's in Europe
were a historically fascinating time. The grip of the Catholic Church
was eroding under increasing skepticism
, a renewed interest in Ancient Greece
and Ancient Rome
compelled scholarship, the cobwebs of Medieval
times were being swept away by a revival of culture that would influence western society to this day: the Renaissance
None of the arts were immune to such radical change, but relevant to this node is the field of music. With the domination of pagan cultures by the Church, musical expression was extremely suppressed, viewed with disdain as an innappropriate submission to carnality. Music of the Ancient Romans was all but obliterated from the memory of civilization under the Church's heel -- an act tantamount to the Taliban's destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan. Music that was permitted was generally limited to music of the voice -- think plainchant. Instrumental music did continue to exist, but mostly through folk usage.
Enlightened times, rich with ideas as well as commerce, became a fertile ground for imaginative musicians. Composers began to write for instruments as well as voices; performers began to make a living by playing music on a variety of instruments. With this expanding tradition came the practice of developing consorts of musical instruments.
A consort, proper, is a family of instruments designed to fill out a complete range, from soprano to bass, of a single timbre. Consorts of viols, recorders, shawms, krummhorns, and kortholts all became common -- or, at least, as common as one could expect in a time dominated by diversity and experimentation.
As time passed, consorts passed out of favor as composers (or more precisely, the royalty that paid them) began to choose particular instruments as their favorite. Still, the tradition of consorts influences music to this day, most notably in the stringed instruments of the orchestra. (Although it should be noted that the differently-ranged stringed instruments of the orchestra -- the violin, viola, cello, and double bass -- come from different "consort lineages" -- they don't comprise a single consort, technically.) The tradition still lives on in the varied instruments of the winds, as well, as in the oboe family, which might be easily linked to a Renaissance origin, as compared to the saxophone family, which was filled out more recently and has its origin with instrument makers in the 19th century.