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Women in Medieval Music

History shows that women were not as big of participants in music as men until later in the medieval era. This is due to many obstacles that faced women disabling them from singing, playing any instruments, or even composing music. Although barriers were present, many women and nuns were able to surpass them, and make use of their abilities and skills. In this paper, I will present the role of women as they interacted with polyphony, and as they became scribes, performers, composers, and patrons. Women's involvement with medieval music took a variety of forms; they served at times as audience, as participant, as sponsor, and as creator. The evidence for their roles, like that for their male contemporaries, is sporadic at best. Many musical sources have been lost, and those sources that do survive only occasionally provide composer attributions. Information on specific performances is virtually non-existent, and the references to musical performances gleaned from literary allusions must be read critically. Similarly, a work of art portraying a woman musician may be representational or symbolic, or both. Yet despite these handicaps, modern scholarship reveals many ways in which medieval women were engaged with, and enriched by, the music that flourished around them.Women and PolyphonyIn at least some convents, women performed polyphony (an extensive discussion of this can be found in Yardley, pp. 24-27). Some of this repertory is preserved in the Las Huelgas codex which stems from the Carthusian monastery for women near Burgos in Northern Spain which housed approximately one hundred nuns and forty choir girls at its prime in the thirteenth century. The manuscript itself contains an extensive collection of polyphony, including three styles of organum: note-against-note, melismatic, and Notre Dame; as well as motets, conductus, tropes, and sequences. Although the manuscript was copied in the fourteenth century, the repertory c...

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