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Medieval manuscript

Long lost medieval music brought back to life

Published on: 29 March 2016

A long-lost piece of music will be performed for the first time in 450 years, following the discovery of a medieval manuscript.

The 14th century book was found in the special collections of Newcastle University’s Robinson Library. The so-called Petre Gradual includes ecclesiastical chants for services throughout the year and would have been used by singers standing in the choir stalls or at a lectern. It is a rare survivor: thousands of service books were destroyed at the Reformation, and very few Graduals survive in Britain.

Within the book’s 185 vellum pages, sections of polyphonic notation were added into blank spaces that had been left during the original copying of the book. Believed to have been added around 1460, this music bears witness to the cultural vitality of the late-medieval church; it is also the only piece of medieval polyphony surviving in Newcastle today.

Rather than a choir singing or chanting the same notes in unison, polyphonic singing is made up of two or more melodies sung simultaneously. The kind of music found in the Petre Gradual was known as ‘squares’ – in which one a group of  singers improvised polyphony around a specially written-down tune. Many fifteenth-century singers will have been taught this now-lost art of improvisation.

Dr Magnus Williamson, Senior Lecturer in the School of Arts and Cultures, Newcastle University, said: “It’s really exciting that this music, which hasn’t been performed for nearly half a millennium, will be heard again in Newcastle. We will see the manuscript used as it would have been in the middle ages, standing on a lectern with singers improvising polyphony from it, letting us glimpse a long-lost musical tradition.”

Magnus Williamson standard
Dr Magnus Williamson with the Petre Gradual

Turbulent past

As well as being of musical significance, the book is also of great historical interest and bears the scars of the turbulent years of the Reformation.

In 1538, Henry VIII abolished the cult of St Thomas Becket and ordered that all mention of his name be obliterated. The then-owners of the book obediently, but none-too-officiously, complied with this, lightly crossing out the service to mark the feast day of St Thomas Becket.

Eleven years later, the Act of Uniformity abolished the Latin liturgy and the Petre Gradual, along with thousands of other manuscripts, became obsolete overnight - destined to be cut up for use as stationery.

It was rescued four years later, however, when Protestant Edward VI died in 1553 and the Latin mass was restored. At this point, some 180 years after it was made, it came into the possession of Sir William Petre, an astute politician who was an advisor of Mary Tudor, aka Bloody Mary.  A note in the front of the book records its second-hand price, 13s 4d (just under £0.67p).

Sir William donated the book to a church of which he was patron: almost certainly Ingatestone, Essex, where he lived. However, these were uncertain times and the book was in use at the Church for only a short time before the death of Mary Tudor and Latin worship was once again abolished.

It was at this point that Sir William brought the book back to Ingatestone Hall, where it stayed until the twentieth century - just after World War Two - when it was bought by Philip Robinson, a noted book collector whom Newcastle University’s Robinson Library is named after. 

Clandestine purpose

Towards the back of the book, more text was added when an inexpert copyist wrote the texts of several Latin psalms around 1580, the so-called Prayers in Prostration. There are more annotations in this part of the manuscript, with a neatly written note in the margin lamenting the lack of a Catholic priest to administer the service - reflecting the secretive nature of worship at that time.

By this time, Sir William Petre had died. His heir, John Petre, was a fervent catholic and friend of the famous composer William Byrd. Byrd is known to have spent time at Ingatestone Hall and lived nearby. It is fairly certain that Byrd saw, and probably used, the manuscript during clandestine Latin services held in the privacy of Ingatestone Hall.  Intriguingly, one of the psalms from the manuscript, Deus venerunt gentes, was set to music by Byrd in 1581 to commemorate the execution of the Catholic priest Edmund Campion.

“This magnificent book is not only a beautiful manuscript, with fine penmanship and gold leaf illuminations but also a valuable door into the past; it gives us a remarkable insight to events and attitudes during the Reformation and its aftermath. It’s a miraculous survivor three times over: in its own rite as a medieval chant book, as a source of polyphony, and as a witness to the life of one of our greatest composers.” added Dr Williamson.

Archivists at Newcastle University are currently digitising the Petre Gradual. Once fully digitised, the book will be available on the the Robinson Library’s Special Collections website and on special kiosks throughout the library. The online version will use special page-turning software and also feature historical and contextual notes, as well as audio files of sections of the music.

The Petre Gradual polyphony will be performed at 4.00pm on 9 April at the Church of St John the Baptist, Newcastle upon Tyne as part of the Newcastle Early Music Festival

Timeline of the Petre Gradual

c. 1370            Manuscript originally copied

c. 1400            Major repairs to the manuscript after it was damaged

c. 1460            Polyphonic notation copied into blank spaces within the manuscript

1538                Cult of Thomas Becket abolished: his feast is lightly erased in the manuscript

1549                Act of Uniformity: Latin Mass is abolished and the manuscript is decommissioned

1553                Latin worship restored. The manuscript is bought by Sir William Petre for 13s 4d (about 66p in decimal) and donated to Ingatestone Church

1558                Latin worship abolished. Sir William Petre resumes ownership of the manuscript. It is used for Catholic worship in the household of Sir William’s son, John and remains in hands of Petre family until 20th century,

Post 1945        Manuscript is sold to Bernard Quaritch, bookdealers. It is later bought by Philip Robinson (d. 1989) 

Video: Newcastle University students rehearse chant from the Petre Gradual

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