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University of Basel

Recycling: Music manuscripts as book covers

Matteo Nanni

The Basel-Stadt State Archive houses hundreds of account ledgers bound in medieval music manuscripts. These parchment covers with musical notation come from liturgical songbooks that were used as scrap paper following the Reformation to protect the books against wear and tear.

Quite simply, these archive materials demonstrate the reuse of found materials – or recycling, a principle with which we are all familiar. Documents whose contents were no longer required were reused for their tangible value in a manner far removed from their original purpose. What is their relationship with history, these books covered in musical parchment? What is preserved, what is destroyed, what is ignored, and what is prized? What do these objects teach us about the musical and cultural history of Basel in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period? Their materials alone invite us to reconsider the rich network of relationships between the history of music, religion, and culture.

Tax registers from former monasteries

The volumes bound with choral fragments are ledgers from the 16th and 17th century that contain the accounts of manorial systems and descriptions of economic conditions. These are known as “rent-rolls”, the name given to tax registers that were kept by state inspectors (asset administrators) who monitored the former monastery estates. Rent-rolls are pragmatic registers that document the economic and administrative status of the former monasteries in chronological order.

These are objects made from a variety of natural, processed substances: parchment and leather on the outside; cardboard, paper and fibers on the inside. Parchment is a particularly resistant and elastic material that offers long-lasting protection and prevents damage to the spine and edges of the book. It is made from processed animal skin and – particularly on the porous grain side – has a soft, tactile quality considered advantageous for rent-rolls, which were subject to intensive use. Some of the Basel rent-rolls were produced based on the rules of the highly professional art of bookbinding, while in other cases the tax registers were simply stitched and given a parchment cover.

The objects have a highly charged history all of their own as handwritten liturgical pages from the Middle Ages that were first bound into songbooks, then cut out, and transformed into covers for tax books. Later, these were stored in archives and are now presented to us as historical testimonies as they emerge from the archive.

Changing and reassessing value

From a musicology perspective, these archives provide a broad area for philological investigation and systematic study. In the last few decades – mainly due to the contribution of musicologist Martin Staehelin, who came from Basel – research has focused on the fragmentary and scattered tradition of medieval music manuscripts. Based on the pioneering work conducted by Albert Bruckner, former head of the State Archive, in Basel on the manuscript tradition, in 1995 musicologist Frank Labhardt completed a groundbreaking (and sadly as yet unpublished) work on the choral fragments in the State Archive. In addition to the philological identification and cataloguing of all fragments with musical notation – a total of 813 dating from the 11th to 15th centuries – Labhardt provides a very important initial reconstruction of connected songbooks.

These objects also invite us to think about the value given to things and how this changes throughout the course of history. These medieval manuscripts, once the bearers of sacrosanct verses, were reused to protect books due to their robust materials and thus present us with a history of reassessments and shifts in value. The liturgical value, an intangible quality expressed in songs of prayer, was replaced during the Reformation by the tangible value of the parchment as a natural substance. This enriched tangible value can be seen in the parchment’s role as protector of other economic values recorded in rent-rolls.

In a subsequent step, the economic value was then superseded by the historic value of these objects as archival documents. And, finally, they are now valued as exhibition pieces, transforming them into expressive historical testimonies – a history comprising an unresolvable dialectic between saving and destroying, between tangible and intangible values. In the midst of this dialectic, these archive materials paint a unique picture of the cultural history of Basel and Europe between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Professor Matteo Nanni is Assistant Professor at the Department of Musicology, University of Basel.

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