John Romey

Communal Tunes and Counter Poison: Popular Song and Confessional Identities in Early Modern France

In this book project, I seek to reconstruct for the first time a continuous, if fragmented, tradition of French sacred song parody spanning three centuries. I will untangle the ways in which popular song practices – particularly the tradition of spiritual parodies – shaped confessional identities, served as symbols of religious cohesion or of dangerous heretical beliefs, and opened performative spaces for polemical dialogue in early modern France. I begin by examining the intersection of popular song traditions with theatrical repertories, confessional polemics, and debates about the nature of melody in France during the Wars of Religion. I focus on the Wars of Religion to explore the attempts by elites to control and shape the popular tradition during times of political strife and how ephemeral song cultures evolved to evade suppression. I then weave together tales of chansons spirituelles and noëls as emblematic genres of religious doctrine and examine the influence of religious fanaticism, demonic possession, witchcraft, and exorcisms on the spiritual parodies composed by Jean-Joseph Surin. I conclude by analyzing collections of parodies of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s operatic tunes; authors of these publications claimed to have cleansed melodies of their worldly essence and transformed them into suitable songs for female private devotion. This project will examine traditions of grafting new texts to preexisting melodies in a variety of song genres – such as noëls, voix de villes, chansons, cantiques spirituelles, chants, psalms, and hymns – as part of a broader popular devotional culture that produced and communicated through the recycling, reuse, and juxtaposition of preexisting shared cultural material. I aim to offer a new approach that presents a long view of French sacred contrafactum song practice through the lens of cultural and religious movements through the early eighteenth century and the spiritual parodies of Lully’s operatic airs composed in the years after his death.