Medieval: Historical Introduction

(condensed from Hoppin)

• Renaissance scholars of Italy designated years between them and Greek/Roman civilizations as "Medieval" i.e. "middle age"
• designation persisted
• 400-500 A.D. thru circa 1400: convenient arbitrary compromise
• almost no music survives from first 1000 years of Christianity, except for sacred music

Roman Empire

• quite prosperous, but before first century, symptoms of decay had emerged
• 5 "good" emperors:

1. Nerva (96-98)

2. Trajan (98-117)

3. Marcus Aurelius (d. 180)

• financial (inflation) problems; internal civil wars for political control, imperial succession; northern invaders took advantage of instability, creating problems and adding pressure on Empire
• military dictatorship, assassination most common method of advancement
• initial disintegration only temporary

4. Aurelian (270-275) murdered

• overcame all his rivals; regained control of the entire empire except for north & east of the Rhine and Danube rivers

5. Diocletian (284-305)

• restored empire so as to survive a century
• state of Christianity as a faith advanced as to be tolerated

6. Constantine (312-337)

7. Theodosius (379-395)

• decreed Christianity the compulsory religion except for Jews
• men of social/political prominence became clergy
• due to extensive propertyholdings, Church acquired wealth and power
• ecclesiastical government modeled from territorial organization of the Roman Empire
• founding of Constantinople: division of empire into Latin West and Greek East: affected future of Christianity, its music

• striking political consequences: Eastern Empire survived for over 1000 years
• Constantinople strategically located; withstood repeated attacks by northern invaders, Moslems, but finally fell to Ottomans in 1453

• Byzantine Empire preserved cultural, intellectual traditions temporarily lost in the West, subsequently contributed to rebuilding of the West

Fall of the Roman Empire

• various signs of social, political, cultural and economic decay preceded collapse of Western Empire
• shortage of troops forced Empire to hire northern soldiers (mercenaries), who became Roman citizens: subsequently rose to high positions in administration
• Honorius (395-423) incompetent Emperor
• invasion of Italy by Visigothic allies stationed at Danube
• Honorius withdrew to Revenna, leaving Visigoths under Alaric free to subdue Rome
• frontiers open to invasion and warfare

376-Huns forced Visigoths into Roman territory
451-Roman General Aetius defeated Huns, forcing them from Gaul intoItaly
453-Attila dies; Huns disbanded
455-Rome sacked by the Vandals
476-Zeno, Eastern emporer, became theoretical sovereign of entire empire: really had no authority; End of the Roman Empire

• Zeno established Kingdom of Ostrogoths in Italy
• Theodoric, son of an Ostrogothic King, rose to power, became leader of Ostrogoths, was sent by Zeno to recover Italy, in hopes he might be killed in the process; however, Theodoric was successful and ruled Italy from 493-526


• Clovis, of the Merovingians, became leader of the Franks
• removed all rivals, became founder of Frankish dynasty of Merovingian kings
• fought off Alamans, Burgundians, Visigoths to extend boundaries of Frankish empire to Pyrennes and beyond the Rhine
• held in abeyance by Theodoric
• Clovis converted to Christianity at end of 4thC; with approval of Church, campaigned against heathens to north and southern Visigoths
• by his death in 511, Clovis created a large powerful kingdom, initiating events which led to the creation of France


• previous events determined social and political conditions which prevailed for several centuries: mixture of Roman and Germanic elements
• assimilation occurred, at expense in degree of civilization, which declined
• aristrocracy evolved based on military strength, property holdings
• emergence of peasants from lower social classes

Boethius (480-524): philosopher

Cassiodorus (485-575): historian and statesman

• both served at Theodoric's court
• wrote musical treatises based on Greek sources
• work of Boethius remained foundation of musical study throughout
medieval period

• Roman influence due to rise & spread of Christianity
• Western Church became only stable element in turbulent Europe
• many German tribes abandoned their language in favor of Latin as spoken by invaded peoples

• survival of Latin as the romance languages: French, Spanish, Portuogese, Italian

• regions where languages are spoken correspond to most thoroughly "Latinized" parts of Western Europe

Sixth Century

• after Clovis, Franks became most powerful people in West Europe
• other Kingdoms weakened, tempting Eastern Emperor Justinian to attempt to reconquer the West
• Justinian (ruled 527-565): last of Byzantine emporers
• recaptured Italy for a while; later Spain
• efforts led to exhaustion of Western Empire, destruction of civilization

568-Lombards invaded Italy: little political organization, however-resulted in the creation of a patchwork of petty states which survived until late 1800's

• papacy still central administrative authority
• Popes became political leaders of Rome
• Popes held little interest in restoration of Empire (conflict of interest)

Petrine theory of papal supremacy

• Pope Leo the Great (440-461): Bishop of Rome was supreme authority of Christendom; needless to say, was not accepted in East
• Gregory the Great (590-604): established independence of Western Church

Rise of Islam

• 7th C: nomadic swarms from Arabia without precedent; invasion under religious banner
• imposed new culture, creating great civilization, establishing Islam as a major religion
• territorial expansion

632-Mohammed dies

• within a century, Holy War of Islam (Jihad) extended through Persia, Afghanistan; westward across Africa to Atlantic: conversions

655-imperial fleet virtually destroyed by Moslems, who now controlled Mediterranean Sea

• Moors finally defeated, who provided troops for European invasion

711-under Tariq, Moors crossed strait of Gibraltor; defeated last Visigothic king, occupied capital of Toledo

• Moslems soon held almost all of Iberian Peninsula, pressing across Pyrenees
• raids in Gaul stopped by Charles Martel, Charlemagne's grandpere, winning a decisive victory in 732
• Charles Martel won position as saviour of Christianity
• Pepen I and Charlemagne confined Moslems to south of the Pyrennes, while in the East, the diminished empire withstood attacks

846-Rome attacked

early 900's: invaders finally expelled from Rome

Basic tenets of Islam: submission to Allah, who is also God of Jews and Christians: those other faiths tolerated

• Jews and Christians still flourished in Spain
• Europe benefited from Moslem influence
• Arab world unable to maintain political/religious unity: still evident
• united by a common culture and civilization, language
• contact between Islam and accumulated knowledge of earlier centuries civilizations
• Baghdad as a cultural center, where Greek manuscripts were housed and studied; trade routes brought Oriental culture within reach
• many Greek documents were first known in Latin through Arabic translations
• extent of Arabic influence upon rebirth of Western civilization difficult to discern, with scholars giving credit Arab or Byzantine contributions
• Arabs credit themselves with invention of measured notation and polyphony

7th and 8th Centuries: "The Darkest Age"

• Latin world declined into barbarism
• aristocracy degenerated into warlord landholders
• ignorance of peasantry
• Church kept dim lamp of culture burning
• Classical learning nearly forgotten
• Scholarship was utilitarian: served to promote the true faith
• ignorance coupled with superstition, no rationality
• 7th & 8th C produced little
• spread of papal influence, authority
• revival of Frankish empire under Charlemagne
• "Carolingian Renaissance": first rebuilding steps

Revival of Frankish Kingdom: Charlemagne

• Pepin of Herstal (679-714): united main divisions of Merovingian realm; passed to his son, Charles Martel (714-741)
• family ruled as kings in all but name
• Pepin I (741-768) declared as King
• Carolingian dynasty reached its height under Charlemagne
• Carolingians and Papacy were allies

774-Charlemagne conquered Lombards, then subdued/Christianized Saxons, Bavarians, Avars

• created a series of military districts to protect the Eastern frontier from the Baltic to Adriatic seas
• failed to conquer Moslems in Spain
• returning across Pyrennes in 778, rearguard under Roland was ambushed by Christian Basques: death of Roland
• Charlemagne won control over vast empire

799-insurrectin in Rome forced Pope Leo III to take refuge with Charlemagne, was proclaimed Charles Augustus, Emperor of the Romans: provided Charlemagne with a title to go with his authority

• created jurisdiction over papacy: source of problems for his successors
• tradition by which French and German Kings received imperial crown from Roman popes: Holy Roman Empire

Carolingian Renaissance

• Charlemagne stabilized empire: enabled him to improve educational system: aware of a need for an educated ruling class
• founded school at Aix-la-Chapelle with Alcuin (735-804) as its director
• school based on traditional liberal arts; the humanistic trivium (grammar, rhetoric, logic) and the scientific quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music)
• only grammar was studied thoroughly
• Boethius, Cassiodorus, Alcuin
• Greek philosophy & science were then unknown
• education received was rather superficial
• mathematics impractical: based on Roman numerals
• writings of Boethius, etc. concerned with philosophical speculations on the nature of music, effects, relation to world of humans
• music placed in quadrivium because the study originated with the study of interval ratios
• typical of medieval mind: music as numbers related to sounds; number and proportions regulate the universe
• performers and composers were considered removed from the intellectual aspects of music
• only the educated [i.e. men] possessing reason were considered by be musician: attitude prevailed throughout middle ages
• meanwhile, composers continued to evolve new types
• no real contribution by these scholars; however, a new interest in learning was rekindled
• Cathedral & Monasteries coexisted as well: manuscript production; scribes preserved medieval literature and liturgy of the Church
• development of the Carolingian miniscule, which evolved into modern styles of handwriting
• in summary, a renewal of Latin education

Disintegration of Carolingian Empire

• new invasions
• Charlemagne's son: Louis the Pious (814-840)
• while educated, was little experienced, unable to cope
• upon Louis' death, empire split among his 3 sons:
1. Lothair (840-855): King of Italy, Emperor
2. Louis the German (840-876): King of East Franks
3. Charles the Bald (840-877): King of West Franks

• rivalry settled in 843 at Verdun: East & West chunks eventualy developed into France & Germany
• invasions by Moslems, Vikings
• Vikings soon systematically conquered inner regions
• Britain & Ireland completely conquered

886-Vikings besieged Paris

• Vikings had no regard for Church: easy target to plunder
• Normans settled in England, north France near the Seine: Normady dukes acknowledged Frankish sovereigns
• Normans quickly adopted culture of the lands they settled
• 11thC: settled in Sicily; south Italy
• exploitation of Western Europe, England under William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy in 1066
• Vikings from Sweden invaded East Europe as well: Kiev to the Black Sea, attracting attention of the Byzantines, who called them Russians (Rhos)
• Russians more of a threat to Byzantine Empire
• this contact led to their conversion to Christianity, dominance of Byzantine influence
• Magyar invaders a threat from Asia
• generally called Hungarians: invaded/devastated Europe, settled in Middle Danube plains; were Christianized under Stephen I (997-1038)
• Magyar invasion led to collapse of Empire
• Carolingian line died out; Dukes of provinces ruled as equal and independent sovereigns
• Charles the Fat deposed in France in 887, Count Odo of Paris became King
• descendents of both families contested; finally Louis V (986-987): last Carolingian
• Hugh Capet (987-996): Odo's cousin; founded Capetian dynasty of French kings
• however, France was divided into feudal states
• title of Roman Emperor was now meaningless
• collapse of military strength produced decline in papal power
• series of weak profligate popes brought papacy to its lowest level of degradation
• Europe in 10thC: state of chaos
• Otto the Great revived imperial title in 962, acquiring control over central portion of empire
• title of Holy Roman empire kept until 1806
• European civilization began to be reconstructed
• papacy strengthened, rising to authority
• papacy reformed; abbey of Clury: 910
• Clunaic reform grew under emperor Henry III (1039-56): renewal of Christian ideals, wave of religious fervor which swept Europe in 11th, 12th C; produced many great monuments of art
• feudal system filled vacuum of central authority


• agrarian society based on manorial system
• Feudalism provided people with protection, livelihood
• vasals: worked with overlords: granted fiefs
• Feudalism evolved: organized aristocrats
• inheritance by eldest son
• Feudalization of Church led to its weakening of central organization
• produced constant warfare: gave aristocracy pleasure and profit
• Moslems finally expelled from Spain in 1492
• feudal military organization made possible the Crusades, which united Europe under the Church
• courts and castles became centers for the cultivation of secular literature, music