Take your Weapons, Quiver and Bow

How to read a medieval musical score.

Antiphonal folio with historiated initial 'T' (14th or 15th century) by UnknownOriginal Source: Chester Beatty

This folio was created as part of an illuminated choir book, or antiphonal. It includes a section of the music performed on the second Sunday of Lent during the Night Office, one of the eight canonical hours of the Christian church also known as Matins. The Night Office was usually performed around 2am. The enlarged letter at the beginning of the phrase is known as a historiated initial. Beautifully illuminated in gold and colours, it depicts a man hunting a deer.

The system for musical notation in the medieval period is said to have been devised by Guido of Arezzo (Italy) in the 11th century. In modern notation, each staff (or stave) is made up of five horizontal lines and middle C is fixed. In medieval notation, the staff has only four lines and the position of middle C or F is noted at the beginning of each line.

Modern notes are round, their medieval equivalent – neumes – are square.

The words or abbreviations in red are instructions known as rubrics. In this instance ‘v’ stands for verse and indicates text to be sung using the same preceding melody.

A doxology is a short saying in praise of God. Evovae (or Euouae) is the abbreviation for the lesser doxology, Glori Patri, and consists of the vowels for the last two words of the phrase: saeculorum amen. It was sung at the end of an antiphon (refrain).

Illuminated initials are usually included at the first responsory for Matins of major feasts. The initial ‘T’ introduces the response, with text taken from Genesis 20: Tolle arme tua pharetramet acrum – ‘take your weapons, quiver and bow’. The scene depicts Esau hunting a deer with bow and arrow at his father’s request. While he is out, his brother Jacob steals his father’s blessing

CBL W 195.117
Folio from a choir book with historiated initial 'T'; written in Latin on parchment and probably made in Italy in the 14th or 15th century. The text from the historiated initial reads 'Tolle arma tu[a pharetram et acrum]' (Take your weapons, quiver and bow). It is the beginning of the first response at matins for the second Sunday of Lent. The miniature within the initial represents Jacob's stolen blessing from his father, Jacob, (Genesis 20), while his brother, Esau, is shooting a deer at the request of their father.

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All text and images © The Trustees of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin

Exhibit presented by Jill Unkel
Chester Beatty, Dublin Ireland

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