Introduction | Medieval Era | Classical

The seven centuries covered here saw, essentially, the making of modern Europe. They saw the rise of the papacy and its numerous conflicts. They saw the shaping and reshaping of nations and empires. Yet beyond, and often because of, these conflicts and changes, they also saw the formation of great cultures.

As nation met nation in war and on diplomatic missions, ideas were exchanged and influences were transmitted. Where there was stability great courts thrived, harbouring circles of musicians and poets and enabling magnificent works of art to be created. Seats of learning such as Paris and Oxford produced philosophers and theologians renowned for their ideas about science, music and art. A powerful church erected many of Europe’s greatest cathedrals: Romanesque buildings such as the one at Durham; the Gothic constructions of Notre Dame in both Paris and Chartres; and, in their wake, Cologne Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, to name but a few. Most ecclesiastical institutions had scriptoria (‘writing-rooms’) and, later, urban centres also became important in manuscript production; beautifully decorated books were created for the church and for wealthy patrons.

The most enduring and romanticized aspect of medieval life is the idea of courtly love – the pure and chaste (yet romantic) love of a knight for his lady. It inspired great literature, such as the romances of Chrétien de Troyes (fl. c. 1160–90) and the Roman de la Rose, as well as many smaller-scale poetic works, some of which were set to music.

One of the main problems in exploring medieval music is the uncertainty surrounding the identity and biographies of many composers, and the authors of many fine medieval works remain anonymous. However, its wider context – the historical circumstances in which it was written and to which it sometimes refers – is accessible and makes a good starting-point when approaching an era so far removed from our own.

The Holy Roman Empire

The earliest part of the medieval period was dominated by the empire of the Carolingian kings, Pippin III, ‘the Short’ (AD 751–68), and Charlemagne (AD 768–814). The Carolingians actively promoted the missionary work carried out by monks of the Benedictine order and thus formed a mutually beneficial alliance with the papacy. As a result the pope crowned Pippin ‘King of the Franks’. Charlemagne further expanded the kingdom of the Franks, and Pope Leo III rewarded him by anointing him ‘Emperor of the Romans’, so reconstituting, to some degree, the Roman Empire (which had collapsed over three centuries earlier). It was against this backdrop of the unification of the Western church that the first music came to be written down, marking the beginning of the history of western music.

The period from the ninth to the twelfth centuries was characterized on the political front by the fragmentation of the empire and invasion on all sides by ‘barbarian’ forces; the papacy’s efforts to take the reins of power; and by the loss and reappropriation of territories by ruling authorities, especially between France and England. From...

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