top of page

Medieval Music


500–549 Eastern and western churches reconciled (519). Justinian I, the Great (483–565), becomes Byzantine emperor (527)

550–599 Beginnings of European silk industry after Justinian's missionaries smuggle silkworms out of China (553). 

600–649 Mohammed flees from Mecca to Medina (the Hegira); first year of the Muslim calendar (622). Muslim empire grows (634). Arabs conquer Jerusalem (637), conquer Persians (641).

750–799 Charlemagne becomes king of the Franks (771).

800–849 Charlemagne crowned first Holy Roman Emperor in Rome (800).

850–899 Norsemen attack as far south as the Mediterranean but are thwarted (859), discover Iceland (861). 

Khosrovidukht was an Armenian hymnographer and poet who lived during the 8th century.
Sahakdukht was an Armenian composer of hymns, poet, and pedagogue who lived in the 8th century.
In Peru, flutes, tubas and drums in use. 

Boethius introduces Greek musical letter notation to the West. 
Pope Gregory orders the compilation of church chants, titled “Antiphonar”. 

Pope Gregory founds the Schola Cantorum in Rome. 

Chinese start to use orchestras with hundreds of players. 

Neumes, notation for groups of notes used in music. This system is used in the West until 1050. 

The court orchestra of Emperor Ming-Huang of China represents the high musical culture of the T’ang dynasty; no harmony or polyphony, five note scale without semitones; flutes, guitars, bells, gongs, drums. 

Singing school established at the Monastery of Fulda. 

Gregorian church music is sung in Germany, France, and England. 

Wind Organs, originally from Byzantium, start to replace water organs in Europe. 

Schools for church music established at Paris, Cologne, Soissons and Metz, all under the supervision of the Schola Cantorum in Rome. 

Poems sung to music at Charlemagne’s court. 

c. 800 
Otfrid of  Weissenburg author of a gospel harmony in rhyming couplets now called the Evangelienbuch.
Kassia was a Byzantine abbess, poet, composer, and hymnographer.
Earliest known attempts at polyphonic music. 

“Musica enchiriadis,” a musical manuscriptusing Latin letters for musical notation.


Khosrovidukht also known as Xosroviduxt (Armenian: Խոսրովիդուխտ, "daughter of Khosrov") was an Armenian hymnographer and poet who lived during the 8th century.

One of the earliest known women musicians, Khosrovidukht was recorded as having been a member of the royal family, but here accounts differ as to her historical importance. Some sources hold that in the 8th-century, her brother was abducted by Arabs of the Muslim faith. Following this, she was taken to the fortress of Ani-Kamakh, now known as Kemah, where she lived in isolation for twenty years.

Khosrovidukht is reputed to be the composer of a šarakan, or canonical hymn titled "Zarmanali e Ints" ("Wondrous it is to me"). According to some sources, it honors the memory of her brother, who was assassinated in 737 for converting to Christianity. Although the subject of the piece is secular, it was sanctioned for use in services by the Armenian Church. A recording of the šarakan exists, performed by the Sharakan Early Music Ensemble.





Sahakdukht (Armenian: Սահակադուխտ, "daughter of Sahak") was an Armenian composer of hymns, poet, and pedagogue who lived in the 8th century. An ascetic, she lived in a cave in the Garni Valley, near present-day Yerevan; there she produced ecclesiastical poems as well as liturgical chants. Of these, the only one to survive is Srbuhi Mariam ("St. Mary"), a nine-stanza acrostic verse. It is believed that many of her hymns were dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Some of them are supposed to have helped to further shape the genre in subsequent centuries. Sahakduxt is also known to have taught lay music lovers and clerical students a number of sacred melodies; this she did while seated behind a curtain, as the mores of the period required.

Her brother was the music theorist Stepannos Syunetsi.




Otfrid of  Weissenburg 

Otfrid of Weissenburg (German: Otfrid von Weißenburg) (c. 800 - after 870) was a monk at the abbey of Weissenburg (modern-day Wissembourg in Alsace) and the author of a gospel harmony in rhyming couplets now called the Evangelienbuch. It is written in the South Rhine Franconian dialect of Old High German. The poem is thought to have been completed between 863 and 871. Otfrid is the first German poet whose name we know from his work. He studied under Hrabanus Maurus at Fulda and had moved to Weissenburg by 830. Apart from the Evangelienbuch, he is the author of a number of works in Latin, including biblical commentary and glossaries. 


With 7104 couplets, the Evangelienbuch is the first substantial literary work and the first use of rhyme in German literature - surviving earlier German poetry is alliterative. It is not certain whether Otfrid's choice of form was inspired by Latin models or by vernacular verse which has not survived - Otfrid himself mentions laicorum cantus obscenus ("obscene song of the laiety"), of which there are no survivals.

Otfrid was fully aware of the novelty of his undertaking: the work starts with a section headed 'Cur scriptor hunc librum theotisce dictaverit' ('Why the author has written this book in the vernacular') explaining the reasons for writing in his native dialect rather than in the Latin one would expect for a religious work.

There are three dedications:

To Louis the German
To Solomon I, Bishop of Constance (839–871)
At the end of the work, to his friends Hartmuat and Werinbert, monks at the Abbey of St. Gall

The dedication to Louis is followed by a letter in Latin prose to Luitbert, Archbishop of Mainz, in which Otfried explains the purpose of the work and discusses some of the problems, both orthgraphic and grammatical, of writing in German.

He also gives the following outline of the structure of the Evangelienbuch:


I have, then, divided this book into five books. Of them the first commemorates the birth of Christ; it ends with the baptism and the teaching of John. The second, His disciples already having been called together, tells how He revealed Himself to the world both by certain signs and by His most brilliant teaching. The third tells a little about the brilliance of the signs and the teaching to the Jews. The fourth tells then how, approaching His passion, He willingly suffered death for us. The fifth calls to memory His resurrection, His conversation afterwards with His disciples, His ascension and the Day of Judgment.
(Translation by James Marchand)


The poem is preserved in four manuscripts, one of which is fragmentary. All the manuscripts are contemporary, and the Vienna manuscript (V) carries corrections which are generally considered to have been made by Otfrid himself. The Heidelberg manuscript (P) also includes the Georgslied.




Otfrid memorial in Wissembourg


Kassia (Greek: Κασσιανή Kassiani; 805/810 - before 865) was a Byzantine abbess, poet, composer, and hymnographer. She is one of the first medieval composers whose scores are both extant and able to be interpreted by modern scholars and musicians. Approximately fifty of her hymns are extant and twenty-three are included in Orthodox Church liturgical books. The exact number is difficult to assess, as many hymns are ascribed to different authors in different manuscripts and are often identified as anonymous.

In addition, some 789 of her non-liturgical verses survive. Many are epigrams or aphorisms called "gnomic verse", for example, "I hate the rich man moaning as if he were poor."

Kassia is notable as one of only two Byzantine women known to have written in their own names during the Middle Ages, the other being Anna Comnena.


Kassia was born between 805 and 810 in Constantinople into a wealthy family and grew to be exceptionally beautiful and intelligent. Three Byzantine chroniclers, Pseudo-Symeon the Logothete, George the Monk (a.k.a. George the Sinner) and Leo the Grammarian, claim that she was a participant in the "bride show" (the means by which Byzantine princes/emperors sometimes chose a bride, by giving a golden apple to his choice) organized for the young bachelor Theophilos by his stepmother, the Empress Dowager Euphrosyne. Smitten by Kassia's beauty, the young emperor approached her and said: "Through a woman [came forth] the baser [things]", referring to the sin and suffering coming as a result of Eve's transgression. Kassia promptly responded by saying: "And through a woman [came forth] the better [things]", referring to the hope of salvation resulting from the Incarnation of Christ through the Virgin Mary. According to tradition, the verbatim dialogue was:

"-Ἐκ γυναικὸς τὰ χείρω." (Ek gynaikós tá cheírō)
"-Kαὶ ἐκ γυναικὸς τὰ κρείττω." (Kaí ek gynaikós tá kreíttō)


His pride wounded by Kassia's terse rebuttal, Theophilos rejected her and chose Theodora as his wife.

When next we hear of Kassia in 843 she had founded a convent in the west of Constantinople, near the Constantinian Walls, and became its first abbess. Although many scholars attribute this to bitterness at having failed to marry Theophilos and become Empress, a letter from Theodore the Studite indicates that she had other motivations for wanting a monastic life. It had a close relationship with the nearby monastery of Stoudios, which was to play a central role in re-editing the Byzantine liturgical books in the 9th and 10th centuries, thus ensuring the survival of her work (Kurt Sherry, p. 56). However, since the monastic life was a common vocation in her day, religious zeal is as likely a motive as either depression or aspiration for artistic renown.

The Emperor Theophilos was a fierce iconoclast, and any residual feelings he may have had for Kassia did not preserve her from the imperial policy of persecution for her defence of the veneration of icons. Among other things, she was subjected to scourging with a lash. In spite of this, she remained outspoken in defence of the Orthodox Faith, at one point saying, "I hate silence, when it is time to speak."

After the death of Theophilos in 842 his young son Michael III became Emperor, with the Empress Theodora acting as Regent. Together they ended the second iconoclastic period (814-842); peace was restored to the empire.

Kassia traveled to Italy briefly, but eventually settled on the Greek Island of Kasos where she died sometime between 867 and 890 AD. In the city of Panaghia, there is a church where Kassia's tomb/reliquiary may be found.


Kassia wrote many hymns which are still used in the Byzantine liturgy to this day. Kassia became known to the great Theodore the Studite, while she was still a young girl, and he was impressed by her learning and literary style. She not only wrote spiritual poetry, but composed music to accompany it. She is regarded as an "exceptional and rare phenomenon" among composers of her day At least twenty-three genuine hymns are ascribed to her.


Hymn of Kassia

The most famous of her compositions is the eponymous Hymn of Kassiani (also known as the Troparion of Kassiani), sung every Holy Wednesday (commonly chanted late in the evening of Holy Tuesday).

Tradition says that in his later years the Emperor Theophilus, still in love with her, wished to see her one more time before he died, so he rode to the monastery where she resided. Kassiani was alone in her cell, writing her Hymn when she realized that the commotion she heard was because the imperial retinue had arrived. She was still in love with him but was now devoted to God and hid away because she did not want to let her old passion overcome her monastic vow. She left the unfinished hymn on the table. Theophilus found her cell and entered it alone. He looked for her but she was not there; she was hiding in a closet, watching him. Theophilus felt very sad, cried, and regretted that for a moment of pride he rejected such a beautiful and intellectual woman; then he noticed the papers on the table and read them. When he had finished reading, he sat and added one line to the hymn; then he left. The line attributed to the Emperor is the line "those very feet whose sound Eve heard at the dusk in Paradise and hid herself in fear". Legend says that as he was leaving he noticed Kassiani in the closet but did not speak to her, out of respect for her wished privacy. Kassiani emerged when the emperor was gone, read what he had written and finished the hymn.

The Hymn of Kassiani is chanted only once a year during Holy Week, at the end of the aposticha at Matins on Great and Holy Wednesday, which is traditionally served in Tuesday evening. The music for the hymn is slow, sorrowful and plaintive. It lasts about ten to twenty minutes, depending on tempo and style of execution. It requires a very wide vocal range, and is considered one of the most demanding, if not the most demanding, pieces of solo Byzantine chant, and cantors take great pride in delivering it well. It is also sung by choirs in unison, often underpinned by Byzantine vocal bass drone. The faithful make a point of going to church specifically "to listen to Kassiani" that evening:In many places in Greece, the Bridegroom Matins service of Great Tuesday is popular with sex workers, who may not often be seen in church at other times of the year. They come in great numbers, in order to hear the Hymn of Kassiani, as the hymn is traditionally associated with the woman fallen in many sins.

Other works

Among the other hymns she composed are the following:

The Doxastichon chanted at the Vesperal Divine Liturgy on Christmas Eve
Numerous hymns in honor of saints found in the Menaion (fixed cycle of the Eastern Orthodox liturgical calendar), such as Feast of the Nativity of the Forerunner, 24 June.
Among her hymns in the Triodion (liturgical book used during Great Lent) are the irmoi for the Matins Canon of Great Thursday.
Her longest composition is a Canon for the Departed, consisting of 32 strophes, to be chanted at a Parastas (memorial services).


Saint Kassia

Hymn of St. Kassiani - Boston Byzantine Choir


Charlemagne at dinner; detail of a miniature from BL Royal MS 15 E vi, f. 155r (the "Talbot Shrewsbury Book").
Held and digitised by the British Library.

bottom of page