Studies of medieval musical instruments draw upon written testimony, iconography (manuscript art, painting, drawing, sculpture and stained glass windows) and surviving instruments to describe their characteristics and the way they developed over time. In my search for evidence about medieval plectrums, I was surprised to find not one dedicated paper, book chapter or webpage. This article is an attempt to bring the written, iconographical and material evidence together and present some new research, focussing on the characteristics of plectrums used to play the gittern, lute, psaltery, citole and cetra, made from quills, gut strings, metal, bone, and ivory. We begin with an illustrative video of La Uitime estampie Real (The Eighth Royal estampie), c. 1300, played on citole and gittern with plectrums of antler, horn and gut string.
In the second article, we survey the evidence for plectrum playing technique, with practical applications for modern players of medieval music; and evaluate whether all medieval plucked instruments were played with plectrums.
This is the third of three articles about the medieval harp. Having outlined harp history from the earliest evidence in Egypt to the end of the medieval period in the first article, and used medieval art and written witnesses to illustrate harp symbolism in the second, this final piece lays out the evidence for questions of harp performance.
The basis of this article is a description by the author Thomas of the playing of a harper-hero named Horn, written c. 1170, combined with other sources to built up a picture of medieval harp practice. This includes: harp tuning as a performance; the training of musicians; the various ways in which medieval harps were tuned and the musical reasons for these tunings; harp repertoire; preludes and postludes; and medieval methods of polyphonic accompaniment.
Each of these three articles begins with a performance on medieval harp of a different French estampie from c. 1300, arranged to the historically attested performance principles set out in this article. This article begins with La quinte estampie Real – The fifth Royal estampie.
In the middle ages, musical instruments were not just important for the music they produced, but for what they symbolised. Using medieval art and the testimonies of medieval writers, this article describes the harp as the foremost symbolic instrument: an emblem of King David, Old Testament monarch and reputed writer of the Psalms; the harp as a representation of cosmic consonance, bringing harmony between heaven and earth; and the harp’s gut strings and wooden frame as a symbol of Christ on the cross.
This is the second of three articles about the medieval harp. The first describes harp development from ancient Egypt to the end of the medieval period; and the third seeks out evidence for medieval performance practice.
Each article begins with a performance on medieval harp of a different French estampie from c. 1300, arranged to historically attested performance principles. This article begins with La Seste estampie Real – The Sixth Royal estampie.
This article, the first of three about the medieval harp, sets out what we know about its earliest known development, looking at harp forms, decoration, stringing, and the problem of language in original sources. We see surviving instruments and manuscript illustrations from ancient Egypt to the middle ages – arched harps and angle harps, open harps and pillar harps – leading to the development of the bray harp and the Irish/Scottish cláirseach/clarsach of the early renaissance.
Each article begins with a performance on medieval harp of a different French estampie from c. 1300, arranged to historically attested performance principles. This article begins with La quarte Estampie Royal – The fourth Royal Estampie.
The estampie was an internationally popular musical form of the late middle ages. Eight beautiful French estampies from circa 1300 are written in the Manuscrit du Roi, seven of which are complete. The first estampie is a fragment, due to the top half of the page being torn to remove illuminated letters, seen on the right.
After examining what we know about the estampie and the particular characteristics of French estampies, this article searches for historical principles upon which the fragment of La prime Estampie Royal can be made whole again.
The article begins with a video performance of the finished piece played on gittern, then explains the process of historically-informed construction, and ends with the completed music in modern notation.
In the middle ages, minstrels were regularly accused by church commentators of vanity, idleness, inflaming carnal desire, lechery, and leading others into vice. In the 12th century, Bishop of Chartres John of Salisbury expressed the view that all minstrels should be exterminated. Because of this reputation, the church wanted to ensure that its most sacred music was different in kind to minstrel music, and restated several times that only the voice and organ were allowed in the liturgy, not instruments of minstrelsy. Still some writers complained bitterly of secular styles of music corrupting singers’ voices in sacred chant.
How can we account for the contradiction between clergy’s invectives against minstrels and the innumerable quantity of medieval and renaissance paintings in which gitterns, shawms, harps, fiddles, lutes – the instruments of minstrels – are shown in worship of the Virgin Mary and in praise of the infant Jesus? How can we reconcile the critiques of clerics against minstrels with their regular appearance in religious manuscripts, their likenesses carved in churches, and their employment by the church? This article seeks answers through the evidence of medieval Christian moralists; church councils; music treatises; religious paintings; records of church ceremonies; and the relationship of the church with organised minstrelsy.
One of the earliest surviving pieces of English instrumental music has survived with the 13th–14th century manuscript, Douce 139, now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. It is exciting in its musical drive and complexity, but interpretation has its problems. The scribe appears to have changed his mind partway through on several issues of notation, leaving us to make judgements about intention. The music is untitled, and is often named Estampie or English Dance in modern sources.
This article works through the puzzles in order to gain some performable answers. What is an estampie? Is the Douce 139 piece an estampie? How can the musical problems left by the scribe’s imperfect notation be reconciled? Drawing on music theorist, Johannes de Grocheio, writing in c. 1300, this article looks for solutions, with a video of one possible interpretation on citole.
Kalenda maya is a 12th century song by troubadour, Raimbaut de Vaqueiras, one of the Occitanian (later southern French) poets and singers who developed the musical tradition of fin’amor, refined or perfect love. Via Roman fertility festivals and Irish fiddle tunes, this article discusses the poetic content of the song and the problems of interpreting the musical notation of Kalendamaya, penned when written music was still developing in medieval Europe. Can there be a definitive version when there are textual variants of the same song or melody? How credible are renditions of Kalenda maya that impose a musical rhythm not present on the original page?
Raimbaut de Vaqueiras based the melody of Kalenda maya on an estampie he heard at court in Italy. Using principles written in 1300, I attempted to reverse engineer the sung estampie back into the tune it originally was. The reasons this proved impossible tell us something important about medieval music and the continuance of the spirit in which it was played.
We begin with a video of two interpretations of the melody played on gittern.
The middle ages covers a period of a thousand years – and yet much of its music-making is a mystery to us. We’re not completely in the dark, though, so the aim of this article is to give a broad beginner’s guide to the principles of secular medieval music. When were the middle ages? How do we know what the music sounded like? What were the earliest surviving songs? What was its dance music like? Why does medieval music sound so different to today’s? How did medieval musicians harmonise?
This article features 4 illustrative videos of medieval music and several links to further articles (click on blue text).