Cantigas de Santa Maria | notes II
The Renaissance Players

“This cantiga tells how King Alfonso of Castile suffered in Vitoria and had a pain so great that they thought he would die from it. They put upon him a book of the Cantigas de Santa Maria to cure him. [The King recounts :] ... I didn't scream nor did I feel any pain at all, but felt well instantly...”.

Cantiga 209, Muito faz grand'erro

Thus King Alfonso X, el Sabio, tells in the first person how he was miraculously cured of a mysterious illness (now thought to have been caused by a tumour of the maxillary antrum) when the Book of Cantigas de Santa Maria made by his scribes was placed upon his frail, ailing body. In this, as in all the cantigas in the Book, Alfonso wished to make it clear to all his subjects, at every level of society, in an accessible language (the poetic Galician-Portuguese vernacular) and a persuasive medium, that divine grace was an everyday reality.

The Cantigas de Santa Maria, whose compilation, lyrical rendering and organisational layout he supervised (possibly with creative input of his own) were, like his other literary projects, written to impart spiritual and worldly knowledge for the moral edification of all his subjects. Poetic Latin with its hermeneutic niceties he eschewed as it was available to only a select few (especially as one of the effects of the centuries-long, culturally enriching Muslim settlement was that Arabic and the Romance dialect were the two main languages most used and understood in the Iberian Peninsula, followed by Hebrew and then, the least accessible, Latin).

Alfonso's active role in the compilation and possibly the authorship of this spiritual song genre is clearly suggested in the illuminations of three of the four surviving manuscript collections. In these he is depicted as supervisor and instructor to the assembled scholars, scribes and musicians, as well as playing various musical instruments or acting as an earthly intermediary between a group of musicians accompanying dancers and the Virgin Mary hugging baby Jesus. The texts of many of the stories describe him taking part in the action.

There are two types of cantiga : the more prolific miracle song or cantiga de miragre and the song of praise or cantiga de loor. Nearly all the cantigas (both types) are narrated in the first person,often involving King Alfonso himself, for example : "This is the petition which the King made to Holy Mary" (C. 401) or introductory phrases such as " King Alfonso... as I heard tell".

The Cantigas de Santa Maria were written in the codex format, that is, bound between covers (as opposed to that of the rotulus, or roll). This was possibly for ease and the type of usage. They survive in four different manuscripts (three are incomplete), each one of which is known as a Book. The Book of Cantigas de Santa Maria (particularly the two different manuscripts held in the Real Monasterio de El Escorial, b.1.2 and T.j.1) is not, like the mediaeval florilegium, a collection of short excerpts and thematically disconnected bibs and bobs used as a prompt-book to aid the memory in meditation, or to compose sermons and so on. Rather, it is a cleverly structured assemblage of lyrics (carefully organised poetic texts with beautiful melodies), mono-thematic both in its dedication to a special person and its morally uplifting purpose, sumptuously decorated with associative pictures and illuminations and brought to fruition under the guiding directorship of one person.
The organisation and conception of these factors alone set it apart as a unique lyrical document of the middle ages.

During the reign of Alfonso X, the Castilian court (like that of his father Ferdinand III and his grandfather Alfonso IX) was renowned for its intellectual effulgence evinced in the breadth of scholarly productions and the equally abundant artistic outpourings, all of which were mutually enhanced by an enlightened, cosmopolitan atmosphere. For the former, Alfonso built upon the translation work of the centuries-old Toledo school, especially in his commissioning of texts in Castilian (a language which, under his guidance, was equipped with a wider vocabulary and a more flexible syntax). By Alfonso's efforts Castilian thus became the main channel by which Arabic culture (which in its turn, transmitted Persian, Indian and Greek material) filtered into Western Europe. Prior to this the bulk of written literature from the Peninsula had been in Arabic, Hebrew and Latin.

Distinguished poets and musicians came to stay at his court, regardless of race and creed, to display and develop their arts. Thus, for example, merit being the standard, dozens of Castilian, Galician and Catalonian poets mingled freely with Muslims and Jews along with troubadour visitors from Provence (some fleeing the Albigensian Wars), Northern France, Italy, Germany, England, Sicily and so on (such as João Airas, Gonzalo Eans de Vinhal, João Soares Coelho, Fernan Gonçalves, Maria Balteira, Raimon Vidal de Bezaudon, Folquet de Lunel, Sordel de Goito, Guiraut Riquier, Todros Abulafia, Bonifacio Calvo).

As Alfonso tells us in the prologue to the Book of Cantigas de Santa Maria, he had formerly been a trobador composing courtly songs of love and wit. Unfortunately, like all secular Iberian lyrics of the middle ages (except, miraculously, the cantigas de amigo by Martin Codax), his more than 40 surviving lyrics lack melodies. They are found in two collections — the so-called Cancioneiro da Vaticana and the Cancioneiro da Biblioteca Nacional. By far the majority of these are witty, defamatory cantigas de escarnho e de maldizer, whose contents give insights on his personality, as well as on his life at court and on the battlefield. For example, he heaps sarcasm on the foppish dress of certain noblemen, rebukes those courtiers who disregarded his call to battle-arms, and scorns the treachery and betrayal of men who came poorly equipped to the field, trembling and pissing at the approach of Muslim cavalry, and then deserting as cowards in mid-battle.

In another of these poems, blatantly lewd and extremely blasphemous, Alfonso pokes fun at the soldadeira La Balteira, a woman of renowned charm and beauty, who for many years sang, danced and played instruments at his court. He describes her frustration when her conscience reminds her, in the act of copulation, that she must desist as it is Good Friday. Lamenting, she likens her anguish to Christ's Passion on the cross. Might we possibly speculate that Alfonso's decision to focus his trobador skills on a more noble cause occurred because he suffered a kind of ennui with the frivolous, amatory dalliance and ribald satire of the courtly cantigas profanas written in his princely youth and his early years as king? Or, because in his history of the world (General Estoria) his scholars only got as far as the birth of the Virgin Mary, did he feel the need to honour her life and deeds in some unique way?

Whatever the actual reasons, the Prologue to the Book of religious cantigas (like the last stanza of Rosa das Rosas, C. 10) is a record of his vow to cease creating cantigas de amor for earthly women:

"I would like to sing praise to the Virgin, mother of our Lord, Holy Mary... from now on I wish to be her trobador...and also I wish now to cease composing for any other women."

In c.1274, during his 10-year sojourn at Alfonso's court, the poet Guiraut Riquier wrote in Provençal his bitter Supplicatio outlining the roles of jongleur, troubadour and "doctor of verse" (in response to this appeared a Declaratio, attributed to Alfonso but probably also by Riquier). Riquier's classification relates more to the poets and minstrels of Provence than to their Iberian counterparts. These operated under a related but slightly different hierarchy in which at the pinnacle came the trobador, the writer of songs (words and music) who could also compose dance pieces; then came the segrel (or segrer), usually a squire, who functioned as both composer and minstrel; and, finally, the jogral (or jograr) who sang, narrated and played musical instruments, performed for the nobility, was paid for his services and travelled far and wide across countries and continents. Women minstrels, called soldadeiras (or juglaresas), were also employed to dance as well as sing and play instruments. They often travelled in company with jograis, segreis and even trobadores, but were undervalued and subject to cruel restrictions. For example, in his fourth Partida, Alfonso placed them and their daughters on the lowest fringes of society along with servants, barmaids and prostitutes, all of whom were forbidden to act as concubines to the ricos hombres. Two of the illustrations in b.1.2 show such women, one of them possibly the renowned Maria Balteira (the seductive butt of Alfonso's above-mentioned satire).

The aesthetically lavish presentation of the various manuscripts of the Book of Cantigas de Santa Maria would confirm that Alfonso's purpose in their assemblage was didactic. In mediaeval society a book was a cue to the treasure-house of the memory. Thomas Aquinas (13th century) stated this clearly: "Things are written down in material books to help the memory" and, according to Hugh of St Victor (10th century), thence came the purpose: "The start of learning, thus, lies in lectio [reading] but its consummation lies in meditation." Furthermore, Cassiodorus (6th century), writing about the reason for the abbreviated and sometimes random jottings which make up florilegia, stressed the need for building upon and filling out from the honeycomb of the memory : "human judgement, if it is not adjusted and restored by things found in [the works of] others, promptly will fall short of its true nature." Thus, for example, the texts alone of the Alfonsine cantigas de miragre (which prove Mary's boundless mercy) contain dramatic elements in their racy narration of amazing marvels which evoke a range of emotions. These are analogous to the stock-in-trade verbal exempla used by mendicant friars and popular preachers to strengthen their points. Narrative structuring as a vital means of conveying messages to the memory was recognised by Albertus Magnus :

"a fable, since it is composed out of marvels is more affecting...because what is wonderful by its vigorous motion causes questioning, and thence gives rise to investigation and recollection." (De Bono, c. 1247)

Manuscript decoration, which was part of the painture of language, was one of the gates to memory. The visual image helped the reader to comprehend the text, as well as retain and recall it by stimulating the emotions. The picture-diagrams in the Alfonsine Marian manuscripts would thus encourage an associational heuristic, or discovery procedure. But they, together with the labels, rubrics, punctuation, layout and structure, were all part of the text's apparatus which together combined "as an invitation to elaborate and recompose, ... an occasion for rumination and meditation, for the enjoyment of memoria" (Mary Carruthers). Describing his discovery in the 12th century of the 8th century Celtic Book of Kells, Giraldus Cambrensis stressed this emotional impact :

"The oftener I see the book, and the more carefully I study it, the more I am lost in ever fresh amazement, and I see more and more wonders in it."

Geoffrey of Vinsauf too reminded his 13th century contemporaries that the emotion of wonder works as a stimulus to the memory-cell, for it needs to be delighted in case too much heavy food give it indigestion!

May it be then that the illustrations of performing musicians which punctuate the text in b.1.2 occur only before every cantiga ending with the Roman numeral X, which is a song of praise, in order to remind us of Mary's son Christ whose name in Greek begins with the same sign? Do they further remind us that "ten" is the number of perfection? Do they also remind us of a particular cantiga de loor : its text, its sound, its meaning? As a whole, do they tell us that we should, like David and the Temple Levites, clothe devout praises with musical sound, with instruments as well as voices? When we look at the melody under these images, are we reminded of the sound of the melody, of the instruments above the melody, of all instruments which, in their sounding, can be used to direct praises to the Virgin Mary, and of the words and meanings of the text which is married to the melody?

Perhaps too, private contemplation would remind the manuscript viewer of the specific details of performance procedure? The parchment tells us only what were the pitches of the basic melody, but nothing about tuning, rhythms, gracing and other decorations, structuring of interludes, the quality of the voice, the choice of instruments (if any), whether the refrain was sung after every strophe or omitted in cases of cross-strophe enjambement, instrumental renditions of melodies (where performers and listeners would contemplate in their mind the remembered but unsung texts), moving after the singing of the text to ecstatic, joyful, religious dancing, and so on — that is, all the finer details of actual performance.

Like the contents of Ibn Hazm's books, the memory of the actual sound is lost to us forever. The sound of a song was transmitted directly to the ear, its details not written down on parchment but stored in the "sound-image" of the memory. The notation of a secular song was rarely, if ever, used by actual performers. Even in the 13th century, transmission was by sound to ear-memory to sound again. Part of a chanson text by the troubadour Jaufre Rudel confirms this :

"Without a parchment document
I send the song we sing
smoothly and in Romance language
to Lord Hugh Brun
by Filol."

A melody which stood before the eyes on the written page signified to viewers firstly that the text was sung; even for those who could not and, more comprehensively, for those who could decipher its notation, memory fleshed out its visually skeletal shape in fuller performance details.

It is interesting to compare the two types of illustration in the miniatures of manuscripts b.1.2 and T.j.1. As already mentioned, those in b.1.2 seem to be designed to act as memory joggers; they are part of the punctuation of the layout of the texts; they visually mark out every cantiga de loor, describing in their being the carefully planned structure of the Book. The framed miniatures of musicians are nearly all set against backgrounds of stylised, Arabic-like geometric patternings, the exceptions being backgrounds of a single-colour wash, mostly blue. Only three of the miniatures contain naturalistic place-setting details (apart from chairs, stools, thrones) — the court of King Alfonso (no. 1), the tree, hillock and grass (no. 340) and the city house-roofs (no. 380). Generally speaking it seems that there is no known or direct performance relationship between the cantiga de loor text and the miniature placed above it.

Those in manuscript T.j.1 seem to be quite different in their function. There are only 193 cantigas in this source (its second volume lost) but 1,262 miniatures, making it a veritable pictorial treasure-trove. Set out in "comic-book" formation (often covering a whole page), they visually describe with realistic detail (often with additional, synopsis-like text above each picture-square) the series of events in a cantiga de loor or de miragre. Scenes are placed dramatically before the viewer's eye and, on contemplation, the memory can imaginatively work in further details of the story (sensory and emotional feelings, reasons and ultimately, meanings and connections).

As just mentioned, it does not seem likely that the illustrations in b.1.2 "tell" us what instruments should be used to accompany the particular cantiga de loor at whose head they stand. For instance, that to number 120 shows two minstrels playing chitarras: one a swarthy, barefooted Muslim in Arab burnous and tunic, the other a pale-skinned, shod Christian in the gown, hat and sword of a nobleman. Significantly, the "infidel" is on the left, the Christian on the right with his mouth open as if singing. Perhaps all that can be implied from this is that "even a Muslim can join with a Christian in celebrating, with shared implements of music, the holiness of Mary".

The corresponding illustration in T.j.1 (the first picture-square of a six-square group covering the whole page) may however, like other pictures in this source, relate to the events (real or imagined) of a particular cantiga. Following the "house-style" model, one may be forgiven for construing the events as follows: "for this cantiga King Alfonso (kneeling in the middle) advises his musicians, by look and hand signal, to give earthly praise in the way depicted — that is, with singing, dancing and playing of instruments — in honour of (as his hand gestures also indicate) the heavenly Virgin Mary standing on the right holding her baby son."

Manuscript b.1.2, the largest of all four surviving sources — not in size, but in its contents (over 416 items) and number of pages (361) — is the main source of information regarding performing musicians available to a cosmopolitan Castilian king. In its 41 illustrations it shows various sorts of musicians including only two women performers. Amongst the men are found one Muslim and several Jews; the rest are (presumably) Christians (including heretics). The various styles and colours of their garb (such as gowns, capes, collars, scapulars, shoes, hats, crowns, hair formations on head and face) distinguish their race, creed and age as well as social status (ranging from the king himself to princes, courtiers, trobadors, minstrels, clerics and peasants).

The vast instrumentarium displayed here shows the following groupings : 27 pairs of musicians playing the same instrument, 7 pairs playing different instruments, 6 solo instrumentalists, and one quartet playing two pairs of different instruments. To our consideration of the information yielded by all this we have also added two of the realistic illustrations in manuscript T.j.1 — firstly, that to no. 62 which depicts (on the outdoor battlements) two trumpeters and a group of twelve dancers in an elaborate chain-dance formation, and secondly that to no. 120 whose first comic-book square depicts the following instruments and performers: three differently-shaped psalteries, a shawm, a vielle, two singers (?) and, behind, three hand-linked dancers.

The following lists show, in order of appearance, the instruments found in b.1.2. It is noted with due apology that the nomenclature of these instruments is difficult as there has been little agreement yet on this matter.

Single instrument (6) :
vielle (on knee)
bells (hammer-struck)
bells (rope-pulled)
large psaltery
double bagpipes

Mixed pairs (7) :
vielle, gittern
vielle, mandora
gittern, mandora
rebec (on knee), ud
large hornpipe (?), darabukka
bombarde (?), castanets (rectangular)
whistle (?), conch shell

2 identical pairs (1)
vielles, gitterns

Identical pairs (27) :
large mandora
psaltery (triangular)
psaltery (trapezoid)
psaltery (pig's snout)
psaltery (rectangular)
triple aulos
plucked rebec
chitarra (plectrum)
citole (fingers)
citole (plectrum)
sinfonye cymbals
long necked vielle (performers standing)
double pipes, with bag (?)
double bladder-shawm
bladder "crumhom"
bagpipes (no drone)
corn etto
bagpipes (parallel drone)
bombarde (?)
double aulos
pipe and tabor
dulzaina (?)

Perhaps Juan Gil de Zamora, author of De Musica as well as one of the theological advisors, also guided the scribes in the depiction of these musical instruments and their players so that they could be represented with reasonable integrity. One can't help feeling that there are private levels of information in the illuminations of b.1.2 which escape the modern interpreter. What we see today are recognisably recurrent persons sitting, standing, playing, singing or declaiming (or chatting), tuning, waiting to play, depicted with relatively life-like facial and gestural expressions. However, if they are indeed representations of persons living in or known to Alfonso's court, then an observer of b.1.2 from that time and place would have been able to "read" from his memory vastly different information (in regard to a particular player's vocal quality and range, digital and improvisational dexterity, musical expressiveness, specialisation and excellence in specific genres and so on).

Our performances are based on the sources already mentioned (b.1.2 and T.j.1), the former of which, especially, presents a plethora of ideas and questions about instrumental genres and, reading the painture of the page, about performance ensembles. Nonetheless what we can see is far outweighed by what we can't see (due to the nature of two-dimensional representation). What we can see includes the following: a standard bow grip (underhand for stringed instruments held on the knee, leg or lap and overhand when held under or near the chin); all bows highly arched and fitted with black, probably horse, hair; plucked instruments sounded with fingers or plectra; playing positions for certain instruments (darabukka, pipe-and-tabor, psalteries, harp, double aulos) and so on.

But there are many more unanswered questions about what we cannot see — regarding, for example, stringed instruments (genres and actual sizes, the number, thickness and material of strings; the use of wood, animal skin and metal for instrumental bodies; the back and side shapes), and regarding percussion (the use of snares on drums). The most tantalising queries are those relating to the wind instruments — particularly about genre and sound production. Due to the visual peculiarities of shape, several genres are unidentifiable. In addition, the fact that the top of the instrument is inside or rammed against the player's mouth makes it impossible to gauge whether the sound is produced by a free or capped single or double reed, or by lip vibration. There are also many questions about the number of finger holes at the front and the back, the materials used, size and shape of bore, and so on.

The instruments which we have used in our renditions of not just cantigas de loor but also de miragre are to a certain extent based on the recognisable types and their groupings as shown in these two sources. They are related also to genres and mixtures still used in various surviving folk traditions in the Iberian Peninsula, in Andalusian Morocco, in East-European Sephardic communities, as well as to those referred to in the pilgrim documents of Santiago de Compostela. We have also borne in mind the implications of a record dated c.1293 from the court of Alfonso's son, Sancho IV, which certainly confirms some aspects of the visual record of b.1.2. This document, a pay-list of 27 musicians currently in the King's employ, mentions 13 Moors (two of whom were women) and one Jew. As the race of the remaining 13 is unspecified they were presumably Christians of some sort or other.

We humbly acknowledge the hypothetical nature of our reconstructed performing arrangements of cantigas. All of them have been prompted by meditation and probing analogy. Through this series we are trying to offer as wide as possible a variety of possible performance "solutions", to make these wonderful texts and melodies aurally accessible to the world again.


Unless otherwise stated, all transcriptions of music and text relate to El Escorial manuscript, b.1.2. Each of the CDs in this series contains ten items, to maintain the decimal quality of Alfonso's groupings, though in a different disposition of cantigas de loor and de miragre. The classifications of cantigas have all been derived from José Filgueira Valverde.

In the cantigas de loor the refrains are performed after each stanza; whereas, in the cantigas de miragre, they are often omitted after stanzas to allow the text to run in a continuous flow, particularly when enjambement is present.

A variety of musical textures has been devised to suggest different ways in which these songs may have been performed. The full range of such textures in our arrangements is available only across the series rather than within each CD, although, with each CD, we have tried to provide contrasts in a cohesive whole.

The original melodies of all but one of the cantigas on this CD are structured as virelais, with various modifications on a general A1 A2 b1 b2 a A1 A2 circular format.

The recording has been organised to reproduce the acoustical ambiance of a large, stone church as a fitting venue for dedication of these praises.

— • —

For more than two decades, the Renaissance Players have been blessed by the keen support and enthusiasm of our second patron, Emeritus Professor Sir Peter Platt, who in his time as Head made the Music Department of the University of Sydney the intellectual jewel of the continent. To him we humbly dedicate this recording.

Notes by Winsome Evans © 1996


director :
Winsome Evans, B.E.M., O.A.M.

patrons :
Professor Donald Peart
Emeritus Professor Sir Peter Platt

· Winsome Evans : treble and alto shawms, whistle, organetto, psaltery, harp, sinfonye, bells
· Ingrid Walker : whistle, gemshorn
· Katie Ward : vielle
· Benedict Hames : rebec, whistle
· Andrew Tredinnick : ud, gittern, chitarra moresca
· Llew Kiek : citole
· Barbara Stackpool : castanets, finger cymbals
· Andrew Lambkin: darabukka, daireh, tabor

· Mina Kanaridis : soprano
· Jenny Duck-Chong : mezzo-soprano, tambourine
· Mara Kiek : alto, tapan
· Tobias Cole : counter-tenor
· Geoff Sirmai : reader

Musical arranger © : Winsome Evans
Producer : Llew Kiek
Engineer : Guy Dickerson, Megaphon Studios
Translation : Dr Kathleen Kulp Hill, with permission, rights reserved, © 1994

Digital editing and compiling at Airmotion Studios : Geoff Sturre, All Music Manufacturing
Mastering Engineer : Wayne Baptist, Sony Music
Typesetting : Natalie Shea
Cover art : Winsome Evans
Special thanks to : Dr John Stevenson for his generous assistance with text paraphrases


· treble shawm : Philip Levin, U.S.A.
· whistle : Jonathan Swayne, U.S.A.
· gemshorn : Brian Garlick, England
· organetto : Ron Sharp, Australia
· chitarra moresca, ud : Peter Biffin, Australia
· gittern : Arnold Black, Australia
· citole : Guy Crayford, England
· vielle : Ian Watchorn, Australia
· rebec : Bernard Ellis, England
· harp : Frank O'Gallagher, Australia
· sinfonye : Bob Meadows, Australia
· psaltery : unknown, U.S.A.
· castanets : unknown, Spain
· finger cymblas : unknown, Malaysia
· daireh : unknown, India
· darabukka : unknown, U.S.A.
· tabor, tambourine : Jeremy Montagu, England
· tapan : Risto Todorovski, Australia
· bells : Whitechapel Bell Foundry, England

— • —

Once again we acknowledge our huge debt to the inspirational research of many scholars such as Walter Mettman, José Filgueira Valverde, Joseph Snow, John Keller, Peter Dronke, Mary Carruthers and Kathleen Kulp Hill (who so graciously gave permission for use of her ranslations). None of this would have been possible in the initial stages without Dr John Stevenson who supplied us with our first Englished texts.

Recorded at ST. Peters, Sydney
Copyright © 1996, The Renaissance Players

Walsingham CLASSICS