Medieval Writing
Paleography Exercises
Four part round, mid 13th century (British Library, Harley 978, f.11v). All images from M.R. James 1925 Abbeys London: The Great Western Railway, fromtispiece.
This page shows a song, set as a four part round, with words in both Middle English and Latin, complete with musical notation. There are Latin instructions for the singing of the song. The script is a Gothic textura of a neat and clear type, but not the most formal grade. The English and Latin texts bear no relation to one another. The former is a jolly bucolic celebration of spring, with references to animals and procreation and farting. The latter is a verse on Christ's Passion. The English texts is written in black, the Latin in red, with the singing instructions at the lower right in both black and red. Blue and red coloured capitals are the only adornment. The crown at the bottom of the page is the stamp of the British Museum (Vandals!).
It is not clear whether a Latin religious song has been parodied by the laity in English, or whether a joyful folk ditty has been appropriated by the church. As the song is in a volume that belonged to Reading Abbey, and as the full complexity of the song is only in the English version, I suspect that the clergy have used a popular song to try to turn the minds of the people to more elevated things. In the words of a much, much later proselytiser of Christian virtues, "Why should the devil have all the best tunes?" The Latin version seems to also have a piece of rather strained agricultural imagery, as if to make some sort of link to the other. The song can be sung in four parts, with each singer coming in sequentially after the previous singer has completed the first phrase. There is a "foot" or pes, which involves other singers in a continually repeated refrain with a lot of "cuccu" in it as a background.

The page is in a codex of miscellaneous works in Latin and French, none of which are liturgical. It may possibly have belonged to a monk named in the manuscript, who was charged with sexual incontinence - everyone's favourite medieval stereotype. Cuccu, cuccu!

If you have come from the script example, you will have noticed that we have burst into living colour, as I have found a colour reproduction. It comes from an amazing series of books on the historical relics of the area covered by the Great Western Railway, with an academically respectable text and copious photographs and "Printed in England on British Paper". The trains probably ran on time as well!

Transcript, translation and notes are available for this text on the Wessex Parallel Web Texts site from Southampton University, which also has a discussion of Latin/English poetry and a bibliography of learned works for those who wish to pursue this further.

For a midi sound grab to hear what the tune sounds like click here or here (depending on which one works on your browser!). This midi file is ©Curtis Clark and comes from The Internet Renaissance Band web site.

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Click on each of the above to walk your way through the text. The transcript will appear in a separate window so that you can use it for reference at any time. These exercises are designed to guide you through the text, not test you, so you can cheat as much as you like.
Script sample for this example
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