In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Tropes

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Reference Resources
  • Collections of Studies
  • Manuscript Studies
  • Facsimile Editions
  • Text Editions and Studies
  • Tropes and Liturgical Drama
  • Compositional Form, Versification, and Style

Medieval Studies Tropes
Gunilla Iversen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0054


Liturgical poetry, in the form of additional lyrics inserted into all the chants of the medieval Mass, flourished in the 9th through the 12th centuries. In a medieval Latin culture marked by intense interest in hermeneutics, even the Gregorian chants became a field open to extensive use of glosses and added verses performed together with the chant. The authors provided interpretations of the base texts in metaphors, images, or tropes, with the result that the grammatical term “trope” (Greek tropos, in Latin conversio or versus) came to be the name of the genre. Sung between the segments of a chant, the tropes could comment on and meditate over the preceding words of the chant, but they could also prepare for the performance of the words that followed. By means of these insertions, the chantor or compilator could vary the performance of a chant in endless ways while still maintaining the authorized form of the liturgical base chant. Extensive repertories were collected in manuscripts all over Europe. At first written on loose leaves or in the margins, they came to be inscribed into graduals and missals, and then gathered in individual manuscripts labeled “troparium” or “troparium-prosarium.” Because these manuscripts are the earliest witnesses of Western musical notation, or “neumes,” they have attracted many musical scholars as well. The oldest tropes must have been created well before the division of the Carolingian Empire in 843, because they are found in similar form both in East Frankish and West Frankish regions and in Lotharingia. In the following centuries, the repertories came to be divided into more or less separate regional traditions. The repertories are characterized by great variety, and new local versions were constantly created. This regional variety has influenced much of the musical research focusing on local repertories, as seen in the section Regional Repertories, whereas text scholars (see Text Editions and Studies), such as the editors of the series Corpus Troporum (conventionally abbreviated CT) (1975–), attempt to cover all regional variations in their studies and editions. After 1200 the use of tropes gradually disappeared. From the mid-20th century, research on tropes has grown into an extremely lively field. Because research on tropes engages musical as well as textual scholars and specialists in liturgy, theology, and drama, the literature is very rich. Here we have chosen just a small selection of important studies.

General Overviews

The old literary French study Gautier 1886 is still a valuable and inspiring introduction to the field. In Hiley 1995, musicologist David Hiley gives a general introduction to the field of medieval chant, including tropes, prosulas, and sequences, as parts of medieval European musical history. For a more philosophic approach with inspiring reflections on the nature and function of tropes in the medieval culture, see Treitler 2003. A general textual introduction giving a liturgical and cultural background and presenting a large number of tropes from all genres and parallel English translation of the texts is presented in Iversen 2010.

  • Gautier, Léon. Histoire de la poésie liturgique au moyen âge: Les tropes. Paris: Palme, 1886.

    An early French introduction to tropes as a literary genre, with lucid observations on tropes from Saint Gall as well as in Aquitanian and other sources. With descriptions as well of illuminations and borders in the manuscripts. Reprinted in 1966 and 1969 (Gregg: Farnborough, UK).

  • Hiley, David. Western Plainchant: A Handbook. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1995.

    This volume contains an extensive bibliography and is a useful tool not only to music students but also to scholars in liturgy and medieval culture history.

  • Iversen, Gunilla. Laus Angelica: Poetry in the Medieval Mass. Edited by Jane Flynn; translated by William Flynn. Medieval Church Studies 5. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols. 2010.

    An English revised version of Chanter avec les anges: Poésie dans la messe médiévale, interprétations et commentaires (Paris: Les éditions du Cerf, 2001). This volume is directed to a wider audience of students and nonspecialists interested in medieval culture. With parallel settings of Latin and English texts.

  • Treitler, Leo. With Voice and Pen: Coming to Know Medieval Song and How It Was Made. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    A collection of studies that open new insights on the function of music in medieval society.

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