming in rubrics to secure his authority.

Machaut’s self-promotion, paired with the early valorization of his status in single-author codices, has profoundly influenced modern scholarship on the poet. Drawing on the explicit blurring in Machaut’s writings between himself and the protagonist Guillaume who appears throughout his corpus, scholars frequently flirt with biographical readings of his literature.

In 1969, Sarah Jane Williams explored the possibility that the biographic and bibliographic could be fruitfully intertwined and thus she hypothesized that when Guillaume of the Voir dit makes reference to his personal copy of his complete works, he is speaking of a specific manuscript now housed at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS fr. 1584.

Williams’ hypothesis sparked numerous studies in literature, art history, and music that took a keen interest in examining a small selection of Machaut’s extant manuscripts for evidence of the author’s direct involvement in their production. This author-centric perspective continues to dominate Machaut studies and it does so at the expense of the material evidence that belies Machaut’s complete control over the production, dissemination, and reception of his works.

Thesis: This project proposes to redress this skewed perspective through an in-depth study of the numerous multi-authored collections that contain Machaut’s writings but in which the author was clearly not involved in their fabrication. A particular emphasis will be given to codices believed to have been produced during the author’s lifetime, but samples from subsequent decades will be considered as well. The manuscripts to be included in the project corpus represent a mixture of already digitized materials and newly digitized materials (listed here). Such an approach seeks to “decenter” author-centric studies that continue to dominate medieval studies, even in the field of book history, where the general consensus best expressed individually by Paul Zumthor, Bernard Cerquiglini, and Stephen G. Nichols holds that the medieval codex is the product of many hands.

Guillaume de Machaut’s literary and musical corpus exists today in over 50 extant manuscripts dating from the fourteenth and fifteenth century. Rather than demonstrate a uniform way of presenting Machaut’s authorial design, these artifacts exploit material form, context, content, and decoration to propose a rich diversity of interpretations that not only directly impact reception of his corpus but shape readers’ understanding of authorship. This material corpus ranges from nine hefty single author compendia that draw together Machaut’s poetic and musical compositions to multi-authored volumes that include selections of the author’s corpus and even small booklets containing single texts.

We argue that these material variations contribute extensively to the construction of the author figure. As Alistair Minnis explored in his study of medieval authorship, medieval culture did not assign the same significance to writers as modern readers have done since the nineteenth-century invention of the “author genius.” Nonetheless, the late middle ages were a time of flux in which new notions of vernacular authority emerged, as is expressed through the pronounced biographical interest in writers in a wide array of codices, from the troubadour anthologies of the thirteenth century that insert brief biographies for the twelfth-century poets to the novel interest in complete works collections that identified authorship as a thematic organizer.

It is important, however, to remember that not only in Machaut’s case, but in the case of other major late medieval writers, including Christine de Pizan, Alain Chartier, Geoffrey Chaucer, Langland and Petrarch, the single author manuscript was not the sole vehicle through which their works circulated, nor were these particular authors, in spite of their pronounced preoccupation with the fabrication of their works, successful in controlling either the message or the medium associated with their compositions.

The dominant form for communicating Machaut’s corpus is, in fact, the multi-author volume in which his writings intermingle with the artistic creations of predecessors, contemporaries, and/or successors. Regardless of the overriding structure selected, these codices display a surprising variety of presentation styles that exploit paratextual material (e.g., table of contents, rubrication, marginalia, illustrations), dimensions, handwriting, dialect, and orthography to shape reception of texts and author(s). In terms of Machaut’s explicit material representation, for example, these manuscripts differ according to whether the author is named in text, depicted in illustrations, and/or misidentified.

In this respect, the current project presents Machaut as a case study to explore the competing ways in which medieval books represent contemporary constructions of authorship with a special emphasis on the function that writing communities as depicted in multi-author collections fulfill in articulating authority, subjectivity, and author-reader relations. The theoretical framework proposed by this project, however, will be applicable to various late medieval writers and the conclusions drawn from this two-year collaborative project will sketch out a more expansive and productive way of examining manuscript culture.