[St. Pachomius Library]

The Power of Music in Medieval Literature:
Battling Evil:
Music for the Christian

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

          David, who cured Saul with his music, left a large body of psalms to be sung, which could be used against evil spirits in the same way that David used music. From the early years of Christianity, sung psalms were employed as a form of prayer and spiritual discipline. St. John Chrysostom, a late fourth century Christian writer and preacher, is among the first to discuss the uses of the psalms in his Exposition to Psalm XLI. In this exposition Chrysostom explains the reason, as he saw it, for God to have created the psalms. He states that music is an integral part of the human condition: "To such an extent, indeed, is our nature delighted by chants and songs that even infants at the breast, if they be weeping or afflicted, are by reason of it lulled to sleep" (Chrysostom 67). The effect of this music is pronounced, not subtle. The infants go from weeping and being afflicted to sleeping. More importantly for Chrysostom's argument, if the words of the song are understood, the music has an effect upon the intellect and spiritual standing of the singer. Chrysostom warns of the opportunity and danger present in a ubiquitous, necessary and powerful music:

Inasmuch as this kind of pleasure [singing] is thoroughly innate to our mind, and lest demons introducing lascivious songs should overthrow everything, God established the psalms, in order that singing might be both a pleasure and a help. From strange chants harm, ruin and many grievous matters are brought in, for those things that are lascivious and vicious in all songs settle in parts of the mind, making it softer and weaker; from the spiritual psalms, however, proceeds much of value, much utility, much sanctity, and ever inducement to philosophy, for the words purify the mind and the Holy Spirit descends swiftly upon the mind of the singer. For those who sing with understanding invoke the grace of the Spirit.

Chrysostom 68

It is not at first apparent, but there are two distinct types of "bad" music being discussed in this passage. The first are the lascivious songs of the devil. Humans cannot help but sing, but by singing songs with either no moral content or a negative moral content, the Christian soul might become corrupted or be more open to the corruption of the devil. The second type of "bad" music is the body of "strange chants" that may bring "harm, ruin and many grievous matters." The Christian's choice of song has a long-term effect upon the soul, because these chants have the ability to "settle in parts of the mind, making it softer and weaker." These chants sound like a dangerous disease, capable of infecting the injudicious. The danger of the foreign chants is opposed by the helpful benefits of the psalms. Singing the psalms does more than simply create in the singer a temporary calm or spiritual frame of mind. The singing of the songs can have as permanent an effect as the strange chants, but in an opposite manner. The psalms change the mind and turn it towards the things of the spirit. Not only do the psalms affect the singer by bringing to mind more spiritual aspects of life; they also bring the attention of the Holy Spirit. The singing, so long as the words are understood, attracts the Spirit and results in the giving of grace to the singer.
          The "strange chants" against which Chrysostom warns are not simply abstract possibilities. The leading intra-Christian controversy of the fourth century was the Arian conflict, which led to a division within the Church which would last for hundreds of years. The main difference between Arius' theology and Catholicism was "whether the Word of God was coeternal with God. The phrase that eventually became the Arian motto, 'there was a time when he was not,' aptly focuses on the point at issue." (González 161) The conflict in the church over the nature of God and the Trinity may not seem as if it would affect music, but it did. The strange chants against which Chrysostom so sternly warns are the tuneful hymns and antiphons of the Arian heresy. It is against the music of the Arian heresy that he may be warning in the exposition. Chrysostom's role as a leading opponent of the Arians was remembered in the later Middle Ages, as was the presence of heretical hymns. The Golden Legend of Jacobus De Voragine, a collection of saints lives and devotionals written sometime before 1267, relates the conflict between John Chrysostom and the Arians:

But the Arians, whose numbers were increasing, and who had a church outside the city, became so bold that one Sunday they pushed their way into John's own church, singing their hymns and antiphons, and shouting derisively: 'Look at the fools who believe that three make one!' Then John, fearing that the simple folk would be drawn into heresy, commanded the faithful to gather in the churches at night, to hear sermons and to sing hymns. . . . As a result of this [the murder of a eunuch], and to put a stop to the disorder, the emperor formally enjoined the Arians from singing their hymns in public.

(Voragine 140)

The Arians have hymns and antiphons that are similar to, but also contrary to, the hymns and antiphons that Chrysostom advocated for the Catholic Christians. That makes hymns and psalms a point of conflict in the young church, and explains the apparently extreme statement of foreign chants' ability to "overthrow everything." The power of music, especially of music with comprehensible words, to affect the disposition of the soul is seen in its ability to cause otherwise orthodox "simple folk" to become ensnared in heresy. This would be to the detriment not only of their souls, but also to the survival of the Church. To counter the great threat of the heretical chanting Chrysostom encouraged extra vigils with orthodox Christian hymns, antiphons and sermons. The Arian conflict pitted song against song, and the stakes of victory were high for all involved.