Susan Rankin on Singing and Reading Music in Post-Conquest England

Psallat ecclesia mater decora
mente deuota et uoce consona
domino pia personet organa …

Let mother church sing suitable praises
with devout mind and harmonious voice
let it chant holy melodies to the Lord …

On May 17th this year, the sequence Psallat ecclesia — composed at Winchester by a Norman cantor in the last decades of the 11th century — was sung in front of the magnificent book in which it is recorded (Oxford, Bodleian Library Bodley 775), and probably for the first time since then.  The singer was a Cambridge MPhil student, Benedict Turner-Berry, the situation the Bodleian Library in Oxford, the context, the last of my Lyell Lectures for 2022.   

The sequence Psallat ecclesia in the Winchester troper (Bodleian Library Bodley 775)

The lecture series was instituted in 1952 by a bequest from the solicitor, book collector and bibliographer James Patrick Ronaldson Lyell (1871–1948), and is considered to be one of the major British bibliographical lecture series (along with the Panizzi lectures at the British Library and Sandars Lectures at Cambridge University).  This was only the second series of Lyell lectures to treat a musical topic: in 1973–74 Alan Tyson, Fellow of All Souls College, presented lectures on Beethoven’s sketches.

As a doctoral student based in Paris (to which I had escaped from Cambridge), my then mentor, the ex-Solesmes monk and scholar Michel Huglo, invited me to give a paper at a conference he was organising in 1982: he proposed that I spoke about early medieval English music notations — a subject about which at the time of his proposal I knew more or less nothing at all.  That was both a frightening and an exciting invitation, since very little had been written on the topic: I had a great deal of space in which to develop ideas, but I did need to do some work to find something to say.  Between writing that paper and the day I received the invitation to deliver the Lyell lectures, I had worked mainly on other topics — medieval drama, medieval polyphony, early medieval liturgical books — with the exception of a lengthy study of the Cambridge counterpart to Bodley 775, the ‘other’ Winchester Troper (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 473).  For a bibliographical series of lectures at the Bodleian, it was clearly time to return to that subject, and to try and work out some broader scheme of English musical notations: although in the meantime an extensive catalogue of manuscripts notated in England before 1200 had been published, it was still entirely unclear whether it was possible to link specific ways of writing musical notation with specific places, and, indeed, how practices of notation changed and why — in a period for which historical understanding is dominated by 1066 and its consequences.  

Musical notation written circa 900 (Bodleian Library, Bodley 579)

There are so many surviving manuscript sources with musical notation written in England — from a missal made at Canterbury circa 900, through a handful of 10th-century books, to a mass of 11th-century materials notated in non-diastematic neumes (that is, without precise intervallic information) to early 12th-century examples of writing on staves — that there would be enough material to fill five lectures, with a myriad of questions and threads to link and shape the separate lectures. A crucial change of balance between memory and written records, from using notation which acted as support to recall, to writing notations which considerably lessened dependence on recall, could be made central to my explorations.

Notation on staves ruled drypoint (British Library Harley 3908)

And so I embarked on work which was intended to sit in parallel to the first Lyell series, delivered in 1952, Neil Ker’s study of English Manuscripts in the Century after the Norman Conquest (as published in 1960).  Yet, even if I wanted to focus on the effects of the Norman Conquest on musical practice (‘assimilation or change?’), I needed to set up a starting point and context.  Hence the decision to entitle the lectures ‘From Memory to Written Record: English Liturgical Books and Musical Notations, 900 – 1150’.  

The main research work had to be accomplished during those long dark periods of lockdown, when most libraries were closed: access to manuscripts was well-nigh impossible.  But for those who use manuscripts in their research, the possibilities offered by digital images have completely transformed the field.  Much of what I needed could be seen on the British Library website: for other libraries, kind librarians went into their libraries and made pictures for me, and slowly I could collect enough material to be able to see lots and lots of notations beside each other.  From those images I could make transcriptions (still the best way of understanding the techniques used by individual scribes), and build up new knowledge.

It became a fascinating experience: for more or less two years I did no other kind of research.  While I already knew the early notations pretty well, and thus faced a task of deciding what it was interesting to say, the notations written after 1066 were unstudied — not only by me, but by anyone else: while visual images of those post-1066 notations were very familiar, no one had worked out what was going on, and where.  In addition, there was no study available of musical notations written in Normandy in the 11th century, and thus no model from which I could surmise how to recognise Norman work.  But, bit by bit, my visual and musical memories became full enough of examples for me to be able to work out the difference between English and Norman notations in the decades immediately after the conquest — a period when the highest ecclesiastical posts were being given, one by one, to Normans.  

Norman neumatic notation (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 44)

And the end of the story which I uncovered was astonishing.  In a series of manuscripts connected with Winchester Cathedral it was possible to identify the work of one, quite distinct, music scribe.  Seeing this scribe notate the work of different text scribes, I at first thought of him as a minor, junior figure.  Then, realising that he was busy correcting the work of the text scribes as he wrote notation, and adding up the very extensive amount of material he wrote out, I understood that this was someone in charge, in other words, a cantor.  Through other musical palaeographical work I could link his script with that of others based in Rouen, from where the Norman cleric Walkelin had come to be Bishop of Winchester in 1070.  Bingo: I had discovered a Norman cantor, and I could see and describe those ways in which he was changing the musical repertories sung at the Cathedral.  That would have been enough to make a fitting end to a five-lecture series.  But in my preparation I had worked extensively with a text palaeographer, who had helped me to sort out and date the work of different text scribes.  Between us we were able to identify the text hand of my musical scribe — who did sometimes write out the text as well as the music, even if not always.  And that text hand was recognisably that of a famous scribe, the person who after 1086 wrote out the Great Domesday Book.  To be able to set music into the middle of late 11th-century state activity in this way gave me immense pleasure.  That cantors were often responsible for keeping charge of the books of an institution, and that many could also be identified as historical writers, was well known.  Somehow, unexpectedly, we had uncovered the best example of such a figure.

Yet for me, the most moving part of the experience of giving those lectures was not this bombshell ending, but just listening to the sequence Psallat ecclesia sung in front of the Winchester Troper.  Our Norman cantor wrote it out in that book, and he probably also composed it. 

Podcasts of Professor Rankin’s Lyell lectures can be found at :

Susan Rankin is Emeritus Professor of Medieval Music and Vice-Master of Emmanuel College. Her study of early medieval musical notations, Writing Sounds in Carolingian Europe, was published in 2018, while a second Carolingian monograph, Sounding the Word of God: Carolingian Books for Singers will be published later this year.


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