The Mediaeval Period

The Middle Ages

The mediaeval period (middle ages) covers a huge stretch of time, from A.D. 476, following the fall of the Roman Empire, to the start of the renaissance in the 14th and 15th centuries – that’s around a thousand years. TV programmes such as Horrible Histories and Tony Robinson’s shows have taken to making a distinction between the ‘dark ages’ and the ‘middle ages’, denoting before and after 1066, but this is not how the term ‘middle ages’ was conceived. For the people of the renaissance – and it was they who defined the mediaeval period – the ‘middle ages’ were ‘middle’ because they marked a gap between the wisdom of the Greeks and Romans which, for them, ended with the fall of the Roman Empire, and their own rediscovery of it in the 14th and 15th centuries, hence the self-reference to their own cultural ‘renaissance’. For them, and for this very reason, ‘the middle ages’ and ‘the dark ages’ were explicitly synonymous and they used the terms interchangeably: that millennium was retrospectively ‘dark’ because it was the ‘middle’ period between the Empire’s loss and their own rediscovery of highly-prized classical wisdom. 


Much of mediaeval music is a mystery. There are several reasons for this. Most people were illiterate, and so most music was not written down but passed on and learned by ear. The music that was written down was usually church music, and so gives a very partial view of mediaeval music-making. Even the music we have is not always written very accurately, by today’s standards, but is more of an aid memoir, reminders for the musician, often with vague note values and rhythms (which is adequate if you know what it’s supposed to sound like, which they did and we don’t).


For these reasons, English secular mediaeval music is completely unknown to us until around 1225, when Miri it is (Merry it is) was written down, a song complaining about the cold winter weather. This is closely followed by Sumer is icumen in (Summer has come in) in around 1250, another song about the weather, but on a happier note, rejoicing in the sights and sounds of summer: the ewe bleating and the buck farting (honestly, I’m not making this up). Sumer is icumen in is actually two songs in one, since the text includes a Christian song, Perspice christicola, to the same tune.


Today ‘harmony’ usually means a single lead melody line with other notes complimenting it to form chords. There was no chordal harmony at this time in this strictly modern sense. Sumer is icumen in is the earliest example of an English round, where voices sing the same line but start at different times, meaning that no one sings ‘lead’, and each individual’s line is as important as the other. A similar principle applies to an English dance piece without a title from the same source as Sumer is icumen in, which has two lines of music to compliment each other: neither one is the lead or the harmony, they are an indivisible whole. This is called polyphony. Otherwise, music this early was monophony, a single melody line.


There were (more or less) two kinds of mediaeval dance music: either each section starts the same and ends differently; or each section ends the same and starts differently. This goes for all the mediaeval dance forms: estampie, rotta, trotto, royal dance, saltarello. We know nothing about how any of these were danced, what speed musicians should play them, or even which instruments they were intended to be played on. So we have to guess and bring our own artistic sense to bear, which makes this wonderful music all the more enjoyable.