Literature, music and illuminated manuscripts
- Article by: Alixe Bovey
Art, music and literature blossomed in the Middle Ages, producing some of the most important works of Western civilisation.
LiteratureCompared to today, few people were able to read and write. Those who could were mainly church men (and, to a lesser extent, women), who read and composed works (mostly in Latin) ranging from commentaries on the Bible, philosophy, history, and the saints, to romances, ghost stories, and bawdy tales of misadventure.
However, as an ever-more wealthy, literate and largely urban population developed in the high and later Middle Ages, so too did the audience for sophisticated writings. People read (or listened) for entertainment as well as education. A growing number of rich and aristocratic patrons had an appetite for many kinds of writing: books told of the exotic adventures of noblemen and women; of ancient battles and love stories; of the crimes of sinners and villains, and of the deeds of saints and heroes. This growing interest in literature is also reflected in the emergence of vernacular texts - texts written in Italian, French, English and so on - especially from the 1100s onwards. Whereas Latin writing was produced by and for a largely clerical audience, this new literature was accessible to a broader public.
Framed miniature of cerberus grasping a soul, from Dante Alighieri's Divine ComedyView images from this item (1)
Historiated initial of Petrarch seated in a garden reading a book, from Petrarch's Opuscula VariaView images from this item (1)
Illustration of Dante and Virgil, from Dante Alighieri's Divine ComedyView images from this item (1)
Miniature of Chaucer, from Thomas Hoccleve's The Regiment of PrincesView images from this item (1)
MusicMusic was a major part of secular and spiritual culture in the Middle Ages. The development of music and its notation - that is, the way it was written down - can be seen in many manuscript sources.
The most famous example of medieval song in English is the rota, or round, ‘Sumer is icumen in’, illustrated in the manuscript below. This composition is from a volume of mid-13th century manuscripts, which probably originated from Reading Abbey. The piece requires four singers to sing the same melody, one after the other, starting when the previous singer reaches the red cross on the first line. While this is happening, two lower voices repeat the words ‘Sing cuccu’. Instructions on how to perform the song are given in the bottom right hand corner of the page.
Sumer is icumen inView images from this item (1)
Full-page miniature of the Office of the Dead, from the 'Hours of René of Anjou'View images from this item (1)
The Golf bookView images from this item (4)
Copyright: © British Library
Instruments including a harp, viola, lute and hurdy-gurdy, from Albumazar's Treatise on astrologyView images from this item (1)
Miniature of King David in prayer, from 'The Maastricht Hours'View images from this item (1)
Marginal painting of a friar with a musical instrument and a woman dancing, from 'The Maastricht Hours'View images from this item (1)
IlluminationsIlluminated manuscripts are a precious source for learning about medieval visual culture, especially since they tend to be much better preserved than, for example, paintings on panels or walls. In the early Middle Ages, most illuminated manuscripts were produced in monasteries and had a religious theme: angels or saints, for example.
Drawing of Pachomius receiving tables from an angel, from 'The Arundel Psalter'View images from this item (1)
A historiated initial of William de Brailes, from 'The De Brailes Hours'View images from this item (1)
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