Redheaded Neanderlady

Redheaded Neanderlady
This is a photoshopped version of something I found in National Geographic about the time I started researching

Monday, August 17, 2009

Olde Englyshe Music

I'm in "medieval mode" again, especially in view of the fact that I can't seem to find the story about how the State of Idaho is planning to shoot 220 wolves in the forests there.  Maybe that's why some wolves have trotted themselves into Washington State recently, but that's another story.


Nan Hawthorne, one of my favorite go-to sources for all things Old English(e.g. in Anglo-Saxon times), had a piece on a story and an audio program that described a book of eleventh-century English church music.  This book lay for centuries -- literally -- in Winchester Cathedral.  When it was finally rediscovered, it was sent to Cambridge University, where some learned scholars studied it.  Which was rather difficult, because( (a) the notations were in what they described as "squiggles", and (b), at that period of time, there were no such things as staves, and musical notation as we understand it today.  Most music was simply passed down orally.  The thing that is so important about this small book was, it was apparently one of the first to actually copy down melodies for people to learn. 


The music, as reconstructed, sounds a lot like Gregorian chants, which is not surprising.  It was church music.  But it is hauntingly beautiful, and apparently inspired by a monk called Wulfstan, who instructed others in the art of singing church music.    There are also apparently notations about when certain pieces were supposed to be sung.  And most important of all, it's a bit of a window into a time that seems unimaginably hazy to most people living nowadays.  According to the presenters of the audio program, it's one of the earliest examples of polyphony, ever. 


I should note here that, contrary to "popular" belief, England at this time was a very prosperous, well-ordered place, and one of the richest countries in the Europe of the time, perhaps the richest, outside of Byzantium or at the very least, the "German empire", as it was then called.  They even had the germ of what today would be called a bureaucracy.  So it is not surprising that the rich supported churchmen, the way certain philanthropic foundations today support the fine arts. 


In any case, this is a wonderful, not to mention rare, find, and IMO worth a writer of a Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece set in more or less the period, to blog about.  Now if they can just find a manuscript of "popular" songs some monk had the foresight to write down. . . . I had to make up a lot of stuff here!

Anne G


Joansz said...

I've been looking into non-secular medieval English music for the third book in my series about Richard III and have found some references.

Wine, Women and Song by John Addington Symonds;
The Ballad Book edited by MacEdward Leach
Singing Early Music by Timothy J. McGee (comes with a CD and is useful to hear how words were pronounced)
English Folk Dance & Song Society
Folkinfo-song database

Unfortunately, many of the sites I had bookmarked are no longer available. I do however have an extensive bibliography resulting from my research on Richard III and medieval England that I'll be glad to share with you (my bibliography at the end of This Time is merely a snapshot of the references I used).

Joansz said...

I forgot to mention in my earlier post some groups that perform their versions of medieval music today:

Medieval Babes (love their music, they do research it, and do tour in the US, usually in the fall.
Fairport Convention
Mynce Pye

Anne Gilbert said...


I think I've actually heard Medieval Babes, and they are indeed a very interesting group, if they're the ones I'm thinking of. I have a lovely collection of Anglo-Saxon literature that I'm sprinkling throughout my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece, including some of the Exeter Book riddles, but I'm stuck for music. I'll look into your sites. And thanks for sharing!
Anne G

Joansz said... has albums by Medieval Babes and they do allow you to listen to snippets (30 seconds) of each selection. I made two videos of slides I took when in England and used a track by Mynce Pye for the Battle of Bosworth reenactment and snippets from Medieval Babes for my Scarborough Tour video. BTW, I did get permission from Mynce Pye and from the Medieval Babes to use their music.

Anne Gilbert said...


Thank you for that, too. This might be a great deal of help!
Anne G