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How women contributed to the medieval music scene

By Sophie Andrade

Could medieval women be musicians? Here are three examples of how they created music in the 13th and 14th centuries.

Europe in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was riddled with political strife, natural disasters, and plague. It was a dangerous place to be, and yet, despite the troubled landscape, creativity and musical innovations flourished.  At the Notre Dame School in Paris, the Ars Nova was created, bringing to life a form of polyphonic music with a new system of notation, allowing for a wide range of complex rhythms. The sophisticated and technically advanced music was performed in the highest social circles of nobility and the royal courts. Different countries began to adapt the Ars Nova to their own cultural tastes, bringing about regionally distinct versions of the traditionally French Ars Nova genres.

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As the composition of new music became ever more scholastic and technically complex, it became nearly impossible for women, being excluded from universities and places of higher learning, to keep up. In order to compose genres of music in the Ars Nova style, including motets and ballades, one had to be familiar with the new rules and techniques of notation and rhythmic values. Additionally, if one desired to write about the theory of music practices, one had to be familiar with advanced subjects taught only in elite schools, including philosophy and mathematics.

Knowing this, it would be easy to assume that medieval women no longer held a valuable place in the development of music, at least for the time being, and did not have any knowledge of music beyond what they might hear at court or in church. This, however, is simply not true. Women may not have been able to compose Ars Nova music at the same level as men, but there are a handful of examples showcasing how women flourished and contributed to the music scene of the era.

Beguines

A beguinage was a group of women from various social classes who wished to live together in a religious society, but without the strict rules followed by nuns. The groups arose in the later Middle Ages due to a renewed interest in spirituality among European lay people.  Beguinages situated in modern-day Netherlands and Belgium had a great musical tradition in the form of their schola, and often produced influential liturgical music. Beguines were free to come and go from their beguinage, meaning, unlike nuns, they were not bound to the lifestyle forever. The Grand Mistress was their guide, and her rules would often include chastity, simple dress, and participation in religious work.  The court beguinages in the southern Low Countries, along with the local clergy, were able to create their own liturgy for their favourite saints’ days, including the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene.

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At first, it was only the priest or chaplain reading the service who sang in the beguinage churches.  This began to change towards the end of the thirteenth century when the schola was introduced in the larger beguinages. The schola was a choir of beguines, chosen by the “schoolmistress” and choir mistress (canterse), who, once chosen, would have been educated in music and Latin.  Over time, the schola’s responsibilities grew. They evolved from only performing when the priest was not able to do so, to singing along with the priest and chaplains every day during Matins, High Mass, Vespers and Compline, and throughout important holidays such as Advent, Lent and the Feast of Corpus Christi. Lay people would have heard their original music too when they attended mass at the local beguinage churches.

Perhaps the greatest contribution from a beguine to the liturgy came from Juliana of Cornillon. When she was young, Juliana had a vision while gazing at the altar of an incomplete moon. The moon, with one section darkened, was a symbol for the increasingly popular elevated host, and the dark spot indicated there was a feast missing from the calendar – one that would celebrate that host. After years of preparation and study, Juliana, with the help of a young canon named John, wrote the Mass and Office for the Feast of Corpus Christi. Juliana faced a great deal of criticism but was often encouraged by Eve of St. Martin, an anchoress in Liège. Juliana passed away before the feast was to be widely recognized, and it was Eve who continued Juliana’s endeavour. Eve finally saw their hard work come to fruition in the final quarter of the thirteenth century, when Pope Urban IV made the feast a universal celebration. The feast was to become one of the most influential of its time and was the first to have been imagined and composed by women.

Paradies bei Soest

Another group of women, also situated in the Low Countries, made a different contribution to the liturgy. The nuns in the Dominican convent of Paradies bei Soest were patrons and illuminators of highly valued liturgical manuscripts. The intertextual illustrations in their manuscripts would often contain commentary on the chants, as well as prayers and passages of scripture. As members of the Dominican order, they were expressly forbidden from singing in the Ars Nova style. Ornamental melismas, along with hocketing and syncopated rhythms, were seen as sinful and seductive when sung by a woman. Women’s voices were equated to the sound of sirens’ songs, which would lure men to their lust-induced deaths.  Even the pope was disturbed by the new sounds from France. In a papal order entitled, “De vita et honestate clericorum,” issued in 1325, Pope John XXII criticized the style and those who performed it, asking singers “to practice a more serene style of plainchant” instead.

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Thus, the chants notated in the Pradies bei Soest graduals are simple and, according to musicologist Lori Kruckenberg, “old fashioned.” This is not to say that the Paradies chants were not beautiful or sung without great feeling. The nuns of Paradies bei Soest no doubt considered music and its performance a large and important part of their lives. Their interaction with more modern forms of music, such as the Ars Nova, came in the form of their illuminations rather than in the chants themselves. What the nuns lacked in modern polyphony, they made up for in the extravagant illustrations surrounding their music. The inscriptions, names, and prayers, both hidden in the pages and written in plain sight, remind one of additional “voices” in a polyphonic piece, while the rubricated borders, intricate initial letters, and images of saints can be seen as the lengthy melismas and innovative rhythms forbidden in the actual music.

The deep intertextuality of the illuminations suggests the nuns were well-read and educated. The commentaries on the chant and the visual connections made between St. John and the Virgin Mary are not unlike the treatises on musical theory from the universities, as they both require a deep understanding of the subject matter, philosophical thought, and analysis. These richly illuminated liturgical manuscripts, once finished, would act as a source of music and study for the nuns, keeping in line with the highly academic attitude towards music in Paris.  While the nuns of Paradies bei Soest may not have been allowed to compose music in the Ars Nova style, there is no doubt that they interacted with and studied their music in a thoughtful, educated way.

Las Huelgas

The final example of musical women comes from the Las Huelgas monastery in Spain. In the thirteenth century, Las Huelgas produced a gigantic manuscript of music, much of it polyphonic, called the Las Huelgas Codex. It cannot be proven that the nuns who lived at Las Huelgas defied the ecclesiastical authorities and performed the polyphonic songs within the manuscript, however, it seems highly unlikely that they never even had a peek at them. The manuscript was in their care for several hundred years and contained plenty of ‘appropriate’ monophonic pieces as well. And they certainly did sing at Las Huelgas – the nun’s choir stalls are even decorated with wood carvings of sirens! Whether this was a deliberate message of defiance or simply a positive interpretation of the mythical sirens’ song, we may never know. What we do know is that there was clearly a strong tradition of music and singing at Las Huelgas and the preservation, if not the daily use of the Las Huelgas Codex was still a valuable contribution to medieval music.

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As musical tastes and styles advanced during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, men began to dominate the increasingly academic world of music. Due to their exclusion from universities and certain social spheres, it would be easy to assume that women had no part in the new and complex music environment. After some careful research, however, it is quite clear that women, despite the discouragement they faced at every turn, were able to make their own contributions to and stay up to date with the music of their time. While there may not be any evidence of a woman producing works as prolifically as some of the great male composers of the day, their contributions to the liturgy of the Divine Office, the devotion of the schola to original liturgy and performance, their richly illuminated musical manuscripts, and the Las Huelgas monastery and Codex are as worthy of note as that of any Ars Nova composers.

Sophie Andrade is a recent graduate of the University of St Andrews with an MLitt in Medieval Studies. Her research focuses on medieval women, music, manuscripts, and castles. She lives in Nottingham, England.

Further Reading:

Catalunya, David. ‘Nuns, Polyphony, and a Liégeois Cantor: New Light on the Las Huelgas ‘Solmization Song’. Journal of the Alamire Foundation 9.1 (2017): 89-133.

Fassler, Margot. Anthology for Music in the Medieval West. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014.

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Fassler, Margot. Music in the Medieval West. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014.

Kruckenberg, Lori. “Music for St. John the Evangelist: Virtue and Virtuosity at the Convent of Paradies.” In Leaves from Paradise: The Cult of John the Evangelist at the Dominican Convent of Paradies bei Soest, edited by Jeffrey F. Hamburger, 133-160. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008.

Mulder-Bakker, Anneke B. Lives of Anchoresses: The Rise of the Urban Recluse in Medieval Europe. Translated by Myra Heerspink Scholz. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.

Simons, Walter. “Beguines, Liturgy and Music in the Middle Ages: An Exploration.” In Beghinae in cantu instructae: Musical Patrimony from Flemish Beguinages (Middle Ages – Late 18th C.), edited by Pieter Mannaerts, 15-26. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2009.

Top Image: Las Huelgas Codex fol. 159v

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