Cantate Domino: Medieval Music Manuscripts in the Free Library of Philadelphia, 900-1500

On exhibit at the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Rare Book Department, March 2, 2009-June 26, 2009

Open Mon.-Fri., 9-5. Tours of the general collections 11 AM daily.


Medieval Music Manuscripts in the Free Library of Philadelphia

 John Frederick Lewis (1860-1932) was the most active collector of medieval manuscripts in the Philadelphia area during his lifetime.  A man of modest means who could not afford to go to college, Lewis became a lawyer (passing the bar was the only requirement at the time) and married into a wealthy family. Lewis began collecting manuscripts in the 1880s, and was intrigued by calligraphy and collected scripts as well as illuminations.  He collected over 200 codices and over 2000 leaves and cuttings. 

 In addition to the European manuscripts Lewis collected it should be noted that he also collected “Oriental” manuscripts (manuscripts from the Middle and Near East, as well as from Africa) and cuneiform tablets from ancient Sumeria and Babylon. His widow, Anne Baker Lewis, donated Lewis’s collections to the Free Library of Philadelphia after his death. All of the items in this exhibition are items from Lewis’s collection.  The Rare Book Department has other medieval manuscripts given by the Widener family and by Hampton L. Carson which are not displayed here.

 The leaves and codices (books) in this exhibition were chosen for their appearance as well as for their musical attributes.  All of the music displayed is chant: a single line of melody.  The Free Library’s collection is representative of different kinds of musical notation through the medieval era.  Each artifact is described by a plate, explaining either the significance of the musical notation or the iconography in the decoration.

Choir Books

 During the Middle Ages, written music was most often kept in books separate from the books used for the Mass or Divine Office.  The Mass is the Latin liturgical rite in which the Eucharist (bread and wine) is consecrated.  The Divine Office is the set of prayers recited at the canonical hours by the clergy. The canonical hours are Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline. Matins is separated into three parts called nocturns. Music for the Mass was contained in a gradual; music for the Divine Office was contained in an antiphonary (also known as an antiphonal, antiphonale, or antiphoner). “Gradual” is also the term for a portion of the Mass: this term receives its name from the practice of the choir singing from the steps at that point in the service.  “Antiphonary” receives its name from antiphons, which are liturgical chants with prose texts that precede and conclude psalms.


Most antiphonaries and graduals were enormous: they had to be seen from a distance by the entire choir. Because they were community books, their decoration and illumination reflected the wealth of the community. Large choir books were expensive to produce: each leaf (which consists of two pages) is an animal skin.  One book could have up to 150 leaves.


Cuttings and Leaves

 Most of the cases in this exhibition are filled with leaves that have been cut from books.  The practice of cutting pieces or entire pages from books dates back to the Middle Ages—sometimes books would become useless owing to a change in liturgy or practice and the leaves would be used for scrap, as parchment was costly and labor-intensive to make.  Cutting pieces and leaves from manuscripts and selling them for profit became popular after a sale at Christie’s auction house in London by Luigi Celotti in 1825: manuscripts in the Sistine Chapel had been plundered by Napoleon’s troops and cut into small pieces to be sold for profit.

 Large choir books in particular were subject to being pulled apart and cut into pieces: for one thing, the sizes of the historiated initials in choir books lent themselves well to cuttings, as one initial can be almost the size of a standard piece of printer paper.  Additionally, large choir books were heavy and unwieldy: the cost of shipping and taxes on books of that size were high at the time of Lewis’s collecting days.


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