In my last two posts, I focused on the myth and reality of medieval women. Now I’m going to change tack completely, and talk about music, and how useful it is as a way of world-building, particularly when writing historical fiction.
Some of you won’t like listening to anything while either reading or writing. But music has always been an integral part of my life, so I’m one of these people who often associates a certain track with a certain scene, or a certain character. If I’m working on something, I’ll quite happily play the same track over and over again to get the vibe right until I’m done. This drives my husband batty, of course!
When I’m writing historical fiction, the first step I take in thinking my way into the minds of my characters is to listen to the music that would have accompanied their lives. This was particularly appropriate for John Sempill, for we know that the ‘real’ John Sempill had an interest in music. Documentary sources tell us that there was a harper named John Haislet amongst his retinue, who performed before King James IV at Ellestoun in 1504 (William Haislet, who has a strong supporting role in ‘Fire & Sword’, is his hypothetical father, though sadly in reality we know virtually nothing about John Haislet's life and background).
|The Collegiate Church of Castle Semple, Near Lochwinnoch|
Sempill also founded a school for choristers – a ‘sang school’, in the Scots parlance – at the Collegiate Church of Castle Semple near Lochwinnoch. The founding charter even tells us something about the boys’ training: we know that in addition to basic schooling in literacy and numeracy, they learned a new form of singing called ‘prick song’. No puerile sniggers please – this is the late medieval term for polyphony, where multiple lines are sung simultaneously by the vocalists. It was still fairly new and avant garde in the late 1400s/early 1500s, but Sempill seems to have been eager to promote it.
What did it sound like? Well, thankfully, we can still hear the same music that John Sempill would have been familiar with all those centuries ago. Collections of Scots lute music dating back to the early 1600s still survive, for example, and while these originate from a later historical context, many are ‘traditional’ airs which had much earlier origins.
But it’s in the realms of religious choral music that later medieval Scotland really excelled. Our foremost figure was the composer of polyphonic music, Robert Carver (1485-1568), who can to this day arguably claim the top spot as Scotland’s most talented composer. Some of his music survived the cultural purges of the Reformation so we can still hear it performed by groups such as Scottish early music ensemble ‘Capella Nova.'
James IV was an enthusiastic patron of Carver's work, so much so that we even know which music was played at specific events in his life. We can hear both the mass that was sung before the ill-fated departure of the Scots army for the fatal field at Flodden, and the mass which was performed in its aftermath just a few weeks later when the shattered remnants of the Scots government (including, no doubt Hugh Montgomerie) gathered in Edinburgh for the coronation of the infant King James V. You can hear it performed here:
With such a rich musical heritage to accompany my writing, you’d think I’d listen to nothing else, wouldn’t you? That’s not true – I’m writing a novel aimed for modern audiences which uses contemporary dialogue, and besides, I’m a child of my own time. So I’m afraid that you’ll usually find me listening to indie rock music as I batter away at my keyboard. But every so often, when I need some extra inspiration, I’ll put on some Robert Carver, and suddenly, I find myself transported back into another world!