[St. Pachomius Library]

The Power of Music in Medieval Literature:

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

          In our time, music has been denuded of much of the power it held in the Middle Ages. We preserve some remnants of our predecessors' beliefs regarding the power of music in areas such as music therapy, which maintains that music has a healing force, and on the other side in arguments that music such as rock and roll can have detrimental effects upon the listeners. Our readings of medieval literature and art, and indeed of medieval music, are inflected by a modern understanding that music that is generally simply entertainment. At best, we consider music to be emotionally moving. While music could serve as entertainment in the Middle Ages, the medieval understanding of music was not as limited as is ours. It is easy for us in the dawn of the 21st century, with constant music produced by electronic sources and 500 years of discussing music as entertainment, to overlook or devalue the music we find in medieval sources. In medieval literature, music could defeat the devil, conquer the hosts of Hell by calling upon their pity, and play an active role in a battle, to the point where choosing to blow a trumpet or not changes an entire history. It is my hope that by showing a wide variety of texts in which music is powerful in a very real way, I can offer another way to interpret the role of music in medieval art.
          In this study I am not interested in what "really happened" with music in the Middle Ages. Nigel Wilkins, in his book on Music in the Age of Chaucer bemoans the discrepancies between the literary and artistic representations of music and the actual performance of that music:

Quite often we have to be on our guard when we read literary descriptions of musical events, just as we have to be sharply critical of hosts of angelic instrumentalists or idealized instrumental groupings in paintings. The writer or the artist often let fantasy or aesthetic considerations take over and present ensembles which in no way reflect true contemporary practice.

( Wilkins 117)

These discrepancies between the literary, the artistic, and the actual cause difficulties for the music historian intent on recreating correct medieval musical practices. Literary documents are not reliable sources for understanding what really happened in medieval music. The question that begs to be answered, but is almost never asked in music history, is what these inaccuracies of literature signify. I believe that music in medieval literature is more powerful and complex than music historians give it credit. It is not, as historians such as Wilkins seem to assume, intended to be a representation of reality. Artistic representations of music have their own power, significance and symbolism.
          There are three ways areas in which I will discuss the ways in which music, as portrayed in literature, is used as a powerful tool. The first discusses music as a replacement for the physical weapons of a warrior. In this first area I will be discussing the spiritual battles, no less real than physical ones, which are fought and won with the aid of music. The second chapter discusses the way in which various medieval warriors have encountered and used music in battle and feats of arms. This section focuses especially on the role of the trumpet. The third section presents the purest example of music as power. In the third example, that of various Orpheus stories, the musician uses only music to obtain his goal.