Guillaume de Machaut

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Machaut (far right) welcomes nature and three of her children; from a Parisian manuscript

A book illustration in Machaut’s verse narrative Le remède de fortune. Depicting Machaut’s arrival in front of his lady’s castle. Manuscript Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, Ms. fr. 1586, fol. 23r (ca. 1350/1355)

A book illustration in Machaut’s verse narrative Le remède de fortune. Depicting an outdoor dance scene. Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, Ms. fr. 1586, fol. 51r (ca. 1350/1355)

Guillaume de Machaut (also Machault; b. between 1300 and 1305; † 13 April 1377 in Reims) was a French composer and poet of the Middle Ages.

Life and literary work

The date and place of Machaut’s birth are not known for certain. He probably came from the region of Reims, from the Ardennes village of Machault, as the son of a non-noble family that was, however, obviously wealthy enough to provide him with a good education. After studies at the cathedral school of Rheims, he entered about 1323 the service of Duke John of Luxembourg, who was at the same time King of Bohemia, Margrave of Moravia, and Duke of Silesia, and whom he accompanied as secretary on his many journeys through his territories and on numerous military campaigns. Thanks to him he obtained in 1333, though never ordained priest, the candidacy of a lucrative canonry in the cathedral chapter of Rheims, which he occupied in 1337. Here he stayed from about 1340 onwards, although he continued to move around a lot.

When John was killed on the side of Philip VI of France in the Anglo-French Battle of Crécy in 1346, Machaut entered the service of Jutta of Luxembourg, John’s daughter and Philip’s daughter-in-law. By the time Jutta died in 1349, Machaut was renowned enough as a poet to no longer need a permanent position in addition to his canon’s benefice. Instead, he joined loosely changing princely patrons, such as the French crown prince Charles (king as Charles V 1364-1380) or his art-loving younger brother Duke John of Berry († 1416), at whose courts he was a guest and to whom he dedicated his works – naturally for a fee.

Machaut’s literary output consists, on the one hand, of mostly shorter, predominantly allegorical verse narratives and novels, which generally use the first person and have many autobiographical elements. But he also dabbled in the verse-chronicle genre with La Prise d’Alexandrie, an account of the (temporary) conquest of Alexandria in 1365, which he wrote in 1370-1371 in honor of Pierre de Lusignan, King of Cyprus, who was murdered in 1369. Above all, however, he was a prolific lyric poet, reflective of his art, of whom 234 ballads, 76 rondeaus, and about 100 other poems are extant. The main subject of this lyric poetry, which formally and thematically is predominantly in the wake of the courtly poetry of the 12th/13th century, the Minnesang, is “the praise of the ladies”. Machaut, by the way, was one of the last lyricists to set many of his poems to music.

He is also of interest as the author of what is probably the first autobiographical romance novel in French literature, Le Livre du voir dit (=The Book of True Poetry), a love story written in 1362 about the young Péronne d’Armentières and the already elderly poet, whereby the latter at the same time thematizes the genesis of his work.

As a document of the widespread medieval anti-Judaism, Machaut’s verse narrative Le Jugement du Roi de Navarre (=The Judgement of the King of Navarre) should be mentioned. In it, the great plague of the years 1349/1350 is presented as the result of well poisoning by Jews and the pogroms are seen as just punishment.

Among his contemporaries, Machaut was considered a master above all of the lyrical art, with great influence on later lyricists such as Jean Froissart, Eustache Deschamps and Christine de Pizan.

His existence as an artist in the service of courts and princely patrons was to become typical of his successors in the late Middle Ages.

The composer

Machaut is considered the most important composer of the Ars nova. Because of the complicated harmonies, isoperiodics and isorhythms, as well as the detachment from the cantus firmus in the tenor and the revaluation of the cantilena in his work, he is considered an “avant-gardist” of the 14th century. His Messe de Nostre Dame (c. 1360/65) is considered the first complete four-part setting of the ordinarium parts as a cycle. Until then it was customary to sing the individual ordinarium parts in one voice (sometimes alternating chorus-solo).
The novelty of the polyphonic composition technique – not only in Machaut – was a thorn in the side of the church. In a bull of 1325, Pope John XXII criticized the new style and, threatening church punishment, demanded the restoration of monophonic singing, probably based on the tonal mysticism of the time, in which monophony symbolized the unity and simultaneous multiplicity of God. According to the pope, only the octave (symbol of the perfection and blessedness of all saints in God), the fourth (complaint about earthly imperfection, the unfinished) and the fifth as the purest interval should be used as intervals in music.

The main work of Guillaume de Machaut, however, are the secular compositions: Virelais (also called chanson balladé by Machaut in distinction to his new structuring of the ballad), rondeaus as well as ballads. What is new about the song structure is the abandonment of the cantus firmus, which means that until his work the tenor, as the lowest voice, was the melody carrier. Machaut, however, now assigns the cantilena, the upper voice, the melody, while the tenor (middle voice) and contratenor have an accompanying function. The cantilena is also freely invented, unlike the cantus firmus. This means, for the first time, the freedom of all voices in a contrapuntal movement, whereby, as we are accustomed to today, the upper voice holds the most important function, that of melody. The freedom of melodic invention also enabled Machaut to create an optimal musical interpretation of his love poetry. The music gives the text an extraordinary individuality, it supports the statements and is closely tied in its structure to the verses of the text. He achieves this, among other things, through isoperiodic, which divides the individual voices into uniform periods, as well as through isorhythmic, which furthermore brings the voices into rhythmic unison. With his use of isoperiodic and isorhythmic techniques, Guillaume de Machaut takes up where the Notre Dame school left off under Léonin and Pérotin.

Machaut’s work – poetry as well as compositions – must be seen in the context of the society of the time. The recipients of his work were the courts of princes. Therefore, the delectare is clearly in the foreground in his work, which he also notes retrospectively between 1360 and 1370 in his writing Prologue. In this “preface” to the manuscripts with his works, which he had written and which represent a unique source of a medieval composer, his self-image as an artist also becomes apparent. He tells of accepting the commission of the personified Nature to bring ” le bienhonneurs qui sont en Amours “ more to representation than had previously been the case. Nature provides him with three basic figures as prerequisites and means of creation: Scens, Retorique and Musique. This shows Machaut’s great self-understanding.
Machaut tried to follow the troubadours and trouvères with his courtly musica reservata, which included his poetry through music.


  • Gasket
    • Le jugement dou Roy de Navarre, verse narrative
    • Livre dou voir dit, verse novel
    • La Prise d’Alexandrie, Chronicle
    • Prologue to the Dit dou vergier (ca. 1372)
    • 234 ballads, 76 rondeaus, about 100 other poems
  • Music
    • Messe de Nostre Dame with the parts Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, Ite, missa est (4 voices)
    • 23 Motets
    • Hoquetus David (3-part)
    • Songs in cantilena: it is known
      • 42 Ballads
      • 21 Rondeaus
      • 34 Virelais
    • Other song forms
      • 33 Lais


  • Wulf Arlt: Machaut, Guillaume de. In: Ludwig Finscher (ed.): Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart. Second edition, personal part, volume 11 (Lesage – Menuhin). Bärenreiter/Metzler, Kassel et al. 2004, ISBN 3-7618-1121-7, Sp. 719-749 (online edition, subscription required for full access)
  • Agnès Baril: Guillaume de Machaut, le livre du voir dit. Commentaire grammatical et philologique des lignes 1 à 4153 (C.A.P.E.S. Agrégation lettres). Ellipses, Paris 2001, ISBN 2-7298-0770-5, pp. 41-366.
  • Jacqueline Cerquiglini: Guillaume de Machaut et l’écriture au XIVe siècle. “Un engin si soutil” (= Bibliothèque du XVe siècle. 47). Champion, Paris 2001, ISBN 2-7453-0584-0.
  • Lawrence Earp: Guillaume de Machaut. A guide to research (= Garland reference library of the humanities. 996). Garland, New York NY et al. 1995, ISBN 0-8240-2323-4.
  • Daniel Poirion: Le poète et le prince. L’évolution du lyrisme courtois de Guillaume de Machaut à Charles d’Orléans (= Université de Grenoble. Publications de la Faculté des Lettres et Sciences Humaines 35, ZDB-ID 1475932-9). Presses Universitaires de France, Paris 1965.

Web links

Commons: Guillaume de Machaut– Collection of images, videos and audio files