Listening in the Library: Matthew Parker’s Sonorous Books
Professor Emma Dillon, King’s College London
‘Archbishop’, ‘bibliophile’, ‘antiquarian’, ‘theologian’, ‘history-maker’ and ‘reformer’ – these are all well-known dimensions of the life of Matthew Parker (1504-75), and ones refracted through the manuscripts and printed books he acquired for his precious library. But hidden among the library’s treasures – sometimes quite literally buried in bindings – is another, less familiar history, though paradoxically one that clamours to be heard: that of sound. To some extent, this is an accidental history. Neither Parker nor his book-collecting agents were explicitly intent on building a music library (music being the most recognisably audible component of a book). Even those few famous examples of books specifically dedicated to musical practice, such the Winchester Troper (15) or compilations of medieval European music theory (3, 14), reflect conceptions of music very different from our own. In one, sound, made visible in early systems of musical notation, is understood as the vocal facet of sacred, ritual texts of the Christian liturgy; in the other, musica is a form of knowledge and part of a medieval liberal arts training. In so far as Parker was invested in scrutinising early church history or genealogies of academic knowledge embodied by such books, we may add ‘music-maker’ to the list of his lofty epithets. But to study these areas of the collection from the perspective of sound is also to shine light on a rarely considered dimension of Parker’s life: his own relationship to music as integral to his religious practices, and his interest, too, in the history of ideas regarding the ineffable powers of sacred sound.
While those few books in the Parker Library comprehensively filled with musical notation, or theorising sound’s physical properties, may be contextualised within Parker’s broader fascination with church or intellectual history, sound is also an inadvertent yet ubiquitous passenger in many more volumes. So much so that were it possible to ‘turn up the volume’ on the collection, the library would resound in arresting cacophony. It is present in books retro-fitted for performance, when a scribe added a single song, filling a gap in the parchment as a seeming afterthought. Or when decades or even centuries later, someone slipped a few folios of a decomissioned songbook into a book whose contents were far removed from music. Or when, here and there, musical doodles appear in the margins of an otherwise silent book. Why are they there? To enhance meaning? Or are they simply evidence of wandering minds? Many of Parker’s books, his printed books especially, tell a rather more traumatic tale of sound’s past: of old music books discarded and cannibalised, absorbed into the fabric of bindings and spines as material life-support for new creations. Yet what was trash for earlier book-makers is treasure for modern historians – those crumpled slivers of old melodies reveal snatches of past musical worlds that are otherwise almost entirely extinct. Finally, there are the signs of sound we might be forgiven for missing altogether. The trumpeting of a marginal elephant or of a heavenly emissary, the strum of David’s harp, or the swirl of an angelic speech-scroll – while these might engage modern eyes in silent contemplation, such signs ignited the acoustic imagination of earlier readers, attuned as they were to supplying voices and sounds to what their eyes saw in their books.
Listening in the Library traces an aural journey through Matthew Parker’s library. It offers four ‘soundings’ from the collection, exploring a sample of the diverse ways in which sound – musical sound especially – manifests.
Professor Emma Dillon in the Parker Library