Reims in the thirteenth century was a thriving and prosperous city, a centre of craftsmanship and trade, with great fairs in January and May. It was a city proud particularly of its antiquity (many said it had been founded by no less than Remus himself), and of its cathedral, the site since the earliest times of the coronation of the kings of France and which saw ‘great and sumptuous’ building works throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. By the fourteenth century, however, there were also signs of economic and social tension: the Black Death of 1349 seems to have been more than usually virulent, there were turbulent relationships between the city and the archbishops, and the strains of the Hundred Years War were to lead to a dramatic siege of the city in the winter of 1359-1360.
It was in this environment, however, that there flourished one of the greatest poet-musicians of fourteenth-century France. Guillaume de Machaut: lyricist, ‘autobiographer’, allegorist, historian, pre-eminent practitioner of the new music of the late Middle Ages apparently developed in Paris, the ars nova. Machaut settled in the city in around 1340, having travelled widely with his first patron, John of Bohemia, and his manifold expertise may reflect those travels across France, but also across Eastern Europe. It was, however, Reims which was the seedbed for a remarkable and multiform career – perhaps because of its choral establishment (the fourteenth century saw the establishment of the nouvelle congrégation of Notre Dame de Reims whose expertise may have encouraged Machaut in his experiments), perhaps because of a flourishing library, perhaps because of a long tradition of poetry and poets in medieval Champagne.
Musically and poetically, Machaut is expert in certain sorts of verbal, notational and rhythmic complexity; his reputation spread across Europe; he was admired by Chaucer. His role in the development of music is fundamental: it was undoubtedly his inventiveness and his intelligent understanding of the potential of the human voice that led, ultimately, to the glorious intricacies of the ars subtilior, which swept Europe in the wake of the Council of Constance in 1415.