Unlocking the Secrets of Medieval Musical Manuscripts


MS Arch. Selden B. 26, fol. 9r. Photo: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

Many people find music hard to read. How, then, do you set about deciphering music and song lyrics written 500 years ago in a timeworn medieval manuscript? Timothy Glover (UCLA) decodes the secrets of an intriguing early book, in a post derived from his recent article in Postgraduate English.

One of the treasures of the Bodleian Library is the fifteenth-century Selden Carol Book. It contains upwards of thirty songs with music in a variety of genres, including Latin antiphons, a hymn, and carols in Latin and English. The manuscript is thought to have been made in a monastery or cathedral – contexts which would have required repeated performances of religious music.

MS Arch. Selden B. 26, fol. 20v. Photo: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

But something strange happens at the end of the book: the religious music gives way to two secular songs. Alongside the religious music they are strikingly irreverent: one is a satire of a love-song entitled ‘Welcom be ye whan ye goo’, and the other is an English drinking song. It is not surprising to find the sacred and the secular mixed together – for instance there are Latin drinking songs from the medieval period which likely originated from clerical contexts – but the two secular songs which appear in the Selden Carol Book are especially unusual for two reasons. Firstly, we might expect that a book of choral, religious music like the Selden Carol Book would have been made for an ecclesiastical, even liturgical setting. But it would be surprising to find a drinking song or a satirical love lyric performed at a church service. Secondly, recording secular songs was extremely unusual: in fact, secular songs in English with music survive in only two manuscripts from between 1430 and 1470.

How did these songs wind up in this book of ecclesiastical music? Why was this book made and what was it used for? A close examination of the manuscript helps us to answer these questions.

Examining the music and text closely shows us that many scribes worked on the book, and hence that it was the product of multiple intentions. In many cases, several scribes collaborated on the same piece of music. There are even a few instances where the scribe writing the musical notation switched mid-way through the music:

MS Arch. Selden B. 26, fol. 9r. Photo: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

The notation here may appear fairly uniform throughout at first glance. However, upon closer inspection we observe slight differences which distinguish the first three lines of music from the final two: the notes in the final two lines seem more elongated, and they are formed more like diamonds with the ascender rising from the middle, compared with the notes in the first three lines which are more triangular with the ascenders rising from the right-hand side. But the most tell-tale signs that two scribes worked on this music are, firstly, the differences between the form of the tildes (the squiggly shapes in the right-hand margin, used to indicate the pitch of the first note on the next line) after lines 1, 2, and 4, and secondly, the clear differences between the way that the two scribes form the clefs (the shapes at the start of each stave). These factors indicate that a new scribe took over the music at line 4. The text beneath the music was written by the same scribe for all 5 lines.

There are also examples where multiple scribes collaborated on the text:

MS Arch. Selden B. 26, fol. 28r. Photo: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

Here as in modern music the first verse is written underneath the music and the following verses are written separately. The clear disparity in the darkness of the ink suggests that a second scribe wrote these subsequent verses. This is also corroborated by slight differences in the letter-forms used by each scribe.

By examining differences such as these across the whole manuscript, we can conclude that somewhere between 10 and 19 different scribes worked on the book. The exact number is impossible to know for certain, since while we can distinguish certain sections of music and certain sections of text, it is very difficult to identify whether some scribes wrote both music and text. This seems likely, but we cannot know for sure. One thing we do know is that even if some scribes wrote both text and music, the scribe writing the music was not always responsible for writing the lyrics underneath, as in the example above when the music-hand switches mid-way but the text-hand does not.

By tracing the activity of different scribes throughout the book, another pattern emerges: scribes tend to appear and disappear in phases. For instance, scribes that appear early in the book do not reappear later. This suggests that the production of the book was gradually passed on to new groups of scribes.

Accordingly, the purpose of the book appears to have evolved during its creation. Scribes ruled the opening pages for nine lines of staves, which suits the Latin antiphons recorded there since these pieces of music are composed for three simultaneous voices:

MS Arch. Selden B. 26, fol. 3r. Photo: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

These nine staves allow the presentation of three simultaneous voices, and hence three lines of music in sets of three, as in a musical score. Notice here that this piece begins with a long melisma on the first syllable before the second syllable appears under the sixth line. The next line of text appears under the final line of music, demonstrating that the last three lines of music were intended to be sung in unison to the words written beneath the final line. In this way, these nine staves represent three lines of music for three voices. This suggests that the scribes deliberately ruled nine lines to fit this kind of music (three-part polyphony).

Later in the manuscript this is not the case. The manuscript is ruled for nine staves throughout, even when this does not obviously suit the music:

MS Arch. Selden B. 26, fol. 7r. Photo: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

Here there are only parts for two voices, and the later verses are written over the staves rather than on lines ruled specially for them. There are even instances when music sung by three voices is recorded with all the voices separately, rather than together as on the first page of the manuscript:

MS Arch. Selden B. 26, fols 5v-6r. Photo: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

Though the pages are damaged, if you zoom in you can just make out the word ‘Tenor’ on the left-hand page (line 8) and the words ‘Contra tenor’ on the right-hand page (line 7), indicating that each chunk of music on these pages (separated by a blank stave) represents a separate voice.

It is unclear whether the original scribes writing the Latin antiphons ruled the whole manuscript, or whether subsequent scribes ruled their pages and chose to keep the same ruling even though it would not suit their music. Both are plausible. Either way, the example above shows that if the original ruling reflects an intention regarding the kinds of songs that would be recorded (three-part polyphony), this intention was not necessarily communicated to later scribes.

To put it another way, the purpose of the book seems to have evolved as it was written and as different scribes took over. This corresponds with a generic shift in the kinds of music recorded, since the manuscript begins with Latin antiphons which suit an ecclesiastical, liturgical context, then changes to the less-formal English carols, and culminates in the secular songs right at the end. This suggests that the purpose of the book became open and flexible as new scribes worked on it, a factor which surely facilitated its unusual use to record secular songs right at the end.

A third piece of evidence we must consider is the manuscript’s aesthetic features. Scribes evidently sought to improve the visual quality of the book, even when these features would not contribute to performance, suggesting that performance was not the sole function of this manuscript. For instance, one scribe uses a variety of decorative line fillers to fill the space between syllables:

MS Arch. Selden B. 26, fol. 6r. Photo: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

Elsewhere, there is a clear prioritisation of the visual over the practical. This is seen most strikingly in the elaborate initials, which occasionally disrupt the alignment between music and text:

MS Arch. Selden B. 26, fol. 9v. Photo: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

The alignment between the different lines of music and the text was an important way to facilitate a smooth performance from sight by showing which words aligned with which notes. However, in this piece, written for two voices, the initial protrudes into the second line of music, meaning that the first and second lines of music do not align with each other. This would make it difficult to sight-read from this page; you would need prior rehearsal or knowledge of the music. Rather than blaming the potential for confusion on the carelessness of the scribe, we may see the prioritisation of aesthetic features over readability as evidence that the manuscript existed in a context in which oral transmission through memorisation still played a vital role in performance. In this kind of environment, performers would have relied on their memory as well as the written page to perform this piece of music. Thus, the aesthetic features suggest that this manuscript was not (or not solely) written for musicians to sight-read from in church services. Furthermore, these features suggest that musicians singing from the music would have had to consult it in rehearsals beforehand, and hence that it existed in a context in which musicians could return to it repeatedly, which suggests that it acted as a kind of repository for songs valued by this community.

The picture that emerges from all of these factors is of a musically-literate community in which a succession of scribes worked on a book whose purpose was open-ended and evolved as the book was made. The prioritisation of aesthetic features over facilitating performance suggests a musical community which relied on rehearsal, memorisation, and oral transmission. This book therefore probably did not function as sheet music in the modern sense – that is music whose whole purpose is to be used in performance – but rather acted as a repository for a religious, musical community to store a variety of different songs for future reference. It is this open-ended purpose for the book which surely facilitated the unusual recording of secular songs right at the end – songs which may have been performed among monks and clerics but not in the context of a church service.

For a more in-depth discussion of the relationship between this manuscript and performance, see Timothy Glover’s recent essay published in our Postgraduate English journal. If you’re interested in early music and performance with a particular North East twist, visit our project Records of Early English Drama North East.

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