Most medieval secular music was propagated as an oral tradition and lacked the systematic teaching and preservation of sacred music. Thus, there is little information about the actual sound of secular music until the latter part of the Middle Ages.
Lancelot joins the enchanted dancewith knights and ladies | Northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai) | c. 1316 | British Library Collection
During the late Middle Ages, there were two classes of secular musicians in France: Jongleurs and Troubadour or Trouvères. These musicians served as models for secular music developing in other European countries.
Jongleurs were wandering minstrels working as instrumentalists, comics, actors, story tellers and acrobats. They were outcasts lacking civil rights and equivalent to slaves and prostitutes in social status. Jongleurs travelled from town to town working in taverns, town squares and castles assisting troubadours. In an era of no printed or electronic media, jongleurs served an important function as propagators of news.
Troubadours from southern France and trouvères from northern France were poet-musicians active during the 12th and 13th centuries. Most of them were noblemen and educated commoners (former clergy). Related movements soon appeared throughout Europe: Minnesang in Germany and trovadorismo in Galicia and Portugal. Many troubadours were also involved in the Crusades, a series of religious wars sanctioned by the Roman Catholic Church and aimed at recovering the Holy Land from Islamic rule.
Pipe and Drum Musician | Decretals of Gregory IX with glossa ordinaria | Northern France (Toulouse?) | c. 1275-1300 | British Library Collection
Troubadours and Trouvres are credited with composing the first European songs in the vernacular. Well, at least the first songs to be written down. Guilhem IX or Guilhèm de Peitieus (1071-1127), the 7th count of Poitiers, in southern France (Provence), is the first known troubadour. Besides a poet and musician, Guilhem was a warrior and a renegade: a leader in the Crusade of 1101, fought with the Spanish to recapture Cordoba from the Moors, was excommunicated from the Church twice and threatened the Bishop of Poitiers with a sword! Here's a translated excerpt by Peter Sirr from one of Guilhem's songs:
Nothing: great subject, fit for a poem.
Here’s one: not me, not anyone, not
love, youth, any
of that. Nothing at all.
I wrote it in my sleep riding home, my
I don’t know when I was born.
I’m not cheerful, and not angry.
No stranger here, no native either.
If you ask me
I was carried off and roughly magicked
on a dark night.
Hard to know if I’m asleep or awake, please
knock on my door and tell me.
I know I’m in heart trouble,
afflicted, sore. There again, put
the pills back in the box: why
should I care?
Timor mortis does its trick.
They say (they always say)
the cure is on the way.
Call the doctor, call the nurse
give them the prize if I improve,
I have a friend, I’ve never seen her,
a vision beheld, the purest dream.
She never pleased me, nor ever
let me down. No matter,
no Normans or Frenchmen
darken my door...
The subject matter of troubadour and trouvère poetry leans towards chivalry and courtly love. However, Guilhem's Nothing Song is personal, whimsical and introspective, providing a revealing peek into the mind of a larger than life character living eight centuries ago.
Manuscripts of 300 troubadour songs and 1400 trouvère songs survive. They're written in the same music notation used for Gregorian chant. Former members of the clergy were in demand at royal courts and undoubtedly used their skills and education to archive the songs of troubadours and trouvères.
Although these pieces were notated as single line melodies, performers improvised percussion accompaniment and sometimes doubled the melody with pipes, fiddles and other instruments. The monophonic texture, rhythmic complexity and lack of harmony makes this music more akin to Middle Eastern and Asian music than European music.
Dance of Love (La karole d'amours) | Ten dancers with drum and bagpipes | Northern France (Artois or Picardy) | c. 1340 | | British Library Collection
The estampie (istampitta) was a popular dance during the 13th and 14th centuries, evidenced by the many depictions and troubadour/trouvère manuscripts. Medieval folk enjoyed cuttin' a rug. Listen to this wonderful performance of two estampie dances by Hanneke van Proosdij, recorder, and Peter Maund, percussion.
Two Medieval Dances: La Septime Estampie Real & Istampitta In Pro | Recorder and Percussion