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Eleanor Chan (Frances Yates long-term fellow) - ’The Image of Music: Emblem Culture and Musical Literacy in the English Renaissance’

Recent research has ensured that the state of literacy in early modern England is now understood as a nuanced and multifaceted process, rather than a binary condition of il/literate. However, the state of musical literacy has not yet received such attention. This paper seeks to remedy this omission in scholarship, by exploring the implications of the first widely-available text on how to read music, the Whole Booke of Psalmes. Early editions of the Whole Booke of Psalmes, published between 1562 and 1565, featured a pictorial illustration of hexachordal mutation; in other words, an image that did not match the text that introduced fixed-scale solmization. Entertaining the idea that this was a deliberate strategy, this paper explores the idea that John Day fashioned this how-to guide in the manner of an emblem. It examines marginalia interventions into surviving copies of the Whole Booke of Psalmes that suggest its early readers engaged with music notation on a visual, as well as textual level. Ultimately, this paper seeks to demonstrate that musical literacy can and should be considered as a far more fragmentary, scrappy and motley process than has previously been appreciated.

Eleanor Chan is a Frances Yates Fellow at the Warburg Institute, University of London, and BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinker. She specialises in cultures of graphic notation and abstract visualisation (mathematical, musical, anatomical) in early modern England. She received her PhD in History of Art from the University of Cambridge and has held fellowships from the Leverhulme Trust, the Paul Mellon Center for Studies in British Art and the Society for Renaissance Studies. Her first book, Mathematics and the Craft of Thought in the Anglo-Dutch Renaissance, was published by Routledge in 2021; her second, Syrene Soundes: False Relations in the English Renaissance, a Visual, Material, Musical, Cultural History is due to be published by Oxford University Press in 2024.

The Work in Progress seminar explores the variety of subjects studied and researched at the Warburg Institute. Papers are given by invited international scholars, research fellows studying at the Institute, and third-year PhD students.