Medieval musical manuscripts unearthed.

By Keely Savoie

Updated February 24, 2016.

It started with a crash—the sound of the glass breaking when a framed picture that had been hanging in Laura Garcia’s office for over a year fell to the floor. When Garcia moved to pick up the frame, she saw that what she thought to be a reproduction of a medieval musical manuscript might actually be the real thing.

“I chose the piece from a stock of office art in the library, never suspecting that it was anything but a print,” explained Garcia, director of campus technology and media support at Mount Holyoke College. “But when I took a closer look, I saw that this might be an original.”

She brought the piece to Leslie Fields, head of Archives and Special Collections, and asked for her expert opinion. What Garcia had stumbled upon was indeed a musical manuscript from the medieval era, inscribed on vellum—calfskin that has been stretched taut and preserved. Garcia’s serendipitous find was the first, but not the last: in fact, months later it led to the discovery of another medieval music manuscript that had been hanging in the Abbey Interfaith Sanctuary for years.

“It was amazing to find these here,” said  Fields. “We still have a lot to learn about them, but they are beautiful leaves and represent a time when music was still written by hand before printing was possible.”

The central focal point of the leaf that Garcia found, called the “Euge” (OY-gay) leaf for the chant it represented, is the gold-leaf-embossed “E” that contains three haloed figures, probably representing a bishop flanked by Christ and an angel. Each letter that begins a new chant is intricately filigreed, which was one of the ways musical scribes of the era trademarked their work. The practice also helped singers find their place in the music.

The leaf was probably one of hundreds gathered in a codex, or book of manuscripts, that appears to date to the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century. On the grounds of a preliminary analysis of the text script, medieval musicologist Sean Curran of Trinity College, Cambridge, whom Adeline Mueller, assistant professor of music at Mount Holyoke, consulted after encountering the pieces in archives, wondered if the codex might date from as early as the 14th century. Curran also pointed out that gothic script is notoriously hard to date and localize, so further analysis of the palaeography, and especially a study of the art, would be helpful in building a more solid sense of the leaves’ origins and provenance.

In its original format, the leaf would have been displayed for an assembly of monastics or a cathedral choir, who would have sung from it as a group, as was the custom of the time, Mueller noted. Each church or monastery would have had its own codices to use in liturgical processions and ceremonies throughout the year.

Since the advent of printed music, many of the original codices of vellum leaves have been dismantled, the individual sheets cut out and disseminated around the world.

The second piece

Soon after Garcia made her find, Mueller brought the students in her music history survey course to the archives to view early printed and manuscript music. It was that class that primed students Lucy Bolognese ’18 and Selime Salim ’17 to the idea of finding medieval music manuscripts in plain sight.

After the two students had studied the Euge leaf, they noticed that a piece hanging in the Abbey Interfaith Sanctuary looked suspiciously similar. When they brought it to Mueller’s attention, Mueller contacted Fields—and Mount Holyoke College found itself in possession of another medieval musical manuscript of unknown provenance.

“It was really cool because we had talked in class about how these things pop up in unexpected places,” said Bolognese, a neuroscience major with a music minor. “They have a lot of historical and musicological value, so I was excited to find it.”  

Bolognese went on to research the leaf they had found, the Respice leaf, as her final project for class.

Thanks to the two found manuscripts, a leaf that was donated by alumna Ada Snell (class of 1892), and four leaves at the Art Museum, Mount Holyoke now is in possession of seven medieval musical manuscripts. The College has become a part of a growing movement among institutions to catalog and share information about the pieces. The hope is that centralized international databases will consolidate knowledge and enable further research on the works.

Looking forward

Last fall, the Five Colleges digitization project was launched, with the aim of digitizing and cataloging medieval manuscripts held by the member institutions. The digitized versions of manuscripts eventually will be available through Digital Scriptorium, a database that currently provides access to more than 8,000 manuscripts held at more than 30 institutions. The goal is to unite disparate pieces.

“Now that we have rediscovered two additional leaves, these can be added to the project as well,” said Fields. “We are helping to add to the body of knowledge readily available to students and scholars. I am hopeful that we will continue to learn more about the leaves here at Mount Holyoke by sharing them digitally.”

With the assistance of Robert Eisenstein, senior lecturer in music and director of the Five College Early Music Program, Mueller will post information about the chants preserved in the manuscripts on the CANTUS database, a searchable digital archive of chant melodies from manuscripts all over the world.  

“The more exemplars of particular chant you have, the better picture you have of what that music looks like and how it might change from place to place and over time,” explained Mueller. “Only a small percent of manuscript music survives from the Middle Ages. Many leaves were burned, lost, or destroyed in wars. A digitized database of medieval music helps by linking us with institutions and collections all over the world, allowing us to better understand what we have.”

To celebrate the rediscovery of the medieval manuscripts at Mount Holyoke, which are now preserved and available for viewing in Archives and Special Collections, a high-quality reproduction of the original piece that hung in the Abbey Interfaith Sanctuary was installed in a ceremony on February 17. A small “schola cantorum”—or choir—made up of Mount Holyoke Department of Music students and faculty sang from the found manuscripts as part of the ceremony.

What treasure will you discover? Start looking here.