Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Lat. liturg. e. 18, fol 8r

Singing together with Medingen Abbey, apart

Candlemas (2 February) arrives again: the end of the medieval winter festivals, when English Heritage advises that we should finally take down our Christmas decorations. It also provides an opportunity to reflect on the Manuscripts from German-Speaking Lands project. An unexpected star manuscript has been a thirteenth-century collection of music for Medingen Abbey, now Bodleian Library, MS. Lat liturg. e. 18. In a series of online workshops under the banner ‘Singing Together, Apart’, we had the opportunity in amid a pandemic to sing chants now rarely heard in public.

Music for Candlemas in Bodleian Library, MS. Lat liturg. e. 18, fol. 8r.

How did this come about? A chance friend-of-a-friend meeting led me to enthuse about my interest in medieval Western chant (‘Gregorian chant’) and research in the 1980s around the Bridgettine Order and their manuscripts. This in turn led to my being invited to join a project in which the Bodleian’s public engagement team were looking to open books to a wider audience as part of the German Manuscripts project, funded by the Polonsky Foundation. ‘Singing Together, Apart’ came of these and other meetings: we needed to respond to the isolation of the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020 while maintaining the impetus to share some wonderful manuscripts and their music.

We started with a first workshop where we explored a 15th-century manuscript from the Cistercian nunnery of Medingen, and looked at the Song of Simeon, which provides the central text in the music for Candlemas. Henrike Laehnemann and Andrew Dunning provided the exploration of the manuscript, which is one of those treasures of medieval texts with revisions, different sized pages, details in writing that require the keenest of eyes. I provided the musical direction. As we learned and sang online (where everyone was free to make mistakes), we moved between a transcription of the chant and the text as it appears in the manuscript. Participants asked for a further chance to sing from the Medingen manuscript. This we did, with the welcome addition of the chaplain of St Edmund Hall, Zachary Guilano.

Although illness and other issues meant we weren’t able to produce our next BODcast in time for Candlemas on 2 February 2021, we explored ways to approach the medieval musical notation for the Nunc dimittis and other pieces! By dint of careful spacing and the use of a well-ventilated area to meet physically (most of us in the crypt of St Peter in the East in Oxford) our final outing and was more communal than the previous BODcasts. Here we explored more of the Medingen manuscript, and the drama of text and movement, this time with the text of the great Easter hymn, Victimae paschali laudes, to the fore as part of the liturgy from another religious house.

For most of us, 2020–21 was a difficult time; we reinvented our ways of connecting with one another academically, spiritually, and in more personal ways. These three digital outings were a lifeline for me, allowing me to look at women’s liturgies once more, but also in leading some singing at a time when such things were banned or viewed with extreme caution. My thanks to the team that assembled first around the Provost’s Handbook of Medingen, to the Bodleian for letting me be part of this project – and to all those people who joined us online with questions and with singing together, though we were separated by circumstance.

About the author

Nick Swarbrick is an Affiliate Tutor at Oxford Brookes University’s School of Education and an outdoor storyteller.