[St. Pachomius Library]

The Power of Music in Medieval Literature:

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

This work discusses the power of music in medieval literature. It begins with The Life of Saint Guthlac, an 8th century saint's life, and the way in which Guthlac uses the psalms as a weapon against demonic forces. The next section is about the role of trumpets in medieval warrior society, as well as linking the discussion to Biblical precedents. The chapter discusses the critical role the olifant plays in The Song of Roland, both as a communication device within the framework of the poem, and as an object capable of changing the outcome of the story, as well as the olifant's role as a relic. Continuing the topic of the medieval trumpet is the scene of the Joy of the Court in Chrétien de Troyes' Erec and Enide. I discuss the trumpet as it relates to warrior society, and the degree to which it complements and displaces valor. The final chapter revolves around two medieval tellings of the Orpheus story: the first the anonymous romance Sir Orfeo, and the second Robert Henryson's Orpheus and Eurydice. I use these texts to show how music can empower the musician.

One theme I follow across all the texts is the tension and cooperation between martial valor and music. The heroes of each text are male and of the warrior class. Their use of music to obtain their goals raises questions about the intersection of music and physical prowess. The opposition of the sword and the trumpet, particularly apparent in The Song of Roland, indicates that the olifant is more important than might be first apparent.

My thesis argues that when music is portrayed in medieval literature, it is often a more powerful phenomenon than the modern reader might assume.