The source materials for large medieval chansonniers

How were large collections of lyric poetry (with or without music) assembled?

Musician playing from notationI’ve been pondering the collection of jeux partis (debate songs; hereafter JPs) in Douce 308 over the past few months and I’ve started to develop tentative hypotheses about how such large collections of lyrics were put together. Most of the JPs in Douce 308 are unique to this source and by an otherwise unknown poet called Roland de Reims. In addition, there’s a collection of Love Questions (which I might blog about on another occasion), a couple of random single stanza texts (one of which is definitely a motet), and a section of JPs that have concordances in other sources (albeit with one unique single stanza in there too, JP28a, of which more below).

A suggestive group of three songs

These concordances appear (to me at least) to give a glimpse of what sources the scribes of Douce 308 were working with, but only when examined fairly closely. Nearly all of the non-unique JPs are also found in TrouvC (the Bern MS), another manuscript that was, like Douce 308, copied in Metz. Douce 308‘s chansonnier section is arranged genre, but TrouvC‘s is arranged alphabetically. And Douce 308 transmits virtually all the JPs from the first 7 letter sections of TrouvC, notably copying the very first three (items 4, 5, and 6 in TrouvC) in the very same order (as JP27, JP27a, and JP28).


Now we might imagine that one manuscript directly copied from the other, with Douce 308 just extracting the JPs from TrouvC‘s order, aided by its helpful index labels for the genre. And although their orthography is not identical, given the non-literal nature of medieval copying and the lack of a spelling standard, this is not impossible. More likely, though, is that these three songs were copied into each large book from the small source on which they had previously been circulating.

And I think we can imagine what sort of source that is, with the clue being in the presence of the songs JP27a and, after JP28, JP28a. These ‘a‘ songs are ones for which the incipit is not listed in the internal table of contents in Douce 308 and which therefore lack a red-ink number both there and in situ where they are copied in the JP subsection. Basically, JP27a is copied as if it is the last 8 stanzas of JP27; and JP28a is copied as if it is the final stanza of JP28. This made me wonder if the two JP pairs were originally on one visible part of a small source, either across the opening of a bifolio (that would need to fold both ways), or, more likely, on the back and front of a single sheet, perhaps a small roll. TrouvC‘s scribes knew that JP27, JP27a, and JP28 were three separate songs and copied them as such, intending, too, to give their music. But it seems unlikely that the source had music for JP27a, or the Douce 308 scribe would have had a good cue that it was as different song, even though Douce 308 never intended to copy any music notation. Perhaps the original small source had JP27 and JP28 on opposite sides of the page, possibly with the first stanzas of each underlaid to music and JP27a (and, possibly JP28) were simply copied in the space left underneath each ‘proper’ song. JP27a would have been readily performable without music notation, since it is a contrafact of the very widely known song by Bernart de Ventadorn, Can vei la lauzeter (it survives with the melody in TrouvO, although Douce 308‘s copy has more stanzas, perhaps added specifically in the copy that was the source for Douce 308, since these additional stanzas are in all the Metz sources, including TrouvU). The evidence for JP28 is less easy to assess because it does not survive elsewhere, but perhaps it represents an abortive attempt at an addition that was known to the singer who owned the small source, which, if it only had JP28 and JP28a (6.5 + 1  =7.5 stanzas) on the reverse of the side that had JP27 and JP27a (6.5 + 8 = 14.5 stanzas), would have had plenty of blank space below. Or, perhaps there was enough space to have fitted JP29 and JP29a in on that reverse side too?

Looks like I need to work this out more fully as I write up the article version of my account of the JPs of Douce 308, but luckily there’s a bit more evidence. One other pair of songs in the non-unique JPs of Douce 308 suggests small source materials, too — again because the two songs occur in a cluster in other chansonniers.

A suggestive pair of songs

Excluding the single unique stanza JP28a, only the two JPs involving Thibaut de Champagne (JP29a and JP30) are not found in TrouvC at all. Both songs are copied adjacently not just in Douce 308 but in four other sources (JP30 alone also occurs in four further closely related sources, which are not relevant here). In two of the four sources that have both songs, TrouvA and Trouva — the two Arras sources — they are in the same order they are in Douce 308; in the other three sources, TrouvM, TrouvT, and TrouvO, they are the other way round and the second song has empty staves (the staves are empty for both songs in TrouvT). This suggests, again, an origin for the two songs in a performer’s bifolio or single sheet, which lacked a clear indication of recto and verso and which perhaps lacked notation for the second song.

Hamming it up?

The idea that chansonniers were put together from small sources collected together for the purpose echoes that proposed for Du Fay’s works by Charles Hamm (‘Manuscript Structure in the Dufay Era’. Acta Musicologica 34, no. 4 (1962): 166-84. doi:10.2307/931452) and invoked by Jane Alden, Kate van Orden, and others for the songbooks of later periods. Thinking about these ‘fascicles’ (as Hamm, Alden, and van Orden call them) — small manuscripts used by travelling musicians — for the trouvère repertory is interesting, though, because the assumption has usually been that these songs, not being complex polyphony (an adjective/noun conflation I’d question!) circulated only orally. Nonetheless, John Haines has argued for a much earlier written transmission for monophonic secular song in ephemeral (small) sources we no longer possess (see his Satire in the Songs of Renart le Nouvel. Geneva: Droz, 2010, p.89). From my reading of Douce 308 so far, he may well be right.

(For links to all these sources and an unscrambling of their sigla, click here.)

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