'Sowndys and melodiis': Perceptions of Sound and Music in Late Medieval England

Lisa Colton

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


The perception of sound by individuals and the meanings that they attributed to sounds heard and unheard are revealed in various texts from the later Middle Ages. Many writers incorporated reference to ‘heavenly’ or ‘hellish’ sounds into their religious writings, often as a metaphor for the divine or as representative of more earthly, morally corrupting delights. This chapter draws on texts by mystics and religious commentators whose writings were considered unorthodox, in order to examine how sound was understood by individuals living on the fringes of official religious doctrine. Examples include the spiritual song of Richard Rolle, sounds experienced by Margery Kempe, and the description of performance found in the reforming tracts of John Wycliffe. These were individuals whose personal spirituality was both informed by the teachings of the Christian church and in some ways positioned in opposition to it. My purpose is not to attempt a recreation of the sound of a specific piece of music, nor to summarise the different musical sounds (vocal, instrumental, percussive) familiar to members of medieval society in their daily lives. Rather, I interrogate the issue of what musical sound meant to religious writers of the age.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationCultural Histories of Noise, Sound and Listening in Europe, 1300–1918
EditorsKirsten Gibson, Ian Biddle
Place of PublicationAbingdon
Number of pages12
ISBN (Electronic)9781315575308
ISBN (Print)9781409444398, 9780367230517
Publication statusPublished - 11 Nov 2016


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