[St. Pachomius Library]

The Power of Music in Medieval Literature:
A Change of Heart:
Sir Orfeo

© 2000, 2004 by Brenda Johnstone Flynn. All rights reserved.

          In the confined world of Saint Guthlac's hermitage, music is the saints' one and only weapon against the forces which assail him. The miraculous quality of the music stands unquestionable within the framework of the story, a God-given weapon against terrifyingly powerful and real forces of evil. The story is about good fighting evil using the arrows of psalmody. Guthlac exchanged his physical weapons for musical ones. In The Song of Roland, as in Erec and Enide, the trumpet stands next to the sword, sometimes surpassing it and sometimes taking a lesser place. No longer, however, is music the only force that the Christian warrior can bring to bear upon the forces that attack him. At the battle of Rencesvals, it is not the devil who attacks Roland, but the host of Saracens who stand against the might of the French. There is no doubt that the Saracens are "bad" and the French "good," but while the contrast is a stark one, it is not as monochromatic as St. Guthlac's situation. Erec and Enide concerns itself much less with what is good and what is evil, and the role of the horn in the tale reflects that. No longer is music the powerful weapon of the Christian warrior. Instead it becomes a mysterious element belonging to an unknown order. It is still powerful, but it is not the power of moral rectitude, nor is its power used against the forces of evil. Despite the divorce of music and Christian righteousness, music does not lose its power.
          About a hundred years after Chrétien de Troyes amused the court of Marie de Champagne with romances such as Erec and Enide, another tale was being told in which music was also a central component. The romance is Sir Orfeo, a Middle English romance dating from approximately 1300, whose hero is a musician king. The Orpheus legend has endured for thousands of years, with the best-known versions coming from Ovid's Metamorphosis. Other ancient tellings are found in the works of Virgil and in works by lesser-known classical authors. The work was never lost to the medieval period, however, because Boethius (450 - 524) transmitted the story of Orpheus in the Consolation of Philosophy. Boethius was a central figure in the transmission of classical philosophy and music. He wrote one of the foundational textbooks of music theory, Fundamentals of Music, which was studied throughout the medieval period. That interest in music can, perhaps, be seen in his choice to retell the story of the greatest musician ever: Orpheus. Boethius tells one of the episodes found in Ovid's Metamorphosis, and provides an allegorical interpretation for the tale. For a long period, the Boethian account was the only one available to medieval writers, thus the other parts of the Orpheus story were not widely known in the Middle Ages. According to Freidman, "The Aeneid and Metamorphosis though known, were not widely studied until relatively late - the ninth century for the former and the twelfth century for the latter. In the meantime the Consolation, and the many glosses and commentaries written upon it had enjoyed remarkable popularity, especially in the schools, and exercised a formative influence upon medieval conceptions of Orpheus" (Freidman 90).
          I will be discussing two very different medieval Orpheus tales: the anonymous early fourteenth century Sir Orfeo, which presents a romantic, chivalric view of the Orpheus legend and Robert Henryson's Orpheus and Eurydice (c. 1480), which borrows heavily from the philosophical and allegorical Orpheus found in Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy.

Sir Orfeo

          Sir Orfeo was written by an anonymous author c. 1300. The author was probably familiar with Ovid's version of the Orpheus story, as well as Boethius'. The story differs from the "traditional" Orpheus story in a number of important details. It is a courtly romance, as opposed to the moral story found in Boethius. The underworld has been transformed to a fairy kingdom, and Orfeo's wife (named Heurodis) is not necessarily dead, but kidnapped. Orfeo, for his part, is a king who abandons his kingdom after the death of his wife, as well as a minstrel. While Sir Orfeo contains some elements that are quite different from Boethius' Orpheus, it is clearly the Orpheus legend for a number of reasons. The hero's name is slightly changed, but it is clear that Orfeo is Orpheus. Orfeo remains the Thracian king (although humorously, the poet assumes that the city of Winchester used to be called Thrace), and he remains a musician.
          The tale begins with a strongly musical introduction. The narrator discusses various kinds of lais (of which Sir Orfeo is one), and their possible subjects. The poems are clearly stated as musical as well as narrative: "They tooken hem hir harpes with game/ Maden layes and yaf hem name" (Orfeo lines 18 & 19). The tale was almost certainly an oral as well as a written one, and was probably performed on the same harps described in the introduction. According to E. Talbot Donaldson's introduction to the poem: "That the poem was the product of a minstrel seems certain because of the emphasis laid upon the value of music" (Orfeo p. 280). Sir Orfeo is positioned as a musical story about a musician, possibly by a musician. It makes a strong argument for the power of music in a chivalric society, but on a personal level, as opposed to the epic levels found in Saint Guthlac's tale and The Song of Roland.
          Sir Orfeo is introduced first as a typical chivalric hero: "an heigh lording/ A stalworth man and hardy bo,/ Large and curteis he was also" (Orfeo 26 - 28). Most medieval knights are renowned for their skill in battle. Erec, for example, spends much of his time proving his valor to his wife and all other observers. Sir Orfeo, while endowing the title character with a number of typical romance-hero characteristics, does not focus on Orfeo's prowess as a warrior. In this, Orfeo is unlike any of the previous heroes examined in this study, who were renowned as fighters as well as musicians. Guthlac gave up a highly successful career as a soldier, and Roland was the greatest warrior of the age. Instead, where the reader trained by these earlier stories anticipates a list of martial attributes, the Sir Orfeo author provides his hero with a different set of abilities:

Orfeo most of any thing
Loved the glee of harping:
Siker was every good harpour
Of him to have muche honour.
Himself he lerned for to harpe,
And laide theron his wittes sharpe;
He lerned so ther nothing was
A bettre harpour in no plas.
In al the world was no man bore
That ones Orfeo sat bifore,
And he mighte of his harping heere,
But he sholde thinke that he were
In oon of the joyes of Paradis,
Swich melodye in his harping is.

(Orfeo 37-50)

Orfeo's description passes over conventional accounts of the knight's handsome visage, his visible prowess, and his expensive clothing, and only briefly mentions his noble birth. While his generosity, another commonly discussed trait of the medieval knight, is mentioned, it is mentioned specifically in regard to Orfeo's love of music, and the associated generosity towards musicians. Where most romances would present a picture of a handsome warrior knight, the Sir Orfeo author presents a knight preeminent in another field: music. Valor in battle is replaced by skill in music. This shift of emphasis raises an interesting question about the position of music in this romance. Where in previous tales, music has been placed next to valor, in Sir Orfeo it appears to take the place of martial ability. In many ways, this substitution is similar to that in The Life of St. Guthlac, where music replaced violence as a form of power against and otherworldly foe. In Sir Orfeo, however, there is no indication that the hero was ever a formidable foe on the battlefield. Guthlac's prowess with the sword was well established before he chose to renounce violence and use music as his primary weapon.
          As it happens, force of arms is completely useless to Orfeo in the tale. Heurodis, sleeping under a grafted fruit tree, has a dream in which she is told that unless she reappears under the tree the next day, she will be torn to pieces. Sir Orfeo compromises between disbelief of the fairy knights and caution:

          Armorwe the undertide is come,
And Orfeo hath his armes ynome,
And wel ten hundred knightes with him,
Eech y-armed, stout and grim.
And with the queene wenten he
Right unto that impe-tree.
They made sheltrom in eech a side,
And saide they wolde ther abide
And die there everichoon,
Er the queene sholde from hem goon.
And yit amiddes hem ful right
The queene was away ytwight,
With faïrye forth ynome:
Men wiste nevere wher she was bicome.

(Orfeo 181-194)

Orfeo and a thousand knights cluster around Heurodis in the orchard, waiting in military formation for the fairy enemy to come. Yet while they remain "well armed, stout and grim" a thousand deep around the queen, saying that they would die before permitting her to be taken, she is spirited away from amid them. The army never even notices her kidnappers, nor are they presented with the opportunity to engage the army in battle. Heurodis is gone before there is any chance to respond or to fight. This almost ludicrous scene of a fully prepared army standing in formation for a battle that will never come, guarding a woman who is taken away from in the midst of them, shows the inefficacy of arms or valor in battle to prevent Heurodis' eventual fate.
          After his failure to prevent Heurodis' capture, Sir Orfeo abdicates his throne. He appoints a regent, tells him what to do when word comes of Orfeo's death, and becomes a hermit in the woods. Orfeo begins an existence of living off what he can gather and renounces almost all worldly possessions. I say "almost" because there is one notable exception: "Al his kingdom he forsook; . . . But his harp he took algate" (Orfeo 227 & 231). Carrying only a pilgrim's cloak and his harp, Orfeo heads off into the wilderness. Interestingly, the Sir Orfeo poet appears knowledgeable about the needs of the instrument, because Orfeo is not described as simply wandering around the countryside with his harp slung over his back. The instrument is well taken care of, even when Orfeo is not: "His harp whereon was al his glee/ He hidde in an holwe tree,/ And whan the weder was cleer and bright,/ He took his harp to him wel right" (Orfeo 267-270). This is a rather practical measure for a romance. The harp would not be able to endure the rough treatment of the life the newly austere Sir Orfeo is living, and the teller of this tale knows that. It could also not endure damp or wet weather, which would badly affect the strings and tuning. So it is kept in a hollow tree (which probably had about the same climactic control as your average castle) and taken out only when the weather was appropriate.
          The presence of the harp in Orfeo's otherwise austere life raises interesting questions. It is clear that the harp is a great source of joy for Orfeo. The reasons for Orfeo's self-imposed, austere exile are never fully explained, but it might be understood as a sort of penitence. That was the most common reason for hermit-like asceticism in the Middle Ages. But if that were the case, then Orfeo's is a very incomplete penitence, as he takes with him the thing he values most. Whether or not it was right for Orfeo to keep the harp with him, it is the only aspect of his old life that is taken with him into his new hermitage.
          The harp is also Orfeo's only opportunity for comfort and companionship. Orfeo shares with the Orpheus of the Greek and Latin traditions an ability to charm wild animals. The portrayal of that charming is quite different, however. In Ovid, nature's greatest reaction to Orpheus comes after the bard has been killed. Orpheus is not playing at the point at which all nature is moved to mourn him. The animals of Sir Orfeo, on the other hand, will endure his presence only while he is playing:

He took his harp to him wel right,
And harped at his owene wille:
In al the woode the soun gan shille,
That wilde beestes that ther beeth
For joy abouten him they teeth;
And alle the fowles that ther were
Come and sete on eech a brere
To here his harping afine,
So much melodye was therine.
When he his harping lete wolde,
No beest by him abide nolde.

(Orfeo 270-280)

Instead of having an ongoing relationship with nature, as Ovid's Orpheus did, Sir Orfeo attracts nature only while he is playing. When he begins to play, the wild creatures begin to gather around him "for joy" to hear his music. They are attracted to the music, not the musician. They would not mourn Orfeo were he killed, since their relationship is only with the sound of the music. The limitation of their relationship is even more evident by the beasts' quick retreat after the cessation of harping on the part of Orfeo. When he ceases harping, the animals return to their wild state. They are in no way permanently tamed by the music, as is nature in Ovid's Orpheus.
          This distinction shows a shift between the ancient and the high medieval story, and between the Sir Orfeo and figures such as Roland. In Ovid's Orpheus, the story is about a hero whose distinction is music. But his power, which is gained through music, endures after the strings of his harp have stopped resounding. Nature responds to news of Orpheus' death, not only to his playing: "The saddened birds sobbed loud for Orpheus;/ All wept: the multitude of beasts" (Ovid 300). Nature, in grieving for Orpheus, is reacting to him when the bard is not playing. Orpheus is an important figure whether he is playing music at the moment or not. Sir Orfeo, on the other hand, has no immediate power over anyone during his exile unless he is playing, despite his kingship. It is a subtle distinction, but one that lends a greater power to the music played than the performer of the music. While Orfeo is such a good harpist that his music draws the wild beasts to hear it, the power over them lasts only as long as the music does, and is tied entirely to the music and not at all to the man. Orpheus in Ovid has a power over nature that lasts past his playing, indicating that the music itself - the performance - is powerful, but that Orpheus as a person also attracts nature, since the relationship endures after the music ceases. Much the same is true with Guthlac and Roland. The music is a key component of their power, as well as a crucial element to their identity. But Roland without the olifant is still Roland with Durendal, and Guthlac when he is not singing is still a man of great holiness and power. During his ten-year exile, Orfeo lacks any power other than that garnered by the playing of music. When his harp is safe in its tree, Orfeo has no friends.
          While lurking in his hermitage in the forest, Orfeo often sees the fairy king and his contingent pass. It is unclear whether Orfeo realizes that these are the same fairies that have stolen his wife. If he does realize this, he makes no effort to discover whether she is still with them, or to follow them, until he sees Heurodis. In a touching moment, they exchange glances of mutual recognition. Orfeo is humiliated by his inability even to speak to his wife, under the circumstances: "Allas, too longe last my life/ Whan I ne dar nought to my wif--/ Ne she to me - oo word ne speke" (Orfeo 382-384). Before following them, however, Orfeo goes to his hollow tree and removes his harp. Again the pragmatism of the teller comes through. Orfeo did not just happen to have his harp on him when he saw this contingent pass by. It was safe, as a valuable instrument should be, in the hollow tree where he had left it.
          Rather than resorting to arms, or going back to claim his throne and rouse his army of a thousand to attack these fairies and win back his wife, Orfeo chooses as his weapon the harp. It is not necessarily the logical step for a romance, nor are fairies in romantic literature immune to the sword - at least not in other tales. But in Sir Orfeo, no thought is given to a military response to the fairies, after the first failed attempt to defend Heurodis. This is a clear indication that music has completely subsumed the role violence plays in most tales. Orfeo's valor comes not from his skill at arms, which remains ever unseen in this tale, but rather all his power comes from his music.
          Instead of laying siege or waging war, Orfeo appears at the gate of the obviously magical fairy palace and asks the porter for a musicians entrance: "Parfay, ich am a minstrel, lo,/ To solace thy lord with my glee/ If his sweete wille be" (Orfeo 382 - 384). This is apparently sufficient for the fairy porter to allow Orfeo entrance without further question. Such an untroubled entrance is actually strange. Orfeo at this point does not look like a gentleman, or even an acceptable figure. His black beard is long (reaching to his waist), he is skinny and scarred. If he looks like a typical musician, this is not a positive statement about the status of musicians. Not only does Orfeo look like an unsavory character, there is obviously no tradition in this fairy land of allowing wandering minstrels to play for the king. When the fairy king is presented with Orfeo he is confused:

The king answerede, "What man art thou
That art hider ycomen now?
Ich, ne noon that is with me,
Ne sente never after thee.
Sith that ich here regne gan
I ne foond nevere so hardy man
That hider to us durste wende
But that ich him would ofsende"

(Orfeo 421-428)

This indicates that wandering minstrels of the sort Orfeo is are at best a rarity at the fairy court. Orfeo actually has to explain the custom to the fairy king: "I nam but a poore minstrel,/ And, sire, it is the maner of us/ To seeche many a lordes hous./ And theigh we not welcome be,/ Yit we mote profere forth oure glee" (Orfeo 430-434). The ease of entry at the front gate poses a curious question. At the same time, it also shows that the status of the musician is a powerful one. Had Orfeo brought his troops from the kingdom of Winchester, it is unlikely he would have gained entrance into the fairy hall. As a minstrel, he is easily able to do so.
          In gaining the audience of the king, Orfeo is not completely honest. He describes himself as a wandering minstrel when in fact he is not. In human society he is a king. But for the last ten years, Orfeo had been neither a king nor a wandering minstrel. He is a hermit whose only audience is wild birds. While he accurately portrays the plight of the poor wandering minstrel, he has observed it only from the perspective of a patron; a patron who never turned away a minstrel. Orfeo, in his role as a wandering minstrel, plays for the fairy court. The result is very similar to that of his music making among the beasts of the field:

Bifor the king he sat adown
And took his harp so merye of soun,
And tempreth it as he wel can,
And blisful notes he ther gan
That alle that in the palais were
Come to him for to heere,
And lieth adown to his feete,
Hem thinkth his melodye so sweete.
The king herkneth and sit ful stille:
To heere his glee he hath good wille.
Good bourde he hadde of his glee:
The riche queene also hadde she.

(Orfeo 435-446)

Just as the wild beasts gathered around Orfeo when he played in the fields, so Orfeo's playing entrances the inhabitants of this fairy kingdom. Here we should pause to see the difference between this scene and Orpheus' descent into Hell in Boethius, Ovid, and Virgil. In the older version, Orpheus plays his way past the guardians of the gate. Orpheus' music is also lent special power by the sweetness of the songs, the celestial derivation of the songs, and especially by the grief and love of the player. The two latter reasons, which seem to be the most profound and effective (judging from the fact all the inhabitants of Hell are moved to pity for Orpheus), are entirely missing from Sir Orfeo. While his status as a musician gains him entry into the fairy palace, his actual music does not. Orfeo does not play his way past the guards at the gate. The amount of time elapsed between Heurodis' kidnapping and Orfeo's attempt at rescue precludes the persuasive, unrequitable grief Orpheus felt when he played to the somber king of the underworld. Orfeo plays extremely well indeed, but the fairy court's response hinges entirely upon his skill as an entertainer - his skill as a musician.
          The fairy king's response is to an excellent musician instead of to a musically articulate grieving husband. In Boethius' version of the Orpheus story, all Hell is emotionally moved by the song of Orpheus; indeed "the Furies, avengers of crimes who torture guilty souls with fear, are touched and weep in pity" (Consolation 74). The emotional power of the music is entirely missing in Sir Orfeo. Indeed, at no point in the tale is there any indication that the king of the fairies is aware that Orfeo desires Heurodis, or that he is her husband. The unnamed fairy king's response to the musician is a feudal, gift-giving response. In a very medieval move, the king promises Orfeo a reward of his choice: "Then saide to him the riche king,/ 'Minstrel, me liketh wel thy glee./ Now aske of me what it may be--/ Largeliche ich wil thee paye./ Now speke and thou might it assaye'" (Henryson 448-452). The king is pleased at the entertainment and promises to reward the minstrel generously. There is no indication that the music works against the king's character, as it does in the previous Orpheus' stories, nor is the audience apparently as inimical to music as are the torturers in Hell. This is a typical courtly response to a typical, if excellent, courtly musician.
          From this point until nearly the end of the story, Orfeo's harp remains silent. Orfeo's desired gift is, of course, his queen Heurodis. He asks the fairy king for "The eeche lady, bright on blee,/ That sleepeth under the impe-tree" (Orfeo 455 & 456). The fairy king at first denies his request, not because he a loath to give up Heurodis but because he feels as though the match would be an inappropriate one: "'Nay,' quath the king, 'that nought nere:/ A sory couple of you it were;/ For thou art lene, rowe, and blak,/ And she is lovesom, withoute lak./ A loothly thing it were forthy/ To seen hire in thy compaigny'" (Orfeo 457-462). Orfeo does not sing his way out of this argument, nor does he explain that it is entirely appropriate since he is her husband. Instead, he reminds the king of the promise he has made, and holds the king to his word. Winning with this argument, he leads Heurodis out of the fairy court, with no stipulations placed on the gift, which the fairy still does not know is his wife.
          Orfeo's music has two roles to play in the preceding episode. The first is that as a minstrel, he gains access to the court of the fairies where he might not have otherwise. The second is that his playing was sufficiently good to merit a generous gift from the king. The pathetic and emotional response garnered by Orpheus in previous stories is totally lacking in Sir Orfeo's recovery of Heurodis. The music is powerful, however. Remember that force of arms, the typical medieval weapon, was useless against this same fairy king. If Orfeo's music does not seem as overwhelming as Orpheus' it still accomplishes the singer's purpose where no other power does. Interestingly, Orfeo's gift-giving contract with the fairy king earns him more than does Orpheus' convincing song to the lord and lady of Hell. In the Orpheus legends, the bard does not get his lady back without a fatal stipulation that he not look back. In this instance, when Orfeo wins Heurodis back through the trope of an unspecified promise (which is also how Mabonagran found himself to be the antagonist of the Joy of the Court in Erec and Enide), the gift is not rescinded or compromised. Orfeo's music, strategically used, gains him all that he desires.
          Orfeo's music makes one more appearance before the end of the tale. The most interesting aspect of this final song, from the perspective of the power of music, is what Orfeo's harping fails to do. Having recovered his wife, Orfeo's days as a hermit are over. There remains the sticky situation of regaining his throne. One major problem with leaving a steward in charge of one's kingdom for ten years is that the steward is not always wholly willing to relinquish his charge at the end. It is for this reason that Orfeo approaches his old kingdom cautiously. He presents himself to his own steward in a manner similar to his approach to the king of the fairies: "'Sir steward,' he saide, 'grant mercy!/ Ich am an harpour of hethenesse:/ Help me now in this distresse'" (Orfeo 314-316). Thus he gains entry to his court the same way he did to the court of the fairy king, by asking for an audience in order to be able to play his music. He is welcomed by his steward as a minstrel, and told: "Eech harpour is welcome me to/ For my lordes love, Sir Orfeo" (Orfeo 519 & 520). Although this might seem to be sufficient encouragement for the king to reveal his identity, he chooses to test his steward further.
          When Orfeo enters the castle, he finds it full of musicians plying their trade. When the rest are silent, and his turn comes, he plays: "He took his harp and tempered shille - / The blisfullest notes he harped there/ That evere man yherde with ere./ Eech man liked wel his glee" (Orfeo 530 - 534). Again, Orfeo plays well enough to please all his listeners. Interestingly, his playing does not give his identity away. It seems as though Orfeo's music, which should be so surpassingly excellent and above compare as to reveal the player, fails to do so. Instead, the steward notices the harp upon which the bearded heathen minstrel is playing, and recognizes it as Sir Orfeo's. The harp, not the harper's music, is identifiable. The story ends happily with the steward overjoyed to have his king back and Orfeo and Heurodis living happily ever after. The implications of this tale for music and its power in the Middle Ages are mixed. The greatest indication of musical power in this tale has to do with the way in which arms and warrior ability are supplanted by harp and musical ability. The implicit argument that music can be successful in situations in which fighting is useless gives music significant power in medieval society. The power of music, as opposed to the power of the musician, is also stated strongly in the scenes in which Sir Orfeo plays to the wild animals. On the other hand, Orfeo's music by itself is not as necessary in this tale as it is in prior versions. Perhaps the fairy king would have been as generous to a lesser musician, since he had never had a wandering minstrel visit his castle before. It is promise making and keeping that earns Orfeo his wife back. Although the promise is made in response to Orfeo's harping, it is not an emotional, visceral response to the music, but instead a chivalric, feudal promise. Finally, the greatest harper in the world is recognized at his own castle not because of the music he makes, but rather because of the harp with which he makes it. In Sir Orfeo, music is both more and less powerful than in previous tales. Music is the only weapon that avails, but yet the power of the music seems more limited than in The Song of Roland or in St. Guthlac's haunted hermitage.