Medieval songbooks and the parchment they were made of were designed to last a long time – so long that pages of them can outlast the book itself. Across medieval Europe, monks, nuns and clergy in city cathedrals sang daily chants in common forms of timed and sung prayers still practiced by some Christians today. Fragments of song books travel through time and space, end up in antique stores, hidden in attics or even turned into book covers.
Our research collects images of these scattered and fragmented song pages and makes inventories of their contents, revealing their many and various stories.
Medieval Christian communities wrote the many songs necessary for their worship in books called antiphoners (music only), breviaries (which also included readable texts), and gradual (containing songs that were part of the Mass, the central act of the Church). worship in the Catholic Church).
Each song was meant to be sung at a particular time or occasion, and two communities rarely did things in exactly the same way. Medieval songbooks followed similar patterns, but could also be surprisingly different from each other.
A monastery may sing a certain song in the morning, while the nearby cathedral may sing it in the afternoon with a slightly different melody, or celebrate a saint of local importance on that day instead. Taken together, such decisions can often be a sort of fingerprint for a manuscript. They can help identify the provenance of a book.
Find the lost books
Many books have not survived intact. Some have been taken down once their content was no longer useful to their communities, or taken down by booksellers in the hope of making more money by selling the book page by page. One of the objectives of our research is to facilitate access to the content of these individual pages, so that they can be better understood.
Sometimes it is possible to bring the pages of a book together again, especially if there is a clue as to when and where the pages were last seen together.
For example, in the mid-20th century, American art history professor Otto Ege of the Cleveland Institute of Art took apart many books. Ege rearranged their pages into packs of 50 to sell to libraries; that way, he reasoned, library collections could contain examples of different types of manuscripts.
Now, it’s possible to undo some of Ege’s book breakage, by collecting photos of the pages he sold and reordering them digitally.
Mystery of the Abbey Library
A slightly different case is the Gottschalk’s Antiphoner, a beautifully decorated 12th-century songbook from Lambach Abbey in Austria, which was eventually taken apart and used to bind books for the Abbey Library.
Many of these bindings were sold to collectors during World War II, but thanks to extensive scholarly investigative work, 30 of the pages have been digitally reconstructed, allowing a better overview of this remarkable volume.
But often what has been broken is not easily put back together. Hundreds of pages from Gottschalk’s Antiphoner, and collections of Ege, remain free.
Windows in the past
So if the pages can’t be put back into their books, what can we say? In the absence of the rest of the book, the small details on each page become more noticeable.
Even a page, which usually only contains music and lyrics for a small portion of the day, can reveal a few small choices of words or melodies, providing clues to its origins. And even when the clues lead nowhere, they offer a window into a little piece of the past: the unique way this community has chosen to celebrate.
The Eage page is a handmade item and reveals something about the people who made it. We have seen pages where an inattentive scribe forgot to include a letter or a note; another page is hand-sewn where someone carefully mended a tear in the parchment.
References to pages were added or changed as the book was used. Some pages are simple, others are purposely illustrated, while others are whimsical. Among the hundreds of pages of an entire songbook, such details may go unnoticed, but in isolation they are a picture of a particular day in the professional life of a scribe, illustrator, or musician. .
Beyond the Pages
Just as often, the Shards are interesting not only for where they started, but where they ended up and how they got there.
Through our research, we heard how a page, after arriving in Nova Scotia, was passed down by several people connected to the local symphony, tracing a story of friendship in a musical community.
Another fragment had been reused as a book cover, offering insight into religious reforms. One of the first owners wrote the titles of the Lutheran hymns between the older songs.
The individual personalities associated with each shard are sometimes brought out delightfully. One arrived with a letter describing how the writer fell in love with the fragment while her family was temporarily settled in West Germany. The fragment was found in a shop adjacent to the many stalls selling glühwein (mulled and spiced wine) and cuckoos in a lively Christmas market.
Stories like this are a reminder that even in the absence of larger books, the pages have individual journeys. From the time they were conceived until their journey into the 21st century, each is the product of individual choices in the context of historical changes and institutions – a page of a much larger book.