Songs of Observant Preachers (or) A Rudder for the Ship of Fools ?, Peter Loewen

Peter Loewen: pvl1@rice.edu

Hieronymus Bosch’s fifteenth-century painting known as the Ship of Fools has long been a target of speculation about the origin and meaning behind its absurd tableau of singers drifting in a sea of drunken bathers. Most historians have propagated an anticlerical view of the two Franciscans portrayed at the physical (and spiritual) center of the scene; yet the fact that they are leading what appears to be a sing-along shows them hewing to their traditional way of life, as “Jongleurs of God,” singers of penitential songs.

What makes the songs of the Franciscan Jongleurs so compelling is that they are contrafacta, which often integrate competing forces. And ones suspects the irony of this union was not lost on Bosch or the artist in his atelier who created this and other paintings involving Franciscans. Nowadays, one often thinks of a song as having a unique identity consisting of a melody and text that are bound only to each other. But Franciscan composers, like other medieval and Renaissance musicians, often borrowed melodies from well-known songs, setting up lively interplay between new and latent texts to produce what Wolfgang Suppan has called a “Sinnverknüpfung” among the declarations of texts and music. Bringing together the ideas of authors and contrafactors makes each song a collaborative effort; and even Bosch acknowledges the significance of female religious in this enterprise. Friedrich Gennrich and Wolfgang Suppan have observed that contrafactors considered a song’s text an essential criterion for selecting its melody for contrafaction. So, it would appear that to an early-modern audience, the meaning of a contrafactum depended on its relationship with other texts, which communicated with one another through a unifying melody.

In my paper, I will begin with a broad survey of the contrafacta composed by several Franciscan reformers—Olivier Maillard, Jan Brugman, Ambrosio Montesino, and Thomas Murner, etc. I will then follow up with a close examination of the “Sinnverknüpfungen” produced by two Franciscans of Bosch’s time: Olivier Maillard’s “Il faut mourir á ce coup cy,” sung to the tune of the pastourelle “Bergerotte savoysienne”; and Jan Brugman’s “Ic hebbe gheiaecht mijn leven lanc,” sung to the tune of various melodies, including the famous gespeelkenslied (girlfriends’ song) “Tandernaken al opten rijn.” Reading the songs of these Observant reformers in light of the others text or texts married to them through contrafaction will expose the complex relationship between composer, contrafactor, and their Early-Modern audiences.


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