by Lady Melisande

© Lady Melisande 2001

According to Giraldus Cambrensus (Gerald of Cambria, 12th C), Welsh music consisted of a far more rapid series of notes than played otherwhere: "It is astonishing that in so complex and rapid a movement of the fingers the musical proportions can be preserved."

This should be a hint to us that in other places the shortest note that is likely to be encountered is an eighth-note. Your Continental troubadour, trouvère, or minnesanger is not going to do trills or runs. If your Welsh bard travels abroad, those same trills and runs may astonish, but they may also displease, as being bizarre: "those very strains which afford deep and unspeakable mental delight to those who have skilfully penetrated into the mysteries of the art, fatigue rather than gratify the ears of others who . . . do not understand; and by whom the finest music is esteemed no better than a confused and disorderly noise, and will be heard with unwillingness and disgust." Think of the reaction of an Edwardian to a heavy-metal guitar solo or even a wailing jazz cornet: "Noise! Horrid noise!" In Topography of Ireland, the same author refers to music in England as "slow and harsh" by comparison to the Celtic.

The descendants of the Britons in the twelfth century were also almost the only people using what we consider harmony: "In their musical concerts they do not sing in unison like the inhabitants of other countries, but in many different parts; so that in a company of singers ... you will hear as many different parts and voices as there are performers." In Cambria, north of the Humber, this seems to follow an earlier form, where the singers divide themselves into bass and treble groups only. Again, this tells us much about music on the Continent: that everyone will sing in unison. The English follow the Continental manner. Interestingly, Giraldus believes that the habit of singing in harmony rather than unison was acquired from the Danes and Norwegians. This is likely a reliable clue that Scandinavians will sing in multi-part harmony, too.

Irish music was also rapid, cheerful, and lively. The three Celtic nations, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland, were different schools of the same music and, in 12th C England, Scotland was considered to have recently produced the finest musicians of the three, finally edging out Ireland.

Rarely were musical instruments played at funerals amidst the wailing of grief, notably only by the Irish and Spanish.

In the early 1200s, these sacred songs will be available, among many others, of course, but these are the ones I found something on.

By Brother Henry of Pisa, either words or melody or both:

"O Christ, my God,
"O Christ, my Refuge,
"O Christ, King and Lord ..." For a traditional tune.

"Wretched man, think thou on thy Creator's works" in three parts.

"O Man, how anxious
"Is my care for thee ..."

"O Cross, for thee shall I mourn"

"He has watered the tree of Jesse." replacing an old tune for the words, considered "a crude one, discordant for singing." The words were by Richard of St. Victor, who wrote many hymns.

"Mourn, tongue of Magdalen" with words by Chancellor Philip of Paris

"The Lord, who suffered, is risen today," the antiphonal part by Vita of Lucca.

"Hail Mary, hope of the world." by Brother Vita of Lucca (fl.c. 1239)

"Let the Virgin Mother rejoice" by Lord Thomas of Capua, melody by Fr. Henry of Pisa, antiphone by Fr. Vita of Lucca.

List of instruments

12th century Celts

The Welsh used only the harp, the pipes, and the crwth [crooth] or crowd (chorus) (?a form of bagpipe?). The Irish used harp and tabor (a small, flat drum like an overgrown jingle-free tambourine). The harp had strings of brass rather than gut, which would give a brighter, louder sound, like the difference in sound between stringing an acoustic guitar with metal rather than gut. The Scots used the harp, tabor, and crwth.

14th century orchestra

Note that many medieval instruments come in sets or families called "consorts." This is like the recorder family available at most music stores for you to see, which start with a little sopranino recorder and descend in pitch but increase in size through soprano recorder, alto recorder, baritone recorder, and bass recorder. Consorts existed for instruments from krumhorns to viols. Medievals often enjoyed hearing their music played in unison on like-voiced instruments. They could also mix together all sorts. The list below is a medieval orchestra described by Guillaume de Machaut as we found it in translation, which brings up its own problems of accuracy.


citole: Mistaken by most moderns for a lute.
gittern: Early form of guitar, about halfway between it and a lute.
harp: This will not be a mucking great orchestra harp with pedals (very modern) but a simpler wooden instrument. It may indeed be so large that it must be set upon the floor, or it may rest on a stand or the player's knee.
lute: If you haven't seen a lute, you are on Tier 0 research! The body is tear-drop shaped with a rounded back. It is also called the gittara saracena, Saracen guitar, because it is a direct steal of the Moorish instrument known as al-oud.
monochord "where there is only one string": This may be a simple necked instrument, or it may be the hurdy-gurdy of one string played by a rosin coated wheel turned with a crank and fingered with keys.
psaltery: Also known as the psalter. Much like a zither.
rebec: A funny-shaped fiddle. The body is flat and waisted, but pointed at each end, with a short neck. It was held against the body and plucked or bowed.
viol: Also known in Italian as the viola da gamba family. The name "da gamba" means "of the leg": smaller ones were held on the leg, larger ones between the legs, and the bow was held with the palm upwards. They had six strings tuned like a guitar. This is assuming the translator has not misread "vielle" which is another, earlier instrument of four strings tuned like a viola.


Notice all the forms of bagpipes. So far as our research shows, the bagpipe did not originate in the British Isles, nor are the Scottish and Irish clinging to their unique ancestral invention. Rather, pipes powered by bag air resevoirs go back at least to the Migration Age and were spread across Europe. To the Romans it was the tibia utricularis. Bagpipes, too, came in consorts, and had at least one drone and a chanter with single or double reed. They could be fed by blowing in a pipe or by working an internal bellows to fill the sack. After the Renaissance they died back until Scotland and Ireland were almost the only places they were left by the nineteenth century. The Scots were the only ones to play them on the battlefield.

Almost all wind instruments were held straight out from the face with the hands in front of the player. The position of the modern transverse flute, from the fife, held across the face with the hands to one side, should never be assumed even if the thing is called "a flute." These straight flutes long precede the transverse flute, which inherited only their name.

big German cornet: The translator may mean cornets of the modern orchestra or the cornetto, a curved brass horn blown like a trumpet but fingered like a recorder. Cornetti came in many sizes. Germany may have pioneering the manufacture of really big, deep ones.
chevrettes (bagpipes):
cornemuses: French bagpipe fed by a mouth pipe.
fistule (flute):
flajos (flutes):
flajos de saus (flutes):
flaüste brehaingue (Bohemian flute):
horns: Covers a wide range of brass instruments.
krumhorns: Also known as crumhorns. There is a cap over the top of the instrument, keeping the player's lips away from the double reed while blowing air over it. Note is modulated by finger holes. The end is bent back up and flares into a bell. Has a distinctive buzzing tone.
muse de blef (bagpipe):
muse d'Aussay (bagpipe):
panpipes: Several pipes, each producing a different note, fastened together next to each other so they are convenient for the musician to blow through.
pipe: fingered tube, most often of wood.
souffle: (?bellows); possibly yet another bagpipe.

You can hear many of these, though on Renaissance tunes, in the recordings by Piffaro: Canzoni e Danze (Italian songs and dances), Chansons et Danceries (French), and Los Ministriles (Spanish music).

(Other bagpipes, not in Machaut's listed orchestra, are the Breton bignou or biniou, old Irish bagpipe, Scottish bagpipe, the Italian zampagna, and the German Dudelsack or Sackpfeife, all fed off a mouth pipe; and bellows-fed modern Irish bagpipe, Spanish gaita, French musette, and Northumbrian bagpipe.)


bells: Fat round jingle bells, as are put on horse harness, mounted on a wooden lath or ring.
cymbals: Probably the metal pans you are thinking of, usually held and struck with a stick or against each other. They go down to very small sizes, but with the prescence of the bells in the orchestra these would likely be larger brass percussion.
nakers: clappers(?)
tabor: Also known as tambour. A simple drum with rather thick heads laced on with rope. Usually beaten with a stick. Again, in many tones from large to small.
timbrel: A round hoop of wood pierced to hold pairs of little cymbals on metal rods. A tambourine without the rawhide head.

? ? ? ?

little trumpet:
trumpets: When one sees this in a translated list, it may indeed represent a brass wind instrument we know as the trumpet, the straight horns you see sounded by "heralds" with flags hanging from the instrument. It may also be a mistranslation of trompet, as in marine trompet, a percussion instrument of one string which is beaten with a stick. This is related to the loathesome habit of translating the Greek "kumbalos" as "cymbal" just because the one word is ancestral to the other (kumbaloi are like the old Spanish "pallilos," rods made of wood) or "kythara" as "guitar" when it was clearly a form of lyre.

For a cappela music, we recommend Paris 1200 by Lionheart, plainsong and Gregorian chant by six voices.

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