A student in a sundress holds a musical score in one hand and hands another student a flower with another.

COOL CLASSES: “Medieval Music: Women, and Performance”

This music course considers some of the many intersections between music and gender during
the European Middle Ages, with particular attention to the roles of women as performers, composers, patrons, and audiences.

Course Title: “Medieval Music: Women, and Performance”

Taught By: Visiting Assistant Professor of Music Rachel Ruisard

Says Ruisard:

This class is about examining the medieval period, typically a very male-centeric narrative in music history classrooms, through the perspectives of the women who listened, performed, supported, and composed music during this rich historical era. My goal is to equip my students with the ability to listen to and understand medieval music, but also to help them become conversant with the historical narratives and social structures around that music as it relates to women and gender. What comes out from studying this music in this way is that while the music and ideas about music may sound initially quite alien, when you look closely you can see—and hear—many things that resonate with us today in the 21st century. While we can identify some of the same problems that continue to plague us, we can also find very novel ways of approaching music production, transmission, ownership, and performance that help us see ourselves from a new perspective.

This course originally came out of my dissertation research, which examined the lyrical representations of women in a particular 14th-century manuscript from France containing over 500 songs. What I found was that 1) many, many more lyrics were written from a woman’s perspective in this time than were previously known, and 2) the voices of the women in these lyrics expressed many of the same desires, conflicts, and sufferings that women express today. They were shockingly relatable! It also showed me how long music history has neglected these types of voices because they don’t survive proportionally in the same numbers as music written from men’s perspectives. So, when approached by Dr. Freedman of the music department to design a course for Spring 2022, we agreed that a focus on the medieval period would be an interesting place to start, and the focus on women allowed it to immediately become an interdisciplinary course, which is always a goal of mine. 

This course is notable in that it provides a consistent overlap of disciplines, not just music analysis and history, but also comparative literature and gender and sexuality studies. I also deliberately included case studies of music “medievalisms,” or modern interpretations of the medieval, to demonstrate how post-medieval musicians continue to interact with pre-modern musical concepts in new and exciting ways. This allows us to talk not only about early music performers and recordings, but also about opera composers like Wagner and Kaija Saariaho, folk musicians like Bob Dylan, Vulcan’s Hammer, and Folkal Point, and pop artists like Janelle Monaé and Florence Welch (of Florence + The Machine). I’m also devoting a day to the discussion of bardcore! Musicians are continuing, in 2022, to reimagine medieval things with a modern lens, and vice versa, and I think that is unendingly fascinating to explore.

Learn more about other courses offered by the Department of Music. 

Cool Classes

A series highlighting interesting, unusual, and unique courses that enrich the Haverford College experience.