4 Medieval Arts

Intellectual life

During the 11 th century, developments in philosophy and theology led to increased intellectual activity. Philosophical discourse was stimulated by the rediscovery of Aristotle and his emphasis on empiricism and rationalism. Scholars such as Peter Abelard (d. 1142) and Peter Lombard (d. 1164) introduced Aristotelian logic into theology. The late 11 th and early 12 th century also saw the rise of cathedral schools throughout western Europe, signaling the shift of learning from monasteries to cathedrals and towns. Cathedral schools were then in turn replaced in the late 11 th century by the universities established in major European cities.

Besides the universities, royal and noble courts saw the development of chivalry and the ethos of courtly love. This culture was expressed in the vernacular languages rather than Latin, and comprised poems, stories, legends and popular songs spread by troubadors, or wandering minstrels.

Among the results of the Greek and Islamic influence on this period in European history was the replacement of Roman numerals with the decimal positional number system and the invention of algebra, which allowed more advanced mathematics.

Medieval Music

How would you describe Medieval music? Does it remind you of any modern music? If so, what? And why? Is it beautiful to you? Why or why not?

You may listen to Puis qu’en oubli by Machaut. Medieval music is characterized by a heavy feel created by instruments that are not widely used today.


Medieval music – Puis qu’en oubli by Machaut.” YouTube, uploaded by LuminaVocalEnsemble, 30 Apr. 2010.


Medieval music utilized instruments that are not commonly used today. Instruments used to perform medieval music still exist but in different forms. The flute was once made of wood rather than silver or other metal and could be made as a side-blown or end-blown instrument. The recorder has more or less retained its past form. The gemshorn is similar to the recorder in having finger holes on its front, though it is actually a member of the ocarina family. One of the flute’s predecessors, the pan flute, was popular in medieval times, and is possibly of Hellenic origin. This instrument’s pipes were made of wood, and were graduated in length to produce different pitches.

Illustration from a Cantigas de Santa Maria codex showing two reed players
Illustration from a Cantigas de Santa Maria manuscript
Gittern made in 1450 by Hans Oth in Nürnberg, exhibited at Wartburg Castle. Image by Wikipedia is in the Public Domain.

Medieval music uses many plucked string instruments like the lute, mandore, gittern and psaltery. The dulcimers, similar in structure to the psaltery and zither, were originally plucked, but became struck in the fourteenth century after the arrival of the new technology that made metal strings possible.

The bowed lyra of the Byzantine Empire was the first recorded European bowed string instrument. The Persian geographer Ibn Khurradadhbih of tenth century (d. 911) cited the Byzantine lyra, in his lexicographical discussion of instruments as a bowed instrument equivalent to the Arab rabāb and typical instrument of the Byzantines along with the urghun (organ), shilyani (probably a type of harp or lyre) and the salandj (probably a bagpipe). The hurdy-gurdy was (and still is) a mechanical violin using a rosined wooden wheel attached to a crank to “bow” its strings. Instruments without sound boxes like the jaw harp were also popular in the time. Early versions of the organ, fiddle (or vielle), and trombone (called the sackbut) existed.

Medieval music was both sacred and secular. During the earlier medieval period, the liturgical genre, predominantly Gregorian chant, was monophonic. Polyphonic genres began to develop during the high medieval era, becoming prevalent by the later thirteenth and early fourteenth century. The development of such forms is often associated with the Ars nova.

During the Renaissance, the Italian secular genre of the madrigal also became popular. The madrigal form gave rise to canons. These were three-part secular pieces, which featured the two higher voices in canon, with an underlying instrumental long-note accompaniment.

Finally, purely instrumental music also developed during this period, both in the context of a growing theatrical tradition and for court consumption. Dance music, often improvised around familiar tropes, was the largest purely instrumental genre.

Theory and Notation

During the Medieval period the foundation was laid for the notational (written) and theoretical practices that would shape western music into what it is today. The most obvious of these is the development of a comprehensive notational system; however the theoretical advances, particularly in regard to rhythm and polyphony, are equally important to the development of western music.

Beneventan music manuscript example
Beneventan music notation, second half of twelfth century. Image by Wikipedia is in the Public Domain.

Gothic Art and Architecture

Gothic art developed after the Romanesque, so named by 19th century historians to identify the period following the Romans, during which many characteristics carried over, in the 12 th century. The style continued to be used well into the 16th century in some parts of Europe, while giving way to the Renaissance style earlier in other regions. The style was developed in Northern France due to socioeconomic, political, and theological reasons.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, people fled cities as they were no longer safe. The Romanesque era saw many people living in the countryside of France while cities remained largely abandoned. During this time period, the French monarchy was weak and feudal landowners exerted a large amount of regional power. In the 12 th century, the French royalty strengthened their power, their titles, and their landholdings, which led to more centralized government. Additionally, due to advancements in agriculture, population and trade increased. These changes brought people back to the cities, which is where the most iconic representation of Gothic style is evident in cathedrals.

Gothic Architecture

Ratios became essential to French Gothic cathedrals because they expressed the perfection of the universe created by God. This is where stained glass emerges in Gothic architecture. Abbot Suger adopted the idea that light equates to God. He wrote that he placed pictures in the glass to replace wall paintings and talked about them as educational devices. A form of visual media for the uneducated masses, the windows were instructional in theology during the Gothic era, and the light itself was a metaphor for the presence of God. This practice is still evident in some churches today.

The ambulatory at St. Denis depicting two columns behind which lie the chapels of the cathedral.
St Denis Chorumgang by Beckstet is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Gothic Painting

Illuminated manuscripts provide excellent examples of Gothic painting. A prayer book, known as the book of hours, became increasingly popular during the Gothic age and was treated as a luxury item.

Painting of a woman reading a book, sitting in front of a miniature depiction of Mary with the child Jesus on her lap.
“Painting of a woman reading a book, sitting in front of a miniature depiction of Mary with the child Jesus on her lap” by die beiden Künstler Nicolas Spierinc und Liétard van Lathem is licensed under Public Domain

Adapted from Humanities: Prehistory to the 15th Century by Lumen Learning is licensed CC-BY-4.0

Adapted from “Medieval Music” in Music Appreciation with Theory by Lumen Learning is licensed CC BY 4.0.

Questions to Consider: How would you describe Medieval music? Does it remind you of any modern music? If so, what? And why? Is it beautiful to you? Why or why not?


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