Prayers for the dead, funeral music and simple polyphony in a French music manuscript of the early sixteenth century. Amiens, Bibliothèque Centrale Louis Aragon, MS 162 D
“Unparalleled” and “deeply fascinating”, these are the words that come to my mind, if I am asked to characterize the manuscript Amiens, Bibliothèque Centrale Louis Aragon, MS 162 D (hereafter Amiens 162). But, of course, much depends on the eyes that look at it and on how we read a French musical source from the period around 1500. If we as reference take our fascination with the contemporary, brilliant art music, it is easy to view Amiens 162 as a record of a musically boring, provincial repertory consisting of simple polyphony for two and three voices interspersed with plainchant and some small pieces of a more modern design. And this view would be quite accurate. But if we enter into an interpretation of the manuscript’s physical details and combine these with the possible context of its genesis, a picture of a highly complex testimony to the use of music in very special circumstances begins to emerge. Then it offers insight into the use of music to alleviate human fear, to support the search for safety in turbulent times, and on the other hand it may represent a cool economic and political calculation, which intended to explore this fear for practical purposes. Furthermore, we seem to find in it traces of a single person’s ambition and care for his institution as he attempts to navigate in a difficult situation; and not least, it demonstrates the efficiency and versatility of simple polyphony in a struggle between the old ways and new political and musical circumstances.
I choose, of course, to read this source through highly interpretative optics and to assign the ‘cool’ reading of such a ‘boring’ source to a separate section. This is why the technical description of the manuscript has been placed in its own section. Here one can find discussions of its physical details and traces of use and of their significance for our understanding of the manuscript. The online (and PDF) edition of its musical repertory and related compositions in other sources contains an extensive commentary on the single pieces. In references to music, I use the reversed quotation marks »« around titles to indicate that the pieces are published in the edition.
For a start we need a short resume of some of the conclusions reached in the manuscript description. Then the situation in Corbie, the career of Dom Antoine de Caulaincourt and the genesis of the music manuscript will form the central part of my narrative. The last topic will be an evaluation of its repertory.
The manuscript Amiens 162 is a composite volume consisting of three items: a fragment of an early 16th century missal from Corbie, one fascicle only, a 14th century missal likewise from Corbie, which was complete until some time in the 19th century, and a music manuscript. They are all made of parchment and in large format. The volume measures c. 32 x 22 x 4,3 cm and contains 124 folios distributed in 14 fascicles or gatherings. The book was rebound in Amiens in 1826, and during this process all folios were trimmed, and some time later an ink foliation ff. 1-124 was added. These items were brought together, bound in a fragile binding and finally posited in the library of the Corbie Abbey by Dom Antoine de Caulaincourt during the 1530s or earlier.
In the music manuscript we meet four different writing hands. The first certainly belongs to a professional scribe, while the three other hands most probably represent the work of Caulaincourt during a decade or more with small differences and refinements in his writing accumulating. The greatest and most important part of the manuscript was probably produced in Paris during the young Caulaincourt’s stay there in 1502-03, and it would be difficult not to assume that he acted on a commission from the abbot of Corbie. The additions and revisions in the music manuscript were results of its use in the services of the St Barbara confraternity through the following decade. It went out of use during the years when the monastery struggled for its independence. By the beginning of the 1520s at latest, its usefulness must have come to an end. At some time before his death, Caulaincourt bound his materials concerning the confraternity in one volume and placed it in the monastery library.
This composite manuscript has never made much of an impression neither as a missal nor as a music manuscript. Its appearance and contents is cursorily described in the catalogue of the Amiens library of 1843 (Garnier 1843, p. 125), in the Bibliothèque Nationale catalogue of manuscripts in French public libraries (Coyecque 1893, p. 72), and in Abbé Leroquais’ big catalogue of missals (Leroquais 1924, vol. II, p. 298). In 1965 Helma Hofmann-Brandt ‘re-discovered’ the manuscript in connection with research for her dissertation on responsory tropes of the Office (Hofmann-Brandt 1971), and she published a small study of its musical contents (Hofmann-Brandt 1967); since then a short description and a thematic catalogue has been published in Répertoire International des Sources Musicales (B IV/3, pp. 429-443). I have discussed a song from its repertory in my dissertation of 1994 (Christoffersen 1994. vol. I, pp. 323-325), and I have presented the manuscript at a couple of congresses, ‘Attention to text setting and sonority in simple 15th-century music (the MS Amiens, Bibl. Mun. 162)’, (MED-REN, Glasgow 2004), and ‘The Music Sections of MS Amiens 162: Copyists, Purpose, Corbie, Confréries and the Role of Antoine de Caulaincourt’, (Colloque International In Seculum Amiens. Les manuscrits musicaux d’Amiens au Moyen Âge, November 22-24, 2007 in Amiens), and in an article in the collection La musique en Picardie (Christoffersen 2012).
The manuscript remained in the monastery library until the dissolution and demolition of the Corbie Abbey, which began in June 1790 during the revolution. Its library was transported to the region’s main city, Amiens, 17 kilometres west of Corbie. Here the books were counted and loosely listed in a document containing 403 numbers. From this list the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris selected 74 numbers that were sent to Paris. The reason for this interest in the books was that the library of L’Abbaye de Corbie went back to the foundation of the monastery around the year 660 and had been associated with a famous scriptorium. (1) In the 18th century it still owned some of the most valuable and interesting manuscripts from the early Middle Ages. Already before the revolution the library had been thinned out, because the monks during the difficult times following the monastery’s loss of independence in 1523 sold books or used them as gifts or bribes. And through the centuries wars rolled across the flat landscape of Northern France – just like it happened in the 19th and 20th centuries. This caused one of the library’s greatest losses of books. Four hundred of the most important manuscripts were in 1638 moved to safety in Paris, because Spanish troops two years earlier had occupied Corbie. These manuscripts were never sent back to Corbie. The majority of these manuscripts can today be found in the Bibliothèque Nationale. 35 manuscripts ended up in Sankt Petersburg (Ganz 1990).
Amiens kept around 325 volumes of which some were placed in the departmental archive and others in the book collections, which later became the city’s public library, Bibliothèque Communale de la Ville d’Amiens. The library opened in 1826 and is still situated in the same beautiful, but much extended building in Rue de la Republique. It has been reckoned that the library today owns 177 manuscripts from Corbie. Before the move to the new building the manuscripts were stored un-catalogued and apparently in quite bad shape. An amateur, Paul Leprince, was permitted to rebind more than 500 of the library’s books at his own cost after studying in Paris for nearly a year in order to learn the art of bookbinding. The author of the first catalogue of the manuscripts in the Amiens library, Jacques Garnier, indignantly refuses a contemporary critique that this procedure should have “vandalised, cropped and falsified our manuscripts”. (2)
This information calls for some caution, because our manuscript was indeed cropped, reordered and bound by Leprince in 1826. The crucial question is, if the rebound manuscript represents the tattered volume brought from Corbie, or did the binder compile it? In this case Garnier was right about the work of Leprince. An examination of the old sewing holes and the fascicles corroborates that they were bound together in an only slightly different order. It is now difficult to see, as several of the old sewing holes have been reused by the new binding, but about one centimetre above the lower edge an empty hole is visible in most bifolios. This is moreover confirmed by an inscription and by references to the manuscript before 1826. The MS Amiens 162 is by and large identical to the book, which Antoine de Caulaincourt deposited in the Corbie Library.
Antoine de Caulaincout belonged to one of Picardy’s oldest noble families (La Chenaye-Desbois et Badier 1864, tome 4, pp. 853-865). He spent his whole career at the Corbie Abbey and is author of an important source for the history of this institution, known as Chronicon Corbeiense. It is preserved in the Bibliothèque Nationale as MS lat. 17.757 (Corbie 25) in a partial autograph by Caulaincourt. This work is also found in later copies in the Bibliothèque Nationale (MSS lat. 10.111 and 12.893) (3) The library in Amiens owns a carefully written copy with the title Per anni et insignis ad modum Monasterii S. Petri de Corbeia fundatio, MS 524 D, copied at Corbie in the late 16th or the early 17th century in “Ecriture batarde très-correcte” (Garnier 1843 p. 462), which has been my main source for the following description. In this work Caulaincourt tells the history of the abbey from 662 to 1529. The story becomes gradually more detailed as the events move toward his own time. He gives an account of the long row of abbots, of the holders of many different offices in the monastic organisation, of the changes in liturgy and practices of the abbey, and he recounts big-time politics viewed from Corbie with visits of princes and ecclesiastic dignitaries as important points, but he takes care also to paint a broader view of events and developments on the European scene – in fact, Corbie was quite well informed on the world.
From 1489 a first person narrator appears, when Caulaincourt himself crops up as the very last in an enumeration of the residents in the monastery, ”et ego ultimus quadragesimus sextus in ordine”, and from then on his career and opinions come to occupy an increasingly prominent place in the story. (4) He was probably born in 1482 or a little later as the second son of Jean III de Caulincourt and Jeanne Le Vasseur who married in 1480. His uncle, Renaud Le Vasseur, was a monk in Corbie, where he in 1489 became thesaurarius and later supremus superior claustralis (died 1517). As a novice Caulaincourt was educated at the abbey, and being one of its best pupils he from 1496 continued his studies for three years at the renowned Grandes écoles of Amiens. Returned to Corbie, he was ordained a subdiaconus and a short time later a diaconus, and finally, in August 1501, Caulaincourt was received as a full member of the Benedictine order. At Easter 1502 he was sent to Paris to study for ten months with his older cousin, the learned Jean Le Vasseur, professor of theology, prior of the Dominican convent at Saint-Omer and suffragan bishop of Thérouanne (died 1508). After his return to Corbie, Caulaincourt was ordained a priest in the cathedral of Noyon by the bishop; however, he was not accorded the right to celebrate Mass due to his young age. This was remedied in 1504, when the abbot obtained a dispensation from the archbishop of Rouen, permitting Caulaincourt and his contemporary Jacques de Renty to say Mass, and at Advent they were installed as magistri novitiorum (teachers of the novices).
Now he started the slow climb up the monastic hierarchy. He was promoted to functions within the abbey and acquired benefices, which allowed him to stay on in Corbie as one of the higher officers: He became the abbot’s chaplain in 1510, in 1516 prévôt de Naours, 1517 cellerarius aquarum and during the same year he was princeps or maître of the Confrérie Saints-Innocents, and finally in January 1522, Caulaincourt was installed in one of the most powerful positions at Corbie, as officialis, chairman of the clerical court, a sort of ‘guardian of the faith’. Caulaincourt died in 1536 or 1540. (5)
Caulaincourt appears totally immersed in the affairs of the abbey and in all sides of monastic life. He was highly educated with years of study in Amiens and Paris to supplement the abbey school. His education was certainly supported by his learned relatives Renaud and Jean Le Vasseur, and probably promoted also by his abbot, Pierre d’Ostrel. He does not tell us anything of music at the abbey in his chronicle or of his own experiences with singing. We may simply assume that he participated in the singing at all services since his entrance as a novice, and that he was able to pass on these abilities, when he himself became a teacher of the novices – all as part of a monastic routine.
He seems to have been quite well off and successful, even if he often in later life entered into controversies with powers outside the abbey as well as with superiors inside. For example, he recounts with great pride that in 1513 the French king, Louis XII, during his second stay in Corbie for twenty days, preferred to live in Caulaincourt’s rooms, while the dukes of Angoulême and Alençon and other high nobles were lodged in the residences of the abbot and the prior (Amiens MS 524 D, p. 356). The landing of English troops had called the king to Picardy, where he stayed twice in Corbie. During the next couple of centuries Caulaincourt was remembered by his successors in Corbie as a prolific author and as one of the abbey’s great scholars, a “vir pius ac doctus, multa scripsit”. (6)
During the entire lifetime of Caulaincourt, the monastery was staggering from crisis to crisis, and its decisive decline set in during his last twenty years. After the peace of Arras in 1435 during the Hundred Years War, the lands along the Somme including Corbie had come under the rule of the Burgundian duchy. This, however, did not remove the region from the devastation of the war zone, and the Burgundian dukes simply disregarded the self-rule of the monastery. The army of the French king captured Corbie in 1475, burned down the town and plundered the abbey. The area returned to the French crown only after the death of duke Charles Témèraire and the collapse of Burgundy as a major political player in 1477. From its earliest days Corbie had been a royal abbey, which enjoyed wide-ranging privileges and was independent of the French church organisation. The monks were entitled to elect their own abbot who only had to be confirmed by the pope, and who at his rise to the title of abbot became conte (count) and ruler of the town and of extensive land possessions around it, as well as holdings in Brabant, around Liége, in Louvain, in Flanders and in Southern Germany (Zoller-Devroey 1976). When Corbie returned to France, the crown wished to change this situation.
By putting the abbey under la commende, the king was able to bestow the title of abbé-conte on members of his administration or of his court as a valuable benefice. The holder of such an office did not have to worry about the daily business of the monastery, which was run by the prior. The king met strong opposition from the monks. The first commende-abbot, François de Mailly, had to give up his title, when Louis XI died in 1483. The monks put his prior in jail, and the king answered by arresting several monks and forcing them to Paris (Zurfluh 1963). In the end, the abbot elected by the monks in 1483, Pierre d’Ostrel (d’Ostreil, Dottrel), was installed in 1485. In compensation the abbey had to pay a pension to his predecessor. Abbot d’Ostrel made great efforts to restore the abbey to its former glory, even if Corbie during his years in office was hit repeatedly by backlashes such as the English conquest and plundering of the town in 1493.
Their main church, the Abbatiale St Pierre, was erected in the 11th century and seemed hopelessly out-dated in comparison to other religious centres of the region. (7) A new, spacious church was designed. It was planned to have a total length of 117,5 meters, with a transept crowned by a bell tower and a spire reaching a height of 90 meters, and a facade dominated by two massive towers – of dimensions a bit smaller only than the cathedral of Amiens (145 meters in length). In order to create space for the construction, the first steps were to demolish the old St Pierre. Under the energetic leadership of Pierre d’Ostrel the building of the new church started in 1501, but owing to the widespread famine in the region it came to a standstill in 1503-04, only to be resumed in 1506. At d’Ostrel’s death in 1506 the choir was finished under a temporary roof, and the building of the transept and its covering continued during the following years. However, the monastery became involved in a new controversy concerning the appointment of the next abbot. The monks elected Guillaume du Caurel, while the king preferred the bishop of Amiens, François d’Halluin. Again, the dispute was resolved by paying an enormous yearly compensation to the bishop for his relinquishment of the title. The financial burden made it nearly impossible to keep up the building effort. The conflict went on, now with the king’s new appointee, cardinal Louis de Bourbon, as a main actor besides the Amiens bishop. The Concordat of Bologna of 1516 had increased the royal influence on appointments, but abbot Caurel was able to keep his challengers at bay. After the death of Caurel in 1522, the conflict flared up again and escalated into physical violence as well as excommunications of monks including Caulaincourt. Pope Adrian VI nominated, against the wishes of the king, Philippe de la Chambre (the later cardinal of Bologna) as abbé commendataire in 1523. To begin with this only complicated the question. The unrest surrounding the position at last came to an end with the final instalment of Philippe de la Chambre in 1528.
From then on the title of abbé-conte belonged to non-resident, noble dignitaries, who did not have any interest in sinking funds into a local building project. The church remained half finished. The spire above the transept probably came up in 1540, but the remainder had to wait until the monastery was transferred to the Benedictine society La Congrégation de St-Maur, and until it was decided – while cardinal Mazarin officiated as abbot – to restore the monastery at the expense of the crown. The building of St-Pierre was resumed around 1685 and finished in gothic style after the original, only slightly revised design around 1740. During the years after the revolution, the big basilica was mainly exploited as a quarry, where materials for other building works could be fetched. After some attempts at restoration, it was decided in 1816 to preserve the facade with its towers and the nave only, while the ruins of the transept and choir were demolished. Today, only the youngest third of Pierre d’Ostrel’s vision of a gothic basilica stands in the townscape of Corbie as a dominating, oddly truncated church.
Figure 1, The half-finished St Pierre and the Corbie Abbey in 1677. Drawing in Monasticon gallicanum by Dom Germain. Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, ms. lat. 11820.
Figure 3, St Pierre and Corbie in 2004.
1) For the early history of the monastery, see for example M. Rouche, ‘Corbie’, in Lexikon 1998, vol. III, coll. 224-228, and Grenier 1910; concerning the library and the scriptorium, see Delisle 1861 and Jones 1947.
2) “M. Le Price ainé, qui venait de quitter le commerce, offrit de consacrer ses loisir à la reliure de ces volumes. Dès lors il alla à Paris étudier cet art auquel il était tout-à-fait étranger, et après un apprentissage qui dura près d’une année, il se créa un atelier, revint à Amiens et, avec un zèle et générosité sans exemple, donna à plus de 500 volumes et à ses frais, une reliure simple, riche, solide et convenable. On n’a point craint de l’accuser de vandalisme, et de lui reprocher d’avoir rogné et dénaturé plusieurs de nos Mss. Nous ne savons sur quelles preuves on s’est fondé, mains nous, qui avons examiné tous ces volumes un par un, feuillet par feuillet, nous pouvons assurer qu’ils ont été reliés avec une attentions qui allait jusqu’au scrupule: ...” (Garnier 1843 pp. XXXI-XXXII). This critique was raised in Le comte de Montalembert, Du Vandalisme et du Catholicisme dans l’Art (framens), Paris 1839, p. 23. Montalembert, however, remarks only on the cropping of folio volumes – and that did happen.
4) This short biography builds on his own chronicle and a sketch by Jacques Garnier, Notice sur Antoine de Caulincourt, official de Corbie (1521-1540), Amiens 1856 (a more detailed version can be found on the Caulaincourt page).
5) The copy of the library catalogue of Corbie states “1536” (see below), while Garnier in his Notice gives the date as “1540” without mentioning his source. The source was probably Amiens MS 525 C, an abbreviated history of the monastery of c. 1675 by Dom Cocquelin (published in Garnier 1845), which p. 30 says that Antoine Turban followed Caulaincourt as officialis in 1540; in several other instances this work mentions 1540 as Caulaincourt's year of death.
6) Amiens MS 525 C, p. 30 (Garnier 1845, p. 461). In a list of learned men, most of them abbots of the monastery, and starting with St Adalardus (abbot 780-826), St Paschasius Ratbertus (abbot 843-851), St Anscharius (missionary to Denmark and Sweden, 801-865), and Ratramus (monk 825-c. 870), Caulaincourt is listed as the tenth and last (“Academia”, pp. 6-7, Garnier, pp. 399-400). Among those famed for their remarkable wisdom (“Doctrina conspicui”, p. 25, Garnier, p. 450) Caulaincourt is mentioned as the third after St Adalardus and St Anscharius. Dom Paul Bonnefons brings a long eulogy on Caulaincourt at the point (p. 971), where he had to leave his Chronique as a valuable source for his own Historia Corbeiensis (Paris, BN, MS lat. 17143).