The Dorset Rotulus

Surviving examples of medieval motets are few and English ones are rarer still. So the discovery of a new find – two leaves of a musical scroll that originated in Dorset’s Abbotsbury Abbey – is both a hugely exciting development and a substantial contribution to our knowledge and understanding of this music.

From its origins in the early thirteenth century, the Latin-texted motet in England and France rapidly evolved into a significant and diverse genre of medieval polyphonic music, a rich repertory important both for its devotional texts and its fascinating variety of musical structures. Regrettably, only a small number of intact manuscripts of such motets survive, and these few are continental. Indeed, from England there are no complete or even nearly complete manuscripts of polyphony between the Winchester Troper of c. 1000 and the Old Hall manuscript, compiled for the chapels of Thomas Duke of Clarence and Henry V in the 1410s—and the latter codex is itself only three-quarters complete.

Fragmentary sources thus necessarily play a vital role in the music-historical narrative of the motet. Every new find, however scruffy, is scrutinized with the keenest interest and is liable to provide fresh insights into the characteristics of the music and its sources. Hence the impetus for our book. In 2017, important new fragments of medieval polyphony came to light. They originated at the Benedictine monastery of Abbotsbury, a major institution in southern England located high above Chesil beach on Dorset’s scenic Jurassic Coast.

The two leaves once headed an imposing musical scroll and preserve significant portions of four large-scale Latin-texted motets from the early fourteenth century—works devoted to St Margaret, the Virgin Mary, St Nicholas, and the Ascension. The abbey church was razed to the ground many centuries ago, but like its enormous tithe barn (the largest surviving thatched building in the world), and its austere St Catherine’s chapel on a nearby hilltop overlooking the English Channel, this new source of music bears witness to the wealth and importance of medieval Abbotsbury Abbey.

Photo from Jared Hartt

The Dorset motets expand our understanding of how the English developed their own approaches to the genre, forging styles and techniques quite independent of their continental counterparts. This book introduces the manuscript and its provenance in Abbotsbury, contextualizes its motets within the larger corpus of contemporary Latin-texted motets, and analyzes and reconstructs each of the motets, generating complete performable transcriptions for three out of the four pieces.

The two parchment leaves also provide important evidence for a narrative about their original manuscript source and its later history. When rejoined, they preserve about the top third of a large-format rotulus, a carefully copied and elegantly decorated scroll which was likely once about two meters in height, containing at least twice as many pieces as now survive. Rolls and roll fragments carrying polyphonic music comprise a tiny fraction of the surviving sources of motets, and the Dorset rotulus is now the largest of which we know. It is easily the most legible at a distance, too, so that it could have been sung from in live performance. Like so many of its fellow music manuscripts from this era, whether codex or scroll, when its music fell out of favor it was dismembered and recycled. Trimming, soiling, and folds and stitch holes tell us that our two parchment leaves were recycled into covers for archival documents, and then at some more recent time, removed and set aside. Ultimately, they came to rest, crumpled up, at the bottom of a large chest in the hallway of a manor house deep in the pastoral Dorset countryside, on an estate that was the destination for other surviving materials from Abbotsbury as well. The expertise of Drs. Margaret Bent (Oxford), Jared Hartt (Oberlin) and Peter Lefferts (Nebraska) here turns an examination of these shards of musical waste into a co-authored study that will be of great interest not just to music historians and performers, but also to students of history, Benedictine monasticism, codicology, hagiography, and medieval Latin.


This guest post was written by Margaret Bent, Emeritus Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, Jared C. Hartt, Professor of Music Theory at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and Peter M. Lefferts, Professor of Music at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The Dorset Rotulus: Contextualizing and Reconstructing the Early English Motet
Edited by Margaret Bent, Jared C. Hartt and Peter M. Lefferts
9781783276189, Hardcover, £39 or $64.35