Guillaume de Machaut: the gaps in his biography

Our knowledge of history is limited by the accident of what kind of documentation exists. Even for recent people and events, historians cannot always find information about what they most want to learn. Given roughly equivalent fame and importance, the earlier a person lived, the sparser the documentation. The great medieval composer Guillaume de Machaut (ca. 1300-1377) provides a good illustration.

No other fourteenth-century composer left behind as much music as Machaut, and possibly none other provided so much detail about his life and times. While many prolific composers over the course of history have produced vast quantities of music of mediocre quality or worse, Machaut’s reputation, both in his lifetime and in the estimation of scholars, places him in the top rank not only of composers of his time, but also poets. He also had a very sophisticated understanding of mathematics.

Machaut the poet wrote about current events and about himself. From him we know that he was short, blind in one eye, had gout, and, as an old man, became involved in a platonic relationship with a teenaged poetry lover. He preserved her letters to him, too.

History records a great deal of information about his patrons. He came to the attention of King John of Luxembourg as a young priest in the 1320s and remained as his secretary until the King was killed in the Battle of Crécy in 1346. After that, he worked for the Duke of Normandy (later King John II of France), King Charles V of France, and the Dukes of Berry, Savoy, and Navarre. He devoted  his later years to preparing a catalog of his works and presentation manuscripts of them for his patrons.

Of his early life, almost nothing is known. We know he was born somewhere in the province of Champagne, possibly in Rheims. An older man with a similar name may have been his father, but no records survive. We know nothing of his family, his education, when he was ordained, how he came to the attention of his first patron, when he started to compose and write poetry, or how he developed his reputation. But we do know that he sold a horse in 1340.

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