The Acoustic World of Early Modern England

“How is it possible,” my sister asked, “that an entire book was written about that?” And here I am clamoring for more than the nearly 400 pages that the book contained, a second volume! It’s the kind of book that makes me giddy and giggly, completely over my head at times with thick academic prose and formulas and illustrations, but otherwise perfectly in tune with something I’ve been curious about—the historic sounds of places.

Smith forgoes an introduction and dives right into a confusing chapter that requests readers to make sounds and observe how they feel in the throat and sound via vibrations in your skull. He discusses how literacy has begun to creep into society, overtaking the oral tradition of storytelling, noting that those who recorded what was going on were of middle class, neither of the court royals or the peasantry.

“About hearing you have no choice: you can shut off vision by closing your eyes, but from birth to death, in waking and in sleep, the coils of flesh, the tiny bones, the hair cells, the nerve fibers are always at the ready.”

“Hearing is a physiological constant; listening is a psychological variable… all of what you hear of yourself comes not from the air around you but through vibrations in the bones and tissues of your skull.”

Quoting from William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat (1584), the sounds heard from a London street corner is Dr. Seussian: “barking of dogs, grunting of hogs, wauling of cats, rambling of rats, gaggling of geese, humming of bees, rousing of bucks, gaggling of ducks, singing of swans, ringing of pans, crowing of cocks, sowing of socks, cackling of hens, scrabling of pens, peeping of mice, trulling of dice, corling of frogs, and toads in the bogs, chirping of crickets, shutting of wickets, skriking of owls, flittring of fowls…”

Erasmus’s 1522 De Conscribendis Epistolis: “the wording of a letter should resemble a conversation between friends… a letter is a mutual conversation between absent friends, which should be neither unpolished, rough, or artificial, nor confined to a single topic, nor tediously long. Thus the epistolary form favours simplicity, frankness, humour, and wit.”

“In early modern England bells signaled mandatory church attendance on Sunday, trumpet blasts heralded a proclamation, guns were fired at regular intervals from castles.”

With electricity came machines, and the death of natural sound. In early England, “few high intensity or continuous sounds exist in the preindustrialized world. More ‘smaller’ sounds can be heard, more detail can be discerned in those that are heard.”

Sounds that could be heard in the city: singing, whistling, drumming, horn calling/blasting, talking, crying, screaming, moaning, wailing, ululating, tide rising and falling, church bells ringing, hammering, ringing of blacksmith, birds, wind, bells on horses, hawking wares, conversation, horse clopping, cart wheels turning, feet shuffling, clinks and thuds of printing press, constant sound of running water from the Thames, burps and belches of fellow diners, roaring of animals in the zoo, tumult from the playhouses, loud chomps from munching fruit in the streets, clacking of beggar dishes, pleas of inmates in jail, music and shooting of cannons for ceremonies, barking dogs, speeches, cries of approval from crowd.

In the country: wind in trees, birds, water, domestic animals, frogs, crows, barking dogs, church bells, creaks and rattle of the mill, distinctive sounds of human activity in forest/meadow/fields, lowing cows, bleating ewes, neighing horses. At harvest, working together people laugh, sing, shout, talk, clap. Celebrating, they dance to music. In an acoustic environment that lacked any sounds above 60 decibels (apart from barking dogs, occasional gunshot, lightning bolt, church bells), “all sounds would be present with an intensity quite beyond anything imaginable on the same site today.”

At the royal court: loud talk (proclamation) and soft talk (rumor), elaborate clocks striking the hour, organs, music boxes, splashing fountain, birds, trumpets and drums, the crash of glass from an overburdened table.

Incomplete list of musical instruments: bells, pipe, fiddle, drum, trumpets, cornets, recorders, flute, trombone, harp

Bizarre digressions into the acoustics of the Globe and Blackfriar Theaters, morris dancing, the difference between oratory/conversation/liturgy/theater, his notation of human sound as [o:], this was a weird and delightful book.