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The Confrérie Ste Barbe

On folio 1 of MS Amiens 162 we find along the spine a nearly illegible Latin inscription, which identified the contents of the MS by mentioning the first and last items in the volume, “Missale imperfectum … officium proprium Ste Barbare virginis et martyris: propter sodalita … corbeiensi … in fine libri … …”. It was, judging by the style of the writing, added sometime during the 17th or early 18th centuries. Similar information can be found in a copy of an old catalogue of the Corbie Abbey library made by Dom Pardessus in 1761, which describes the MS as “Missale. Il se trouve a la fin un office de ste Barbe pour la confrerie de cette ste qui etoit dans l’eglise de Corbie a qui Dom Antoine de Caulaincourt donna ce livre. Antoine de Caulaincourt est mort en 1536. Cotté 105 II.” (Paris, Bibl. Nat., Collection de Picardie, tome 15, f. 9). (1) This information reappears in the later, printed catalogues of the Amiens library (Garnier 1843, p. 125, and Coyecque 1893, p. 72). It confirms that the two missals and the music manuscript were bound together at an early date, that the St Barbara vespers contrary to their present placement were placed at the end of the volume, and furthermore, that the volume was donated to the Corbie library by Antoine de Caulaincourt before 1536. It is easy to reconstruct the original disposition of the volume: The present fascicles 1-6 must simply be moved to the end of the volume. Hereby the music manuscript becomes an entity ending with the vespers of St Barbara, and it was presumably preserved between covers of which f. 1 is the sole remains. Into this cover Caulaincourt placed an old missal in his possession, and before that a fascicle from another, younger missal (“Missale imperfectum …”), and had it all bound. In this shape, the manuscript fits the old catalogue description perfectly.

What is of special interest to us is that the inscription and the catalogue entry establish a connection between the manuscript and a confrérie Ste Barbe. Unfortunately, it has not been possible to find any references to St Barbara in the quite scanty literature on Corbie in the 15th and 16th centuries. There seem to have been neither chapels nor altars dedicated to this saint at the monastery, and any confraternity in her honour cannot be documented in the town. In this connection we have to bear in mind that the many wars in this region have to some degree ravaged the archives and made research challenging. It has earlier been noticed that it is difficult to document any significant number of confraternities in the Picardy (Vincent 1994, p. 42), but later research shows that it probably had the same relative number of such institutions as other Northern French provinces (Desportes 1995). But there is still much to find out about Corbie. (2) There cannot, however, be any doubt that such a confraternity did exist. In a listing of financial dispositions by abbot Pierre d’Ostrel in 1501, Caulaincourt’s own chronicle of Corbie documents the existence of two confraternities in connection with the abbey, “Item trigintas duas libras Annui et perpetui Redditus super villam de Wiencourt ad faciendum pastum monachis diebus videlicet sui Anniversarii Beati Sebastiani martiris Die quo prime Reliquie reponuntur, et in confraternitatibus sanctarum marie magdalene et barbare martiris.” (MS Paris, BN, lat. 17.757, ff. 90v-91). This grant from the abbot allocates 32 livres coming from the revenues of the abbey’s property in Willencourt (Viencourt) to pay for the participation of the monks in the banquets held yearly on the day of the re-enshrinement of the relics of Saint Sebastian in the Abbatiale, and in the banquets of the confraternities of the saints Maria Magdalena and Barbara the martyr.

In the second half of the 15th century there existed in Amiens a confrérie de Sainte-Barbe at the Dominican convent, which organized some of the most important citizens of Amiens. It was one of the rallying grounds for the privileged (Desportes 1995, pp. 174-176). (3) In Corbie there may very well have existed a similar confraternity under the protection of St Barbara, which allied the monastery and the people of the town in a spiritual community, and which held its services in one of the abbey’s three churches, St-Pierre, St-Étienne or St-Jean, or in one of the town’s parish churches, with a priest from the monastery as officiant. However, we have no documentation of such a confraternity, no statutes, no financial records or records of testamentary gifts, except for the old catalogue description of the manuscript and the almost accidental mention of it in a listing of the abbot’s dispositions in 1501. It would be, of course, of great importance to have sure knowledge of the organization behind the unique musical source. But everything we can say about the confrérie Ste Barbe has to be a web of hypotheses, based only on the general literature on French confraternities and on what the manuscript itself can tell us.

Spiritual confraternities connecting monasteries and lay society had existed since the 11th century. The confraternity movement grew in many different shapes and reached a peak in the second half of the 15th and the first decades of the 16th centuries, where they could be found in abundance in cities, and they were numerous in rural parishes also. Often they catered for groups of the populace with shared professional interests, but could as well reach across social boundaries. Their primary mission was to prepare the members for life eternal by organizing their ‘good deeds’ (alms and presence at services and prayers) and their funerals, and by holding memorial services for the deceased and festive services for the patron saint. A confraternity could function as a sort of extended spiritual family (or a family substitute). The solidarity was strengthened by the members’ participation in at least one yearly procession and in a shared meal with high-quality food and drink, during which memorials to deceased members were read; this banquet was interpolated between attendances to a mass and vespers dedicated to the patron saint.

Attendance to the funerals of fellow members and requiem masses was important, likewise was the availability of the necessary paraphernalia belonging to a funeral (candles, bier, pall etc.) a matter of great importance, especially to the less affluent (Deschamps 1958, Vincent 1994, passim, and Banker 1988, pp. 1-37). To be assured of a solemn funeral and of continuing intercessory prayers for their souls was a weighty reason for the increasing support for the confraternities. This, however, could be combined with other purposes, which added considerably to the ‘good deeds’ accumulated for the members. For example, in Northern France after the destruction of many churches during the Hundred Years War, we find confraternities founded for the purpose of supporting and financing the rebuilding of churches (Vincent 1994, p. 34).

Confraternities were dedicated to a patron saint, most often to the Virgin Maria or to the Holy Sacraments, or to saints of local importance. But also the fourteen saints renowned as helpers in times of need were loved as patrons. Saint Barbara was among the most popular. She was regarded as the patron saint for builders, miners, artillerists and the dying – patron of the most dangerous trades and “la patronesse de la bonne mort” (Desportes 1995, p. 175). (4) In Italy we find several Confréries de Sainte-Barbe consisting of members from Flanders and Northern France. (5)

Figure 4, Jan van Eyck (about 1395-1441), St Barbara (Oil on panel, 1437), Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp, Belgium.

Of the two confraternities mentioned in Caulaincourt’s Chronique, the first one may have been connected with the chapel in “S. Mariae Magadalenae domus leprosorum”, a leper infirmary (12th century) in Neuville-sous-Corbie, which belonged to the monastery. (6) Regarding the other one, we have to presume that the confrérie Ste Barbe was created or revived on the initiative of abbé-conte Pierre d’Ostrel who in all his actions showed himself as a vigorous leader. Its existence, judging from the contents of the music manuscript, seems to be part of a conscious strategy to gain the support and confidence of the local society as well as of the work force during the complicated process of renewing the Abbatiale. And it may have been as short-lived as many other confraternities, which did not survive their founder(s) by many years (Vincent 1994, pp. 45-46).

It is possible to regard the music manuscript as a tangible psychological tool, as a manifestation of what the confraternity was able to put up in defence for the soul who had participated in the joint project when death took its toll either by natural causes, by violence or caused by the evidently dangerous work of demolition and building. The manuscript may have functioned as something that created a feeling of security, an object to be looked at and touched, and the members could hear the music sung at the appropriate occasions. It signified the promise that the participants received something important in return for their contribution whether they donated money or worked.

All evidence indicates that the monastery had done without polyphonic music in its liturgy during the nearly thousand years before 1500 – notated as well as improvised polyphony. Much of the music gathered for inclusion in MS Amiens 162 is in fact, as we shall see, very similar to simple improvised polyphony, which could be recreated alla mente just by following a set of established rules – this applies to the two-part settings of sequences in particular. But in our manuscript these songs are carefully written out in simple notation making singers, who mastered only the monophonic singing of the liturgical repertory, able to perform them. It is remarkable that the monastery with this collection did stake so much on polyphonic music for funerals and services. Moreover, the pieces were carefully selected for their ability to create a sound picture, which was just as solemn as much of the contemporary art music for such occasions. This indicates a consciousness of what was needed to make an impression in the cultural climate of France around 1500. The ‘customers’, or the eyes and ears that the music should impress, might very well have experienced polyphony performed using notated music or improvised in the churches of other cities and in institutions, which had singers at their disposal who were educated in cathedral schools. In MS Amiens 162 they could ascertain that the monastery had access to solemn music for intercession for the souls, beautifully written on big sheets, and at funerals and memorial services the singers of the confraternity was able to fill the church with an impressive sound.

This way of viewing polyphony as a valuable factor in the confraternity’s mission, and as an offer to its members, may have been inspired by the rich musical life sponsored by confraternities in the rich cities in the regions north of Picardy, in Flanders and Brabant, where Corbie had extensive land holdings. The well-endowed confraternities in these regions regularly used improvised or notated polyphony with daily or weekly participation of professional musicians and singers – including famous composers – in masses, vespers and especially Marian worship such as ‘Salve’- and ‘Lof’-services and processions (Mannaerts 2014). (7) Did the music of the Amiens MS try to imitate the sound of the music in such circles, or was it an attempt to suggest a feeling of belonging in order to make the members of the confrérie Ste Barbe willing to contribute to the building of the new magnificent Abbatiale?

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1) Garnier describes how he in order to establish the catalogue of the manuscripts from Corbie had to send an assistant to the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris to copy the older Corbie catalogue; the new copy entered the Amiens library as MS 561 D, Catalogue des livres manuscrits de la Bibliothèque de l’abbaye de Corbie (Garnier 1843, pp. 497-498). The older catalogue was among the papers of Dom Pierre-Nicolas Grenier. The Benedictine Dom Grenier and his collaborators were commissioned to collect archival documents in preparation of a description of Picardy and its history. After the death of Grenier in 1789, his collected or copied documents organized in 32 big packages were transferred to Bibliothèque Nationale (Dufour 1839, pp. 385-474). Since then the papers have been part of the library’s Collection de Picardie and have been arranged in 263 volumes supplemented by 73 volumes of maps (Lauer 1911, Tome I, pp. XXIV-XXIX – the copy by Dom Pardessus of the old catalogue is here mentioned in Tome II, p. 82).

2) In a private communication (December 2005), professor Desportes kindly answered that there has been very little research on Corbie in the 15th-16th centuries during the last century, but that it is far from impossible that exiting things could surface. However, I have had to desist from this time-consuming research positioned at the borders of my topic.

3) David Henry Dieterich describes a similar Confrérie de Sainte-Barbe in Liège during the years around 1500, which was the most prestigious society in the city with an equal number of members from the clergy of the cathedral and members selected among the most affluent lay citizens (Dietrerich 1982, Ch. III).

4) In Normandy St Barbara was worshipped intensely since the 11th century with many confraternities under her patronage (Fournée 1978 and Vincent 1988, p. 303).

5) Cf. for example, Mario Battistini, La Confrérie de Sainte-Barbe des Flamands a Florence. Documents relatifs aux tisserands et aux tapissiers. Bruxelles 1931, concerning the confraternity in Florence, which had Heinrich Isaac as a member, and which took care of his funeral.

6) Listed among the assets of Corbie by Dom Cocquelin (Garnier 1845, p. 492; see also Société 1912, p. 2).

7) For Bruges, Antwerp and Ghent, see Strohm 1990, Forney 1987 and Trio & Haggh 1994.