Franciscan Chant as a Late Medieval Expression in the Liturgy

Franciscan Chant as a Late Medieval Expression in the Liturgy

Wagner, Lavern John

Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 5 (1988)


When St. Francis turned his back on earthly vanities and established the Franciscan order in the first part of the 13th century, his biographers tell us he did not cease his interest in music. The Little Flowers of St. Francis recount that he went about singing, and we have the text, though not the music of several of his songs. In sending his friars out to preach he admonished them to sing God’s praises as if they were “joculatores Domini,” i.e. “minstrels of the Lord. The friars were closely associated with the composition and spread of laude spirituali simple religious songs in the vernacular that became enormously popular. While this popular aspect of the Franciscan musical contribution has been duly noted, the liturgical chants which the Franciscans developed, especially those commemorating saints of their order, have not been as thoroughly considered. It is interesting to explore some characteristics of Franciscan chant, and relate its musical style to the mainstream of medieval liturgical chant, the better known Gregorian chant.

As a background to this study, it can be recalled that in the latter part of the 19th century the monks of the Benedictine monastery at Solesmes, France conducted their epochal examinations of Gregorian chant manuscripts. The manuscripts which they researched, and which have since come to be regarded as representative of the “Golden Age” of Gregorian chant, come from the 9th through 12th centuries, a period before the Franciscan order existed. The monks of Solesmes published their research in the Volumes of their PalĂ©ographie musicale.6 Only recently has there been an attempt to study chant which was developed within other religious orders, and which is unique to them. Dom David Nicholson, a Benedictine at Mount Angel Abbey, Oregon, gathered together articles on the chants of many religious orders in the Dictionary of Plainsong which he compiled in the 1960’s. His intention was to have this Volume printed; however, changes in the Roman Catholic liturgy mitigated against this, and he was only able to have fifteen sets copied and bound as a private edition. My contribution to this Dictionary of Plainsong is on chants unique to the Franciscan order, and it has given the impetus to this study.

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