In the Middle Ages, musicians worked within an oral tradition. Memory was the means by which knowledge and understanding were transmitted, and only when long use and tradition had fixed the performance [...]
Rue des Jugleors: Instrumental and vocal music from the 12th to the 14th century
They spoke about it
The Rue des Jugleors, or Jugglers’ Street, situated in the heart of medieval Paris, was a meeting point for the artists who came to the city from all corners of Europe to learn about the latest developments in the art of music and to make their own contribution to the artistic melting-pot.
Paris, in the Middle Ages, comprised three distinct sections: the City, Island, and University quarters. The City, on the Right Bank, was the commercial district and home to the bourgeois and the common people. The Island, around which the Seine divides, was the place where the Court and the main religious and administrative centres were located. It was also home to the singers and composers who, at Notre-Dame and the Sainte-Chapelle, were perfecting the latest discoveries in the art of polyphony. The University was on the Left Bank and was a pole of attraction for the clerks, students, theoreticians and scholars who flocked to it from throughout Europe. It is known to this day as the Latin Quarter.
In the 13th and 14th centuries, these divisions explained the variety of the city’s musical activities. The citizens of Paris, like their counterparts everywhere, sang and danced at weddings, banquets and other celebrations. On these occasions a performer known as a juggler, from the Latin joculator, was expected to provide entertainment. At Court, however, where life was more leisurely and refined, jugglers were allowed more scope: from beings mere entertainers, they became minstrels, confidants and advisers, and later historiographers. Besides the minstrels in the King’s service, other musicians had probably set up shop on “Jugglers’ Street” or close by, living from their art by catering to the tastes of the nobles and bourgeois who appreciated the courtly art of the trouvères and troubadours, and the refined art of polyphonic motets. Access to knowledge was ensured by the newly-founded universities, and a group of fringe musicians and poets, the goliards, emerged. These poor but educated clerks travelled from one university to another, from one protector to another, studying, in the words of one contemporary, “the liberal arts in Paris, law in Orleans, medicine in Salerno, magic in Toledo, but good manners and morality, alas, nowhere!”. The goliards borrowed their tunes from the liturgy and specialized in Bacchic, anticlerical love songs. Their work, largely of French origin, has been preserved in the Bavarian Carmina burana manuscript. We have created an imaginary Rue des jugleors to symbolize the musical life of a city and an era. Stretching from Paris to the Island of Orleans in Québec (where this recording was made), the street takes us through the various neighbourhoods of Paris, each with its own musical sounds.
Music of jugglers and minstrels
Medieval literature is full of references to jugglers and their music, and many illustrations of them can be found in illuminated manuscripts. Little is known, however, about how the music that has come down to us was actually played, and indeed, it is not clear whether this was dance music or music written for virtuoso performance. The theoretical works of Jean de Grouchy (De musica, c. 1300) and Jérôme de Moravie (Tractatus de Musica, c. 1300) indicate that most of the pieces, classed as estampies or istanpitta, retrove and danse royale, follow the same musical form, with the estampie being the most commonly found. It was probably a two-person dance, as opposed to a round or a line dance such as the carole or the farandole.
According to several descriptive sources, these pieces were intended for a small group of performers (in general comprising between three and five players), although descriptions of larger celebrations mention over a dozen musicians. Less than fifty pieces from before the 15th century have come down to us, tending to show that the art of the “trouveur” was largely based on oral tradition, and that jugglers and minstrels relied on improvisation and cultural borrowing from both European countries and the Middle East.
© Claude Bernatchez, Pierre Langevin Translation: Benjamin Waterhouse