From what I know about these music styles, the only problematic part may be the instruments - sampling was impossible in medieval times.

Apart from that, is there anything, which would rap music impossible in the European Middle Ages?


  1. Some scientists believe that something similar to rap existed in Scotland.
  2. I assume that in its simplest form the only things you need to perform rap music are drums (which probably existed in the Middle ages) and lyrics.
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    $\begingroup$ They would have to be very careful with the letter of the songs, but apart from that popular music was quite creative (including satirical songs). Of course, lots of slang would be used, not because they found it cool but because none of the people had no formal education. $\endgroup$
    – SJuan76
    May 10 '15 at 11:18
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    $\begingroup$ +1 for an off the wall and yet totally legitimate question! $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    May 10 '15 at 18:59
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    $\begingroup$ people in medieval times were better mannered than rap "artists" and "authors" tend to be. So though the style of scanding text to a drum beat could exist, almost certainly did exist (it's a common thing in many cultures) the "rap culture" could not exist because the people lacked the mindset that permeates it. $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    May 10 '15 at 20:08
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    $\begingroup$ "Medieval people were better mannered than this group of modern people" is probably the most brutal insult I've heard in a long time. If you could support that theory, I would have to weep for humanity today. $\endgroup$
    – Erik
    May 11 '15 at 6:57
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    $\begingroup$ Instead of sampling they could have mimicked and re-edited other music they'd heard using a cappella techniques: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_cappella#Emulating_instruments $\endgroup$
    – Dan Piponi
    May 11 '15 at 22:17

There is a line of "reasoning" I sometimes hear from people in the SCA: "well they had indigo dye, and they had french seams, and they had pants, so blue jeans are totally period!" Well, yes and no.

So too with modern music forms. Yes you can trace some elements back -- they had drums in the middle ages, and recited poetry with instrumental accompaniment, and certain musical forms like isorhythmic motets were all about rhythmic presentation, and you can squint and tilt your head sideways and say "sounds like rap". But a musical style develops in a context, so you would need to find some reason in your world for these particular events to come together in this particular way to produce a given result. What problem is solved by blue jeans? What development is facilitated by rap? Can you find that need within your world?

One path you could take: not everybody is skilled with musical instruments, and not all of them can play drums either (trust me...), but rhythmic accompaniment is a lower bar to entry than the lyre or the lute. So you could imagine a setting in which a drum-accompanied alternative to the lyre-accompanied poems arises, because that's what people in that small village know how to do. From there, you might find the texts evolving, perhaps to emphasize simple rhythms better. Throw all that into the pot for a while and you can see how something kind of like rap could emerge. Or you could start from the aforementioned isorhythmic motets and start simplifying the melodies and reduce them from 2-3 parts down to one to accommodate the skill of the singers you have, and then go from there.

But it will only be believable if it arises from within your world, not if it is retrojected into it.

(By the way, medieval and renaissance music is one of my hobbies.)


The answer to your question depends largely on your definition of rap. If you want something that sounds very similar to nowadays perception of rap, it would rarely be possible. Rap in its current form developed from a mix of many music styles not yet invented in the middle ages (obviously). You won't get Tupac instead of Luther ;-).

BUT: You answered your question already. There were many forms of "speech song" and similar things with techniques used in rap. In operas (not middle ages, I know) there was recitative and in christian songs there was reciting tone.I am pretty shure that bards in the middle ages also used a form of singing where they could get much text into a song (to get the plot moving).

So, it depends what you want to find. The harsh environment of poor townsmen in the middle ages may have brought some amateur musicians to life which would have much in common with "gangsta rappers" of our present.

But keep in mind, "free time" did not exist back then. You pretty much worked as much as you could to feed yourself. I doubt that these musicians would be very skilled. Some drums to beat on, and homebrewed texts without much refinement is everything you can expect.

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    $\begingroup$ actually, people probably had more free time than we do now. The idea of the medieval peasant toiling mindlessly all day long from sunrise to sunset, 365 days a year, is false. And even if, winter nights were long and dark... $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    May 10 '15 at 20:09
  • $\begingroup$ @jwenting Which made it a good time to sit around the fire fixing clothes... $\endgroup$
    – user
    May 11 '15 at 9:53
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling while singing songs :) $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    May 11 '15 at 10:39

The answer, I think, is a resounding yes and no. It depends on what aspects of rap/hip hop you're talking about.

The yes part applies if you're talking purely about the musical structure of rap.

The no part applies if you're thinking about the "cultural edginess" of, especially, gangsta rap, although it applies across the board. Those were far less permissive times, and much of the critical tone of rap / hip hop would come under the heading of "treason" and "impiety", depending on whether it addressed politics or religion, respectively. And both were capital offenses. For instance, Elizabeth I, in 1603, responded to the activities of Irish harpers by a command to Lord Barrymore, “to hang the harpers, wherever found, and destroy their instruments.”

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    $\begingroup$ What your evidence also shows is that the cultural edginess existed sufficiently that people were killed for it during that period. Looking at the political and social commentary of a lot of surviving folk songs, I think it could be argued that the political/cultural element existed more than the music did. Gangsta rap is often described as celebrating violent crime, but then so does The Gest of Robyn Hode... $\endgroup$
    – glenatron
    May 11 '15 at 9:52

Check this out. Also, what did minsterals and harp-carying sheapards do? People would relate stories and poems without writing a full melody line; rather, just speaking with an accompaniment.

The specific rythems used would be different from what you've used to, and reflect both the language and the instrument used.

Disclaimer: nobody really knows, as repeating songs automatically changed with prevailing style, and applied pailentologists are biased with what they already know of music.

In short, it is beleivable. You could write something using the ideas of what a travelling minstrel would sing about and the capabilities of the instrument, and be inspired by your knowlwdge of hip-hop, and make it plausable to the audience.


One question that needs to be asked is who's supporting the... well, if it's rap, I can't exactly call them musicians, can I? Maybe performers is the appropriate word. If you look at history, bards/minstrels basically got supported by the nobility, who later on supported more musicians, so that well up to the 1700s, musicians (and other artists) were essentially supported by the aristocracy.

Another question that needs to be asked is why the musical sensibilities of contemporary popular culture seem to be so much different from the music that has come down to us since the Middle Ages. AFAIK, there really are no ancient (European) parallels to rap, hip-hop, rock, disco, or really anything popular since the 1950s. Now maybe it's just that while similiar types of things existed in popular culture, they didn't get written down (or about). But we do have some fairly old collections of folk songs &c, and they're nothing like what is popular today.

PS: Another question is whether rap, rock, and so on could actually exist if it had to be played on purely acoustic instruments, with words sung by unamplified human voices? Certainly it seems to me (and I do admit to a prejudice here) that much of its effect depends on it being played at volume ranges that cause discomfort to people with sensitive hearing.


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