On Secular Music

Introduction by William Mahrt

Courtly Love and Medieval Music

Medieval secular music might not sound like modern popular music, but like modern popular music it is most often concerned with love. During the twelfth century, the romantic ideal of the knight in the service of a lady was popularized by musicians employed at court. Particularly in France, medieval secular music was often about “courtly love.”

Medieval court musicians were often laymen who composed music orally. What survives of their music, however, was recorded by clerics, usually after the musicians’ deaths. These clerics noted pitch but not rhythm. Consequently, we are not sure what rhythm characterized these songs, though they probably followed the poetic meter. Often, one beat was assigned for each syllable, but sometimes notes were crowded together in a single phrase. The range of notes or pitches, like the rhythmic variety, was also restricted.

A Wandering Minstrel, I...

Secular music from the Middle Ages includes love songs, dances, satirical works, and religious works that were not intended for use in the liturgy [church service]. This music was often composed by traveling minstrels and jongleurs using poetry as lyrics, composed by people belonging to a higher social class. Such ministrels lacked the formal training received by composers of sacred music. They had roughly the same social status as carnival workers today.

Different Regions, Different Musicians

Musicians in medieval Western Europe included:

  • Goliards: 12th and 13th scholar gypsies singing in Latin
    • The Archpoet: The Confession Of Golias (C. 1160)
    • Walter of Châtillon (Gualterus de Castellione)
    • Alexandreis
    • Satirical poems
  • Street musicians in 13th c. England
    • Brid on a brere Estampie (recorder, hurdy-gurdy, nakers, tambourine).
  • Medieval Motets from the 13th to 15th century in France, England, & Italy often combined secular and sacred voices.
    • Guillaume de Machaut
  • Troubadours beginning in 12th c. Southern France singing in Provencal.
    • Bernart de Ventadorn (1130-1140 – 1190-1200), also known as Bernard de Ventadour or Bernat del Ventadorn
  • Trouveres in 13th c. northern France.
  • Minnesingers flourished in Germany from the 12th to 14th centuries.

Types of Medieval Secular Music

There were three main types of medieval secular music.

  1. monophony, with a single melody
  2. polyphony, where several voices sing the same text in harmony
  3. motet, where three voices sing different melodies and texts. The motet juxtaposes related themes by mixing secular and sacred texts.