In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Guillaume de Machaut

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Discography
  • Manuscripts
  • Facsimiles and Digitized Manuscripts
  • Manuscript Studies
  • Studies of Manuscripts Copied during Machaut’s Lifetime
  • Studies of Posthumous Manuscripts

Medieval Studies Guillaume de Machaut
Alice V. Clark
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0049


Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300–1377) is recognized by most scholars as the most important French poet and composer of the 14th century. Born in Champagne and probably trained in Reims and Paris, he spent much of his career as clerk, almoner, notary, and secretary to John, king of Bohemia, with whom he apparently traveled as far afield as Poland and Lithuania. His service was rewarded in part by ecclesiastical posts, as was typical for the time, and most scholars agree that he retired to a canonry at Reims Cathedral by about 1340, though some argue that he was not in residence there until close to 1360. In either case, he apparently maintained some connection not only to John but also to the French royal family, including Jean, duke of Berry, and to other patrons such as Charles, king of Navarre. In a series of narrative poems Machaut explored concepts of authorial identity and the relation between fin’amors (courtly love) and the creation of poetry, and he had a major role in the development of fixed forms of lyric poetry. He wrote the earliest known complete musical setting of the Ordinary of the Mass in polyphony by a single composer, and he had a major hand in developing the polyphonic secular song. Later poets, notably Geoffrey Chaucer and Eustache Deschamps, acknowledged his influence, and the musical genres he helped create held sway into the following century. His works, literary and musical, are transmitted together in a series of manuscripts, many of which include images, and some of which appear to have been compiled and ordered under some level of personal supervision. This means that we know exactly what he wrote in a way often not possible for his contemporaries, since most music and much literature in the Middle Ages circulated anonymously. Some of the attention paid to Machaut by modern scholars is inevitably affected by this clarity of attribution, and scholars in many fields have examined ways in which his works both typify and go beyond what other authors in 14th-century France did.

General Overviews

The essential point of departure for the study of all aspects of Machaut’s life and works is Earp 1995, which includes an excellent discussion of sources and a comprehensive bibliography and discography, all helpfully organized. This should now be combined with Leach 2011, which will likely become the standard monograph study of Machaut’s life and works, and McGrady and Bain 2012, which provides introductions by specialists to major aspects of Machaut’s poetry and music. Arlt 2009 is also a good starting point, especially for musicians. Robertson 2002 (cited under Music: General) provides a biographical study of Machaut’s relationship to Reims Cathedral, where he spent his final years as a canon. Most scholars believe he was in residence there by 1340, but Bowers 2004 argues he was a nonresidential canon until the end of the 1350s, and Leach is one of the scholars who mostly follows his lead. Several essay collections can provide a good general overview of Machaut’s output. The “Reims Colloque” (Université de Reims 1982) and Cosman and Chandler 1978, both born from conferences in the late 1970s, mark the beginning of modern scholarship on Machaut, and some individual essays are still useful. Cerquiglini-Toulet and Wilkins 2002 celebrates the 700th anniversary of Machaut’s birth and seeks in a similar way to summarize and inspire scholarship.

  • Arlt, Wulf. “Machaut, Guillaume de.” Oxford Music Online. 2009.

    The Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, available by subscription online as well as in print, is the most comprehensive reference work in English for music. Arlt’s Machaut article includes a good capsule biography and discussion of music, along with a list of works.

  • Bowers, Roger. “Guillaume de Machaut and His Canonry of Reims, 1338–1377.” Early Music History 23 (2004): 1–48.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0261127904000038

    Reconsiders the documentary evidence for Machaut’s residence in Reims, arguing that it only began in the late 1350s, and that the Mass may have been composed at this time. Bowers further suggests that the endowment for the Mass was made not by the Machaut brothers themselves but by their fellow canons.

  • Cerquiglini-Toulet, Jacqueline, and Nigel Wilkins, eds. Guillaume de Machaut: 1300–2000. Collection Musiques/Écritures, Série Études. Paris: Presses de l’Université de Paris-Sorbonne, 2002.

    Essays from a conference in Paris commemorating the 700th anniversary of Machaut’s birth, focusing on “the conjunction of poetry and music” (p. 7) in the form of songs and motets, but also considering the narrative poems as well as the reception of Machaut’s music in the 19th century.

  • Cosman, Madeleine Pelner, and Bruce Chandler, eds. Machaut’s World: Science and Art in the Fourteenth Century. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 314. New York: New York Academy of Sciences, 1978.

    Essays from a 1977 conference in New York, including studies of science and technology in 14th-century France. The contributions of William Calin, Sarah Jane Williams, Daniel Poirion, Kevin Brownlee, and Karl Uitti are still useful.

  • Earp, Lawrence. Guillaume de Machaut: A Guide to Research. Garland Composer Resource Manuals. New York and London: Garland, 1995.

    An indispensable introduction to Machaut’s life and career, his poetic and musical works, and the manuscripts in which those works were copied. It also includes an utterly comprehensive annotated bibliography and discography. One of the best books of this type on any subject.

  • Leach, Elizabeth Eva. Guillaume de Machaut: Secretary, Poet, Musician. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.7591/cornell/9780801449338.001.0001

    A recent interdisciplinary study, arguing that music is central to Machaut’s poetics. Following the best available summary of what is known of Machaut’s life, and a useful history of scholarship, Leach discusses Machaut’s authorial persona and the major themes of hope, fortune, and death as they appear in his work.

  • McGrady, Deborah, and Jennifer Bain, eds. A Companion to Guillaume de Machaut. Brill’s Companions to the Christian Tradition 33. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2012.

    An interdisciplinary collection of essays on Machaut’s poetry and music, ranging from his intellectual and musical heritage through the musical and literary genres in which he wrote, to the ways those pieces are received, from 15th-century manuscripts to 20th-century recordings.

  • Université de Reims. Guillaume de Machaut: Poète et compositeur. Colloque-table ronde organisé par l’Université de Reims (19–22 avril 1978). Actes et Colloques 23. Paris: Klincksieck, 1982.

    The 1978 “Reims colloque” was a significant milestone in the birth of Machaut studies, bringing together scholars across a number of disciplines and setting the tone for later cross-disciplinary work. Essays by François Avril, Jacqueline Cerquiglini, Ursula Günther, and Daniel Poirion are particularly important.

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