Medieval Secular Music

In the Medieval period, there were two types of musical genres, Church, or sacred music, and secular music.

Sacred music was used in the glorification of God, and to praise both Jesus and the Virgin Mary.c This music was very dominating in the era, although it had very little or no entertainment purpose.

Arnold (1982) says that medieval secular music was solely composed for entertainment purposes.

But where did it originate from?

This document will delve into the origins and developments of early and high secular music in the medieval period.

One thing that must be understood before continuing is that much of the music of the time was reliant on oral tradition, to be passed on via word of mouth.

Bonds (2003) explain that:

“Naturally, there is little evidence of secular music and musicians, namely for two reasons.   One, much of the music that was written down in the time was sacred, as the scribes that were available to write it down, were mostly monks.  Secondly, much of the music that was written down, remains anonymous, as many of the composers of the music were actually poets or lyric writers, and the tunes to which they based their songs had most probably been written by someone else.” (pg. 65).

It is by these reasons, that secular music of the medieval period is hard to come by, as much of it has never been written down, and the composers are unknown.

Secular music was (as already explained) a form of entertainment for the people of the time.

Crocker (1966) says that secular music was written on topics about love, political satire, dances, dramatic work, and also moral and religious subjects, however the religious subjects were not for church use, such topics like the love songs to the Virgin Mary were written.

Secular music was, in form quite simple.  Mikulinsky (2005) explains that secular music was written for the town folk, those who were somewhat alliterate and uneducated.  Therefore its form was monophonic, and syllabic and had a narrow range. Rhythms are largely unknown, but were probably improvised, at the least for decoration.

Mikulinsky (2005) goes on to explain that much of the music was generally unaccompanied with instruments used only for introductions and postludes.

These catchy simple tunes started as a small idea, but eventually became a country-wide phenomenon.

It is explained by Seay (1975) that one Latin man was seen to have been a major representative of secular music creation, he was Vanantius Fortunatus (530 -609).  Although Fortunatus made a big impact on the creation of secular music, the most important secular Latin products were not produced till some time later.

Seay (1975) says that much of the early secular compositions were done by the Goliards, or wandering scholars.  These men were clerics who roamed the country-side as they pleased, writing and creating works on subjects of love, and obscene drinking habits.

It is suggested that many of the tunes used by the Goliards, were infact sacred pieces.

In southern France, from around the middle of the 11th century, a group of musical poets came together, and formed a group known as the Troubadours.

Cyrus (1999) explains that Troubadours wrote their music principally on the subject of love, in all its variations and aspects.  Among there are a few scant pieces on the Crusades, the political satire, and on the death of a protector or friend.

Songs by the Troubadours were performed not only in festive occasions by the town’s people, but mainly by a special class of musicians know as jongleurs.  The jongleur as Arnold (1982) explains is simply a person who show’s his performance talents to anyone who would pay him.

Another name for the jongleur, is the minstrel.  Crocker (1966) says that minstrels where lower status people, or carnival workers, who were travelling vocalist and instrumentalist playing other peoples music.  Later in the period Germany produced a type of musician similar to the Troubadours known as the Minnesingers.

Unfortunately, the art of the Troubadour disappeared at the beginning of the thirteenth century, with the destruction of the Provencal civilisation in the Albegensian Crusades that began in 1209.

Seay (1975) goes on to explain that many of the Troubadours fled in the Crusades to Northern Italy.  There, they continued to do their duties, and became known as the Italian Travatori; Sicily was then the major centre of further development of secular music.

Although the Troubadours and other composers lived in such dark times, each still managed to find what was left good in their era, and wrote beautiful, yet simple tunes that could brighten even the darkest spirits inside people.

It is a shame that much of the music has been lost to today’s society, but there are some, especially by the

Troubadours that live on, and continue to amaze us with their beauty.


Crocker. R (1996) A History of Musical Style, Mc Graw-Hill Inc. New York

Bonds. M. E (2003) A History of Music in Western Culture, Prentice-Hall.  New Jersey

Seay. A (1975) Music in the Medieval World, Prentice-Hall.  New Jersey

Arnold. J (1982) Medieval Music, Oxford University Press.  Oxford


Cyrus. C. J (1999) “Music” Introduction to Medieval Music, online Reference Book for Medieval Studies

URL: 9/5/06

Mikulinsky. R.(2005)  Medieval Secular Music Terminology, URL: 9/5/06

Simpson. J (2004) Medieval Music: Birth of Polyphony URL: 9/5/06

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