Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

Musical Instruments in Medieval Psalm Commentaries and Psalters

by James McKinnon

Descriptive Title

The Temple, the Church Fathers and Early Western Chant


In this study the author seeks to show that contrary to the belief of music historians, there is positive evidence that only the organ was used for liturgical music in the Middle Ages. This article was taken from James McKinnon’s The Temple, the Church Fathers and Early Western Chant which originally appeared in Journal of the American Musicology Society in 1968.

Larger Work

Journal of the American Musicology Society

Publisher & Date

Journal of the American Musicology Society, Philadelphia, 1968

It is commonly held among musicologists that a great variety of musical instruments was freely employed in medieval liturgical music. That the organ was in fact used we know from unequivocal documentary evidence,1 but such is not the case with other instruments. A different kind of evidence is offered to–prove their presence in the liturgy. Instead of a few positive statements from contemporary sources that the instruments were actually used there are innumerable pictures of them and literary allusions to them without direct reference to their liturgical status. Music historians, confronted with this virtual omnipresence of instruments in medieval literature and iconography, have simply assumed that liturgical music must have used instruments.2 There is a certain plausibility about this assumption since the liturgy is the very center of medieval musical life and one naturally associates the prominence of instruments in medieval art and literature with it. There is also, in my opinion, a sort of agnosticism involved, a feeling that the vast number of instrumental references cannot be systematically interpreted and classified. And because they cannot, one safely assumes that at least some of them are related to liturgical music practice. I believe, on the contrary, that virtually all medieval references to instruments can be classified within well-defined literary and iconographical categories. In this study I propose to deal with one of the most important of these, that which concerns the instruments mentioned in the Psalms. The subject has both a literary and an iconographical aspect. The literary aspect is represented by the frequent allusions to musical instruments in medieval psalm commentaries; the iconographical by the countless miniatures of instruments which illustrate medieval manuscripts of the psalter. Now it is precisely these instruments associated with the Psalms which musicologists have cited as proof that instruments accompanied liturgical music. I maintain that these instruments have nothing to do with liturgical usage and, moreover, that an examination of them uncovers positive evidence that liturgical music made use of no instruments other than the organ.

Such an examination must begin with the writings of the early Church Fathers. Since they looked upon musical instruments as something evil,3 the Fathers were perplexed when they read in the Old Testament that the Jews employed instruments in their worship of the true God. The Psalms in particular exhorted them to praise God with various musical instruments. How, the Church Fathers asked themselves, could God tolerate and even encourage such an evil usage among his chosen people? It was not a question the Fathers could easily avoid because they meditated and commented upon the Old Testament incessantly, especially the Book of Psalms, which was the principal source of Christian devotional material. Some Fathers worked out a fairly plausible explanation for the difficulty, as we shall see later, but most circumvented it by interpreting the instruments symbolically or, to use the more proper term, allegorically. Thus, in commenting upon Psalm 56:9, "Awake psalterium and kithara," Pseudo-Athanasius wrote "the psalterium is the soul, the kithara the body."4 And Augustine interpreted Psalm 150:5, "Praise the Lord on cymbals," in this way:

Cymbals touch each other in order to play and therefore some people compare them to our lips. But I think it better to think of God as being praised on the cymbals when someone is honored by his neighbor rather than by himself; and in paying respect to one another they do indeed give praise to God.5

Both Pseudo-Athanasius and Augustine, ignoring the fact that the psalms referred to real musical instruments, simply used the instruments as symbols of doctrinal or ethical truths. This sort of exegesis might strike the modern reader as a subterfuge which is at worst dishonest and at best naïve, but actually it is a method with deep roots both in Christian theology and in the general intellectual outlook of antiquity. Pagans, Jews and Christians alike exercised great freedom in interpreting their sacred books. Whatever was scandalous, or merely commonplace, was transformed by allegorical exegesis into sublime doctrine. Among the Greeks, for instance, the writings of Homer were considered sacred. Authors anxious to preserve the Homeric gods denied the literal truth of their immoral deeds and interpreted them as allegories of higher truths.6

The sacred book of the Jews was, of course, the Old Testament. In interpreting it Philo Judaeus, the 1st-century Alexandrian Platonist, surpassed the pagan authors in his extensive use of allegory.7 His aim was to show that the real meaning of Jewish history and observances was to serve as a revelation of the mystic path from man to God. Thus Abraham's migration from Chaldea was actually the rejection of a materialist philosophy; the Passover,symbolized a migration from body to spirit, a purification of the soul.

The early Christians inherited the Jewish belief that the Old Testament was a sacred book. It was necessary, however, that they interpret it in a Christian sense, and there could be no more apt tool for doing so than the allegorical method. During the first two centuries Christian authors contented themselves with a fairly restrained search for prophecies of Christ in the New Testament. Justin (d. ca. 165), for example, takes Isaiah's words "I have spread out my hand unto a disobedient people" (lxv:2) to refer to Christ's outstretched arms on the cross.8 This is called Christological or typological exegesis; it has in common with Greek allegories on Homer and Philo's mystical interpretation of the Old Testament that it looks upon recorded historical events as mere symbols or shadows of higher realities.

It was the brilliant Origen of Alexandria (d. ca. 254) who carried each of these methods to its extreme, combining them into the unified system which we call allegorical exegesis.9 He worked his way through nearly the entire Old and New Testaments finding mystical meaning in virtually every word. As a typical intellectual of his time he had little regard for the historical or literal meaning of Scripture; he established the principle that in Scripture "all has a spiritual meaning but not everything has a literal meaning."10 His influence was enormous. In the words of Beryle Smalley: "To write a history of Origenist influence on the west would be tantamount to writing a history of western exegesis."11

The literary aspect of our subject cannot be understood without reference to this exegetical background. The numerous allusions to musical instruments in patristic and medieval psalm commentaries are simply allegorical interpretations of the instruments mentioned in the psalms themselves. Beginning with Origen12 virtually every major Church Father composed a psalm commentary; and during the middle ages the Book of Psalms remained the favorite Old Testament subject among exegetes. In writing a commentary the standard procedure was to work one's way through the entire 150 Psalms, quoting them verse by verse and setting down an allegorical commentary on each verse. There are several psalms which mention instruments,13 and when the commentator arrived at a verse such as "Awake psalterium and kithara" (Ps. 56: 9), he might comment: "The psalterium is the soul, the kithara the body," as did Pseudo-Athanasius in the above-quoted passage.

The content of these commentaries became so stereotyped at an early period that commentators from century to century more or less served the function of transmitting the early authoritative exegesis. The Alexandrian School, owing to the activity of Origen, exercised a crucial influence in this respect. The psalm commentary of Pseudo-Athanasius is one of the earliest extant Alexandrian commentaries and is therefore a logical choice to turn to for additional illustrations.14

In commenting on Ps. 80: 4, Pseudo-Athanasius, following the normal procedure, first quoted the psalm verse and then set down his remarks:

"Blow a trumpet at the new moon." As formerly, Israel, taking up the corporeal trumpet, blew it at the new moon, because God had commanded this to commemorate that the Israelites had been freed from the Egyptian servitude; so now the new people using the trumpet of the Gospel, whose sound has gone forth into the whole world, commands that it be blown at the new moon, that is, in the renewal of its mind, proclaiming and bearing witness that the evangelical trumpet has freed its mind from the spiritual Egypt, that is, from the power of darkness.15

The theological premises of allegorical exegesis are clearly illustrated here; the material things of the Old Testament are prophecies or types of the spiritual realities of the New Testament. The Egyptian captivity signifies the powers of darkness, that is, sin's dulling effect upon the intellect; the new moon signifies the renewal of the mind by contact with the Gospel; and the trumpet signifies the Gospel itself. This identification of the trumpet with the Gospel and the preaching constitutes the nucleus of most subsequent allegories based on the trumpet. Already in Origen's commentary on Jeremiah the trumpet was sermo;16 it will continue to be sermo, evangelium, praedicatio, etc.

In Psalm 97:5-6, the Septuagint speaks of forged trumpets and a trumpet of horn, fairly accurate translations of the Hebrew's metal trumpets and shophar. Pseudo-Athanasius' allegorical interpretation of the two instruments is as follows:

"Sing a psalm with the metal trumpet and the voice of the horn trumpet." A fervent and intense study of evangelical preaching is understood by the metal trumpets; whereas kingly dignity is understood by the horn because kings are anointed from a horn. And not only that, but the proclamation of kingship is made by the horn.17

The distinction between metal and the horn of an animal naturally lends itself to fanciful interpretations. For another Father, Eusebius of Caesarea (d. ca. 340), the metal trumpet, beaten into shape over a burning forge, signified the preaching of the Apostles who underwent trial by fire for their faith, while the horn trumpet represented action, since the horn is taken from a beast of burden.18

The few illustrations of instrumental allegory given here are representative of that subject as it appears in the patristic literature of the East. As was said above, most major Church Fathers composed psalm commentaries in the allegorical style;19 a significant minority, however, withstood the dominant trend. The exegetical school of Antioch advocated a more literal and historical interpretation of the Old Testament in works such as the Adversus allegoricos of Theodore of Mopsuestia (d. 428). As Christian exegetes the Antiochenes did expect to find prophecies and types of Christ in the Old Testament, but generally speaking they were more restrained in their search for allegory and were more sensitive to the historical realities of the Old Testament than were most Church Fathers. Thus when confronted with the fact that the ancient Israelites employed musical instruments, apparently with God's permission, they had to offer an historical explanation for it instead of simply having recourse to allegory. They, like all Church Fathers, considered musical instruments to be the accessories of sin; therefore God's toleration of musical instruments among the Hebrews posed a real difficulty.

St. John Chrysostom (d. 407), the most famous of the Antiochenes, offered the following solution in his commentary on Psalm 149:

Some, taking the terms for instruments in an allegorical sense, say that the tympanon signifies the death of our flesh and the psalterium a contemplation of heaven. . . . But I would say that the ancients [the Jews] used these instruments because of the slowness of their understanding and to keep themselves from idols. Just as he [God] received sacrifices he allowed those things because of their weakness.20

God is supposed to have tolerated instruments during Old Testament times because of the weakness of the Jews. Theodore of Cyrus (d. ca. 460) expanded upon John Chrysostom's explanation:

Of old the Levites used those instruments in the Temple of God to praise him, not because it pleased him. . . . Once it happened, however, he tolerated it, wishing to take them from the error of idolatry. Since they were fond of play and laughter, and since all this sort of thing took place in the temples of the idols, he allowed it, thus to lead them, and by the smaller evil avoid the greater and through the incomplete prepare for the complete.21

This explanation, even if it strikes the modern reader as naive and faintly anti-semitic, does at least display an elementary sense of history as opposed to the more typical allegorical interpretations of the Old Testament instruments.

Our purpose in quoting these two examples of the historical explanation22 is to clarify further the basic point of this study, namely, that the instruments mentioned in psalm commentaries, whether allegorical or literal in style, are the instruments of the Old Testament and not the instruments contemporary with the commentaries' authors.23 Therefore these instruments have nothing to do with Christian liturgical usage; however, the attitude of Chrysostom and Theodore toward contemporary instruments can be read between the lines, and it is obviously negative.

In the West Biblical exegesis was dominated by the allegorical method of Origen; the historical approach of the Antiochenes had comparatively little influence. Even Jerome (d. 420), whose labors to produce an accurate Latin text of the Bible displayed remarkable objectivity and historical insight, favored the allegorical style in his commentaries.24 But it was Augustine (d. 431) especially who expanded and elaborated the instrumental allegories of the Eastern Fathers in his massive Enarrationes in Psalmos.25 In turn Augustine's work largely determined the content of Western medieval psalm commentaries.26

Cassiodorus was a link in the chain whereby Augustine's instrumental allegories were transmitted to the middle ages. In the course of his long commentary his typical procedure, when arriving at a psalm verse mentioning instruments, was to borrow a passage from Augustine. These passages have, of course, no bearing on the question of liturgical performance practice and need not be quoted here. However in a few instances Cassiodorus by way of an obiter dictum gives us a glimpse of the contemporary liturgical situation. This happens, for example, at the conclusion of his commentary on Psalm 97, in which he had already set down the traditional allegories on the instruments mentioned in that psalm:

Why is it that we frequently find in the psalms musical instruments, which do not seem to titillate our sense of hearing but rather to excite the hearing of the heart? Now since that sound and melody of tibias is absent from the holy liturgy of our time, it follows that we must seek to understand this matter according to a spiritual mode.27

Cassiodorus states explicitly that tibias (seemingly cited as representative of instruments in general) are not used in Christian worship and that therefore the Old Testament instruments can have meaning for a Christian only if understood in the spiritual, that is, allegorical, sense.

One can work one's way through the voluminous psalm commentary literature of the middle ages,28 quoting allegorical references to instruments, but it serves no very important purpose. Since the patristic method and usually the substance of the patristic commentaries were simply perpetuated from century to century, the same irrelevance to the question of liturgical performance practice was maintained. However, one could accept this position and still expect to reap musicological benefit from medieval instrumental allegory. While granting its generally symbolic character one might hope to discern the medieval attitude toward particular instruments, and in turn their use in performance, by studying the character of symbolism assigned them.29 Unfortunately this hope is based on false premises. For one thing medieval instrumental allegories were composed not in the middle ages but, as has been pointed out, in the patristic period, and as often as not were based on instruments which no longer existed in the middle ages. Secondly, the allegories did not represent symbol-making in our sense. We assume a broad poetically apt correspondence between symbol and object, while patristic allegories, if judged by that standard, are contrived and far-fetched. For example, we might take the tympanum (hand-drum) to symbolize rhythm, dance or possibly the female sex, but the Church Fathers avoided this intuitive approach. Instead they isolated the fact that a tympanum's membrane was made from the dried-out skin of a dead animal, which in turn they compared to the Christian who must mortify his flesh, concluding that the tympanum signified corporal affliction. Now, certainly, when a 9th-century commentator like Rabanus Maurus consulted his knowledge of patristic commentaries and wrote tympanum est affiictio carnis30 he did not grant us any subtle insight into the performance practice of the tympanum, whether sacred or secular, ancient or medieval.

It is true that there was a kind of medieval hierarchy of instruments which was symbolic in the sense that particular types of instruments typified various ranks of society.31 However, there seems to be no relationship between this genuine instrumental symbolism and the instrumental allegory of the commentaries. The "medieval hierarchy" is apparently based upon a recognition and classification of the sociological circumstances in which certain instruments were played–hardly upon an attempt to realize in practice the allegories of the commentaries. That the organ, for example, was considered a sacred instrument in the 15th century was surely due to its venerable status as a liturgical instrument32 and not the result of its being treated allegorically in commentaries on Psalm 50–along with several other instruments which failed to acquire any special sacred status.33

There remains but one point to discuss before turning to the iconographical aspect of our, subject; it concerns the spread of instrumental allegory from psalm commentaries to other types of medieval literature. This creates the problem of recognizing instrumental allegory within a new context. Actually the problem is often easily solved because the allegories maintain the stereotyped symbolism and vocabulary of the commentaries, and in some cases authors even cite the commentaries whence the allegories are derived. There is, for example a long passage in the De ecclesiasticis officiis libri IV of Amalarius (d. ca. 850), which, in the typical Carolingian manner, is little more than a patchwork of quotations from Scripture and the patristic commentaries. The author begins by quoting passages from the Old Testament (I Chron. xvi) which mention the Jewish Temple musicians and their instruments; he then writes:

Our own cantors grasp neither cymbals, nor lyre, nor kithara nor any other kind of musical instrument in their hands, but rather in their hearts. For in so far as the heart is superior to the body, to that extent does what takes place in the heart better manifest devotion to God, than what is done by the body. These very cantors are the trumpet, they are the psalterium, they the kithara, they the tympana, they the chorus, they the strings and the body of the instrument, they the cymbals. Wherefore Augustine said of the last psalm in his book on the psalms. . . 34

Amalarius then continues with several quotations from Augustine's commentary on Ps. 150, which gives allegories of the specific instruments. There is certainly no difficulty here in recognizing the transference of instrumental allegory from the psalm commentaries to another type of literature.

We also have here another example of an author making an allusion to contemporary practice within an allegorical context. The meaning of the passage is clear. It first recalls that the ancient Jews had used instruments and then states that "our cantors" do not, but that they are themselves instruments in an allegorical sense. Surprisingly enough, this passage has been said to describe a solemn ecclesiastical procession entering church to the accompaniment of diverse musical instruments.35

Another illustration from literary sources is found in the Itinerarium of Baudry de Bourgueil, a Norman abbot of the early 12th century. The passage begins with Baudry speaking of an organ at Fécamp:

In that church there was one thing which pleased me not a little. . . . I saw there a certain musical instrument, made with brass pipes which when activated by bellows emitted sweet music . . . they call it the organ and play it on certain occasions. I am aware that many who do not have such in their church criticize and murmur against those who do....

So far there is nothing allegorical in this quotation, yet the remainder of the long passage is in the style of the following excerpt:

Even if I did not take much pleasure in the music of the organ I would yet be inspired by it to understand this: That as the diverse pipes of various weights and sizes unite into one song .brought about by the wind, so ought men to arrive at a unity of mind, inspired by the Holy Spirit to achieve one will. . . . We say definitely that organs are good if they are understood mystically, if we derive from them a spiritual harmony.36

This passage well illustrates my point: instrumental allegory is so common in the middle ages that a medieval ecclesiastic can hardly speak of musical instruments without lapsing into it. Yet there is a use of allegory here which is by no means traditional. Whereas it originally enabled a Church Father to avoid condemning Biblical instruments, allegory is used here to justify an instrument: the organ is considered good if it also inspires allegorical thoughts in the listener. Conceivably this novel twist of the allegorical tradition could have been used to–justify the introduction of other musical instruments in medieval churches. The fact of the matter is, however, that we know of no medieval author who did so.37

It is of course impossible to cite every passage in medieval literature which mentions instruments and then to discuss it in terms of the instrumental allegory of the psalm commentary. What we have been able to do was to discuss the references to instruments in the psalm commentaries themselves and in literature influenced by these commentaries. Since this material represents such a large portion of the total references to instruments in medieval literature38 and since it offers no evidence that instruments were used in church, it would seem that the argument from quantity is refuted. That is to say, one cannot maintain that instruments were employed in the liturgy simply because there are so many allusions to instruments in medieval literature. Rather one would have to produce specific documents unequivocally stating the case. This has been done for the organ; why has it not yet been done for other instruments?

The second aspect of our subject, iconography, is represented by the miniatures of the illustrated psalter, which originated in the early middle ages. Musicologists have relied upon iconography even more than upon literary allusions for evidence that instruments were used in church; moreover, it is precisely the illustrated psalter that they have most often cited. This is no doubt due to the fact that illuminated psalters furnish such a large portion of the extant medieval representations of instruments–just as the psalm commentaries furnish so many of the literary allusions. For our purposes the illustrated psalter or Book of Psalms is the iconographical counterpart of the psalm commentary. The psalm commentary, as we have seen, consists of the text of the Psalms with a verbal commentary, while the illuminated psalter gave to the text of the Psalms a sort of pictorial commentary. Miniatures of instruments, for instance, illustrate only those psalms which mention instruments, and moreover depict precisely those instruments which are mentioned. For example, Psalm 32 of the Utrecht Psalter is illustrated with psalterium and kithara while Psalm 150 has drawings of psalterium, kithara, trumpets, cymbals and organ.39 The Stuttgart Psalter furnishes an interesting illustration of Psalm 136, Super flumina Babylonis.40 This Psalm speaks of the Israelites exiled in Babylon, weeping at the river's edge, their "harps" (organa) hanging in disuse upon willow trees. The artist took the Vulgate's term organa to mean pipe organ, according to the common medieval understanding of the word, and produced a rather quaint picture. Two sad figures sit at a river's edge while behind them two small pipe organs dangle from the limbs of a tree. The absurdity of relating psalter illustrations to liturgical practice is more apparent than usual here. The meaning of the picture is obviously to be found in the text of the psalm, not in some arbitrarily chosen phase of medieval life.

Thus an illustrated psalter is roughly analogous to a psalm commentary; the latter is a verbal commentary, the former a kind of pictorial commentary. But the relationship is more than one of analogy; rather it is one of close historical continuity. This is evident from the fact that a medieval psalter is normally prefaced with an introduction taken directly from a patristic commentator. The above-mentioned Stuttgart Psalter, for instance, begins with Isidore's Proemium de Psalterio.41 Some psalters borrow more than one preface. The psalter of Vaticanus Graecus 752, for example, has three: Pseudo-Chrysostom's Praemia in Psalmos,42 Joseph's and Theodoret's Actuarium, ad Tom. I,43 and Athanasius' Epistola ad Marcellinum in interpretationem psalmorum.44 These prefaces, incidentally, usually refer to David's psalterium and the various instruments of other Old Testament musicians. Accordingly they are illustrated with David surrounded by musicians. It was mentioned above that David holding a psalterium, with or without the satellite musicians, is the standard frontispiece of all medieval psalters. It is possibly the most common medieval musical illustration.

There is other evidence pointing to the historical relationship between the illuminated psalter and the psalm commentary. The Vaticanus Graecus has two columns of text on each page: one gives the text of the psalms and the other a catena of patristic commentary. Surprisingly enough the miniatures here do not illustrate the psalms themselves but rather the commentary. This is admittedly a unique psalter, but it is representative in that it illustrates a tendency of medieval artists to base their illustrations not just upon the text of the psalms themselves but also on psalm commentaries. For example there is the Stuttgart Psalter's illustration of Psalm 18:5, which reads "Their sound has gone out into all the world." In the Psalm it is the sound of the heavens which is being referred to, but the Church Fathers interpreted this sound allegorically as the preaching of the twelve apostles.45 The Stuttgart Psalter accordingly illustrates the verse with a miniature of the twelve apostles. The artist was obviously acquainted with patristic psalm commentaries.

When an artist based his illustration on a commentary rather than on the text of the psalm itself, the result was a symbolic or allegorical picture because the commentaries were themselves consistently allegorical in style. Medieval artists did this often but not as often as might be expected. The artists occasionally resorted to a naive literalism in their illustrations of the Biblical text, something of an anomaly in an age–which typically interpreted the Old Testament allegorically.46 The reason lies in the nature of the medium; the pictorial arts are much more limited than literature in the ability to portray symbolism and allegory.47 Moreover, when an artist illustrates the psalms which mention instruments it is not immediately apparent whether his intent is allegorical or literal. He depicts men playing instruments whether he means simply to represent ancient Israelites playing instruments or whether he means to represent these instrumentalists as symbols of Christian mystical instrument-playing. Which was the case we might reasonably infer from the style of the particular psalter's illustrations as a whole, that is, whether they are predominantly literal or allegorical. In any event the issue of liturgical usage seems in no way to be involved. It would become germane only if there were some incidental features of the illustrations which make it so. For example, if an illustration of Psalm 150 pictured monks in choir with musical instruments, then indeed the issue would be legitimately raised. It would not ipso facto be settled but there would at least be grounds for discussing it.

If such illustrations exist they have not found their way into the standard musicological literature.48 Moreover, my own search through facsimile collections of medieval miniatures has failed to produce a single example.49 While psalters do occasionally show a cleric playing the organ,50 the other instruments are played by King David, or by laymen of some sort, very often jongleurs. A few of the earlier psalters show the instrumentalists in classical attire, probably copied from older representations of Roman instrumentalists,51 but the typical psalter pictures medieval jongleurs. The presence of jongleurs raises interesting iconographical questions. For example, can we come to any conclusions about the attitude of a monastic artist toward Old Testament musicians because he represents them as members of the ill-favored class of jongleurs? Or is it simply a matter of the artist depicting the only kind of instrumentalist he knows? Or in the case of the lay artist might we speculate, as did Meyer Shapiro in remarking upon the frequent use of jongleur instrumentalists as a decorative motif in various genres of 2th-century art, that the artist was demonstrating his independence by picturing a fellow group of lay artists?52 These are legitimate iconographical questions in themselves, but they are really beside the point under discussion, namely, the matter of instruments and liturgy. As remarked above, this too would become a legitimate iconographical issue if we had representations of monks or of cathedral canons in choir playing instruments.

In discussing the literary aspect of our subject, the psalm commentaries, it was found that the instrumental allegories in these works are essentially neutral on the question of liturgical performance, but that nevertheless obiter dicta occasionally indicate an absence of instruments in church. There is a parallel to this in the area of psalter illustrations. The mere presence of instrumentalists in these pictures speaks neither for nor against the liturgical use of instruments. The Stuttgart Psalter, for example, in illustrating Psalm 150 with a group of lay instrumentalists playing before the Temple, depicts an Old Testament scene and nothing more. It certainly does not prove that instruments were played during medieval services, but neither does it prove that they were not. Yet a chronological survey of the illustrations of Psalm 97 does produce a sort of iconographical obiter dictum, indicating that instruments were not used in church.

Verses 5 and 6 voice the exhortation to praise God with kithara and trumpet, and accordingly medieval artists illustrated Psalm 97 with a group of instrumentalists which usually included David. In the 13th century, however, there was an abrupt change in the content of the illustration; the instrumentalists were replaced by a group of singers, standing before an open liturgical book and clearly identified as monks by their cowls and tonsures. In Haseloff's tables of Psalter illustrations there are at least one hundred such miniatures listed.53

Under any circumstances the existence of one hundred illustrations of singing monks without a single one depicting them holding instruments is a strong argument for an a cappella liturgy. But the fact that these monks illustrate a psalm which mentions instruments renders the argument still stronger. If instruments were at all common in the liturgy it seems impossible that at least some of these artists should not show monks with instruments–it would be the most logical way to illustrate Psalm 97. Instead the artists seem to say that while instruments honored God in Old Testament times, the same function is performed under the New Law by singing only. In their change from depicting Hebrew instrumentalists to depicting singing monks they seem to illustrate the following excerpt from the introduction to Cassiodorus' psalm commentary:

What a marvelous beauty flows from them [the psalms] into our singing. They rival the sweet-sounding organ with human voices, they render the sound of the trumpet with mighty shouts, they construct a vocal kithara by combining living strings, and whatever instruments seemed to do formerly, now can be witnessed and demonstrated in rational beings.54

By way of summary I would disclaim having proved that instruments were never employed in medieval liturgical music. There are other classifications of evidence to be dealt with;55 here I have discussed only one, although I do believe it is the most important. The psalter illustrations and the references in the psalm commentaries are important both because they are so common and because they happen to constitute the evidence which musicologists have used to build their case for instruments in the liturgy. It seems fair, then, to conclude that the burden of proof passes to those who maintain the idea of an accompanied liturgical music. It is their responsibility to offer new evidence. Let them, for instance, produce one document as unequivocal as those which tell us of the medieval church organ, or one painting of monks playing instruments in choir.

Quite obviously I am implying that this is not likely to happen and therefore, even though every classification of evidence has not yet been systematically presented, I am willing to suggest here and now that instruments were not employed in the medieval liturgy. This is a broad generalization and it is necessary to place it in some kind of context. Two questions in particular require immediate attention: (I) for how long does the generalization hold; and (2) how is it to be reconciled with the increasing number of references to instruments in church which we find in documents of the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries?

In considering the first of these questions one recalls G. K. Chesterton's dictum that "not everybody in the middle ages lived at the same time." Certainly the term middle ages covers many centuries and what is true of one century or decade is not necessarily true of another. On the other hand there is a remarkable traditionalism about the middle ages which often justifies the use of the term medieval in the broadest sense. For example, when we say that a medieval psalm commentary is allegorical we make a generalization which is villa for more than a millenium. I believe the evidence warrants something equally broad when we refer to the absence of instruments in the medieval liturgy. Specifically I am referring to the liturgical situation in which clerics, whether monastic or non-regular, sang the Mass and Office communally in choir. This was the normal situation from the time of St. Benedict (d. ca. 547) to at least the end of the 13th century, and I intend that my generalization apply to the entire period. Before that period, during the formative centuries of the Western liturgy, evidence for the absence of instruments is even stronger.56 However, for the 14th and 15th centuries there are sporadic, yet increasingly frequent allusions to instruments in church,57 which brings us to the second question.

In reconciling these allusions to the previous absence of instruments I would suggest two hypotheses. The first is that they generally describe non-clerical instrumentalists who play their instruments in places of the church other than the choir. For example, in a 14th-century liturgical drama there are provisions for two young men, vested as angels, who play their instruments in alternation with other angels who sing.58 They do so only for the first portion of the drama, which takes place in the nave of the church. The second portion of the play, which involves the celebration of Mass, takes place in choir. It begins with the singing of the hymn Veni creator spiritus and is accompanied by a rubric stating: "Et postquam Veni creator incipietur, instrumenta amplius non pulsabunt." Is this illustration exceptional or typical?

The second hypothesis is that when instruments were employed in church during tine late middle ages, their use roughly paralleled that of the organ.59 That is, they did not accompany singing, particularly choral singing, nor did they double voice parts. Rather they might have played in alternation with the singing, for example, within a Te Deum; they might have played before or after liturgical functions on solemn occasions, and they might have joined the organ and bells at the elevation of the Mass. In a word they mixed with sacred vocal music somewhat in the manner of oil and water; a genuine integration would have to await the time of the Gabrieli.60

There is a substantial body of evidence with which to test these and other hypotheses concerning the manner in which instruments made their way into the liturgy during the late middle ages and the Renaissance. It is both an important and interesting task to do so, but it is quite pointless to undertake it so long as it is assumed that medieval liturgical music used every available imminent in every conceivable manner.


1 See, e.g., Wulfstani Cantoris Narratio Metrica de Sancto Swithuno, verses 141172, ed. Alistair Campbell (Verona, 1950); Itinerarium Baldrici, in J. P. Migne, Patrologiae Cursus Completus: Series Latina, Vol. 166 (Paris, 1854), cols. 1177-78; Ars musica Joannis Aegidii Zamorensis, XV, in Gerbert, Scriptores, Vol. II, p. 388.

2 See Arnold Schering, Auffuhrungspraxis alter Musik (Leipzig, 1931), pp. 10-12; Rudolf Ficker, "Polyphonic Music of the Gothic Period," The Musical Quarterly XV (1929), p. 494; Gustave Reese, Music in the Middle Ages (New York, 1940), pp. 524, 325; Alec Harmon, "Medieval and Early Renaissance Music," Man and his Music (Fairlawn, N.J., 5958), pp. 66-69.

Musicologists recently arguing against the use of instruments are Edmund Bowles, “Were Musical Instruments Used in the Liturgical Service during the Middle Ages?", The Galpin Society Journal X (1957), pp. 40-56; and Frank Harrison, Music in Medieval Britain (London, 1958), p. xiv; idem, "Tradition and Innovation in Instrumental Usage 1100-1450," Aspects of Medieval and Renaissance Music (New York, 1966), pp. 319-335.

3 For the vehemence and the extent of the Church Fathers' opposition to instruments see my article, "The Meaning of the Patristic Polemic against Musical Instruments," Current Musicology I (1965), pp. 69-82.

4 Migne, Patrologiae Cursus Completus: Series Graces:, Vol. 27 (Paris, 1857), col. 26o. Hereafter Migne's Greek series will be abbreviated MPG and the Latin series, MPL. For the sake of convenience his edition will be cited even when better editions exist. There is no substantial difference between the various texts of the particular passages appearing in this article (the translations are my own).

5.MPL 37, col. 1964

6 For a still valuable discussion of Greek and Roman allegorical exegesis see Edwin Hatch, The Influence of Greek Ideas and Usages upon the Christian Church (The Hibbert Lectures, 1888), ed. A. M. Fairbairn (London, 189o), pp. 50-65.

7 For a discussion of Philo's allegorical exegesis see Erwin R. Goodenough, An Introduction to Philo Judaeus (2nd ed., Oxford, 1962), pp. 134-159. See also Harry A. Wolfson, Philo (Cambridge, Mass., 1947).

8 Dialogus cum Tryphone Judaeo, cxiv; MPG 6, col. 739.

9 For an account of Origen's exegesis see Jean Danielou, Origen, trans. Walter Mitchell (New York, 1955).

10 De principiis IV, iii, 5; ed. Paul Koetschau, Origenes Werke, Vol. V, "Die Christlichen Schriftsteller der ersten drei Jahrhunderte" (Leipzig, 1913), p. 331.

11 The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages (2nd ed., Oxford, 1962), .p. 14. Smalley's book is standard, along with P. C. Spicq, Esquisse d'une Histoire de l'Exegese Latine au Moyen Age (Paris, 1944) and especially Henri de Lubac, Exegese Medievale, 2 vols. (Aubier, 1959-64).

Perhaps we gain an even better notion of the influence of Origenist allegorical exegesis on every aspect of medieval culture from the importance attached to it in studies of a more general nature such as: W. T. H. Jackson, The Literature of the Middle Ages (New York, 1960), pp. 18-21; Max Laistner, Thought and Letters in Western Europe, A.D. 500 to 900 (2nd ed., London, 1957).

12 Unfortunately Origen's commentary is not extant. The commentary under his name in MPG 12 is probably by Evagarius of Pontus, a 4th-century disciple of Origen. See Johannes Quasten, Patrology, Vol. III (Utrecht, 1960), pp. 175-176.

13 Psalms 32, 42, 48, 56, 67, 7o, 8o, 91, 97, 130, 136, 143, 147, 149, 150 (according to the numbering of the Vulgate).

14 The earliest examples of allegorical interpretation of the psalms' instruments appear before the psalm commentary developed as a literary type. These examples are scattered through the works of Clement of Alexandria (d. after 215), Origen's teacher: Paidagogus IV, ii, MPG 8: 441; Protrepticus I, i, MPG 8: 6o; Stromata VI, xi, MPG 9: 309.

15 MPG 27, cols. 361-364. The original Hebrew of Psalm 80 (81 according to the Hebrew numbering) speaks of the ram's horn (shophar) which is translated trumpet (salpinx) in the Greek Septuagint, the version of the Old Testament which most Greek Fathers used. An excellent study of the etymological aspects of Old Testament instruments is Sol Baruch Finesinger, "Musical Instruments in the Old Testament," Hebrew Union College Annual III (1926), pp. 21-76.

16 MPG 13, col. 320.

17 MPG 27, col. 420.

18 MPG 23, col. 1233.

19 Extant psalm commentaries by Eastern Fathers in allegorical style, not cited in this article, are those of Didymus, MPG 39; Basil, MPG 29; Gregory of Nyssa, MPG 44; and Cyril of Alexandria, MPG 69.

20 MPG 55, col. 454.

21 MPG 8o, col. 1996.

22 For additional examples and a more detailed explanation see McKinnon, "The Significance of the Patristic Polemic," pp. 75-77.

23 Ignorance of this basic fact accounts for the pattern of misinterpretation musicologists have presented when dealing with quotations from psalm commentaries. For example, Theodore Gerold, in his influential book Les Peres de Mese et la Musique (Strasbourg, 1931), p. 124, took the above-quoted passage from John Chrysostom as proof that some Christian communities employed instruments. He thought that Chrysostom was trying to find an excuse for the questionable conduct of these Christians whereas the context makes it clear that it was the ancient Hebrews Chrysostom was discussing.

Theologians, on the other hand, generally do not miss the point. The patrologist Johannes Quasten briefly explains it in his excellent study Musik und Gesang in den Kulten der heidnischen Antike und Christlichen Fruhzeit (Munster in Westf., 1930), p. 244. Martin Gerbert discussed the matter at length and with penetration in De Cantu, V ol. I (St. Blaise, Switzerland, 2774), pp. 220-227.

24 For Jerome's commentary see MPL 26. Other extant psalm commentaries by Western Fathers not cited in this article are those of Ambrose, MPL 14; Hilary, MPL 9; and Arnobius the Younger, MPL 53. They are all consistently allegorical in style.

25 Taking a phrase from Augustine's commentary on Psalm 67 out of context, Hermann Abert, Die Musikanschauung des Mittelalters und ihre Grundlagen (Halle, 1905), pp. 222-223, arrived at the surpris' in' g conclusion that "sharper thinkers" like Augustine sought to stem the tide of allegorical fantasy.

For an excellent discussion of St Augustine's use of allegory see Henri Marrou, Saint Augustine et la Fin de la Culture Antique (Paris, 1938), pp. 484-498.

26 Augustine's instrumental allegories are too discursive and expansive in style to quote here. For extended examples in translation see McKinnon, "The Church Fathers and Musical Instruments," unpublished Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1965, pp. 235-236.

27 MPL 70, col. 692.

28 Published commentaries include: Pseudo-Bede, MPL 93; Haymo, MPL 116; Remigius, MPL 131; Bruno of Wurzburg, MPL 142; Bruno the Carthusian, MPL 152; Bruno of Monte Cassino, MPL 164; Odo of Asti, MPL 165; Honorius of Autun, MPL 172; Peter Lombard, MPL 191; Gerhoh, MPL 193-194. There are even more commentaries not yet published; see Spicq, Esquisse . . . de l'Exegese, p. 396. There are more commentaries based on the Psalms than on any other book of the Old Testament.

29 See Edmund Bowles, "The Role of Musical Instruments in Medieval Sacred Drama," The Musical Quarterly XLV (5959), pp. 67-84.

30 MPL 112, col. 5067.

31 See Bowles, "La hierarchie des instruments de Musique dans l'Europe feodale," Revue de Musicologie XLII (1958), pp. 155-169.

32 It was accepted enthusiastically into Anglo-Saxon monastic churches during the monastic revival of the later loth century. The three outstanding figures in that re-vival, Dunstan, Ethelwald and Oswald, played well-documented roles in this move-ment, which seems to have had no parallel on the continent. For their respective parts see: Memorials of St. Dunstan, ed. William Stubbs, Rerum Britannicarum Medii Aevi Scriptores, Vol. 63 (London, 1857), p. 257; Wulfstani Cantoris Narration Metrica . . . , verses 141-172, ed. Alistair Campbell (Verona, top), (Elphege enlarged upon the work of his predecessor, Ethelwald, verse 35); and "Vita S. Oswald," The Historians of the Church of York and its Archbishops ed. James Rained, Rerun Britannicarum Medii Aevi Scriptores, Vol. 71 (London, 1857), p. 464.

33 Frequently modern historians of the organ, following Gerold, Les Peres . . ., p. 132, state that the organ had achieved the status of a sacred symbol as early as the writings of Origen. There is a three-fold error involved here. First of all, the passage in question, MPG 12, col. 1684, is from the psalm commentary of Evagarius, not Origen; see n. 12 above. More important, the passage probably does not refer to the pipe organ; the Greek term organon appearing in a 4th-century text must certainly be taken as the generic term for instrument unless there are special indications in the context to justify interpreting it as pipe organ. Finally, even if the term meant pipe organ, it was simply subjected to the same allegorical process as were all the other instruments of Psalm 150.

34 MPL 105, col. 1106.

35 Helen R. Bitterman, "The Organ in the Early Middle Ages," Speculum IV (1929), p. 405.

36 MPL 166, cols. I 577-78.

37 Bells, of course, were widely used in various phases of medieval monastic life including the liturgy; see Joseph Smits van Waesberghe, Cymbala (Rome: American Institute of Musicology, 1951). 'Their employment is justified in a way similar to the use of allegory discussed here, in that the Old Testament use of instruments is cited as precedent for the playing of bells at liturgical services; see, e.g., Honorius of Canterbury, "Commentarius in Ps. 81," MPL 194, col. 500.

This passage, incidentally, mentions both bells and the organ (organis, cymbalis et campanis Deo servimus), but only these instruments; yet Walther Kruger cites it along with related passages from Honorius and Durandus as proof for the use of other instruments in church; see his Die authentische Klangform des primitiven Organum (Kassel, 1958), pp. 43-45. On the other hand, the passage about Dunstan which he quotes does mention other instruments, but within the context of Dunstan's early training in ars musica, not within the context of the liturgy.

38 It must account for well over half the total. Other important sources are the theoretical treatises, poetry (especially sequences) and commentaries on other books of the Old Testament In this last case we find precisely the same kind of allegorical exegesis as in the psalm commentaries. Thus Walafrid Strabo (d. 849), in commenting on 1 Chron. xvi (MPL 113, col. 652), says: "The well-sounding cymbals are our lips which strikingeach other produce the sweet harmony of the human voice."

39 See Ernest T. Dewald, The Illustrations of the Utrecht Psalter (Princeton, 1932). The presence of the organ here requires comment. The original Hebrew of Psalm 150 did not mention the organ, nor did the early Greek and Latin versions. The medieval idea that Psalm 150 does so stems from a misinterpretation of the Latin term organa which is a translation of the Greek organon, a generic term for instrument. Augustine still took the term to mean instrument (MPL 37, col. 5964), while Cassiodorus took it to mean organ (MPL 70, col. 1209).

40 Folio 152 recto. For a facsimile see Ernest T. Dewald, The Stuttgart Psalter (Princeton, 1930).41

41 MPL 83, cols. 163-164. See Dewald, Stuttgart Psalter, p. 6.

42 MPG 55, cols. 531-534. See Dewald, The Illustrations in the Manuscripts of the Septuagint, Vol. III, Part 2: Vaticanus Graecus 752 (Princeton, 5942).

43 MPG 84, cols. 20-32.

44 MPG 27, cols. 12-46.

45 See Dewald's remarks on the illustrations of Psalm 18 in his Stuttgart Psalter and in his Vaticanus Graecus 752 for the relevant patristic passages.

46 The illustrations of the Utrecht Psalter are often singled out for their literalism; yet they are literal only in comparison with medieval psalter illumination in general. They are, like pre-Origenist exegesis and the literal exegesis of the Antiochene School, consistently Christological, always identifying David with Christ, for example. Moreover there are occasional illustrations which refer not to the text of the psalm itself but rather to some patristic commentary. For the last point see Dora Panofsky, "The Textual Basis of the Utrecht Psalter Illustrations," The Art Bulletin XXV (1943), pp. 5018.

47 See Karl Kunstle, lkonographie der Christlichen Kunst, Vol. I (Freiburg im Breisgau, 1926), pp. 58-60.

48 See, e.g., Georg Kinsky, A History of Music in Pictures (London, 1930); Marc Pincherle, An Illustrated History of Music, tr. Rollo Myers (New York, 1959); and Heinrich Besseler, Die Musik des Mittelalters and der Renaissance (Potsdam, 1931), which has a particularly rich selection of medieval musical iconography.

49 There is a large number of such collections, the most prominent being published by individual libraries with outstanding manuscript holdings, such as A. Boinet, Les manuscrits a peintures de la Bibliotheque Saint-Genevieve (Paris, 1921); and Ph. Lauer, Les enluminures romanes des manuscrits de la Bibliotheque Nationale (Paris, 1927). There is an especially good collection of Musical illustrations in the plates appended to V. Leroquais, Les psautiers manuscrits latins des bibliotheques publiques de France (Macon, 1940-41).

50 See, e.g., Plates XXIII, r and XXVI in Jean Perrot, L'Orgue de set engines hellenistiques d le fin du XIII6 siecle (Paris, 1965).

51 see, e.g., Plates 4 and 5 in Hugo Steger, David Rex et Propheta, Erlanger Beitrage zur Sprach-und Kunstwissenschaft, Band VI (Nurnberg, 960.

Steger, incidentally, is in substantial agreement with the position taken in this study, i.e., that psalter illustrations have little to do with medieval performance practice; he writes on p. 68: "Ober die praktische Verwendung der Instrumente erfahren wir kaum etwas; aber sie werden ein breites, allegorisches System gebracht . . . Die Symbolik wird so welt getrieben, dass die moderne Forschung geradezu genarrt wurde, and sick als reiches Musikinstrumentenleben dartat, was sich dock nur um Bilder handelte."

This can be called negative iconography; the .positive task of discovering what the David illustrationswith their instruments mean is Steger's chief concern. This is not the place to discuss just how successfully his impressive volume handles this much more difficult matter.

52 See "From Mozarabic to Romanesque in Silos," The Art Bulletin MG (1959), pp. 339-347.

53 Gunther Haseloff, Die Pstalterillustration im 13. Jahrhundert 0938), pp. 104-123.

54 MPL 70, COI. I I.

55 However, other classifications of evidence I am studying confirm the conclusions presented here. But rather than make any allusions to this unfinished work I will only cite Reinhold Hammerstein's superb book, Die Musik der Engel: Untersuchungen zur Musikanschauung des Mittelalters (Munich, 1962). Hammerstein deals exhaustively with the subject of angel instrumentalists in literature and iconography, yet of no time finds it necessary even to raise the question of instruments in the liturgy.

56 See McKinnon, "The Meaning of the Patristic Polemic."

57 See, e.g., the one quoted in Frank Harrison, Music in Medieval Britain, p. 206; and Johannes Tinctoris, De inventione et usu musicae, ed. Karl Weinmann, Johannes Tinctoris und sein unbekannter Traktat "De inventione et usu musicae" (2nd ed., Tutzing, 1961), p. 39.

It cannot be sufficiently emphasized that only at about this same time are the first ecclesiastical complaints against instruments in church being heard. See, e.g., Desiderrii Erasmi Opera Omnia (Leiden, 1705), Vol. VI, p. 731. Repeatedly one hears the argument that we know instruments were used in medieval churches from the fact that religious authorities found it necessary to ban them. I assumed this to be true until I conducted an unsuccessful search for evidence of such bans. (For an experience similar to mine see Edmund Bowles' letter in The Galpin Society Journal XII [19591, p: 91.) It should be noted that in this study we witnessed church authorities making simple statements that instruments were not used rather than legislating against their use.

When a medieval ecclesiastic spoke out against instruments he did it within some context other than the liturgy. For example there is a long tradition of ecclesiastical complaint and legislation against the employment of instrumentalists and other entertainers at the courts or wealthy prince-bishops. We are thereby assured that this abuse was quite common. See Walter Salmen, "Zur Geschichte der Ministriles im Dienste geisdicher Herren des Mittelalters," Miscelanea en Homenaje a Monsenor Higinio Angles, Vol.11 (Barcelona, 1961), pp. 811-820.

58 For the text of this repraesentatio figurata testi Praesentationis Beatae Mariae Virginis see Karl Young, The Drama of the Medieval Church (Oxford, x962), Vol. II, pp. 227..242.59

59 See Harrison's excellent discussion of the use of the organ in Music in Medieval Britain, pp. 214–216.

60 For a tentative discussion of the issues raised in this paragraph and relevant evidence see McKinnon, "The Church Fathers and Musical Instruments," pp. 280-289.

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