The early music world has been stunned recently by a controversial new find, a single previously unknown lute duet in poor handwriting. It is the only piece of music in what is otherwise an Elizabethan commonplace or household book consisting mainly of lists of building materials. This article gives a broad outline of what the manuscript tells us about the remarkable Robert Mason, a man ahead of his time. At the foot of the article is a video reconstruction of his only surviving piece of music, a lute duet bearing his name. This is being released a day ahead of my talk to the Association of Professional Renaissance Instrument Luthiers at the Festival Of Organological Lutherie.
The 104 page manuscript, loosely bound, is in remarkable condition for its age. The writing is in two hands over a period of 12 years. It is the second contributor, not the owner, who inscribed on the outer leaf, “robert mason, his Booke 1589”. The majority contributor, Robert Mason himself, wrote his characters consistently large, as if he had problems forming his letters. Though there is a clear attempt at neatness, it looks like a child’s handwriting.
Not knowing the age of Robert Mason, these details may lead us to believe that this was a child’s book, but we see from the contents that he was in the building trade, working largely in the town of “Fixeham”, “Springe Citie” and surrounding areas in the north of England.
Scattered throughout the pages we have some of the usual contents of an Elizabethan household book, particularly medicinal information: “Howe to tret a thombe banged righte hard wth an Hamer”, “Wat tretment to pitt upone an Ankle that hass bene twisted by falinge off yon scaffolde”, “How to tret a swolen Pate [head] tht has bn stuck inside a Bukkit.”
There are occasional notes about his jobs, and one in particular is telling:
“14th Augst 1593. mr. Beasley, his roofe beams be at last rid of the wormes by Wendorus Aedificans & myselfe.”
The Latinised name, Wendorus Aedificans, must be the “W.A.” of the more neatly written entries in the middle of the book. The well-organised contents of the “W.A.” entries indicate what we may today call a ‘builder’s mate’.
The name Wendorus Aedificans indicates that both Robert and “W.A.” knew Latin, showing a level of education common to boys who went to grammar school (so-called because children were taught Latin grammar), which makes his poor handwriting all the more curious. In Latin, aedificans is builder and Wendorus is Wendover. Wendover the builder? Is Wendover the originating place of the builder’s assistant, or a Latinised coded name?
At the foot of fol. 63r we have a simple line drawing in Robert Mason’s hand of a man and a woman building a wall. This is a joint effort, as the more complicated drawings and all of the writing are in “W.A.”’s hand. The woman is labelled, the name this time abbreviated to “Wendy aed.” It seems to indicate that Robert was employing “Wendy”, an educated craftswoman. Her name appears to be an abbreviation of the English variant of the female Welsh name, Gwendolen; but masculinised to Wendelin, a male Germanic name. Was she trying to hide her female identity in an age when women’s roles were severely restricted?
The fact that it was “Wendy” who inscribed the name on the book, and that her pages are neat and in order, unlike Robert’s, suggests that she was the more organised of the two, and she may even have played a greater part in organising the business than him. One additional domestic detail indicates that Robert and “Wendy” may have been more than professionally linked. On the right hand edge of the page in Robert’s hand, drawn next to an accidental fold in the paper, and clearly part of the same scene, is an over-large striped cat, drawn with an even more oversized tail and huge paws, next to the word “Pilchd”, presumably meaning pilchard, the cat’s favourite food, or possibly an abbreviation of the cat’s name. The clear implication is that “Wendy”, Robert and “Pilchd” belong together as one (family?) unit.
The man in the drawing is not directly labelled, but we can assume it is the Rob. Mason of the book for three related reasons. Firstly, we see that Robert appears to have lost a finger from his left hand, which could account for the medicinal information scattered throughout the book. Secondly, “Wendy” has drawn a lute next to each human figure, linking them to the lute duet in the final pages, “Rob. mason, builder, his galiard To playe vpon the lutt w. Wendy”. Thirdly, “Wendy” has written a short Latin verse next to Robert:
Rob. ad aedificans
Num nos reficere?
Rob. ad aedificans
This translates neatly into English as:
Rob[ert] the builder
Can we fix it?
Rob[ert] the builder
Yes, we can!
Its placing on the page suggests that it is Robert the builder’s business motto, a form of verbal advertising by which he was known to customers.
These fascinating clues indicate that Robert Mason was something of an Elizabethan radical. He employed a woman – his wife or lover? – in ‘a man’s trade’, as it was seen in his time, and they kept a cat, no small thing in his day. Even though Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (1473–1530), Henry VIII’s chief adviser, owned a cat, the general attitude to felines had been established in the public mind by Pope Innocent VIII who, in 1484, declared that “the cat was the devil’s favourite animal and idol of all witches.” The coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1559, 30 years before Mason started his book, did nothing to ease the dreadful fate of these animals nor their Satanic image in the public imagination. One gruesome feature of Elizabeth’s procession was a wicker effigy of the pope, filled with live cats who were burned alive inside it.
As Professor Neil Morrissey has noted, the Tudor period has a reputation for being one of men behaving badly. Robert Mason was a notable exception. His treatment of women and animals was, from the information we have, exemplary.
On a personal note, I would like to add that Professor Morrissey of the British Building Corporation is one of our most knowledgeable and respected construction and building historians, being the voice of a whole series of B.B.C. programmes about the building trade. However, he has now been dropped by the B.B.C. for novice and newcomer Lee Ingleby. Asked about his replacement, Morrissey commented, “I used to be happy … but heaven knows I’m miserable now.”
Household or commonplace books often have recipes, but in this case there are none. There is, however, one curious detail about food and drink in relation to sugar. Robert and “Wendy” evidently saw themselves as social climbers with a sweet tooth since, in the Elizabethan period, sugar consumption was an indicator of wealth and social standing. We might expect, therefore, a reference to eating comfits (sugar coated spices and seeds) after a meal, or drinking hypocras (sweet spiced wine).
But no. What we find instead is a reference in Robert’s handwriting to “the tea of bilders made from the dryd leves of Tea in strong quantitie, watr pord over verie hot, a littel milke of cow, & no les than Thre large spoonefulls of whyte Suger.” This is on fol. 94v., a page dated 1601, the earliest known reference to builder’s tea.
Robert and “Wendy” must have been well connected. Tea drinking had spread slowly from Asia to Venice in around 1560, eventually reaching the rest of Europe from there; but it would be several decades before the establishment of the London coffee houses that popularised tea drinking in England from the late 1650s.
An earlier detail, on fol. 39r., shows that some concerns of builders haven’t changed over the years. At the end of a list of work equipment, Robert has written, “And must obtaine a br[igh]t yello jerkin of hie visiebilitie for to be mor esilie sene by traffick”; next to which “Wendy” has added, “& newe britches or a belt fore the same, suche that yr arse cleevage be less visibel to al & sundrie.”
All of which leads to one key question: Robert Mason was a remarkable character, so why isn’t he better known? I hope this article may be the first step in rectifying that. Even more remarkable is the single piece of music offered up by this manuscript, a lute duet found in no other source, either self-penned or composed for him: “Rob. mason, builder, his galiard”.
The lucky finder of the Robert Mason manuscript was Paul K. Joyce of Nottingham. Having found it in the year 2000 in the attic of a Tudor house he was renovating, it has remained ever since in his private collection. “When I found it”, he said, “I felt like I was number 1.”
When I expressed an interest in buying it privately or at least viewing it, saying this really should enjoy public awareness in the early music world, he seemed wary. Perhaps he wanted to know that I was serious. A musician himself, it seemed Paul wanted to be sure that the manuscript would be shared with someone dedicated to decoding the music, and he wanted to be a part of that process. I met with him on 1st April 2015, a year ago, and I have a clear memory of how the conversation went.
“So what do you want it for?”, he asked, a little suspiciously.
“I’m particularly interested in the music towards the back. I’ve heard it needs some work.”
He took the manuscript out of a bag, laid it on the table in front and us and turned to fol. 102r, where the singular lute duet is located: “Rob. mason, builder, his galiard To playe vpon the lutt w. Wendy”.
He sucked his teeth, shook his head and said, “I don’t know which cowboy wrote this galliard. It’s going to need some serious reconstruction work.”
There were a few moments of awkward silence before I asked, “Can we fix it?”
“Yes we can.”
“Time to get busy, such a lot to do.”
“We’ll build it and fix it till it’s good as new.”
“Working together, we’ll get the job done.”
And we did. The video below is the result of our efforts. Paul worked most on delineating the melody line, and I got to work on the finer details of the divisions (renaissance variations by dividing the melody into more notes) and the second lute part.
A controversial finding
This new finding remains controversial. There are still those who, having not seen the manuscript in person, maintain that the whole story is an elaborate fabrication. I can only suggest that you listen carefully to the music and ask yourself: ‘Have I ever heard anything like this before?’
In my search for lost and obscure early music manuscripts, I’d like next to locate the 16th century shawm and sackbut music last known to be in the possession of the late Freddie Phillips: the so-called “McGrew manuscript” belonging to the Trumpton Waits of Trumptonshire.
In 2006, The Lute Society held a competition for members to arrange a modern pop song in lute style. Entries were judged on a majority vote by hearing them played by Lynda Sayce. One entry really tickled me and caught my ear with its imaginative arrangement: Bob ye Builder, his Galliard by Rowena Sudbury. Now, 10 years on, it is her piece which was the inspiration for this article and my own arrangement for 2 lutes. Thank you, Rowena Sudbury!
© Ian Pittaway. Not to be reproduced in any form without permission. All rights reserved.