Today I got this story from the BBC. It is about something someone told me in high school: that the musical interval known as the tritone (e.g., the diminshed fifth or augmented fourth) was thought to be "Satanic" in the "Middle Ages," and was "banned" by "the Church" (quotation marks provided not by the pimply and naive electric guitar-playing adolescent Liam from 1983, but the graying medievalist Liam from 2006 -- the guitar is under the bed, I will take it out some time). This is an article from the BBC, no less, and it is illustrative of what the professor for whom I am a TA right now calls the power of the narrative about the Middle Ages. As I grade papers right now, I see that despite our efforts throughout the semester, some students still seem under the spell of the received narrative they brought with them to the class: the Middle Ages were a time of ignorance and superstition in which a single, monolithic "Church" crushed free thought until we were saved by the Renaissance and the Reformation. It's a simple, clear, and thoroughly wrong idea of what happened.
This article is a case in point. I can imagine its genesis: a reporter decides to cover a story that seems amusing enough: heavy metal musicians are attracted to a musical interval that was "banned" in the Middle Ages. How curious! How exciting! We can all imagine the scene. Some poor minstrel has a bit too much spiced wine and strums the wrong chord on his lute. He is immediately captured by grim monks, their faces shrouded in heavy cowls, and, after a few days on the rack, a few nights hanging on the wall of a dungeon, he is handed over to the inquisition and is immediately burned at the stake.
This must have happened all the time. In the Middle Ages. Surely.
The author of the article has authorities to back up the narrative. Professor John Deathridge of King's College London says:
There are strict musical rules. You aren't allowed to use this particular dissonance. It simply won't work technically, you are taught not to write that interval. But you can read into that a theological ban in the guise of a technical ban.Yes, you could read something into it if you wish. If, like Prof. Deathridge, you are a Wagner scholar opining on something completely out of his subject area. Still, what he says here at the beginning is probably much closer to what might have happened: there were musical rules and this interval didn't work technically. The same way you can't use Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique when writing a country song. Medieval music was written according to a particular framework and had a great deal of music theory around it from the start. This could well be more like a ban of using oysters in chocolate cake than a ban of Harry Potter at a fundamentalist Christian school.
Closer to the end of the article, we have the view of another scholar, Anthony Pryer, whose opinion is even more disappointing for the received narrative:
It was recognised to be a problem in music right back to the 9th Century. It is a natural consequence, and so they banned it. They had rules for getting around it. It was called Diabolus in Musica by two or three writers in the medieval or renaissance [period]. It was 'false music', the intervals weren't natural. They may have thought it was devilishly hard to teach the singers not to sing it. I don't think they ever thought of it as the Devil dwelling in music.So the association with Devil appears only briefly in the voluminous writing on music theory in this period, and the meaning of it is not clear. I'm not even sure what he means by "they banned it." Did that mean that music teachers taught that it was not to be used? Was it banned for use in sacred music because it sounded bad (they way that many Catholics now would like to see a ban on certain kinds of music used in the liturgy)? If it was a ban pronounced by the institutional Church, was it done by a bishop? Two bishops? A legate, a pope, a council? Was it enforced? Was it known about outside a small area? To say something was "banned" in the Middle Ages is meaningless without further context.
We have to remember that the Church in the Middle Ages was not like the Catholic Church now. There was an effort from the papacy, starting in the eleventh century, to centralize and homogenize liturgy, belief, and ecclesiastical structure. There were, however, too many competing forces for that to work and the papacy lacked the technology to control the whole of Christendom they way they would have liked to. Conservative groups within the Church often tried to ban activities within the same Church that they saw as dangerous, but more often than not these bans would be local and they were also usually ignored (like the ban of teaching Aristotle a the University of Paris).
I have to admit that, like Prof. Deathridge (what a wonderful name for an English Wagnerian), I am speaking outside of my field, since I am not a musicologist. I have not researched this particular issue. But hey, this is just a blog. I may ask the medievalist in the Columbia music department next time I see her. Still, I have seen this kind of misinterpretation again and again, and it smells fishy.
The narrative, however, is powerful. So our journalist starts out his article with a quote that does not come from either scholar, but from "rock producer Bob Erzin":
It apparently was the sound used to call up the beast. There is something very sexual about the tritone. In the Middle Ages when people were ignorant and scared, when they heard something like that and felt that reaction in their body they thought 'uh oh, here come the Devil'.Thanks, Bob. In the Middle Ages. When people were ignorant.