Music in the
Middle Ages

A Reference Guide
Suzanne Lord
(Greenwood Press)
The Dark Ages began when a succession of rock bands swept through shorting out all the circuits and wiping out home lighting from Knoydart to Slobozia. The first and noisiest were the Goths, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Minigoths and the very fat Maxigoths ... followed by the Jutes, Huns, Langobards, Angles, Avars, Gepids, Gerbils, Audis, Volkswagens, and Hummers.

There were also the Franks who invented the Frankenfurter, the Picts who invented the Pixel, and the Vandals who spray-painted graffiti everywhere.

One of the primary drawbacks of the medieval era was the collapse of law and order. Brigands and highwaymen ruled the roads, ordinary people were afraid even to go to the corner to pick up the shopping news. Even if they did, it would have done them no good, for shopping virtually ended when the merchants could no longer import Genoa salami, Parma ham, or Chinese Christmas tree ornaments.

Things were made worse with the 100 Years War which went on for more than 115 years because of inflation and a breakdown in the stock market, also known variously as the black market or the black death. Following Black Monday in 1348, when even Paine Webber tottered on the brink, the banks of the Holy Roman Empire were saved only by a timely injection of 100 billion ducats by the emperor Otto the Odorless.

Because people in the Dark Ages were so bored, Pope Urban II had them go out and make war on heathens or heretics who had more light or more fun. Peter the Hermit, Walter the Penniless, John the Fretful, Phillip the Fair, Charles the Fat, and Pippin the Short were the stars of the People's Crusade, which was followed by the Children's Crusade featuring Stephen the Shepherd, Babar the Elephant, and Sylvester the Cat. These "Warriors of God" went around Europe holding revival meetings and burning crowds of people at the stake to spread some light. The whole procedure was institutionalized under Popes Urban III and Urban IV, and came to be called urban planning, or the Holy Office.

The official languages in Medieval Europe were High German, Low German, High Dutch, Low Dutch, Langue de Oc and Langue de Oïl which was gooey but nonetheless preferred by the popular songsters of the day called troubadours, courtly lovers who fell in love with courtly ladies accompanying themselves on an instrument called the "loot" --- ancestor of the modern ukulele.

In German lands, troubadours were called Minisingers. They were forbidden by law to measure more than 4'3'' from head to toe. Tannhäuser, a famous but oversize Minisinger, stood 4'6" in his slippered feet ... and was banished from Wartburg as a result.

§     §     §

Music of the Middle Ages was performed with gusto on a great variety of instruments, most of which have fortunately gone extinct. These included a wind-band of sackbuts, shawms, krumhorns, regals, curtals, and the aptly named rackets, all declared illegal when the Renaissance broke out. In the string section, there were the crwth, vihuela, vielle, and viol, which when played together were called a "consort of violence."

Then there were portative organs, positive organs, negative organs, orpharions, nakers, oliphants, jingle-rings, bladder-pipes, bladderworts and pig bladders. The latter were blown up for birthdays and other festive occasions and often flew away in a windstorm if you weren't careful.

One of the favorite tunes of the day was the simple "Lullabye" which went

    Lullay, lullow, lully, lullay,
    Bewy, bewy, lully, lully,
    Bewy, lully, lullow, lully,
    Lollay, baw, baw, my barne,
    Slepe softly now.

Gregorian Chants were mostly sung in the dark until the Concordat of Worms declared that people should lighten up. Pope Felix the Happy told the peasants to go out and be glad, and Pope Boniface the Leery told them to tune in, turn on, and drop out. Because they were simple folk they often went out and did what they were told, which resulted in the High Middle Ages. Everyone was out of their minds, busy with their sackbuts and crwths at all hours of the day and night. The modern revival of Olde Musicke has unfortunately not included the crwth, because to this day nobody has figured out how to pronounce it.

The Fall of Constantinople announced the end of the Middle Ages, which if you ask me was long overdue.

--- Dr. Phage
L. W. Milam
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