Ars nova Jean des Murs Medieval Music Theory

Jean des Murs, Quadrivial Scientist

As promised, a brief summary of the third chapter of Music and the moderni, 1300-1350, which focusses on the music theorist and astronomer, Jean des Murs (fl. 1312-1347). It also gives me a chance to repost this wonderful image of Lady Astronomy from Burney 275 (the same manuscript from which this blog’s header image is taken).

London, British Library, Burney 275, fol. 390v (France, between 1309 and 1316)

To musicologists, Jean des Murs is known for his groundbreaking contributions to ars nova theory. But during the same decades (1320s/1330s) that Jean wrote his influential treatises on music (Notitia artis musicae, Compendium musicae, and his Musica speculativa, he was also deeply involved in adapting and implementing the innovative practices of Castilian astronomy for use in Paris. His work caught the attention of the higher-ups: renowned for his impressive feats of calculation and prediction, Jean worked at two prestigious courts: at the Évreux court of Jeanne de France, Queen of Navarre, and at Pope Clement VI’s court at Avignon–an important centre for those engaged in significant work on music and astronomy in the 1340s (including Levi ben Gerson and Philippe de Vitry).

The chapter opens with the scene of Jean des Murs and Jeanne, Queen of Navarre, observing a solar eclipse:

On the afternoon of 14 May 1333, the twenty-one-year old Jeanne de France, Queen of Navarre (1312-1349), observed a solar eclipse from her castle at Saint-Germain in Évreux. Just months earlier, on 9 October 1332, Jeanne had given birth to her fourth child, a son Charles, heir to the throne of Navarre, the kingdom over which Jeanne had reigned since her 1329 coronation in Pamplona. To observe the eclipse Jeanne was in the castle she had ordered built shortly after her coronation – a castle she reportedly had named ‘Navarre’. In this annular solar eclipse, as the moon passed between the sun and earth, the moon did not cover the sun completely, and a glowing ring of light encircled the dark shadow of the moon . . .

Desmond, Music and the moderni, p. 70.

We have scant information about Jean’s career: in this chapter I explore some of the possible influences – personal and ideological – of predecessors, mentors, peers, and patrons on Jean’s work during his early career at the Sorbonne, and as he began to seek employment outside of the university. In this synthesis of Jean des Murs’s career and scholarly endeavours, I also reassess the chronology and content of his music theory. The chapter concludes with an analysis of Jean’s new conceptualisation of rhythmic duration, and how it ought to be measured and represented in notation (presented in book 2 of Notitia artis musicae). Jean’s rhetoric in Notitia, which foregrounds both observation (experientia), precision in measurement, and practical application, is foregrounded in all of Jean’s quadrivial pursuits, which were to have significant repercussions through the fourteenth century and beyond.