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Medieval Lit Bibliography - Music

In writing about the beginning of musical theory, medieval musicologists tell the story of Pythagoras who stopped one day as he passed a blacksmith's shop to listen to the harmony of the hammers hitting the anvil. When he investigated further, he discovered that the hammers had different weights: 12, 9, 8, and 6 pounds. When hammers of different weights hit the anvil, he could hear different intervals. In other words, there was a definite numerical relationship between the harmonic sounds he heard. From early times, music has been closely linked to numbers, and like numbers, music was seen as reflecting the harmony and mystery of the universe. Even in early Babylonian times, there were sacred towers with three or four levels joined by different numbers of steps (usually 7, 3, and 4). Specific songs were to be sung on each step as the participants moved closer to the sanctuary. Such an idea joining number and music is the precursor to the Christian "gradual" in the liturgy of the Church.

As might be expected early Pythagorean and Platonic thought join together to shape ideas of music theory--ideas that have to do with proportions and the nature of the cosmic universe. In the Republic Plato describes the motions of the spheres and suggests a relationship between those motions and musical notes. This idea of the tuning or harmony of the spheres is more than mere metaphor. Plato suggests that sirens turn these great cosmic spheres, which also correspond to a moral scale, and the resulting proportion of musical notes creates a great harmony which is the principle of creation itself.

These early ideas of cosmic harmony were passed down to the Middle Ages through the great musical treatises of Augustine and Boethius. It is not at all surprising that Augustine takes the classical ideas of music and universal harmony and turns them to the praise of God. In his exposition of the best music being that of the heart praising God, four important ideas emerge. The first idea is that the arts are not something invented by man for entertainment or even edification. They are, instead, a means established by God for man to move from the sensible and temporal world to the realm of eternal truth. That leads directly to the second idea: the arts, and specifically here music, lead the mind back to God. The third idea is that numbers are universal and eternal, pervading all that exists from temporal to eternal. The last idea that emerges is that there is a correlation between man's actions or morals and the numbers of music. Man's music becomes more beautiful and harmonious the closer he moves toward God's perfect music.

Many of these ideas are reflected in and expounded upon by writers like Macrobius and Martianus Capella who followed Augustine, but it is Boethius in his De musica who sharpens and deepens these ideas for the medieval world. In addition to reformulating Augustine's ideas, Boethius makes at least two striking contributions to the development of musical theory. First, he classifies music into three categories: musica mundana (music of the universe) which is the highest kind of music, that which holds the elements in harmony and heralds the movement of the spheres; musica humana (human music) which is man's expression of his own natural harmony, a reflection of his moral nature; and musica instrumentalis, which is what we think of an instrumental music--although it, too, has a definite influence over man's physical and spiritual nature. The other significant contribution of Boethius was his strong emphasis on the moral power of music to affect man's soul and his belief that man is what his music is. To understand his music is to get a real insight into his soul.

From these patristic writers the Christian philosophy of music passes to the exegetical writers--along with material from the mythographers. The exegetical tradition originates with interpretations of scripture--especially of the Psalms and the Song of Songs--and it adds a new category to Boethius' three, the category of divine music which includes the music of God's Being, the Trinity, Christ's Redemption, and Christ's "song of love" for his mother Mary. It also includes the songs of the angels and saints in heaven. The scriptural tradition also strongly asserts that music has a moral quality--both in the soul yearning toward God and in the use of musical instruments. There were many outlets for the exegetical tradition of music in addition to the standard dictionaries and commentaries. Music was a part of the liturgy, in both the Mass and the Divine Office, and preached from the pulpits of cathedrals and monasteries.

One particular body of information propagated by the exegetes is of particular interest here--the exegesis of particular musical instruments. Exegetes combed the scriptures to find every reference to music or musical instruments and interpreted them according to their moral qualities. Thus, the cymbals became "harmonious human lips" or "the concord of the faithful," the tuba is "a preacher or one perfected by tribulation," and the psalterium "service in 'eternal' matters." Such interpretations of instruments were collected in the traditional encyclopedias or scriptural dictionaries and came to be accepted as a measure of a man's internal moral nature--a tradition that was also a part of the Christian classical mythographers who viewed the myths of classical poets through Christian allegory. They, too, built on the classical interpretations of musical instruments and songs as signs of virtue or vice and assigned meanings to particular instruments or singers.

It is a combination, then, of the philosophical tradition of music with its highly developed vision of the celestial spheres and their music, the patristic tradition with its focus on the moral quality of music, and the exegetical tradition with its specific allegorizing of songs and musical instruments that is passed on to medieval art and literature. Significant studies have been written which focus on identifying musical instruments in visual art and on describing patterns or motifs. Some work has also been done on the broader use of musical ideas in literature. But less has been done in the area of musical instruments as symbols of a person's moral character--and yet it is an important area. When Chaucer describes the Miller in the "General Prologue" to the Canterbury Tales, in addition to using bestial imagery to characterize the Miller's physical qualities, Chaucer also tells us that the Miller is playing the bagpipe and with its music leads the group to Canterbury. The bagpipe has an interesting iconography. While some recent critics have pointed out that bagpipes appear in some paintings of angels playing instruments in heaven, the bagpipes have long been associated with the "Old Song"--the song of the flesh and carnality. In that tradition the bagpipes are sometimes seen as representing male genitalia and lust and have also been described as being made out of a pig's stomach turned inside out and making a sound which approximates the screams of the damned in hell. Surely given the Miller's character, one or both of the last two meanings makes more sense than an instrument of praise to God. The bagpipes add the perfect finishing touch to a character submerged in fleshly desires and deceit and provides interesting background music for the whole pilgrimage.

One other example from the Middle English romance Sir Orfeo helps to see how musical symbols can deepen the meaning of a work. In this romance Orfeo's wife, Heurodis, has been mysteriously abducted from beneath a grafted tree at noontime, and Orfeo, though he was there with an army of men, was powerless to help. To find his wife Orfeo leaves his kingdom in the hands of a steward and goes out into the wilderness to search for her. All he takes with him is his harp, which he uses to tame the animals in the wilderness and later to charm the faery king who has taken his wife. It would seem at first glance that the harp is an important narrative device since his playing before the faery king allows him to rescue his wife, and it might even seem that the harp represents something good or even spiritual which "tames" the bestial nature in man. A look into the allegories on the Orpheus legend would confirm this. But a look at the scriptural tradition adds another dimension. In addition to representing the higher kind of music which draws the soul upward to God, the harp is also seen as a figure for the cross--based on a passage in Psalms. Christ becomes the strings which were stretched on the cross to restore the harmony broken at the fall. Seen in this light, the harp takes on a much greater significance which (along with other crucial symbolic details in the romance) point to Orfeo as a symbolic figure of Christ who redeems his wife from a kind of hell and returns in triumph to his kingdom. To be sure not every mention of a musical instrument in medieval literature has such a deep significance--and some may be mentioned for non-symbolic reasons--but an awareness that music has moral connotations in the Middle Ages can greatly add to a full appreciation of a work.


Brogard, Roger and Ferdinand J. De Hen. Musical Instruments in Art and History. New York: Viking Press, 1967. 781.91 B73m
This work is organized by historical periods and contains valuable information about instruments in the Middle Ages. Although little of the information could be described as direct symbolism, the author does include material from literature and early Christian writings. It also includes color plates.

Carter, Neil. A Dictionary of Middle English Musical Terms.

Galpin, Francis W. Old English Instruments of Music. 1910. Rev. Thurston Dort. London: Methuen and Co, Ltd, 1965. 781.91 G139o
This source gives the historical development of early English instruments and includes good material from the literature of the period. Also included are plates and an annotated bibliography.

Montagu, Jeremy. The World of Medieval and Renaissance Musical Instruments. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 1976. 781.91 M76w
This work also is arranged historically and includes good examples of representations in medieval art. The written material, however, tends more toward technical descriptions of the instruments.

Munrow, David. Instruments of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. London: Oxford University Press, 1976. 781.9109 M926i
This work is organized historically and includes good pictures from medieval art. It also includes accounts from medieval authors about the instruments, but much of the rest of the material tends to be technical rather than symbolic.

See Also

Cirlot, J. E. A Dictionary of Symbols.

Hall, James. Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art.

Selected Secondary Sources
Block, Edward A. "Chaucer's Millers and Their Bagpipes," Speculum 29 (1954):239-43.

Bower, Calvin. Boethius' The Principles of Music: An Introduction, Translation, and Commentary. Diss. George Peabody College for Teachers, 1967.

Brown, Howard Mayer and Joan Lascelle. Musical Iconography: A Manual for Cataloguing Musical Instruments in Western Art Before 1800. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972.

Chamberlain, David Stanley. Music in Chaucer: His Knowledge and Use of Medieval Ideas About Music. Diss. Princeton University, 1966.

Chamberlain, David Stanley. "Musical Signs and Symbols in Chaucer: Convention and Originality," in Signs and Symbols in Chaucer's Poetry. Ed. John P. Hermann and John J. Burke, Jr. University, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1981.

Knight, W. F. Jackson. St. Augustine's De Musica: A Synopsis. Westport, Conn.: Hyperion Press, 1979.

Meyer-Baer, Kathi. Music of the Spheres and the Dance of Death: Studies in Musical Iconology. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970.

Reiss, Edmund. Boethius. Boston: Twayne, 1982.

Winternitz, Emanuel. Musical Instruments and Their Symbolism in Western Art. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979. 709.94 W735m