Video version

Christians in medieval Iberia had their own unique religious practices until the end of the 11th century. About 40 manuscripts and fragments preserve the texts and melodies that they used in their worship. And that means that the fragment you see here is a rare and precious witness to a cultural practice that was almost entirely suppressed after the year 1080 AD.

The parts written in large text are the prayers, the readings and the hymns. The parts written in small text are the more complicated chants, and space is left above each line of text for the melody to be written. At some point, our fragment got detached from the rest of its manuscript, which might have had 200 or more pages, and just this one page survives, by pure luck. It was wrapped around a later manuscript and sewn on to be used as a fly leaf in order to protect that later manuscript.

The text is in Latin. The handwriting might be unfamiliar to you, but once you learn the different shapes of the letters, it is easy to read. Although this is just a small fragment, we can tell the liturgical day that it’s providing material for, and the different components of the liturgy. The chant texts are drawn from the bible and, together with the prayers, they offer the congregation a particular theological experience of the liturgical day.

In the musical notation, each sign goes up and down on the page as the melody goes up and down, but there is no information about precise pitch or intervals. The medieval singers reading the manuscript already knew the melodies, and used the notation as a reminder.

Even in a small fragment like this, we have identified dozens of different notational shapes. Although the shapes do not tell us exactly how these melodies sounded, we can identify how they divided the texts into phrases. We have learned to identify the different melodic patterns that appear at the ends of sentences. We have also learned how the melody paces the text. Some syllables were stretched with lots of notes. Other syllables had only one or a few notes, and were more similar to speech.

The chant you can see is preserved in a fragment held in the biblioteca nacional in Madrid. In this chant, most syllables have up to four notes each, but as we approach a phrase division, there’s usually a syllable which is stretched out, with more like 5 or 6 notes each. In the middle of the chant, there are three, very short, phrases. Then after that broken up part of the text, there is one really long phrase, where they work all the way through “that I took evil away from you”, and as you can hear as I say it, that emphasises the flow of the text. Then, near the end, the word “creabo” (“I will create”), has 16 notes on it. In that context, this is a real musical highpoint, and it means that it gives the listeners a chance to meditate on that really important word for longer than any other moment.