Polyphonic treasure in Lambeth Palace: three unique pieces from MS 457, c. 1200

Lambeth Palace Library, the national library and archive of the Church of England, has a collection of medieval and renaissance manuscripts which includes MS 457, a compilation of religious matters and, on one folio, four pieces of music from c. 1200, all unique to this source. Three are complete, and two have not been previously performed or recorded to my knowledge.

This article presents a video performance of the three complete and beautiful polyphonic pieces:

Miro genere (By a wondrous birth)
Astripotens famulos (Kind ruler of the stars)
Mater dei (Mother of God)

In the video, each piece is sung in two or three voices as in the manuscript, then played polyphonically on citole or gittern. The article then explains the principles of interpreting the medieval notation.


To play the video below, click the picture.
Click the picture to play the video.
Three pieces unique to Lambeth Palace MS 357, c. 1200, each sung then played on citole or gittern.

Each piece is in the video above is followed by a polyphonic intabulation on citole or gittern. There are many examples in medieval art of citoles, gitterns, lutes, portative organs, shawms and so on being played in praise of the Virgin. For example, British Library Egerton MS 274 is a musical miscellany in French and Latin, most of which was copied in France, 1250–1300, with 14th and 15th century additions at the end. On folio 7v (below), a female citoler plays at the beginning of O Maria virginet flos honous (O Virgin Mary, the flower of honour), accompanied by a male dancer.

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The manuscript and its music

All photographs of MS 457 in this article are, unless stated otherwise, taken by Ian Pittaway and used with the permission of Lambeth Palace Library. Many thanks to John Lambert, Assistant Archivist, and to the staff at Lambeth Palace Library for their helpfulness in viewing the manuscript. 

The spine and cover of MS 457.
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Lambeth Palace Library MS 457 measures 19.5 x 13.3 cm and includes treatises, liturgical writings, epistles and sermons. It is a rebinding of three English manuscripts. Folios 1r–132v are 15th century, written on paper, without any decorative letters or artistic marginalia. Folios 133r–192v are dated c. 1190 – c. 1210, written on parchment with some simple decorative letters, as we see below left on folio 186r. Folio 189r, below right, has the only example in the collection of representative art – a simple man’s head in red ink with black pupils.

Folios 193r–254r, early 13th century, are also on parchment. Like the second section, it includes some simple decorative letters, as well as some marginal notes, as we see below on folios 231v–232r.

The music appears on the final folio of the middle section, 192 recto and verso, four works of polyphony unique to this manuscript, all in two voices except for the final cadence of Mater dei, which adds a third voice. The three complete works on folio 192r are performed in the video above.

The second half of the final stave on folio 192r has the beginning of a fourth piece, Mortis dira (Death dire). It continues overleaf, where we find a palimpsest, a page reused by having the ink scraped off: the rest of the music for Mortis dira is replaced by a commentary on the seven deadly sins. Below left, we see that the neumes (notes) are now only faintly visible. Below right we see that ultraviolet light does not help us recover the lost music.

Photograph left by Ian Pittaway. Photograph right by Lambeth Palace Library, to whom thanks.
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Sadly, as we see on closer inspection below, not enough of the music can be recovered to be performable, as it is significantly obscured by the new text. The words of Mortis dira are from an Agnus Dei, meaning Lamb of God, a Catholic prayer which has various musical settings in medieval manuscripts. The readable beginning of the music at the foot of folio 192r shows that it is, like the other pieces, unique to this source.

Issues of interpretation

The music in MS 457 is written with clear pitch but non-mensurally, without rhythm. The neume (note) shapes are those of later mensural notation but do not signify time value. This is made clear, for example, in the last syllable of ge-ne-re in Miro genere, as we see outlined on the right. The time value of the syllable must be the same in both voices, but if we try to read the neumes mensurally they contradict: the upper voice is written as a square with a downward tail (a long or longa) and the lower voice as a rhombus (a semibreve). 

A great many books and journal articles present editorialised versions of medieval music in modern notation that was originally written in non-mensural neumes, but without either presenting the original music or explaining how the modern solution was reached. It is my view that, for full disclosure and to increase understanding, the readership should know that that an editorial process has taken place (some readers less familiar with medieval notation may not realise this) and what that process was. In this article, my intention is to take you through that process.

Of those who have examined the music of MS 457 before me, three are worth describing briefly for their different approaches.

Kurt von Fischer, Polyphonic Music of the Fourteenth Century. Volume 16: English music for Mass and offices (I) (1983), presents the three pieces in modern notation without the original neumes. One theory put forward for the singing of music written non-mensurally is that it is isosyllabic, meaning that every syllable is of equal value, with the result that a melisma – a syllable sung over two of more notes – is divided in musical value by the number of notes on that syllable. This is the method used by Kurt von Fischer, broken only by a double-length note at phrase endings. There is no historical evidence for the isosyllabic method, and the result on a melisma is, to my ears, rhythmically jolting and unmusical. (For further explanation of the problems with the isosyllabic method, click here for the subheading, Non-mensural music, free rhythm, and its implications.)

Bryan Gillingham, Lambeth Palace MS 457: A Reassessment (1987) critiques previous attempts to present the 3 pieces and arrives at his own solutions, with music that is rhythmically very odd, jarring unmusically against natural syllable placement. The principles for the musical solutions are either not explained or insufficiently systematic. He describes previous attempts at interpreting MS 457 as “open to question”, but of course any mensural solution to music written non-mensurally is inherently open to question, including his own and, of course, including mine. Like Kurt von Fischer, Bryan Gillingham does not give the original manuscript neumes.

Helen Deeming, Songs in British Sources c. 1150–1300 (2013), presents the music for Miro genere and Mater dei (omitting Astripotens) in modern non-mensural notation, each note being a black notehead without a stem, without implying any musical rhythm. This leaves the reader open to find their own solution to the problem of mensuration. The original manuscript page is not shown, but there is a helpful written commentary on what a viewer would find.

Towards a solution

My solution to understanding and performing the music in MS 457 is twofold: to seek guidance in the musical developments of the time; and to draw upon the rhyme scheme and poetical phrasing, as follows.

Until the middle of the 12th century or later, western music did not have a system for writing rhythm. The earliest system was devised by the Notre Dame school of polyphony, composers at or around the Cathedral from 1160 to circa 1250, contemporaneous with the music in MS 457. The school established a way of writing six underlying pulses or rhythmic modes to indicate note values in a given piece of music, codified in the anonymous De mensurabili musica (The measurable music), 1260.

The rhythmic modes, written in modern notation, were:

To hear the six rhythmic modes, press the play arrow. 

As written in the manuscripts of the Notre Dame school, the underlying pulse or mode was read from the way notes were grouped together on the page by ligatures (ties, adjoining lines), as follows.

1st mode: 3 – 2 – 2 (3 note ligature, 2 note ligature, 2 note ligature) – used most often
2nd mode: 2 – 2 – 3 – regularly used
3rd mode: 1 – 3 – 3 – regularly used
4th mode: 3 – 3 – 1 – rarely used
5th mode: 1 – 1 – 1 – 1 – 1 – 1 or 3 – 3 – 3 – typically occurring in only one polyphonic voice
6th mode: 4 – 3 – 3 – typically occurring in only one polyphonic voice

Within a piece written in a rhythmic mode there were some variations in the rhythm, with the mode as the foundational underlying pulse. In the Florence Manuscript, c. 1250 (Biblioteca Medicea-Laurenziana, Florence, Pluteo 29.1), associated with the Notre Dame school, they appear as follows:

All examples taken from Pluteo 29.1:
1st mode, folio 13v; 2nd mode, folio 44v; 3rd mode, folio 15r; 5th mode, folio 9v. 

Where the music has a text, we should expect the rhythmic mode to follow the syllable stresses of speech. The following illustrative examples in English are my own. If we take a typical sentiment of devotional song, ‘Virgin Mary gives the faithful comfort’, it has natural stresses that put it in the first rhythmic mode. This may then be set to music as follows.


The same phrase in the second rhythmic mode, for example, illustrates why it would not be used for this text: it puts all the stresses in unnatural places.


This principle is clear when music is monophonic and has the same number of notes as syllables. Polyphony with melismata alters the natural rhythm of speech in that it has more notes than syllables, but the principle of correct syllable stress remains, as we see in the polyphonic example below. The cantus superior is in the sixth rhythmic mode and the cantus inferior in the fifth. Through enunciation, the singer can retain natural syllable stresses without this being contradicted by the rhythm of the music.


The six rhythmic modes were used in both texted (sung) and untexted (instrumental) music, and are present in music after and beyond the Notre Dame school. For example, the three unnamed instrumentals on folios 8v–9r of the English manuscript, British Library Harley 978, c. 1261–65, have an underlying pulse of the first rhythmic mode, as we see in the music and hear in the video below.

Click on the picture to play the video.
Ductia, British Library Harley 978, folio 8v-9r, c. 1261–65,
played by Ian Pittaway on citole and gittern.

Franco of Cologne further developed Notre Dame notation, keeping the ligatures, adding new ligatures, and adding more individual note values, clearly individuated maximas, longs, breves and semibreves, not always dependent on their place within a group. Franco’s system was presented in his highly influential Ars Cantus Mensurabilis (The Art of Mensurable Music), 1250–80.

If the scribe of the music in MS 457 had used Notre Dame’s modal notation or Franco’s mensural notation, we could simply read the music rhythmically from the page, just as it was intended to be sung. Instead, we must seek guidance elsewhere.

It may be that the innovation of the Notre Dame school was to find a way of notating rhythmic modes that were previously used in practice without a system for writing them. If so, rhythmic modes may theoretically be applied to music written before the school, and to non-mensural music contemporaneous with or later than the school, including MS 457.

Or it may be that Notre Dame not only devised a way to write these rhythms, they also created the forms of music that had these underlying pulses. If so, rhythmic modes cannot be applied to music written before, nor perhaps contemporaneous with Notre Dame but without its written system, in which case we have to find another basis for discerning rhythm in music written non-mensurally.

Hard evidence is lacking for either account, but I am inclined to believe the first, or something like it, simply because it is not credible to suggest that music performed before Notre Dame was entirely without a basis for mensuration or rhythm, as that would have rendered it formless and unsingable, regardless of whether there was a system for writing it.

Without a clear and verifiable way forward, we have to find some way of making sense of the music of MS 457 if it is to be performed. In interpreting non-mensural music, we are aided by significant indications in the shape of the poetry, even if the result cannot be incontrovertibly proven.

My assumption for the rhythm of the music of MS 457 is that the shape of the poetic verse is a guide to the form of the music, in three ways.

MS 457, folio 192r.

1. The music must be phrased to make sense of the verse, meaning that the phrasing of the music must reflect the phrasing of the rhyme scheme, working with and bringing out the rhymes at phrase endings. For this reason, in my rendering of the music in modern notation (below), each double bar line represents a phrase ending with a rhyme. So, for example, if the rhyme scheme is aabb, there is a double bar line at the end of a phrase with the rhymes a, a, b and b.

2. Lines of identical syllable count should be of identical musical length unless there is a compelling reason otherwise. This means that where there are two lines of poetry with identical phrasing, but one musical line has more notes, some of those extra notes must be of shorter duration, a quickened melisma (one syllable sung over several notes) to make the sung phrase lengths equal.

3. Since a melisma expands the length of a syllable beyond that of speech, musical rhythm may not entirely follow the pattern of speech; but the placement of syllables with notes should nonetheless not create syllable stresses that are contrary to speech.

Bearing these three principles in mind, I found that the music only made metrical sense if I assumed the basic measure of what medieval music theorists called perfection, i.e. the triple subdivision in which one perfect long is equal to three breves, and an imperfect long – an incomplete long that needs to be perfected by an additional note –  is equal to two breves. In modern music, this is like the subdivision in 6/8 time, where the basic measure is the dotted crotchet, which divides into three quavers. In later medieval music, these longs and breves would be written clearly on the page: not so in the non-mensural music of MS 457, so their presence has to be deduced by the means just outlined and other methods described below. In my own modern notation below, a single bar line represents the completion of a perfection.

I found that the rhythm of the music made most sense in relation to the words when I assumed that aspects of Franco’s mensural notation might be present in a nascent written form, so that ligatures and groups of notes might convey musical meaning, though not fully developed into a system.

Miro genere (By a wondrous birth)

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The words in Latin are seen in the manuscript above, and written below in lines according to its rhyme scheme, aab ccb dddb, followed by their meaning in modern English.

An image on the theme of Miro genere:
folio 149v of Latin MS 24,
originating in Salisbury Cathedral, 1240–60.
The John Rylands Library, Manchester.
© University of Manchester Library.
(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
(As with all pictures, click to see larger
in a new window, click in the new window
to further enlarge.)

Miro genere
sol de sidere
   suo luxit
De particula
sine macula
   totum fluxit
Sic a domo
summa pomo
lapsum homo
   deus reduxit

Hec virginitas
quam divinitas
   matrem fecit
per quam veterem
summum hominem
   ius deiecit
a regina
sic divina
   lapsa refecit

By a wondrous birth,
the sun [the Son] from the star [Virgin Mary]
   has shone;
from a little part
without blemish,
   the whole has come forth.
Thus from the highest home [heaven],
on account of the apple [Original Sin],
man who had fallen the Man-
   -God has led back.

This virginity,
which the Divinity
   made a mother [Eve],
through whom the highest
man of old [Adam]
   was rightly cast out,
by the Queen [Mary]
with a divine
   He [Christ] has restored the fallen.

The words in English and square bracket annotations are the combined work of Henry Howard, Leofranc Holford-Strevens, and David R. Howlett, to whom my grateful thanks.

The first task with Miro genere is the alignment of each word and its constituent syllables with their respective neumes (notes). As we see below, the addition of white lines to connect syllables and notes shows that the scribe had a careless approach to vertical alignment, so that not only are polyphonic notes sung together often vertically askew, the syllable placement of the second verse in relation to the first is considerably misaligned.

Photograph by Lambeth Palace Library, lines added by Ian Pittaway.

This is worse with the words under the second line of music. As we see below, the words and notes begin vertically aligned, but by the final phrase the words of the second verse are seriously adrift from the words of the first verse and from their corresponding notes.

Photograph by Lambeth Palace Library, lines added by Ian Pittaway.

Since the cantus superior (lead voice, written above) has more notes than the corresponding cantus inferior (accompanying voice, written below), we have to deduce the rhythmic relationship between the two.

Photograph by Lambeth Palace Library, lines added by Ian Pittaway.

For example, as we see on the right, the opening syllable Mi- has 3 notes in the cantus superior (marked 1s), 2 in the inferior (marked 1i), followed by the second syllable –ro, 1 syllable in both voices (2s and 2i). On the basis of my working assumption that the underlying pulse works to perfections (3 beat units), the opening group of 3 notes in the cantus superior are breves (1 beat x 3) followed by a perfect long (3 beats). On the basis of my working assumption that we might see nascent aspects of Franconian notation, the opening ligatured notes in the lower voice on Mi- (1i) are a breve (1 beat) followed by an imperfect long (2 beats), making a perfection.

On the next word, the 3 syllable ge-ne-re, we have 3 notes in the cantus superior for the 2 syllables ge-ne- (3s) and 2 notes for the same 2 syllables in the cantus inferior (3i), concluding with 1 note for 1 syllable in both voices (4s and 4i). One attempt to reconcile 3 notes for 2 syllables on ge-ne- of ge-ne-re (and on –gi-ni- of vir-gi-ni-tas at the same place in the second verse) might align both voices on Mi-ro, then in the cantus superior stretch the –re of ge-ne-re over 2 notes. As we see below, this is unsatisfactory because it misaligns word placement between the voices on the final syllable.

A second solution is to have both voices agree on the final syllable of ge-ne-re by making the –ro of Mi-ro last one more note in the cantus superior, but this is much more unsatisfactory because it misaligns every syllable between the voices except the first and last.

On this basis, the solution is to presume that the third note of the 2 syllable ge-ne- (3s in the annotated photograph above) is a scribal error, resulting in the solution below.

As we see on the right, the same issue occurs at the beginning of the second line with the 2 syllable word fluxit in the cantus inferior, which has 2 notes at the same pitch for the first syllable flu-. In the second verse, the issue repeats with 2 notes for the first syllable of lecit. As with the 3 notes for the 2 syllables of ge-ne-, this could be scribal error, but the fact that this happens twice in quick succession probably indicates a musical purpose, for which we need a slight detour.

Modern music notation gives the musician information not present in medieval neumes: tempo, volume, staccato or legato notes, and so on. The reverse is also true, that medieval notation gives the musician information about articulation not present in modern music. For example, a neume of two notes with the second note written smaller is a liquescence, a sung consonant that glides from one note to the next. If you sing the word hum on one note, then glide to the next note up while on the m, you will hear the effect.

The meaning of what we might call ornamental neumes is not always clear to the modern musicologist. The quilisma, for example, is shown as three tightly-packed wavy lines followed by a longer vertical line. Its meaning has been much debated, and medieval descriptions only take us part of the way to understanding how a quilisma should sound in practice. In Musica disciplina, the earliest extant medieval music treatise, c. 840–50, Aurelian of Réôme described it as a “tremulous and ascending note”. The anonymous chant treatise Summa musice, c. 1200, called it “three or four small notes”. In De Speculatione Musices, before 1316, Walter Odington (Walter of Evesham) described the quilisma poetically and puzzlingly as “moist earth”.

The most helpful descriptions are in De musica by Aribo, 1070–78, and the Liber Usualis, 11th century chants compiled by the monks of the Abbey of Solesmes, France, in 1896. Aribo stated that the quilisma involves a “change in pulse but not pitch … volume pulsation without pitch change … a smooth motion between the two written pitches in which the voice pulses alternately strong and weak as it moves”. The Liber Usualis says, “There is another kind of tremolo note, the Quilisma, which appears in the chant like a melodic blossom. It is called nota volubilis and gradata, a note with a trill and gradually ascending. If one has not learnt how to execute these tremolo or shaken notes, or, knowing how to render them, has nevertheless to sing with others, he should merely strike the preceding note with a sharper impulse so as to refine the sound of the Quilisma rather than quicken it.” A “note with a trill and gradually ascending” does not seem to mean that the quilisma note itself should ascend, only that the quilisma is placed exclusively within ascending phrases. The Liber Usualis description may be understood as complementing Aribo, and it seems to me very much like a description of pulsating vibrato as an ornament on a precise note.

It may be, then, that 2 notes on the same pitch and on the same syllable may not be scribal errors, but an indication of the manner in which the notes should be sung. If so, what it indicates must be guessed. Could it be a way of notating what Aribo wrote of the quilisma in 1070–78, “a smooth motion between the two written pitches in which the voice pulses alternately strong and weak as it moves”? Or does it indicate a mordent (an ornament immediately above or below the note) halfway through the syllable? Both seem logical guesses. In the video, I have performed the double notes for a single syllable in this second way.

Since vertical alignment of neume and syllable is not always clear, this poses a question. Where there is a melisma (one syllable sung over several notes) and therefore more notes than syllables, on which note do we move from one syllable to the next? The answer is in the rhythm of the slower-moving cantus inferior, which is almost entirely one note per syllable, to which the words and syllables of the cantus superior can then be aligned.

As an example, on the right we see the words suo luxit in the manuscript, aligned with the cantus inferior above it and the cantus superior above that. For the moment, we’ll ignore the lower voice – which anchors syllable placement, without which we’d be cut adrift, rhythmically – and wonder in isolation about the rhythm of su-o (2 syllables, 2 notes) lu-xit (2 syllables, 5 notes). Taken on its own, using the same rhythm, there are five possibilities for syllable placement, as follows.

Once we reintroduce the cantus inferior, in which there is only one way of locating syllables with notes since they are equal in number, syllable placement in the cantus superior becomes obvious, since it must be vertically aligned. We see, then, that the solution must be as follows:

Based on the principles set out above – phrasing the music to reflect the rhyme scheme; verse lines of identical syllable count being of identical musical length, resulting in quickened melismata where the note count is higher; musical rhythm that follows the natural emphasis of speech; following the medieval musical principle of perfection; the possibility of nascent Franconian mensuration; using the cantus inferior for placement of syllable to note in the cantus superior – the result is as follows. For the video performance of Miro genere, click here. 

(As with all pictures, click to see larger in new window, click in new window to further enlarge.)

The final line, deus reduxit, is slightly elongated compared to its counterparts in the rhyme scheme, totum fluxit and suo luxit: there are 5 syllables on the resolving cadence, deus reduxit, and only 4 syllables on its rhyming counterparts. The musical elongation of this final line seems to be required both by the syllable count and by the way the music is written.

In my solution, neither voice follows the basic pattern of a rhythmic mode rigidly, just as it wouldn’t in fully modal or mensural medieval music. In the first half of Miro genere, we could say the underlying pulse in both voices is essentially the second rhythmic mode. In the second half, the cantus superior is clearly in the first mode over the cantus inferior in the fifth. This mix of modal rhythm between voices is entirely to be expected from viewing medieval polyphony, and indeed the treatise of the Dominican friar, Jerome of Moravia, Tractatus de musica, Paris, c. 1280, explains at great length all the possible combinations of one rhythmic mode against another in two voice polyphony.

Tonally, the music is in the lydian mode (for modes, click here and go to the subheading, Medieval modes), and the polyphony has a definite English character due to its repeated reaching for the interval of a third between the voices. This makes it a gymel, from the Latin, cantus gemellus, twin song, two part polyphony in which the second voice tracks the first almost entirely in thirds or sixths. This definition of a gymel is from the 15th century music theorist, Guilielmus Monachus (about whom nothing is known, not even his nationality – English or Italian?), though the practice is evident in England from the beginning of the 13th century and in Scotland from late in that century. It appears to have been a peculiarly English and Scottish phenomenon. Other examples of gymels include Edi beo þu heuene quene, a late 13th century song in praise of the Virgin Mary, and Foweles in þe frith, c. 1270, a mysterious one verse fragment.

I know of no other recordings of Astripotens or Mater dei beside my own, and only one of Miro genere, which can be heard by clicking the picture on the right. It is sung by Anonymous 4, from their album, An English Ladymass: Medieval Chant and Polyphony (Harmonia Mundi, 2003). The performance follows the previously discussed isosyllabic solution to music written non-mensurally, as used by Kurt von Fischer (1983). To my ears, the performance illustrates the unsatisfactory and jolting effect of the isosyllabic method, which creates a result that is contrary to natural syllable placement, unmusical, and historically unattested. (Discussed further in this article).

Astripotens famulos (Kind ruler of the stars)

Photograph by Lambeth Palace Library.
(As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window, click in the new window to further enlarge.)

The portion of the manuscript on which the song appears is above. The rhyme scheme is aax bbx ccx (x represents a line ending that doesn’t rhyme). Below, a Latin transcription is followed by an English translation.

Whether the first four syllables are read as two words or as one changes the meaning. I had read those syllables as two words, Astri potens, the first two lines rendered Astri potens famulos / audi benigne tuosMighty servant of the stars / listen kindly to your own, and recorded it as such in the video. As Jerome Colburn rightly points out in the comment section below, the manuscript gives those first four syllables as one word, Astripotens, giving the meaning, Kind ruler of the stars / hear your servants

Latin MS 24, folio 152v, 1240–60.
The John Rylands Library, Manchester.
© University of Manchester Library.
(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Astripotens famulos
audi benigne tuos.
   Miserere. Miserere. Miserere.

Angnus sine macula
quies vera gra[tia].
   Miserere. Miserere. Miserere.

Dona reis veniam
pie[ta]tis gloriam.
   Dona nobis, nobis dona. Dona nob[is].

Kind ruler of the stars
hear your servants.
   Have mercy. Have mercy. Have mercy.

Lamb without blemish
who is true grace.
   Have mercy. Have mercy. Have mercy.

Grant pardon to the guilty
the glory of compassion.
   Grant to us, to us grant. Grant to us.

In the 13th century, English spelling was not standardised – that was not to come until the dictionaries of the 18th century – so spelling was not only regional, related to pronunciation, but unstable, so that one author might spell the same word several ways. By contrast, medieval Latin, learned from the page and dependent on Classical Latin, was largely stable and uniform, and in manuscripts typically included the kind of written abbreviations on the folio above – gra for gratia, pietis for pietatis, nob for nobis – the missing letters shown in the transcription above within square brackets.

In medieval Anglo-Latin, there were minor divergences from Classical Latin in spelling and pronunciation. The Classical oe and ae, for example, were regularly reduced to e. In Anglo-Latin, a written n was introduced before gn, so that, for example, agnus (lamb) became angnus, denoting the introduction of a nasal n, as in sing, before gn. We see this in the first word of the second verse.

Photograph by Lambeth Palace Library, lines added by Ian Pittaway.

As with Miro genere, the first musical task is to determine on which notes the syllables fall in the foundational cantus inferior. For Astripotens, this is made easy for two reasons. First, the scribe successfully vertically aligned the words and neumes for the first verse (a little less so for the second and third verses). Second, the assumption that the underlying pulse is counted in perfections quickly leads to the conclusion that there are continuous perfect longs in the lower voice, one note per syllable in the fifth rhythmic mode. This then enables alignment of syllables for the larger number of notes in the cantus superior.

On the right we see the opening words with white lines to indicate the relationship of neumes and syllables to each other. In the cantus inferior, we have four perfect longs on As-tri-po-tens. In the cantus superior, there is a perfect long on As-; a clivis on -tri-, which I interpret as we would in mensural notation, a breve followed by an imperfect long; a porrectus on -po-, which I interpret as three breves making a perfection, as in mensural notation; and a perfect long on -tens. Interpreted this way, this group of neumes would not look any different in fully mensural notation.

A caesura – a vertical line – is used in medieval square notation for a musical pause or rest, or to indicate the beginning of an open and close ending, the equivalent of today’s 1st and 2nd time bars. We see the first use clearly in Astripotens, the caesura marking a pause at the end of each line as laid out in my word transcription above and musical transcription below, and performed as such in the video. There is an additional vertical line which, in the first verse, splits the word benigne, and in the second and third verses comes between words – verse 2, vera | gratia; verse 3, pietatis | gloriam. These lines don’t make musical or grammatical sense and were probably written to help the singer with placement of words against notes.

Following the other principles described above, my solution in modern notation is below. For the video performance of Astripotens famulos, click here.

The underlying melody in the cantus inferior is a musical version of the Catholic prayer, Agnus Dei (Lamb of God), the same prayer that is the basis for the obscured fourth piece, Mortis dira. The melody used for Agnus Dei in Astripotens famulos is the same as that used in the Buckland Missal (MS Don. b.5, folio 398v, Bodleian Library, Oxford), compiled in the 14th century. A missal is a liturgical book with instructions and texts to celebration the Mass through the liturgical year. The Buckland Missal is a Sarum Missal, which means it includes Latin liturgical rites developed at Salisbury Cathedral from the late 11th century on. This makes the melody of the Astripotens cantus superior a trope, an addition of new music laid over a pre-existing chant. This trope is unique to MS 457.

The music is in the dorian mode (for modes, see the subheading, Medieval modes, here). The polyphony, not being reliant on thirds, lacks the definite English character of Miro genere, but since MS 457 is the unique source and the cantus inferior melody is taken from a Sarum Missal, we can securely assume an English origin.

Mater dei (Mother of God)

The third and final complete piece, Mater dei (Mother of God), has a rhyme scheme of aabbaabb, seen in the transcription below and in the manuscript underneath.

Alabaster statue of the Virgin Mary
from the English Midlands, 1350–75.
© The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Mater dei
lumen rei
stel[l]a previa
porta pervia
forma spei
flos et gloria
gaude Maria

Tu nos audi
et exaudi
virgo regia
culpe ne[s]cia
mundo isti
tot obprobria
gaude Maria
Mother of God,
light of the sinner,
guiding star,
open gate,
form of hope,
beauty of
flower and glory:
rejoice, Mary.

You hear us
and listen,
Royal Virgin.
Without fault,
from this world
you have removed  
so many reproaches:
rejoice, Mary.

Mater dei followed by the beginning of Mortis dira.
Photograph by Lambeth Palace Library.

The scribe made a few errors when writing the words: in the first verse, stela is written rather than stella; in the second verse, audi is mistakenly repeated and the s is missing from nescia. The final Maria has been rubbed away, probably when the ink from the reverse side was removed. The vertical alignment of the words with the neumes is very good.

The scribe indicated phrasing and alignment of words with notes by the use of caesuras (vertical lines) after neumes to mark the ends of words, as he did with Astripotens famulos. In the cantus superior, we see caesuras as follows – Mater | dei lumen | rei | stela | previa – after which the scribe presumably thought the singer would follow the pattern unaided. In the cantus inferior there is only one caesura, after Mater dei. Since this voice is mostly one note per syllable, further markings must have been deemed unnecessary.

The natural rhythm of the poem indicates the first rhythmic mode in both voices, underpinned by the scribe’s placement of caesuras. This gives a good musical result and is the basis of my interpretation. As an experiment, I tried continuous perfect longs in the cantus inferior – the fifth rhythmic mode – as the basis on which to build the cantus superior, which gives a very poor and unmusical result. As in the previous two examples, starting with the cantus superior gives several potential interpretations of syllable placement with notes; with the cantus inferior as the foundation, almost entirely one note per syllable, there is only one correct possibility, as we see below. For the video performance of Mater dei, click here.

(As with all pictures, click to see larger in new window, click in new window to further enlarge.)

As with Miro genere, the final musical line is extended but not, as there, to accommodate an extra syllable. In Mater dei, the syllable counts of the lines are repeated in the first and second halves of the verse – 44554455 – and the extension is to add emphasis to the words gaude Maria. More emphasis is added by a third voice on Maria, which appears for only five notes.

If we take the placement of the third voice from the manuscript, the extra voice begins partway through Maria, singing two notes a fourth below the cantus superior, one a sixth below, then two an octave below, as we see below left.

This is clearly wrong musically, and it would be odd for a voice to come in partway through a syllable. The erroneous spatial placement of the third voice can be resolved by having it come in at the beginning of Ma-, as we see above right. This is better, but not quite satisfactory. As we see in the solution in the complete music above, by reducing the first note of the third voice by one beat and expanding the second note by one beat, the move is made smoother, more musically satisfying, and more in keeping with the underlying pulse of the music.

Like Miro genere, Mater dei is in the lydian mode, in this case making more use of the mode’s tenor or reciting note, the note which is emphasised, around which the mode’s melody typically clusters, that note being C in the lydian mode.


It is always a delight to find medieval music that is little known. I don’t know of any recordings of the second and third of these three pieces. (If you do, I hope you’ll be in touch and send the details through this page.)

There have been long and sometimes acrimonious debates over how to sing or play medieval music written non-mensurally (as this article outlines). In the end, the truth is that we just don’t know. My experience working with Lambeth Palace MS 457 is that the problems in this manuscript soon become surmountable when working to established historical principles. This may be a result of the manuscript being written during the period of the Notre Dame school when mensural music was becoming well-established, though Notre Dame’s notational methods are not on the page in MS 457.

Non-mensural music can be difficult to work with: the lack of historical information about performance means that there are no watertight principles on which to base any interpretation. I therefore cannot claim that the methods I have relied on apply specifically to this manuscript, nor therefore that the results I have produced are historically accurate: due to lack of certainty in which method is applicable, the musical solutions presented here can neither be proven nor disproven. All I can say, in the end, is that my method is based on contemporaneous historical principles and has yielded results I am pleased with, resulting in music I find effective and beautiful. It is my hope that the music is its own testimony to the soundness of the method.


This article, its musical illustration (‘Virgin Mary gives the faithful comfort’), the solution to the music of MS 457 and its video performance are © Ian Pittaway.

MS 457 photographs are © Lambeth Palace Library.

Neither are to be reproduced in any form without written permission from their respective copyright holders.



Deeming, Helen (2013) Songs in British Sources c. 1150–1300. London: Stainer and Bell.

Fischer, Kurt von (1983) Polyphonic Music of the Fourteenth Century. Volume 16: English music for Mass and offices (I). Monaco: Éditions de L’oiseau-lyre.

Gillingham, Bryan (1987) Lambeth Palace MS 457: A Reassessment. Music & Letters, July 1987, Vol. 68, No. 3, pp. 213-221. Available online by clicking here.

Kelly, Thomas Forrest (2015) Capturing Music: the story of notation. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Lambert, John (Assistant Archivist, Lambeth Palace Library) (2019) Photographs of Music. Available online by clicking here.

Lambeth Palace Library (undated) MS 457, f. 192r. Available online by clicking here.

Lambeth Palace Library (2022) MS 457. Available online by clicking here.

McGee, Timothy (ed.) with Rigg, A. G. & Klausner, David N. (1996) Singing Early Music. The pronunciation of European languages in the late middle ages and renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Parrish, Carl (1957) The Notation of Medieval Music. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Pittaway, Ian (2018) Performing medieval music. Part 2/3: Turning monophony into polyphony. Available online by clicking here.

Pittaway, Ian (2018) Performing medieval music. Part 3/3: The medieval style. Available online by clicking here.

Seay, Albert (1975) Music in the Medieval World. Second edition. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Trovato, Ben (2014) About the quilisma. Available online by clicking here.

Weber, Laura (2009) Intellectual Currents in Thirteenth Century Paris: A Translation and Commentary on Jerome of Moravia’s Tractatus de musica. A dissertation presented to the faculty of the graduate school of Yale University in candidacy for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.

5 thoughts on “Polyphonic treasure in Lambeth Palace: three unique pieces from MS 457, c. 1200

  • 23rd November 2022 at 10:52 pm

    To the person who left a comment on this article this evening beginning “Wow Ian” – I’m so sorry – all comments are held for moderation and I accidentally deleted it. (This is the first time I’ve done that. Honest.) I’d be so grateful if you see this and could repost.

  • 27th November 2022 at 3:08 am

    The incipit of the second piece is misstated and mistranslated.
    1. There is no space between _Astri_ and _potens_. Therefore this is one compound word _astripotens_, “ruler of the stars” (https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/astripotens). It is singular, either nominative or vocative.
    2. _famulos_ is accusative plural masculine, “servants,” so it must be the object of a verb or some prepositions. It agrees in number, gender, and case with _tuos_ “thy” later in the line.
    3. In between _famulos_ and _tuos_ comes _audi_, imperative singular of _audio_ “hear,” and _benigne_ adverb from _benignus_ “benign, kind.” The imperative means that the subject is second person, which makes _astripotens_ a vocative.
    Thus the whole incipit is _Astripotens famulos audi benigne tuos_ and means “O Ruler of the stars, kindly hear Thy servants.”

  • 27th November 2022 at 4:28 am

    Correction to my correction: _benigne_ is vocative singular of _benignus_, not an adverb; it thus agrees with _Astripotens_. Thus the whole line means “Kind ruler of the stars, hear Thy servants.”

  • 27th November 2022 at 4:38 am

    Sorry to be sending so many comments, but in the second verse of Astripotens, there is a u written above the n, making the reading _Ang(n)us_ (singular, as would be expected, rather than _Agni_, plural), and there is also a space between _qui_ and _es_, making _qui es_ “who art” rather than _quies_ “peace.”

    • 1st December 2022 at 7:58 am

      Hello, Jerome.

      My specialism is the music. I rely on others for the Latin, as you’ve seen. Thank you for your expertise and corrections, which I have incorporated into the article.



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