The power of medieval religious music: How it brought people closer to god

According to Manon Louviot, a musicologist at the University of Oslo, medieval religious music was not primarily intended to be beautiful or complex. Instead, it served practical purposes beyond mere pleasant listening. Louviot’s research project, titled “BENEDICAMUS: Musical and Poetic Creativity for a Unique Moment in the Western Christian Liturgy c.1000-1500,” focused on the significance of the vocal exclamation “Benedicamus Domino” in the creation of music in female religious settings. Her findings were recently published in the journal Early Music.

The phrase “Benedicamus Domino” translates to “Let us praise the Lord” and has been used since the Middle Ages, and continues to be used today, as an exhortation to conclude sacred rituals. Through her examination of how women and men in the religious movement of the “Devotio moderna” composed music for the “Benedicamus Domino” in masses and rituals, Louviot discovered that it served a distinct purpose: to foster a connection between the singer and God.

Louviot explains that the music aimed to evoke the appropriate emotions in the singers, enabling them to personally connect with the divine. It functioned as a means of uniting the individual with God rather than solely focusing on aesthetic qualities or complexity.

Same melody to different texts

During her research, Manon Louviot came across the use of a well-known plainchant melody associated with the exclamation “Benedicamus Domino” in 15th-century German, Belgian, and Dutch music manuscripts while searching for the Christmas carol “Puer nobis nascitur.” She suggests that the melody of “Benedicamus Domino” was repurposed for the carol “Puer nobis nascitur” because it was easier to adapt a new text to a familiar and simple melody that was already well-known.

Interestingly, Louviot also discovered that the tune of the Christmas carol was not limited to being sung with Latin lyrics alone. She found versions where the carol was sung in languages other than Latin. For instance, one version specified that it should be sung in Latin, while another version indicated it should be sung in Dutch.

Louviot highlights that during that period, most texts were written in Latin, but in the case of the carol “Puer nobis nascitur,” vocal texts in Dutch were also found. This suggests a linguistic variation in the use of the carol, indicating that it was not limited to a specific language and had adaptability across different regions and linguistic contexts.

Men and women sang in Latin and other languages

In the religious movements that Manon Louviot studied, there was a division between female and male communities. The majority of manuscripts she found came from female communities, suggesting a connection between the translated texts and the women who sang them.

Due to limited access to education, it was more common for women to sing in languages other than Latin. Consequently, Louviot was surprised to discover that women in the religious movement also sang the Christmas carol “Puer nobis nascitur.”

She suggests that in some cases, they deliberately chose not to sing in Latin. While examining the manuscripts, Louviot noticed that in those where the vocal text was in Dutch, it was evident that the singers opted not to use Latin, although a few lines from the original Latin text remained.

It is worth noting that manuscripts from male communities have also been found with vocal texts in languages other than Latin. This nuanced discovery challenges the notion that women exclusively sang in Dutch and men exclusively sang in Latin. It reveals that men also sang in various languages, and women also engaged in Latin compositions.

Women wrote new texts and poems

The vocal texts found in the manuscripts were not mere translations from Latin to Dutch; they involved the creation of entirely new texts and poems. These new texts were carefully crafted with rhymes and an equal number of syllables in each line, challenging the assumption that women were illiterate. The ability to compose new poems necessitates a certain level of literacy, indicating that these women possessed writing skills.

The newly created texts placed significant emphasis on emotions and how to evoke the appropriate feelings. Joy was one of the emotions that the melody aimed to arouse. Some of the texts contained a series of vowels, intended to convey a sense of joy that surpassed what could be expressed through words alone. This underscores the importance of emotions in the musical experience and the desire to elicit profound emotional responses from the singers.

Louviot’s findings shed light on the creative and expressive capabilities of the individuals involved in these religious communities, challenging stereotypes regarding literacy and musical expression. It highlights the significance of emotions and the role of music in connecting with the divine and evoking powerful feelings in religious rituals.

New texts should evoke the ‘correct’ feelings

Louviot conducted a comparison of the Dutch texts found in the male and female religious communities. In one of the texts sung by women, the focus was on the Virgin Mary during the birth of Jesus Christ. The women depicted her as a mother and a devoted individual. Interestingly, the perspective of the singers shifted from describing the Virgin Mary to a collective “we” and sometimes even to an individual “I.” Louviot suggests that it appears as if the Virgin Mary and the women singing about her merge into one persona throughout the text, allowing the singers to identify with her on a personal level.

On the other hand, the texts found in the male environments did not mention the Virgin Mary directly. Instead, they emphasized the impoverished conditions in which Jesus was born, highlighting his humble birth on bare earth in a lowly stable. The texts from the male communities emphasized different aspects of the same event, aiming to evoke contrasting emotions. While the female text led to a sense of joy, the male text evoked feelings of shame.

Louviot’s article, titled “Benedicamus Domino as an expression of joy in Christmas songs of the Devotio moderna,” is part of a special issue of the journal Early Music, edited by Catherine A. Bradley, titled “Benedicamus Domino as Female Devotion.” In her article, Louviot explores the specific ways in which “Benedicamus Domino” was sung in the Low Countries during the 1400s, placing her investigation within a broader geographical and chronological context.

The special issue also includes other articles that delve into the use of “Benedicamus Domino” in Czechia, Poland, Spain, and Sweden within communities of religious women. These articles showcase how this sacred exclamation provided a space for female music-making and creativity, demonstrating its significance in fostering musical expression among women in various cultural and historical contexts.

Source: University of Oslo

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