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.

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