Music in Anglo-Saxon England

Music in Anglo-Saxon England

Learn how music permeated everyday life in Anglo-Saxon England, from the church, to the workplace, to celebrations.

Music was an everyday feature of life in Anglo-Saxon England. Singing was a common form of after-dinner entertainment, according to Bede, and epic poems such as Beowulf and Judith were thought to have been performed to a musical accompaniment. Even in death, a warrior buried at Sutton Hoo in the seventh century had musical instruments, as well as weapons, placed in his grave.

Anglo-Saxon musical instruments

Evidence for music-making in Anglo-Saxon England survives in various forms. Very rarely, parts of instruments have been recovered in archaeological excavations. For example, small fragments of a lyre – a type of harp – were excavated at the Sutton Hoo ship burial in East Anglia.

Sutton Hoo gold belt buckle

Gold belt buckle with jewels

This gold belt buckle from Sutton Hoo is one of the greatest achievements of Anglo-Saxon metalwork (British Museum, BEP 1939,1010.10)

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In 1956, a horn made from yew-wood and sealed with bronze bands was dredged from the River Erne near Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh. This discovery was significant for the study of early music in Ireland and England, because the horn bears similarities to an image in the Vespasian Psalter, made in Kent in the eighth century.

River Erne horn

River Erne horn musical instrument

This horn could be played alongside a quiet instrument such as a lyre, as well as loudly (Belfast, Ulster Museum, BELUM.A9637)

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Vespasian Psalter

King Solomon with a lyre

The manuscript includes a full-page illustration of King David composing the Psalms (British Library, Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 30v)

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As well as depicting two long horns, the Vespasian Psalter shows King David playing a lyre, two men playing smaller, curved horns, and people clapping, either for percussion or for dancing.

Early medieval horns could have been played loudly or with a quieter instrument like a lyre. It is not clear if they were played inside or outdoors, although a 10th-century Irish poet compared bad poetry to ‘a horn player, indoors, on a yew-wood instrument’!

But horns did have practical functions. Riddles (such as those from Aldhelm) and drawings (such as the calendar below) from this period show horns being used in battle or to regulate harvesters working in the fields.

Aldhelm's Riddles

Riddles of Aldhelm

The work contains 100 riddles (British Library, Royal MS 12 C XXIII, f. 79v)

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Anglo-Saxon calendar and computistical material

Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 7r

September calendar page illustrated by men and dogs hunting a group of boar or wild pigs in a forest. A man on the left is blowing a horn (London, British Library, Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 7r)

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We know from written texts that there were other kinds of instruments in Anglo-Saxon England. Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester (963–984), had a large organ installed in his cathedral. Other manuscripts contain illustrations of instruments mentioned in Biblical and Classical sources. For example, the Tiberius Psalter includes images of instruments mentioned in the Bible.

Tiberius Psalter

Illustration from an Anglo-Saxon manuscript

The Tiberius Psalter contains images of instruments mentioned in the Bible (British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius C VI, f. 15v

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Anglo-Saxon music books and musical notation

The main surviving sources for music in Anglo-Saxon England are manuscripts which contain lyrics or musical notation. These describe the music that was sung in churches. Music has long been a major part of Christian services and it formed a prominent part of the daily routines of monks and nuns in England.

For some, music was so important that not even the plague could stop them singing: according to the anonymous Life of Ceolfrith, abbot of Wearmouth-Jarrow, Ceolfrith and a small boy continued the tradition of singing even when the community was decimated by plague.

Much of the music sung in English churches was imported from abroad, particularly Rome. Benedict Biscop (died 689), founder of the monastery at Wearmouth-Jarrow, paid for a Roman singing master called John to teach music to his monks. Some English churchmen such as Alcuin also composed hymns of their own.

Anglo-Saxon music and monastic reform

Given the importance of singing to monks and nuns, music books were a focal point of the monastic reform movement in the 10th century. These reformers wanted churchmen and women to follow the Rule of St Benedict. This required monks and nuns to conduct regular, sung church services throughout the day and night, and to sing through the entire Psalter once a week.

The earliest Psalter from England which seems to have been adapted for the Rule of St Benedict, and which includes Benedictine hymns and chants, is the Bosworth Psalter, made at one of St Dunstan’s churches.

Musical notation began to be used in manuscripts from the late tenth century. From this notation, it is possible to reconstruct the sacred music performed in the Anglo-Saxon Church.

Bosworth Psalter

A title page with floral decoration

The earliest surviving psalter from England to include all the canticles and hymns required by monks to recite several times each day (British Library, Additional MS 37517, f. 33r)

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As a result of the increased focus on book production and music in the 10th century, some remarkable musical manuscripts were made. These include the Winchester Troper, which is the earliest surviving, substantial book that records European music for multiple voices. This manuscript contains music and text for tropes, which were added to services for saints’ feast days or other holidays. The Winchester Troper’s small dimensions suggest that it was made for a soloist or the person who led the music.

Winchester Troper

Latin text with annotation

This manuscript is particularly notable as an early collection of polyphony, or music for multiple voices with multiple melodies.

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Perhaps the most elaborate manuscript from England containing early musical notation is another book made for a soloist, the Caligula Troper. This manuscript is also renowned for its striking artwork, which is unparalleled in 11th-century English art.

Caligula Troper

Cotton MS Caligula A XIV, f. 20v

Tropes for feasts of the Apostles, with very fine Anglo-Saxon neumes of the mid-11th century (British Library, Cotton MS Caligula A XIV, f. 20v)

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The words in the Caligula Troper and Winchester Troper are accompanied by neumes, a form of musical notation that had been developed on the Continent. While neumes sometimes look like modern musical notes, they had a slightly different function in that they did not communicate rhythm or absolute pitch. Rather, they served to jog the memory of someone who already knew the tune and to highlight details for the soloist.

Since the manuscripts do not record exactly what was sung, most singing techniques seem to have been taught orally. Some Anglo-Saxon monasteries invited singing masters from other parts of the world to teach their monks new songs. Bishop Æthelwold of Winchester invited a group of monks from Corbie (in what is now France) to teach his monks how to sing.

The performance of Anglo-Saxon music

In addition to preserving the words and musical notation, manuscripts also describe how music was performed. Æthelwold described an elaborate choreography for certain types of music, with groups of monks calling to each other from different parts of the church.

He also detailed a ceremony on Easter morning, in which the monks re-enacted the journey of the women who visited Christ’s tomb and found it empty, guarded by an angel. This is considered to be one of the earliest descriptions of a form of drama from England.

Anglo-Saxon music and poetry

People in Anglo-Saxon England also listened to music on social occasions. The poem Beowulf describes how, in a king’s hall, a poet would play a harp and regale the assembled company with tales of heroes from long ago. Beowulf itself was perhaps performed in a similar context.

Professor Andy Orchard reads an extract from the Anglo-Saxon poem, Beowulf, in the original Old English, followed by an English translation.

Beowulf

Beowulf - the sole surving manuscript.

Beowulf is the longest epic poem in Old English, the language spoken in Anglo-Saxon England before the Norman Conquest.

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The enjoyment of poetry and music was not limited to male warriors in great halls. Music could be performed in smaller settings, and with women in the audience. For instance, the Life of St Dunstan mentions that Dunstan helped a noblewoman named Æthelwynn with her embroidery. He brought ‘with him as usual his harp, which we call in our fathers’ tongue hearpa, intending to give pleasure with it, at intervals in the work’ (translated by M. Winterbottom & M. Lapidge, The Early Lives of St Dunstan, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2012, p. 43).

Old English coronation oath

Page from an Anglo-Saxon manuscript

Bound in this volume is a copy of the Life of St Dunstan, made in the 11th century (British Library, Cotton MS Cleopatra B XIII, f. 56r)

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An excerpt from Beowulf by the acclaimed performer Benjamin Bagby, recreating how this epic poem may have been heard in Anglo-Saxon times.

Music was also enjoyed by people from the lower ranks of society. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People recounts how the workers at Whitby Abbey used to take turns singing songs for entertainment, accompanied by a harp.

Tiberius Bede

The Venerable Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People)f.5v

Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People was created in 731. It tells the story of the conversion of the English people to Christianity (British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 5v)

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One cowherd, Cædmon, could not sing, so he would leave ‘as soon as he saw the harp approaching him’. When he sneaked out to the stables to take care of the horses and to avoid having to sing in public, he had a miraculous dream in which he was taught a marvellous song. Cædmon reported this to Abbess Hild, for whom he wrote many more songs. Cædmon is the first named English poet.

The story of Cædmon's Hymn

Caedmon's Hymn

The earliest named English poet was a cowherd named Cædmon who lived at the Abbey of Whitby, as Bede describes (British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius A XIV, f. 1r)

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  • Alison Hudson
  • Alison Hudson is Project Curator of Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts at the British Library, working on the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. Her doctoral research at the University of Oxford focused on the English Benedictine reform movement in the 10th century.