The Blessed Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus Christ, occupies a special place in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions of Christianity. In these traditions, the saints intercede for the living faithful on earth, and the greatest of saints is the mother of Christ. Her powers of intercession with her son Jesus were apparently limitless; murderers, thieves, and every variety of miscreant could turn to Mary to be saved from their well-deserved punishment. She was the key to heaven—the kindly Mother who would not fail to smuggle an erring child into Paradise—and her cult is strong.
Devotion to the figure of Mary as an example for the faithful began early, being attested as early as the 2nd century A.D., and found its peak in the late Middle Ages, when stories of the miracles of the Blessed Virgin abounded and countless churches in France were named Notre-Dame (Our Lady) in her honour.
Another strong movement around this time was that of the Troubadours. Composers and performers of Mediæval French lyric poetry and song, the Troubadours popularised the notion of ‘courtly love’, where a knight or nobleman dedicates himself to the service of a noble lady who ranked far above him, whose dignity, purity, honour, and kindness was praised extravagantly, and most importantly, unattainable and to be admired from respectful distance.
In this milieu of Marian devotion and courtly love, appears Gautier de Coincy (1177-1236), a French abbot and troubadour, who compiled Les Miracles de Nostre-Dame (The Miracles of Our Lady) in which he set poems in praise of the Virgin Mary to popular melodies of his day. Courtly love is now transformed for a pious purpose.
England and France are often thought of as culturally distinct today, but this was not always so. From the Norman Conquest of 1066, the ruling class of England were French or deeply Francophile, and the official language of the English court from 1066 till 1362 was French. From the 1340s to the 19th century, the monarchs of England and Ireland (and, later, of Great Britain) also claimed the throne of France. Even Chaucer’s prioress (a woman who is second in charge of an abbey) in the late 1300s spoke French as a means of social advancement. As such, trends from France were always strong in England, whether in art, literature, music, fashion, or indeed, religion.
At this year’s edition of A Tapestry of Sacred Music, listen to a selection of Marian devotional and liturgical music taken from Gautier de Coincy’s songs (c. 1230), the Worcester Fragments (late 13th to early 14th century) and the Old Hall Manuscript (late 14th to early 15th century). Accompanying the voices are instruments, commonly seen to be played by the angels that surround the Virgin and Child in Mediæval depictions.