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A unique Discovery of the Manuscript

The 15th-century codex contains a rare fragment of six two-part compositions, composed in the 13th century in the area of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris.
A unique Discovery of the Manuscript

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The digitization of manuscripts kept in the vaults of the National Library of the Czech Republic brought a unique discovery. The 15th-century codex contains a rare fragment of six two-part compositions, composed in the 13th century in the area of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. It is a finding that significantly completes the picture of the history of European medieval music.

In one of the manuscripts in the National Library's collection, the digitized content of which was recently published in the Manuscriptorium.com digital library portal, we managed to identify fragments of polyphonic compositions from the repertoire composed in the newly built Gothic Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris in the High Middle Ages. This repertoire included the compositions for two to four voices, which for the first time in the history of European music worked with a regular rhythm, notation. Their performance required top performers.

The uniqueness of this discovery is proved by the fact that only three similar manuscripts from the 13th century and a few small fragments have been preserved to this day. The first two codices are kept in the library at Wolfenbüttel, out of which the former was written around 1230 for St. Andrew´s Cathedral in Scotland, and the latter originated in the mid-13th century, probably in Paris. The third manuscript is now kept in Florence and, according to the latest speculation, it was commissioned by Luis the Saint for Sainte Chapelle in Paris in 1248.

These are not the complete polyphonic compositions, but only fragments thereof, specifically two double sheets, which were bound in a manuscript from the 15th century (shelf mark NK Praha V E 15). The original musical codex was also, in all probability, written in Paris, however it is necessary to explain how and when it arrived in Bohemia. This, now a very rare notated manuscript, was used in the late Middle Ages as a bookbinding material of a book for a member of Prague University. „At the time, it was common for old and unnecessary manuscripts to be used to make bindings of current books. The manuscript from the 15th century in question contains a popular work on agriculture called Ruralia commoda, widespread in the late Middle Ages and written by the Italian scholar Peter de Crescentiis," adds Mgr. Jan Vojtíšek, Head of the Department of Manuscripts and Early Printed Books.

"The significance of this discovery is invaluable for the music of medieval Bohemia and Europe as well. This is the first real document of this music in Czech history. The possible early contact of Bohemia with this music sheds a new light on musical culture in the time of the last Přemyslids, and from the point of view of this repertoire it will be necessary to re-study and re-evaluate musical documents from the first half of the 14th century,” says Associate Professor Hana Vlhová-Wörner.

The view on the oldest history of music in Bohemia will therefore need to be fundamentally reformulated in the coming years.

Dominique Gatté from Strasbourg, who systematically deals with the registration of fragments in newly digitized manuscripts from European collections, pointed out the fragments in mid-February of this year. The studies of the fragments were immediately undertaken by members of the project Old Myths, New Facts: The Czech Lands at the Center of the 15th Century Music (GAČR-EXPRO project, www.smnf.cz), for which the find provides a valuable material for understanding the musical culture of Hussite Bohemia in its entirety, i. e. also from the point of view of "shredding" old, and therefore no longer needed singing material.

The scientific processing of the fragments will thus take place in cooperation with the Department of Manuscripts and Early printed Books of the National Library of the CR, the Masaryk Institute and Archives of the Academy of Sciences of the CR, and the Institute of Musicology, Faculty of Arts, Charles University. The research will be focused on the study of fragments and their most accurate dating, the circumstances of their use as binding material, and finally on possible scenarios of the manuscript's journey from Paris to Bohemia and the related identification of the institution in which this repertoire could be grown. To answer these questions it will be possible to use the deep knowledge of music in the Prague university environment of Dr. Jan Ciglbauer, and follow up on the study of the reception of the French repertoire in the liturgy of the Prague Diocese, which has long been studied by Associate Professor Hana Vlhová-Wörner.

Digital version and the description of the manuscript is to be found at the Digital  Library Manuscriptorium.com.

If you have any questions, kindly contact:

Mgr. Jan Vojtíšek
Manuscripts and Early Printed Books Dpt. of the NL
jan.vojtisek@nkp.cz
GSM: +420 723 069 221

doc. PhDr. Hana Vlhová-Wörner, Ph.D.
vlhova@mua.cas.cz
GSM: +420 605 505 280