Medieval music has always made me want to dance. It reminds me of gypsies with flowing skirts and hair, hands on their hips, jewelry clanging and feet stomping, raucous laughter and shouts, dashing gents and lovely damsels.
There was Medieval chant music — serious, worshipful, reverent — and Medieval folk music, which was looser and more lyrical. It told a story and was often based on a poem. At first, most Medieval music was a capella, but later flutes and lutes, drums and tambourines, were added.
Music was often played during holidays and parties. For weddings and on Valentine’s Day, lovers’ music was played that was sure to evoke a romantic atmosphere. This type of music was called “chivaree.” The musicians would play buoyant and cheery music with crescendos. Many a different Medieval music instrument was played, including, recorders, horns, trumpets, whistles, bells, and drums. At high court, however, music was somber and reverent, with few instruments until later, during the Renaissance time period.
On Mayday, dancers would dance to specially-prepared, high-pitched music. It was believed that by doing so, the hibernating spirits would be awakened and forewarned that spring had arrived. During Christmas festivities, the sound of bells brought the good news of Jesus’ birth to eager listeners.
People during the Middle Ages also ate to the sound of traditional music during and between meal courses. They would at times play from a specially-built platform or stage at the end of the Great Hall. It was believed in those days that medieval music was not only delightful to the ears, but it also helped in the digestion of food.
During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Troubadours, Trouveres, and Minstrels were the poets and musicians who influenced Medieval music, singing songs of courtly love. The aristocratic troubadours were poets who originated in the south of France where they wrote the lyrics in a language called Provencal (langue d’oc). It was the language of the area known as Provence today. The troubadours of the north of France wrote in French and were called trouveres. The poetry of the troubadours and the trouveres was linked with music.
The songs of French troubadours were heard in English courts as a result of England’s political affiliations and royal marriages. Since the Norman Conquest, the language of the English court was French, so the songs and music of the French troubadours and minstrels were easily assimilated into English society. The tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, originating with music and the poems of the English and Welsh bards, were themes which were included in the lyrics of the troubadour and minstrel songs. Noble ladies of the Medieval period were famous for their patronage of Medieval music. Eleanor of Aquitaine married King Henry II of England in 1152 and brought her love of music and the troubadours to the English court, transferring the tradition to England.
The oldest Medieval musical instrument was the human voice. The spread of Christianity during the Dark Ages and the early Medieval period led to the popularity of hymns and secular songs. The earliest church organ dates back to the eighth century. Many Medieval musical instruments were the forerunners to our modern orchestral instruments.
Harp – 30 inches long, could bow, pluck, or strum
Fiddle – bowed or plucked, held under the chin or in the crook of the arm
Rebec – round, pear-shaped body like a violin
Psaltery – similar to a harp, bowed
Dulcimer – strings were struck with a small hammer
Hurdy Gurdy – strings were struck when a wheel was cranked
Viol – like an early cello
Flute – like a modern flute
Trumpet – longer than our modern trumpets
Pipe – flute with only three melody holes
Shawn – reed instrument with vent holes
Recorder – basic pipe with a few melody holes
Bagpipe – Used by the poor, made of sheep or goat skin and reed pipe
Crumhorn – curved horn, double reed instrument
Genshorn – ox horn played like a flute
Lizard – s shaped horn
Drum – made from a hollow tree trunk, clay, or metal covered with animal skin
Cymbal – thin, round plates of metal
Triangle – metal
Tambourine – used by women, like a small drum
Medieval Concert (click on the words “Medieval Concert” at left)
For a rare treat, click the link above and listen to authentic horns and harps from the Medieval time period performed by Ann & Charlie Heymann in 2013, posted on youtube by The Moore Institute.
To learn more about Charlotte Mason’s living educational principles and how to apply them to music study, I hope you will consider purchasing my book, A Touch of the Infinite.