Wednesday, May 6, 2009

English Monasteries and Music: Mourning their Loss

I have owned and enjoyed "An English Ladymass" for many years. I read the program notes when I first purchased the CD, but they really didn't make that much of an impression on me. I was not even Catholic then. All I remembered of the information was that much of the music of the 13th and 14th centuries was lost. I didn't find that surprising.

I have read many accounts of the destruction of Catholic art during the Reformation, but I never realized that music was destroyed as well. Then, on a recommendation by E. M. Vidal at Tea at Trianon, I read Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics Endured the English Reformation by Stephanie A. Mann. Discussing the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, Mann says, "Among the great losses were the libraries. Hundreds of manuscripts were destroyed. Of all the great polyphonic choir books of the late medieval era, only three remain. The choir book from Eton contains the only music we have by certain composers, and it is not complete." She says that so much medieval polyphonic music was destroyed that King Henry VIII had to hire Thomas Tallis to compose new music for court services.

I immediately remembered "An English Ladymass" and re-read the program notes. Here is an excerpt:

The fragmentary and scattered state of 13th- and 14th-century English polyphonic sources makes the creation of an edition a daunting task. There exists not even one substantial intact manuscript source from which to work. Instead, there are hundreds of strips, scraps, pastedowns, and flyleaves to be found, matched, deciphered, and transcribed. Reconstructions, ranging from a few notes to an entire voice part, are often necessary. Imaginative scholarship as well as subtle musical grace were apparent in all of Ernest Sanders’ transcriptions and restorations in the editions from which we drew these polyphonic works for our Ladymass. It has been a pleasure to bring them to life.

There is no mention of how these works were lost, but naturally I have my suspicions.


Stephanie A. Mann said...

The title for this post is apt: the loss of the monasteries was just devastating to English culture and society. I just read Geoffrey Moorhouse's study of the dissolution of the monasteries, The Last Divine Office. It offered additional context about the dissolution of the friaries, which had no riches. (The Franciscans and Dominicans preached and taught tradition piety and obedience to the Pope, however.) My review is linked on my website,

Wendy Haught said...


It's funny that you should note the title of my post, because I actually forgot to put one on it until after it had been published for a couple of hours.

Thanks so much for your book!


Margaret said...

Thank you for this fascinating post. My English ancestors had so much of who they were stripped from them. It makes me sad to realize how much of my cultural background has been lost. I hope to learn more about my heritage and to reclaim it for my family.

Wendy Haught said...


Thank you! I'm so glad you found it helpful. Good luck reclaiming the culture for your family. I think you are right to start at home. You may want to read The Restoration of Christian Culture by John Senior.