Music of the middle ages

Round 14 of the series Going To Gigs

by Trevor Locke

Wednesday 13th December 2017

So far, on Going to Gigs, we have looked at the roots of today’s rock, seen how the rise of the Internet has changed the production and distribution of music, looked at how the development of the mass media affected music in the post-war years and seen how the music halls in late Victorian times played at key role in the development of popular music. Can we go back further in time to see how music in this country developed and what part it played in the lives of people who lived far back in historical times?

In this issue, I want to talk about music of the renaissance and what people listened to in mediaeval times. As I have argued before, all music reflects the time in which it is made. This is as true of today’s music as it was back in history. Music represents something about the community of its time; it shows us something of the values, concerns and tastes of the people who made it and those who listened to it. We might not know a lot about the music that was played in Leicester, at this time, but we can make a guess at what people were listening to from what we know about music generally in that era.

I know I am skipping a big chunk of time here but I want to take you back to the period in our history when music played a very important role in the political life of England.

1603 to 1837

Elizabeth I – the virgin queen – died in 1603 and Victoria came to the throne in 1837. Between those times, England was a pretty volatile and turbulent place. The country had seen thirteen monarchs and one Protector, who was not a monarch, although he seemed to rule like one. The tradition of folk songs was one that had survived since the middle ages. At the time, it was handed down from one generation of musicians to the next, through an oral tradition. Part of this traditional popular music consisted of shanties, jigs and dances, including the well-known genre of Morris dancing. Its traditions found their way into folk rock, punk and metal in modern times. Folk songs might have begun in Anglo-Saxon times (approximately 400 to 1066 AD.) Some of these songs celebrated people and events of the time; there were many songs about Robin Hood, for example.

Leicester had some prominent contributors to music of the times. In 1802, musician John Ella was born in Leicester. He created a ‘musical union’ in 1846. He was also the the founder and director of the Musical Union, a society dedicated to the performance of chamber and instrumental music to the highest standards. He was a violinist and music critic.

But, let’s go back several centuries to consider the roots of the musical traditions, some of which have survived even to the present day.

A glorious revolution

Music of the revolution provided us with a very vibrant and interesting time in England. Charles I had been beheaded in 1649. One of the men who signed his death warrant was Oliver Cromwell, who then went on to being the only dictator this country has had – depending on how you see things – and he ruled the country until his death in 1658. The Cromwellian era is not commonly noted for its musical vibes and yet some have credited Cromwell as being an influence on contemporary artists including Elvis Costello and Morrissey. Popular songs caught the action of the time and even gave rise to some modern works that hearkened back to the those far-off revolutionary days. To Morrissey the monarchy represented the rule of the English by foreigners, primarily those of Germany.

Leicester in the time of Cromwell would have been a very different place for art, music and culture than was the case when monarchs were on the throne. Nationally, the rise of the British colonies and the discovery of the Americas would have had a considerable impact on music.

Civil war and uncivil songs

The English civil war happened between 1642 and 1651. It was a time of battles and widespread troubles around the country and also here in Leicester. The period gave rise to music that reflected the attitudes of the groups and parties involved in the conflict.

Lillibullero was a marching tune that was popular during the English civil wars period. The melody is still in use today. Listen to it on YouTube. There is also an alternative version;  Click here If you want to hear the words being sung to this tune

A song that is sung to the tune of Lillibullero is ‘Nottingham Ale.’ It appears to have been a popular song around the end of the 18th century and quite possibly was sung in the taverns of Leicester. Refrain:

Nottingham Ale, boys, Nottingham Ale
No liquor on earth is like Nottingham Ale!
Nottingham Ale, boys, Nottingham Ale
No liquor on earth like Nottingham Ale!

You can see and hear the song being performed by musicians in costumes of the time.

Of ale and taverns

The taverns of the Tudor period were the gig venues of their day. In those days, it was not the guitar but the fiddle that was the instrument of choice; guitars did not come into existence until very much later. They did have lutes and dulcimers but those would have been confined to the social elites, the nobility and people of the royal courts. For common people, it was the sound of the pipes, hand drums, some reed instruments, such as the crumhorn, that would have been heard in the halls where folk gathered. In Elizabethan Leicester, there would have been an affluent merchant class who could afford to go to the pub for a few beers of an evening. The great hall of Leicester castle would have seen quite a few gigs in its time. It is recorded that Richard III visited there once or twice.

The great hall of Leicester castle

Medieval dudes

You might think that some of the dudes of today, seen at festivals and venues, dress somewhat flamboyantly and skinny jeans are certainly not a modern invention; but today’s gig-goers have nothing on the dudes of mediaeval times. A typical gig in the middle ages would have seen lads dressed in very tight pants, sometimes with cod-pieces giving them an dramatic extra in the middle department, and they often wore their hair long, though mostly they wore very big hats. Not something you see much of these days.

Medieval gig-goers

Singing was something people did at specific times of the year, such as Easter, May Day and Christmas. It became the tradition for children to sing as they danced around the May Pole.

Leicester people would have been entertained by groups of travelling musicians and singers. Sometimes known as troubadours, these were itinerant singers and musicians who went on tour in England and would undoubtedly have got gigs at places like Leicester castle or at the festivals held in the town on market days and feast days. One of these touring groups was called The Waits. Some say that these guys originated in the watchmen who kept an eye on castles and town fortifications, long before security guards or the police forces existed. Some of the bands moved from town to town, castle to castle, often in groups of four. They often took with them wind instruments known as shawms or hautboys, a double reed instrument, a little like today’s oboe.

A replica of the medieval shawm

They could be used to alert people to fires or invaders. At dawn, they would play their instruments to wake people up. Later they were to become the town band and were expected to perform at civic events or on important occasions, such as the visit of an important dignitary. If there was a parade, you could be sure they would be part of it.

A group of Waits in the middle ages

Apart from shawms, they might also have had the sackbut, lute, viol, recorders, bagpipes and fiddles. Gradually these bands developed into groups of travelling musicians who roamed from town to town and often wore colourful costumes emblazoned with coats of arms.

Church, state and the streets

The rise of popular songs, carols and shantys (or chanteys). When we think of carols we think of Christmas but these songs were sung all year round and their content changed with the seasons. In medieval times, music was largely confined to Churches and monasteries, as far as ordinary people were concerned. The only other way Leicester people would hear music would be if something big happened in town and the local guilds or burghers put a bit of a show and hired a band to play in the streets.

Long ago people sang as they worked. Because Leicester is a land-locked city – one of the English cities that is furthest from the coast – it has no tradition of sea-faring. The only Leicester people who would have sang as they worked on board ships would have been those who left for a maritime career or who were unhappily made to work on ships against their will. Local people were more likely to have sung or chanted as they ploughed the fields, went hunting or engaged in other kinds of agricultural labours. Apart from this, the only other time that people sang was in church.

The start of the touring band

Band from the middle ages

Popular songs and troubadours in the time of Shakespeare. William Shakespeare did a lot to popularise music, through his plays, many of which included music and singing. A report in 2016 referred to Leicester mediaeval Guildhall as being the oldest surviving Jacobean theatre. The news item was prompted by work undertaken by the team working on The Shakespeare On Tour project who found that the various companies that performed the bard’s plays visited many parts of the country, including Leicester. A discovery in some ancient archives suggests that Shakespeare himself might have been present when the company visited Leicester’s Guildhall. If this is true then there would almost certainly have been some music at the performance. The first evidence of Shakespeare’s plays being performed in Leicester was around 1606.

Leicester Guildhall

1485 to 1603

Music in Tudor Leicester

The era of the Tudors saw the flowering of song and instrumental music in the form of the anthem, the madrigal, the masque and the opera. During the early Renaissance, the madrigal become popular in England. Music started to become part of theatrical performances. Rich and powerful people travelled to Europe where they would have heard the latest trends in music and choral works. In particular, wealthy people of time would have been to Burgundy in France and brought back music and songs from there.

Tudor Court music – did it ever get played in Leicester? The nobility and those from Leicester’s wealthy families might well have heard music composed by: William Bird – 1543 to 1623, John Dowland – 1563 to 1626, Orlando Gibbons – 1583 to 1625, and Thomas Tallis – 1505 to 1585. During the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, composers wrote songs and dances for the court. In 1586 – The Earl of Leicester, Robert Dudley, was a patron of the arts. The Earl also kept a separate company of musicians. Those who travelled in Europe would have probably been exposed to the music of the renaissance in France and Italy. The latest genres, songs and tunes would have found their way into Leicester from noblemen who were rich enough to travel to the great centres of European culture.

The last of the Plantagenets

Some Leicester folk will tell you that the Last of the Plantagenets is a Wetherspoons pub in Charles Street. For me, however, it is the term applied to Richard III – the last monarch to reign before the rise of the Tudor dynasty. What grooves did Richard dig? The whole world knows about the English king whose skeleton was discovered under a car park in the city centre. We know that Richard visited Leicester during his lifetime. We are also very aware that he was buried in Leicester – twice. But what music did he listen to? Back in July 2013, Arts in Leicestershire magazine published an article about music in the time of King Richard III. It began by reporting that

A concert was given at Leicester Guildhall today (28th July 2013.) The musicians performed songs from the time of Richard III. On stage were singers, lute players and percussionists. It was this that gave us the idea of filling in some of the cultural background to the life and times of Richard the third.

As the article went on to explain

The group performed songs in English and French. Two types of lute were being played; these were modern versions of the type of instruments that would have been common at that time. One musician played a recorder and others played a variety of small hand drums.

Richard and his courtiers would have listened to music at feasts and high-status social events. In those days, much of the music that they would have heard at these events originated in France.

King Richard III

You can read the full article and see the photos from the concert on my blog.

1066 to 1485

Music in the Middle ages

In the middle ages everyone had to attend church; it would have been here that they would have heard music, mainly singing by priests and choirs. Outside of the church, markets, fairs and feast day celebrations would have been marked by secular songs and dance tunes.

Music in medieval times was divided between the sacred (the music of the Christian churches) and the secular. Sacred music, in the earlier part of the medieval times, was often liturgical, including Gregorian plain song and was monophonic – consisting of simple melodies played without harmony or chords.

Many composers of this time are known – Leicester people might well have listened to the music of John Dunstable (born c. 1390) or Leonel Power (born 1370). In 1142, Leicester Abbey was founded and became an important religious centre where sacred music would have been an integral part of the daily life there.

Music instruments in Medieval times included wind instruments such as the flute, the recorder, the gemshorn, and string instruments such as the lute, mandore, gittern and psaltery. Early versions of the organ, fiddle and trombone existed.

Painting of a scene in a tavern in the middle ages

Songs were known and written about both before and after the Norman conquest of 1066. The life of the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings, for that matter, was probably filled with tunes and music wherever they worked and lived – from the more formal pieces to the everyday when men could be found singing tunes to the cattle as they milked. Both the Saxons and the Vikings brought their music and songs to this country from their homelands in northern Europe.

400 to 1066

The Vikings and the Anglo Saxons

What music did people hear up to the time of the Norman Conquest? Well, quite a lot actually. Saxon storytellers would use a harp when telling their stories which were often spoken rater than sung. .The Saxons had a stringed instrument called a lyre and examples have been excavated in Sutton Hoo and Taplow. They also had wind and percussion instruments. In 877, Leicester came under Danish rule. That would have meant a whole load of new music vibes being heard in the town.

It’s true I have skated over things in this piece and a lot more work needs to be done on it. But hey, you have to start somewhere.

Next time on Going to Gigs: What did the Romans ever play for us?

See also

Find out about the Going to Gigs series as a whole
See the previous instalment of the series.