Here is a book. It is large and old. Should I open it?
Procrastinating with provenance
I defer, investigating its provenance instead, which might be said to begin in early Middle Ages where the Merovingian stronghold, Würzburg, was being Christianized by Irish missionaries, St Kilian among them. Benedictines established a monastery dedicated to Kilian, followed by a cathedral school, a Domstift. Charlemagne consecrated a church by the end of the eighth century. A cathedral was begun at Würzburg in 1040. This book took shape some time during the two centuries it took to finish that cathedral; the monks and scribes, labouring over it in their scriptorium in a kind of harmony with the stone masons and sculptors raising the silhouette of the nearby spire.
And how did it come to be at the Bodleian Library? I read a war story. During the Thirty Years’ War, Thomas Howard, the fourteenth earl of Arundel, acquired many manuscripts from Würzburg. Howard gave these to the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, William Laud, whose subsequent donations of manuscripts to the Bodleian is famous.
Facing down a fragment
But now it’s time to open the book. Laud’s seventeenth-century rebound cover lifts to reveal a single flyleaf of fragmented writing about a lawsuit in the diocese of Augsburg, with a sketch of a Star of David in the corner.
Interesting, but since I’m a musicologist, I press on to the first section of the book: a noted breviary (fols. 1–118) representing the sung tradition of the Office from the twelfth to fourteenth centuries. The second main section is a lectionary (fols. 119–268) representing thirteenth- and fourteenth-century practice. A few pages containing the fourteenth-century addition of the (un-notated) Corpus Christi Office conclude the book (fols. 269–272). A full index of this manuscript can be found on the Cantus Manuscript Database.
At this point, I would normally begin sleuthing around for local saints or any other feature that might set the book apart from others of its ilk, but I’m caught by the beauty of the detailed initials that pepper the breviary section, recalling St Kilian’s heritage in the intricate red knotted designs against their blue backgrounds.
There is an intricacy and delicacy here – so old, frail, and terribly strong, all at once.
Remembering with neumes
The notation is not typical of its time. By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the musical staff was widespread throughout Europe. Here, I see adiastematic neumes – those little signs written horizontally over each line of text. This notation is rich with gestural indications but gives no pitches; it represents musical thought in a world where melody was taught and learned orally. The only way to sing from this book would be to know the melodies by heart already.
It is well-known that some scriptoria in the German-speaking world maintained the staffless neume tradition long after it had fallen out of use elsewhere. There is something that catches me about these neumes every time I encounter them. These signs run through my imagination of medieval history like musical footprints. If we follow, where do they lead?
These scribes believed they were making something for people who thought like them, knew the same chants, and experienced the same rituals and traditions. In other words, this book was made to fit seamlessly into a world that no longer exists. It has fallen from the hands of medieval singers to find itself under the lens of a twenty-first-century, high-definition camera. Such a journey necessarily brings up questions about purpose and meaning.
The perils of manuscripts
Here is a book. It is large and old. You hesitate to open it because if you do, you might disturb its long, long silence. You might find that it sparks questions and tempts your sense of beauty. It will remind you that human beings have always needed to sing to God, no matter the circumstances, no matter the language. But you, in front of your computer screen, probably don’t know these melodies by heart.
Here is a book. What does it mean to us, now? Does it contain answers to the problems of our age? Can we make a compelling and lucrative case for its contemporary relevance?
No. Not really.
It is more than relevant: it is essential. To live meaningful lives, context is all. This book, and books like it, ask us to stay curious in our research, and ready to build relationships with whatever reveals itself to us. If you open this book, you risk falling in love with it, and that will change everything. You will begin to know it by heart.
About the author
Kate Helsen teaches musicology at the Don Wright Faculty of Music, Western University, in London, Ontario, Canada. She is a researcher with projects such as Cantus and SIMSSA and has been a professional singer with the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir in Toronto for about twenty years.