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Music In The Middle Ages

Darkness into Light

Peter Kun Frary


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The Middle Ages (c. 450-1450) in Europe began with the disintegration of the Holy Roman Empire circa 450 AD. Centuries of wars, social unrest and migrations followed, often referred to as the Dark Ages. The latter part of this period, the Romanesque (c. 1000-1150) and Gothic (c. 1150–1450), is characterized by cultural growth: construction of churches, monasteries, universities and towns.

Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore | Gothic Church, c. 1296 | Florence, Italy

During the early Middle Ages, it was the Nara period in Japan (710- 794) while the Tang Dynasty (618–907) was in full swing in China. During the latter Middle Ages, Richard I (1157-1199) was king of England, the Crusades were underway, Mongol armies advanced into Europe and the Venetian merchant, Marco Polo (1254-1324), walked to China along the Silk Road and inspired generations of explorers, including Christopher Columbus, to sail for the ends of the earth.

Life in the Middle Ages

Medieval European society consisted of three social classes: nobility, clergy and peasantry. Most of Europe's population were peasants: bound to the soil with subsistence farming and subject to feudal overlords. Peasants rarely owned property, were illiterate and had a life expectancy of about 30 years.

Nobility served as overlords of local lands and extracted goods and services from peasants living on these lands. Feudal overlords controlled the local military but themselves were subject to higher ranking nobility above them, e.g., a monarch.

Belfry of Bruges | Gothic bell tower (c. 1240) | Bruges, Belgium, is one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe.

It may seem odd to consider clergy as a social class but the medieval Church had great power, wealth and influence throughout Europe. The power of the clergy flowed from the Roman Catholic Church and rivaled nobility in terms of political influence and military might. The Papal States, ruled by the Pope, controlled most of Italy and parts of France from the 8th to 19th centuries.

Education in much of medieval Europe centered around the Catholic Church. Most people outside of the clergy, including nobility, were illiterate. Thus, historical accounts of this era are primarily from Church archives. The lone exception is Medieval Spain.

Christ in Majesty | Illustration from the Beatus of Fernando and Sancha (c. 1047). Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid.

Al-Andalus

Medieval Spain and Portugal were known as Al-Andalus, an Islamic state controlled by Moorish Kings (Berbers from Morocco) for nearly eight hundred years (711-1492). It was a more international and enlightened society than much of Medieval Europe, famous for art, architecture and centers of learning. Al-Andalus boasted a large population of Jews, Muslims and Christians living together in relative peace.

The impact of the Islamic world on Spain and eventually all of Europe was vast. The famous tourist destinations of the Alhambra at Granada and Great Mosque at Cordoba are merely the obvious visible manifestations of this heritage. Every aspect of European culture from food to language, art, literature, religion, science, music, medicine and philosophy were influenced by Spain's eight centuries of Muslim rule.

The Alhambra | This palace was build near the end of Spain's Muslim rule by Yusuf I (1333–1353) and Muhammed V, Sultan of Granada (1353–1391). | Wikimedia Commons

The Moorish kings kept detailed records, built great libraries and founded a university at Córdoba. They introduced new technologies, advanced mathematics and modern architecture to Europe. The Moors were also responsible for bringing many of the musical instrument families (including the guitar family) into Europe.

The Capitulation of Granada (La Rendición de Granada) | Francisco Pradilla Ortiz (1848–1921) | Romantic era depiction of the 1492 surrender of the last Moorish king in Granada | Wikimedia Commons

Although Al-Andalus faded from history in 1492 with the fall of the last Moorish city, Granada, to Ferdinand II and Isabella I, eight centuries of Islamic culture still echo in Spanish music and may be observed in Spain's many architectural treasures and art. I am grateful for the guitar and not having to use Roman numerals for math!

Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris | Gothic Church Door | Paris, France

Vocabulary

Middle Ages, Romanesque, Gothic, Al-Andalus, Moors

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©Copyright 2018 by Peter Kun Frary | All Rights Reserved

Preface
Elements
Medieval
Renaissance
Baroque
Classical
Romantic
Modern