December 2021 Newsletter

We had a cracking November get-together for the 800th birthday of Alfonso X! It all took place online on 23rd November, and if you weren't there you missed a treat - but don't worry, you can catch up with it all over on the MMitD YouTube channel. Here's the link to our special 'A Very Royal Birthday' playlist.

Plans for the 2022 Festival are coming on apace and I hope to offer you a draft timetable next month. Dates are 9-11 September 2022, so put it in your diary.

The Friends of MMitD

Please consider joining the Friends of MMitD. It's the absolute best way to support the festival on an ongoing basis. Our new 'Friends From Afar' category is perfect for those who can't get to Yorkshire for the annual live festival, and has perks for our online events and online shop. And the Individual and Couple Friends categories are perfect if you do want to attend the festival at Bolton Castle, as your membership includes a full Festival Pass - as well as the online perks!

Join up here.

Meanwhile, I've been looking back to the September festival. I took the opportunity to write up a version of my talk - What is Medieval Music? - for the North East Early Music Forum newsletter, and thought that I would also put it up here, but with added pics. It's fairly long, so I hope you are up for a meaty read! In the meantime, enjoy your midwinter festivities of whatever stripe and I will see you in the new year.

What is medieval music?

This is an abridged version of a talk I gave at Medieval Music in the Dales 2021. It was in response to feedback requesting a bit of medieval musicological orientation…


I love a simple question that ends up not so simple! But the obvious place to start is with time. ‘Medieval’ signifies a particular time, the middle age or middle ages. It comes from the Latin, medium aevum. Unsurprisingly, this was not a term anyone from the middle ages would have recognised as applying to themselves. In contrast, a medieval person would likely have believed they were in the end times, the last sixth age before the second coming of Christ. But if you call something ‘middle’ it has to come between (at least) two other things. If medieval therefore comes between two different times, what are those times that it comes between?

The earliest use of the term medium aevum appears to be in the late fifteenth century. This makes sense because that’s the kind of time people might call the dawn of the Renaissance (or if you prefer, by this time the Renaissance is well underway – it depends where you were in Europe to some extent). But whether the Renaissance was in full swing or just getting underway, it was even at the time undeniable that things were changing. ‘Medieval’ is a Renaissance term – it marks what came immediately before this age that seemed in so many ways new.

If the Middle Age lies between two other ages, then the Renaissance is what comes after. As for what came before, well the term means ‘rebirth’ and specifically the rebirth of the values, culture and learning of the classical past of Greece and Rome. So it becomes clear that the middle ages stand between the classical age and the renaissance.

It was maybe Petrarch, in the middle years of the fourteenth century, who first expressed the typical renaissance adoration for the classical past. He looked with disgust on the literature and art of the period that followed the fall of the Roman empire. From around the fifth century AD, the tale was one of decline, decadence, superstition. That extended to his own times, which he hated – though, to be fair, he did live through the Black Death. Petrarch longed for the return of the civilised values he associated with classical civilisation. In this he was an early exemplar of renaissance attitudes. At this point it is worth emphasising once again that ‘the middle ages’ is a Renaissance term. In fact, it stinks of the renaissance. It’s dismissive, contemptuous even. These times were not important. They were barbarous - a period of cultural decay and ruin. This anti-medieval bias is still with us: ‘Isis are positively medieval’ we say, although the horrors of (say) the Spanish Inquisition are very much a renaissance phenomenon.

But anyway, the Middle Ages come between the end of the Roman empire and the Renaissance. So we can say that medieval music is music from any time between the Roman empire and the Renaissance, and that is at least a start. This is in some ways an old-fashioned way of looking at things, divided into big time periods… but there has to be something to it which is useful in reaching towards our definition of medieval music.

Let’s take a trip to St Peter’s in Rome (below). Construction of this Renaissance masterpiece commenced in 1502 and went on for well over a century. The first step

in the process was the destruction of the existing basilica complex which dated back to the fourth century (below for a not-totally-accurate Victorian visualisation). It was no doubt seen as old-fashioned, even barbarous in its styling, no longer suited for purpose now that men knew better. Frankly, it was medieval. You may already know St Peter’s in Rome, but if not take a google for a proper look around this quintessentially Renaissance church - magnificent, massy, opulent and lavish – and then contrast it with something like Notre-Dame de Paris, or York Minster. A degree in art history is not necessary to see the contrast between the two styles, between the Renaissance and the medieval.

I visited St Peter’s in 1985 and really didn’t like it one bit. I think that was my first recognition of the clear artistic and cultural divide between the medieval period and the renaissance. This is easy to see in architecture and in art, but it’s there in music as well. As in art or architecture, this divide is not an overnight phenomenon, but it is there. If you could travel to a royal court in 1300 and then whisk yourself to the same place in 1500, your musical experience would be significantly, qualitatively, different. And if you went out to a tavern or a market place, it would still be different, though perhaps not so strikingly.

So, time is a key aspect of being medieval, but there is more to it than that. There’s content to being medieval. And it’s not just a non-time between two great times.


What about geography?

In terms of modern categorisations, medieval music is also strongly connected with western Europe, probably because of the sheer early modern and modern cultural and political dominance of western Europe. Medieval music as a modern category doesn’t usually cover non-European music, even if it nods at middle eastern or north African traditions. The influence of Islamic musical traditions on European music-making in the middle ages has become something of a given (even if it has its controversies), but it is worth nothing that the talk is generally of ‘influences’; there is a clear suggestion of this being music of the ‘other’ impinging on the music of western Europe. This reflects medieval prejudices that we have definitely not outgrown - Galvano de Levanto spoke in 1340 of ‘the abominable melody of the Saracens”.

Byzantine music – the music of the eastern Orthodox church – similarly fits only tangentially into the category of medieval music, in my experience. There has typically been a great divide between Byzantine history and western medieval history, and this again has deep medieval historical roots. We see it in art, where histories of western art speak of ‘Byzantine’ influences. Byzantium in general still carries a huge weight of orientalist baggage, being seen as something other, and Byzantine music is not generally considered within the early music categorisation of medieval music. This is, I think, very unfair, but it is still the case.

In short, we need to understand that medieval music is the music of medieval Christendom, and Roman Catholic Christendom at that - the area of Latin dominance. This medieval music inheritance reflects political and cultural power over the last 1000 years. This is also where the surviving corpus comes from – although there are significant gaps in that corpus (for example Ireland or Iceland, both known to be culturally rich) because no written music has survived from these places.

Literate vs Oral

Which leads us to emphasise, finally, that medieval music as it is recognised nowadays is generally music of a written tradition. This is a bit of a tough nut to crack. Medieval music was probably transmitted orally more than any other way, so orality is really important in medieval music-making and what is extant in written form can only represent a fraction of what was actually going on musically in the middle ages. Yet we cannot know enough to speak at all conclusively of music in the past going back this far unless it is written down.

As has been done with literature, we can make fascinating hypotheses about music-making that lay outside literacy. Using the parallels of contemporary or near contemporary cultures that are wholly oral, it’s possible to draw tentative conclusions about storytelling, poetry and music in non-literate societies in Europe in the relevant period. And it’s possible to inform our playing of medieval music with this kind of approach. The leading exponent of this approach has been Benjamin Bagby and his ensemble Sequentia.

Next year at Medieval Music in the Dales, Stef Conner and Hanna Marti – both Sequentia stalwarts - are going to be taking this approach to the recreation of a lai by Marie de France. In fact, they are going to be leading a strand at next year’s summer school on this kind of historically informed composition. This approach involves a thorough investigation of and grounding in both what sources are available and the comparator sources and cultures. It has a lot of merit and maybe if oral tradition was all we had, there would be a lot more going on in that regard, but the fact is that so very much medieval music was written down. So when we talk about medieval music, we are talking about a huge wealth of music recorded on the page. The medieval period saw the invention (strictly speaking re-invention) of medieval notation and any history of medieval music has to cover this wonderful aspect of the story of western music.

The Earlier Period (c.500-1050 CE)

Our knowledge of the music of this period is necessarily more sketchy than for later centuries. Musical notation developed towards the end of this period but was limited to the religious context. So while we have an ever-increasing wealth of religious music from around the ninth century onward, any comment on secular music is far more speculative.

Writing in the early seventh century, Isidore of Seville spoke of sound, saying that because it is something perceived by the senses, it vanishes as the moment passes and is imprinted in the memory… unless sounds are held by the memory of man, they perish, because they cannot be written down. Isidore thus knew of no kind of notation and recognised the importance of memory in musical transmission.

It is even so possible to speculate with some justification about the chants in the church at this date, using the later written works, and we know that there was considerable regional variation with significant local schools and traditions. Charlemagne (748-814) was influential in imposing some uniformity in church chant across his Frankish empire. Before this imposition of ‘Gregorian chant’ there had been substantial variation in chant styles, reflecting regional musical styles.

The ninth century and onward saw the fruits of Charlemagne’s efforts to impose one style of liturgical singing. Over time this uniformity asserted itself successfully, but regional variation did not disappear as Gregorian chant became ever more dominant. In particular there were differences in the western and eastern Frankish territories; as late as the eleventh century, Ulrich von Zell commented ‘not all the French care a great deal for the proses of the Germans’.

It’s safe to assume that at the higher levels of society (most likely the church, but possibly outside it) the theory of music as inherited from the ancients was fairly well-known and consistent, as interpreted through Boethius or Isidore of Seville. This broad theory remained core throughout the period and there is evidence for its dominance outside the religious sphere, for example in the tuning of the lyre or the harp as recorded by contemporary scholars.

Any comment on practice outside the church is necessarily more speculative, though we know it covered epic performance, laments and love songs. Various references give glimpses of the music-making of this period which is now lost to us. Bede (671-735) tells in his story of Caedmon how everyone in the feasting ‘in succession should sing to the harp’. This would have likely been a lyre-type instrument rather than a pillar harp. Charlemagne (748-815) is recorded as enjoying ‘very old barbarian songs’; indeed he had them written down in a book now sadly lost. At a similar date, Alcuin castigated monks who enjoyed the songs of the heathens and harp music. Such repertoire cannot be reconstructed but it can be reimagined.

We have a good idea of instrumentation and can see that there was some regional variety. Writing in the early seventh century in Spain (so before any influence from Islamic culture), Isidore of Seville mentions the trumpet, reed pipe, organ, flute, panpipes, the cithara (this might mean a guitar-type or a harp-type; unfortunately Isidore’s description isn’t clear), the psaltery, the lyre, drums, rattles and cymbals Medieval sources can be problematic to use as evidence for contemporary practice as opposed to desired or theoretical practice, or what it says in the Bible about music. However, Isidore does occasionally specifically reference the practice of his present day.

Christopher Page has uncovered the instruments known in Anglo-Saxon England. From images he lists horns and trumpets, the lyre (bowed and plucked), the harp, the bowed fiddle and the double pipe. Archaeological evidence gives us bone flutes, the wooden reedpipe, and the frestel (panpipes); glossaries also evidence whistles and reedpipes.

British Library Add MS 24199, late 10th century, England: a lyre and a double whistle or reed pipe.

There must have been substantial regional variation – western Europe is after all a big place. In 764 a Northumbrian abbot sent a request to a German abbot to send over a player of the ‘rotta’ as while they had such an instrument at Wearmouth, no one could play it! Maybe this was seen as a German instrument; we cannot be sure what instrument is meant here.

The Later Period (c.1050-1500 CE)

This 450-year stretch can be roughly divided into two periods, that of the ars antiqua (the old art of music) and that of the ars nova (the new art of music). Again, these names give a bit of a clue to what is going on. ‘The ‘old art’ – this is clearly a name given in retrospect! This alerts us to the fact that this was a period of considerably change and development – as one would expect.

The ‘old art’ denotes the music of what has been referred to as ‘the long twelfth century’ or ‘the twelfth century renaissance’, a period from very roughly the later eleventh century through to the mid-thirteenth century. As that handy term ‘renaissance’ suggests, there was actually quite a lot of new stuff happening at this time, and this is perhaps recognised in the fact that come the fourteenth century musicians and theorists were convinced that what they were doing was somehow new. The names – Ars antiqua, ars nova – themselves give away that music was changing and developing in this period. Indeed, this is an ongoing process right through into the Renaissance period – where medieval elements don’t just die suddenly. A tricky thing is all the ingredients of later music are there in medieval music, but the approaches to these ingredients change over time. Different approaches lead to different priorities; technology leads to different possibilities; political upheaval produces new and interesting cultural influences.

One thing that marks the long twelfth century is emergence of secular music as respectable, which was recognised not least in the fact that it now began to be written down. The long twelfth century was also a time of increasing literacy outside the clerical sphere, and this desire to record sound visually extended to music as well as to words. It’s important to appreciate that there are literally thousands of pieces of surviving written medieval music from the twelfth century onward, even if we disregard specifically liturgical music. The songs of the troubadours, trouveres and minnesingers, goliardic music, devotional songs like the Cantigas de Santa Maria or the Italian laude, church plays, the ballate and madrigale of the Italian trecento… and even instrumental music. Now very much more is being written down – and the science of musical notation comes on apace.

As already noted, musical notation had been around since the Carolingian period. However, around this time the use of the stave became established pretty much across Europe. It is impossible to be absolutely hard-and-fast about this as there was regional difference and not everything happened all at once, but it is an innovation traditionally associated with Guido of Arrezzo in the early eleventh century. The stave is a way to – in particular – capture and record pitch much more exactly. Most of the earlier notations had captured movement, the ups and downs of a melody, but they generally did not clearly denote pitch. Starting with the use of just one line to mark a C or an F, then two lines for both C and F and building up from there, by the thirteenth century a four or five line staff was pretty much established. The stave was a major development in that pitch could be notated clearly. Although the system had its limitations. Complex microtonal pitching could not be notated, though it almost certainly went on. And in terms of recording melodic movement, the older neumes were perhaps superior.