The impulse to rhythm expressed itself in a hundred forms of secular music and dance. The Church had her reasons for fearing this instinct uncontrolled; it allied itself naturally with love, the great rival of religion as a source of song; and the hearty earthiness of the medieval mind, when the priest was out of sight, inclined it to a freedom, sometimes an obscenity, of text that shocked the clergy, and provoked councils to vain decrees. The goliards, or wandering scholars, found or composed music for their paeans to woman and wine, and their scandalous parodies of sacred ritual; manuscripts circulated containing solemn music for the hilarious words of the Missa de potatoribus—the Mass of the Topers—and the Officium ribaldorum—a Prayer Book for Roisterers.12 Love songs were as popular as today. Some were as tender as a nymph’s orisons; some were seduction dialogues with delicate accompaniments. And of course there were war songs, calculated to forge unity through vocal unison, or to anesthetize the pursuit of glory with hypnotic rhythm. Some music was folk song, composed by anonymous genius, and appropriated—perhaps transformed—by the people. Other popular music was the product of professional skill using all the arts of polyphony learned in the liturgy of the Church. In England a favorite and complex form was the roundel, in which one voice began a melody, a second began the same or a harmonizing melody when the first had reached an agreed point, a third chimed in after the second was on its way, and so on, until as many as six voices might be running the rounds in a lively contrapuntal fugue.

Almost the oldest roundel known is the famous “Sumer is i-cumen in,” probably composed by a Reading monk about 1240. Its six-part complexity shows polyphony already at home among the people. The words still live with the spirit of a century in which all medieval civilization was coming to flower:

Sumer is i-cumen in;

Llude sing cuccu!

Groweth sed and bloweth med

And springth the wude nu:

Sing cuccu!

Awe bleteth after lomb,

Lhouth after calve cu;

Bulluc sterteth, bucke verteth:

Murie sing cuccu!

Cuccu, cuccu, wel singes thu cuccu;

Ne swik thu naver nu;

Sing cuccu nu, sing cuccu,

Sing cuccu, sing cuccu, nu!

Summer is a-coming in,

Loudly sing cuckoo!

Groweth seed and bloweth mead,

And blossoms the woodland now:

Sing cuckoo!

Ewe bleateth after lamb,

Loweth after calf the cow;

Bullock leapeth, buck turns off;

Merry sing cuckoo!

Cuckoo, cuckoo, well singest thou


Cease thou not, never now;

Sing cuckoo now, sing cuckoo,

Sing cuckoo, sing cuckoo, now!

Such a song must have been congenial to the minstrels or jongleurs who wandered from town to town, from court to court, even from land to land; we hear of minstrels from Constantinople singing in France, of English gleemen singing in Spain. A performance by minstrels was a usual part of any formal festivity; so Edward I of England engaged 426 singers for the wedding of his daughter Margaret.13 Such minstrel groups often sang part songs, sometimes of bizarre complexity. Usually the songs were composed—words and music—by troubadours in France, trovatori in Italy, minnesingers in Germany. Most medieval poetry before the thirteenth century was written to be sung; “a poem without music,” said the troubadour Folquet, “is a mill without water.”14 Of 2600 troubadour songs extant, we have the music of 264, usually in the form of neumes and ligatures on a four-or five-line staff. The bards of Ireland and Wales probably played instruments, and sang.

In the manuscripts that preserve the Cantigas or canticles collected by Alfonso X of Castile several illustrations show musicians in Arab dress performing on Arab instruments; the pattern of many of the songs is Arabic;15 possibly the music, as well as the early themes and poetic forms, of the troubadours was derived from Moorish songs and melodies passing through Christian Spain into Southern France.16 Returning Crusaders may have brought Arab musical forms from the East; it is to be noted that the troubadours appear about 1100, contemporary with the First Crusade.

Startling is the variety of medieval musical instruments. Percussion instruments—bells, cymbals, timbrels, the triangle, the bombulum, the drum; string instruments—lyre, cithera, harp, psaltery, noble, organistrum, lute, guitar, vielle, viola, monochord, gigue; wind instruments—pipe, flute, hautboy, bagpipe, clarion, flageolet, trumpet, horn, organ: these are a selection out of hundreds; everything was there for hand or finger, foot or bow. Some of them had survived from Greece, some had come, in form and name, from Islam, like the rebec, lute, and guitar; many were precious examples of medieval artistry in metal, ivory, or wood. The usual instrument of the minstrel was the vielle, a short violin played with an archer’s curved-back bow. Before the eighth century most organs were hydraulic; but Jerome in the fourth century described a pneumatic organ;17 and Bede (673–735) wrote of organs with “brass pipes filled with air from bellows, and uttering a grand and most sweet melody.”18 St. Dunstan (c. 925–88) was accused of sorcery when he built an Aeolian harp that played when placed against a crack in the wall.19 In Winchester Cathedral, about 950, an organ was installed having twenty-six bellows, forty-two bellows-blowers, and four hundred pipes; the keys were so Gargantuan that the organist had to strike them with fists protected by thickly padded gloves.20 Milan had an organ whose pipes were of silver; Venice had one with pipes of gold.21

All notion of medieval hell-stricken gloom vanishes before a collection of medieval musical instruments. What remains is again the picture of a people at least as happy as ourselves, full of the bounce and lust of life, and no more oppressed with fear of the end of the world than we with doubts whether civilization will be destroyed before we can complete its history.

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