Church music was generally monophonic, i.e. one line (often chanted by one voice). Polyphony (music for more than one part) was by the 15th century part of the music of larger church foundations. England produced some fine composers throughout the century, notably Lionel Power (at the start), John Dunstable (in the middle years) and then the composers of the Eton Choirbook, a stunning late-15th century collection of music for Henry VI's collegiate foundation at Eton. Outside royal, and other, chapels and colleges polyphony was lacking, or at least our evidence for it is. We think that clerics would have harmonised some chant by using organum (following the chant line at a fourth or fifth below) or by employing a drone on one note (an ison). But this is all guesswork, or, as musicians would prefer, interpretation. Thus we find the music in the Ranworth Antiphoner to be monophonic.
Church services were, to an extent, the same all over Catholic Europe. But only to an extent. There were, as you might expect, local variations – local saints whose days needed inclusion in the calendar of saints (Sanctorale), and local ways of saying, or singing, things. England's version was the Use of Salisbury or Sarum, established by the Anglo-Saxons in the 11th century. The Ranworth Antiphoner is, therefore, a Sarum Antiphoner. This means that in it are certain chants which are unique to England. So far as we know, the Antiphoner is a standard Sarum antiphoner.2 It does, however, have at the back, inserted after the compilation of the rest of the book, the Office of St Helen (more on which below), and more work needs to be done on this to work out the uniqueness or otherwise of the Antiphoner in musical terms.
Catholic services were divided into two types, the Mass and the Office. The Mass (communion, Eucharist) was the commemoration of the sacrifice of Christ, and centred around the elevation of the host. The Office was a collection of eight services, starting with Matins before dawn and finishing with Compline before bed.3 A Mass and a complete Office cycle were to be recited every day in monasteries and by those in Major Orders – i.e. deacons, priests and bishops. Certainly the case in the bigger secular establishments,4 in parish churches, however, the Office would have been truncated, with some services being squashed together: the Office is simply too long for a single priest to recite and fulfil his pastoral duties! In the bigger establishments, the services could be intoned by a collection of priests and clerks in chorus (following traditions laid down by the monasteries); but by the 15th century, other non-clerical singers were increasingly to be found in the chorus, or choir. Some of these were boys, often destined for the priesthood; others were men, who would become the lay clerks we are so familiar with now. So we have here the concept of the choir as a body of singers, and not just a collection of priests. However, this is not relevant to Ranworth, as there is no evidence whatever that there was any form of choir.
In order to recite the liturgy, priests needed liturgical books. Some contained the Mass (Missal, Gradual) and others contained the Office (Antiphoner, Psalter, Breviary). By the later middle ages, service books tended to be compendia of the bits for the Office or the bits for the Mass. So in St Helen's Ranworth, we would expect to find an Antiphoner, as well as perhaps a Gradual and a Breviary. That we find such a magnificent Antiphoner is both wonderful and mysterious. Like the rood screen, the Antiphoner is a gorgeous expression of the wealthy piety of the later middle ages. It is of course a status symbol – but was it a practical book? It is huge and heavy, and not well-thumbed – all suggesting that it was not heavily used. The priest no doubt had another, everyday, copy. This was possibly used for the greater holidays5 and festivals; further research here is needed. It seems, however, to have been more an object in itself than a practical service book – and being regarded as an object rather than as merely religious may have helped to ensure its survival during the Reformation.
To return to the words and music in the Antiphoner, these were the antiphons for the psalms and canticles, and the chants for responds and hymns, the canticles, hymns and Psalms themselves, and invitatories (antiphons for the opening Psalm 94). The book follows the annual church calendar, with normal every-week services (the feria), festivals such as Easter and Christmas (Temporale), saints' day services (Sanctorale), and services which could cover a number of saints' days (Commune Sanctorum). These would all have different antiphons, which were reflections on or introductions to the psalm or canticle they preceded, and a variety of chants to match. By the later middle ages, there was a proliferation of saints, and so most services were festal rather than ferial – special rather than normal.
The Office for the Feast of St Helen is one such saint's day. This Office is tacked onto the back of the Antiphoner. The Antiphoner was probably made in a workshop in Norwich. When a Ranworthy, so to speak, purchased the Antiphoner, the workshop customised this off-the-shelf manuscript by adding a few illuminations-to-choice and inserting the Office of St Helen, patron saint of Ranworth. That the Office comes out of sequence at the end suggests that the volume was already bound. The music for the Office is really lovely. Where research is going on it is to establish any other instances of an Office of St Helen, and to establish whether the music is unique to Helen, or whether it was used for (an)other saints' offices. We are hoping to produce a recording of the Office.
Further reading and listening:
John Harper, The Forms and Orders of the Western Liturgy from the Tenth to the Eighteenth Century: An Historical Introduction and Guide for Students and Musicians (OUP)
Magnus Williamson, 'Liturgical Music in the Late Medieval Parish: Organs and Voices, Ways and Means', in Clive Burgess and Eamon Duffy, eds. The Parish in Late Medieval England : proceedings of the 2002 Harlaxton Symposium (2006)
'Liturgical polyphony in the pre-reformation English parish church: a provisional list and commentary,' Royal Musical Association Research Chronicle 38 (2005)
'The role of religious guilds in the cultivation of ritual polyphony in England: the case of Louth, 1450-1550,' in Fiona Kisby, ed. Music and Musicians in Renaissance Cities and Towns (CUP 2001)
James Deveson, The Ranworth Antiphoner (MMus dissertation, University of Edinburgh, 1994)John Dunstaple: Musician to the Plantagenets, Orlando Consort (Metronome CD)
Eton Choirbook, The Sixteen (CORO CD)-----
1 I will use 'antiphoner' throughout, but 'antiphonal' is also used, and exactly the same thing. 'Antiphonary' also crops up from time to time.
2 The Antiphoner is being checked for variations, or lack of; it's quite a thick book, so this is taking some time.
3 The services were as follows (times very approximate): Matins, c. 3a.m.; Lauds, at dawn; Prime, c.7a.m.; Terce, c.9a.m.; Sext, 12p.m.; None, 3p.m. (although this is where we get 'noon' from); Vespers, dusk; Compline, bedtime. The Anglican church still retains vestiges of the Office – Matins is an amalgamation of Matins and Lauds; Evensong is an amalgamation of Vespers and Compline.
4'Secular' here means non-monastic or 'regular'.
5Meaning, of course, saints' days!