This blog post is about the secular music of the European Middle Ages. It covers the types of musician active during this period and the types of music they produced. The central thesis of this post is that Gregorian chant bestowed a huge influence on secular music.
Secular music was largely devoid of meter, like chant; when notated, it used neumatic notation, also like chant. Furthermore, sacred songs were monophonic, so were secular songs, sacred songs had devotional lyrics, so did secular songs, sacred songs used formulas and strophes, so did secular songs (Taruskin 106).
Partly responsible for these similarities were the goliards, who were poets, scholars, and musicians of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. We may be tempted to call them medieval hipsters. They were young, nomadic men studying to become monks and priests. They were the same people learning, transcribing, and advancing the Gregorian repertoire. Therefore, they were able to perform a sort of musical transplant surgery from sacred to secular (Burkholder et al. 70-71).
It makes sense that it was going to be someone like the goliards wielding the most influence on secular music. The church had all the best music and musicians, which is to say the church had more educated people spending more of their valuable time concentrating on music. The peasant singing to himself in the field trying to make a living on a feudal farm could not compete with the kind of attention to detail that the clergy paid to music.
One of the results of this church influence was that goliards sang secular songs in Latin.
A form of sacred song evolved in the eleventh century based on strophic poems with repeated rhythmical accents. Known as versus (“verse“ in Latin), these songs were sometimes attached to the liturgy and sometimes not. The versus style was sort of like a liturgical hymn with a beat.
Another form of rhythmically rhymed, liturgical song was the conductus. Like a versus, a conductus featured newly written melodies and newly written words not based on chant. As its name suggests, a conductus was used to direct processional movements made during the mass (Burkholder et al. 70).
The goliards, being monks in training, were familiar with versus and conductus styles. It is not surprising that they fashioned their own songs using the same rhymed and rhythmical formats. The kind of song they came up with is known as a goliard song.
The lyrical content of the goliard songs was quite different from that of Gregorian chant. The goliards would sing about drinking, sex, politics, and other rebellious or satirical topics with obscene gusto, much to the consternation of the church leaders. Some goliards were prohibited from entering the clergy due to their rowdy and unruly behavior (“Goliard,” 2015).
When goliard songs were written down, it was done so with staffless neumes. As a result, goliard songs are not truly decipherable (Burkholder et al. 70).
Versus, conductus, and goliards songs, were all written in Latin, automatically aligning their style with that of church music, which was also in Latin. Beginning around the end of the eleventh century, secular music began to get a bit more interesting with the emergence of vernacular songs, which were sung in the common language of everyday people. For the most part, Latin was not used for this purpose. Although vernacular songs were common before this time, they were not written down, so they are not available for musicologists to study.
The first decipherable repertoire of secular music comes from the poet-composers of southern, medieval France, known as the troubadours.
Much of the story about European secular music takes place in a part of France known as Aquitain—a region in the southeastern portion of the country. Here a musical tradition arose in which poet-composers (usually knights or nobles) wrote songs about love, honor, and devotion in the vernacular.
The vernacular language of the troubadour, Occitan, is spoken in southern France and is sometimes called langue d’oc. Today the language is in decline. But in the Middle Ages, it was very common (“Occitan language” 2015).
Aquitaine was its own territory in the Middle Ages and governed by nobles possessing varying degrees of allegiance and belligerence towards the Frankish kings and the Roman popes.
Society in Western Europe, including Aquitanian society, was organized by feudalism, an economic system whereby land workers and landowners exchanged goods and services for mutual benefit. The land workers, known as vassals, produced food, and provided labor; the landowners, known as nobles, offered military protection in exchange. (Bauer 4)
A noble was praiseworthy if he honorably protected his vassal; a vassal was praiseworthy if he dutifully served his overlords. Notions of honor and duty-bound society. The epic poetry and the secular music of this time reflected these notions. Troubadour songs, if they were not about love, focused on these virtues.
The primary devotional subject of troubadour poetry is known as fin d’amour, which means “a refined love,” sometimes referred to as courtly love. The poetry usually tells of unrequited feelings over an unattainable woman, usually of a higher social class. Songs of this sort were known as cansos, which means “love poem” in Occitan. Cansos are the main secular song of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries (Taruskin 108).
The first troubadour was William IX (1071-1127). He was the Duke of Aquitaine and a veteran of the second crusade (Abraham 94). In 1101, William the IX lead an expeditionary force to the Holy Land only to have his entire army slaughtered, mostly due to his own recklessness. He was one of only six survivors (Madden chap.3).
Despite his complete and utter failure as a military leader, William IX was known to perform epic poems regaling humorous and glorious episodes of wartime hijinks and valor.
These Epic poems are known as Chanson de geste, which means, “song of deeds.”
The most famous song of deeds is the Chanson de Roland which tells an epic story about crusading against the Muslims in Spain while fighting in Charlemagne’s army during the eighth century. It was written sometime between 1040 and 1115 and is France’s earliest piece of literature (“The Song of Roland” 2015).
Historians do not have any songs of deeds by William IX, but they do have eleven of his poems. The subjects of which are love, duty, and in one case, his own sexual prowess. It seems that William IX was fond of the bawdy love song.
Much to the sorrow of musicologist, this poetry lacks notation. Nevertheless, they are the earliest known evidence of the troubadour tradition (“Williams IX, Duke of Aquitaine” 2015).
Here an excerpt of one of William IX’s poems in which he expresses the quintessential troubadour notion of fin d’amour:
I’ll make a new song now
before wind blows or it rains or snows,
my lady tests me out: how
and how far goes my love,
And no legal plea against me
will get me
loose of her bond (Haidu 82)
And here’s another in which he expresses quite a different kind of love, the kind where he sleeps with married women. Please be warned, William IX has got a filthy mouth:
So listen, how often I fucked them:
a hundred-and-eighty, and eight times more,
until I nearly broke my strap
and the saddle bags with it (Haidu 82)
In addition to troubadours like William IX, Medieval Europe also possessed a more commonplace musician: the minstrel.
Minstrels were the blue-collar musicians of medieval Europe. Unlike the troubadours, who were knights and noblemen (and usually rich) the minstrels were working class musicians. Often a troubadour would have a minstrel in his employ; the minstrel’s job was to perform the music written by the troubadour (Taruskin 109).
Minstrels were originally called jongleurs, which is a word used to describe a medieval variety entertainer. Some jongleurs sang, some danced, some played instruments, and some juggled as their name suggests. Sometimes minstrels and jongleurs were called Bards, which means poet. Shakespeare was a bard, for example.
The three terms—jongleur, bard, and minstrel—are sometimes used as synonyms in historical fiction or other less discerning views of the past. For our purposes, which requires a clear view of the past, it is best to know the distinction.
The primary musical figures in this lecture are troubadours and minstrels, musicians roughly comparable to songwriters and performers of today. Studio systems, such as those in Nashville, frequently use separate songwriters and performers. In the Middle Ages, the troubadour was the songwriter and the minstrel was the song performer.
As the tradition progressed, the nobility had less propriety over the troubadour career path. Indeed, commoners eventually graduated to the troubadour ranks. Some minstrels learned the troubadour repertoire thoroughly then began composing in the same style. Some became famous.
One such minstrel-turned-troubadour was Bernart de Ventadorn (1130/1140-1190/1200 fl. 1147-1180). He is the most famous of all troubadours, and he was a commoner: his father was a baker. Forty-five of his poems survive, eighteen of these have musical notation (“Bernnart de Ventadorn,” 2015).
One of Bernart’s cansos, Can vei la lauzeta mover, is the token of the troubadour repertoire. It perfectly distills the notion of refined love that lies at the heart of the tradition. Musicologist think this canso was written sometime in the 1170s (Burkholder et al. 71).
Okay, footnote here: Can vei la lauzeta movers, and all other songs talked about in this lecture, are named using incipits. An incipit is the first few words of a poem, chant, or song, used to identify that particular poem, chant, or song. For example, the “Star Spangled Banner” would be called “Oh, say can you see” with the incipit system.
Here is Bernart’s canso, Can vei la lauzeta mover:
When I see the lark beating
its wings joyfully against the sun’s rays,
which then swoons and swoops down
because of the joy in its heart,
oh! I feel such jealousy
for all those who have the joy of love,
that I am astonished
that my heart does not immediately melt with desire! (Palisca 39)
Like much of music history, the troubadour story is largely devoid of women except as target of courtly affection. Despite this, female poet-singers, in fact, did exist in medieval Europe. They are known to historians as trobairitz—the female troubadour.
The only trobairitz songs that survive with notation are from Beatriz de Dia (d. ca. 1212, fl. ca.1175). There are five of them. Four are cansos, the primary song format of the troubadour. It seems that Beatriz had no shortage of inspiration for her cansos. In her vida, written about one hundred years after her death, the author states that, “Beatrix comtessa de Dia was a beautiful and good woman, the wife of William de Poitiers. And she was in love with Rambaud d’Orange and made about him many good and beautiful songs” (Palisca 42).
Here is Beatriz de Dia’s best known canso, A chantar m’es al cor que non deurie:
To sing I must of what I’d rather not,
so much does he of whom I am the lover embitter me;
yet I love him more than anything in the world.
To no avail are my beauty or politeness,
my goodness, or my virtue and good sense.
For I have been cheated and betrayed,
as if I had been disagreeable to him (Palisca 41)
The troubadour and trobairitz tradition was too popular to stay local. By the 1130s, a musical diaspora was in progress.
Trouveres and Minnesingers
The troubadour tradition soon migrated to the north of France; the poet-composers there became known as trouveres. They sang courtly love songs and recited devotional poetry in the same style as the troubadours from the south. The only difference was the language: trouveres sang in Old French, troubadours sang in Occitan.
Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was the granddaughter of William IX, the queen of France, and the future queen of England, brought Bernart de Ventadorn—the most famous of all troubadours—to northern France, probably sometime in the 1170s. Eleanor was Bernart’s patron; she paid him to write songs for her (Taruskin 117).
Because of Eleanor’s patronage, his own notoriety, and his sophisticated songwriting, Bernart de Ventadorn imparted a considerable influence on the trouveres of northern France.
Germany soon had poet-composers, too. They were known as minnesingers. Their tradition, also greatly influenced by the troubadours, and by Bernart de Ventadorn, existed a little later in history during the 1200s and 1300s (Burkholder et al. 79).
The songs they sang were known as minnelied. Minne is German for courtly love. The most significant minnesinger was Walther von der Vogelweide (d. ca. 1230). Only one of his songs, Nu alrest lebe ich mir werde, survives with music. Staying true to the tradition, the lyrics are about crusading (Taruskin 135).
Now for the first time I live worthily,
since my sinful eye sees
the Holy Land and also the earth
to which one so much honor assigns.
To me has happened what I have
always prayed for,
I have come to the city
Where God walked as a human being
In summary, the troubadour tradition begins in the south about 1102 with William IX’s epic, crusader poems and braggadocio love songs; by the 1130s, it is up and running throughout Aquitaine; and, by the thirteenth century, the style had spread to France, England, and Germany.
Many years after the troubadour tradition began—sometime in the mid-thirteenth century—the songs of the troubadours and the trouveres were collected into books known as chansonniers (”songbooks”).
These books were not used by the troubadours or by the trouveres, who learned and sang their songs by ear instead. The songbooks were for art collectors and music connoisseurs only. The troubadour and trouvere tradition was already in decline by the time the first chansonnier was made (Taruskin 109).
The troubadour and trouvere tradition expanded to include musical plays. These plays represent the first secular permutations of this art form in Western history. They emerged sometime in the early thirteenth century.
Remember from the last lecture that Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) wrote musical plays, but her lyrics were based on sacred themes. The themes in The Play of Robin and Marion, on the other hand, are all secular.
Written by Adam de la Halle between 1282 and 1283, this play tells a story about a love triangle between a peasant girl, her lover, and a knight—quite a departure, indeed, from Hildegard’s sacred themes. It also represents a departure from troubadour themes: The Play of Robin and Marion is about reciprocated love, not unrequited love (Burkholder et al. 78).
Adam de la Halle (1245-1306) was a trouvere, so he was operating late in the tradition’s existence. Consequently, musicologists have many surviving manuscripts of his music to study: 125 pieces survive (“Adam de la Halle” 2015).
Here is some of The Play of Robin and Marion:
Robin loves me,
Robin has me,
Robin asked me
if he can have me.
Robin bought me a skirt
of scarlet, good and pretty,
a bodice and belt.
Hurray! (Palisca 38)
Secular music’s main difference from sacred music is that it often has accompanying instruments. This was not always the case; some performances entailed simply singing the troubadour poetry unaccompanied. For the most part, though, troubadour and trouvere songs were accompanied.
Secular music of the Middle Ages is still considered monophonic even though it was accompanied by instruments.
Accompanied music is polyphonic, technically, but the medieval instrumentalists usually just played drones or a variant on the melody. The ensemble accompanying the troubadours and trouveres executed a sort of pseudo polyphony: whereby the instruments accompany, but do not depart too far from the melodic source material.
Some of the instruments used to create this texture were the viol, the transverse flute, the shawm, the pipe and tabor, and more. The viol is the ancestor to the violin, the transverse flute was like a modern flute, the shawm was a double reed instrument like a modern bassoon, and the pipe and tabor was really two instruments—a drum and a flute
The hurdy-gurdy is one of the more interesting of these instruments. It can provide a drone, which is a low continuous note, and it can provide melody notes to sound over that drone.
A hurdy-gurdy consists of two strings—one for melody, and one for drones—a sound box, and a crank-operated disc that sounds both the strings. Buttons are used to stop the melody string at various points to produce different notes. It is quite a strange instrument.
Here is a hurdy-gurdy being played:
Today’s rock, jazz, and hip-hop music all stem from the Goliard and Troubadour songs of medieval France. The goliard and troubadour songs used conventions established by the Roman liturgy. Therefore, the Roman liturgy is the prime mover of the entire Western musical canon.
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Great stuff – non-religious music is so much better!
Yeah, I agree. Finally we can sing about sex.