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

  • Introduction
  • General Introductions
  • The Latin Poetry of Hymnody
  • Hymns as Literature
  • Hymns in Literature
  • Editions (General) and Indices
  • Editions: Specific Repertory
  • Editions of Specific Manuscripts
  • Editions and Translations for General Readers
  • Studies of Specific Developments
  • Hymns and the Liturgy
  • Philology and Transmission
  • Hymns and Their Music
  • Historiography

Medieval Studies Hymns
Matthew Cheung Salisbury
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 May 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0265


Although its functional origin as a liturgical practice may be linked to the psalms, readings, and prayers of Jewish synagogue worship around the time of Christ, the history of medieval hymnody is, in the main, the history of Christian Latin poetry. Influenced first by early hymn-writers’ education in classical grammar and rhetoric, the hymn quickly assumed the role assigned it by Augustine: “the praise of God, when sung,” framed broadly at first, and then acquiring typical habits of meter and rhyme and a specific liturgical function. Poetic texts penned by early Christian authors attained fame and were assumed into collective liturgical practice. They were joined by newly-written medieval hymns, constructed with the liturgical context in mind and often written for a particular occasion (i.e., the liturgical observance of a saint’s day). Some later medieval Latin poetry served more overtly devotional purposes. The earliest extant Latin hymns were written by Ambrose of Milan in the 4th century. These, together with others, were incorporated into the structures of liturgy set out by the architects of monastic life, including Saint Benedict. Other “hymns” were drawn from sacred Latin poetry in longer form and from across the Christian West, and many more were written through the Carolingian Renaissance. Even more hymns were written for specific occasions in the liturgical calendar up to the end of the Middle Ages, many anonymous but some written by literary luminaries such as Peter Abelard and Thomas Aquinas. These proper hymns replaced those of the day or of the relevant portion of the Common of Saints. By Augustine’s definition, hymns are sung praises, but relatively little work has been done on the music to which the much more extensively studied texts are sung. This may be a consequence of two factors. First, the melodies were broadly interchangeable, since the texts had been written in a limited number of meters. Second, they tended to vary quite considerably. Hiley’s Western Plainchant: A handbook (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993) suggests that thirty or fewer hymns were sung to the same melodies across the whole of Europe. They do not always correspond to the conventions of other liturgical melodies in terms of structure, cadence, or text-setting, making them difficult to compare with the chants for other genres.

General Introductions

Encyclopedic introductions to most topics may be found in Julian 1915 and Watson and Hornby 2013; Boynton’s “Hymn (II) Monophonic Latin” is part of a more extensive musicological article on the hymn generally. The three volumes by Szövérffy give a clearer sense of narrative of the hymn’s development (Szövérffy 1964–1965).

  • Boynton, Susan. “Hymn (II) Monophonic Latin.” Grove Music Online.

    A comprehensive introduction to the genre’s poetry and music, written for musicians but useful generally. Includes further bibliography.

  • Julian, John. A Dictionary of Hymnology. Rev. ed. London: J. Murray, 1915.

    The definitive resource before Watson and Hornby 2013 on Christian hymnody, its writers, and related subjects.

  • Szövérffy, Joseph. Die Annalen der lateinischen Hymnendichtung: ein Handbuch. Berlin: Schmidt, 1964–1965.

    A two-volume history of the Latin hymn from (Vol. 1) early Christianity to the end of the 11th century and (Vol. 2) to the end of the Middle Ages.

  • Szövérffy, Joseph. A Concise History of Medieval Latin Hymnody: Religious Lyrics between Antiquity and Humanism. Leiden, The Netherlands: Classical Folia Editions, 1985.

    One of the few relatively recent monographs on the subject (and now over thirty years old). Szövérffy wrote prolifically, and references his own material throughout, but this is a useful introduction to the principal periods, authors, and themes of medieval hymnody.

  • Szövérffy, Joseph. Latin Hymns. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 1989.

    Another offering by this prolific author which examines the forms and texts of Latin hymnody and its adjunct genres, though its limited depth forces the reader to look elsewhere for a thorough treatment of various topics.

  • Watson, J. R., and Emma Hornby, eds. The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Norwich, UK: Canterbury Press, 2013.

    Online encyclopedic resource, authored by specialists, including articles on medieval hymnody and individual articles on over one hundred Latin hymns. Available online by subscription.

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