Singing to the Heavens

Dickon Whitewood, Former Assistant Curator (Norwich Castle: Royal Palace Reborn)

In every museum, treasures lie waiting to be discovered. What you see on display is often only a tiny fraction of the total collection. Norwich Castle, like other museums across Norfolk and East Anglia, is no exception. Although these objects are not on display, they remain fantastic items in their own right, helping us to shed light on and understand the past. There are many reasons why such objects are kept off-display: space, conservation needs and time to name only three. However, the objects endure, locked away, waiting for their story to be told.

One such extraordinary object is a 15th century processional manuscript, made and used by the monks at Castle Acre Priory, 33 miles west of Norwich, for their own use within the Abbey church. We know this as the text pays special attention to the feast days of two individual saints: St Pancras, patron of Castle Acre’s mother house at Lewes, and St Philip, whose arm was Acre’s most famous relic.

A manuscript with handwritten music, consisting of written out notes and lyrics in Latin

A page from the manuscript showing words and musical notation for the monks’ processional songs

Written in Latin, the purpose of the manuscript was to provide the words and musical notation to be sung by the monks in procession, indicating where, what time and on which date songs would take place. On many pages this instruction is given by the use of red ink to make it stand out from the rest of the text, for example, in the words Deinde pr[ocessio] circa claustru[m] – ‘Then the procession around the cloister’. This is remarkable as it allows us to appreciate medieval voices in the location in which they were intended. At other points in the text, the dedicatee of the songs is given, for example De Sancto Paulo – ‘For Saint Paul’.

Throughout the manuscript the songs are highly religious in nature, designed to celebrate special ceremonies in the liturgical calendar as well as feast days in veneration of particular saints. The words for one hymn, sung to the Virgin at the Feast of Purification, read in part: “Hail, full of Grace, virgin mother of God, for out of you is arisen the sun of justice, giving light to everything that sits in darkness.”

A member of staff displays the closed book in gloved hands. The book would fit neatly in one hand.
Scale view of this chant book showing its size in relation to the human hand

Small enough to fit into the palm of a hand and bound by two wooden boards covered in vellum, it is possible to imagine the book being carried by one of the monks as they processed through the Abbey. This would have been a grand affair with numerous singers and the full splendour of medieval ceremony. Castle Acre was a member of the Cluniac order, which was famous (and, at times, notorious) among other monastic orders for their love of elaborate ritual in their religious observances and extravagantly decorated church architecture.

Today the manuscript is extremely delicate, a victim of its 500-year-old age and history of use. In the past, this has prevented its regular display. However, thanks to the generous and timely support of the National Manuscripts Conservation Trust, this treasure of Norwich Castle’s collection will be restored to its former glory. It will join over 1000 priceless medieval artefacts displayed as part of Norwich Castle Keep’s upcoming Medieval Gallery, and will inspire brand new digital displays, inviting visitors to ‘turn’ the pages of the Processional – whilst also listening to the recreated music of the monastic chants for the first time since the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

The closed book, with yellowing paper and a tarnished leather binding
The 15th century Castle Acre Processional

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