Mediaeval Music: Mediterranean Journeys

When April with his showers sweet with fruit
The drought of March has pierced unto the root
And bathed each vein with liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower;
When Zephyr also has, with his sweet breath,
Quickened again, in every holt and heath,
The tender shoots and buds, and the young sun
Into the Ram one half his course has run, 
And many little birds make melody
That sleep through all the night with open eye
(So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage)-
Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage,
And palmers to go seeking out strange strands,
To distant shrines well known in sundry lands.
(Canterbury Tales, lines 1-14)

So begins the prologue to the great work of mediaeval literature The Canterbury Tales, written by Geoffrey Chaucer at the close of the 14th century, in which the author celebrates Spring as a time for beginning journeys. If today’s weather where you are is half as cold and blustery as it is where I am, in eastern Scotland, however, even leaving the house might seem very unappealing. Fortunately, we can embark upon our own mediaeval odyssey without venturing too far out of doors through today’s mediaeval cd: From Byzantium to Andalusia by the Oni Wytars Ensemble.

The album cover for From Byzantium to Andalusia, via Amazon.

The album draws from the rich musical traditions and cultural interactions of the mediaeval Mediterranean, evoking soundscapes from the Sephardic communities of Spain, the Sufi mystical tradition of Anatolia, and, of course, from the Christian devotional repertoir. These works date from the 12th to the 15th centuries, spanning a period famous for military exploits, such as the Crusades to the Levant and the Reconquista of Spain, which ousted the peninsula’s Muslim inhabitants. At the same time, Christian pilgrims continued to travel to see the holy sites of Jerusalem, and the Hajj brought Muslims from as far afield as Central Asia and Andalusia to Mecca, in the Hijaz.

These pilgrims were a significant force for the spread of cultural knowledge throughout the Middle Ages, as can be seen by the detailed knowledge of Jerusalem displayed by writers in Western Scotland even in the 7th century, and would often have been the most well-travelled individuals in their home communities. They were also, as this album attests, intimately bound up in the musical traditions of the Mediterranean.

St Francis of Assisi, an inspiration to the urban piety of mediaeval Italy, British Library

The journey of From Byzantium to Andalusia begins with a rendition of Kyrie Eleison from the traditions of the Christian Arabs resident in Lebanon. Although conquered by the first Islamic Caliphate in the 7th century, the Christian communities of Lebanon, Syria, and even Egypt, continued to play a vital part in theological debate and cultural production. We might imagine music from this tradition playing not only during church services, but also during occasions like the Syrian Christian wedding procession witnessed by the traveller Ibn Jubayrin the 1180s.

From here, the album proceeds to Italy, where music preserved in collections (Laudari) was written especially for urban processions of devotional fraternities. These groups joined together to sponsor masses for their members, but also played an important part in civic life. Their ability to patronise musicians in the creation of religious music, as well as the inspirations from secular songs, points to the influence of lay-people in creating Christian culture. The result is lively, rich, and sincere, evoking the atmosphere of mediaeval festivals.

This vigour is carried into the ensemble’s musical rendition of the poetry of Yunus Emre, a mystical Islamic poet writing in 13th century Anatolia. As a Sufi, Yunus Emre would have acknowledged the role of music and chant in bringing the devotee closer to God. Even today, the so-called whirling dervishes in Turkey maintain this use of music in Islamic culture. The tracks of Yunus Emre’s poetry reflect its trance-like power, and present some of the earliest poetry of this style written in Turkish, rather than Persian or Arabic.

Whirling dervishes at a Sufi ceremony in Avanos, Turkey (Wikimedia Commons)

In Christian Spain, too, pilgrims not only sang, but also danced, at sacred sites, a practice mentioned in the Red Book of Montserrat. The Iberian peninsula, however, was also home to substantial numbers of Muslims and Jews, both of whom had developed powerful musical traditions of their own. The Sephardic songs in particular were dispersed to the eastern Mediterranean, where the Ottoman cities of Salonica and Smyrna became influential Jewish centres. Thanks to fragments of musical notation attached to Hebrew verses, the strong rhythms and enchanting vocals of these songs can attest to yet another strand of the travelling music of the Mediterranean.

Thanks to this excellent album, the soundscapes of the mediaeval Mediterranean are brought wonderfully to life. At times haunting, at others joyful, they take the listener a varied and engrossing journey through the region’s many cultures and religions, and illustrate the ways in which songs, as well as people, perform pilgrimages.


In my next musical post, I hope to focus on music about, rather than from the Middle Ages. If you have any candidates, I’d love to hear about them in the comments! Who knows, they may even feature in the blog itself!

Learn More:

The modern English verses from the Canterbury Tales were accessed from this online archive of Chaucer.


2 thoughts on “Mediaeval Music: Mediterranean Journeys

  1. Really interesting! Music history is something I am not very aware of. I suppose it was good for the pilgrims to make merry with music when much of the travelling would be hard and dangerous.

    • Definitely! I think we all tend to think of mediaeval music is very solemn, and I like this CD because it shows that this very definitely isn’t the case!

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