A finely illuminated 14th century choral manuscript is atmospherically brought to life

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Video Transcript

Rowan Watson, National Art Library, V&A:

A missal is a manuscript which includes all of the texts needed by a priest in order to celebrate Mass. And of course Masses change throughout the year. There are Masses dedicated to different saints for instance and it enables the priest to run a series of different kinds of service throughout the liturgical year. Before a missal you would have a different kind of book for the person who read the Epistle, for the choir that sang the choral and for various other readings. But when missals come about the priest has charge of everything.

The significance of the missal is that it contains the work of some of the most accomplished illuminators operating in Paris in the middle of the fourteenth century. And rather marvellously we’re pretty sure of the date at which it was made. It starts off with a calendar and in this calendar is recorded the death of every king of France except Philip VI who died on 22 August 1350, but it does record the death of Abbot Guido of Chartes who died on 22 February 1350, so as far as the text is concerned it is pretty certain that it was completed between February and August 1350. It may have been illuminated some short time after that. But that’s a pretty good fixed point chronologically for the production of the Missal.

Glyn Davies, V&A Curator:

Of course music was a key component part of the Mass, particularly any large scale Mass, and so we really wanted visitors to have that kind of multi-sensory experience and the presence of this musical notation in this book meant that it seemed a very appealing idea to us to ask students at the Royal College of Music to actually perform some of this music for us, particularly the extract which you actually see on display in the gallery. The music you’ll see is the music you’ll hear performed

Frederik Annmo, Royal College of Music:

I think that the main challenge in recording music like this for me especially when I’m not used to it is that you have to keep focussed – you have to keep your level of focus so high for so long – you can’t really drift away. You can’t really just go on feeling or whatever you feel. Because if you lose focus for one second you’ll miss a syllable or you’ll get the rhythm wrong. And it is so different from the music I’d normally sing, so if I sing Mozart I can almost feel where the beat or the note is supposed to come. In this it is just totally different - my instincts are always wrong. I have to be really focussed.

I mean having thousands of people listening to what I’ve recorded at the V&A is really exciting actually. I’m not sure if they’re going to see my name there but still it is a really nice thing to know that what we’re doing now, we’re having a rough day – an entire day recording – you get tired but you know that it is going to be heard by so many people for so many years and it's exciting.


This document was the definitive guide to services and ceremonies - a priest's indispensable working handbook.


Magnificently illuminated it may have been but this 14th century gothic manuscript was also highly practical.For the re-opening of the V&A’s Medieval and Renaissance galleries in December 2009, students from the Royal College of Music brought to life the  musical notations held in its pages that are650 years oldIn this film you can hear  a haunting performance of Salve Pater Dyonisi here as V&A curators discuss the secrets of the Saint Denis Missal, and a performer muses on the now alien nature of these beautiful choral sounds.