• Tim Braithwaite

Desiderius Erasmus on Church Singing (1516)

‘Not content even with these things, we have brought into the churches some kind of laboursome and theatrical music, an uproarious chattering of varied voices, which I doubt was ever heard in the theatres of the Greeks and Romans. The whole thing is a noisy racket of trumpets, crumhorns, shawms, and sackbuts, and the human voices are vying with them. Obscene love songs are heard, such as harlots and minstrels dance to. One flocks together in church as if it were a theater for the gratification of the ears. And for this custom, organ builders are maintained at large stipends, and crowds of children, whose entire youth is wasted in arduously learning such yelpings, meanwhile studying nothing of value. One supports this washed-up sewage of vile and unreliable men, as most Dionysiacs (church singers) are, and on account of this pestilential custom the Church is burdened with so many expenses. Just calculate, I ask you, how many poor folk, barely clinging to life, could be supported with the stipends of singers? These things are so pleasing to monks that they spend their time doing nothing else, especially among the Britons; their song ought to have been mournful, yet they supposed that God is appeased by wanton whinnying and agile throats. In the Benedictine monasteries in England even youths, little boys, and professional singers are being maintained for this custom, who sing the early morning service for the Virgin Mother with the most elaborate vocal chatterings and with musical organs.’


‘Nec his contenti, operosam quandam ac theatricam musicam in sacras ædes induximus, tumultuosum diversarum vocum garritum, qualem non opinor in Græcorum aut Romanorum theatris unquam auditum fuisse. Omnia tubis, lituis, fistulis, ac sambucis perstrepunt, cumque his certant hominum voces. Audiuntur amatoriæ fœdæque cantilenæ, ad quas scorta mimique saltitant. In sacram ædem velut in theatrum concurritur, ad deliniendas aures. Et in hunc usum magnis salariis aluntur organorum opifices, puerorum greges, quorum omnis ætas in perdiscendis hujusmodi gannitibus consumitur, nihil interim bonæ rei discentium. Alitur sordidorum ac levium ut plerique sunt Dionysiaci hominum coluuies, ac tantis sumptibus oneratur ecclesia ob rem pestiferam etiam. Quaeso te ut rationem ineas, quot pauperes de vita periclinantes, poterant ali cantorum salariis? Haec adeo placent, ut monachi nihil aliud agant, praesertim aput Britannos, et quorum cantus debuit esse luctus, hi lascivis hinnitibus, et mobili gutture deum placari credunt. In hunc usum etiam in Benedictinorum collegiis apud Britannos aluntur ephebi puerique et vocum artifices, qui mane Virgini matri modulatissimo vocum garritu ac musicis organis sacrum decantent.’


Desiderius Erasmus, Annotations on the New Testament: Acts – Romans – I and II Corinthians, eds. Anne Reeve and Michael Andrew Screech, Studies in the History of Christian Thought, 42 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1990). Translation from Rob C Wegman, The Crisis of Music in Early Modern Europe, 1470-1530 (New York: Routledge, 2005).


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The image is from BL Harley 2971, f. 109v, c. 1450




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