A Short History | Medieval Era | Classical

‘Medieval’ as a concept is very hard to define, and the period itself is just as difficult to delineate. It was a term invented by Renaissance writers who wished to make a distinction between their modernity and what had gone before.

Although the onset of the Renaissance is often taken to be around the beginning of the fourteenth century, it was some time before the ideas associated with it took hold outside Italy and infiltrated all art forms, thus blurring the boundaries between the two periods.

Determining what in musical terms constitutes medieval and what Renaissance has been a matter for constant debate for centuries, and continues to the present day. There is no question that from the fourteenth century, composers considered here as medieval were working alongside such Renaissance luminaries as Petrarch, Boccaccio and, a little later, Brunelleschi. However, at this period in history music did not belong to the core of humanistic studies and it was not, therefore, considered worthy of scholarly attention. Its first inclusion in the humanist curriculum was at the Mantua court in 1424 – the earliest indication that it would be pulled into the already flourishing Renaissance. This section, then, covers music and musicians from the years ad 750 to 1475, starting with the anonymous transcribers of plainchant and ending with the generation before Josquin des Prez.

Throughout the ages when the geographical dissemination of ideas was a slow process, artistic activity was cultivated most in places where there was a lively cultural atmosphere – in monasteries, courts and cities. Composers, poets and philosophers gravitated there for their education or in search of patronage. These places became the great centres of musical activity, though they were not necessarily great cities; in England, courts in relatively small towns attracted the most talented composers.

The problem of communication ensured that different regions preserved their identities, which is why the music of Paris in the early fourteenth century is so different from that of Florence during the same period. But even as early as the fifteenth century, when composers began to travel a long way for their work, these strong regional traditions started to break down and a more international style was born.

Key Events

800 Charlemagne is crowned ‘Emperor of the Romans’
c. 1030 Guido of Arezzo produces antiphoner (book of chant) with new staff notation
1066 Norman Conquest of England
1095 First Crusade is declared
c. 1163 Work starts on the new cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris; Magnus liber organi
1204 Capture of Constantinople by crusaders
1248 Completion of Sainte-Chapelle, Paris
1307 Dante writes Commedia
1309 Papacy transfers to Avignon
c. 1316 Completion of expanded version of the Roman de Fauvel
c. 1322 Philippe de Vitry’s Ars nova (‘New art’)
1337 Outbreak of Hundred Years’ War
1353 Boccaccio writes Decameron
1378 Great Schism begins
1386 Chaucer writes the Canterbury Tales
1415 English defeat the French at Agincourt; Jan Hus burnt as a heretic at the Council of Constance

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