Medieval songs outside the Codex

MS 1681

MS 1681

One of the smaller items in the manuscript collection at Lambeth Palace Library is probably one of the most interesting, and rare. Dating from the 1350s and written in Anglo-Norman French it contains the words to a jeu parti, a debate, in song, on love, sex, wealth, and ethical behaviour by a troubadour. These were very popular throughout France in the thirteenth and fourteenth century and contain a wealth of historical information about social attitudes at the time. It is also, as far as I can tell, unique with no other examples of jeux partis surviving in this form (it had not come to serious scholarly attention until 2004). This text gives us not only an invaluable insight into the transmission of music, the movement of people, but also the transmission of ideas and people’s attitudes to the morals at the time.

The impressive opus of trouvères chansons survive now as collections and reorderings of more ephemeral texts in grand codices. Aristocratic pride in local traditions can be found in the poetic schools in Oc and Oil (different regions of France defined by their dialect) as well as Sicily and Aragon in Spain. The collections encompass Crusader songs in Occitan and prose chronicles in Franco-Flemish. These were all collected, republished, and bound in richly decorated volumes many showing regional tastes and variations. Courtly songs of refined love were most popular in Northern France (chansons courtoises, cansos) and appear side-by-side with songs of Marian devotion (chansons pieuses) as well as songs of erotic conquest (pastourelles), women’s songs and weaving songs (chansons de toile), and the battles of wits, as well as the song-debates known as the jeux partis.

All of these different types of songs were collected in to these manuscripts which were also filled with vernacular text and idealised images[i]. These texts made use of the growing practice of fixed musical notation on a stave (all but four of the twenty two major sources contain music written on a stave[ii]) which allowed a performer to sight-read a melody, if not a complete transmission of the rhythm.

MS 1681 extended

There has been a musicological tradition of applying a hierarchy to these tropes with ‘courtly songs’ receiving the most attention and praise, the jeux partis being seen clearly as a ‘lesser genre’ (see for example Alfred Jeanroy). This however is not borne out by the surviving texts. Hundreds of these texts were written, many in multiple manuscripts, the majority with musical notation.

This manuscript in Lambeth Palace Library, however, is a less substantial item than the grand codices. Codices could consist of hundreds of such songs, this item consist of six songs on one roll of Vellum.  This type of document is referred to as a Liederblätter (‘single sheets’) and rotuli (‘rolls’) by historians and musicologists. These are different from the codex, or bound volume, and were probably intended as transient or even disposable objects. Some of the first discoveries of these rolls were by Richard Rouse in 1982[iii], with a modern overview provided by William Paden.[iv] There is also clear evidence for its use in the manuscripts showing that, whilst not many have survived, they were common objects. Elizabeth Aubrey shows how the construction of the codices and errors by the scribes show that they must have been working from multiple sources. There are instances where songs were written in without enough space for the music before being rewritten later with the music in place. There are also multiple emendations made to the texts in different hands suggesting text and music was added as it became available.[v] Something similar to the Lambeth Palace Library rotulus is portrayed in the illumination and decoration accompanying the Codices and they are talked about by the poets themselves. A well-known example is the “Provençal chansonnier N” (New York, The Morgan Library & Museum, MS M.819), where the poet is shown fainting, overcome with an erotic despair that prevents him from writing on the roll he holds in his hand. To allay suspicion of maybe reading too much into a picture, context is provided by the poem Meravill me cum pot nuills hom chanter which appears alongside the image in the manuscript.

Meravill me cum pot nuills hom chantar
si cum ieu fatz per lieis que·m fai doler,
qu’e ma chansso non puosc apareillar
dos motz qu’al tertz no·m lais marritz chaser,
car non sui lai on estai sos cors gens,
doutz e plazens,
que m’auci desiran
e non pot far morir tant fin aman.

[I’m amazed that any man could sing like I do for the lady who makes me suffer: I can’t put two words together in my song without, when I arrive at the third, letting myself fall, dazed, because I’m not where her gentle figure is, sweet and pleasant, that kills me through desire and can’t make such a perfect lover die.]

These items could function as a support or aide de memoire for recitation and a means of transmitting works, enabling performers to recreate the jeux partis before different audiences and supplying a missing link in our understanding of songs and music more widely. They were designed as temporary things made of non-durable material, in this case small sections of vellum stitched together. Writing in thirteenth-century Europe was increasingly being used not only by the trained clergy, but also being used laypeople in local dialects.

MS 1681

Unlike the other genres of Trouvere/ Trouvères  songs, the jeu parti presents itself as unique event, a one-off improvised performance between specific performers and judges, many of whom are named in the songs. However, their existence in multiple versions and formats implies repeated performances, re-enactments of events, or of imagined events. The genre provides a fascinating opportunity to look at questions of song performance and reception. In attempting to represent a particular time and place it has two contestants addressing each other by name and posing a dilemma before alternating verses of argument. The substance of these arguments was often, although not always, love and sexual conquest i.e. ‘Who should one pity more: the man who is constantly jealous of his wife, or the one who knows for sure that his mistress fools him?’ or ‘Do you prefer your sweetheart to be a knight of great bravery, but clumsy and lacking courtesy when he’s off the battlefield, or a handsome, charming and amorous fellow who lacks martial skill?’. The final stanza holds the debaters’ appeal to a judge, present at the performance, to judge in his favour. Whilst judges are named no surviving manuscript records the judgement.

The people involved and named in these songs were noted thirteenth and fourteenth century individuals from aristocratic, bourgeois, and clerical backgrounds, many associated with the Northern French town of Arras. This has led to the genre being treated as an outlier. However, the songs that have survived have been copied and recopied into dozens of manuscripts implies repeat performances re-enacted over a variety of locations. According to Jenna Phillips’s article “Singers without borders: a performer’s rotulus and the transmission of jeux partis” there has been no mention of jeux partis existing in rotuli outside of the codices, demonstrating the importance of this document’s survival. This has resulted in current debates on their production ignoring much regarding their potential for performance before a wide range of audiences and locations. Taking the notion of Textual Communities put forward by Brian Stock, they ?suggest that there is evidence of a ‘shared community’ of irreverent and humorous dialogue that extends beyond its traditional location of Arras, fuelled by scripts, rotuli and other ephemera transmitting not only songs but also play sheets and stories.

The proof of this position is difficult however with most, if not all, of the corpus of troubadour music existing in texts that postdate their putative author by some margin. The proponents of a written tradition point to manuscript evidence of performance from scrolls or wax tablets, sometimes both in the same picture. For example see the miniature from the Manesse Codex.[vi]

MS 1681 showing the two of the sheets of vellum stitched together

Lambeth Palace Library MS 1681 consist of three membranes of vellum sewn together with clear damage to both ends.[vii] On the hair side (a curiosity in itself as most scribes wrote on the smoother inner side for preference as it made a better writing surface) someone has written seven old French songs. These are identified by Jenna Phillips as Chansons by Gace Brule and the Chatelain de Coucy (these two songs are known from other chansonniers) Par quel forfet et par quel achaison, and Cil qui d’amors me conseille respectively. These are followed by five jeux partis written by Jehan Bretel, Jehan Grieviler (his Grieviler vostre ensient found in this roll can also be found in the Chansonnier d’Arras), Guillaume and Gilon le Viner. The scroll lacks musical notation, although it is present in other sources. On the reverse are memoranda dating to the fourteenth century concerning the genealogies of the Esse and Knyghton families and their lands Ashe in Dorset. There is an interesting question as to the reason for the survival of this roll, whether it is for these memoranda or for the music.

MS 1681 showing a join in the vellum and the string loop

Much has been written on the subject (see Petrucci, Armando, and Charles M. Radding. Writers and readers in Medieval Italy: studies in the history of written culture) of the rapid increase in writing in the vernacular in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and a proliferation of ‘ephemeral’ texts (Richard Rouse in ‘Roll and Codex’, pp. 13–29). This was being done by and for a public of literates who could read and write in the vernacular and who had a much wider geographic distribution than was previously thought. This was writing outside of a precise social function or obligation, writing because one was literate. Matched with the increasing industrialisation of book production through scriptoria and the universities (by this time there are over twenty throughout Europe) this saw a large increase in book production, letter writing, receipts, and memoires (registers).

The importance of this scroll (aside from the uniqueness of its contents) stems from what it can tell us about the transmission of these songs. Whilst much of the scholarship surrounding jeux partis focuses on the city of Arras and its surrounds, due to the presence of Adam de la Halle and Jehan Bretel (famous composers of these songs), musical/ poetical societies (called Le Puy, derived from Latin Podium)[viii] existed throughout northern French and Flemish cities, spreading to London and the south of France by the thirteenth century.[ix] Still working in French (the lingua franca of trade in the Anglo-Norman world) it is conceivable that the copying of songs heard in one city for recreation in another by members of these clubs was not unknown or uncommon. The question is of course how much of this was done by the recreation of an oral memory and how much would have been done by aides memoires written down. Does this roll represent an anomaly or the tip of an iceberg? We know of a thirteenth century German roll found in the flyleaves of fifteenth century codex (Rouse, ‘Roll and Codex’, 13–29; Paden, ‘Lyrics on Rolls’, 325‒40). William Paden surveyed eleven examples. The British Library, until 1971,[x] held the Song of the Barons dating to 1260. Several others have been recently discovered; these are songs are different genres to the jeux partis (see Jenna Phillips), most recently in 2017 David Catalunya finding roll fragments of fourteenth century polyphonic music in the flyleaves of a fifteenth century book.[xi] It is also the case that medieval rolls preserving plays can also be found[xii] and as has been shown above there are many pictorial examples in other codices.



[i] Samuel Rosenberg, Introduction to Songs of the Troubadours and Trouvères: an Anthology of Poems and Melodies,  Samuel Rosenberg, Margaret Switten and Gérard Le Vot (eds.) (New York: Garland, 1998), 4.

[ii] See Elizabeth Aubrey, ‘Sources, MS III, Secular Monophony: French’, in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed., ed. S. Sadie., 29 vols. (London: Macmillan Reference, 2001), 23: 851–60.

[iii] Rouse, Richard H. 1982. Roll and Codex the Transmission of the Works of Reinmar von Zweter. pp.193-231

[iv] Keith Busby and Catherine M. Jones. 2011. “Li premerains vers”: essays in honor of Keith Busby. Amsterdam: Rodopi

[v] Aubrey, Elizabeth. 2000. The music of the troubadours. Bloomington, Ind: Indiana University Press. pp 47-49

[vi] Heidelberg, Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 848, f. 323r. The minnesinger in question is Reinmar von Zweter, who flourished in the 1230s, perhaps 70 years prior to the compilation of the Manesse Codex. The image is discussed by Marisa Galvez in Songbook: How Lyrics Became Poetry in Medieval Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 136.

[vii] Based on the lengths of the other membranes, the first piece is lacking around 20 cm, which likely contained another song. Axel Wallensköld, ‘Le Ms. Londres, Bibliothèque de Lambeth Palace, Misc. Rolls 1435’, Mémoires de la Société Néo-Philologique de Helsingfors 6 (1917): 3–40 (5).

[viii] Puy made reference either to the platform on which performers stood, or to the high pedestal on which holy relics were elevated. The contentious history of this organisation and the terms used to describe it are surveyed by Carol Symes, A Common Stage: Theater and Public Life in Medieval Arras (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007), 216–22

[ix] Helen Cooper, ‘London and Southwark Poetic Companies: “Si tost c’amis” and the Canterbury Tales’, in Chaucer and the City, ed. Ardis Butterfield (Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer, 2006), 109–25 (111).

[x] Andrew Taylor. 1991. “The Myth of the Minstrel Manuscript”. Speculum. 66 (1): 43-73 (68 ff.)

[xi] David Catalunya, ‘Nuns, Polyphony, and a Liégois Cantor: New Light on the Las Huelgas’ “Solmization Song”’, Journal of the Alamire Foundation 9 (2017): 89–134

[xii] Four examples are cited by Thomas Forrest Kelly, The Exultet in Southern Italy, 18.

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