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Music in the 13th Century

Updated: Nov 7, 2021

Music—both religious and secular—flourished during the Middle Ages. The troubadours prospered in Southern France leading to the trouvéres building on that heritage in Northern France.

The troubadours were largely nobles though some had noble patrons. The trouvéres, on the other hand, were mostly professional musicians. Some had noble or church patrons. Many were itinerant.

In the South, particularly in the area known as Occitania, many musicians were employed by civic authorities in large towns like Narbonne, Toulouse or Montpellier.

Occitania was so-called because the language spoken there—langue d’oc—used the word oc for yes. In the north, where langue d’oil was spoken, the equivalent word was oi.

Musicians went by many names. Some were called minstrels, many were known as jongleurs. They made their living playing in civic or church functions, at celebrations, or just in the local tavern. There were many such events for good musicians to earn an income from. Towns with a modicum of independence from the local noble—especially the case in Occitania—celebrated such events as the installation of a new council, the anniversary of the granting of a town charter or the fête day of the town’s patron saint. Church celebrations were many but Easter, Christmas and Corpus Christi were especially popular. Then there were celebrations for the birth of a royal heir or an heir for the local noble, the death of a king or noble also saw processions in memory and honour of the deceased. A visit from a noble or a Church prelate was also cause for much festivity.

So musicians could earn a healthy living.

In such conditions, music flourished. In previous centuries it had mainly been the province of the Church and plainchant—mainly Gregorian chants—had been the mainstay. Now it became much more adventurous. Part singing became commonplace. Ever greater embellishments were added making the music and sung lines more and more florid.

Meanwhile, new topics for songs were explored. Religious themes had been common and still were. Tales from history were also common, often featuring great heroes like Roland. Now though, troubadours and trouvéres sang love songs to a patron’s wife or some other favoured woman. The Courts of Love sponsored by Eleanor of Aquitaine fostered these types of songs. Her daughter, Marie took this tradition with her when she married the Count of Champagne and moved to his court in Troyes.

Arthurian legends offered new material as did tragic tales like Tristan and Isolde. Popular too were satirical songs mocking the nobility and the Church.

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