Singing with Physical Contact: A Motiv of late Medieval Iconography of Singing and its Experiemental Re-Enactment

Music and art historians specializing in the Late Medieval period and Renaissance are familiar with the typical pictorial representation of a vocal ensemble: the singers are assembled around a single lectern or manuscript, pressed tightly together; often they even directly touch one other, with an older singer, for example, laying his hand on the head or shoulder of a choirboy standing before him, and singers of the same age placing their arms around each others’ shoulders.
While this iconography is widespread, the research on it can be quickly reviewed. For a long time it was unclear what, precisely, was being depicted—whether it was a specification of tactus on the part of those doing the touching, or the presence of continuous contact. Furthermore, we find “realistic” interpretations alongside those with a “symbolic” orientation. The relevant cultural and social-historical contexts of the contact have hardly been examined.
This represents the starting point of our project, which ties a classical approach to musical and cultural history with an approach that is more experimental. In our work we will address two central questions: 1) What historical evidence or documentation points to (continuous) hand contact as part of singing practice of the time? 2) What experimentally measurable effects can bodily contact and explicit touching have in group singing? And tied to this, under what conditions can observable effects on the part of present-day singers be used as an argument for for the historical reality of such a singing practice?
Iconographic analysis, source critique, and approaches centered on cultural and social history will here be brought together with both social-psychological findings on the functions and effects of physical contact and a pair of our own experiments. Hypotheses regarding possible effects of such contact will be related to, on the one hand, the realm of communal feeling and, on the other hand, that of singing instruction and the paradigm of coordinated action and synchronization.
At the same time, the project is the first test case for an idea, tied to R.G. Collingwood’s concept of “re-enactments,” that  under certain circumstances empirical evidence can furnish historical speculation with added plausibility, above all when clear source evidence is absent.

A list of exemplars of the iconographic topos (from paintings, sculptures, woodcuts, and manuscript illustrations) can be found here.
We are grateful for every new specimen that is brought to our attention. Please send them to hands-on.prj@ae.mpg.de

The project will be organized in cooperation with Prof. Katelijne Schiltz (musicology, Universität Regensburg) and Prof. Franz Körndle (musicology, Universität Augsburg).