Arthurian Traditions in Early Music

In the wake of blogging about Carmina Burana and my discovery of it by way of the film Excalibur so many years ago, my thoughts naturally turned to all things Arthurian.  For the peoples of the Middle Ages, there wasn’t a cut-off point that defined a so-called end of civilization.  After the fall of Rome, life continued on, and people dealt with whatever came up, be it disease, famine, or barbarian armies.  Darkness was then as it is now, a moving point of perception that can be dispelled by a source of light, inspiring people to take a stand.  For the caretakers of knowledge and the spiritual realm, the Church, the priests and clerics were the embodiment of that light, and indeed the Church was the zeitgeist for most in Medieval Europe.  The Church and its representatives were integral to most aspects of everyday life.  Even so, for the average person who was not a representative of the Church, the people who represented law, order, and a light in the dark against mortal foes were the royalty and nobility.  They had the money, they had the means, and they had the armies that would that keep people safe in their beds at night.

Or so it was in theory.  Mortals are fallible, after all.  Even the strongest knight could fall in battle, or worse yet, could be easily tempted to abuse his power.  Sadly, this latter option was standard procedure in many lands, for in addition to money, means, and power, they had the right by the system of feudalism that supported them, strange as that may sound.

Enter: Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204).


There are few personalities for 500 years or more on either side of her that can compete for sheer spellbinding dominance.  I’m on record as saying that had I lived in that era, she is the one person to whom I’d willingly bend the knee.  But much like Arthur himself, there’s a lot of myth and legend that goes with Eleanor, so let that be your caveat here.  We don’t even have a solid idea of what she looked like outside of her tomb effigy.  Regardless of how you choose to mythologize her or not, Eleanor was a fascinating individual.  In terms relevant to our purposes here, Eleanor used her court to promote a concept that now goes hand-in-gauntlet with our understanding of knighthood due to her efforts: chivalry.  This wasn’t a new concept by any stretch of imagination, but it was such that seemed so very out of reach because the average noble was at that time little better than a bully.  Tales of Charlemagne were popular, the great man having lived and died a couple hundred years ago by this point, and those were oft told in response to a figure who had emerged from the mists of legend: King Arthur.  Tales of Arthur weren’t nearly as numerous then as they are now , but they did exist, and they provided a template that Eleanor could use as propaganda in her court to shame those who needed it into serving a higher example.  To borrow the idea from Spider-Man, “With great power comes great responsibility.”  In other words, the social elites who proclaimed themselves better than commoners were expected to prove it at every turn.

Chrétien de Troyes (1130-1191), a trouvère whose name lives on today for his Arthurian romances, wrote in patronage to Marie of France, Countess of Champagne (1145-1198), eldest daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine by King Louis VII of France (1120-1180).  From Chrétien’s pen, Arthur would live again in the popular imagination, bolstered by his creation and development of the pinnacles of chivalry: Lancelot and Perceval.  Eleanor quickly seized upon the example of these stories and promoted their circulation with her court as though to dare any knight to step beyond the bounds of Courtly Romance.  The idea worked far better than she might have hoped, to the point where the concept overpowers the reality to this day in the popular imagination.

Ever since they first began to spread across Europe in the Middle Ages, the tales of King Arthur and his knights have inspired creativity in all spheres of artistic expression, music being no exception. At the same time as the literary works of Chrétien de Troyes or Geoffrey of Monmouth were appearing, bards and troubadours too were drawing on the tales for lyrical inspiration. By the thirteenth century, the songs of troubadours, trouvères and Minnesänger had brought the stories of Arthur, Merlin, Percival, Tristan and Iseult et al. (not to mention the Holy Grail) to audiences far and wide.

— from the liner notes of Tristan’s Harp: Arthurian Medieval Music (Capilla Antigua de Chinchilla, José Ferrero, released by Naxos)

[Note: Just for the sake of simplicity, I’m going to lean on this particular album because it greatly reduced the research I needed to make this post happen.  The unfortunate fact is that even if you know what you’re looking for in particular, if you don’t speak the languages in play, it’s rather difficult for an amateur / enthusiast to track down any of these songs.  Of course, once you know of a specific song you need to seek, it’s much easier to find.  My undying gratitude to Capilla Antigua de Chinchilla, José Ferrero, and Naxos for doing the heavy lifting this time around.]

Let’s face it, good stories are going to circulate in any age.  As bards, troubadours, and trouvères traveled city to city and town to town, they crossed paths and learned from one another.  Then in turn, they carried those entertainments to their next stops and the cycle started all over again.  Next thing you know, people are singing songs about Arthur and his knights across the whole of Europe.  People can argue the origins of Arthur all they want, but for cultural purposes — much like the plays of Shakespeare — he belongs to us all, in any age.

But just because a story belongs to every age, that doesn’t mean that every age interprets such characters the same way.  The nature of the great stories is that they get reinvented across time and cultures.  When it comes to discovering the ins and outs of this sort of thing in completely random fashion as I do, I never quite know what to expect until I’ve stumbled upon it.  Of course, what is seen cannot be unseen.  And I would argue that it shouldn’t be otherwise.

With that in mind, I thought I’d share a tiny sampling of the popular Arthurian tunes of the Middle Ages that are still circulating today in one form or another thanks to the tireless efforts of scholars and performers of Early Music.  While I have drawn from one source album as noted above, there are other interpretations and other recordings available from other performers.  Feel free to seek them out if you so desire.  Keep in mind these songs are products of their time and some of them are quite offensive, especially by today’s standards.  They are, however, historical records representing the beliefs and cultures of the age.

“Cantiga 108: Dereit’ e de ss’ end’ achar”
Alfonso X el Sabio (1221-1284)

Upon first listen, this definitely sounds representative of the era, doesn’t it?  Indeed it is, in more ways than one.  The Cantigas de Santa Maria were written by the rather prolific Alfonso X of Castile, called el Sabio, “the Wise.”  You can find the original lyrics over here if you’re interested.  There’s a refrain and ten stanzas.

What are we actually listening to?  The song is short-titled “Merlin and the Jew” or “Merlin debates with a Jewish sage.”  I humbly admit I couldn’t find a complete translation anywhere online (I’m sure one’s there somewhere if I dig far enough), so I went back to the CD where I found the song in the first place.  The refrain is listed first, with the other stanzas following.  From the liner notes:

It is right therefore to think
ill of any man who speaks out
against the Holy Virgin.

And from this man I heard tell
what happened to Merlin
when he had to reason
with a learned Jew
who, in all of Scotland it seems,
or so they told me,
could not be matched for wisdom.
It is right therefore…

And he began to speak,
that lying Jew,
of the Virgin and to swear
strongly by the Creator
that never did Our Lord wish
to take fleshly form within her,
nor could he do so.
It is right therefore…

Merlin felt great sorrow
on hearing these words
and said: “On the contrary, may God
protect me, he could well do so;
for he who by his might
did make earth and sea,
could very well do this.”
It is right therefore…

The Jew began to insist
and did say: “Never
could God enter
such a place by right;
for he who contained
within himself all things,
how could he be contained?”
It is right therefore…

Merlin began to get
very angry and there and then
knelt down upon
the ground and spoke thus:
“Mother of the one who came
to save us, this man is saying of you
that which he should not.”
It is right therefore…

“And so I wish to ask you,
just as I know for certain
that your son lived, without doubt,
that what I would ask of you
you now shall choose to prove
to this man of the false law
who walks with folly.”
It is right therefore…

“For his wife is with
child; grant therefore,
that just as another’s face
looks forward so as to see,
the face of the child she bears
may look backward, and so
may he remain for all days.”
It is right therefore…

And the time duly came for
the Jew’s wife to give birth;
but any man who saw that child of hers
made the sign of the cross,
for God had made
the newborn as Merlin
in his anger had asked.
It is right therefore…

God made him with
his face turned backwards,
as he was asked
by the son of Satan
in order to put to shame
his father Caiaphas,
who did not believe him before.
It is right therefore…

And so the father wanted
to kill the baby at once,
but Merlin had him protected
for he well knew his worth,
thus the child grew up
to lead the Jews away from sin,
and was used to convert them.
It is right therefore…

I think it goes without saying that by modern perceptions, this is offensive to both Christians and Jews, but you can’t say I didn’t warn you up front.  I spotlight this one not to offend anyone, but rather merely to illustrate an example of Arthurian-influenced song from Spain.  In the era of the Reconquista (c. 710-1492), it’s standard practice for a pious ruler of any of the Iberian peninsula kingdoms to want to maintain a solid foundation of faith.  That means Catholicism as it was defined in that time, and anything not Catholic was seen as a threat.  This song illustrates a perfect example of how the Arthurian legend was used as propaganda as it applies to that region at that time.

By way of personal commentary, I do find it curious when Merlin is used in this manner given his frequent depictions as the “son of Satan.”  Perhaps it means more when a scion of evil plays into the hands of the righteous.  That such a request would be granted likewise makes zero sense to me, even given the conceits of the age and in the context of this being a “miracle story.”  That is to say, I find the miracle itself to be more plausible in the context of the song than the granting of it.  It also points out the idea that piety is a malleable perception.  Alfonso X was considered a pious ruler.  I find his Cantigas to be rather beautiful, musically.  And even though I’m not Catholic, I’m rather drawn to many of his pieces that promote the more positive aspects of his faith as opposed to pieces like this one.  I find the more heartfelt an expression is, the better it comes across in any kind of art, which in turn better opens up the dialogue on how it can be received by its audience.

Let’s try another one, this time something a little less offensive to our modern sentiments.  For this example, we’ll spotlight the story of Tristan and Iseult.  While the tale predates and likely influences the tale of Lancelot and Guinevere, Chrétien made both tragedies quite popular in his romances.  The impact this story has had through the ages on art and music is astounding, so I feel it’s mandatory for me to put forth one such musical representation from this era.  The composer here, Heinrich von Veldeke, was Dutch and a contemporary of Eleanor’s court.

“Tristran was involuntarily faithful (Contrafacta Lamento di Tristano)”
Heinrich von Veldeke (1150-c.1190, dates presumed)


Translation from the liner notes:

Tristan was involuntarily faithful
to the queen,
for he was compelled by a love philtre
rather than the power of love.
The excellent lady should be grateful to me
for loving her more than he did,
if that is possible,
without ever having drunk such a potion.
Fair lady, free of all falseness,
be mine,
and let me be yours.

Since the sun has lowered its bright rays
in the face of the cold,
and the little birds
have stopped singing,
my heart is sad.
For now winter has arrived,
demonstrating to us its power
in the flowers,
whose bright colours have faded.
This causes me
nothing but grief.

Just because I can, I’ll also tie in one of the most beautiful songs of the era that I know.  It’s not Arthurian, per se, but it most definitely ties into that chivalric ideal by association and direct influence for being a little closer to Eleanor of Aquitaine’s court.  The song is “Je nuls hom pres,” composed by Eleanor’s most famous son, Richard the Lionheart (1157-1199), that exemplar of chivalry who, like so many, in no means lives up to his virtuous reputation.  Richard wrote this piece as a prisoner upon his return from the Crusades and dedicated it to his aforementioned half-sister, Marie.

“No man imprisoned (Je nuls hom pres)”
Richard I, Coeur-de-Lion (1157-1199)

Once more from the liner notes:

No man imprisoned will tell his thoughts
truly if he speaks not as one who grieves;
but for his comfort he must write a song.
I have many friends, but their gifts are poor;
’tis to their shame that for want of a ransom,
I have been in prison these two winters.

Now let my men, my barons know well,
be they English, Norman, Poitevin or Gascon,
that I have never had so poor a friend
that I would leave him in shackles for want of gold.
I say this not to lay blame,
yet I am still in prison.

For I know it to be a certain truth
that dead men and prisoners have no friends or family,
and if they leave me for want of gold or silver
it bodes ill for me, but worse for my people,
for after my death they will be blamed
if they leave me here in prison.
’Tis no marvel to me that my heart is sorrowful,
for my lord is laying waste to my land;
he remembers not the holy oath
we together swore.
I know it to be true that
I shall not be in prison here much longer.

Sister countess, may God save your sovereign
worth, and protect the beauty I love so dearly,
and for whose sake I lie in prison.

Thanks to his mother, Richard was marinated in the ideas of chivalry and music, so it’s only natural that the apple shouldn’t fall far from the tree.  When a warrior king such as he is imprisoned, of course he’ll turn to music to express his woes.  Of course.  As the old saying goes, “music soothes the savage breast.”

I realize that as lengthy as this post is already, it barely scratches the surface of this topic.  Should you like to hear the entire album Tristan’s Harp, it’s available on YouTube.  You can also, of course, purchase it from a variety of sources if you’re so inclined.  I’m rather proud to own my copy.  Library building is sort of what I do, and I like to support the artists who make this sort of thing available to me.  Word of mouth, of course, is ever the best advertising.

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