Medieval mayfest

Spring is a time for celebration!

In the presentation below, I talk about some of the traditions of the ancient Celtic holiday, Beltane, also known as May Day. Troubadour songs are also steeped in themes revolving around the blossoming of spring, and you can watch my rendition of Raimbaut de Vaquieras’ song “Kalenda Maia” which means “The first of May.” This song uses a melody from a stately medieval dance called an estampie.

Since you can’t have a Medieval Mayfest without dancing and sing-a-longs, the presentation includes a Maypole dance and the Abbots Bromely Horn Dance. With some help from my family, I teach the sing the English folk-song “Hal-an-Tow,” and the oldest song in English that survives with a melody intact: “Sumer is icumen in.”


If you want to make your own flower crown to celebrate, here is one project that uses free materials found in nature (and makes weeding your yard more fun):

The Harmony of the Spheres

When I look up at the stars and contemplate the space between each light, I feel a rush of gratitude to be a part—albeit a minuscule part—of such a beautiful and balanced cosmos.

In the Middle Ages, the balance between the planets, things on earth, and the human body was understood as a musical harmony, sometimes referred to as the “Harmony of the Spheres.” Inherited from the ancient Greeks, this was a central concept in medieval music theory that paints revolving planets in a romanticized mathematic allegory of celestial music. One allegorical example is the Myth of Er, a story retold by Socrates in Plato’s Republic about the soul’s journey after death.

The story goes something like this: A warrior by the name of Er, son of Armenius, dies honorably in battle. As his body waits for burial, his soul is transported to the heavens on a pillar of light resembling a rainbow. In heaven, Er witnesses the revolution of all the planets and hears beautiful music coming from them.

The sound is explained as emanating from the motion of the planets, but also the fact that each planet has its own resident Siren (half woman, half bird creature) who sings a unique musical pitch. The three Fates also sing in harmony with the Sirens: Lachesis sings the past, Clotho sings the present, and Atropos sings the future. The harmony made by the combination of the Sirens and the Fates is an allegory for the belief that human destiny was connected to the movements of the stars.   

Plato deliberately used mythical allegories as a way to keep his scientific knowledge a “secret.” You could either just listen to the nice story, or you could think really hard about it and unpack all the numerical references to understand the mathematical calculations.

Cosmic Monochord
a string instrument

Because of the distances between the planets, plus the direction and speed of their orbit, mathematicians like Pythagoras calculated the ratios of these pitches which corresponds to the harmonic ratios found in musical intervals. The most significant of these intervals include the perfect 5th (3:2), the perfect 4th (4:3), and the octave (2:1).

String instruments are especially useful for visualizing and hearing these intervals. For example, if you press down on the middle of a string with your finger, you are “dividing” it in half to get the ratio 2:1. The resulting pitch is an octave higher than that of the open string. For the medieval music theorist, the string instruments in this scenario are a microcosm that reflects the macrocosm that is the universe.

Furthermore, the medieval imagination saw these ratios and numbers in many aspects of the natural world beyond the planets and strings. The human body also contains these ratios and the right kind of music was thought to be able to influence the emotions and even behavior.


A popular myth of Pythagoras that circulated widely in medieval music treatises tells of how he was able to calm a drunken youth who was accosting a woman by playing the correct melody on his instrument.

Plato, and other Pythagoreans, believed that Pythagoras could hear the harmony of the spheres through contemplation of the heavens, even though he was here on earth. Today, we know that in the vacuum of space sound waves cannot exist because they need a substance like air or water to travel through.

However, NASA has recorded radio emissions from celestial bodies such as the sun and other planets. When these radio waves are converted into sound waves, you can hear music-like qualities. (The sun is a C#, but the other planets have varied sound contours). Listen here for the sounds:

Some music theorists in the Middle Ages argued that the planets did indeed make sound because of their motion. Others thought that literal heavenly music was preposterous (thanks, Aristotle). However, the idea of harmonic ratios as window into the cosmos carried significant cultural impact for music, astrology-astronomy, and travel. I will give you two musical-poetic examples from the troubadours that involve travel, and the notion of luck or fortune coming from the stars.

The ability to navigate while traveling is essential for arriving safely at your destination. Thanks to GPS, today we barely have to think about how to get to where we’re going. Before satellites however, people navigated by the stars. Sailors are particularly well-known for needing this skill, since there are no “landmarks” to orient your position when you are out at sea. Stars were also important astrological symbols that foretold good or back luck.  

The following song by the troubadour Peire Vidal, Atressi co.l perilhans, uses imagery of sailing to describe his love life. In the first stanza, he is unlucky in love like a ship-wrecked sailor who has no guiding star. Then his luck changes and his “star” (i.e. beloved) comes to his rescue.

Atressi co・l perilhans                  I am just like a ship-wrecked man,
Que sus en l’aigua balansa,       Tossed in the water
Que non a conort de vida,         With no hope of survival,
Tan suefre greu escharida         Suffering such evil fortune
Que paor li toll membransa,     That fear robs him of his senses,
E pueis quan ven a bon port     Until finally he arrives safely in port, 
Per aster o per secors:                Rescued or guided by a star:
Tot aitals astres m’a sors             Such a star has come to my aid
Per qu’ieu ai assez razo               And has given me good reason
De far novella chanso.                 To compose a new song. 

Fis amics sui benanans               I am the well-loved true friend 
Et ai per dreg benenansa           And rightly I am favored;
Tan bon’aventura∙m guida,        Such good fortune guides me,
Que lieis qu’a valor complida     For she who is the most worthy
M’a mese m bon’esperansa,       Has given me good hope,
E m’a trait de mala sort,               And has plucked me from my evil destiny,
Si que∙l neus me sembla flors     So that to me the snow resembles flowers
E∙l glatz jardis e verdors,               And the ice a verdant garden.
Et ai fag per dreg mon pro            I have justly gained my advantage
Tant quez enrequitz en so.           And am enriched by it.

You can find the complete song in Veronica M. Fraser’s book The Songs of Peire Vidal (pp. 102-105). Unfortunately, no melody survives for this song. But a similar theme can be found in a song by Guiraut Riquier, Pus astres no m’es donatz, which survives with both words and melody. In this song, Guiraut complains that his star has not granted him good fortune in love, so he has decided to go to Catalonia (Spain) where the people know all about courtly love and how to appreciate troubadours properly.

You can listen to the song on YouTube here, or if you want to learn to play and sing it yourself, you can download the my transcription of the sheet music below.

You can find an English translation in the book, Songs of the Troubadours and Trouvères: An Anthology of Poems and Melodies by Samuel N. Rosen, Margaret Switten, and Gerard Le Vot (page 175):

Medicine, Magic, and Music

The practice of medicine in the Middle Ages was largely based on proto-scientific methods from the ancient observations and writings of Hippocrates (from whom modern doctors get the Hippocratic oath) and Galen. Galen, in particular, wrote extensive case studies about sickness and the treatments he used, in addition to general treatises on biological disciplines like anatomy.

Before the widespread cultural acceptance of human dissection, knowledge of biology was admittedly limited. The medieval understanding of health, however, made up for this lack of scientific data by developing a wholistic understanding of the human body and emphasized balance of the four bodily humors through diet, sleep, and exercise.

These four humors—black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm—gave rise to four personality types, and were thought to be connected to elements in nature like the four elements, the four seasons, and the four cardinal winds. All things in nature had a unique mixture of “fourness,” and existed on a temperature/moisture spectrum between hot-cold and wet-dry. Sickness and disease occurred when these elements became unbalanced and out of harmony with the rest of the universe.   

1. black bile
2. yellow bile
3. blood
4. phlegm
1. melancholic
2. choleric
3. sanguine
4. phlegmatic
1. earth
2. fire
3. air
4. water
1. autumn
2. summer
3. fall
4. winter

Learned physicians and infirmarians wrote books on the medicinal properties of plants and animals and how to treat common illnesses. A fascinating example is Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) who ran the infirmary at the monastery, Disibodenberg, Germany before becoming the abbess of her own monastery in 1150. She was a prolific writer of both medical tracts and music.

The following expert from Hildegard’s Physica tells of the uses of cinnamon in mulled wine to treat fever, or as a powder to treat a head-cold.

 “Cinnamon is very hot and its power is great. It holds a bit of moisture, but its heat is so strong that it suppresses that dampness. It diminishes bad humor in one who eats is often, and provides him with good humors. 

 The tree whose bark is cinnamon is very hot. Whence, a person who is paralyzed by gout, or who has … a fever should pour good wine into a steel vessel. He should put into it wood and leaves of this tree, while they still have sap in them. 

 After boiling it on a fire, he should drink it frequently, hot. He will be healed. One whose head is heavy and dulled, and who has difficulty breathing through the nose, should pulverize cinnamon and eat it often with a morsel of bread, or licked from his hand. It dissolves the noxious humors which had dulled his head].[1] 

Hildegard also wrote over over 77 songs for performance in religious services, many of which describe sin as a disease or wound upon the body. In the following example, O clarissima, she describes Mary, the mother of Jesus, as “the mother of a holy medicine.”

Click here for the full lyrics and a recording of this song:

Other famous medieval herbals and medicinal texts come from England, such as Bald’s Leechbook. These texts frequently mixed the scientific and religious learning written in Latin with folk practices in the local languages (Anglo-Saxon). Sometimes the languages became a bit muddled when mixed together, resulting in a curious synchronization of musical-medicinal rituals. For example, the treatment for a parasite like a worm involves singing this charm 9 times in the ear of the victim (left ear for a female, right ear for a male).

Gonomil orgomil marbumil, Marbsairamum tofeð tengo, Docuillo biran cuiðær, Cæfmiil scuiht cuillo scuiht, Cuib duill marbsiramum.

After singing the charm, recite one Paternoster (Our Father) prayer, and smear spittle, green centaury, and hot cow’s urine on any visible wound. Then you should be good to go: no more worms. The herb centaury (centaurium erythraea) was known by several other names like feverwort or Christ’s Ladder, and was used to treat fevers, snake-bites and poisons, and gout.

The ick-factor of saliva and urine for the modern imagination is difficult to overcome, but they functioned well in several medieval everyday chores. Urine has a compound, urea, that breaks down into ammonia and has been used as a household cleaner for centuries. Fans of the historical-fantasy TV show, Outlander, may recall watching the heroine from the 1940s travel back in time to 18th century Scotland, where she learns to pee in a bucket to wash her clothes.

Salvia, on the other hand, contains water, electrolytes, mucus, and enzymes. Some of these enzymes kill bad bacteria that could cause infections, and proteins (like histatin) feed good bacteria which, you guessed it, helps to fight infections and close wounds. The chemical opiorphin in salvia is a natural pain killer, even stronger than morphine. Scientists think that this is the reason why mouth wounds heal much faster than anywhere else in the body. And this is why animals lick their wounds.[2]  

The singing in this curative practice is even more curious. The words are nonsensical, not a real language, so scholars think that these “magic words” are the result of misinterpretation—what happens when one hears an exotic or unknown language, but not knowing the language, the reproduction is a little off. An example that we have incorporated into our culture today is a phrase that often occurs at Halloween: hocus pocus. These magic words are a result of hearing the Latin Mass performed without knowing that “hoc est corpus” chanted by a priest during communion means “this is the body.”

Strictly speaking, music therapy is a modern invention to cope with mental, emotional, and even physical distress or illness, but the ancient world also believed that certain kinds of music had the power to influence the body and the mind. The ancient Indian practice of chanting mantras to calm the mind in spiritual rituals have become very popular in non-religious contexts today such as sports. Many athletes design their own mantras, short repeated phrases, as psychological tools to help them perform more effectively. Russell Wilson, the quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks shared his mantra “why not you?” with his team, and it became “why not us?” They eventually won the 2014 Superbowl.[3]

medieval Yoda or water-elf?

Scientific studies on the physiological effects of meditation on the brain has shown that mantras and meditation aide the growth of gray matter in several parts of the brain: the insula and sensory regions which control listening and feeling, and the frontal cortex which is responsible for memory and decision-making.[4] While mantras tend to be short phrases or single syllables, and Anglo Saxon charms have more complex lyrics, the act of singing may have the same impact of distracting or relieving the mind of anxiety and pain associated with sickness.       

Try this Anglo-Saxon charm the next time you catch water-elf disease:

Sing three times: 
Round the wounds I have wreathed the best of healing amulets, 
That the wounds may neither burn nor burst, 
Nor grow worse nor putrefy, 
Nor throb, nor be filthy wounds, 
Nor cut in deeply;
but let him keep the sacred water for himself, 
Then it will pain you no more than it pains the land by the sea.

Sing many times: “May Earth remove you with all her might and main.”

[1] Priscilla Thorpe, trans., Hildegard of Bingen’s Physica: The Complete English Translation of Her Classic Work on Health and Healing, Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 1998, p. 20.

[2] Tiwari, Manjul. “Science behind human saliva.” Journal of natural science, biology, and medicine vol. 2,1 (2011): 53-8. doi:10.4103/0976-9668.82322



You Make Me (Love) Sick: Pandemics and Medieval Music

Tis humane to have compassion on the afflicted; and as it show well in all, it is especially demanded of those who have need of comfort and have found it in others… among whom… I may be numbered.

—Boccaccio, Decameron
Illustration of the ten storytellers, from a 1492 Italian edition of The Decameron — Source.

With 2020 in the rear-view mirror and a global pandemic still in full swing, the Middle Ages can teach us a lot about human creativity persevering in the face of hardship.

One of the most enduring examples is Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, a book of 100 stories told by 10 young women and men over the course of ten days in self-isolation as the plague ravaged the city of Florence, Italy in 1348. Several comparisons have been made between Covid-19 and the Black Death of the 14th century, especially the fact that the contagion first hit hard in Asia, then Italy was the first country in Europe to see major casualties. The plague organism that caused the  Black Death—yersinia pestis—killed nearly 90% of the population in the Chinese province of Hopei (around 5,000,000 people), before migrating along trade lines to wipeout between 40% and 60% of the population in the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe.[1]

Boccaccio presents a gruesomely detailed description of how people suffered from the Black Death including bleeding from the nose, black spots and/or tumors on the thigh, armpit, and “elsewhere.” People died within 3 days of showing symptoms. Since the plague was unknown to doctors of the time, they had no remedies for it, and Boccaccio recounts the choices people made to cope with the dangers of the disease. Some folks separated themselves from the sick and avoided all excess and every kind of luxury in food and drink. Instead, they “diverted their minds with music and such other delights as they could devise.”[2] Others decided to follow the biblical axiom to “eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow you die.”[3] They partied in public houses and taverns to “take their pleasure with song and revel, sparing to satisfy no appetite, and to laugh and mock at no event, was the sovereign remedy for so great an evil.”[4] 

As a musicologist, I find it interesting that both the YOLO partiers and the quarantine crowd turned to music as a recreational remedy from the pandemic. Boccaccio primarily uses storytelling as the genre for recreation in the Decameron, but his characters also sing songs, play musical instruments, and dance. With this in mind, here are a few examples of medieval songs that can be used for palliative purposes (for soothing and calming) today as they may have been used hundreds of years ago.

Troubadour Songs and Love-sickness

Interestingly, the affliction that Boccaccio, or at least his poetic-persona, endures in the introduction of the Decameron is not the pandemic, but rather love: an unfulfilled love that burns like fire causing extreme suffering and distress. The theme of love-sickness was a central part of the artistic movement called fin’amor. Known today as “courtly love”, a more literal translation is “true love” or “faithful love.” You might hear this kind of language in fairytale romances where the heroine is saved by “true love’s kiss” and in the end “true love conquers all.”

In the Middles Ages, this stylized form of love fit into the broader set of upper-class masculine ideals called chivalry. Remnants of chivalry are still alive today, think opening a door for a woman or carrying her school books or grocery bags, but in the Middle Ages chivalry and courtly love could be seen in many places: in stories, music, and even religion. Long lists of rules were written down for those who wanted to serve the “God of Love,” and can be found in treatises like De amore by Andreas Capellanus (c. 1184). Here are two rules that describe the symptoms of love-sickness, so you can determine whether or not you are in love.

Rule 15: Every lover regularly turns pale in the presence of his beloved.

Rule 16: When a lover suddenly catches sight of his beloved, his heart palpitates.

—Andreas Capellanus, De Amore

Music is one treatment for the symptoms of love-sickness. Songs, in particular, divert the mind and eases the suffering in the soul. The earliest love songs to survive in a European vernacular language with melodies intact were written by the troubadours. The troubadours were poet-composers who originally came from region in the South of France around the late 11th century. One of the most famous troubadours, Bernart de Ventadorn (c. 1135-1194), evokes the symptoms of love-sickness in his song “It is no wonder that I sing” (Non es meravelha s’eu chan).

With good faith and without deceit, 
I love the most beautiful and the best lady
I sigh from my heart and cry from my eyes
For I love her so much that I am suffering for it.
What more can I do if Love has seized me,
And the prison into which it has put me
No key but mercy can open
And I find no mercy at all in it?

When I see her, indeed it's apparent in me
From my eyes, my face, my color,
For I tremble so with fear
As does the leaf in the wind.
I don't have the sense for a child
So much I am seized by love;
And for a man that's so conquered thus,
A lady can have great pity.  

You can listen to the whole song here:

Men were not the only ones to suffer from love-sickness. The ancient Greek physician Galen (129-c. 200 CE) was well aware of the impact of unrequited love on the body. In his treatise “On Prognosis”, Galen tells the story of diagnosing a young woman who suffered from insomnia, tossing about sleepless through the night. First, he ruled out fever as the cause. Then he surmised that she either possessed an excess of black bile that caused melancholy, or she was  troubled about something else which she was unwilling to confess.

One day, by chance, Galen was taking her pulse during an examination when his aide entered the room to say that he had seen Pylades dancing at the theater. The woman’s color and pulse changed, becoming extremely irregular at this statement. The next day, Galen tried an experiment. He had his aide announce that Morphus was dancing at the theater, when this did not provoke the same response as before, the next day the aide mentioned Pylades again. When the woman’s pulse only changed at the name of Pylades, Galen affirmed that she was in love with this dancer.[5]

While becoming physically ill from love may not impact all people in this way, the mental and emotional turmoil that accompanies falling in love is pretty common. A poignant decision that often torments lovers is: when should I declare my feelings? The following song addresses this question in the form of a debate (tenso) between the troubadour Raimbaut de Vaqueiras and his fellow poet from the north of France, the trouvère Conon de Béthune. Raimbaut poses the question of whether a lady should favor: a suitor who tells her of his feelings, or one who is too fearful to tell her. Conon argues the side of the courageous lover, even though much of courtly love aesthetic relies on the suffering of unrequited love. He says:

“For sure, Raimbaut, however I may act with others, I will never conceal my suffering from my lady, for a man may ask too late for aid, but what use if aid to me once I am dead? Only a fool hides from the doctor his illness which becomes thereby more painful for him and more difficult to cure: on the contrary, a man ought to reveal it so promptly that–if his lady is willing–he may be cured at once.”[6]

Whenever I describe how these debate songs work, they remind people of rap battles in today’s popular music culture. Inspired by this, I made a “mash-up” performance of this debate with a translation of the poetry that tries to keep the original rhyme-scheme of the lyrics set to a free beat track called “Strapped up” from

In the spirit of Boccaccio’s Decameron, I challenge you to create your own pandemic story or debate song and share it here with me or with the rest of the cyber-world.

[1] The largest pandemic in human history except for the spread of smallpox and measles among indigenous peoples due to contact with European colonists in the early modern period. Monica Green, “Pandemic Disease in the Medieval World: Rethinking the Black Death,” The Medieval Globe, vol. 1 (2015): 9.

[2] Decameron, 019,

[3] See Ecclesiastes 8:15, Isaiah 22:13, and 1 Corinthians 15:32.

[4] Decameron,

[5] Galen “On Prognosis” from A.J. Brock, Greek Medicine: Being Extracts Illustrative of Medical Writers from Hippocrates to Galen. London, J.M. Dent & Sons, 1929, 213-214.

[6] PC 392.29. Ruth Harvey and Linda Paterson, The Troubadour Tensos and Partimens: A Critical Edition (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2010) 1091.