Music in English Miscellanies of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries

Publication Type:



Helen Deeming


Cambridge (2005)


The least investigated sources of music from twelfth- and thirteenth-century England are those in which a small number of musical items are preserved in books consisting primarily of non-musical texts. These sources tend to be ignored, since the variety of their contents and complexity of their codicological make-up present considerable interpretative difficulties. Too often, the music in them has been deemed marginal, an accidental component of the volumes, too insignificant musically to be recorded in a ‘genuine’ music-book. Yet both the sources and the pieces they contain are too numerous for the phenomenon of the ‘musical miscellany’ in this period to be written off as chance coincidence. Whilst the music often forms a later addition to such collections, it was seldom added with no regard for its textual surroundings, and the precise purpose of recording music in miscellanies warrants closer scrutiny.
The first chapter examines the practical aspects of copying a ‘musical miscellany’, firstly through the lens of the construction of miscellanies, and secondly through a survey of contemporary approaches to music-writing. It looks at the codicological conditions under which the incorporation of music was both possible and desirable, and raises questions about the personnel and institutions involved in the copying of such books. The second chapter takes as its focus the non-musical components of the miscellanies, beginning with a series of case-studies that establish the paradigm for considering miscellanies as ‘whole books’. Subsequent parts of the chapter trace significant patterns among the non-musical texts, and the chapter ends by considering the evidence for the readership of the books, their production contexts and functions.
The third chapter presents an analytical study of the music contained in the miscellanies, examining aspects of form, technique, and presentation, and questioning the usefulness of existing genre typologies to describe such music. This research presents significant evidence that these pieces (mainly songs) constitute a coherent body of musical material, despite their differences of language, texture and form. Studies of the music in English miscellanies have concentrated almost exclusively on pieces with polyphonic textures and vernacular texts, yet such distinctions are not made by the scribes who copied the music into these sources. Removing such artificial distinctions enables us more successfully to interpret the whole corpus, allowing us to see the 111 pieces as one of the most numerically significant areas of musical practice in twelfth- and thirteenth-century England.