Anglo Saxon Music: 500-1066

Anglo Saxon Music: 500-1066

By Jessica Lovett

Published Online (2000)

Introduction: 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.

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