The Worcester Antiphoner: Our Most Important Book?

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The Worcester Antiphoner features liturgical text alongside early musical notation. Image copyright The Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Of particular note amongst the medieval manuscript collection at the Cathedral is MS F.160, or the Worcester Antiphoner. A liturgical service book dating from the 1230s[1], and written here at Worcester, it offers us a glimpse into what religious services in the medieval period would have been like. It contains an early form of musical notation (which can still be interpreted to this day), and it may well represent a tradition of sacred music that stretches back as far the Anglo-Saxon period. What makes it especially significant is that it is the only book of its kind that we know of from a Benedictine monastery to survive the Reformation in the United Kingdom.

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The manuscript is lavishly decorated. Here we see use of coloured inks and heavily foliated and intricately foliated initials. Image copyright The Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Henry VIII, in order to secure a divorce from his first wife Catherine of Aragon, and as a result of a political dispute with The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, began a process of separating the Church in England from Rome, and transferring the Pope’s authority unto himself. A long, complicated process that took over a decade to complete, Henry sought to consolidate his power by dissolving the monasteries in his realm, appropriating their property, and destroying material considered subversive to his new regime. Catholic service books, like antiphoners, would have been particularly at risk, as Henry’s agents systematically plundered and burned monastic libraries.

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The manuscript was written by a number of different scribes…Image copyright The Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

For some reason, Worcester’s edition survived. It seems unlikely that this would have been result of a mere oversight on the part of the King’s men – we do know that a large number of books were burned at Worcester in 1549 during the reign of Henry’s son, Edward VI.[2] It seems more likely that it was deliberately hidden, and remained so until conditions were safe enough for it to reappear in to the open. What is clear is that we owe someone a debt of gratitude for preserving this remarkable and unique manuscript.

Tom Hopkins

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…Some finer than others! Image copyright The Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Bibliography

Thomson, R.M., A Descriptive Catalogue of the Medieval Manuscripts in Worcester Cathedral Library, Cambridge, 2001

 

[1] Thomson 2001: 109

[2] Thomson 2001: 109

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