Chansons polies? Expressing Gendered Identity and Experience in the Ars antiqua Motet

Lisa Colton

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


The ars antiqua motet flourished in Northern France in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, and was distinguished generically by its polyphony (in up to four voices) and by polytextuality. Motet authors frequently experimented with aspects of poetry, musical notation, mise-en-page, quotation, and song structure in complex, virtuosic ways, placing the genre at the cutting edge of musical development. By contrast, the vocabulary, topics, characters, and narrative scenarios found in the lyrics of the ars antiqua motet were closely tied to the notions of fin’ amors that had been at the heart of a rich literary and musical tradition for over a century. Whether writing of unattainable women, sexual propriety, nature, devotion, or courtship, the motet’s lyrics were ostensibly backward-looking, even nostalgic, in comparison to their musical and codicological frame.

But is this apparent dissonance genuine? As a polyphonic, polytextual form, the motet offered significant potential for variety and depth of expression about gender and culture. This essay will examine a selection of motets in which the conventions found in older romance lyric can be heard to function differently from those expressed monophonically by the troubadours and trouvères. Placing voices in dialogue, superimposing them, and playing with sound and silence in the ars antiqua motet allowed musicians to explore questions of gender and power in performance. As a result, it will be argued that the form’s apparently conservative literary style is an illusion; rather, motet composers were able to experiment with their musical form to explore and challenge contemporary understandings of gender.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationGender and Voice in Medieval French Literature and Song
EditorsRachel May Golden, Katherine Kong
Place of PublicationGainesville
PublisherUniversity of Florida
Number of pages30
ISBN (Print)9780813069036, 0813069033
Publication statusPublished - 12 Oct 2021


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