Medieval Music

In the last post we saw that people are taking to medieval style music in a big way at the moment. That made me reflect a little on the kind of music that was around in the Middle Ages.

Music was very much a part of medieval life. Then, as now (well, not right now, but usually), there was music in church and music for dancing. Performances of mystery plays were accompanied by music. Pilgrims often sang as they walked.

It’s difficult to know now what medieval music sounded like, or even what some of the instruments used in the Middle Ages were. Much of what is known about medieval instruments comes from pictures and sculptures, which don’t say anything about what the instruments were made of or how they were made. They don’t even provide much information about how they were played. Sculptors and artists weren’t necessarily accurate in the way they depicted musicians and their instruments. If they weren’t musicians themselves, their representations of the instruments and how they were held and played could be flawed. There were some treatises written about music, though, which help.

Fortunately, there are those who have done the work to try to replicate what medieval musicians might have played. They reproduce the instruments and work out what the musical notation means. Musicians research performance practice and the music is performed.

The examples below are fairly short and come mostly from the twelfth century. The first two are from the Carmina Burana. This was a collection of poems by various authors mostly written in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Most are in Medieval Latin, but some are in Middle High German. Many of them are very bawdy, so you’ll have to go elsewhere to find the lyrics. Carl Orff set some of the poems to music in the 1930s, so the name and some of the poems might be familiar to you. He wasn’t the first, though. Many of them are accompanied by music in the original manuscript.

In taberna quando sumus means ‘when we are in the tavern’. Need I say more?

Tempus est Iocundum (The time is pleasing) is a celebration of new love.

This next piece is the sort of thing that pilgrims sang on their way to Compostela to the shrine of St James. Dum Pater Familias tells the story of St. James and ends as a prayer to him.

Finally, here’s a piece by Hildegard von Bingen, an extraordinary woman who was a nun in the twelfth century. Ave generosa (Hail thee, noble one) is a song of praise to the Virgin Mary. I’m sorry about the picture that goes with it, but you could listen with your eyes closed.

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Entertainment, Medieval Life, Pilgrimage, The Medieval Church

22 responses to “Medieval Music

  1. Wow, the music by Hildegard von Bingen is amazing and took me back to those beautiful UK Cathedrals! Funnily, it also reminded me of my hours sat in church as a kid. Though we were never that in tune!!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I’m liking the Hildegard lady best. I wonder if they had different genres like we have rock n roll, jazz, classical etc

    Liked by 2 people

    • Well, there was music for singing in church and music for not singing in church, and music for dancing to. That’s 3 genres 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

    • Judy

      Yes, there were different genres and styles, and, of course, these changed as time went on. The music of different cultural areas, such as southern France and northern Germany, had distinctly different characteristics, and there were a wide variety of uses, or genres, such as chant, Mass, hymns, devotional pilgrim songs, music for liturgical theater, music for street entertainment such as juggling, accompaniments for courtly love songs, ceremonial, popular street music, and so on — medieval music featured great variety. There were performers of various kinds for this music, ranging from the monks and nuns, everyday people, jongleurs, troubadors and trouveres, and instrumentalists, both professionals for the court and for other purposes.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Why haven’t I heard/played/sung any Hildegard Von Bingen? I am ashamed to say that I had not heard of her. This post made me look her up and what an amazing woman she was. Thanks for introducing me to her and for an interesting and informative post.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Judy

    There are a few wonderful medieval instruments still extant. Scholars and instrument makers have studied these, taken exact measurements, and reproduced them, so we actually do have a fairly good idea of the sounds of these instruments. I recommend a wonderful boxed set by the late David Munrow titled Instruments of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. It was re-released in 2007, so you might find it in a library.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have those recordings. They’re good, but scholarship has moved on since then. There are lots of wonderful recordings of medieval music available these days.


      • Judy

        Yes, scholarship has moved on, of course, but the albums are a great encyclopedic compendium of the various sounds of medieval-style instruments for a novice to learn from. As a professional in the field myself, I still find that people newly encountering this music can see the relationships among the instruments easily from these records.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Wow, this post has really opened my eyes (and ears!) 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I enjoyed them all (the first couple made me miss our local Ren Faire), but Hildegard’s piece gave me goosebumps – what a beautiful piece! Thanks for sharing these, April.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I attended a concert of medieval music here in a cathedral years ago and absolutely loved it but have never quite followed it up so thanks for the links April.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: Medieval Musical Instruments Part One | A Writer's Perspective

  9. Wonderful, April; thank you. ‘When we are in the tavern’ sounds curiously familiar; Hildegard von Bingen is stunning – even to an old rock ‘n’ roller like me!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t know where you might have heard ‘when we are in the tavern’. Perhaps someone used it for a theme on TV or on the radio.

      Everyone should hear at least one thing by Hildegard. She was an amazing woman.

      Liked by 1 person

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