The period of history known as the Middle Ages began around the year A.D. 450 with the decline of the Roman Empire and spans 1000 years to around A.D. 1450. This was a time in history marked by barbaric wars, feudal disputes, and religious crusades. lt was also a period of great faith. Christianity had been adopted by the Roman Empire as the church of state, and therefore, it had also been adopted by many of the countries in Europe as the major religion. Toward the end of the Middle Ages, there was a period of great cultural growth. Romanesque-style churches and monasteries and Gothic cathedrals were built, universities were founded, and cities and towns grew.
The Middle Ages also was a period in time when there was a sharp division among the social classes: the nobility, the clergy, and the peasantry. The peasants were very poor and were usually feudal subjects to the noble class. Peasants farmed the land for the nobles, and they raised their herds for them. They were very much like indentured servants. The nobility lived in fortified castles and Jived lives of great ease. The clergy, or leaders of the church, were very influential in guiding the affairs of the nobility and the peasantry.
The church had a virtual monopoly on learning. Both peasants and nobles alike were generally illiterate. Cathedrals and monasteries were the centers of religious, educational, and musical life. All of the important musicians during the Middle Ages were priests and worked for the church. The only music education available during the Middle Ages was in church schools, and only boys were allowed to attend. One of the most important occupations in monasteries was liturgical singing, or the singing of chants for the services that were held throughout the day.
Almost all of the music from the Middle Ages was vocal music. Instruments were not allowed in churches or monasteries for the majority of the Middle Ages. Not until about 1100 were instruments used to accompany voices. Of all the instruments used, the organ was the most prominent.
- Try to imagine what it would be like to be a priest in a monastery. Describe what your daily activities might be.
- lt you had written music for the Crusades, what would have been some of the things you might have included in your songs?