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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 4 Music of Feudalism and Fin’s Amors
Richard Taruskin

The earliest written vernacular repertories in several other European countries are traceable to the influence, both artistic and ideological, of the troubadours and trouvères. The troubadour influence went south, as we have seen, into the Iberian peninsula and Italy. That of the trouvères went east into Germany.


In some parts of what is now Spain, especially the eastern part (then Aragon, now Catalonia), the presence of troubadours stimulated the rise of a latter-day Provençal school, of little interest to music history. On the western side, however, and especially at the northwestern court of Castile and León, the troubadours were emulated in the local literary vernacular, Galician-Portuguese. This brief efflorescence left a major musical monument in its wake, the Cantigas de Santa Maria, compiled over a period of as much as thirty years (1250–80) under the supervision of King Alfonso X (el Sabio, “The Wise”).

The word cantiga (or cantica) is the equivalent of canso: a courtly song in the vernacular. Alfonso’s collection of courtly songs expressed loving devotion to the Virgin Mary, and once again blurred the line we now insist on drawing between the sacred and the secular. (Sometimes the blur is finessed by using the word “paraliturgical”—“outside the liturgy” yet still somehow sacred—to cover it up; the belief that demons and fractious categories can be exorcised by naming them is indeed an old superstition.) In its most comprehensive sources, Alfonso’s book of cantigas comprises over four hundred pious love lyrics, organized into decades (groups of ten) consisting of nine strophic narrative songs relating miracles performed by the Virgin (often in the mundane context of contemporary daily life), followed by a hymn of praise to her in a more exalted style.

Geographical Diffusion

fig. 4-5 Le jeu de Robin et Marion as staged at St. Petersburg’s “Antique Theater” in 1907 (costumes and set design by Mstislav Doboujinsky).

The opening song in the collection (the prologo), following the most venerable troubadour traditions, is a poem about poetry, with a characteristic pious twist (Ex. 4-10). It is cast in the first person, which implies (but certainly does not prove) that it was composed by Alfonso himself, who is known to have been a poet. The melody takes the form of a very gracefully modified “bar,” in which the pes is given dancelike open and shut cadences before opening out on the cauda. Most of the narrative cantigas are dance songs with refrains, combining a verse structure similar to the Arabic zajal (though it is an open question whether the cantigas were modeled on zajals or the zajals on cantigas) with music following a modified virelai pattern, in which the refrain borrows its music from the “tail” (cauda) of the strophe. In Spanish this form would be known as the villancico.

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ex. 4-10 Porque trobar (canso)


Even if the rich thirteenth- and fourteenth-century cantiga manuscripts contained no actual music, they would still be prize documents for music history on account of the dozens of colored miniatures that decorate them. These little paintings are so detailed and precisely drawn that they are believed in some cases to be portraits of actual people. They show courtiers and minstrels of every stripe—Spanish, Moorish, Jewish, male and female—all rubbing shoulders at Alfonso’s Toledo court and playing an encyclopedic assortment of instruments (more than forty, from the ubiquitous minstrel’s fiddle to Moorish exotica, encompassing zithers, bladder pipes, castanets, and hurdy-gurdies).

These illustrations inevitably raise more questions than they answer. They stimulate the performer’s imagination (and the cantigas have been well and colorfully served by early music ensembles, especially in recordings), but as historical evidence they must be approached with caution, despite their evident realism. The encyclopedic impulse—the urge to include everything (here, every instrument and costume known to the artist)—serves the purposes of rich decoration and conspicuous consumption, not those of accurate depiction. One cannot merely assume that all the instruments so marvelously depicted in the cantiga manuscripts ever played together, or that they played cantigas.

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fig. 4-6 Miniatures from the cantiga manuscript at the Escorial Palace, Madrid, showing various contemporary instruments.

And yet the opposite assumption, that the notation of monophonic (“unaccompanied”) medieval songs reflects their actual performance practice, would be equally unfounded. As we have observed more than once, the written sources of medieval music were more often prestige items—“collectibles”—than performance materials. And, as we may recall from the first chapter, the strictly unaccompanied unison style of Gregorian chant was regarded as something of a special effect. So there is really no reason to allow the stark appearance of early written music in itself to influence or limit our notion of what it may have sounded like in performance.

If a team of Martian musicologists were to visit the desolate earth after World War III and discover a “fake-book” (a big compilation—often produced illicitly, in violation of copyright—of pop tunes with shorthand chord symbols for the use of nightclub or “cocktail” pianists), would they know they were seeing a blueprint for elaborate impromptu arrangements, or might they draw false conclusions about the “monophonic” musical culture of twentieth-century America?4 And yet even the fake-book is more closely allied with actual performance, and gives far more performance information, than the average medieval manuscript, especially retrospective anthologies containing “monophonic” vernacular songs that were performed by nonliterate professionals (joglars or minstrels).

On the basis of all the available evidence—contemporary pictures, literary descriptions of musical performances, the writings of music pedagogues and theorists, archival documents—historians now believe that the use of instruments to accompany the written repertories of medieval song depended a great deal on genres and their social connotations. The higher the style and the closer its alliance with the ethos of liturgical chant, the more likely was performance by solo voice alone. (Among the troubadours, instrumentalists are known to have participated only in the marginal genres—descorts and dance songs.) With the lowering of the social standing of trouvère song and its urbanization in the thirteenth century came a greater participation in it by minstrel instrumentalists, especially fiddlers (viellatores), who had their own professional guild in Paris. Such musicians regularly took part in pastourelles, in Latin conductus, in church plays, and the like.

As Moniot d’Arras’s Ce fut en mai explicitly informs us, fiddlers had a repertory of their own in the form of dances. The most elaborate dance form was variously called estampie, which suggests a heavy, vigorous step, and danse royale. Its form was a little like that of the lai or sequence: a series of paired strains called puncta (singular punctum) with alternately open and shut cadences. The earliest estampies preserved in writing are those in the mid-thirteenth-century Manuscrit du roi (Fig. 4-8). Their notation is very advanced for the time and completely encodes their rhythm (according to principles to be discussed in chapter 7), as untexted dance notation needs to do.

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fig. 4-7A Notation of Ex. 4-10 (Porque trobar) in the cantiga manuscript. Compare this with Fig. 4-7b.

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fig. 4-7B Page from a mid-twentieth-century fake book, to be compared with Fig. 4-7a.

So far the evidence seems to suggest that instrumentalists performed such pieces and accompanied singers where appropriate, predominantly as soloists rather than in “bands”—which is not to say that such accompaniments were necessarily modest or primitive. Both historical evidence and observation of contemporary instrumentalists who mostly work without notation suggest that medieval fiddlers and harpers were often prodigious technicians, and that they cultivated techniques of self-accompaniment (drones, heterophonic doubling, even counterpoint). Evidence of ensemble performance is rare, ambiguous, and often (like the cantiga miniatures) questionable. But it cannot be discounted.

One genre that is especially well documented as a site of instrumental performance is the carole, the public springtime dance-festivity. Its musical component remained for the most part an unwritten tradition—but some of the music, transformed, may have survived in the formes fixes, the villancico, and all the other genres that descend from ring-dances with refrains. The relationship between the forms and practices that survive in written form and those that came and went without a paper trail has been aptly characterized as “the iceberg problem.” The written elite dominates our view, but it accounts for only the smallest fraction of what existed at the time. The great vanished mass is what dominated the view—that is, formed the assumptions and the expectations—of contemporaries, even (or especially) those who performed the elite fraction. Vague references to “instruments,” in the plural, can be found in many descriptions of the carole. And with that we circle back to the cantigas, many of which, as virelai types, can trace their lineage back to the carole. All the questions raised by those lovely, pesky miniatures remain open after all.

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fig. 4-8 Dances from the Manuscrit du Roi, a huge codex, copied in the mid-thirteenth century, that contains songs of the troubadours alongside those of the trouvères, and even a few items, like these dances, in mensural notation (that is, notation prescribing rhythm).


The earliest surviving genre of Italian vernacular song was cultivated by a very different sort of musician from those we have examined thus far. The thirteenth-century lauda spirituale (“devotional [song of] praise”) was not a courtly genre but a frankly religious one, sung in congregational unison by lay fraternities who called themselves laudesi, by Franciscan street missionaries who called themselves “God’s minstrels” (joculatores Dei), and by ardent penitents, called disciplinati or flagellanti, who sang them while walking naked through the streets and lashing themselves with whips. Many laude were sung as contrafacta to familiar melodies and could thus be characterized as pious pop songs. Others, particularly those used by the Franciscans, were the work of skilled and highly educated poets from the urban upper classes like the Florentine Jacopone da Todi (ca. 1230–1306), a jurist turned monastic ascetic, two of whose laude survive with music. Jacopone is also credited in the Vatican chant books, however dubiously, with the Marian sequence Stabat mater dolorosa (“The mother stood by sorrowfully”), one of the latest additions to the canonical liturgy.

Like most genres of medieval vernacular song, laude were written down somewhat after the fact, in large “gift-shop” manuscripts that had little to do with their performance occasions. (Flagellants, even if they could read, had their hands full.) Like many of the cantigas, to which they were contemporary, laude were apt to be cast in the popular form of the virelai (stanza plus contained refrain: A bba A bba A, etc.). In Italy, beginning in the fourteenth century, such songs would be called ballate, betraying their descent from the dance.

The flagellant movement was international. From northern Italy it spread into Germany and thence as far east as Poland, as far west as Britain, and as far north as Scandinavia, becoming especially intense in the mid-fourteenth century, when the population of Europe was devastated by epidemics. It was then that the German variants, known as Geisslerlieder (from Geiβel, German for whip) were written down by clerics who found the spontaneous fervor of the flagellants both inspiring and frightening.

Geisslerlieder borrowed their form not only from the laude spirituale but also from indigenous pilgrimage and processional folk hymns known as Rufe (“calls”) or Leisen. In these, the refrain is whittled down to a single call—often Kyrioleis! (from Kyrie eleison)—in the manner of a litany. These are in fact actual folksongs, noted down (not for perpetuation in singing but as documentation) from actual popular performance, chiefly by a Swabian priest named Hugo Spechtshart von Reutlingen in his chronicle of the plague of 1349. Nowadays we would call such a transcriber an ethnomusicologist.

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ex. 4-11 Flagellants’ song: Nu ist diu Betfart so here (Geisslerlied, transcribed by Hugo Spechtshart von Reutlingen)


By that date, however, there was already a large body of German courtly song. Originating as an imported luxury item, it soon took on a distinctive coloration and underwent a vigorous indigenous development in which many social classes participated. The eastward migration of the art of fine amours is often said to begin with the wedding, in 1156, of Frederick I (known as Barbarossa, “Redbeard”), the Holy Roman Emperor and German king, to the duchess Beatrice of Burgundy. A notable early trouvère, Guyot de Provins, was a member of Beatrice’s retinue, and some of the earliest German Minnelieder, like the one in Ex. 4-12, were set as contrafacta to melodies by Guyot.

Geographical Diffusion

ex. 4-12 Guyot de Provins, Ma joie premeraine, with German text (Ich denke under wilen) by Friedrich von Hausen

Minnelieder were songs composed by Minnesinger—singers of Minne, German for courtly love. The earliest Minnesinger assumed to have made up their own melodies were those who, in the early thirteenth century, began composing in new and specifically German meters that required them. The important name in this generation was that of the Austrian Walther von der Vogelweide (d. ca. 1230), regarded both by his contemporaries and by his successors as the preeminent master of Minnesang, the German medieval lyric. His poetry survives abundantly in many manuscripts, but only one contemporaneous source contains a complete melody attributed to him—the famous crusader song Allererst lebe ich mir werde (“Only now do I live in dignity”), called the Palästinalied (“Palestine song;” Ex. 4-13). It was evidently composed in 1224 or 1225, when the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, of the German house of Hohenstaufen, was conscripting an army to lead on a much-postponed Crusade.

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ex. 4-13 Walther von der Vogelweide, Palästinalied

Its melody, a “rounded bar” in which the last line is set to the ending phrase of the initial pair, has been compared both to a melody by the troubadour Jaufre Rudel and to the Gregorian hymn Te Joseph celebrent (for the feast of St. Joseph the Workman, Mary’s husband). One does not have to call it a contrafactum of either of these in order to recognize its derivation from the common fund of “Dorian” melody on which anyone who heard and sang chant in church, and who aspired to a lofty style, would surely have drawn.

The knightly Minnesinger cultivated three main genres, all more or less directly adapted from the Romance vernacular tradition. The narrative Leich derived directly from the French lai. The Lied was the equivalent of the canso or chanson courtoise, and like its Romance counterparts it encompassed an important subgenre, the Tagelied (daybreak song), equivalent to the troubadour alba (aube in French). Finally, there was the Spruch. The word means a “saying,” and the genre encompassed many of the same topics as did the Provençal sirventes and tenso and their French equivalents (though the Minnesinger did not use dialogue form): praise of patron, complaint at base behavior, political commentary and satire, moral precept, poetic craft. Many moralizing Sprüche are in single stanzas and have the character of sung proverbs. These seem to go back to an indigenous German tradition not directly related to Romance models.

As with the work of the trouvères, the art of Minnesang underwent a “popularization” over the course of the thirteenth century, involving what looks like assimilation of unwritten folk models (though one can never be sure). The first signs can be detected in the work of the knight and crusader Neidhardt von Reuenthal (d. ca. 1250), who despite his lofty social standing specialized in dance songs, divided into two subgenres: Sumerlieder (summer songs) for outdoor dancing and Winderlieder (winter songs) for indoor dancing. Like the French chansons de toile, they begin by setting a scene: in Neidhardt’s case (as perhaps in some folk tradition on which he may have drawn) the scenes they set invariably had to do with nature and with seasonal weather. The ensuing narrative poem often departs from courtly subject matter, and very much departs from courtly tone and diction, lapsing into a sort of dialect and using blunt or even downright coarse language.

Neidhardt’s work was exceedingly popular. He had legions of imitators. Some are known by name, and at least one of these names, that of a thirteenth-century Bavarian poet-singer who called himself der Tannhäuser, was restored to fame in the nineteenth century thanks to Richard Wagner, who made him the title character of an opera. Many more are anonymous; their works have been collected by modern scholars under the charming rubric “Pseudo-Neidhardt.” The folksy and hilarious Meienzit (“In Maytime”; Ex. 4-14) is a work by a latter-day (early fourteenth-century) Pseudo-Neidhardter. Its melody, like many folk melodies, is “gapped.” By diatonic reckoning it lacks a sixth degree (and the second degree is clearly an auxiliary degree, used only in the Dorian cadence formula). The tune is so simple, in fact, that it is more to be looked upon as a “tone” (Ton in German), a reciting formula in which every third phrase is varied to give a whiff of the old courtly aab stanza. But the melody itself seems no more courtly than does the gross behavior of “hairy Hildemar,” a boorish knight who, as the poem goes on to relate, plays an embarrassing practical joke on the poet’s lady.

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ex. 4-14 Anon. (“Pseudo-Neidhardt”), Meienzit


The other way in which we know Neidhardt’s songs were popular is that some of them have actually become folk songs. That is, they have rejoined the oral tradition, and were unwittingly collected (in considerably altered form, of course, but still recognizable) by the early folklorists of the German Romantic movement in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Along with this, Neidhardt himself became a folk hero, acclaimed in legend (by storytellers unaware of his noble rank) as the leader of peasant revolts. Tannhäuser, too, became a figure of legend; the tall tale about his dalliance with Venus and his pilgrimage to Rome, traceable to the fourteenth century, was memorialized as a major plot ingredient of Wagner’s opera of 1845. (Walther von der Vogelweide makes an appearance in the opera too, as does Wolfram von Eschenbach, more an epic poet than a Minnesinger, from whose Parzival Wagner would draw plot ingredients for his next opera, Lohengrin, and for Parsifal, his last one.)

As these references to Wagner and to early folklore collectors suggest, the art of the Minnesingers greatly appealed to the German artists and art historians of the nineteenth century, a time when progressive thinkers were striving to unite the German nation. The earliest German vernacular poetry and its music became an important symbol of German nationhood, and a rallying point for German nationalists.

So, too, a bit later, did the Latin versus settings by the wandering poet-musicians who called themselves goliards. (The name may derive from the Latin gula, “gullet,” suggesting gluttony; or from the biblical Goliath, suggesting brawn). These were impecunious, unattached monks and scholars, learned mendicants and itinerant teachers, who loved using the language of the Roman classics and the church to entertain themselves not just with serious religious or mythological poems but also with hymns to the pleasures of youthful flesh—drinking, feasting, gambling, roistering, and (especially) lechery, the best theme of all with which to satirize the lofty motifs of Minnesang.

An especially large collection of some two hundred goliardic poems (about one-quarter with old-fashioned staffless neumes) is found in an early thirteenth-century manuscript from the environs of Munich. Long housed in a Benedictine abbey called Benediktbeuren, it was published in 1847 under the title Carmina burana (“Songs of Beuren”). Even though much of the manuscript’s contents can be traced back to French sources (and a few concordances with French manuscripts with staff notation enable the deciphering of a few of its melodies), and although it contains much serious religious poetry (including two impressive “liturgical dramas”), the bawdy Latin songs in the Carmina burana became for romantic nationalists of a later age another trophy of native German genius, flaunted especially during the period of the Third Reich (1933–45), when German nationalism, under the by-name of National Socialism, achieved its most extreme manifestation. A cantata called Carmina burana (1937), with rousing music set to boisterous verses from the Benediktbeuren manuscript by Carl Orff (1895–1982), was heavily promoted by the National Socialist regime at a time when it was engaged in a strenuous propaganda battle with the Christian churches of Germany. The Carmina burana verses, with their glorification of youth culture and their neo-paganism, effectively epitomized the “New Germany.” This was a blatant case of appropriation after the fact, of course, but it is now part of the history of the Carmina burana, and therefore part of its meaning. No appropriation, however, is ever complete or conclusive. Since the fall of the Third Reich, Orff’s Carmina burana has retained a place in the standard choral-orchestral repertory. Audiences now respond more directly, and perhaps more innocently, to its message of springtime pleasures and renewal.


The original romantic nationalist view of medieval German art music reached its peak in another Wagner opera, Die Meister-singer von Nürnberg (“The master singers of Nuremberg,” 1868), of which the first libretto sketches were made in 1845, the same year as Tannhäuser reached the stage. The Meistersinger were guild musicians who flourished in southern German towns between the fourteenth and the seventeenth centuries (but chiefly in the fifteenth and sixteenth). Like the very late trouvères, on whose confréries their guilds were evidently modeled, the Meistersinger were burghers, not nobles. Their chief activity consisted in convening assemblies, like the puys of northern France, at which song contests were held and prizes awarded. A Meisterlied (master-song) was the musical equivalent of a Meisterstück (master-piece, from which we get our English term masterpiece), the culminating offering by which an apprentice graduated to the rank of master artisan in a medieval guild. Like a master-piece, a master-song was judged on the success with which its maker demonstrated his mastery—that is, his command of established rules and practices. These rules—ostensibly derived from the practices of the Minnesinger, whom they venerated—were strictly codified by the Meistersinger in books called Tabulaturen. This is where the old “bar form” was actually christened and described in terms of its constituent parts: two Stollen (pillars) followed by an Abgesang (“sing-off”) corresponding to the pedes and cauda of the troubadour canso (first described, incidentally, by Dante in the fourteenth century, also long after the fact). One can hear this lore actually being imparted in the third act of Wagner’s opera, when the shoemaker Hans Sachs, the leader of the Nuremberg master singers (an actual historical personage who lived from 1494 to 1576, and whose musical works survive) instructs the entirely fictional Walther von Stolzing in the making of a prize-song.

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fig. 4-9 Opening page of the so called Carmina burana manuscript, showing Dame Fortune and her fateful wheel, a favorite topic of Goliard verse.

The Tabulaturen also contained what were said to be exemplary melodies by the leading Minnesinger, especially Walther von der Vogelweide. Modern scholars strongly doubt the authenticity of these melodies, as well as the Meistersinger’s claim to have inherited their art as a direct legacy from the noble poet-singers of the earlier tradition. The art of the Meistersinger consisted mainly of the fashioning of Töne, song-formulas à la Pseudo-Neidhardt, which they then decorated with melismas called Blumen or “flowers” that had no counterpart in the Minnesinger tradition. By the sixteenth century, their literary themes were fairly remote from those of the original Minnesinger. Minne itself had disappeared as a subject in favor of Spruchdichtung, the moralizing poetry of the later German poet-singers, notably Heinrich von Meissen (d. 1318), called Frauenlob (Lady’s Praise) because of his many songs in honor of the Virgin Mary. By Hans Sachs’s time, the Virgin had been replaced as a subject, under pressure of the Reformation, by Bible stories and pious proverbs, and especially by verses celebrating the theory and practice of Meistergesang itself. Such a song is Hans Sachs’s own Meisterlied, called Silberweise (“The Silver Tune”), composed in 1513.

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ex. 4-15 Hans Sachs, Silberweise


Wagner, of course, accepted the Meistersinger’s claims implicitly, and even projected the attributes of Meistergesang back onto the Minnesinger with the enormous (and enormously anachronistic) scene in Tannhäuser of the song contest at Wartburg. So for Wagner (as earlier, it should be added, for the eighteenth-century poet Goethe), the Meistersinger, too, stood for a united German nation and a rallying point for nationalism, the more so since the Meistersinger were “democratic” burghers, not nobles, therefore progressive from the nineteenth-century point of view.

Just how anachronistic this view really was can be seen at the end of Wagner’s opera, when Hans Sachs sings his famous, thrilling (and for some by now perhaps somewhat chilling) hymn to die heil’ge deutsche Kunst (holy German art) with its call to keep it deutsch und echt (German and pure) against the threat of “base alien domination” (falscher wälscher Majestät). The notion of a German nation—and, by extension, of a German art—was foreign to the thinking of the Meistersinger, let alone the Minnesinger. Both Germany and (as we have already seen) France were many nations, not one. Larger political entities—the Holy Roman Empire or its Carolingian predecessor, to say nothing of the earlier Roman empire on which both were modeled—were multinational abstractions. They were not nations at all by any modern definition (and nations, as we now conceive of them, have only a modern definition).

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fig. 4-10 The Minnesinger Heinrich von Meissen, known as Frauenlob (“praiser of women”), one of the many magnificent illuminations in the Grosse Heidelberger Liederhand-schrift (“Great Heidelberg Song Manuscript”), an early fourteenth-century collection of German song texts. The noble courtly singer is shown directing or admonishing from on high a group of plebeian Spielleute (“player folk”), playing or holding a variety of recognizable instruments like the fiddle, the shawm (the conical oboe-like instrument being raised aloft), and drums. Whether such an orchestra ever accompanied Minnesang is debatable. The depiction might rather imply the relative social standing of musicians and musical genres.

Political and social allegiance, under conditions of feudalism, was dynastic and personal, not national or collective. When Western Europe did act collectively, as in the Crusades, it was in the name of religious, not political, unity. The major European division by this time was likewise religious, not political: the schism between the Eastern and Western Christian churches, brewing since the ninth century, became formal and final in 1054, with the excommunication of the patriarch of Constantinople by Pope Leo IX. The followers of Eastern Orthodoxy, cut off from Western Europe not only by their allegiance to Constantinople but, later, by centuries of Turkish and Mongol political domination, will not rejoin the history of literate art music in the West until the eighteenth century—that is, not until the modern notion of the secular nation state was born.

Thus, while kings and their vassals went to war against one another frequently, nations (as we think of them) never fought with or resisted other nations. Most literate Europeans were polyglot and owed no primary allegiance to a mother tongue. (If they had a linguistic allegiance, it was, as Christians or as scholars, to Latin; and local dialects—mother tongues—were often scorned by the literate as “low.”) When Wagner’s Sachs warns against wälscher Majestät, “foreign domination,” the nation he (that is, Wagner) had above all in mind was France, the nation against which Germany was about to fight a war in 1868, and against which the German Romantics had been waging esthetic war for a century. How far this attitude applied in medieval Germany can be judged from the fact that the whole “holy German art” of the Minnesinger was knowingly and cheerfully borrowed from the French. The meaning of the French artistic legacy to the Germans had to do with its courtliness, not its nationality. That courtliness, at the outset at least, was indeed next to godliness, and it encompassed all nations that valued it.


The point to ponder about Minnesang and Meistergesang is their longevity, not their putative national character. The original appropriation from France was made not very long after the French had appropriated the art of Languedoc. By the end of the twelfth century all three linguistic branches of the courtly song tradition were thriving side by side and did not differ greatly from one another. By the end of the thirteenth century, the troubadours were a memory, and the trouvères, having been absorbed into the urban confréries, were singing pop songs at puys and (in the person of Adam de la Halle) making contact with the clerical and university arts of polyphonic composition.

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fig. 4-11 Oswald von Wolkenstein, as depicted in a manuscript at the University Library of Innsbruck, Austria, one of two fifteenth-century collections of his works.

Adam de la Halle, as it happened, had a close German counterpart in the latter-day Minnesinger Oswald von Wolkenstein, a knight and imperial emissary from the Tyrol region in the Austrian Alps. Like Adam, he is regarded as the last of his line. Like Adam, he composed in a wide range of genres, both narrative (including the autobiographical masterpiece Es fuegt sich, “It so befell me…”) and lyric. Again like Adam, Oswald supervised the collection of his complete works, grouped by genres, into valuable retrospective manuscripts. Yet again like Adam, Oswald (alone among his breed) dabbled in polyphonic composition, mainly in the dance-derived formes fixes, and in so doing proclaimed his knowledgeable love of French song: many of his polyphonic settings (like many of the earliest Minnelieder) were contrafacta of French originals. (The best known of these is Oswald’s Der May, a summer-song with imitation bird calls, modeled on a virelai with bird calls by a French contemporary named Vaillant.)

The only thing that separated Adam and Oswald was time. They were not contemporaries at all. Oswald was born around 1376, at least seventy years after Adam’s death, when the monophonic art of the trouvères was long since superseded. He died in 1445, by which time the Meistersinger were already well established (and, in Western Europe, monophonic song was hardly practiced any longer as a literate art). Oswald himself cannot be classified as a guild musician, though. Both his social class and his subject matter preclude that, and his poetic and musical style was remote from that prescribed by the Tabulaturen.

Persistence, like Oswald’s, in old ways is often represented by historians as anachronism—in this case, as a pocket of “the Middle Ages” surviving like a fossil into “the Renaissance,” or as resolute “conservatism,” resistance to change. What is anachronistic, however, is the modern linear view of history that produces such an evaluation, and the implicit isolation of artistic practices or styles from the historical conditions that enabled them.

Feudal society and “castle culture” retained their currency longer in Germany than they did in France. The rise of towns and, consequently, of urbanized mores happened later there. The institution of serfdom, for example, the sine qua non of feudal economy, which bound the lower classes of society to the land and retarded urbanization, made a sort of eastward migration over the course of time covered by this chapter: from the Romance countries (France, Italy, Spain) to Germany, and finally (during the fifteenth century) to the Slavic countries. (Essentially “feudal” conditions persisted in Russia until the Emancipation Act of 1861; were Russia not culturally cut off from the West during its long period of Mongol occupation, it would probably have developed an art of courtly song last of all, and kept it latest.) The growth of towns and the beginnings of a mercantile (money-based) economy came later to Germany than they did to France and arrived along with the Meistersinger—or rather, obviously, the art of the Meistersinger guild was made possible by the growth of the urban and mercantile society that supported it and to which it gave expression.

To regard an Oswald von Wolkenstein or a Hans Sachs as an artistic anachronism, then, is to regard their societies as historical anachronisms. And one has to ask by what premises—indeed, by what right—and from what vantage point one can make such a judgment. When things become truly anachronistic, they disappear (as did the Meistersinger guild when it officially disbanded in 1774). As long as they thrive, they are ipso facto—by that very fact—relevant to their time, and it is the historian’s job to understand how. Judging cultures by the standards of other cultures (most often, by the standards of one’s own culture) is called ethnocentrism, and it has been the source of many fallacious historical verdicts, to say nothing of ethnic, religious, or racial intolerance.

Another premise that can lead to the illusory notion of historical anachronism is the premise that history is teleological—that it has a purpose or an end (telos in Greek). This kind of thinking leads to determinism: the explanation of events in terms of inevitable movement toward the perceived goal, and the assignment of value to phenomena (or to artifacts, like works of art) depending on their nearness to it.


An argument like the one made here, which seeks to account for the circumstances of art history (here, its nonsynchronicity) by appealing to factors deemed external to “art itself,” is often mistaken for a determinist argument. (In this case, some balance of historical, social, and economic determinisms would appear to be invoked.) That is a misnomer, engendered by the confusion of causes or purposes with enabling conditions. To say that certain conditions made a development—say, the art of the Meistersinger—possible is not the same as predicting the nature of that development from a knowledge of those conditions, or ascribing a value to it on that basis.

And yet even this much appeal to “external” factors is often avoided. Until recently it was not customary in books like this. That is because the historiography of art in the West has long been dominated by a view of art that arose in the wake of the social emancipation (or, perhaps, the social abandonment) of the artist in the nineteenth century. The concept of “the emancipated and abandoned artist,” the artist-loner, is thus the product of nineteenth-century aesthetics—in a word, of Romanticism. Since the nineteenth century it has been, and still often is, the custom to view art romantically, which means viewing it as being autonomous. An autonomous entity is one that follows an independent course and a self-determined one. To regard art as autonomous is to regard its history as being determined solely by those who produce it.

Yet the “autonomist” position, as already implied, was itself called forth by social and economic conditions. It does a poor job of explaining the work even of its own adherents, let alone that of much earlier artists who functioned in harmony with their society (indeed, at the very top of it) at a time when all art served a well-defined social purpose. To regard the art of the troubadours or the Meistersinger—however it may still delight or move us, and however we may still treasure it—as if it were no different from the autonomous output of the emancipated and abandoned artists of our own time, and therefore subject to similar “laws of evolution,” is the very height of anachronism.

That may seem obvious enough, but the view of history that arises from that basic anachronism is still the prevailing one. The only model of change the autonomist view of art history can recognize is strictly linear stylistic evolution, often described using biological or otherwise “organic” metaphors (styles being born, reaching maturity, declining, dying). Art history is viewed as a procession of styles in a single file, along which different artists occupy positions either ahead or behind one another, depending on the style they employ.

From such a vantage point an artist’s style defines the artist in essential terms. (Recall the old French saying, Le style, c’est l’homme—“the style is the man.”) Depending on his or her style, an artist is judged either “advanced” (“forward-looking,” “progressive”) or “regressive” (“backward-looking,” “conservative”). To make such a judgment, of course, is unwittingly to turn style into politics, for politics is the primary point of reference for terms like “progressive” or “conservative.” And these terms, whether in politics or in style-politics, are never value-free, though the valuation will vary depending on the evaluator’s political outlook.

In any case, style-politics engendered by autonomist esthetics, paradoxically enough, turns out to be an especially deterministic view of history. It is from that standpoint, especially when concepts of style are allowed to congeal into hard-and-fast categories of “period style” (“medieval,” “Renaissance”), that one is most apt to regard artists and whole artistic movements as “ahead of their time” or as “lagging behind” it. These are invidious judgments, and (except as historical events in their own right) irrelevant to history. Everything possible will be done in this book to avoid them.

Which, alas, makes our story even harder to tell, since it militates against the construction of a single linear narrative. If all times are plural even within a single ostensible tradition (just think of the European scene in the twelfth century, when sacred chants and Latin versus and courtly song in three vernaculars were all being composed side by side, not to mention the massive, unprecedented cultivation of written polyphony that will be the subject of the next chapter), then so are all histories. Our story will have to keep moving back and forth, tracing beginnings and endings, showing not only how beginnings lead to endings, but also how endings lead to beginnings. Having in this chapter traced one strand—or rather, one complex of strands—from the eleventh to the fourteenth centuries (with many glances backward as far as antiquity and forward as far as the present), we will now return to square one and trace another.


(4) This lovely analogy was suggested in conversation by Imanuel Willheim of the University of Hartford.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 Music of Feudalism and Fin’s Amors." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 11 Aug. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-004005.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 4 Music of Feudalism and Fin’s Amors. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 11 Aug. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-004005.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 Music of Feudalism and Fin’s Amors." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 11 Aug. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-004005.xml