Medieval Music: Daily Life in Song

Many of us, drawn to the Medieval world, often choose to get closer to the past by seeking out places or items directly connected to the characters we are so keen to better understand . Usually, this might be through a book, an ornate religious piece of art work, or by visiting a castle, a monastery or battle site. In doing so we feel connected to our ancestry and to a time now past.

However, just occasionally we get the opportunity to take a step much further into the distant past. We are fortunate that there still survives, hidden in some medieval texts, devotional music that studious ecclesiastical clerks carefully set down to preserve for generations ahead of them. Thanks to these far sighted clerics, we have inherited a disparate collection of musical works which can be recreated using instruments that we know from records were used at the time. With careful interpretation and authentic recreation, we can be taken right back to the very heart of the medieval courts, and hear the songs and sounds in a similar way to those living in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. It’s a special privilege and one I certainly love to indulge in.

Here are just a few works that have been loving recreated from some of those original medieval manuscripts. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.


Song One: The Red Book of Montserrat  (Llibre Vermell de Montserrat)

Montserrat, found near Barcelona in Catalonia, has had a monastery on it’s site since since the ninth century. Located there because according to legend The Virgin performed many miracles on this mountain range, it now houses one of the black Virgin statues. Pilgrims as a consequence, have flocked there for a millennia.  Between 1396-1399, as Richard II in England eventually faced deposition at the hands of his over-mighty cousin Henry Bolingbroke, later Henry IV, a studious cleric of that monastery at Montserrat, captured musical pieces in his manuscript (The Red Book).

In his manuscript, the cleric, surrounded by the daily comings and goings of the many pilgrims famously wrote, ‘because the pilgrims wish to sing and dance while they keep their watch at night in the church of the Blessed Mary of Montserrat, and also in the light of day; and in the church no songs should be sung unless they are chaste and pious, for that reason these songs that appear here have been written. And these should be used modestly, and take care that no one who keeps watch in prayer and contemplation is disturbed.

Perhaps he enjoyed them to. There are 172 folios in his manuscript, only six contain music, and of that there are ten pieces listed. There may have originally been more, but 35 folios are missing. Those recorded are older in style, so it is believed the musical pieces date stylistically to the late thirteenth to early fourteenth centuries. The one I love the most is the ‘Stella Splendens’ or Splendid Star (f21v-22). Below is a link to the full piece of music which is just over 7 minutes long.

***Click Here for Stella Splendens***

The Red Book


Stella splendens in monte ut solis radium
miraculis serrato exaudi populum.Concurrunt universi gaudentes populi
divites et egeni grandes et parvuli
ipsum ingrediuntur ut cernunt oculi
et inde revertuntur gracijis repleti.Principes et magnates extirpe regia
saeculi potestates obtenta venia
peccaminum proclamant tundentes pectora
poplite flexo clamant hic: Ave Maria.
Prelati et barones, Comites incliti,
Religiosi omnes, Atque presbyteri,
Milites, mercatores, Cives, marinari,
Burgenses, piscatores

Preamiantur ibi.

*Coetus hic aggregantur hic ut exhibeant
vota regratiantur ut ipsa et reddant
aulam istam ditantes hoc cuncti videant
jocalibus ornantes soluti redeant.

Song Two: Miri it is while sumer ilast, (English, c1225)

This second piece of music is the earliest surviving secular song in England and another of my favourite pieces from our Medieval past. It is rarer still, because it is in middle English, that is to say, medieval English vernacular. The piece is also all the more special because only a fragment of it survives, and is found in a collection of manuscripts, in this case a Book of Psalms, now contained at the Bodleian Library, Oxford.(1)
Middle English

[M]Irie it is while summer ilast with fugheles song
oc nu necheth windes blast and weder strong.
Ei ei what this nicht is long
And ich with wel michel wrong.
Soregh and murne and [fast].

Modern English

Merry it is while summer lasts with birdsong
but now, close by, the winds blast and the weather is powerful.
Oh, oh, I exclaim, this night is long
And I also am done much wrong.
[I] sorrow and mourn and go without food.(2)

The song is focussed on the everyday man and his family and their struggle to survive the winter, after the heady days of summer.

Sumer is icumen in (English, c1250)

Another English song, Sumer is icumen in (Summer has come in) was written into manuscript some twenty five years after ‘Miri it is while sumer ilast’. Written down in 1250, Henry III was sat on the English throne. This song is of the same genre as above in terms of focussing on the weather and changing seasons, but unlike Miri, here its emphasis is on the arrival and joy of living in the early summer. Summer has arrived at this point as noted by the presence of the cuckoo. The upbeat nature of the song is everything the people of England most likely felt having survived the harsh winters of a very wet and cold Europe around this time.

***Click here for Sumer is icumen in ***

Middle English lyrics

Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweþ sed and bloweþ med
And springþ þe wde nu,
Sing cuccu!
Awe bleteþ after lomb,
Lhouþ after calue cu.
Bulluc sterteþ, bucke uerteþ,
Murie sing cuccu!
Cuccu, cuccu, wel singes þu cuccu;
Ne swik þu nauer nu.
Sing cuccu nu. Sing cuccu.
Sing cuccu. Sing cuccu nu!

Modern English translation

Summer has come in,
Loudly sing, cuckoo!
The seed grows and the meadow blooms
And the wood springs anew,
Sing, cuckoo!
The ewe bleats after the lamb
The cow lows after the calf.
The bullock stirs, the goat farts,
Merrily sing, Cuckoo!
Cuckoo, cuckoo, well you sing, cuckoo;
Don’t ever you stop now,
Ground (sung by two lowest voices)
Sing cuckoo now. Sing, Cuckoo.
Sing Cuckoo. Sing cuckoo now!(3)

I love all three pieces and play them often. I hope that you enjoy them to, safe in the knowledge that they can, in their own way, take you back right into the heart of Medieval Europe in the most authentic of ways. It is after all the very music of our ancestors.

Stephen Spinks is author of ‘Edward II the Man: A Doomed Inheritance‘ available here at Waterstones  Amazon  Foyles  Amberley Publishing


(1) MS. Rawl. G. 22.

(2) Translation by

(3) Harley 978

(4) Translation by


Stella Splendens – Jordi Savall

‘Miri’ – Ensemble Belladonna

‘Sumer’ – The Hilliard Ensemble


Facebook: fourteenthcenturyfiend

Twitter: @SpinksStephen

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