Saturday, 26 April 2014

"Sing me a song of castles and kings" Music of the Middle Ages

The Middle Ages saw an awakening and birth of many new things from the building of the cathedral, introduction to spices and some medicines from eastern trade, to the expansion and travel of music through out the various empires. Music was popular in many households and held various significances in medieval life, as well as the belief system of medieval man.

Popular instruments included the lute, flute, harp, hurdy gurdy, viola (Seen below in one of the scenes from the Starz "The White Queen" were both popular instruments), bagpipes, and other instruments.  Gregorian Chants were and are perhaps most popular in describing early medieval music.  This form of music was primarily, “monophony,” which in its simplest definition is of textures, consisting of melody without accompanying harmony. (Source: Gregorian Chants were highly used and popular in liturgical services and in the church.  But this does not mean that the peasants at home or nobles at court did not have some form of music, it just was not as elaborate as what was being developed in the church during mass and liturgical services. 
A drum and viola as seen in "The White Queen"
Music primarily before 1150 was primarily liturgical or sacred based.

After 1150, Europe saw the birth of the Troubadour, who held his importance and began in the courts of France, telling his tales of chivalry and love with song, in the courts of Aquitaine, with Marie de France and other noble French families.  The Troubadour is discussed below, but its popularity took music and song away from the church liturgy and developed a whole secular side of the art form. Music at this time and until the Renaissance became, “polyphony which is a texture consisting of two or more simultaneous lines of independent melody, as opposed to music with just one voice (monophony) or music with one dominant melodic voice accompanied by chords (homophony). (source:

The introduction of polyphony perhaps is what launched the music of the Middle Ages to what we know today. It perhaps is one of the largest advances of medieval music itself. Along with this, the discovery and development of pitches, understanding tones and arrangement also help grow the art form. Notably, Notre Dame in 1150-1250 became a center for developing the western idea of rhythmic notation in music notation. From the creative and talented minds at Notre Dame came the motet. The motet, which was developed by Léonin and Pérotin who taught at the school, is a highly varied form of choral musical composition. The motet was one of the pre-eminent forms of later Renaissance music.  There were others who also used this and composed many of this important musical art:
  • Adam de la Halle (1237?–1288? or after 1306)
  • Johannes Ciconia (c. 1370–1412)
  • John Dunstaple (c. 1390–1453)
  • Franco of Cologne (fl. mid-13th century)
  • Jacopo da Bologna (fl. 1340–1385)
  • Marchetto da Padova (fl. 1305–1319)
  • Petrus de Cruce (fl. second half of the 13th century)
  • Willelmus de Winchecumbe (fl. 1270s)

As time went by, medieval music progressed and grew.  By the 14th and 15th centuries, motets became isorhythmic meaning they employed repeated rhythmic patterns in all voices.  Notably, Philippe de Vitry was one of the earliest composers to use this technique, and his work influenced Guillaume de Machaut, who one of the most famous named composers of late medieval motets. (Source:

In addition to composition and development of medieval music, an important part of the secular music world in the Middle Ages was the “Troubadour,” the traveling court musicians of the 13th century.  It is interesting though to know that this musician was not always named this as well. The earliest mention we hear of the so-called traveling musician is in the tenth century and through the thirteenth century, where musicians called “goliards” or poet-musicians. Their backgrounds mainly came from being scholars or even ecclesiastical, in which many sung their songs in Latin. May of their songs survived with subjects of religious nature, and in contrast some telling tales of debachaury, and other moral disregard.

These musicians or trouvères were well versed in a vernacular and secular song. Most of their music compositions were accompanied by instruments, yet also sung by a professional who was a skilled poet who also was skilled in singing. The Troubadours also had their own language called Occitan, which is the Old French of the trovres. The high of their popularity saw a flowering or booming in cultural life in Provence France, which spread through out the continent. Subjects of their songs included war, chivalry, and courtly love.  After the Albigensian Crusade, which was brought on by Pope Innocent III, the movement died down.  Remaining Troubadours traveled to Portugal, Spain and northern Italy or northern France. There their skills remained and their popularity lived on. Their contributions added developments to secular music and culture in those places. The music that the trouvères introduced seemed to not be as effected by the crusade and also continued to flourish in secular life.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Rule of thumb: If you want to be popular, don’t kill your wedding guests

“Game of Thrones” just started for their fourth season this year. Yet looking back at the shockers of last season and hoping there will be more this season, we are very strongly reminded of the Red Wedding episode. Many were shocked at what unfolded during this event, just check You Tube.  The medievalist in me became quite curious as to, how historically accurate it all was, and how would this interfere with the customs of medieval society.  Were traditions or customs trampled upon if this happened? We know George R.R. Martin based his novels heavily on the War of the Roses. There are many similaries with his characters, and the real people of the Middle Ages. Now, if something like the Red Wedding happened in the real Middle Ages, what would the outcome, or even the implications say about medieval society. How would the whole affair been handled? What do we know of medieval society from this perspective?

Medieval Society was strictly hierarchal, meaning there were certain expectations that were upheld depending on where you were on the social scale. Medieval or Western European etiquette was based off knightly code of honor and conduct, countries separate customs, religious rituals, superstitions, prejudices, and ethical standards of that society. For this important aspect of society can also be traced all the way to literary and cultural monuments of the period. The earliest roots of this social standing in medieval society can be found in the teachings of St. Augustine.  His doctrine, “The City of God” eventually became a base along with other writings for the codes of chivalry for the order of knighthood, which was a very integral part of various medieval cultures. Adding the importance of a long and impressive genealogy, which was one of the most important factors in this social class, for it, was noted that a knight was to have come from “good stock.” Society quickly embraced the image of what the knight stood for, his code of ethics, his honor, etiquette, and eventually adapted similar rules that became a base for court etiquette and of the nobility. This later is what modeled modern day etiquette that in some families and societies is still used today. (I can hear my mother preaching to me the importance of “Thank You” notes, and proper silverware placement etc.)

If an event such as the Red Wedding existed in real life (Which it did, I will discuss this later.), it defiantly would be a very big insult on the hosting family to allow such events to happen. But believe it or not, an event such as this did happen.  In 1440, the Clan Douglas in Scotland was gaining a great amount of power that was a bit unnerving for the 10-year-old king at the time; James II. The power they were gaining was actually seen as a threat to the nation of Scotland and its soviernity.  As a part of a conspiracy, that year, William Douglas, the 6th Earl of Douglas and his brother were invited to dine with the king.  During the dinner a black boar head was brought out, which according to custom was a symbol of death.  Whether they knew this meant impending doom or not, it is unclear from my reading whether they realized this or not.  After dinner, the Earl and his brother were dragged out, brought to a mock trial and beheaded. Siege was later laid upon the castle Edinburgh by the Clan Douglas.  Lord Chancellor Sir William Crichton eventually surrendered the castle to the king. It is suspected that others: Livingstone and Buchan were also responsible for the deaths. The dinner is known through out history as the “Black Dinner” and it was used as a historical bases for “Game of Thrones” the Red Wedding.

This event even to this day is frowned upon many as a great insult meaning to slaughter your guests when they are under your roof for a celebration. It is a ground of commonality, at times holy, and one of peace. To have such an action performed or even carried out was not a good thing to do. Not only was it a huge break in tradition, but also it brought great distrust and dishonor to that household.  At large dinners or even weddings; may meals were blessed by the Catholic Church so in all essence to slaughter your guests would be like killing someone on holy ground or in a church which is considered sanctuary and forbidden in church and secular law.  Not only are rules of etiquette tossed out at this point, but the rules and traditions of the church as well.  That person you just killed at your dinner, just cost you’re your place reserved in heaven.  I wonder if Lord Bolton, Lord Frey, and the folks at the Black Wedding realized this.  Trust, honor, tradition, and loyalty all go hand and hand, definitely were the case in the Middle Ages and are still true today amongst those who still hold these values important.  So if you want to be a good host, don’t murder your party guests. It does you no favors, in this life or the next, and......