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Medieval Women and Music

Cynthia J. Cyrus

Last modified on June 18, 2003


Women's involvement with medieval music took a variety of forms; they served at times as audience, as participant, as sponsor, and as creator. The evidence for their roles, like that for their male contemporaries, is sporadic at best. Many musical sources have been lost, and those sources that do survive only occasionally provide composer attributions. Information on specific performances is virtually non-existent, and the references to musical performances gleaned from literary allusions must be read critically. Similarly, an art-work portraying a women musician may be representational or symbolic--or both. Yet despite these handicaps, modern scholarship reveals many ways in which medieval women were engaged with--and enriched by--the music that flourished around them.


| Egeria: An Early Witness | Nuns and Canonesses | Women and Polyphony | Women as Scribes | Women as Composers | Women as Performers | Women as Patrons | Sources |

Egeria: An Early Witness

One of our earliest witnesses to Christian liturgical practice was the nun Egeria (ca. 400), whose account of her pilgrimage to Jerusalem provides evidence for the nascent Office services and for the development of the mass. She was writing for an audience of fellow-nuns, and assumes that they will understand the liturgical details (including terms such as antiphon and hymn which may not have their modern meanings), but her descriptions give hints of the divisions of services and the types of chants used, as well as details about the ritual involved. In discussing Sunday mass, for instance, she indicates that the people gathered "with the dawn, because it is the Lord's day," and explains that they listen to several hours of sermons, since any priest who wishes to may preach. Eventually, the catechumens, who have not yet received baptism, are dismissed, since they are barred from the portion of the Sunday mass devoted to the Eucharist. The last portion of the mass includes an elaborate entry into the sanctuary basilica, in which the bishop enters to the accompaniment of "hymns"; there follow prayers, blessings, and an elaborate close as "all kiss the bishop's hand." The overall service, she says, does not end until the fifth or sixth hour after dawn. Elsewhere in her account she gives more specifically musical details; in a pre-dawn service on the Lord's day (Sunday), for example, there are hymns and antiphons alternating with prayers before the service begins, and the service itself begins with the recitation of psalms:

[W]hen the first cock has crowed, forthwith the bishop descends and enters inside of the cave to the Anastasis (the sanctuary). All the doors are opened, and the whole crowd streams into the Anastasis. Here innumerable lights are shining; and when the people have entered, one of the priests says a psalm, and they all respond; then prayer is offered. Again one of the deacons says a psalm, and again prayer is offered; a third psalm is said by one of the clergy, and prayer is offered for the third time, and the commemoration of all men is made.... [Bernard, p. 47]

We cannot reconstruct the service that she witnessed, for she never explains what the congregation said or sang as a response to the psalms, nor does she identify which psalms were recited. We cannot even tell for certain what format the "commemoration of all men" followed or what the other ritual activities are later in the service. Nevertheless, from Egeria's account of the services at Jerusalem, we can tell several things:
  • particular services fell at specified hours
  • recitation of psalms formed a constant in the office services
  • psalms often alternated with some kind of response
  • the congregation participated in the service
  • ritual display was important: she speaks of lights, censers, and participant's movements as much as she speaks of texts and prayers
  • mass is divided into two segments, one instructional (attended by the catechumens), and one involving the Eucharist and therefore limited to the baptized members of the congregation.
  • women's participation as members of the congregation is taken for granted; Egeria's distinctions are between "celebrants" and "people," though elsewhere she specifies that the laity includes both men and women (viri aut mulieres).

Nuns and Canonesses

What monks did, nuns did too. With a few exceptions, monastic women's participation in the liturgy closely paralleled that of their male equivalents. Canonesses (residents in a monastic community who had not taken permanent vows) and nuns were responsible for reciting the Divine Office throughout the day, and they participated as choir members and as soloist (the so-called cantrix) in the performance of the Mass. Many of the women's monasteries lacked the wealth and opulent display of nearby male communities, but they frequently had a set of liturgical books containing both text and music for the chants in which the choir, soloist(s), and readers would partake. Of the 3354 manuscripts surviving from women's monastic libraries in medieval Germany and Switzerland, for instance, 834--nearly one-quarter--are liturgical sources intended for the choir or the soloists. (Krämer, unpublished tally made by Olivia Carter.) Ordinals (books which address the rite and spell out the content and method of the services, often listing items by incipit) and customaries (books which address the ceremonial and specify the roles of the various participants, explaining who says or does what) also survive from many women's communities. Some sources also indicate women's roles within liturgical dramas performed at the convents. Fewer books survive that provide the priest's segments of the services, perhaps because women's monasteries had to import one or more male celebrants to serve as priest; the celebrant might well supply his own books. Nevertheless, the surviving musical sources corroborate the Rules, such as the Rule of St. Benedict from the early to mid-sixth century, that regulate liturgical participation: both the sources and the rules themselves indicate that monastic women had active liturgical roles.

In the mass, then, nuns or canonesses would have sung all of the major musical items (a table of mass items is available). The choir, which usually consists of all of the nuns, presents the ordinary chants with their unchanging texts (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei). If the ordinary chants were troped, the choir would still sing the host chant (the Agnus Dei, for instance), but the cantrix would perform the new material that introduces and comments on the host chant. Similarly, the choir would perform the antiphonal chants of the mass (the Introit, Offertory, and Communion), though the cantrix might sing the psalm verse as a solo. Finally, the responsorial chants (the Gradual and Alleluia) gave the cantrix a chance to shine, for these elaborate, melismatic chants were primarily sung by the soloist, with the choir chiming in only at the ends of sections. (In modern chant books, the entrance of the choir is usually marked with an asterisk.) The celebrating priest was responsible for the text of the Canon or Eucharistic prayer (which was said silently at every mass) and for three orations and the Preface, while the scriptural readings might be said by either supporting (male) clergy or by a woman from the convent.

Women and Polyphony

In at least some convents, women performed polyphony. (An extensive discussion can be found in Yardley, pp. 24-27.) Some of this repertory is preserved in the Las Huelgas codex which stems from the Carthusian monastery for women near Burgos in Northern Spain which housed approximately one hundred nuns and forty choirgirls at its prime in the thirteenth century. The manuscript itself contains an extensive collection of polyphony, including three styles of organum (note-against note; melismatic; Notre Dame), motets and conductus, and tropes and sequences. Although the manuscript was copied in the fourteenth century, the repertory comes from earlier, especially 1241-1288.

The contents of the Las Huelgas Codex follow:

  • 24 polyphonic ordinary movements:
    • 2 kyries and 3 troped kyries
    • 1 troped Gloria
    • 1 Credo
    • 1 Sanctus and 7 troped Sanctus movements
    • 9 troped Agnus Dei movements
  • 7 Polyphonic Propers
  • 31 Benedicamus Domino settings:
    • 7 polyphonic settings
    • 14 troped polyphonic settings
    • 10 troped monophonic settings
  • 31 "Prosae" (also known as sequences):
    • 11 polyphonic prosae
    • 20 monophonic prosae
  • "modern" thirteenth-century genres:
    • 59 motets
      • 2 four-voice motets
      • 25 three-voice double motets (with two separate texts in the top voices)
      • 11 three-voice conductus-motets (with homorhythmic upper voices)
      • 21 two-part motets
    • 17 polyphonic conductus
    • 14 monophonic conductus (also known as versus)
    • 1 solfeggio
The prevalence of polyphony and the heavy use of tropes suggests that this convent, at least, placed a premium on up-to-date musical styles. Other convents may not have had the resources to keep up with the latest musical fashions, but small clusters of polyphonic pieces survive from sixteen different women's convents, suggesting that women religious had at least some interest, and perhaps some training, in composed polyphony.

Women as Scribes

Women not only read musical books, they also copied them, at least in some instances. While no investigation of women as music scribes has been published, evidence for women's roles in scriptoria has been accumulating. It is now known that women's monasteries as well as men's often had active scriptoria. Moreover, an index of colophons from France reveals a significant number of women who signed their scribal works. Though text sources naturally predominate, a few musical sources were signed by women (Colophons, passim). Similarly, though no musical sources survive in her name, Sister Lukardis of Utrecht from the fifteenth century is known to have copied musical manuscripts, for a Dominican friar writes of her activities:

She busied herself with ...writing, which she had truly mastered as we may see in the large, beautiful, useful choir books which she wrote and annotated for the convent... (as quoted in Edwards, p. 10)
Judging by handwriting, notational styles and repertory, a number of unsigned chant manuscripts also stem from the convents in which they were used. Indeed, though relatively few women music scribes are known, many of their sisters may have legacies that hide amongst the unsigned manuscripts of the era.

Women as Composers

Perhaps the most famous of the medieval women composers is Hildegard of Bingen. Her repertory of sequences and antiphons (sacred songs) stand somewhat outside of the musical tradition, for she writes in a loosely formulaic melodic language that works more by motivic allusion than by strict adherence to modal range and standard melodic gestures. She collected her 77 musical works in a volume called the Symphonia harmoniae caelestium revelationum (Symphony of Harmony of Heavenly Revelations). Her morality play, the Ordo virtutum, is appended to one manuscript copy of the Symphonia. Hildegard's training is not particularly exceptional; education at convents was focussed on the performance of the liturgy, and included literacy, Latin, and music. Thus, other nuns may have composed plainchant--or even polyphony--for new feasts and special celebrations. Since most medieval music is anonymous, however, their contributions are impossible to trace.

Secular composers fared better, probably because secular music is more often copied with composer attributions. Twenty-one trobairitz (or women troubadours) are known by name. Though only one composition survives with both text and music copied together (the canso "A chantar" written by the Countess of Dia), other works can be reconstructed by supplying a tune to match the poetic structure. Further examples of women's compositions can be found among the tensos--debate poems, usually with alternating stanzas by the speakers. A few women trouvères were active in the thirteenth century, but none of their works survive with music. Some scholars have speculated that songs "in a women's voice," that is, songs in which the speaker is identified as a woman, may reflect women's contributions to the lyric repertory. At the very least, these songs reflect sentiments and musical styles that seemed to their contemporaries to be appropriate for a woman. (Several articles addressing such songs can be found in Vox Feminae.)

Women as Performers

Women were active performers of secular music. Many women performed as amateurs, either in the home or in courtly or urban settings. Boccaccio's Decameron identifies women singing and dancing, along with their male companions, as do many of the courtly romances of the twelfth and thirteenth-centuries (Page, Owl, esp. pp. 102-6). In the romance Cleriadus et Meliadice (discussed in Page, "Performance"), for instance, girls as well as boys perform for the assembled company by harping or singing. Adults too participated actively in the festivities, first dancing their fill to the music of minstrels, then singing. "There might you have heard men and women singing well!", says the narrator (Ibid, p. 443).

In addition to informal musical participation, however, women were also active as menestrelles and jongleuresses. Performers themselves, they traveled as part of small groups of entertainers, and were often wives or daughters to male minstrels. In some instances, however, women had independent roles; they were granted permission to participate in the Guild of Minstrels in Paris from 1321 to the seventeenth century.

Women as Patrons

The role of the patron has often been neglected in histories of music, but a strong patron could form a center of musical production by gathering and supporting musicians of all calibers. The lands that Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204) brought to her marriages, first to Louis VII of France and then to Henry II of England, made her one of the most politically influential figures of her day, but her cultural endeavors had an equally profound impact on European civilization. Eleanor's efforts at the court of Poitiers shaped a culture centered on courtly love and chivalric behavior; her sponsorship contributed to the success of the troubadours and to the spread of the Arthurian legends. Other noblewomen may have had a less dramatic impact on musical culture, but they often had musicians in their personal retinue and so helped to shape the prevailing musical style. Indeed, because women often married far from home, they served as a kind of cultural network for importing and mingling new ideas, styles and tastes with the established norms of their husband's court.


Bernard, John H., translation, introduction and notes. The Pilgrimage of S. Silvia of Aquitania to the Holy Places (circa 385 A.D.). Palestine Pilgrims' Text Society. London: Adelphi, 1891. Reprint as a chapter in Bernard, The Churches of Constantine at Jerusalem: Being Translations from Eusebius and the Early Pilgrims. Palestine Pigrims' Text Society, vol. 1. New York: AMS Press, 1971. (The reprint volume paginates each chapter separately; this chapter, including appendix and index, is paginated 1-150.) [Provides an edition, translation, and brief commentary on the pilgrim's text now thought to have been written by Egeria, circa. 400 A.D. The description of religious services in Jerusalem can be found on pp. 45-77 (English) and pp. 109-136 (Latin), though the manuscript upon which the account is based is truncated mid- sentence.]

Bogin, Meg. The Women Troubadours. New York: Paddington Press, 1975. [Readable account of the social context for the courtly lyric. Bogin's view is challenged by Marianne Shapiro, "The Provencal Trobairitz and the Limits of Courtly Love," Signs 3/3 (Spring 1978): 560-71.]

Borroff, Edith. "Women and Music in Medieval Europe." Mediaevalia, 14 (1991): 1-21. [Not consulted.]

Briscoe, James R., ed. Historical Anthology of Music by Women. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. [Pieces by Kassia (Byzantine chant), Hildegard, Countess of Dia.]

Coldwell, Maria V. "Jougleresses and Trobairitz: Secular Musicians in Medieval France." In Women Making Music: The Western Art Tradition, 1150-1950. Jane Bowers and Judith Tick, eds. Urbana and Chicago: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1986, pp. 39-61. [Somewhat broader than its title suggests; includes information on women's musical roles from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.]

Colophons de manuscrits occidentaux des origines au XVIe siècle. Compiled by the Benedictines of Bouveret. Spicilegii Friburgensis subsidia; 2-7. Fribourg, Switzerland: Editions universitaires, 1965-?.

Edwards, J. Michele. "Women in Music to ca. 1450." In Women and Music: A History. Ed. Karin Pendle. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana Univ. Press, 1991, pp. 8-28. [General overview of medieval women's musical roles.]

Egan, Margarita. The Vidas of the Troubadours. Garland Library of Medieval Literature, 6. New York: Garland Pub., 1984. [Provides annotated translations of extant vidas, including several for trobairitz.]

Hildegard of Bingen. Symphonia: A Critical Edition of the Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum. Barbara Newman, ed. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988. [Provides texts and translations of Hildegard's antiphons, sequences and responsories.]

The Las Huelgas Manuscript: Burgos, Monasterio de Las Huelgas. 2 vols. Gordon A. Anderson, ed. Corpus Mensurabilis Musicae 79. N.P.: American Institute of Musicology, 1982. [An edition of both polyphonic and monophonic music from a retrospective fourteenth-century manuscript stemming from the Spanish women's monastery.]

Krämer, Sigrid. Handschriftenerbe des Deutschen Mittelalters. 2 Teil. Mittelalterliche Bibliothekskataloge: Deutschlands und der Schweiz, Ergänzungsband I. München: C.H. Beck, 1989. [Catalogue of surviving manuscript sources from monastic communities, including a significant number of women's monasteries.]

Marshall, Kimberly. "Symbols, Performers, and Sponsors: Female Musical Creators in the Late Middle Ages." In Rediscovering the Muses: Women's Musical Traditions. Kimberly Marshall, ed. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1993, pp. 140-168. [Addresses iconography, performance (particularly of unwritten traditions), and patronage; useful bibliographic footnotes.]

Neuls-Bates, Carol. Women in Music: An Anthology of Source Readings from the Middle Ages to the Present. Rev. ed. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1996. [Medieval topics: Women as Singers in Christian Antiquity; Music in an Early Community of Women; Life at a Twelfth-Century Benedictine Convent; Hildegard of Bingen: Abbess and Composer; Three Women Troubadours; Women Among the Minstrels and as Amateur Musicians.]

Page, Christopher. The Owl and The Nightingale: Musical Life and Ideas in France 1100-1300. London: J.M. Dent and Songs, Ltd., 1989.

Page, Christopher. "The Performance of Songs in Late Medieval France: A New Source." Early Music 10 (1982): 441-450.

Vox Feminae: Studies in Medieval Woman's Song. John F. Plummer, ed. Studies in Medieval Culture, vol. 15. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1981.

Weiss, Piero and Richard Taruskin. Music in the Western World: A History in Documents. New York: Schirmer Books, 1984. [Primary source readings, from a few sentences to several pages in length, embedded in or introduced by helpful historical context. Entries on Egeria (#7), Music in the the Roman de la Rose (#15), and Machaut's character of Peronne in the Voir Dit (#20) address women's roles specifically.]

Women Composers: Music Through the Ages. Martha Furman Schleifer and Sylvia Glickman, eds. Vol. 1: Composers Born Before 1599. New York: G.K.Hall, 1996. [Entries on Kassia (Byzantine chant), Hildegard, the Countess of Dia and the trobairitz, plus essays on women in the trecento, the Briggitines, and anonymous compositions from women's convents.]

Yardley, Anne Bagnall, "'Ful weel she soong the service dyvyne': The Cloistered Musician in the Middle Ages." In Women Making Music: The Western Art Tradition, 1150-1950. Jane Bowers and Judith Tick, eds. Urbana and Chicago: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1986, pp. 15-38. [Good survey of music, especially polyphony, in women's monastic communities.]

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Copyright (C) 1997-2003, Cynthia J. Cyrus. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

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Last revised Friday, July 18, 2003