So goes Henry Purcell’s Ode to Saint Cecilia, whose feast day is celebrated today (22nd November). Purcell’s ode is perhaps one of the best known compositions written in honour of this patron saint of music. It is a poem by Nicholas Brady which was set to music by Purcell in 1692. Brady’s poem was derived from A Song for St Cecilia’s Day, written by John Dryden in 1687. Dryden was an undergraduate here at Trinity between 1650 and 1654 and in 1663 he presented a number of books to the college. These included B.11.16 which is inscribed with his signature on one of the endleaves.
Dryden wrote a second work dedicated to St. Cecilia in 1697 entitled Alexander’s Feast, or, The Power of Musick. This poem describes how Alexander the Great’s musician, Timotheus, was able to command the emotions of others through his music. This ode was originally set to music by Jeramiah Clarke but the score has not survived. It was later set to music in 1736 by George Frederick Handel. A copy of the lyrics for this version can be found in the library’s collection (classmark X.30.16) and is pictured below.
Like most martyrs, Cecilia’s death was quite gruesome. She is said to have lived for three days after being hacked in the neck three times with a sword. The scene is pictured in one of our Books of Hours. She was named patron saint of music because she sang to God during her wedding to a Roman nobleman after being forced to marry by her parents, despite her vow of chastity. St. Cecilia has been credited with invention of various musical instruments, most notably the organ.
Continuing on the musical theme, the college library has various musical manuscripts in its collection. Our best known – the Trinity Carol Roll – is currently on loan to an exhibition in Paris, but we also have fifteenth century ballad fragments, a Hymnal (probably from Barking Abbey) and a seventeenth century volume containing College Graces found in the Chapel.
Imagine you are standing at the edge of a forest on a cold November day. The periodic thump of a woodsman’s axe echoes in the still air and from the shade beneath the trees there comes the sound of many animals rooting around in the fallen leaves. You hear their grunts and the occasional thwack of the swineherd’s stick against a branch of an oak tree, knocking acorns to the ground for his pigs to eat. A pair of peasants are tending a large mound under which wood is smoldering away to become charcoal for fuel. As the fields have been harvested and replanted for the spring, this woodland is far from the remote wildwood of fairy tales. Instead it is busy with agricultural work and those pigs turning up the litterfall with their snouts are central to this work.
In November, the Labour of the Month is the feeding of pigs in woodland pastures. In preparation for slaughter in December, pigs were fed on “mast”, the autumnal forest fodder including beechnuts, fungi, roots and acorns. However, access to the forest for mast had to be granted to peasant farmers by their landlords. The right of tenants to pasture their pigs in their landlord’s woodland in exchange for payment was known as “pannage”. The word also applies to the practice of feeding pigs in wooded pasture and the payment made to the owner for the right to do so. Pannage, harvesting firewood and making charcoal were done in peasants’ spare time, when their labour was not otherwise needed by their landlord.
Medieval woodlands were carefully managed resources that provided all of the timber for building as well as charcoal for fuel. In order to sustain the productivity of the woodland, trees were pollarded and coppiced, two techniques of systematic hard pruning. This protected trees from decay, thus extending their lives and ensured a continuous supply of wood for fuel, basketry, construction, tools and so on. Coppicing involved cutting the tree back nearly to the roots resulting in the growth of a cluster of thick branches growing from ground level while pollarding, pruning higher up the trunk, was a good way to prevent livestock in wooded pastures from nibbling the new growth before it could be used.
Pollarding may also have increased the yield of mast such as acorns, leading to better-fed pigs. The presence of pigs in turn benefited the trees by clearing the understory and turning up the soil, thus creating a fertile seedbed and allowing new trees to grow. Pannage was therefore a central part of the medieval agricultural year, ensuring that the forest yielded as many resources as possible year after year.
The astrological sign beginning in November is Sagittarius. This constellation was thought to look like a centaur, the mythical human-horse hybrid, though legends vary as to which centaur it represents. It is commonly said to be Chiron, who was renowned as a nurturer and teacher in contrast with the violent and lusty nature common to other centaurs in Greek mythology. However, Chiron is already represented in the night sky by the constellation Centaurus, so other sources say that Sagittarius was invented by Chiron himself to aid his pupil Jason in the quest for the Golden Fleece. The arrow of Sagittarius points to the “heart of the scorpion”, the star Antares, as if to strike down Scorpio to avenge Orion’s death, or perhaps to protect nearby Hercules should the scorpion attack.
Difficult as it is to believe that it is November already, we hope you have a good one, that your aim is true and that your bacon is spared from the fire (for this month at least)!