>When I was on the top of the the hillside perch of Castle Carreg Cennen in Wales (pictures of it in this post), I made a little video with my camera not for what you can see, but what you hear. In that video you can hear sheep baa-ing and you can see them move in the field some 400 feet below. You also hear, incidentally, the motorway in the distance and the air moving past my compact digital camera’s miniscule microphone.
I wanted to post the video for you, but the direct Blogger video posting tool won’t allow over 100 MB, and my clip is just over that (and I don’t have any editing program to cut it, alas). It’s just as well, since listening to sheep baa isn’t very exciting, and you don’t really have to see and hear the clip to get what I want to say about it.
At the time we were there visiting the castle, someone remarked that the sound of the sheep was the sound of medieval power — the lord of the castle could look around below him and not only see what he controlled, but also hear it as well, maybe even hear every word spoken down there. At the time, I thought, “Hm. Yes.”
But later, upon reflection, I thought, “Wait. No.” If Carreg Cennen was ever a bustling castle, even if it only served defensive purposes, and not as a full time residence (and unlike Kidwelly, it had no town grown up around it), it would have been full of its own noises. Those noises might have easily drowned out the sound of sheep just as surely as modern mechanized noises could. After all, where I stood when I shot that video was where the former outer ward lay. In the outer ward would have been the stables, blacksmiths’ and armourers’ workshops, the lime kiln (its ruins are still there) and all sorts of general hustle and bustle. Would you have been able to hear the sheep above that clamor?
I’ve been a little obsessed with the sounds of the Middle Ages lately, not in any way that I’m going to write about it professionally (which is probably good, because I hear Claire Sponsler *is* writing about it), but just in a musing sort of way that I sometimes bring up in class. I think some of my students assume that the Middle Ages was a quiet and still place — like Castle Carreg Cennen today — so I like to draw their attention to noisiness in the literature, whether it’s noise being depicted in literature (the jingling of the bells on the Monk’s bridle in the Canterbury Tales, for instance, both described and imitated by the poetry), or the kinds of environmental noises one might encounter while experiencing medieval literature such as the York plays (church bells, the pageants at the stations before and after the one where they were watching, other playgoers, etc.), or the noise of the literature itself as it was declaimed or read aloud. This interest was spurred long ago by my interest in drama, but also by the “Medieval Noise” cluster of Exemplaria (Autumn 2004, no longer available online, alas), which included an introduction by Jeffrey J. Cohen with a title, “Kyte oute yugliment: An Introduction to Medieval Noise,” taken from one of my favorite moments in medieval drama, where the Herod of the York plays breaks down into utter nonsense in the face of Christ’s silence.
But only recently has the interest risen to the level of obsession. And lately I’ve been thinking of medieval sound as ghosts. One of my friends suggested I might mean echoes, but I really mean ghosts. Sound travels in waves, right? So once those sheep baas reached me up on the crest of Carreg Cennen, the sheep who made them might no longer be baaing. They could, theoretically, have uttered their last baa, and I might be hearing it in past tense, so to speak. And so when I or my students read Chaucer aloud in my class, and read of that Monk’s bridle “Gynglen in a whistlynge wynd,” even though our reconstruction of Middle English is an approximation at best, there’s a sense of a very old sound traveling across time and space, perhaps distorted by the distance it has traveled, but reaching my students and me nonetheless, haunting us in a way.
But it’s not just medieval literature that’s ghostly. In a sense, all poetry consists of ghosts, for all poetry deals in some way with sound (well, good poetry does) and asks to be read aloud. And having already been written, each subsequent reading, even by the poet him- or herself, is a bit of the past coming forth to the listener in the present. Every reading of a poem is a little bit haunted.
What do you think?