In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Music in Medieval Towns and Cities

  • Introduction
  • Edited Collections

Medieval Studies Music in Medieval Towns and Cities
Helen Coffey
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0310


Musical sounds were inherent to life within medieval urban centers of diverse size and stature. These sounds—quotidian and occasional—were shaped by the devotional, social, political, economic, and artistic practices and dynamics of each particular community, as well as the architectural structures that framed and arose from these activities. Though some musical sounds, such as the signals of bells and instrumentalists on city towers, served a more functional purpose in their communication of matters of public interest, other civic customs entailed the performance of more complex music. Instrumentalists employed by municipal authorities played regularly for dances in purpose-built halls or other spaces, while elsewhere, chant and polyphony underscored the devotional practices of local ecclesiastical institutions in expressions of communal faith. More elaborate displays, such as processions of the church or the reception of eminent guests, called for the involvement of various elements of civic music in the fullest possible representation of the community, with resident professional musicians sometimes performing alongside amateurs or visiting musicians. All of these practices not only drew on long-standing musical traditions but were also subject to innovation and expansion. While specific aspects of medieval urban music have been the subject of occasional scholarly study for many years, it was during the 1980s that more comprehensive approaches to the field began to emerge. Since that time, detailed studies of medieval and early modern urban music have become more frequent and have demonstrated the importance and interconnectedness of civic musicians and musical practices, both within and beyond a single urban setting. By drawing on administrative, musical, and descriptive sources, such studies have explored medieval civic music from a range of different perspectives, some focusing on specific elements of urban culture and ritual, others taking a more holistic approach. Aspects considered include the institutions or patrons who supported musical activities; the different kinds of performances that occurred within an urban environment; the musicians—professional and amateur, liturgical and lay—who participated in musical practices; the instrument makers, scribes, and printers who enabled musical performance; and the musical sources and repertoire that can be ascribed to a particular region or center. This article focuses on literature concerning the historical period up to c. 1500, for which studies of urban centers in western Europe have predominated so far: the term “medieval” is used here simply to designate the period up to 1500 (as is common in studies of music history) and not to signify particular cultural developments in the geographical regions discussed. The article also concentrates on publications that are primarily concerned with urban, rather than exclusively court or cathedral, music, although courts and ecclesiastical institutions do feature in some studies listed here, as permanent or occasional elements of a particular city’s musical makeup. Many of the publications are concerned primarily with instrumental rather than vocal practices, the latter often featuring more prominently in scholarship that focuses solely on ecclesiastical institutions without considering the music of a city or town more broadly: these studies are not included here. Many more important publications exist on aspects of urban music after c. 1500. Theseare also more extensive in their geographical scope than the studies listed below.

Transnational Studies

While publications on music in medieval cities tend to have a specific national or regional focus (see National and Regional Studies below), urban practices also feature in more general studies of aspects of medieval music; see, for example, Strohm 1993 and Coelho and Polk 2016. Iconographical scholarship also reflects the significance of urban culture for the development of musical practices during the medieval period, through its presentation and discussion of images of civic musical activities alongside those in other social and institutional contexts; see in particular, Bowles 1977. Other scholars have focused exclusively on urban practices, while still taking a transnational approach; these studies explore particular features of civic music, including musical practices and personnel, across various locales (see Specific Elements of Civic Music).

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