‘Gather your song’: virgin saints in the Barking Hymnal

Single folio with 9 staves of music in black, red and blue
Tibi Christe, splendor patris. O.3.54, f.40r

The page above is from a 15th-century hymnal in the Wren Library, showing the hymn Tibi Christe, splendor patris. It has enjoyed a respectable place in English church music tradition, appearing in the 1906 English Hymnal as Thee, O Christ, the Father’s splendour. (It did not quite make the cut when the New English Hymnal took over in most parish churches after 1986.) The section above is translated in the English Hymnal as:

‘In the presence of angels
Sing we now with tuneful art
Meetly in alternate chorus
Bearing our responsive part.’[1]

Although this English version was sung in a parochial setting, the words betray the hymn’s monastic origins, where singing alternate verses was the main way to participate in the divine Office. It is this antiphonal way of singing that would have been familiar to the nuns who used this hymnal in the 15th century, when they met for the daily offices and for Mass.

With no musical notation, it’s clearer to see here how the two groups alternate. Verses sung by the cantrix (or perhaps a small group of singers) are indicated by the blue initials, and the red initials show where the rest of the choir responds. O.3.54, f.52r.

Singing was a way of reflecting on the words of the prayers and offering up both body and soul to praise God. Singing was also a way to grow in community with the other nuns, since it brought together everyone from the novices to the most senior nuns in the abbey. Joining in with the Office was a large part of what taught the novices how to become nuns, and they would go on to play larger roles in the liturgy once they had taken their vows.

Detail of illuminated initial showing three kneeling worshippers
Three worshippers sing from the same book. O.3.10, f.71r

Hymnals – or hymnaries – were one of several music books used by medieval religious communities and contained all the hymns they needed for their services. Most plainsong for the offices would have been found in an antiphonal, but psalm tones might be kept separately in a tonale. Lessons and antiphons might be kept together in a breviary – so called because it was an ‘abbreviation’ of the main office and contained a lot of its component parts – but you would still need to turn to other books for the specific hymns and psalms of the day.

This particular hymnal is not made up exclusively of hymns, with a miscellany of useful liturgical material at ff.3-12. The hymns are then written out in calendar order, starting in Advent. Many of these hymns are dedicated to particular saints, to be sung on that saint’s feast day.

One of the more unusual saints to receive these hymns and prayers is St Ethelberga, first abbess of Barking in Essex. Another hymn is dedicated to St Erkenwald, abbot of Chertsey, who helped found Barking Abbey as a Benedictine house in the 7th century. This all suggests that the hymnal was probably commissioned for the nuns at Barking. Ethelburga is the focus of three hymns – more than anyone else in the hymnal except Christ and the Virgin Mary –likely to emphasise her importance in the history of the abbey, as well as her continued presence as an intercessor and protectress.

This hymn, beginning with the words Hec aula Christo, uses St Ethelburga’s virtue and saintly agency to reflect on the all-conquering love of Christ. ‘The church sings together to Christ / By whom the light of Ethelburga twinkles’[2]. O.3.54, f.42r
The saint who appears most frequently in the hymnal is the Blessed Virgin Mary. The prevalence of Marian hymns was not specific to Barking Abbey, of course. Throughout the Middle Ages, Mary held a special place among the saints as the mother of Christ, and chief intercessor on the behalf of sinners. Most of the hymns to Mary are grouped closely together in the hymnal, since the main Marian festival all fall in quick succession over summer.

The hymn Adest dies leticie [laetitiae] was sung for the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. O.3.54, f.33r.
The last hymn in the book is dedicated to St Catherine of Alexandria, since her feast day falls so late in the liturgical year (25th November). Always one of the more popular virgin saints, the cult of St Catherine was at its height in the 15th century when this hymnal was probably produced.

Single folio with 6 staves of music in black, red and blue
A hymn for the feast of St Catherine. O.3.54 f.45r.

St Catherine had been a focus of attention at Barking for a fair while. Three centuries earlier, a Barking nun called Clemence wrote an Anglo-Norman life of St Catherine, which remains important as one of the rare surviving medieval texts written about a woman by a woman. A modern edition of this text in the original language is available in the college library.

According to legend, Catherine of Alexandria was a princess and a scholar who converted hundreds to Christianity with her superior arguments. When the Roman emperor Maxentius tried to subdue her by proposing marriage to her, she claimed she was wedded to Christ and could marry no other man. When angels rescued her from execution by being tied to her iconic wheel, she was beheaded instead, her sanctity signified by the blood and milk that flowed from her neck. The salient image of Catherine as the mystical bride of Christ may explain why she might be particularly popular among female religious.

Katherine and wheels: two demi-angels in air with swords break the wheels: two executioners fall to the ground.
B.11.7, f.30r

That said, we do not know how much attention Clemence’s work enjoyed within the abbey, or whether Catherine was particularly venerated there. The more important feast days would sometimes include more hymns or a more complicated chant, and there are none of these things in the hymnal for St Catherine’s Day.

Hec cantica dicenda sunt de virginibus. This canticle, sung at Matins for the feasts of Mary and the virgin saints, draws from the apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus. O.3.54, f.58v

The page above shows a hymn to Mary and the virgin saints, which includes some fitting words from Ecclesiasticus, translated as:

‘Give forth your smell of frankincense and bring forth leaves in grace,
Gather your song, and praise the Lord in all his works.’[3]

Praising God in all his works – and often how those works were carried out through the saints – was what a nun entered an abbey to do. In the later Middle Ages, as through all of biblical history, one of the main ways to do this was through gathering together in song. This hymnal offers a small insight into how the nuns at Barking played their part in this tradition.


[1] ‘Thee, O Christ, the Father’s Spendour’, Archbishop Rabanus Maurus, tr. J.M. Neale, The English Hymnal (London: Oxford University Press, 1906), p.204.

[2] English translation in Anne Bagnall Yardley, Performing piety: musical culture in medieval English nunneries (New York: Palgrave Press, 2006), p.197.

[3] ‘Florete flores quasi lilium: et date odorem, et frondete in gratiam: et collaudate canticum, et benedicite Dominum in operibus suis.’ (Ecclus. 39:19). English translation from Robert L. Kendrick, The Sounds of Milan, 1585-1650 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p.5.