Anglo Saxon Music 500-1066

Jessica Lovett

copyright 2000

Unlike its current trivial place in today's society, in the early middle ages music was a valued part of the four sciences, or quadrivium. The potential effects of this science were both useful and dangerous. While no anglo-saxon treatise surv ives pertaining to music, widely disseminated latin treatises such as De institutione musica (Boethius, 6th century) and Institutiones (Cassiodorus, 6th century) deal extensively with music’s ability to "ennoble or corrupt the character". (Strunk, 79) Boethius identified three types of music: musica mundana, the philosophical and astrological celestial music, musica humana, the music of human bodies and emotions, and musica instrumentalis, musical sounds created with instruments. These three classes of music were related by numerology; Since the they were similar by nature, musica instrumentalis could exert sympathetic influence over a listener by appealing to musica humana, his own physical music, both emotional and physiological. According to this system of influence, the type of music played could exert specific physical and emotional responses. Soft sounding instruments were played to encourage sleep, and faster songs and dances to promote physical vigor. The erotic shivaree was performed as a newly wed couple retired for the evening, and soft sounding music during the dinner hour was said to aid digestion. The musical performance in each of the above examples is a meaningful event, and intended to have a very specific effect beyond its value as entertainment. Along with the beneficial potential of music came the threat that a musician would play intervals calculated to rob the listener of his or her rational a bility, leaving the listener vulnerable to the devil’s temptation. Despite sounding somewhat fanciful to modern individuals, music’s practical, physical and moral influence was treated very seriously in the middle ages.

Members of the clergy often suspected music’s persuasive powers of demonic origin, especially when attempts were made to influence the natural world through secular musical acts. As a result, instructions were written outlining punishments for the pra ctice of sinful superstitions. An example of this is found in the latin Indiculus Superstitionum , which forbids the playing of wind instruments to influence the weather or the passing of an eclipse.(Griffiths, 100) As most extant discussions of a nglo-saxon secular music were written by members of the clergy, the descriptions of social musical events are inevitably biased or expressed as a chastisement of sinners. The use of music in religious context (though not undisputed) was looked upon more f avorably.

At the same time, church institutions were responsible for copying and preserving both religious and secular musical treatises and manuscripts. The oldest set of sacred songs in the english language are from the mid-twelfth century, but the existence o f other sources containing material of both sacred and secular nature makes it inadvisable to assume that the members of the church participated exclusively in religious music. It is difficult (and inaccurate) to discuss sacred and secular anglo-saxon mu sic as two entirely different practices, precisely because of this co-existence of religious and secular material in the extant sources. The oral tradition by which music was learned and performed relied upon the mutual influence of musicians; Outside of music for church services which was conducted only by clergy members, anglo-saxon musicians probably knew and performed both sacred and secular repertoire, choosing instruments, styles and songs that were appropriate for each event.

In general, music for the church relied upon vocal music, with occasional use of instruments on feast days (or more often depending on the local practice), while in secular situations a musician could choose from stringed, wind, or percussive instrumen ts. Instruments were divided into two groups based upon quality of sound. Whether a "Loud" or "soft" ensemble played depended on the occasion. A loud ensemble typically performed outside or to accompany dance, while a soft ensembl e would play for more sedate functions. Of the stringed instruments, the most popular was the rotte, (also called the crot, cruit or possibly cytere by Anglo Saxons), a quadrangular instrument with multiple gut or metal strings, played with the fi ngers and packed in a leather case that could be easily strapped over the player’s back. This instrument was later replaced by the Harp, with the importance of both instruments proven by their preservation as burial relics. By the tenth century, wind i nstruments such as the horn (carved wood and animal horn) had finger holes, and by the eleventh century the first bowed instruments became popular (the rebec, and the crowd, or crwth, resembling a rectangular fiddle). Panpipes, flutes (also called record ers, made of the bones of large birds or carved wood) bells, drums and organs, and the monochord were also widely available in anglo-saxon times. The monochord was a teaching instrument made of one string stretched across a board on which was written the ratios created by ‘stopping’ it at various points along its length with a wooden bridge. While the knowledge of mathematical intervallic relationships was often discussed as philosophy and implemented in musical practice, music notation does not accurate ly reflect pitch and rhythm until the early twelfth century. Evidence of developing notation from earlier sources is provocative, but does not give modern readers enough information to reconstruct melody and rhythm. In fact, it may not have been meant to communicate this information in the first place. Perhaps it functioned as a sort of mnemonic, reminding the performer of the general shape or performance nuance of a particular melody – for the most part, these nuances are also indecipherable by the mod ern musician. Nevertheless, the abundance of surviving instruments, iconography and literature cannot be argued with. There was great variety in the potential combination and use of musical instruments in both social and sacred anglo-saxon gatherings.

Within this variety, certain combinations and instruments seem to be especially popular: like the performance of songs accompanied by the harp. As every educated individual was expected to understand and participate in musical activity, failure to tak e a turn at the harp during feasts could result in embarrassment, seen here in Bede’s description of Caedmon before his gift of the "melodious utterance":

Often at a feast, when it was decided that all the guests should sing one after another to provide entertainment, he used to get up in the middle of the meal when he saw the harp approaching him, and would go out and return to his own home…(Gregory, qu oting Bede, Book IV Chapter XXIV, 96.)

Among the anglo-saxon works that contain descriptions of the presence of the harp during celebrations are the seventh-century poem Widsith, the prose tale Apollonius of Tyre and the heroic poem Beowolf. These fictional references are supported by the archeological evidence discussed above, making it safe to assume that the harp played a regular role in the entertainment of the upper class. For the uneducated lower class, churchyard carol dancing and singing on feast days was comm on, as was the singing of work songs to lessen the monotony of labor.

There is much speculation about the role music played during the recitation of poetry, and unless a definitive non-fictional anglo-saxon source discussion is discovered on this topic, it will remain speculative. There is some evidence that poets w ould recite heroic ballads and histories while accompanying themselves with a harp or other stringed instrument, but it is in the form of fictional references. Fiction, while definitely shown to reflect aspects of social practice, does not provide the de tails so sought after in this debate. However, considering the increased ability of the voice to project while singing, performances for large companies would (hypothetically) be better understood if the poet used a singing or chanting tone. Still, as t here is no source which survives that instructs performers in this style or that even discusses it extensively, nothing is certain. The separation of poetry and music is a relatively modern phenomenon: there is no real reason to suppose that anglo-saxon musicians would not recite, or that poets would not sing – but there is also no real proof or way to determine which situations would call for a combination of spoken word and musical accompaniment, and which require a completely musical performance.

Music occupied a unique position for the Anglo Saxon – it was both an entertainment, and a danger, a tool, and a potential weapon. Musicians were both valued and mistrusted for their skills; they could assist in digestion, or exert an unhealthy co ntrol over the emotions. Musicians were expected to juggle, sing, play several instruments, and recite poetry, and perhaps display more than one of these skills at a time. The educated were taught the philosophy of music, and the rudiments of musical per formance. Through the practice of their science, musicians could cure melancholy, or transport the listener beyond the realm of reason.



Bibliography and Suggestions for Further Reading



Galpin, Canon Francis W. Old English Instruments of Music, 4th edition. (New York: Barnes and Noble Inc., 1965)

Detailed descriptions and discussion of literary references, as well as iconographic evidence.

Griffiths, Bill. Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic (Norfolk: Anglo Saxon Books, 1996).

Great discussion of domestic magical practices, again relates peripherally to music.

Hoppin, Richard. Medieval Music. (New York: W.W.Norton &Company, 1978).

Detailed discussions of many aspects of medieval music.

Hughes, Andrew. Medieval Music: The sixth liberal Art. Toronto Medieval Bibliographies, 4 revised edition. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980).

Excellent source information.

Kieckhefer, Richard. Magic in the Middle Ages. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

General background, not focussed on music, but interdisciplinary and relevant to the realm of musical influence.

Maisen, John, with translations by John Gregory. The Illustrated Bede. (London: MacMillan London Limited, 1989)

Interesting inclusion of historical notes, archaeological and iconographic inclusions, relating to interspersed translations. Caedmon's history can be found here in full.

McGee, Timothy J. "Musical Instruments" Medieval England: An Encyclopedia. (New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1998) 533-536.

Rankin, Susan. "Music" The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Ango-Saxon England. (Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, Ltd., 1999) 327-328.

Strayer, Joseph R., editor. "Music, Western European" Dictionary of the Middle Ages , volume 8. (New York: Scribner, 1989) 578-636.

Invaluable general reading.

Strunk, Oliver. Source Readings in Music History. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1950)

This book has been published in several editions, the most recent published in 1998 and including the writing of Hildegard von Bingen. Useful translations of the most relevant sections of early music treatises are offered, with suggestions for further readings.

Lefferts, Peter M. "Music: History and Theory" Medieval England: An Encyclopedia. (New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1998) 529-533.