In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Thirteenth-Century Motets in France

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Editions
  • Catalogues
  • Origins
  • Hermeneutics and Interpretation
  • Analysis and Musical Language
  • Manuscripts
  • Theoretical Writings
  • Notation
  • Relationship with the Fourteenth-Century Ars Nova

Medieval Studies Thirteenth-Century Motets in France
Matthew P. Thomson
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0314


The first extant written motets appear in manuscripts of the mid-13th century, written in the north of France. By this time, they seem to be an already well-established genre, possibly dating back to the late 12th century. These early motets comprise a genre of vocal polyphony in which the lowest voice, the tenor, is based on preexisting musical material. Most frequently, it borrows a small section of liturgical plainchant. As tenors generally borrow melismatic musical material, they do not usually have a syllabic text, although some later motets use secular French song for their tenor, sometimes quoting its syllabic text. Above the tenor, there are between one and three upper voices, named motetus, triplum, and quadruplum respectively, each singing a syllabic text. When motets have more than one upper voice, all upper voices might sing the same text at the same time; such motets are often named ‘monotextual’ or conductus motets, after the medieval polyphonic genre with similar text-setting (see the separate article in Oxford Bibliographies in Medieval Studies article “Medieval Songs” by Vincent Corrigan). In other cases, motets are polytextual, with each upper voice singing its own text. Each of these texts might be in Latin or French, a choice which sometimes runs along generic lines: almost all extant monotextual motets have Latin texts, while polytextual motets that use both languages almost always use Latin texts for the motetus and French texts for the triplum and, if present, the quadruplum. According to the traditional scholarly narrative, motets emerged out of the practice of adding texts to clausulae, short sections of vocal polyphony whose tenor contained a short segment of liturgical chant and whose upper voices did not have a syllabic text. Some motets originated in this way, adorning the upper voices of clausulae with Latin texts that expanded on the sacred topic of the chant from which the tenor was taken. However, recent scholarship has complicated this origin narrative, suggesting that the relationship between clausulae and motets was not so monodirectional. Additionally, some scholars have suggested that French-texted traditions had a separate origin, which was dependent on refrains—small snippets of music and French text that were quoted in many 13th-century genres. This would explain the French etymology of motet, meaning “little word.” The different practices of motet composition in the 13th century make up what is known as the “ars antiqua,” or old practice, which was eventually transformed by the 14th-century practices of the “ars nova,” or new practice, the end point of this entry’s coverage.

General Overviews

Each of the numerous available overviews of 13th-century motets and their place in contemporary musical culture takes a different approach. The entries in Grove Music Online and Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart (MGG) take this repertoire as their starting point for a transhistorical exploration of the motet genre. Both provide extensive bibliographies which complement that given here. Baltzer 2018 uses a rich series of examples to construct a narrative of the motet’s development through the 13th century. Everist 2011 places motets within the wider context of other genres of the 13th century, including clausula, conductus, and organum. Fassler 2014, chapter 9, is notable for providing a more cultural contextualization for motets, which complements the technical tone of the other accounts. Fassler’s accompanying music anthology grounds this social context in a wide range of examples. In contrast to the brief introductions found in the other items listed here, Everist 1994 is a book-length account of the French motet in the 13th century, including important sections on the origins and generic subdivision of the motet.

  • Baltzer, Rebecca A. “The Thirteenth-Century Motet.” In The Cambridge History of Medieval Music, Vol. 2. Edited by Mark Everist and Thomas Forrest Kelly, 974–999. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

    A readable overview of motets throughout the 13th century, telling their story through a linked series of examples.

  • Bradley, Catherine A., Peter M. Lefferts, Patrick Macey, et al. “Motet.” In Grove Music Online. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.

    DOI: 10.1093/omo/9781561592630.013.90000369371

    This entry provides a wide-ranging introduction to 13th-century motets as the first section of a transhistorical description of the motet genre. The 13th-century section outlines the repertoire clearly and covers in overview many of the main issues that have occupied scholarship on these motets. The extensive bibliography complements that provided here.

  • Everist, Mark. French Motets in the Thirteenth Century: Music, Poetry, and Genre. Cambridge Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Music. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

    One of the few book-length studies to focus solely on 13th-century motets, this survey provides a valuable introduction to the repertoire. Some of the discussions in this book should now be supplemented with more recent literature. For example, on the origin of the motet (ch. 2), see also the items cited in Origins.

  • Everist, Mark. “The Thirteenth Century.” In The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Music. Edited by Mark Everist, 67–86. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    This broader introduction to music of the 13th century places motets in the context of the other musical genres with which they interacted, including organum, clausula, and conductus. The endnotes for this chapter are on pp. 379–382.

  • Fassler, Margot. Music in the Medieval West. 2 vols. Western Music in Context. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014.

    Chapter 9 of this textbook-style introduction to medieval music provides an invaluable cultural contextualization for music of the 13th century, placing it within its societal and intellectual context in Paris and France more widely.

  • Lütteken, Laurenz, Karl Kügle, Arno Forchert, and Ludwig Finscher. “Motette.” In MGG Online. Edited by Laurenz Lütteken. 2016.

    The opening section of this entry in the German-language music dictionary provides an introduction to the major issues surrounding motets in the 13th century. The extensive bibliography complements that provided here.

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