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A Case of Multiple Scribes in the Moldenhauer Choirbook

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The following is a guest post from Archive Processing Technician Rachel McNellis.

Omnis qui invocaverit, Feast of the Most Holy Name of Jesus, Moldenhauer Choirbook, Moldenhauer archives at the Library of Congress

The Moldenhauer Choirbook[1] is a marvelous sixteenth-century liturgical manuscript held in the Music Division. It contains partial chant texts and melodies for three liturgies: the Feast of the Most Holy Name of Jesus, the Feast of the Visitation of Mary, and the Feast of the Holy Name of John the Baptist. The book was likely copied in Mexico or Spain, and many of its texts correspond to those used by the Dominican Order in its ritual practices. The manuscript is intriguing, however, for three reasons:  it contains two large decorative initials that mark the beginning of important chants, professional as well as amateur scribes were responsible for copying the book, and it includes significant textual alterations and additions. These aspects raise questions about the book’s use over time and provide insight into the way in which sixteenth-century readers would have understood its contents.

Chants for the Feast of the Most Holy Name of Jesus comprise the majority of the book. By the time this book was copied, the ritual was an established Roman Catholic celebration of the Name of Jesus as a source of grace, healing, and spiritual salvation.  A colored vine embellishes the first page and a gorgeously illuminated letter “O” marks the beginning of the first chant for the liturgy: Omnis qui invocaverit nomen Domini, salvus erit [Every one that shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved].[2] This text proclaims the feast’s overarching message, which the subsequent chants elaborate. The large decorative initial also illustrates the text that follows. The “O” contains a symbol that had been central to devotion towards the Holy Name since the fourteenth century: a small cross with the letters IHS, which represent the name of Jesus, emanates rays of light and a crown sits upon them. For sixteenth-century Roman Catholics, this image visually embodied the belief that the name of Jesus is above all others, which is stated verbally in the chants that follow.

Nesciens mater virgo, Feast of the Most Holy Name of Jesus, Moldenhauer Choirbook, Moldenhauer archives at the Library of Congress

Intriguingly, a later scribe pasted paper with a new text for one of the later chants for this ritual.  Paste-overs were commonly used in sixteenth-century liturgical books to correct errors or to alter a text so that it conformed to new practices. In this case, the new text was borrowed from the Feast of the Nativity of the Lord: Nesciens mater virgo virum peperit sine dolore salvatorem saeculorum ipsum regem angelorum [Not knowing a man, the Virgin Mother has brought forth without suffering the Savior of all generations, Himself, the King of Angels].[3] It is impossible to read the original text through the paste-over, but the mere presence of a new text is historically telling, indicating that the liturgy at the church in which the manuscript was used changed at some point after it was initially copied.

The scribe who copied the chants for the Feast of the Most Holy Name of Jesus was skilled in the art of notating music and had access to specialized tools. That same scribe copied the music for the Feast of the Holy Name of John the Baptist, which is the third and final liturgy represented in the manuscript. The opening pages of the choirbook, however, contain a chant that has a completely different appearance. The uneven staff lines with less uniform note shapes suggest that an amateur scribe copied this chant. The handwriting is also similar to that on the paste-overs in the chants for the Feast of the Most Holy Name of Jesus, which suggests that it, too, was added at a later date.

Prosa, Feast of the Visitation of the Virgin Mary, Moldenhauer Choirbook, Moldenhauer archives at the Library of Congress

The text of this later addition begins with the second stanza of Lauda sponsa genitricem, which is the prosa—an optional chant sung immediately before the Gospel on special feast days—for the Visitation of Mary. This ritual is based in Roman Catholic scripture, and celebrates the moment when the Virgin Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth, who was pregnant with St. John the Baptist. At the sound of Mary’s greeting, John the Baptist leapt in Elizabeth’s womb, signifying the moment that he was cleansed of original sin. It is perhaps significant, then, that the final chant in the choirbook is the prosa for the Feast of the Holy Name of St. John the Baptist. The later addition of the chant for the Visitation of Mary created a connection, at least in subject matter, between two of the liturgies represented in the manuscript.

These and other changes made to the Moldenhauer Choirbook are worthy of further investigation. In the meantime, though, we can marvel at the way in which different scribes each played a role in creating the book and as well as ponder its evolving use over time.

[1] The Moldenhauer Choirbook is housed in the Moldenhauer Archives at the Library of Congress. Hans Moldenhauer assembled the collection and bequeathed it to the Library in 1987. The choirbook is listed in the Moldenhauer Archive catalog as the Granada Manuscript.

[2] Joel 2:32a, Latin Vulgate (Douey Rheims Translation).

[3] Translation is the author’s.

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