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 [...]
Tempus Festorum: Medieval music for the Nativity Season
They spoke about it
Celebrations have been part of human existence since the beginning of time. Closely linked to the various stages of social development, they contributed towards the solemnity of sacred and political events and underlined the changes of season that governed work in the fields and, ultimately, the survival of the human race. In the Middles Ages, the games and sacrifices of Antiquity gave way to new religious forms of certain pagan traditions, such as the Roman Saturnalia, that had been assimilated over time; these were matched by the sumptuous coronations, tournaments and banquets of the aristocracy, which often included music and dancing.
The medieval calendar was well provided with a series of major religious feasts and the Christmas season, which brought a little warmth to the cold of winter, was especially well suited to celebration. As falling leaves, low temperatures and snow slowed many daily activities, peasants and townsfolk prepared to celebrate the birth of Jesus with the coming of the winter solstice. In a feudal society marked by the domination of the strongest and strict religious morals, in which war, crusades, and outbreaks of the plague and other epidemics were common occurrences, the Christmas tempus festorum was eagerly awaited, bringing as it did a message of redemption and new life.
The festive season
The period between December 6 and Epiphany was, in the words of musicologist Pierre Aubry, the “annual time for rejoicing”1. The first feast of Advent was that of Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myre (died 325), the patron saint of sailors and also of children. His relics had been brought from Asia Minor to Bari, in southern Italy, in 1087, and he was venerated throughout Europe as the medieval ancestor of Santa Claus. Many liturgical dramas and polyphonic motets were composed in his honour, including the joyful three-part Psallat chorus attributed to Franco of Cologne that appears in several 13th-century manuscripts.
The Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which fell on December 8, inspired music that was either contemplative (Angelus ad Virginem) or richly ornamented (Dum sigillum summi patris), recalling the cult of the Virgin that was of particular importance betwen the twelfth and the fifteenth centuries. Christmas was a time of religious wonder and fervour, but also of popular rejoicing, and fiddles, hurdy-gurdies, bagpipes and flutes were all put to good use by the peasantry, as can be seen in the miniatures painstakingly illuminated by medieval monks and artists. Beginning in the 11th century, the shepherds guided by the Angel to the manger became the basis for sung dialogues and stage settings. These liturgical dramas were intended to “fortify the faith of the ignorant multitude and novices”, as the Englishman Saint Ethelwold, a Benedictine monk, wrote around 965.
On Christmas Day itself, however, prayers were replaced by euphoria as the so-called “Feast of Fools” began, lasting in some places for over a week. It included Saint Stephen’s Day (December 26), Holy Innocents’ Day (December 28) and New Year’s Day, despite its being the Feast of the Circumcision. In a manner reminiscent of the Saturnalia, nobles and paupers changed roles, the Mass was parodied in Church, and dancing was continued to the point of exhaustion. On December 28 children took their revenge for the Slaughter of the Innocents ordered by Herod by celebrating Mass in church, followed by the Feast of the “Boy Bishop”.
In Beauvais and Sens, as ordained in the early 13th-century ritual of Pierre de Corbeil, Bishop of Sens, the donkey used for the Flight into Egypt appeared in church between Christmas and the New Year, to the delight of the congregation. Musicians took advantage of these extraordinary services to produce parodies of such venerable works as the Kyrie Cunctipotens, a masterpiece of the medieval repertory, or to insert vigorous calls of “Hez, Sire asne, Hez!” into a delicate Marial chant (Concordi lætitia) endowed, for the occasion, with new words (Orientis partibus). Despite the prohibition of these somewhat strange practices by the Bishop of Paris, Odon de Sully, in 1198, it was only after the Councils of Basle (1431) and Toledo (1473) that such outpourings of joy bordering on obscenity finally disappeared: “The Church (…) must be purged of these shameful things”. It was therefore forbidden, in church, to introduce “larva and monsters, and to put on plays, (…) to shout, sing in verse, and use derisive language that disturbs the service and turns the spirit of the people away from piety”.
Using period manuscripts and traditionally-based improvisations, the members of Anonymus have, in this recording, attempted to recreate the unbridled, yet pious atmosphere of the medieval festive season. Note: Irène Brisson teaches music history and art history at the Québec Conservatory.
© Irène Brisson