Music and Dance in the Middle Ages

Introductory Note

In the medieval times, religion was not viewed as a separate institution, but as something that was integral to your very life. You ate, breathed, and slept the church, and the most influential leaders of the time were figures of the church. Naturally, this emphasis on religion makes it easy to see where the roots of medieval music that we study today come from- the pages and pages of Gregorian chant, the libraries of music, the beautiful frescoes that adorn the sheet music- all belong to and are related to the medieval church.


Music and religion were a shaky pair in the Middle Ages. The church did not want to condone what was then seen a "sinful" act, but the church attendees enjoyed it so much that several musical styles came about that praised God and the nature of life. One of the earliest forms of music is known today as Plainchant. The earliest written recordings found about Plainchant were found in a convent written by the nun Egeria, found in 400 A.D.

Plainchant resulted in part from the religious reforms of Charlemagne, (782-814) , who drew on the resources of the church in an attempt to unify his empire. While many different forms of Plainchant existed during his rule, such as Morazabic and Gillarac, he worked to eliminate the differences and unite the church under the same style of music. He even sent people to the Catholic church of Rome in order to purify the art. This blend of Frankish and Roman elements soon became known as Gregorian chant, after either Pope Gregory I or II (most influential leader unknown).

Plainchant was sung in different ways depending on the occasion. Mass chants were a daily celebration of the Word of God, performed during Mass. Office chants were part of a daily cycle of church services, but usually not part of the Mass service. Requiem mass chants were used for special occasions only.

Chant is also classified into different melodies, ranging from simple to complex. Syllabic melodies had one note per syllable, Neumatic melodies had two to five notes per syllable, and melismatic melodies had elaborate runs of six or seven notes per syllable. Most chant was composed with all three of these different melodies incorporated into the song.

While today we consider music as an art form , most people of medieval times considered music to be more of a quantitative practice, classifed under mathematics (although there was debate over the issue.). There were, however two differing theories as to the treatment of music: speculative musical theory (music as a quantitative practice) vs. music as a liberal art. The first debates over the subject can be found in the treatises of Boethius and Martianus Capella.

Throughout the Middle Ages, monasteries and abbies stored up to 4000 texts of music at a time. The monasteries all needed a special, universal way to record and recognize music, so square notation was developed. This is why places like Solomes Abbey of France can publish chants from the ages today, such as the Liber Usalis.

Other Forms of Music in the Middle Ages

Music was not only confined to the church. People would perform music on the fringes of church life as well, and were some of the earliest medieval entertainers. Some of the earliest surviving music, composed by goliards (wandering scholars/poets) was gathered in an early thirteenth century collection called Carmina burana. Troubadors, trouveres, and chanssoniers were all musicians and keepers of music that was secular, but not directly related to the church. In addition to recorded music, vidas (autobiographies of the musicians) and razos (short summaries of artistic inspiration) were found to explain why the poets's songs came to be written. The poem-songs feature the poetic structures such as rhyme, varied use of refrain or chorus, and different metric patterns, a variation on the liturgical style.

The most frequently visited topic by these wandering musicians was courtly love, where the object of the singer's desire is tragically unavailable. Spinning songs, dawn songs (in which the lovers are cautioned that dawn is coming) crusader songs, pastorelles, and even quasi-religious poetry all had their share of popularity during the times. Patrons such as Eleanor of Aquitane encouraged poetic and musical production despite protests from the church. Minstrels, troubadores, trouveres, and jongleurs all wrote songs that celebrated the idealized woman, the seasons, and even the plague.

While troubadores and trouveres enjoyed status as intellectual performers of the court, the more recognized today minstrel was looked upon as a "mere entertainer." Not only would they perform courtly songs, but they would juggle, dance, recite poetry, and play instruments. While the troubadores could live in one place, minstels were often forced to tour around the country to turn a profit. During the late Middle Ages, minstrels began to form guilds, and women were allowed to join their ranks.

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