The [Earlier] Cambridge Songs

firebeastThe ‘Cambridge Songs’ (or its Latin equivalent Carmina Cantabrigiensia) is the name that has been given to a collection of poems whose only connection with Cambridge derives from their preservation in a manuscript which belongs to the library of that university (MS Gg.5.35). There is, it should be noted at the outset, some uncertainty over the precise extent of the collection. It is to be found in the final two quires of the manuscript (nos. 44 and 45), but the second of these quires is defective, some eight folios having been lost. It used to be thought that the collection comprised some 51 poems which appear on folios 432–441, before the first lacuna. These poems were copied by one of the two main scribes of the manuscript as a whole, known as ‘scribe A’. Some seven other poems, all of them on religious topics, are to be found on the two leaves that follow the first lacuna—folios 442 and 443 in the modern numbering. These texts were copied by ‘scribe C ’, who was also responsible for the texts which appear immediately after the next lacuna—on folio 444 in the modern numbering. The fourteenth-century folio numbers show that the gaps comprised two and six folios respectively.

It used to be assumed that scribe C was contributing material drawn from a quite different source, even though he was active at almost the same time as scribe A. This might still be the case, but in 1982 one of the missing folios was re-discovered in Frankfurt. It had been removed by a German scholar—a certain Theodor Oehler who visited the Cambridge University Library in 1840! The fragment was found to contain twenty-seven metra (examples of various metrical forms) extracted from the verses in Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, and it was copied by scribe A on leaves with an identical layout. It is clearly one of the two leaves missing from the first lacuna. Its discovery implies that the collection was more diverse than had previously been thought, and that it might have included the poems entered by scribe C. Hence, the 1994 edition of the ‘Cambridge Songs’ by Ziolkowski prints some eighty-five poems, numbered 1, 1A, 2–30, 30A, 31–83. (The identification of different items is often a matter of some uncertainty: larger initials often signal the start of a new poem, smaller initials the start of a new stanza, but this distinction is not always very clear.)

The contents of the collection suggests that it was assembled (or brought into something close to the shape in which it is preserved) in the Rhineland in the 1040s. Many of the poems are of Classical origin, others come from tenth- and eleventh-century Europe. They vary greatly in type and metre, and they cover many different genres. Some comprise praise-poems and laments for great secular leaders, others are poems of protest and polemic; some are comic tales, others are religious and didactic in purpose; and there are seven erotic poems. But a significant number have a Geman connection. The collection includes poems celebrating the coronation of Conrad II as Holy Roman Emperor (26 March 1027) and of Henry III as king of Burgundy (14 April 1028); laments for deaths of the emperors Henry II (1002–24) and Conrad II (1024–39); and one in praise of the Otto the Great’s Victory over the Magyars at the Battle of the Lech (955). Various poems mention the archbishops of Mainz, Trier and Cologne; another mentions nuns of the monastery of St Cecilia in Cologne; Swabians appear in two of the comic poems; some have words in German; and so on. The latest datable item is the lament for Conrad II, who died at the beginning of June 1039.

Various theories have been put together to explain why it was put together: one suggestion, now widely rejected, is that it represents the song-book of a goliard, a wandering poet or clerkly entertainer; another is that it was manual for training wandering poets of this kind; a third theory is that it was compiled by a fancier of fine poetry, or perhaps, given the music found with some items, of a fancier of fine music. But whatever the exact reasons for the compilation of the collection (and it may have been assembled in many stages), it seems to have been its value for teaching the art of composing songs in diverse metres and with diverse melodies which accounts for its survival.

To explain, the manuscript into which the collection was copied comprises a graded series of poetic texts often copiously glossed in Latin and occasionally Old English. It has four parts. The first, comprising folios 1–276, contains poetry by the major late Roman poets Juvencus, Sedulius, Arator, Tiro Prosper, Prudentius, Lactantius and Boethius. A supplement containing Rabanus Maurus’s poem De laude sancte crucis was added to this section. The second, comprising folios 276–369, contains works by early medieval poets including Aldhelm and Abbo of St-Germain. The third, comprising folios 370–431, is more diverse in its contents but there is shared emphasis on ænigmata, or ‘riddles’, on poems which present linguistic challenges, and there are various short items in Greek. Taken together, these three booklets comprise a vast collection of poetical materials which might well have been used as a classbook or as a reference text for would-be poets. For further explanation, see A. G. Rigg and G. R. Wieland, ‘A Canterbury Classbook of the Mid-Eleventh Century (the “Cambridge Songs” Manuscript)’, Anglo-Saxon England, 4 (1975), 113–30 [Cambridge Journals Online].

firebeastThe two quires in which the ‘Cambridge Songs’ are preserved constitute a fourth section. This section is laid out somewhat differently from the rest of the manuscript (in two columns of 39/40 lines, as opposed to one column of 31 or so lines), and none of the poems has explanatory glosses. But it is possible to see how it might have been added to the whole as an appendix offering further examples of how verse might be composed, and this theory helps to explain why in the case of certain poems only the opening lines and stanzas were thought relevant. Eight of the songs—Quisquis dolosis antiqui, ‘Whoever by the plots of an ancient...’ (fol. 439r–v), O admirabile Veneris idolum, ‘O wonderful image of Venus’ (fol. 441v), and six of the Boethian metra in the Frankfurt fragment—have neums above the words to which they relate. This form of musical notation, in which the shape of the symbol conveys the contour of the melody, is often too ambiguous to permit a reliable reconstruction of the music; but its presence helps to show that such poems, even when they were not copied with notation, were envisaged as pieces to be sung or performed. (Note also that treatise on music was added on folios 263r–276r by Scribe D, who was active around towards the end of the eleventh century.)

Liber sancti Augustini Cant' has been inscribed at the head of folio iii, The book has been tentatively identified with an item listed in the fifteenth-century library catalogue of St Augustine’s Abbey, for which see M. R. James, Ancient Libraries of Canterbury and Dover (Cambridge, 1903), p. 521 (no. 1437): ‘Juvencus poeta infra in colleccionibus cum A’. Juvencus is the first item in § I, but see also Rigg and Wieland, p. 119, n. 1. The script and punctuation, which are clearly Anglo-Caroline rather than German, also point to production at St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury, a few years before the Norman Conquest.

The interest of the book lies in part in what it has to say about the reception of various types of verse in eleventh-century England. In particular, the collection includes (or included) seven items with an erotic element, making it the only English manuscript that preserves Latin erotic poety clearly written before 1100. But four of these poems have been partially or entirely scrapped away with a blade, including Veni dilectissme, ‘Come dearest love’—a poem whose text anticipates Serge Gainsbourg’s Je t’aime... moi non plus by over 900 years. Since none of the other poems in the book has suffered similar damage, the sexual content of these items would seem to have been the major factor in their suppression.

Songs for Discussion

  1. Levis exsurgit zephirus, ‘The soft west wind arises’ (fol. 441ra): a woman's lament for an absent lover, now that spring has come. For a reproduction of the relevant page from the manuscript, see M. T. Gibson, M. Lapidge and C. Page, ‘Neumed Boethian metra from Canterbury: A Newly Recovered Leaf of Cambridge, University Library, Gg. 5.35 (the ‘Cambridge Songs’ Manuscript)’, Anglo-Saxon England, 12 (1983), 141–52 (pl. IV). For a text and translation, see Ziolkowski, Cambridge Songs, no. 40 (pp. 116–7). For alternative texts and translations, see P. Dronke, The Medieval Lyric (3rd edn, Woodbridge, 1996), pp. 92–93; H. Waddell, Medieval Latin Lyrics (5th edn, London, 1966), pp. 156–7. Both books are shelved at XJQ.
  2. O admirabile veneris idolum, ‘O wonderful image of Venus’ (fol. 441vb): a love poem which may be that of an older man lamenting the loss of a younger male lover who had been seduced by a rival; alternatively, it may be that of a woman pining for her lover. The song originated from northern Italy in the tenth-century Italy, and it has the same melody as the pilgrims’ song O Roma nobilis.
        For a reproduction of the relevant page from the manuscript, see T. C. Moser, A Cosmos of Desire: The Medieval Latin Erotic Lyric in English Manuscripts (Madison, WI, 2004), fig. 3. For a text and translation, see Ziolkowski, Cambridge Songs, no. 48 (pp. 124–7). For an alternative translation, see T. Stehling, Medieval Latin Poems of Male Love and Friendship, Garland Library of Medieval Literature, Series A, 7 (New York, 1984), pp. 22–23 [XJQC].
        For a recent attempt to perform this song, using the music found in two Italian manuscripts of O Roma nobilis, see Lost Songs of a Rhineland Harper (DHM 82876589392). Benjamin Bagby and Sequentia perform some nine songs from CUL Gg.5.35 on this CD, including Veni dilectissime, but not alas Levis exsurgit zephirus.

Facsimiles, Editions and Translations

  • Breul, K. (ed.), The Cambridge Songs: A Goliard’s Song Book of the Eleventh Century (Cambridge, 1915). A facsimile edition of fols. 432–41.
  • Strecker, K. (ed.), Die Cambridger Lieder (Carmina Cantabrigiensia), Monumenta Germaniae Historica: Scriptores rerum Germanicarum in usum scholarum separatim editi, vol. 40 (Berlin, 1926). Available online at MGH digital. The texts from this edition have also been reproduced at a website called Bibliotheca Augustana together with a reproduction of folio 436v.
  • Ziolkowski, J. (ed. and trs.), The Cambridge Songs (Carmina Cantabrigensia), The Garland Library of Medieval Literature, Series A, 66 (Hamden, CT, 1994). This is the only edition to include all the poems in § IV as it is now understood in the wake of the re-discovery of the Frankfurt fragment: nos. 1–49 comprise the poems first identified as those of the ‘Cambridge Songs’; nos. 50–76 the Boethian metra found on the fragment; nos. 77–83 the religious poems added by Scribe C which may have been part of the ‘booklet’ as first conceived. Ziolkowski also has a reproduction of fol. 439r, showing Quisquis dolosis antiqui and its neums (p. vi), and images of folios 442r, 442v, 443r and 443v.


  • Barker-Benfield, B. C. (ed.), Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues, vol. 13, St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury, 3 pts. (London, 2008), no. BA7.21a-g / BA1.M1847 (pp. 1684–6, 1709–14). ZVRea2.
  • Davidson, C., ‘Erotic “Women’s Songs” in Anglo-Saxon England’, Neophilologus, 59 (1975), 451–62 (esp. 451–5). Journals X6. Considers Levis exsurgit zephirus as an example of a ‘woman’s song’, a literary form with, it is argued, some currency in almost every part of the early medieval world.
  • Dronke, P., ‘Latin and Vernacular Love-lyrics; Rochester and St Augustine’s, Canterbury’, Revue Bénédictine, 115 (2005), 400–10.
  • Dronke, P., Medieval Latin and the Rise of European Love-Lyric, 2 vols. (2nd edn, Oxford, 1968), i, 271–81, and ii, 552. YWM.
  • Gibson, M. T., M. Lapidge and C. Page, ‘A Newly Recovered Leaf of Cambridge, University Library, Gg. 5.35 (the ‘Cambridge Songs’ Manuscript)’, Anglo-Saxon England, 12 (1983), 141–52. Includes plates reproducing both sides of the Frankfurt fragment (formerly, Frankfurt, Stadt- und Universitätsbibliothek, Fragm. lat. I.56), and a discussion of the musical notation used in the manuscript. Available from Cambridge Core and at MVC.
  • Irvine, M., The Making of Textual Culture: Grammatica and Literary Theory, 350–1100 (Cambridge, 1994), esp. pp. 358–64. XDA.
  • Moser, T. C., A Cosmos of Desire: The Medieval Latin Erotic Lyric in English Manuscripts (Madison, WI, 2004), esp. chp 2.
  • Rigg, A. G., and G. R. Wieland, ‘A Canterbury Classbook of the Mid-Eleventh Century (the “Cambridge Songs” Manuscript)’, Anglo-Saxon England, 4 (1975), 113–30. Available from Cambridge Core. This article provides an excellent description of the manuscript.
  • Robinson, P. R., ‘Self-Contained Units in Composite Manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Period’, Anglo-Saxon England, 7 (1978), 231–8. MVC.
  • Stevens, J., Words and Music in the Middle Ages: Song, Narrative, Dance and Drama, 1050–1350 (Cambridge, 1986), pp. 114–9.
  • Westrup, J. A., ‘Medieval Song’, in Hughes, A. (ed.), The New Oxford History of Music, vol. 2, Early Medieval Music Up to 1300 (Oxford, 1954), pp. 220–69. Includes, at p. 221, a brief discussion of the music of O admirabile Veneris idolum together with a rendering of the music into modern notation. VV8.
  • Wieland, G. R. (ed.), The Latin Glosses on Arator and Prudentius in Cambridge University Library, MS Gg.5.35, Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies: Studies and Texts 61 (Toronto, 1983).
  • Ziolkowski, The Cambridge Songs, pp. xvii–lv.

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