The monastic movement, which was formalized in the 6th century, played a crucial role in women's music history during the Middle Ages. The Rule of St Benedict (c530 ce) established convents as well as monasteries, while around 512–34 Caesarius, Bishop of Arles, wrote the first rule especially for a women's community. Administrative structures were similar, so that abbeys had an abbot or abbess, a prior or prioress, and a cantor or cantrix. Despite the fact that most positions within the church hierarchy would have remained closed to women, that monasteries would have been more powerful, numerous and wealthy than convents, that equivalent educations were not provided and Latin not routinely taught, convents nevertheless functioned like monasteries in the propagation and preservation of medieval music.
Some exceptional convents were famous centres of learning. Two organa survive from the celebrated illuminated religious encyclopedia Hortus deliciarum (c1167–85) by Herrad of Landsberg which is no longer extant. A major 14th-century manuscript of polyphony comes from the Spanish convent of Las Huelgas. The 15th-century Utrecht Liederbuch comes from a Franciscan nunnery. Yardley (1986) listed 14 additional manuscripts from convents containing music from the 12th century to the 15th.
Convents offered some women access to musical literacy. The first surviving music by a female composer is a set of troparia by Kassia (b 810), a renowned Byzantine composer of chant. The most stunning achievement of the era belongs to the abbess Hildegard of Bingen, a leading figure in 12th-century culture and one of several prominent female mystics in the 12th and 13th centuries. Music history has long acknowledged her existence, but only recently her stature: Hildegard created the largest single body of attributed monophonic chant of the Middle Ages. She also wrote the first allegorical morality play (Ordo virtutum), the only medieval music drama in which both the music and the text are attributed. Like Sappho and Miriam, Hildegard entered the world of illustrious paradigms. In 1523 Vives wrote that ‘the letters and learned books of the German maiden, Hildegard, are in everyone's hands’ (De institutione feminae christianae), yet only in the last two decades of the 20th century did her musical genius win recognition beyond the scholar's circle.
How much new music was created more routinely by other religious women is the subject of research often focussing on the special ceremonies unique to convent life (such as the consecration service of Virgin Brides to Christ). Manuscript corroboration can be found in many countries. Over half the antiphon repertory in the music of St Birgitta of Sweden (1303–73) is unknown outside its main source, the Cantus sororum. The Dutch nun Suster Bertken (1426/7–1514) published eight sacred songs, the melody of one of which survives through its concordance in the Utrecht Liederbuch. In England, chants unique to specific monasteries survive in a 15th-century hymnal from Barking Abbey and from a Benedictine nunnery at Chester (including the still familiar carol Qui creavit celum).
Convent life and culture varied greatly by era, region, order and class. Some convents served the daughters of the rich, forced to take vows by their families (indeed, the theme of the forced nun appears in contemporary popular songs); others were shelters for the random poor. The discipline and control exercised by local ecclesiastical authorities varied as well. As early as 789 ce Charlemagne issued an order that ‘no abbess should let those under her … dare to write love songs [winileodas]’. This points not only to now buried repertories but to social behaviour more diverse and less predictable than church doctrines suggest. By the 12th century the ubiquitousness of the religious woman as music teacher modified the iconography of La Donna Musica – Lady Music – which moved from allegory into contemporary allusion. The mid-13th-century Florentine manuscript known as ‘F’ contains an illumination of the three Boethian categories of music: one of the figures is dressed in the garb of a convent music teacher. Awareness of all these factors has changed the climate of scholarship around medieval music to some extent, so that no longer is Gregorian chant defined as ‘single-line melody sung by men’, as it was in 1980 in Grout's influential History of Western Music.
More questions than answers still surround the practice of polyphony in convents. Ecclesiastical decrees suppressing polyphony imply conventions of musical performance already in place. In 1261 the Archbishop of Rouen forbade the convent at Montivilliers to continue to perform conductus and motets. Yet this convent enjoyed enough of a reputation for knights in the Roman de l'Escouffe to attend a Mass sung by the Montivilliers ‘nonnains’. The Las Huelgas Manuscript contains a two-part solfège exercise annotated with directions for convent use. Still awaiting more historical investigation is a late 14th-century manuscript ‘Notitia de valore delle note del canto misurato’ from a Florentine convent, which teaches ‘musica mensuralis’, including the reading and composing of motet tenors.
With respect to secular music, four important currents flow through the period 1000–1500: (1) the continuation of employment as musician-entertainers; (2) the representation of women's experience in sophisticated genres, producing ‘women's song’ in every medieval Romance-language repertory; (3) the emergence of the ‘trobairitz’ and female trouvère; and (4) the pervasive musical activity of amateur female musicians, both in urban social life and in court culture.
Working-class women made livings as professional musicians – both as freelance, sometimes itinerant, minstrels (known as joglaresse in Provençal, or jougleresse in Northern French) and as court entertainers. In the French romans, heroines have adventures in which they darken their skin to disguise themselves as Moorish jougleresses (Aucassin et Nicolette) or menestrelles (Galeran de Bretagne and Guillaume de Dole). Illuminations in the late 13th-century Cantigas de Santa Maria include a depiction of a female servant-lute player entertaining two ladies. In other 13th-century French manuscripts illuminations realistically portray women musicians playing the vielle, harp, rebec and gittern.
Most guilds, according to Etienne Boileau's Livre des metiers (1270), accepted women. In 1321 eight women were among the 37 who signed the statutes of the professional guild of menestriers (minstrels), whose articles of incorporation mention ‘menestreus et menestrelles’ and ‘jougleurs et jougleresses’. In England, the Musicians' Company of London (founded 1472) included women as well as men. Sometimes an obscure source provides a confirming detail. For example, the household accounts of Dame Alice de Bryene, a wealthy English widow, mention payment to ‘Margaret Brydbek, one harper’ at a New Year's banquet in 1413 (Amt, 1993). Diverse archives from the courts of Louis IX, of Burgundy, of the Duke of Berry and of Savoy provide similar corroboration, mentioning employment of a ‘cantatrix’ or ‘chanteresses’ and ‘menestrières’.
Between 1000 and 1500, as vernacular artistic forms gained literary prominence, the medieval lyric, which was rooted in centuries of aural tradition as well as classical literary practice, developed into formal genres in several Romance languages. With that came a significant literary corpus for the representation of women's experience and sexual love. Love songs written from the point of view of a female subject appear as cantigas de amigo in Portugal, Frauenlieder in Germany and chansons de femme in France. Songs about pregnancy appear in Carmina Burana. Social critiques of marriage appear in the French chanson de malmariée or its Italian counterpart the malmaritate. Women in French romansoften sang a chanson de toile, a weaving song that spins a tale of unrequited love. The genre of ‘women's song’ is found in 15th-century Italian chansonniers.
Who sang such songs? Who listened? As an accomplishment for an ideal heroine or a socially ambitious young woman, music was promoted in literature and in advice books. In around 1200 Garin lo Brun's Ensenhamens urged women to sing and recite poetry for their guests. The Ensenhamen de la donsela by Amanieu de Sescars (c1291–1295), a Catalan, explicitly suggests that young women practise the arts of the ‘trobairitz’ and write ‘jocs partis’ (jeux-partis, or love-debate duets), thus endorsing a high level of cultural literacy. The subject of Chretien de Troyes' Philomena composed poetry and played the psaltery, vielle and other instruments. In Gotfrid von Strassburg's Tristan, Isolde achieves the musical skill one associates with Orpheus, enchanting men (instead of beasts) through her music: she fiddles an estampie, plays the lyre and harp expertly, and sings a variety of chansons, including a pastourelle, rotrouenge and rondeau, some of which she may have composed.
Thus the step from ‘chansons de femme’ to actual female poet-musicians is not great. Alongside the troubadour is the ‘trobairitz’, a term found in the Roman de Flamenca (c1250). About 20 female poets flourished between 1170 and 1260, among them Alamanda, Azalais de Porcairages, Maria de Ventadorn, Tibors, Castelloza, Garsenda and the Comtessa da Dia. Dominating the total known corpus of about 40 poems are two genres – the tenso (debate dialogue), and the canso (love song). Only one canso by an Occitanian composer, the beautiful A chantar by the Comtessa da Dia, has survived with a melody (F-Pn fr. 844). Of around 15 chansons by female trouvères, five survive with melodies. Coldwell (1986) transcribed one chanson each by Maroie de Dregnau de Lille and Blanche de Castile and a duet by Dame Margot and Dame Maroie, a rare example of a jeu-parti. 13th-century chansonniers containing this repertory include the famous Manuscript du Roi (F-Pn fr. 844, c1246–1254); the Chansonnier cangé (F-Pn fr. 845); F-Pn n.a.fr. 21677; F-AS 657 (c1278); I-Rvat Reg. Lat. 1490; and the Chansonnier de Noailles (F-Pn fr. 12615). The composing ‘domna’ (lady) was, according to the vidas, most often a noblewoman. But that does not mean she wrote for herself alone: a 13th-century Italian manuscript (MS H) is exceptional in depicting eight trobairitz, significantly seen in performance poses, with hands outstretched toward an imaginary audience, or holding a pointer.
Although the trobairitz and women trouvères contributed perhaps 1% of the total repertory, their symbolic stature as the first female composers of extant European secular music has attracted many historians and literary critics. In 1935 Rokseth asserted the ‘fraîcheur’ and ‘sincérité’ of the chansons of the Comtessa da Dia. More recently, literary critics have searched the repertory to demonstrate ‘écriture féminine’, that powerful if ambiguous idea of sexual identity inscribing itself into art.
Why the 12th century produced such enduring examples of women's musical creativity as Hildegard of Bingen and the trobairitz remains unexplained. It has been asserted (in landmark scholarship by Kelly-Gadol, H1977) that 12th-century cultural achievements paralleled the comparative growth in power and wealth of medieval women in general, particularly in Occitan, where the trobairitz resided. No comparable figures emerge within the repertory of polyphonic music until three centuries later.
It is true that anonymity was the rule rather than the exception for both men and women composers until the 15th century (e.g. there are no named composers for the 13th-century motet repertory). For women, moreover, conventions of modesty and class restraints increased the likelihood of their donning the protective veil of anonymity. That there were fewer women composers then (as now) also seems likely, a fact related directly to their subordination in society. Notated polyphony in Western music, which was becoming increasingly important, depended precisely on the kinds of training women usually did not receive – study at a cathedral school, or apprenticeship to a master player.
The lack of compositions attributed to women has occasionally been interpreted as evidence of their exclusion from late medieval musical life. But too much circumstantial evidence shifts the burden of proof away from assumptions of exclusion towards more sophisticated interpretations of performing practice. Many examples of literary allusion and visual imagery document the ubiquitous presence of women in the musical culture of the late Middle Ages. It is significant that in Boccaccio's Decameron women musicians outnumber men.
The tradition of music as an élite accomplishment sanctioned their training on instruments (like the vielle or harp), especially to relieve the tedium of young girls ‘who would not last shut in’ – that is, sequestered in the home – without some diversion (Francesco da Barberino, Reggimento e costumi di donna, 1316–18). This early Italian treatise devoted to women's socialization contains one of the earliest uses of the word ‘chamber’ to describe musical activity in a space that links intimacy with emotion: ‘E questo canto basso, chiamato camerale, e quel che piace e che passe ne' cuori’ (‘And this soft singing style, called of the chamber, is what people like and will affect the heart'; Beck in Schliefer and Glickman, A1996).
The brilliant courts, so important to the prestige of feudal and monarchical governance, required both women and men. Music as entertainment, as symbol of wealth and royal breeding, depended on the female courtier as much as on her male counterpart. Specialized studies of particular courts, such as that of Princess Marguerite of Scotland, where the creative work of several women poets has been documented, may eventually also unearth names of women composers.
Some noblewomen became important musical patrons. The Mellon Chansonnier (US-NHub 91) was probably prepared as a gift to Beatrice of Aragon, reflecting her tastes and interests. The chanson album of Marguérite of Austria, prepared under her direction, includes her poetry and perhaps even a composition of hers (B-Br 228 and 11239). Other notable patrons include Marie of Burgundy, Anne of Britanny and, above all, Isabella d'Este. Isabella played a formative role in the development of the frottola, employing women (among them Giovanna Moreschi, the wife of Marchetto Cara) as professional singers at the Mantuan court. Manuscript corroboration for the use of women's voices in the frottola survives (I-Fn Magl. VII. 735, c1510).
Women in music, §II: Western classical traditions in Europe and the USA