Planctus Analysis

  • Juanita Feros Ruys
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


In his study of Abelard as a poet and musician, Michel Huglo argues that the Latin planctus is not a specific genre, since its form can be either metric or rhythmic, but is rather recognized by its elegiac themes.1 Nicolas Bell points out that Abelard’s six Planctus follow the form of the sequence or lai, rather than a traditional classical Latin metrical form, an argument that finds consensus among musicologists.2 Bell then suggests that the scribe who titled each of Abelard’s poems “Planctus …” in the Vatican manuscript that provides the only complete copy of the series of six (Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Reg. Lat., 288) was probably not so much intending to refer to a specific genre, as to describe an elegiac mode, so that a translation such as “The Lament of …” would be entirely accurate.3


Biblical Text Biblical Story Family Honor Speaking Voice Biblical Account 
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  1. 1.
    Michel Huglo, “Abélard, poète et musicien,” Cahiers de civilisation médiévale, 22 (1979), 349–361 (pp. 356–357): “Le planctus ne constitue pas, de par la prosodie, un genre particulier: il peut tout aussi bien être composé en mètres classiques ou suivre les règles de la poésie rythmique basée sur l’accentuation du mot latin. en somme, c’est un choix parmi divers themes élégiaques … qui constituent l’élément formel du planctus.”CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 2.
    Nicolas Bell, “Les planctus d’Abélard et la tradition tardive du planctus,” in Pierre Abélard: Colloque international de Nantes, ed. Jean Jolivet and Henri Habrias (Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2003), pp. 261–266, (p. 262).Google Scholar
  3. see also Ann Buckley, “Abelard’s planctus and old French lais: Melodic style and Formal Structure,” in The Poetic and Musical Legacy of Heloise and Abelard, ed. Marc Stewart and David Wulstan, Musicological Studies, 78 (Ottawa: The Institute of Mediæval Music, 2003), pp. 49–59, (p. 49): “All of the planctus are in lai form, and thus provide a bridge between the Latin Lays contained in the Cambridge Songbook … and the earliest vernacular examples.”Google Scholar
  4. Also Lorenz Weinrich, “Peter Abaelard as Musician—I,” The Musical Quarterly, 55 (1969), 295–312 (p. 305): “Abaelard’s planctus deserve a significant position in musical history, filling the gap between the Latin liturgical sequence outside the Mass and the French secular lai.”CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 4.
    See Caroline Cohen, “Les elements constitutifs de quelques planctus des Xe et XIe siècles,” Cahiers de civilisation médiévale, 1 (1958), 83–86.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 9.
    Peter Dronke, Poetic Individuality in the Middle Ages: New Departures in Poetry 1000–1150 (London: Westfield College, University of London Committee for Medieval Studies, 2nd edn, 1986; first pub. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), pp. 26–27.Google Scholar
  7. 10.
    Wolfram von den Steinen, “Les sujets d’inspiration chez les poètes latins du XIIe siècle. II: Abélard et le subjectivisme,” Cahiers de civilisation médiévale, 9 (1966), 363–373, (p. 369): “Abélard voit les figures mythiques de la Bible non seulement comme des instruments au service du Maître inexplorable, mais comme des sujets souffrants et gémissants.”CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 11.
    Constant J. Mews, Abelard and Heloise (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 171.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 13.
    Joseph Szövérffy, Peter Abelard’s Hymnarius Paraclitensis: An Annotated Edition with Introduction, 2 vols (Albany, NY: Classical Folia Editions, 1975), Vol. 2, p. 79.Google Scholar
  10. 18.
    See, for example, von den Steinen, “Les sujets d’inspiration,” p. 368: “Il connaît bien d’ailleurs le pouvoir qu’a le lyrisme d’adoucir la douleur et de rétablir l’équilibre … C’est l’expérience de David, c’est aussi celle d’Abélard”; W. G. East, “This Body of Death: Abelard, Heloise and the Religious Life,” in Medieval Theology and the Natural Body, ed. Peter Biller and A. J. Minnis, York Studies in Medieval Theology, 1 (York: York Medieval Press, 1997), pp. 43–59 (p. 53): “Abelard, himself a poet and musician, author of a volume of sacred songs designed to accompany and complement the psalms in the daily office, may well have seen something of himself in the figure of David.” see also Dronke, Poetic Individuality in the Middle Ages, pp. 118–119, where he argues that Abelard may have found music and poetry a way of turning his sorrows into “a creation that gives them objective dignity.”Google Scholar
  11. 19.
    Massimo Sannelli nevertheless reads this concluding strophe as hopeful: see Pietro Abelardo, Planctus (Trento: La Finestra, 2002), p. 10: “Poi, chiudendo il planctus VI, il silenzio dopo il canto (la fine dell’opera) è il segno del solatium promesso dall’incipit: la parola è denuncia/enunciazione, il canto è remedium, il silenzio—la pausa della parola e del canto—è una possibile catarsi, per l’autore e per il personaggio.”Google Scholar
  12. 21.
    Eileen C. Sweeney, Logic, Theology, and Poetry in Boethius, Abelard, and Alan of Lille: Words in the Absence of Things (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), p. 96.Google Scholar
  13. 23.
    See Mary Martin McLaughlin, with Bonnie Wheeler, The Letters of Heloise and Abelard: A Translation of Their Collected Correspondence and Related Writings (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), p. 195;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. and Vera Morton, Guidance for Women in Twelfth-Century Convents (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2003), p. 122 n. 1.Google Scholar
  15. 25.
    See Szövérffy, Peter Abelard’s Hymnarius Paraclitensis, Vol. 2, pp. 9–13, 79–81, and 169–170; Szövérffy, “‘False’ Use of ‘Unfitting’ Hymns: Some Ideas Shared by Peter the Venerable, Peter Abelard and Heloise,” Revue bénédictine, 89 (1979), 187–199; and Mews, “Liturgy and Identity at the Paraclete: Heloise, Abelard and the Evolution of Cistercian Reform,” in The Poetic and Musical Legacy of Heloise and Abelard, pp. 19–33 (esp. pp. 27–33; including a translation of the three Hymnary Prefaces at pp. 30–33).Google Scholar
  16. 28.
    See Fiona J. Griffiths, “‘Men’s Duty to Provide for Women’s Needs’: Abelard, Heloise, and Their Negotiation of the cura monialium,” Journal of Medieval History, 30 (2004), 1–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. 29.
    There has long been discussion as to whether Abelard was referring to the Planctus in his prefatory letter to the sermons, sent to Heloise, where he spoke of “the little book of hymns or sequences” that he had recently completed at her behest: see PL 178. 379–380: “Libello quodam hymnorum vel sequentiarum a me nuper precibus tuis consummato.” Scholarly consensus appears to be that this constitutes a reference only to the Hymns; see David Wulstan, “Novi modulaminis melos: The Music of Heloise and Abelard,” Plainsong and Medieval Music, 11 (2002), 1–23, (p. 3 and n. 9);CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. and Thomas J. Bell, Peter Abelard after Marriage: The Spiritual Direction of Heloise and Her Nuns through Liturgical Song (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 2007), pp. xx–xxvi.Google Scholar
  19. 30.
    Pierre Abélard, Lamentations; Histoire de mes malheurs; Correspondance avec Héloïse, ed. and trans. Paul Zumthor (Arles: Actes Sud, 1992), p. 19: “La composition de l’Hymnaire, œuvre de commande, avait représenté une lourde et, on peut le supposer, monotone tâche … Les Planctus marquent la revanche de la spontanéité, de la liberté, de la pure joie créatrice.”Google Scholar
  20. 32.
    The nineteenth- and early twentieth-century reception of the Planctus reveals that the poems were read equally as personal and liturgical texts. Their first editor, Karl Johann (Carl) Greith, included them in his 1838 study Spicilegium Vaticanum under the heading “Minnelieder” (Love Songs), and described them as “belonging to the earliest love songs of the Middle Ages to have come down to us.” He identified the Planctus with, or at least with the period of, the love songs written by Abelard about Heloise that were sung in Paris early in their relationship, and noted that the planctus-form in the Middle Ages was designed to commemorate loved ones, friends, and benefactors: see Carl Greith, Spicilegium Vaticanum: Beiträge zur nähern Kenntniss der vatikanischen Bibliothek für deutsche Poesie des Mittelalters (Frauenfeld: Ch. Beyel, 1838), pp. 121–131. In his massive two-volume biography of Abelard, published in 1845, Charles de Rémusat tied the composition of the Planctus to the period of Abelard’s arrival at St. Gildas, where the lowering immensity of the Breton landscape and the intractable behavior of his monks drew him into a deep melancholy that colored all his writings of the time. Accordingly, de Rémusat reads the Planctus as deeply autobiographic, so that “under the transparent veil of the biblical stories, Abelard utters his own griefs”: see Charles de Rémusat, Abélard, 2 vols (Paris: Libraire philosophiqe de Ladrange, 1845), I, 122–124. However, in 1844, Edélestand du Méril took exception with Greith’s characterization of the Planctus as the early love songs of Abelard for Heloise, and pointed out that they were in fact religious songs based on biblical stories:Google Scholar
  21. see Edélestand du Méril, “Poésies d’Abailard,” Journal des savants de Normandie, 44, (1844), 119–153, (p. 139). In 1890, in his extensive study of the meter of the Planctus, Wilhelm Meyer declared that the Planctus must have had a similar liturgical purpose to Abelard’s Hymns, dealing as they did with material from the books of Genesis, Judges, and Kings:Google Scholar
  22. see Wilhelm Meyer, Gesammelte Abhandlungen zur mittellateinischen Rythmik, 3 vols (Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1970; first pub. Berlin: Weidmann, 1905–1936), I, “V. Petri Abaelardi Planctus I II IV V VI,” pp. 357–374 (p. 357). In 1905, Guido Maria Dreves included the Planctus in the Analecta Hymnica, clearly attributing to them a religious function: see Guido Maria Dreves, Analecta Hymnica Medii Aevi, Vol. 48: Hymnographi Latini / Lateinische Hymnendichter des Mittelalters (Leipzig: O. R. Reisland, 1905), pp. 142 and 223–232. In his 1911 study of Abelard’s rhythmic poetry, Fortunato Laurenzi returned to an autobiographical reading of the Planctus, this time finding their inspiration not in Abelard’s own melancholy interior, but rather in Heloise’s plangent cries as expressed in her Ep. IV. Yet Laurenzi also countenanced a liturgical, or at least semi-liturgical, function for the texts, given their sequence form, which was generally associated with the liturgy:Google Scholar
  23. see Fortunato Laurenzi, Le poesie ritmiche di Pietro Abelardo (Rome: Federico Pustet, 1911), pp. 18–20 and 52– 60. Vecchi followed many of Laurenzi’s suggestions in his 1951 edition of the Planctus. He saw them as a synthesis of a life of sorrow as experienced by Abelard, expressed through biblical allegory and symbolism, yet he also read their number six as representing the hexaemeron, the six days of Creation, so that the nuns would sing a lament for each day: see Vecchi, IPlanctus,” pp. 13–17 and 29.Google Scholar
  24. 41.
    Gunilla Iversen, “From Jubilus to Learned Exegesis: New Liturgical Poetry in Twelfth-Century Nevers,” in Sapientia et eloquentia: Meaning and Function in Liturgical Poetry, Music, Drama, and Biblical Commentary in the Middle Ages, ed. Gunilla Iversen and Nicolas Bell, Disputatio, 11 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2009), pp. 203–258, (p. 236): “Normally, a planctus is not part of the liturgy. The four songs presented together in the Nevers collection, however, presumably were intended to have some place and function in the liturgy, albeit an unspecified one, and might even have been used as sequences of a new kind.”Google Scholar
  25. 46.
    For an edition of the Epithalamica, see Chrysogonus Waddell, “Epithalamica: An Easter Sequence by Peter Abelard,” The Musical Quarterly, 72 (1986), 239–271, (pp. 248–253).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. 49.
    See Mews, The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard: Perceptions of Dialogue in Twelfth-Century France (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1999; 2nd ed. Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), p. 172; Wulstan, “Novi modulaminis melos”;Google Scholar
  27. and Mews, “Heloise and Liturgical Experience at the Paraclete,” Plainsong and Medieval Music, 11 (2002), 25–35, (pp. 31–33).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. 50.
    Giovanni Orlandi, “On the Text and Interpretation of Abelard’s Planctus,” in Poetry and Philosophy in the Middle Ages: A Festschrift for Peter Dronke, ed. John Marenbon, Mittellateinischen Studien und Texte, 29 (Leiden: Brill, 2001), pp. 327–342 (p. 342).Google Scholar
  29. 51.
    Willemien Otten, “The Poetics of Biblical Tragedy in Abelard’s Planctus,” in Poetry and Exegesis in Premodern Latin Christianity: The Encounter between Classical and Christian Strategies of Interpretation, ed. Willemien Otten and Karla Pollmann (Leiden: Brill, 2007), pp. 245–261, (p. 258): “It seems that Abelard would probably not write a poetic cycle about New Testament figures as long as doing so would require him to endorse a view of New Testament characters as reflecting the straightforward acceptance of salvation, while the Old Testament contains only figures deeply fraught with ambiguity”; (p. 261): “ in the end Abelard seems to have found not just the reason for lament but especially the beginning of consolation.”CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. 57.
    Yves Ferroul, “Abelard’s Blissful Castration,” in Becoming Male in the Middle Ages, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Bonnie Wheeler (New York: Garland, 2000), pp. 129–149, (p. 143).Google Scholar
  31. 86.
    See John R. Clark, “The Traditional Figure of Dina and Abelard’s First Planctus,” Proceedings of the PMR Conference, 7 (1982), 117–128, (pp. 120–122), and Dahan, “La matière biblique dans le Planctus de Dina de Pierre Abélard.”Google Scholar
  32. 92.
    Janthia Yearley, “A Bibliography of Planctus in Latin, Provençal, French, German, English, Italian, Catalan and Galician-Portuguese from the Time of Bede to the Early Fifteenth Century,” Journal of the Plainsong and Medieval Music Society, 4 (1981), 12–52: L 53, L 63, L 94, L 95, L 96, L 124, L 134.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. 93.
    John Stevens, Words and Music in the Middle Ages: Song, Narrative, Dance and Drama, 1050–1350 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 351, and see Generally, “Dramatic Emotion: ‘Mourning Rachel,’” pp. 351–361.Google Scholar
  34. See also Dronke, Nine Medieval Latin Plays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. xxviii–xxxi.Google Scholar
  35. 111.
    For a fascinating study of the images of burnt offerings in the Hymns and their relation to Abelard’s construction of a monastic hierarchy at the Paraclete, see Flynn, “Abelard and Rhetoric: Widows and Virgins at the Paraclete,” in Rethinking Abelard: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Babette S. Hellemans, Brill’s studies in Intellectual History, 229 (Leiden: Brill, 2014), pp. 155–186, esp. pp. 161, 173, 175.Google Scholar
  36. 114.
    John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980), p. 239.Google Scholar
  37. 115.
    Gerald Bond, The Loving Subject: Desire, Eloquence, and Power in Romanesque France (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), esp. pp. 50–51, where he notes: “Because of this inherent ambiguity of the word amor, Baudri is able to flirt simultaneously with codes of friendship between monks and codes of desire between males” (p. 50), and “Homosexual love is always a potential meaning in these texts … the force of Baudri’s letter-poems … lies precisely in their hazardous play with the taboo, their display of the dialectic between the public language of restraint and the private thought of release” (p. 51).Google Scholar
  38. 116.
    Mews, “Cicero and the Boundaries of Friendship in the Twelfth Century,” Viator, 38 (2007), 369–384 (pp. 381–382).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Juanita Feros Ruys 2014

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