The “Chorister’s Lament,” a late fourteenth-century alliterative poem inserted into empty space in London, British Library, Arundel MS 292 (ff. 70v-71r), offers humorous insight into the practice of learning to sing in a fourteenth-century Northeast Midlands monastery, as novice choristers Walter and William bewail their inability to demonstrate the proficiency expected of them by their French singing master. Highly technical musical vocabulary fills the piece and has perhaps encouraged scholars and anthologizers to give the poem a wide berth. A few of these terms, including one especially rare, point to a decidedly English musical terminology and suggest a connection between the “Chorister’s” poet and a little-studied 14th century musical treatise with English roots.
The most obscure word used by the Chorister-poet is the extremely rare streinant:
‘Yet ther is a streinant with two longe tailes;
Therfore has oure maister ofte horled my kailes (bowled my skittles)
The Oxford English Dictionary calls the streinant “a musical note written with two stems; a breve” and suggests that the word may be related to the equally obscure Old French word estraignant. The dictionary entry cites only one occurrence of the word in English – this Chorister’s passage – and scholars have not had much luck tracking it from there. The word does exist elsewhere, in a Latin manuscript from England – in a treatise called the Metrologus, a 14th century commentary on Guido of Arezzo’s Micrologus.
The copy of the Metrologus found in Rome, Bib. Vat. Reg. Lat. 1146, 67r-70v, mentions the streinant three times. Most importantly, the text defines the streinant and its use (Item est alia nota quae vocatur streinant et ponimus super istis videlicet mon. ton. an. in. cum. num. et super consimiles et continet in se duas breves in cantando. “Also there is another note which is called streinant and which we put above these, plainly, mon. ton. an. in. cum. num., and above like things and contains in itself two breves in singing”) and also gives an example of how the streinant looks on the page (et figuratur sic.) According to the definition provided by the treatise, the streinant is used as a mensural quantity – one streinant is worth two breves. The manuscript page containing several examples of the streinant can be accessed here.
The manuscript tradition points squarely at a 14th century English source for the Metrologus, as does the English cursive of this copy. The Metrologus commentator and the “Chorister’s” poet were likely near contemporaries working in the same region of England. The two share the rare streinant as well as other especially English words. Is there a link between the Chorister’s poet and this treatise? Perhaps William and his singing master first met the streinant in the Metrologus.
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 The definitive medieval treatise on music theory.
 Jos. Smits van Waesberghe, ed., Expositiones in Micrologum Guidonis Aretini. Musicologica Medii Aevi. (Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing Company, 1957), 62.
One of the best sources for a good understanding of the ways lordship was enacted in the medieval period is to take a good look at manuscript illustrations. Historians have used the Morgan Bible, commissioned in the 1240s by Louis IX, to reconstruct the material culture of thirteenth-century France, but even more useful is the access the manuscript gives us to rituals of power in the period. The first image includes King’s Saul’s anointment as king of Israel. It is identical to the form that a thirteenth-century coronation ritual would take.
The Morgan Bible is useful as an exemplar of manuscript transmission. Below, one gets a clear look at the Latin biblical quotations at the top and bottom, as well as the Persian and Judeo-Persian inscriptions added during the manuscript’s seventeenth-century tenure at the court of Shah Abbas, King of Persia. This is even more remarkable when one realizes that the Bible originally had no text, each script was added later as the manuscript traveled.
It’s easy to tell right away that this is a royal manuscript. Red, blue, and green inks serve to correct or decorate texts of all kinds, but the palate range of this project and the detail of the depictions could only be funded by royal patrons. The image of Goliath below gives a stark depiction of thirteenth-century arms, and if you look closely, you can see the stone embedded in Goliath’s head!
Although recent work on the nobility of the High Middle Ages argues convincingly that aristocrats were far more literate than previously thought, one wonders if the Old Testament was chosen largely so the court could enjoy lavish illustrations of horrific violence. (Paul, 2013, 2006 Clanchy, 1978)
It is simple to identify characters in the Morgan Bible. King Saul is consistently drawn in orange and Jonathan is always dressed in grey while armed. David’s wardrobe changes consistently throughout, perhaps to emphasize his passage from shepherd boy to king in Israel. Below, he has adopted the clothes of a thirteenth century courtly youth and lord.
Good lords always take counsel from their friends, even if your friend happens to be the son of the man who consistently tries to kill you!
Below is an illustration of the Israelites’ final battle with the Amalekites. Usually only the Israelites wear the large great helms worn by higher-status men at arms. If one looks closely, the scribe has inscribed ‘IOYOUSE’ onto the sword of a Philistine. Song of Roland, anyone?
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Nicholas Paul, To Follow in Their Footsteps: The Crusades and Family Memory in the High Middle Ages (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013)
Michael T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England, 1066-1307, 3rd. edn. (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012)
As a medievalist studying at the University of Notre Dame, I am afforded many luxuries. The university’s resources for research in my field are exceptional, and I can honestly say that from my personal experience both the Medieval Institute and my home English Department have proven to be places where intellectual curiosity flourishes and where the spirit of generosity pervades. It has been a wonderful place to pursue my graduate studies, and of course the campus is absolutely beautiful, as the university’s collection of scenic images affirms. But when I decided to move off campus my second year, out of the gilded bubble surrounding the university and into the rust belt of South Bend, I met with some starkly different and rather unsettling imagery.
The juxtaposition between the two spheres which I came to inhabit—between the gorgeous Neo-Gothic architecture that adorns the picturesque campus and the industrial ruins scattered throughout the cityscape of South Bend—became repeatedly reinforced by my regular journey between these worlds on each morning commute and then again each night as I returned home. Every evening, I would leave the Golden Dome behind and drive by boarded up houses and businesses, like this one on Sample Street, which I routinely passed on my way home.
Below is a closer view from the front of the building. I pause on this particular structure, because it became engrained in my mind over time—the beautiful green decay and broken bricks—the state of disrepair. To me, this building came to represent the rust belt ruins of South Bend. My wife—artist and graduate of Massachusetts College of Art & Design, Rajuli (Khetarpal) Fahey—photographed the rotting building and describes experiencing an overwhelming stench of mildew and mold wafting from the broken windows upon approaching the structure.
In my opinion, there is a certain beauty in the haunting imagery of this broken down building, which recalls a time before the place fell into ruin while simultaneously emphasizing its current dilapidation. This theme is well known to Anglo-Saxonists, as the question of ubi sunt “where are (they now)?” pervades the so-called Old English elegies, which reflect on the transitory nature of human existence, noting the decay of great civilizations passed. As I read these medieval poems in the ivory tower of Hesburgh Library, I found myself thinking about South Bend and the many other rust belt cities across the country, weathered by similar economic decay. More than any other Old English elegy, the Exeter Book Ruin prompted me to meditate on the industrial remnants of a former time in South Bend.
The Old English Ruin is itself a ruin—appearing on fire-damaged folia in the Exeter Book (Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501). Fittingly, the poem bears its own marks from the wear of time and circumstance, and at first sounds almost like a riddle—beginning with one of the lexical markers scholars have used identify riddles (wrætlic meaning “wondrous” or “marvelous”). Moreover, in its manuscript context, the Old English Ruin is embedded within the two major collections of riddles found in the Exeter Book, amongst some stray riddles and the more enigmatic “elegies” in the codex, including TheWife’s Lament and TheHusband’s Message. The Exeter Book Ruin demonstrates an interest in contemplating the destructive and the inevitable—crushing—passage of time, particularly on monumental manmade structures.
As Rajuli and I were discussing the poem and pockets of dilapidation throughout the city, she suggested that we drive around the city and take a family tour to document some of the ruins of South Bend, which I use here to complement sections of my translation of the Old English Ruin.
Wrætlic is þes wealstan wyrde gebræcon;
burgstede burston brosnað enta geweorc
Hrofas sind gehrorene hreorge torras,
hrungeat berofen (1-4).
“Wondrous are these wall-stones,
broken by fortune, the citadels crumbled,
the work of giants ruined.
The roofs are collapsed,
the towers tumbled, the pillars bereft.”
wurdon hyra wigsteal westen staþolas,
brosnade burgsteall (27-28).
“their fortification became deserted places,
their strongholds crumbled.”
“Therefore these houses have decayed,
and this gabbled structure sheds its tiles,
the roof of ringed-wood.”
Sadly, the descriptions of desolation and structural decay in the poem reflects a bit too closely the current state of disrepair which still plagues certain parts of South Bend. This deserted business located on Indiana Avenue, once both Red’s Appliance Repair Center and Southside Electric, still bears obsolete information etched on the brick wall, whispering to us from the past. Reminding us that things were not always as they are today, and begging for renewal. Nevertheless, the enduring dilapidation that decorates the city stands as a reminder of how South Bend, and places like it, became collateral damage—destroyed by the tides of economic fluctuation.
As the sign suggests, South Bend is a city on the rise, racing to catch up to 21st century, and doing quite well in this effort. During my tenure at the University of Notre Dame, I have seen the city of South Bend improve tenfold—drawing new and thriving businesses, expanding campus infrastructure, renovating depressed neighborhoods, and even beginning to cultivate and encourage artistic movements within the city. Many rust belt cities do not have the advantage of housing such a vibrant university community which generates innovation and economic growth, and those cities have far greater challenges to overcome. Both the campus and the city at large often seem as if they are one enormous construction site: demolishing, repairing and rebuilding. Still, amidst citywide growth and revitalization lies the skeletal ruins of the rust belt economy.
Department of English
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