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Medieval music wasn't only supposed to be beautiful to listen to
Medieval religious music is often perceived as being simple, and not particularly flashy or lavish. It often had a function that goes beyond simply being pleasant to listen to, a researcher says.
“In the Middle Ages music wasn't necessarily supposed to be something beautiful and complex. It had other practical purposes,” Manon Louviot says. She is a musicologist at the University of Oslo, Norway.
Through her research, she has investigated the vocal exclamation Benedicamus Domino and its importance to the creation of music in female religious environments.
The aim was a peronal connection to the divine
Benedicamus Domino means ‘Let us praise the Lord’, was used in religious movements during the Middle Ages to conclude sacred rituals.
Through examination of the way women and men in the religious movement of the Devotio moderna created music for the Benedicamus Domino in masses and rituals, Louviot found that it had a very special function: To unite the singer with God.
“The aim of the music was to evoke the right emotions in the singers, so they could personally connect to the divine,” Louviot says.
Same melody to different texts
It was when Louviot was searching for the Christmas carol Puer nobis nascitur in 15th-century German, Belgian, and Dutch music manuscripts that she discovered it had the same melody as the well-known exclamation Benedicamus Domino.
She thinks the Benedicamus Domino melody was reused for the carol Puer nobis nascitur because it was easier to create new lyrics for a melody that was simple and that many people already knew.
At the same time, she discovered that the Christmas carol was not only written in Latin but also in other languages.
In one version, there was an instruction to sing it in Latin, while in another version, it was to be sung in Dutch.
"Most things were written in Latin during this time. But in this case, we've found song lyrics written in Dutch," she says.
Men and women sang in Latin and other languages
The religious movements Louviot has investigated were divided into female and male communities. She found more manuscripts from female communities, suggesting a connection between the translated texts and the women who sang them.
It was also more common for women to sing in languages other than Latin because they had less access to education.
So it surprised her that women in the religious movement also sang the Christmas carol Puer nobis nascitur. She believes that in some cases, they chose not to sing in Latin.
“In the manuscripts where the lyrics are in Dutch, it's fairly clear that they chose not to sing in Latin, although a few lines in Latin from the original text still remain,” she says.
Manuscripts from male communities with songs written in a language other than Latin have also been found.
“It gives us a more nuanced picture than women only singing in Dutch and men only singing in Latin. Men sang in other languages too, and women also sang in Latin,” she explains.
Women wrote new texts and poems
The song lyrics were not simply translated from Latin into Dutch, but completely new texts and poems were also created.
“They created new texts with rhymes and an equal number of syllables in each line. This challenges the notion that women were illiterate, because writing a new poem calls for a certain degree of literacy,” Louviot explains.
In the new texts, there seemed to be a big emphasis on emotions and how to evoke the appropriate feelings.
One of the emotions the melody was supposed to evoke was joy.
“Some of the texts contain a series of vowels, the aim being to express a joy that is greater than what words can convey,” she explains.
New texts should evoke the ‘correct’ feelings
Louviot compared the Dutch texts in the male and female communities.
In one of the texts the women sang about the Virgin Mary during the birth of Jesus Christ. They described her as a mother and a devoted person.
They shifted their focus from her to a collective ‘we’. In some cases, even to an ‘I’.
“It's as if the Virgin Mary and the women singing about her become one person throughout the text, and the singers identify with her,” Louviot explains.
In the male communities, the text did not mention the Virgin Mary but rather highlighted the harsh conditions of the earthly life in which Jesus was born.
“The texts from the different communities emphasise different aspects of the same event and are intended to evoke different emotions. While one text leads to joy, the other leads to shame,” Louviot says.
Manon Louviot. Benedicamus Domino as an expression of joy in Christmas songs of the Devotio moderna, Early Music, vol. 50, 2022. DOI: 10.1093/em/caac050
Special issue in Early Music
- Manon has written the article ‘Benedicamus Domino as an expression of joy in Christmas songs of the Devotio moderna’. It is part of a special issue of the journal Early Music, edited by Catherine A. Bradley, titled ‘Benedicamus Domino as Female Devotion’.
- In the article, Manon's investigation – of the particular ways in which Benedicamus Domino was sung in the low countries in the 1400s – is placed in a broader geographical and chronological context.
- Other articles in the issue investigate the Benedicamus Domino in Czechia, Poland, Spain, and Sweden within communities of religious women, showing how this sacred exclamation offered a space for female music-making and creativity.
About the research project
The project BENEDICAMUS:Musical and Poetic Creativity for A Unique Moment in the Western Christian Liturgy c.1000-1500 studies the use of Benedicamus Domino and how it is used in different ways in Western Christian liturgy.
The project is funded by the European Research Council (ERC) and has been awarded a Consolidator Grant.
The project is led by Catherine A. Bradley.
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