We’ve spent the last couple of months looking at and listening to medieval musical instruments and I thought it would be interesting to look at the people who played the instruments.
Just as today, music was everywhere in the Middle Ages. It was in church; it was at celebrations; it was at dances; and it was in entertainments. Much of it was played and sung by professional musicians, but lots of people would have been able to make and play basic instruments. Everybody, of course, could sing.
Whoever you were in medieval society, you heard music in church. It had a large part to play in the liturgy, since most of the offices were sung. In monasteries the singing was led by the precentor. There were those, however, who didn’t approve of music in worship, especially in convents, as it was too sensual and could lead those who heard it to sin.
The precentor wasn’t the only professional musician in the Middle Ages. Jongleurs were itinerant musicians. Whether they travelled alone or in groups, music wasn’t their only source of income. They were all round entertainers, telling stories, preforming tricks, singing and playing instruments. They were at the bottom of the ladder of paid musicians.
Minstrels were a bit higher up the social scale and had permanent employment for at least part of the year in the court of a nobleman or in a town. They also travelled, presumably in the summer, since Queen Philippa provided livery for the minstrels of her court in the winter. She would only provide clothes for them if they were working for her at that time. Unlike the jongleurs, they only played and sang. Minstrels obviously wore distinctive clothes, for men who wished to make a good impression were told not to dress like them. Monks were told not to watch their performances for fear of being led into sin.
If you’re a regular reader, you saw the picture at the top of the post last week. It shows a group of musicians entertaining a king. As an aside, you can always recognise a king in medieval art, as he’ll be wearing a crown, whether he’s in a battle, in bed or dead. The musicians in the picture are troubadours, elite court musicians.
Some troubadours were themselves nobles, but professional troubadours also performed in courts. They composed the words and music of their own songs, although these were often performed by minstrels or jongleurs. It’s unlikely that they wrote down their compositions, since the collections of troubadour songs that have been discovered were mostly written down after the death of the composer.
The tradition of troubadours began in the twelfth century in south-west France, but spread very quickly across Europe. Surprisingly, women could be troubadours. Jongleurs could become troubadours, but they had to compose and perform well and they also had to fit in at a court. Richard I was a troubadour and wrote songs in French. When we think of troubadours, we think of love songs, but they also sang about politics and morality. They composed ballads and songs for dancing.
Dancing, as it was in most ages, was very popular in the Middle Ages. There were few enclosed spaces large enough for dancing unless you were very rich, so most people danced in the open air, often in the churchyard. Dancing on top of the graves of my ancestors doesn’t appeal to me, but that obviously wasn’t a problem for my ancestors themselves. You didn’t need much in the way of instruments to get a dance going; a drum would probably be enough. Pipes were easy enough to make, though, so people would have a tune to help them to recognise the dance. Most medieval dance music wasn’t written down, but was performed from memory, as were the steps.
Music accompanied plays. These were usually performed outside in the summer, possibly with professional minstrels.
To end this series, here is a performance of Ave Maris Stella, of which we’ve heard a few versions over the last few weeks. I’ve included it partly because it’s played on a medieval organ, but mainly because of the very obvious joy of the musician, who we’ve also come across before.
A History of Western Music by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout and Claude V. Palisca
The Senses in Late Medieval England by C.M. Woolgar
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.