The Later Cambridge Songs

Cambridge, University Library, MS Ff.1.17(1), also known as ‘The Later Cambridge Songs’, is the sole surviving example of what was probably a common form of manuscript for the transmission of songs and motets in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, a single unbound quire or libellus. It is, as Nicholas Bell explains,

a very messy book, crudely written on rough parchment, and contains a mixture of versus, tropes and didactic poems, some monophonic and others polyphonic. By its entirely unpretentious appearance this volume tells us much about the purposes for which it was written: the notation is simple and pragmatic, at times to the point of being makeshift. The variety of note-forms is very limited, and the scribe makes little attempt to align the music of the different voice-parts when writing polyphonic music in score. As a result, it was necessary to add vertical lines connecting the upper and lower pans to showwhich notes belong with which syllables. [It] is a hastily written, seemingly inept little anthology... (N. Bell, ‘Music’, in Morgan and Thomson, Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, vol. 2, pp. 466–7).

It appears that a more durable and careful record was not required, perhaps because fashions in music of this kind changed quickly and all that was needed was a format which had the advantages of economy and portability and which would endure for as long as its contents remained in vogue. One consequence of this approach is that the survival rate for manuscripts of this kind is very poor. Some examples survive as binding fragments, and that we have this one in its entirety is due to the thoroughness with which it was recycled: originally a quaternion (i.e. two bifolia comprising eight sides), it was used to provide guard-leaves for a late thirteenth-century collection of theological tracts, two bifolia being added at each end of the book. The booklet’s contents comprise thirty-five (or according to some reckonings, thirty-four) non-liturgical songs for between one and three parts. All but two of the songs are wholly in Latin. The exceptions introduce a few phrases in Anglo-Norman. Many of the songs relate to the celebration of the feast-days of the ecclesiastical year, especially those of the Christmas season, but there are a number of erotic items (Stevens, nos. 9. 15, 16, 19), and there is one song concerned with political issues (no. 14). The latter item is a polemic against ‘simony’, which it defines as the buying and selling of ecclesiastical offices.

firebeastThe manuscript nowhere identifies the composers of the songs, but modern scholars have attributed some of the poems to known figures. Peter Dronke, for example, has made a case for attributing one of the items for discussion below, Vacillantis trutine libramine, ‘Vacillating on a Quivering Balance’, to one of the most famous letter-writers of the twelfth century, Peter of Blois. Born into a noble at Blois in 1135, Peter died alone and destitute in 1212 having outlived his patron, Eleanor of Aquitaine, by eight years. He was educated at the universities of Tours, Paris and Bologna, was taught by John of Salisbury, a pupil of Abelard. He briefly, in 1166–68, became a tutor in Palermo to the future king of Sicily, William II; but had much greater success in England, first at the court of King Henry II and then in the households of the Richard of Dover, archbishop of Canterbury (1174–84), and perhaps also, in the 1190s, of Queen Eleanor herself. The poems which Dronke has attributed to him cover a wide variety of genres: love-songs, erotic songs, occasional, moral or satirical pieces, religious compositions, and debates.


Facsimile and Critical Edition: J. Stevens, The Later Cambridge Songs: An English Song Collection of the Twelfth Century (Oxford, 2005), pp. 167-82. VV8ea.B.

Provenance: The provenance of the manuscript is quite uncertain. The collection of theological tracts into which the booklet was bound was owned by a ‘Frater Roger of Schepiswed’ whose ex libris appears in two places, on the booklet and on the collection of tracts. Since ‘Schepiswed’ may be identified with Shepshed near Loughborough, it may be inferred that the booklet had reached this region by the end of the thirteenth century. Since performing the music would have required a group of highly trained singers such as would be found at a major ecclesiastical establishment. Stevens opts, therefore, for Leicester Abbey, a wealthy house of Augustinian Canons in the vicinity of Shepshed; but Brother Roger need not have been attached to house in this region, and the presence of a song for children (see below) may point to a Benedictine house, since it was still the norm, in the late twelfth century, for Benedictine monks to be admitted as child-oblates. It does not seem to have been the norm for children to participate in choral singing in secular establishments before the fifteenth century.

Modern Recording: Christopher Page and the Gothic Voices, ‘The Earliest Songbook in England’ (Hyperion CDA67177).

Songs for Discussion

  1. Magnus gaudens gaudio, ‘Rejoicing with Great Joy’, a monophonic song for the feast of the Holy Innocents (29 December), which seems to have been designed so that it could be performed by oblates—by child-monks. The regularity of the rhythm suggests that the performance could have involved dancing as well as singing. ‘The music’, Stevens writes, ‘is tuneful, repetitive, memorable, and provided with a refrain’ (fol. 4v; Stevens, no. 17; ‘The Earliest Songbook’, no. 5).
  2. Vacillantis trutine libramine, ‘Vacillating on a Quivering Balance’, a monophonic song in which the poet, having been kissed by his little Flora, complains that his mind swings back and forth between reason and love (fol. 2rv; Stevens, no. 9; ‘The Earliest Songbook’, no. 8). Note how the idea of a balance swinging back and forth is reflected in the vocabulary and rhythm of the verses which has a certain angular or contrapuntal quality. This song is also attested in other manuscripts—in Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 4660 (s.1220s–1230s), fol. 80r, which is the famous Carmina Burana manuscript, and in London, British Library, MS Arundel 384 (s.xiv), fol. 234r—and in these versions, but not in CUL Ff.1.17(1), the song continues with verses in which the poet renounces reason and submits to the sway of Venus.
  3. Ad honorem Saluatoris, ‘To the Honour of the Saviour’, a song for two voices which calls on the congregation to celebrate the feast of an unamed saint who is both a confessor and a martyr and whose vita is to be read out to those present (fol. 6v; Stevens, no. 25; ‘The Earliest Songbook’, no. 19).

Commentary: Stevens, The Later Cambridge Songs, provides the best starting point and cites much of the recent literature. Note especially his discussion of the historical context at pp. 35-39. There is also some discussion of the manuscript in S. Fuller, ‘Early Polyphony’, in R. Crocker and D. Hiley (eds), The New Oxford History of Music, vol. 2, Early Medieval Music up to 1300 (2nd edn, Oxford, 1990), pp. 485–556, at 548–553 [VV8].

See also P. Dronke, ‘Peter of Blois and Poetry at the Court of Henry II’, Mediaeval Studies, 38 (1976), 185–235 (esp. pp. 200–3) [Journals Y6], along with R. W. Southern, ‘Blois, Peter of (1125x30–1212)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004), who expresses strong doubts about the extent of Peter’s activities as a poet.

Other Relevant Recordings: The French early music ensemble Diabolus in Musica have made two evocative recordings of music from this period: (1) Carmina Gallica: Chansons latines du XIIIe siècle (Alpha 037) offers performances of some eighteen ‘twelfth-century’ lyrics, including songs by several poets from the early part of the century who helped to establish the fashion for Ovidian verse (e.g. Baudri of Bourgueil and Hilary of Orléans), and another three songs attributed to Peter of Blois; (2) Paris expers Paris: École de Notre-Dame, 1170–1240 (Alpha 102) is one of the best compilations of music from the repertoire of polyphonic chants and motets associated with the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, and it includes a rendering of Olim sudor herculis, ‘Once, the sweat of Hercules...’. This song is found in, among several manuscripts, CUL Ff.1.17(1), fol. 5r (Stevens, no. 19), and it is another of the many poems which have been attributed to Peter of Blois (see Dronke, ‘Peter of Blois’, p. 225).

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