Traces of use and the possibility of singing bishops

Image: München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, clm 3851, f. 50r, shared with the permission of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek.

On my desk at home sits a Dutch children’s history book from 1949. A friend kindly gave it to me as a present many years ago, and I never got around to reading it.[1] Instead, the book sat on my desk for a very long time until one day I realised that it would raise my monitor by five centimetres, exactly what I needed. Over the past ten years, the book has raised up three monitors to the perfect height, and will probably continue to do so for years to come. It is therefore not used for its intended purpose, and though I look at it every day it remains closed and unread.

As a manuscript scholar I think about this book on a regular basis. I am currently working on a corpus of manuscripts that I believe served as episcopal handbooks, because the texts they contain would have been useful for the organisation of local synods, visitations made by bishops and the administration of dioceses. In trying to determine their function I look for traces of their handling and physical use, since while the content, palaeography and codicological composition of a manuscript can be revealing, they do not necessarily tell you how a manuscript was used. Here the book on my desk comes in. A book that, since it has been in my possession, has never fulfilled its intended purpose. It is a second-hand book, so it must have been owned by someone else before me, but is in good condition and I doubt it was read often before it came into my hands. When I think back about the books that I read as a child and that were read in turn by my younger siblings, they were beaten up, stained and sometimes even missing a page or two; they wouldn't have aesthetic appeal as a gift. Would a future historian studying the personal libraries of obscure 21st-century medievalists figure out that I never read the book? Or would they interpret the book as a treasured childhood possession that had a formative effect on my views of history?

My trusty monitor stand for the past decade.

Studying books that are not just a few decades but many centuries old exacerbates and complicates these issues, especially the way owners and readers handled and used their books. While a manuscript could have been intended as a bishop’s handbook, it might have been used as a doorstop for a while after which it was archived in a library and forgotten. Due to the fact that it looks beaten and dirty, it was a doorstop after all, you might say that it has been used extensively. Even though this is indeed correct, it is not for reasons you would expect when you are examining the handbook's content. To limit the possibilities of potential users, as said before, I try to look for traces of use. In this post, I will discuss one particular trace of use: neumes.

An early form of musical notation, some readers have scribbled neumes in the margin of the handbooks I examine. Someone trained in reading these can use them to sing a melody. There is a key difference between neumes and the modern musical notation system, however. The early medieval version lacks a stave. Without the five horizontal lines that each represent a different musical pitch, it is rather challenging to recognise a tune you have never sung before. Below I will discuss three examples of this phenomenon and what they can tell us about the manuscript’s possible users.

Some neumes (bottom right) in Köln, Dombibliothek, Cod. 120, f. 127v.

In Köln, Dombibliothek, Cod. 120, a manuscript from the early tenth century and north-eastern France, we find a few neumes on folio 127v (see above) after the episcopal statutes of Waltcaud of Liège (810/811-831?).[2] In these statutes, the bishop addresses the priests in his diocese and admonishes them to be better. He reminds them of all the things they had to know and how they were expected to set a pious example for the laity. Priests were also supposed to sing during the celebration of Mass, Waltcaud forcefully reminds them, and had to know the ‘introitum’ and ‘responsorium’ (i.e. the opening antiphon and the chant between the regular Mass reading and the reading from the Gospel).[3] That Waltcaud's early ninth-century statutes appeared in this bishop’s handbook a hundred years later demonstrates the continued relevance and utility of the text. The neumes were noted down later, by someone using the manuscript in eleventh-century southern Germany.[4] The lack of a stave makes it  difficult to know what melody is depicted here. It might refer to the Mass chants mentioned by Waltcaud, something sung during the major feasts referred to in the last capitula, or it might even a be the reader testing his pen out. In any case, it shows that as he turned the pages our unknown reader thought of music, and figured it might be helpful to add these neumes to the end of the episcopal statutes. 

Neumes paired with a verse from Virgil in München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 3851, f. 50r.

Another example is München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 3851, a manuscript from the late ninth century. In this book from Lotharingia, the neumes are found in the margins of the penitential of Pseudo-Bede on folio 50r (see above). At the point where dietary restrictions are discussed (don't drink any liquids in which mice or weasels have drowned)[5], a reader has added a famous verse from Virgil: 'Omnia vincit amor et nos cedamus amori’ (Love conquers all and let us cede to love), together with some neumes.[6] As there does not seem to be a direct connection between the content and the quote, we have to think of another reason why someone would scribble this into the margin during the eleventh or early twelfth centuries. While it perhaps appears a strange addition at first, using neumes to learn classical texts is a well attested tradition.[7] The neumes helped students to pronounce the words in the dactylic hexameter, in this manuscript also expressed as stress marks on the words, and to remember them. If these neumes were used as an aide memoire is unclear, especially since the syllables of the verse (15) do not match the number of tones (13 and 10). Regardless, it does allow us to situate the manuscript in a context where people were taught classical texts, perhaps a cathedral school.[8] It also shows that the manuscript remained to be used in close proximity to the bishop and its clergy, centuries after its initial creation.

Neumes at the bottom of the page in Heiligenkreuz, Zisterzienserstift, Cod. 217, f. 162v.

The last example comes from the manuscript Heilgenkreuz, Zisterzienserstift, Cod. 217. In this southern-German book from the late tenth century, neumes were added on the bottom of folio 162v which contains canon law and covers issues concerning serfs.[9] On the page we see the word ‘Pater’ (Pater noster) and ‘Aeuia’ (Alleluia) kitted out with neumes not long after the manuscript was put together. In the case of 'Aeuia', we can at last(!) connect our added neumes to an actual chant.[10] In the ‘Cantatorium’ produced between 922 and 926 at the monastery of St. Gallen (Cod. Sang. 359), the oldest music manuscript from that institution, we find a similar ‘Alleluia’ for the verse ‘Excita domine’ for the third Sunday of Advent (pictured below). We have to keep in mind, however, that the ‘Alleluia’ was sung with other verses as well, so it could also have been used on other occasions. It might be telling, therefore, that the neumes appear in an episcopal manual, since while the intended user hopefully(!) did not need a reminder of how to sing the ‘Alleluia’ and the ‘Pater noster’, he might nevertheless have been charged with instructing (young) clerics to do so. The manuscript thus shows the varied tasks that came with episcopal office. Bishops had to manage their diocese and the people in it, while also finding time to teach essential chants for the celebration of Mass. The role of the bishop as a teacher is well attested: Archbishop Bruno of Cologne (925–965), for instance, was taught in his younger years by Bishop Balderic of Utrecht (918–975), Bishop Israel (about whom little is known other than his Scottish origins) and Bishop Rather of Verona (887x890–974). We might therefore be looking at traces of this kind of instruction within the book.[11]

For manuscript scholars, finding traces of use can greatly help to tie a manuscript to a certain historical context. It is particularly helpful when working with miscellanies and anonymous texts that are hard to date and localise. But we have to be careful that we do not overinterpret these traces, as tempting as it might be, something I am reminded of every time I look at the book under my monitor. Still, when treated as details in the larger picture that is the complete manuscript, traces of use are a vital part of the whole.

Neumes in St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 359, p. 28.

We have seen three examples of neumes added into handbooks for bishops. In these instances, readers were evidently thinking about music and noted melodies down on parchment, whether this was to test their pens, recount some weighty verses or teach others to sing. From a manuscript located in Verona from the second half of the ninth century, we learn that bishops also sang outside liturgical celebrations, and the important role music could play in forging bonds between them and their clerics.[12] In a collection of episcopal admonitions, ordines for confession and reconciliation, and penances, we find 31 songs scattered throughout.[13] Some of these are quite surprising: between a song about the biblical story of Esther and a hymn of praise, there is a drinking song about an abbot from Angers named Adam.[14] This particular abbot liked to drink ‘wine all the time’ and if he was not ‘soaked in wine’ he would ‘wobble like a tree in the wind’.[15] With a continuous refrain of ‘Heya, heya, heya, praise you! Heya, we say: praise you Liber (i.e. Bacchus)!’ after each of the five verses, this song sounds like the makings of a good time and must have elevated the mood of the clerical drinking party significantly.[16] Finding neumes in episcopal handbooks therefore not unusual, since music featured in many parts of bishops' lives, from everyday church services to the occasional (drunken) feast.

BW, February 2023

[1] K. Norel, Waar vrijheid eeuwen stond. Vertelboek der geschiedenis van het Nederlandse volk (1949).
[2] MGH, Capit. episc. 1, ed. P. Brommer (1984), pp. 45-49.
[3] Ibid., p. 46, c. 5: ‘Introitum, responsorium, pro quid dicitur; alleluia, cur cantantur vel quid interpretatur.’ Also c. 13.
[4] Unless noted otherwise, I rely on the kind advice from Stefan Morent with regard to the dating and localisation of the neumes.
[5] See München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 3851, f. 49v: 'De liquore in quo mus vel mustela ceciderit.'
[6]  Virgilius, Eclogae 10, ln. 69.
[7] See, for instance, J. M. Ziolkowski, 'Nota bene: why the classics were neumed in the Middle Ages?', in: The journal of medieval Latin 10 (2000), pp. 74-114.
[8] H. Thurn, 'Die Würzburger Domschule von ihrer Anfängen bis zum Ausgang des Mittelalters: religionis et rei publicae seminarium?', in: G. Koch and J. Pretscher (eds.), Würzburger Domschule in alter und neuer Zeit (1990), p. 25; S. Dusil and K. Hill, 'Singing canon law? Neumes in manuscripts of the Decretum of Burchard of Worms', in: T. Sharp, I. Cochelin, G. Dinkova-Bruun, A. Firey, G. Silano (eds.), From learning to love: schools, law, and pastoral care in the Middle Ages: essays in honour of Joseph W. Goering (2017), p. 553.
[9] It is the Collectio 77 capitulorum. For more information see L. Kéry, Canonical collections of the early Middle Ages, ca. 400-1140: A biographical guide to the manuscripts and literature (1999), p. 183.
[10] Once again, I rely here on Stefan Morent. Who had sung the melody many times and thus recognised it instantly.
[11] W. Huschner, Transalpine Kommunikation im Mittelalter. Diplomatische, kulturelle und politische Wechselwirkungen zwischen Italien und dem nordalpinen Reich (9. - 11. Jahrhundert) 1 (2003), p. 150.
[12] A description of the manuscripts contents is found in G. G. Meersseman, 'Il codice XC della Capitolare di Verona', in: Archivio Veneto 104 (1975), pp. 11-44. I thank Charles West for bringing this codex to my attention.
[13] The songs have been edited in MGH, Poetae 4.2-3, ed. Karl Strecker (1923), see pp. 450-451.
[14] Ibid., p. 591.
[15] Id.: ‘Iste malet vinum omni tempore; quem nec dies nox nec ulla preterit, quod non vino saturatus titubet velut arbor agitata flatibus.’
[16] Id.: ‘Eia eia eia laudes, eia laudes dicamus Libero.’