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Music in the margins

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Joe Mason

The Vetus Registrum ('Old Register'), now in the College’s archive, provides a wealth of information dating back to the foundation of the College in 1427. Tucked within its paper leaves are fragments from an even older book, made of parchment and containing 14th and 15th century music. Strips of parchment around 3cm wide are wrapped around the outside of each paper booklet (what book historians call a ‘quire’ or ‘gathering’) and also placed in the centre of each booklet. The role of these strips of parchment was to strengthen the book’s binding. A less expensive material than parchment, paper was also less sturdy, and needed extra support at the points where it was under the most stress: where the sheets of paper were sewn into the binding that forms the spine of the book. Bookbinders would take scrap parchment, sometimes from books that had become obsolete, and give it a new purpose in a new volume.

The parchment strips in the Vetus Registrum all belonged to a collection of sacred, polyphonic (multi-voiced) vocal music that originated in England in the 14th century. The snippets of text and music that are visible—if one carefully peers into the centre of some openings—can in some cases be identified as musical works that are known from other English manuscripts. They are all motets, a musical genre in which two or more voices sang different words simultaneously. The three identifiable works on the fragments are as follows; the titles are the words that each voice part sings first, with slashes to separate the voice parts from one another.

  • Tu civium primas / O cuius vita / Tu caelestium primas / Congaudens super te, a motet in honour of St Peter
  • Virgo Maria patrem parit / O stella marina nos a / Virgo Maria, flos divina / Flos genuit regina qui, a motet for the Blessed Virgin Mary
  • Veni creator spiritus eximie / Veni creator spiritus, a motet for Pentecost

All three works are sacred, and may have been performed in church on the appropriate feast days, or may have been enjoyed by clerics outside of the official liturgy. Tu civium and Virgo Maria have both been recorded and are available on Spotify (Tu civium and Virgo Maria) and other streaming services. Their rapid, declamatory style and playful interchange between the upper voices make for a festive, exuberant listening experience.

One of the most interesting aspects of the music fragments in the Vetus Registrum is the question of what happened to the original motet book after it was first copied. If you look carefully at the way that notes have been written, it is possible to see that at least three different people copied music into the book. The first of these, the scribe of the three motets identified above, was probably working in the first half of the 14th century. The second scribe added to the manuscript sometime later, and used a more modern style of notation (what scholars of medieval music would call French ars nova). The third scribe used a style of notation that only starts to be used in England around the start of the 15th century (black-void mensural). The book of motets therefore seems to have been added to over a period of more than fifty years. Does this mean that the motets it contained were sung by the book’s users for all that time? Or was the motet book merely a convenient place to write down other musical compositions that were à la mode?

It is also a mystery how the motet book came to be in Oxford. The Vetus Registrum was very likely bound in Oxford; this means that the motet book was in Oxford by the time the Vetus Registrum was bound (between 1480 and 1520), because the bookbinder would have had scraps of the motet manuscript to hand. But the motet manuscripts that share repertory with the Vetus Registrum are from wealthy monastic foundations such as Norwich or Worcester cathedral. Was the motet book originally copied in a great monastic community and then brought to Oxford by an individual studying or teaching in one of the monastic colleges in the city? Or was the motet book copied and performed from in Oxford, and handed over to the bookbinder when its musical contents had become old fashioned? These are important questions, because although there is evidence for work on music theory in 14th century Oxford, there is no evidence of musical books produced in the city in this period. Tiny as they are, these fragments may yet have many things to tell us about musical culture and the production of books in late medieval England.

If you want to read more about these manuscript fragments, a longer article can be found here.

Where next?

  • Visit our music in the margins online exhibitionRead more
  • Learn more about Lincoln UnlockedRead more
  • Find more related blog posts and eventsRead more