A Medieval Songbook

Trouvère MS C

Edited by Elizabeth Eva Leach, Joseph W. Mason and Matthew P. Thomson

A lavish medieval manuscript with song texts and staves—but no notation: what is a musicologist to do with such a source? The Bern chansonnier (Bern, Bürgerbibliothek MS 389) is one of over 50 sources for thirteenth-century French song, at least 20 of which present song texts along with music notation. The lack of music notation in the Bern source is one of the reasons that scholars have overlooked it in favour of sources with notation. Originally produced in or around Metz in Lorraine, now eastern France, the Bern chansonnier has also been neglected because of its provenance. Histories of the trouvères (thirteenth-century poet-composers) centre on the courts of Champagne and the urban context of Arras, often paying little attention to the handful of sources that attest to a vibrant musical scene further to the east. But contrary to what previous scholarship implies, the Bern chansonnier has much to tell us about musical life in thirteenth-century France.

Bringing together musicologists, art historians, philologists and literary scholars, A Medieval Songbook: Trouvère MS C provides perspectives on this important and under-researched source. The project had its genesis in an interdisciplinary workshop organised by Dr Henry Hope at the Institut für Musikwissenschaft in Bern in 2017. The workshop was a celebration of the recent digitisation of the Bern chansonnier, images of which can be found at http://e-codices.ch/en/bbb/0389. With easy access to images of the source, the time seemed ripe for a re-examination of the contents, construction and context of the Bern chansonnier.

The songbook is a large and beautifully decorated volume, and was probably copied in the late thirteenth century (possibly a little later) by a group of scribes and artists in Metz. There are over 500 song texts in the chansonnier, many found in other thirteenth-century sources, some found nowhere else. Several different types of song are contained within the songbook: male-voiced and female-voiced love songs, songs of devotion to the Virgin Mary, debate songs known as jeux-partis, crusade songs, and narrative songs called pastourelles. Poets from the very beginning of the French courtly song tradition, such as Blondel de Nesle and Gace Brulé, are represented, as is every generation of poet-composers after them. Unlike many other sources for trouvère song, the songbook is organised alphabetically by the first letter of each song. Each letter section opens with a highly ornate pen-flourished initial, as shown on the cover of A Medieval Songbook. Precisely why the songbook lacks music notation is unknown. The scribes responsible for the copying of the book clearly intended for notation to be entered, leaving space for and drawing staves in red ink. For whatever reason, the last stage of copying—entering music notation—was never attempted.

One of the themes of A Medieval Songbook concerns the way that manuscripts of French song were made. Medievalists have often argued that the way that a book is organised reflects the priorities and intentions of scribes, authors and patrons. In many trouvère songbooks, songs are grouped together according to the composer of each song, with prominence given to those composers at the top of the feudal hierarchy. In the Bern chansonnier, the rationale is different. Not only is the book arranged alphabetically, each letter section also opens with a religious song. Several of these songs were written by the otherwise unknown Jacques of Cambrai, who may have written devotional poems especially for this songbook. The chansonnier also provides important clues for how songbooks were copied. By comparing the organisation of the Bern chansonnier to other sources copied in Metz, it is possible to speculate on the type of exemplars from which scribes were copying. Scholars have previously assumed that surviving songbooks must have been copied from other large anthologies, now lost. The evidence from the Bern chansonnier suggests otherwise, in this case: scribes may instead have copied songs from loose parchment leaves with one song on each side.

A second theme of our volume is the musical culture of Metz itself. Several of the composers named in the songbook seem to have been local composers, since their names are not found in songbooks from other regions of France. The songbook provides evidence for the poet-composers who were active in Metz during the thirteenth century, shedding light on the musical culture of the town and of its elite families. But this is not to say that these composers and other musicians in Metz were cut off from the songs that were being sung and copied elsewhere. Famous trouvères such as the Châtelain de Couci, Blondel de Nesle and Thibaut de Champagne find their names in the margins of the songbook, evidence that the scribes for the source had a strong sense of their musico-poetic heritage, and the esteem with which these Champenois and Picard poets were held.

A Medieval Songbook promises to address these themes, and more. We hope that the volume will be of interest not only to musicologists and literary scholars, but also to anyone interested in cultural life in the Middle Ages. To return to our opening question: even a source with no music notation can tell us much about musical practice in the past, the ways that music was written and remembered, and the priorities and pleasures of a musical community in late medieval France. 

A Medieval Songbook

(eds) Elizabeth Eva Leach, Joseph W. Mason & Matthew P. Thomson

£60.00 / $99.00, 9781783276523, February 2022
Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Music
Boydell Press



Also Available

Save 40% with your Medieval Herald discount 

(Code: BB011)

This article originally appeared in the Oxford University Faculty of Music magazine. 

ELIZABETH EVA LEACH is Professor of Music at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of the British Academy. Her work focuses on song in the medieval West in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

JOSEPH W. MASON is a Junior Research Fellow at New College, University of Oxford. His research focuses on vocal music from the twelfth to the fourteenth century.

MATTHEW P. THOMSON is a Fitzjames Research Fellow at Merton College, University of Oxford. His research focuses on music of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, including polyphonic motets, monophonic song, and the role of music in literature.

Images: The pen-flourished initial marking MS C’s section of songs beginning with ‘L’ (f. 121r). Burgerbibliothek Bern, Cod. 389, f. 160v. Photo: Codices Electronici AG, www.e-codices.ch. Reproduced with permissions.