Medieval Perspectives: Dark Ages

The idea of the medieval era as a "dark" and violent time is one which stands in sharp contrast to the feeling of relaxation many people take from the music today. The two images are largely distinct, with music enthusiasts more often finding the music tranquil, and those with other historical interests dwelling on barbarisms. However, the images need not be entirely separate, and one can view the tranquility of chant as a refuge from the hardness of the times. Although this idea makes a certain amount of sense, it also involves our modern preconceptions regarding what represents tranquility or aggressiveness in music. Medieval musicians considered many chant sequences to be exciting & animated.

When historians talk about "The Dark Ages," they often mean the more specific period between the fall of Rome and the full flowering of feudalism by the 12th century. Labeling the earlier period in this way is probably not fair to the people who lived then, but one thing is true: We have relatively less surviving information, so the early medieval period was "dark" in that sense. The relative quantity of information is similar for music, and so most music we know from medieval times is from the 12th century and later. The 12th century was a critical time for music history.

When it comes to music from the early part of the medieval era, sometimes called the Dark Ages today, very little is available. What does exist is plainchant, something people do not associate with the violent ideas behind the Dark Ages concept. When it comes to later music, some suggestions can be made.

Perhaps the most important connection between music and ideas of violence & death in the Middle Ages is the Crusades. Not only were the Crusades and crusaders immortalized in surviving songs of the 12th & 13th centuries, but songs survive by men who actually traveled to Palestine or even fought there. Broadly, these songs are part of the repertory of troubadour songs, the earliest surviving Western secular music. Several recordings exist which emphasize the crusader theme, including songs actually composed by crusaders. One which adopts a particularly dramatic presentation style:

Crusaders in nomine domini
Estampie / Münchner Ensemble für frühe Musik - Michael Popp
Christophorus 77183

A closely related medieval phenomenon was heresy, and the sometimes brutal suppressions which occurred. The Cathar heresy was closely related to the Crusades, in that a crusade (called the Albigensian Crusade) was actually organized to Southern France to eliminate the Cathars. This movement can be associated even more strongly with the troubadours. Another dramatic recording on this theme:

La tragédie cathare
La Nef - Sylvain Bergeron
Dorian 90243

Of course, knights were also known for their chivalric code of conduct. They generally fought only at certain times of the year, a necessity given the agricultural orientation, but also something which reflected attitudes of fair play. The entire troubadour movement included love songs prominently, as well as a role for women. A recording on the chivalry theme:

Songs of Chivalry
Martin Best Medieval Ensemble
Nimbus 5006

In terms of social resources, the Black Death or bubonic plague was even more destructive than the Crusades. The population of Europe actually declined during the 14th century. One of the great poets & composers of the time, Guillaume de Machaut (c.1300-1377), wrote about surviving the Black Death in his book, Le Jugement du Roi de Navarre. A recording oriented around this source, a source which also includes elements of political intrigue:

Le Jugement du Roi de Navarre
Machaut: Ballades, motets, virelais et textes dits
Ensemble Gilles Binchois - Dominique Vellard
Cantus 9626

Even among revered figures of the age, some more human or negative qualities can naturally be found. One such example is Alfonso X of Castille, the main force behind the massive Cantigas de Santa María collection. Despite his achievements, Alfonso also had his troubles and his failings. A recording emphasizing the texts in which these are revealed:

Alfonso El Sabio - Las Cantigas
Grupo Sema - Pepe Rey
Discos Oblicuos 0001 (2 CDs)

Finding other themes which relate to medieval music can be difficult, especially given people's "Dungeons & Dragons"-type ideas on this culture. Many more collections are, understandably, dedicated to illuminating the cultural richness of the period. One such compilation which has as its theme a debunking of the "dark" idea:

Zeit der dämmerung
Noch heute gilt das mitelalter als dunkels...
Various Ensembles
Christophorus 77003

I know many readers would love to hear "music to sack Rome by" or a similarly confrontational recital. However, we really know nothing of what songs Attila or the Goths may have sung while battling Rome, although it would certainly be interesting to hear. I will end with another compilation collection which is aimed at the general listener, perhaps even the "Dark Ages" enthusiast:

Sinners & Saints
The Ultimate Medieval and Renaissance Music Collection
New London Consort - Philip Pickett
L'Oiseau Lyre 448 559

This collection includes music well into the Renaissance period.

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Todd M. McComb