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Medieval Hymns

This entry is part 10 of 14 in the series

"The Hymnody of the Christian Church"

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When Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in 313 with the Edict of Milan, and Christianity soon became the religion of the entire empire, the cultural conditions within which the Church thrived changed into a situation that had not been enjoyed since before the Hebrew exile. Soon the Church gained prominence over all aspects of politics and social life, very similar to what Israel enjoyed during its Golden Age. This created an environment in which the Judeo-Christian tradition of hymnody thrived and developed. Yet the Church’s hymnody never departed from the trajectory it had been on since it was handed the forms from Jewish worship, nor did its characteristic qualities change.

First, Medieval Hymns were text-driven. Hebrew plain chants now developed into more refined Ambrosian and Gregorian chant; yet these melodies retained an attention to the natural rise and fall of the doctrinally-rich hymn text. During this time, hymns were used to combat heresy and promote sound doctrine, as seen in this Christological example by Ambrose of Milan (ca. 337—397), the “Father of Christian Hymnody”:

O splendor of God’s glory bright,
Who bringest forth the light from Light;
O Light of light, light’s Fountain-spring;
O Day, our days enlightening:

Second, Medieval Hymns were modest. Church leaders were against what they called “passionate” music. Stapert explains:

Many musical references deal with passion. For example, Isidor of Pelusium warned against misusing music “to arouse passion,” and Basil warned against being “brought down to the passions of the flesh by the pleasure of song.” Such statements sound very strange in a culture such as ours, which places such a high premium on passion, which values intense emotion and the music that stimulates it, and which prizes excitement and the music that provides a “high” or a “rush.”1

These Church leaders were not against expressions of affection to God. On the contrary, good hymns express our hearts to God as Augustine (354—430) articulates:

Sing to him in jubilation. This is what acceptable singing to God means: to sing jubilantly. But what is that? It is to grasp the fact that what is sung in the heart cannot be articulated in words. . . . To whom, then is this jubilation more fittingly offered than to God who surpasses all utterance? You cannot speak of him because he transcends our speech; and if you cannot speak of him, yet may not remain silent, what else can you do but cry out in jubilation, so that your heart may tell its joy without words, and the unbounded rush of gladness not be cramped by syllables? Sing skillfully to him in jubilation.2

Yet as I argued in a previous essay, the music should not elicit some kind of emotion; it is the expression of emotion that have already been elicited by an encounter with God in his Word. This is the kind of thing that these Church leaders were warning against—music that stirs up base passions.

Third, Medieval hymns were distinct from pagan forms. Again, like their fathers before them, medieval church leaders spoke out against the pagan music of their day. Consider this indictment of pagan music by John Chrysostom (347—407):

What can one say of the songs themselves, crammed as they are with all uncleanness, introducing monstrous amours, and unlawful connections, and subversions of houses, and tragic scenes without end . . . ? And, what is still more grievous, that young women are present at these things . . . and in the midst of wanton young men acting a shameless part with their disorderly songs, with their foul words, with their devilish harmony. Tell me then: do you still inquire, “Whence come adulteries? Whence fornications? Whence violations of marriage?”3

Again, notice that the argument against pagan music was more than merely associations, although it certainly included that, but an argument based in the fact that the music itself communicated evil messages.

Because the Medieval Church was so much against pagan culture, and since it progressively gained more and more influence and control over all aspects of Western culture, the Church eventually eliminated all pagan influence in the West for all practical purposes.4  In other words, the Christian Church nurtured the cultural forms, and those forms trickled down and influenced the non-sacred music of high culture and folk culture as well. Unfortunately, as the Roman Church began to err in its doctrine and practice, congregational singing began to wane until it was all but non-existent. Yet even while congregations were not singing, musical forms were still being cultivated consistent with the Judeo-Christian tradition. This cultivation provided rich musical forms that spread throughout Western culture and created an environment ripe for ordinate expression of Christian affections.

There are many hymn texts and tunes from this period in the tradition that we still sing today.

  • “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” by Aurelius Prudentius is from the 5 th century, and its tune, DIVINUM MYSTERIUM is from the 11th century.
  • “All Glory Laud and Honor” by Theodulph of Orleans was written around 820.
  • “All Creatures of our God and King” by Francis of Assisi was written in 1225.
  • “Be Thou My Vision” is an Irish hymn from the 8th century.
  • “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” was written by Bernard of Clairvaux in 1153.
  • The tune we sing to “When I Survey” (HAMBURG) is based on a Gregorian chant.
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About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. Stapert, p. 86. []
  2. Expositions of the Psalms 8, trans. Maria Boulding (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2000-2004), p. 401 in Stapert, p. 91. []
  3. Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians , trans. Talbot W. Chambers in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers , Vol. 12, ed. Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), p. 70. []
  4. Faulkner, p. 71. []