Sometimes, no matter how focused and disciplined your intend your research session to be, you come across something in an archive catalogue that’s just too intriguing not to do some further investigation.
This is exactly what happened last week when we were looking through the Bagot of Blithfield collection at the Staffordshire Record Office. We were searching for estate rentals which might contain field-names to record for the project. The archive catalogues usually give details of the kind of information that’s included in each document, which is brilliant for us as we don’t end up ordering documents that contain (for example) tenants’ names and rent amounts, but not the names of the land they rented. That saves our volunteers and the archive staff lots of time and energy. Usually we’d have dismissed D4038/E/1/3, as the catalogue entry states “Rental for Bagot manors giving free tenants and chief rents …”, with no reference to field-names. However, it then goes on to add “… wrapped in medieval music.” So, as you can imagine, we had to have a look.
The document duly appeared (thanks to the archive fairies), and it was indeed bound with medieval music. And it was beautiful. So why on earth was it there?
The rental dates from 1582, and although it may not have been bound immediately following this date, it’s reasonable to think that it was roughly contemporary. So was reusing manuscripts in this way a common practice in the late 16th century? Essentially, the answer is “yes”. Less valuable or important manuscripts had been used as scrap for binding for many years, but after Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries (from about 1536 to 1541) the contents of monastic libraries, containing huge numbers of manuscripts, were consigned to the scrap heap. So in that social climate, the reuse of this music in a secular context is not surprising, although it might seem shocking to us.
It’s not the first time we’ve seen reuse of manuscripts, but it is the first time we’ve had a look at music used in this way. Rentals we saw earlier in the year were bound with older documents, and in some cases scraps of manuscripts had been stitched together to make a book cover. This is one of the joys of archival research – all the things you come across that you were never even looking for!