Friday, 31 May 2013

A fourteenth-century manuscript with an Anglo Saxon suprise

Conservative. Inexpensive. Modestly decorated. These are three terms that pop-up frequently in discussions of the late Saxon and Anglo-Norman manuscripts produced at Worcester.  This week your blogger considers how we read and understand a medieval manuscript that is sparsely illuminated or even undecorated.

If you enjoy the glitz and the glamour of a beautiful illuminated manuscript then it’s true, Worcester was producing some plain looking manuscripts from the late tenth-century to the middle of the twelfth-century. Let's take as an example the Expositio libri comitis: a manuscript which contains writings by Smaragdus (a Benedictine monk from the Diocese of Verdun).

Photograph, Exposito libri comitis. Photograph by Mr Christopher Guy, Worcester Cathedral Archaeologist. Reproduced by permission of the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)

The scribe’s name has been identified from another Worcester book , now held at the British Library, as Sistan. Sistan exemplifies a typical scribe employed by Worcester at the end of the tenth-century. The script he uses is called Caroline miniscule. This script developed from the earlier Saxon Insular miniscule, and retained some if its features (such as wedge shaped ascenders). Sistan’s script is quite easy to read, this is because it is quite bold or heavy handed. Yet the quality of Sistan’s work is far from perfect, and there is a great deal of variation in the quality of his hand between manuscripts and even within the same manuscript.

In the Exposito libri comitis, for example, Sistan appears to have ruled lines but occasionally gone a bit wonky when copying; there are even instances within this manuscript where he seems to have written across the lines rather than on them. In the close-up below, you can see that he’s gone over the line ruled in the right-hand margin.
Photograph, Exposito Libri Comitis. Photograph by permission of the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)
Sistan aside, the Exposito libri comitis fails to leave onlookers gobsmacked primarily because it is undecorated. Academics and medieval enthusiasts alike emphasize decoration as an important aspect to medieval book production. Rightly so, manuscripts should always be considered the product of a collaborative project between patrons, scribes, decorators and binders. The sheer cost of manuscript decoration alone in the middle ages seems evidence enough that patrons considered visual appearance (letters, colours, pictures) as important as the text itself.

In the case of an undecorated text, like the Exposito libri comitis, should we therefore assume that the text was considered unimportant or was cheaply produced?

That the Exposito libri comitis is undecorated actually tells us some important information about the contact Worcester had with other centres of manuscript production (English and continental) during this period. Richard Gameson, who writes an excellent chapter on Worcester’s book production in St. Oswald of Worcester: Life and Influence (London: Leicester University Press, 1996), stresses that during the episcopate of St. Oswald (961-92) Fleury was probably Worcester’s main source for exemplars (“standard” versions of the texts that the scribe copied from). Gameson describes Fleury as “a centre of reform and scholarship” and “an important potential source of text and script models”. Fleury was not, however, renowned for its illumination and this might explain the blandness or sparseness of decoration in late Saxon and early Norman manuscripts produced at Worcester, such as the Exposito libri comitis.
The Exposito libri comitis being devoid of any artistic stamp is, however, an extreme example of the late Saxon manuscripts produced at Worcester. Many other Worcester manuscripts were illuminated, particularly as we move towards the Anglo-Norman period. Illumination in Worcester manuscripts was nevertheless sparse in comparison to texts decorated in the scriptoriums of Canterbury and Winchester.
To end, I'd like to talk briefly on some of the decoration of Anglo-Norman manuscripts at Worcester. A psalter with commentary, which dates from around 1200, is a good example of Anglo-Norman decoration at Worcester. The psalter was decorated in two stages. Stage one was undertaken at the time of the psalter’s writing, and it involved the adding of initials in red, green and blue (see below).
Photograph, Psalter (1200). Photograph by permission of the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)
It was not until thirty years later, however, that stage two of decoration began. In the second stage of decorationthe ‘Beatus’ initial, which marks the beginning of the text, was added as well two other initials (‘X’ and ‘H’) gilded in gold. The second stage would have been far more costly than the first given the large size of these initials and the price of the precious metal. Both stages are beautiful in their own right but all-in-all the psalter presents the reader with a hodge-podge of decorated initials. The two very distinct decorative styles do not visually gel well together.
Photograph, Psalter (1200). Photograph by permission of the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)
One interesting decorative feature of the psalter and other manuscripts produced at Worcester in this period, are these decorated initials (like the 'M' pictured below) with curious little foliate tails. Some are very plain whilst others include intricate lattice work.
Photograph, Psalter (1200). Photograph by permission of the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)
Next Friday, I’ll talk a little more about these and ask whether one or more Worcester artist was employed them, and explore whether they present a unique Worcester style of decoration.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Worcester Cathedral organists through the ages.

A new mini display, put together by your blogger and some of the library volunteers, looks at the lives of the organists at Worcester Cathedral from 1468-1945.

Comprising of three glass cases, the small display is located in the south nave aisle of the Cathedral, and examines six influential organists who lived through some of the most tumultuous periods in English history.

The display incorporates account books, original music manuscripts and photographs that reveal the characters of influential Worcester Cathedral organists, such as Thomas Tomkins and Sir Ivor Atkins (friend of Sir Edward Elgar). Below are some images and facts about some of the organists who feature. Enjoy!

Photograph, Accounts of the Master of the Chapel (1415). Photograph by Mr Christopher Guy, Worcester Cathedral Archaeologist. Reproduced by permission of the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.).

  • John Hampton is the first Cathedral Organist that we know for certain was Worcester born and bred. Hampton's father, John Sr., was a wealthy Worcester mercer.
Photograph, Accounts for the Master of the Chapel (1479-80). Photograph by  permission of the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)
  • Below is the signature of one of Worcester Cathedral's most famous organists and the renowned composer of church music, Thomas Tomkins. Tomkins lived and worked throughout the violent Civil War era. The Dallam organ (which Tomkins played) was attacked and damaged twice by the Parliamentarians, and Tomkins' house (no. 9 College Green) was directly hit by cannon fire!

Photograph, Signature of Thomas Tomkins taken from Account Book (1379). Photograph by permission of the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.).
  • It is not until the eighteenth century that we have paintings or pictures of organists, like this beautiful oil painting in a gilt frame of Thomas Pitt (pictured below). Pitt was organist from 1793-1806. Upon researching Pitt, one of our volunteers unearthed a fabulous account by Pitt of George III's visit to Worcester in August of 1788. It contains a beautiful collection of posters and tickets pertaining to the musical concerts put on for their Majesties George and Charlotte, produced by local Worcester printers.

Photograph, Portrait of Thomas Pitt, done in oils with gilt frame (date unknown). Photograph by permission of the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.).

As we move towards the Victorian and Edwardian ages, personal writing and correspondence by Worcester Cathedral organists survive in abundance. William Done was organist at Worcester from 1844-95. His correspondence with the Dean and Chapter, as well as a diary kept by his daughter, portray him as a dedicated teacher, deeply concerned with improving  the traditional schooling and musical education of the choristers.

Photograph, group portrait of William Done (organist), Hugh Blair (sub organist) and C. B. Shuttleworth (precentor), with choristers (c. 1890). Photograph by permission of the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.).

A wealth of source material on Sir Ivor Atkins is available to study at Worcester Cathedral Library. Atkins conducted a rather impressive thirteen musical festivals during his time in office and was knighted in recognition of his role in reviving the Three Choirs Festival. A dedicated antiquarian, Atkins also served as librarian of the Cathedral Library from 1933-53. Atkins was connected with the famous musicians and composers of his day (such as Sir Edward Elgar), and he is pictured below with Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly.

Photograph of Sir Ivor Atkins and Zoltan Kodaly (date unknown). Photograph by permission of the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.).

Find out more

If you wish to find out more about the organists mentioned then call into the Cathedral to look at the small display in south nave aisle. Entrance to the Cathedral is FREE.

Alternatively, if you wish to view any of the source material mentioned or research other figures from Worcester Cathedral's musical history, you can contact the library by calling 01905 732922. You can also book a visit by clicking on the "Visit Us" section on our homepage.

Please note: visits to the library are by appointment only.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Papyrus Fragments from the Early Christian era at Worcester Cathedral

This week’s blog is about the oldest artefacts we have here at Worcester Cathedral Library: tiny fragments of Egyptian papyrus that date from the first, second, and third centuries! These were presented to Canon J. M. Wilson by B. P. Grenfell on the 5th of September 1922.

Iamge of all four of the tiny fragments. Photograph reproduced by permission of the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral  (U.K.)
About Papyrus.
Papyrus was the most important writing material of antiquity and was used until the first centuries of the Christian era. Papyrus is made from the vertically ribbed pith of the triangular papyrus stalk. Papyrus was commonly used in the form of rolls, which measured on average 25 cm x 19 cm. Rolls were produced by laying strips of papyrus side by side, then a second layer of strips would be laid on top at right angles, and the two layers would then be pressed together. Papyrus, importantly, is a term that is used to describe both documents AND books.
How did Egyptian papyrus end up in Worcester Cathedral Library?
Grenfell was a Birmingham born scientist and Egyptologist. The papyrus fragments which Grenfell donated to the Cathedral Library were found during an archaeological dig of the ancient Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus. Grenfell carried out the excavation alongside a good friend, Arthur Surridge Hunt. The two had met as students at Queen’s College Oxford. They carried out a systematic excavation of Oxyrhynchus with a team comprised of around 200 men, and the project was financed by the Egypt Exploration Society of London, in 1897.
Detail of two of the fragments. Photograph reproduced by permission of the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral  (U.K.)

As many as 50,000 rolls and fragments of papyrus, of which the fragments here at Worcester were part of, were found by Hunt and Surridge in the ancient dumpsites of Oxyrhynchus. It is astounding, at least to this blogger, to think that dumpsites or old rubbish from this city (which was a wealthy regional capital) survived more or less perfectly intact until the late ninteenth-century! The papyrus in the Oxyrhynchus dumpsites was buried relatively shallow; it was positioned far enough above ground level so as to avoid any ground water reaching them. It rarely rains in Egypt, and the constant drifting of sand combined with dry climate creates the perfect conditions for the preservation of papyrus.
By comparison, the climates of Italy, Greece and England are not hospitable to the preservation of papyrus. Papyrus was used by some Western chanceries well into the early Middle Ages, but the wetter conditions of Europe have dictated that very little of the papyrus used in Europe survives today. Parchment began to be widely used in Europe from the fourth century, as it was more robust and able to withstand the climate better than papyrus.
Detail of one of the fragments. Photograph reproduced by permission of the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral  (U.K.)

Fragment 1 is from the top of a column of a document; its content is doubtful, it is possibly a petition from the early second century in Greek.
Fragment 2 is from the top of a column of an official list of landholders, no doubt for taxation purposes. It is written in Green, in a clear cursive hand of the late second century. On the reverse is what appears to be part of an account of grain in a different hand
Fragment 3 is of a letter written in a large hand, on the back of a taxation list- which is now all but faded. It dates from the second or third century and is written in Greek.
Fragment 4 is a taxation or survey list probably containing a list of names for some official function. It dates from he ate first or early second A.D.

Want to know more?
If you are interested in learning more about the wealth of papyrus and material culture found by Grenfell at Oxyrhynchus, then you may wish to click the link below which will take you to an online database and exhibition on this ancient Egyptian dumpsite.  

Friday, 10 May 2013

Some Natural Catastrophies and Others Befalling the City

Over the centuries there have occurred numerous natural disasters and events, which have shaped the lives of the citizens of Worcester. Some of these occurrences are noted in a book titled ‘Forgotten Worcester’ and from it’s pages are noted some of these events, spanning a 600 year period.

On December 31st 1210, there was such a severe frost that the river Severn was frozen as far down to the outskirts of Gloucester. It lasted until mid February and it was further reported that it was possible for a man to cross the river on horseback.

In January 1285, a heavy fall of snow caused great damage to property and claimed many lives. The  weight of the snow was so great that it broke many bridges throughout the county.

During 1342, a fatal plague broke out in the city, claiming many lives.

In 1349 the Black Death or what was termed as a ‘severe pestilence’ erupted and killed many of the population. So great was the fear of contamination that it was ‘deemed unsafe’ to bury the bodies within the Cathedral churchyard and so they were interred at St.Oswalds.

Earthquakes have been felt in the county and city, one of which was mentioned in 1534.

What was referred to as ‘the sweating sickness’ raged through the city during the year 1558.Then almost 80 years later, as happened in many towns and cities across Europe, almost a quarter of the city’s population died from the plague.

The flooding of the river Severn has always been a major problem to the city and no more so than in 1672.When this occurred it was reported that this was the highest ‘then on record’. Then in 1770 this level was exceeded by 10 inches, a level that was matched in 1795.

In the year 1811 the city was hit by a tremendous storm, it ravaged much of the surrounding land as well as causing huge damage to both property and forestry. Huge pieces of ice 5” to 6” in diameter were hurled around in a hurricane force wind, accompanied by vivid lightning and rolling thunder.

During 1813, for a period of 9 days the city was engulfed in a ‘remarkable’ fog.

Epidemics were not uncommon in the city and that of Cholera was no stranger. Outbreaks occurring in 1831,1832 and 1849,claiming 43 lives.

On reading this list, it should be noted that a celebrated antiquarian – Lambarde wrote the following, ”that never had he met a place that had so great experience, in the calamities of the intestine broils of the kingdom, and other casual disasters, as the city of Worcester”.

Over the centuries the city has suffered, on numerous occasions, severe damage to properties and loss of life through fire. Of course a main aid to this was that the bulk of the city was timber built and through either accident or design this was an inevitable problem. As far back as 1114, July 19th, there was an unusually immense fire that caused huge damage, including the destruction of the Cathedral, together with many of the cities churches and the castle was destroyed.

Adrian Skipp



Friday, 3 May 2013

The Worcester Medieval Music Fragments

Tumultuous periods in history are equated with the destruction and damage of culturally valuable materially. This week’s blog puts that theory to the test!

Worcester Medieval Music Fragments. Photograph by permission of the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K).
Many of the medieval music fragments at Worcester, like those pictured above, have suffered over the course of history considerable damage from fire, exposure to smoke or have deteriorated as a result of being used as fly leaves in later fifteenth-century manuscripts and ledgers. We commonly assume that the Reformation and Civil War, two of the most volatile periods in English history, are entirely accountable for the poor condition of the Worcester fragments.

The Worcester music fragments are thought to have originally formed three volumes of music from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, which were made up of roughly five parts harmonised music to one part plainsong. These volumes were re-used by the monks in the fifteenth-century, their pages being torn out, recycled as wrappers and used fly leaves in later manuscripts. Though there was burning of sacred music in 1549 on the College Green, the fragments managed to escape the burnings because they had not been discovered.
The Civil War is the second historical event which impacted upon the Worcester fragments’ condition, and this week we stumbled across an interesting note from the 1660s written at the bottom of one of the medieval music fragments. The note is by Stephen Richardson, Chapter Clerk in the years immediately following the Civil War. The note is pictured below.


A Note by Stephen Richardson. Photograph by permission of the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)

It reads:
“Memorandum that Eighteene leaves were taken out of this booke and lost when itt was in the hands of th[e] Com[m]ittee and before itt was regained by Mr Barnabas Oley to the Church, so itt conteineth now but 48 leaves
Stephn’ Richardson”
When Worcester surrendered to the Parliamentarians in July 1646 the Committee of Sequestrations took possession of all Cathedral property and, during the period of the Commonwealth, many of the Cathedral’s ledgers and documents were sent to London for safe keeping by instruction of the County Committee. Indeed, this was the case with the ledger that contained the medieval music fragment pictured above. The note from Richardson tells us that the period in which the fragments were in London led to further destruction, with “eighteen leaves” being “taken out of this book lost when it was in the hands of the committee”. We cannot be certain whether the “eighteen leaves” refers to leaves from the ledgers / accounts or eighteen leaves of medieval music specifically.
Richardson states that the particular fragment pictured, and the book in which it was originally bound, was “regained by Barnabas Oley to the church”. Barnabas Oley was Canon during the restoration of the Cathedral. Oley was greatly concerned by the loss of manuscripts and archival holdings that the Cathedral had sustained during the Civil War. From 1661-1666 Oley travelled to London and reclaimed several boxes of registers and ledgers connected with the office of the Treasurer and Receiver General, and returned them to Worcester.
By the time Richardson was writing in the late 1660s the medieval music fragments had been torn apart, recycled, and transported to London where, under the County Committee, pages had been lost. Yet it is curious that Richardson records that, in spite of such tumultuous historic events, the book contains “48 leaves”. Is he suggesting there were, in the 1660s, 48 leaves of this particular music book? If this is what he is suggesting than we are faced with the possibility that many more fragments were lost in the post-Civil War than we have hitherto assumed. We have little knowledge of how the fragments were treated and stored in Worcester Cathedral Library in the three centuries prior to their rediscovery by Canon Wilson in the early years of the twentieth century. Unfortunately, there are no more helpful little notes by clerks like Richardson to provide us with nuggets of information! Perhaps by turning our gaze to more recent history, than consistently focussing on the Reformation and the Civil War, we could discover new information on the state of the fragments over the course of history.