Blog post

Reading between the lines

Melodic notation for the public recitation of the Bible in mass

by
Dr Eleanor Giraud (University of Limerick)

Passages of the Bible have been recited melodically in mass since the beginnings of the Christian liturgy, in a practice that probably grew out of Jewish traditions of reciting the Torah. Musically simple and formulaic, recited texts were rarely supplied with full musical notation. Indeed, most medieval manuscripts of Bible readings for mass, known as lectionaries, contain no music whatsoever.

However, from roughly the 11th century onwards, occasional marks were inserted above specific words in some lectionaries to help clarify the melodic recitation pattern for the reader. These small signs not only allow us to reconstruct the recitation, but also give an indication of how such books were used and the priorities of those who used them.

In mass, Bible readings were mainly recited on a single note, but the final words of a phrase would be sung to a cadence, a melodic pattern to conclude a phrase. Different patterns were used to mark the end of a sentence, a question, a pause within a sentence or the end of a reading. Cadences helped the listeners to group words into phrases and thus understand the syntax, structure and meaning of the reading. Have a listen to what this would have sounded like in the following video.

The reader would have judged which cadence to use based on the punctuation in the text. However, the cadences started several syllables before the punctuation mark. Working backwards from the punctuation mark to establish when to sing the first note of the cadence would have been awkward, so to facilitate this process, some scribes or readers added melodic signs to indicate where the cadence began. This practice became systematised in Germany from the 11th century onwards. From there, it was adopted and developed by different religious orders, including the Cistercians and Dominicans.

One relatively early example of a book that contained this form of melodic notation is a Gospel lectionary pictured above, copied in the early decades of the 12th century, for the Church of the Holy Cross (Kreuzkirche) in Hildesheim, Germany (Hildesheim, Dombibliothek, MS 688e). At some point in the mid-19th century, a leaf was removed (pictured below), presumably for its miniature of the crucifixion scene, from between the Gospel readings for Passion Sunday and Palm Sunday. A stub of parchment is just visible where the leaf was excised. The fragment, missing the first five lines of text, was eventually acquired by John and Trudy Hunt, founders of the Hunt Museum in Limerick, Ireland, where it now resides (Ms L 006). The Passion Sunday Gospel reading is sung according to the Hunt Museum fragment in the video above.

A manuscript in vellum from a book of Pericopes. The scene shows Christ crucified, a chalice filling with blood below his feet. Standing beneath the cross on the right of Christ is Ecclesia carrying a standard and torch. Beside her stands the Virgin Mary in a blue cloak. On the left stands St John and a personified Synagoga with a crown falling from her head, a trailing banner and extinguished torch in her hands. Above the cross are figures representing a mourning sun and moon. The script above the illuminated page is from the Gospel of St John 8:59: Jesus autem abscondit se, et exivit de templo… [but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple]. The text on the verso is also from the Gospel of St John, 8:52-55. This manuscript is a sheet from a manuscript in the Cathedral Library at Hildesheim, Germany (Ms. No. 688e).

One melodic sign can be seen in the final sentence of the Gospel for Passion Sunday, in the line of text above the miniature: shaped somewhat like a saucepan, it is positioned diagonally above the word ‘se’.

This indicated that the end of the lection was approaching and the appropriate closing melodic cadence needed to be employed. Specifically, it showed that ‘se’ was to be sung to a two-note rising pattern, D-F. From there, the melodic pattern descended to the note E on the penultimate accented syllable ‘exívit’, and then returned to conclude on F at the final accented syllable, ‘témplo’. Significantly, no further signs were inserted, suggesting that once the reader knew where to start the cadence, it was easy to work out what the ending was.

The reverse of the fragment (pictured above) displays six further instances of a melodic cadence sign. Here they take the form of a small diagonal stroke, as seen above at demónium (line 2), meá (line 8), cognóuistis (line 10-11), similís (line 12), sermoném (line 13), and gáuisus (line 15). While similar in appearance to the abbreviation marks used to shorten words and minimise parchment use (e.g. above ‘e’ for ‘est’, the final word of this side), it is clear that they have a different function, as they are found above words that are not abbreviated–or in the case of ‘sermonem’ (line 13), a horizontal abbreviation mark is supplied to indicate the missing ‘m’, in addition to the diagonal melodic sign indicating the start of the cadence.

Each of these marks comes shortly before the end of a sentence, which is signalled by a punctus versus, a punctuation mark that looks like a semicolon, followed by a capital letter for the next sentence. They each fall above the accented syllable of the penultimate or ante-penultimate word, and they denote the final syllable that should be sung on the normal recitation pitch (F) before descending to cadence on E. It is interesting that here the notation is employed not to indicate a new note, but rather to show that a change is imminent, marking the final recitation note prior to the new cadential note.

Red melodic marks in the Sarum Gospel lectionary

This system of melodic lection marks facilitated the public reading of the Bible at mass in churches, both in monastic contexts and also in secular cathedrals where a lay congregation would have been present, such as English churches following the liturgy of Salisbury Cathedral (see the Sarum Gospel lectionary above with its red melodic marks).

Without giving precise pitches, the notation marked where and how the voice should follow the melodic cadence for different types of phrase, indicating the direction of the movement by the shape of the sign. Even if not a necessity (for they were not found in every lectionary), these marks were clearly deemed to be sufficiently useful to warrant being copied. The reading of mass lections required preparation and practice - melodic lection marks removed a layer of ambiguity and assisted readers in this process of preparation.

What is the significance of these signs? Their presence provides far more information than simply when to begin each cadence. Firstly, they indicate that a manuscript was used for reading aloud. There would have been no need to mark up a book that was not used for public reading. This helps us place the object in its original context and understand its function.

Secondly, the marks are testament to a concern for correctness. If it did not matter how the Bible was recited or where the cadences were begun, there would be no need for melodic marks. Their presence demonstrates that there was a clear idea of the correct manner of performance; any deviation was inappropriate for the sacred text and would have hindered comprehension.

Finally, these melodic marks give us an idea of how much guidance the medieval reader needed. Their presence tells us that it was not straightforward to sight-read aloud, and that additional assistance was welcome. Their absence is equally revealing. In the early 12th-century Hildesheim Gospel lectionary above, only the first note of cadences was marked; presumably the reader would have been able to deduce how to conclude the phrase without further guidance. Over time the system became more sophisticated, with increasing numbers of signs inserted to specify where cadential movement should occur, as exemplified in a later 12th-century French lectionary pictured below, and even more so in the above Sarum Gospel lectionary from c. 1508. Readers seem to have become increasingly reliant on the notation, perhaps indicating a situation in which readings were sight-read with little or no practice beforehand.

Diminutive and infrequent, this specialised form of notation not only intersects with the public recitation of the Bible but also reveals the function of the books they were copied in and the concerns of those who used them.

For further details on this notation, see 'Melodic lection marks in Latin manuscripts for Mass'.


This blog is part of the Art of Reading in the Middle Ages project which explores how medieval reading culture evolved and became a fundamental aspect of European culture.