The Musical World of a Medieval Monk: Ademar de Chabannes in Eleventh-century Aquitaine

The Musical World of a Medieval Monk: Ademar de Chabannes in Eleventh-century Aquitaine

by James Grier

James Grier documents the musical activities of Adémar de Chabannes, eleventh-century monk, historian, homilist and tireless polemicist for the apostolic status of Saint Martial, patron saint of the abbey that bore his name in Limoges. Adémar left behind some 451 folios of music with notation in his autograph hand, a musical resource without equal before


James Grier documents the musical activities of Adémar de Chabannes, eleventh-century monk, historian, homilist and tireless polemicist for the apostolic status of Saint Martial, patron saint of the abbey that bore his name in Limoges. Adémar left behind some 451 folios of music with notation in his autograph hand, a musical resource without equal before the seventeenth century. He introduced, at strategic moments, pieces familiar from the standard liturgy for an apostle and items of his own composition. These reveal Adémar to be a supremely able designer of liturgies and a highly original composer. This study analyses his accomplishments as a musical scribe, compiler of liturgies, editor of existing musical works and composer; it also offers a speculative consideration of his abilities as a singer; and finally, it places Adémar's musical activities in the context of liturgical, musical and political developments at the abbey of Saint Martial in Limoges.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"To have identified a substantial body of music composed by and copied in the hand of this eleventh-century monk represents a breathtaking synthesis of research that few medievalists would have deemed possible several decades ago. To be able to date much of the music and its copying to a six-month period in the year 1029 is simply stunning. And to have such a musical 'aeuvre' accessible from someone in the first half of the eleventh century is unprecedented. If anyone doubts that real history can be as captivating as the best fiction, come meet Adémar and read this book"
- Journal of the American Musicological Society

"Beginning in 1990, James Grier has produced more than a dozen articles and a previous book...that each brought something of Adémar's musical activities and their milieu...To have identified a substantial body of music composed by and copied in the hand of this eleventh-century monk represents a breathtaking synthesis of research that few medievalists would have deemed possible several decades have such a musical oeuvre accessible from someone in the first half of the eleventh century is unprecedented. If anyone doubts that real history can be as captivating as the best fiction, come meet Adémar and read this book."
-Rebecca A. Baltzer, Journal of the American Musicological Society

"The book is a thorough and scholarly documentary of the musical activities of a highly talented but ethically flawed Benedictine monk."
Columba Kelly, O.S.B., St. Meinrad Archabbey, St. Meinrad

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Musical World of a Medieval Monk
Cambridge University Press
978-0-521-85628-7 - The Musical World of a Medieval Monk - Adémar de Chabannes in Eleventh-Century Aquitaine - by James Grier


Introduction: Adémar de Chabannes and Saint Martial de Limoges

We know more about the musical activities of Adémar de Chabannes than of any other medieval musician, with the possible exception of Guillaume de Machaut. This knowledge derives from a bizarre series of historical accidents that caused the abbey of Saint Martial de Limoges to become the setting for the strange drama that became the latter phase of Adémar's life. First, Adémar turned to Saint Martial, initially as the place of his advanced education but later and more than once as a refuge from a difficult situation at his home abbey of Saint Cybard in Angoulême, about a hundred kilometres distant from Limoges. Second, his choice of Saint Martial for these purposes was hardly providential: an ancestor on his father's side of the family, Aimo, had been abbot there in the first half of the tenth century (while his brother Turpio simultaneously held the office of bishop of Limoges), and his father's two older brothers, Adalbertus and Roger, were monks at the abbey. Adalbertus, the oldest, became deacon, while Roger, the middle brother, filled the post of cantor and tutored his nephew Adémar during his advanced studies.

Third, Adémar was also drawn to Saint Martial because the abbey enjoyed considerable prestige, and, perhaps most important for ascholar of wide-ranging interests like Adémar, it possessed an outstanding library. Fourth, it was home to the cult of its patron saint, Martial, a cult centred on his relics and the tomb on whose site the abbey was founded and to which hordes of pilgrims continually thronged. In the aftermath of the spectacular dedication of a new abbatial basilica on 18 November 1028, Martial's cult served as the pretext for Adémar's promulgation of his apostolic status, supported by the elaborate liturgy he devised, which became the centrepiece of his musical accomplishment.

Fifth, after Adémar, disgraced by the fiasco of his attempted inauguration of the apostolic liturgy on 3 August 1029, returned in bitter defeat to Angoulême, he continued producing forgeries in support of Martial's apostolicity. On his departure for pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1033 or early 1034, he deposited this material in the abbey library at Saint Martial. There, it was safeguarded by those monks sympathetic to the apostolic programme, who would eventually use Adémar's documents to justify a return to the apostolic cult. And sixth, perhaps strangest of all, the monks at Saint Martial preserved virtually all the musical documents produced or acquired by the abbey from the tenth century through at least the end of the eleventh, including, therefore, those to which Adémar contributed. These manuscripts formed part of the abbey library, which, after prolonged negotiations, was purchased by King Louis XV in 1730 for his royal library. Thus, Adémar's manuscripts avoided destruction during the revolution when, in 1791, the abbey was dissolved.

So, by this fortuitous combination of historical flukes, we possess some 451 manuscript folios with music written in Adémar's autograph hand, an “embarrassment of riches,” as Richard Landes termed Adémar's autograph corpus as a whole.1 The bulk of these constitute the earliest layers of the troper-prosers Pa 1121 and 909, in which Adémar functioned as the music scribe in subordination to the principal scribe of the manuscript, who would have selected the pieces and determined their order. But, for some seventy-seven folios in these two codices, Adémar served as both principal and music scribe, and these document his considerable musical achievements as compiler, editor and, above all, composer. The majority of these folios preserve the core materials of the apostolic cult: principally the apostolic liturgy for Martial, consisting of a troped Mass and a complete cycle of Offices for the full liturgical day; but also Offices for his companions Valérie and Austriclinian, and tropes for Austriclinian and Justinian, another companion.

This prodigious production took place within the walls of the abbey of Saint Martial. By Adémar's time, the abbey had become one of the two most important ecclesiastical institutions in Limoges, equal in stature to the urban cathedral of Saint Stephen. The tomb of Martial, the site of the abbey itself, attracted large numbers of pilgrims and the abbey played a prominent role in urban ceremonies like the election of the city's bishop. It also assumed a position of importance in ecclesiastical affairs within the larger context of Aquitaine, sending representatives to the most significant gatherings of clerics, such as the ceremony that acknowledged the skull found at Angély in 1016 as an authentic relic of John the Baptist.2 Adémar's ancestors, as prominent members of the monastic community, contributed significantly in building the abbey's reputation.

Moreover, through the tenth and early eleventh centuries, a vigorous musical establishment developed and flourished at the abbey. At least two music manuscripts produced in the tenth century were present at the abbey, Pa 1240 and 1154. Adémar's family played a leading role in musical life at the abbey in the following century. His uncle Roger participated in a complete codification of the most important liturgical music in use at the abbey, if he did not in fact direct it in his capacity as cantor. The results are preserved in Pa 1085, which contains the music for the Divine Office, and Pa 1120, which records the music for the Mass.3 Throughout this period, the musical community at Saint Martial collected repertory, produced manuscripts, composed new liturgies for the saints most important to the abbey (Martial above all, but also Valérie and others) and became a centre for the production, preservation and transmission of the relatively new liturgical repertories of tropes and sequences. The monks of its scriptorium also significantly refined the Aquitanian dialect of musical notation and advanced the role of musical literacy in the pedagogy and transmission of chant. Adémar steeped himself in these traditions during his advanced studies under the tutelage of his uncle, and later materially contributed to all of them.

To this environment and these self-appointed tasks Adémar brought a formidable repertory of talents. The foremost historian of his day in Aquitaine, Adémar was also an accomplished, if somewhat polemical, writer of homilies. Beyond these literary activities, he was proficient in computus, a skilled scribe, both in Latin and Tironian notes, and grammarian. To this substantial portfolio of credentials we can now add competence as a music scribe, compiler of liturgies, editor of musical texts, composer and, in all likelihood, singer. When he made that fateful decision to seek recognition of Martial's apostolicity, he commanded the skills to prepare an overwhelmingly persuasive dossier for the project. And as his principal tool, he chose the liturgy. In its stunning combination of sights, sounds and even aromas, the liturgy presented a magnificent spectacle, impressive for lay and clergy alike. Adémar seized its power to sway the populace of Limoges, to convince them to believe what everyone, Adémar most of all, knew to be untrue: that Martial, first bishop of Limoges and patron saint of the abbey that bears his name, was an apostle.


Our best informant about the historical Martial and the early history of the abbey founded in Limoges on the site of his tomb remains Gregory of Tours. Gregory places Martial in the third century among a group of clerics sent to Gaul to evangelize its provinces.4 The group, including Saint Denis, set out from Rome in AD 250, a date fixed by Gregory through identification of its consular year. Martial became bishop of Limoges and lived there “in summa sanctitate” (“in the highest sanctity”). Gregory recounts his burial and the miracles that occurred at his tomb.5 In this latter connection, Gregory mentions the presence of priests at the tomb who observe the miracles. It is possible, as some modern scholars have deduced, that these priests might have attended the tomb as their principal function.6

In 848, the clergy of the tomb reformed themselves under the Benedictine rule.7 This event marked a major change in the status of the institution, as it aligned itself with the powerful nexus of Benedictine institutions nurtured by the Carolingians.8 One measure of this strategy's success lies in the tremendous wealth of the abbey. In 1010, bishop Alduin of Limoges took some of its treasures apparently to finance an expedition to Rome alongside Duke William of Aquitaine. On their return, they hosted “the noblest of the princes of the Aquitaines and the Franks, as well as of the Italians” (“nobilissimi Aquitanorum et Francorum principum atque Italorum”) at Saint Martial over Easter.9 The abbey must have boasted splendid architecture and a striking liturgy to motivate its selection by Duke William as a place to entertain such important guests.

William also chose the abbey to play a central role in two episcopal elections at Limoges in the early eleventh century. At the elections of both Gerald (in 1014 or 1015) and Jordan (in 1023), the respective bishops-elect made their first prominent public appearance at the monastery.10 On both occasions, William saw to it that the successful candidates received consecration from the archbishop of Bordeaux, whose election William effectively controlled, instead of the archbishop of Bourges, in whose province Limoges fell and whose appointment was usually royal. In view of these irregular procedures, William attempted to secure legitimation for his bishops, at least in the urban setting of Limoges, by presenting them at the abbey. In addition to housing the burial place of Martial, first bishop of Limoges, it was clearly, in the mind of William, one of the preeminent ecclesiastical institutions in the city.

Martial's relics also attracted significant attention. They demonstrated tremendous power by curing the affliction of sacer ignis (probably ergot) that plagued the region around Limoges in late 994 at the time of a peace council convoked by the duke in Limoges.11 The monks removed his corpse from the tomb for transport to Montjovis, just outside the city. Immediately, those suffering from the disease began to be healed, and more of the afflicted continued to recover throughout the night as the relics of Martial stood vigil on Montjovis. This event, which took place at a time when many of the most important clerics and nobles of Aquitaine were present in Limoges for the peace council, assured the importance of Martial's relics and their burial place.

Two further incidents in 1016 and 1018 attested their power. First, the relics witnessed the ceremonies that took place at Angély to confirm the authenticity of the skull found there and identified as that of John the Baptist. Below, I discuss the impact this event had on Adémar, and in Chapter 6, his descriptions of the liturgical observances in which the monks of Saint Martial and the canons of Saint Stephen participated. Duke William organized a gathering of relics from all over Aquitaine, including those of Saint Stephen in Limoges and Saint Cybard of Angoulême, to authenticate the newly discovered relic of John the Baptist. Their very presence lent authority to the skull. Martial's corpse, brought from Limoges “in a conveyance made of gold and gems” (“in vectorio ex auro et gemmis”), generated a number of miracles en route that the clergy of Limoges “prais[ed] vigorously” (“valde laetantes”) while they returned home, and thus added its considerable weight to the festivities.12

Second, in 1018, what must have been an extremely large crowd of pilgrims assembled at the doors of the abbatial basilica early one Sunday morning in the middle of Lent.13 In the crush to enter the church, some fifty-two of the pilgrims perished. One can only speculate as to the size of the crowd, but to cause such casualties, it must have been considerable. The magnitude of this tragedy gives some indication of the popularity of Saint Martial as a pilgrimage destination, and in turn an idea of its stature as an ecclesiastical institution. It was to this hub of power and prestige that Adémar turned for refuge from his home abbey in Angoulême, and where the bulk of his musical activity took place.


Long before Adémar's lifetime, the abbey of Saint Martial hosted a vigorous musical community. The written record of its activities stretches back to the first half of the tenth century and attests a great deal of activity in the collection, composition and written compilation of musical items, all of which presuppose the presence of a rich performing practice.14 Aside from the conventional repertories of liturgical chant for the Mass and Office that would have been performed at every ecclesiastical institution, the monks at Saint Martial also collected, composed and sang the newer repertories that attained currency during the tenth century. These included tropes, initially for the Proper of the Mass but eventually for the Ordinary, too, and sequences, again first in texted form but, starting from Adémar's lifetime, in their untexted and partially texted states as well. They also collected, and presumably performed, non-liturgical lyric pieces, ranging from examples of the planctus to settings of some of the verse from Boethius' Consolatio philosophiae. Musical practice at Saint Martial during the tenth and eleventh centuries, therefore, was rich and varied.

Two musical manuscripts produced in the tenth century, one of which was copied in the abbey's scriptorium, were present at the library in Adémar's lifetime, Pa 1240 and 1154. These compilations represent, respectively, the liturgical and non-liturgical repertories practised at the abbey, and illustrate the wide range of music that was known and sung there. The earliest layers of Pa 1240, the oldest surviving music manuscript produced at the abbey, contain prosae, tropes for the Proper of the Mass and a few Ordinary tropes. Although opinions are divided on the date of the manuscript, I believe that it is now possible to show that its earliest portions were produced in the first half of the tenth century.15 This date would place it among the earliest extant tropers and prosers in the medieval west. It is slightly younger than the sequence collections Pa 10587 and SGv 317, and the troper Wi 1609, and roughly coeval with the tropers SG 484 and 381, all of which were produced at the abbey of Saint Gall (see Chapter 2 below).

Therefore, the community at Saint Martial was among the first to embrace these new genres of trope and prosa. Their cultivation suggests, on the part of the abbey's musicians, a certain enthusiasm for innovation. The introduction of new practices to liturgical chant provoked a certain amount of censure in the late and post-Carolingian period, as I discuss in Chapter 5 below, and some ecclesiastical authorities numbered tropes and prosae among the novelties to be discouraged. It is difficult to assess, on the one hand, how widespread that resistance to change might have been, when, on the other hand, all churches modified their liturgy somewhat. Most ecclesiastical institutions, therefore, would have experienced some degree of tension between those who wished to preserve traditions and those who aspired to innovate. Under these circumstances, the musical community at Saint Martial in the tenth century adopted a firmly progressive posture.

The presence of these new genres also indicates that the monks of Saint Martial desired to create a unique liturgy for their abbey by reaching beyond the conventional liturgical repertories. The incorporation of tropes and prosae into the liturgies of the most important feasts permitted some flexibility in the selection of musical items for those occasions. Musicians could choose items they felt were particularly appropriate for the celebration of these feasts at their institution, pieces they especially liked themselves, or they could compose altogether new material in these genres for the elaboration of the ceremony. Codex Pa 1240 preserves a range of material that singers at Saint Martial could include in the liturgy as they saw fit.

For example, it transmits four trope complexes (that is, four complete sets of tropes, each set or complex accommodating a full statement of the Introit antiphon) for the Christmas Introit Puer natus.16 These could serve for the usual three statements of the antiphon (introduction and refrain following the Psalm verse and the Doxology) plus one uersus ad repetendum, as Alejandro Planchart suggests, or the fourth complex could function as an alternative.17 The manuscript also preserves tropes for the Introit, Offertory and Communion in the third Mass for Christmas (whose Introit is Puer natus, discussed above), and the Masses for Saint Stephen (26 December) and John the Evangelist (27 December).18 The abbey's singers thus had at their disposal the means to embellish the liturgies for these three days to a significant degree as they chose. Parallel to the selection of tropes in Pa 1240 is its collection of prosae in the main proser and its supplement. Here are to be found three prosae for Christmas, again allowing for the embellishment of the liturgy and flexibility as to choice.19

Two subsequent additions to Pa 1240 show that the abbey's musicians composed new pieces to supplement the liturgy for their patron saint. A series of Introit tropes for the Mass of Martial (fols. 78v-79r) and a group of items for his Office (fols. 96r-97r) are known from no earlier witness, and so may plausibly be regarded as compositions created at the abbey. The troped Mass for Saint Martial in the earliest layer of Pa 1240 (fol. 36ra-va) consists for the most part of items that share associations with both Saints Martin and Martial.20 The additional tropes provided in the supplement make specific allusions to Martial by using forms of the place names for Limoges and Aquitaine.21 They were therefore most likely composed at Saint Martial, possibly by the scribe who entered them into Pa 1240, but in any case, specifically for the liturgy of Martial. The second addition (fols. 96r-97r) provides a portion of Matins for a Feast of Saint Martial.22 These chants all form part of the complete patronal Offices for Martial in Pa 1085 and so were also probably composed at the abbey, again to create a more distinctive liturgy for the patron saint.23

The idea that musicians at Saint Martial could impose a personal or institutional stamp on the liturgy through the introduction of tropes and prosae persisted in the eleventh century and became one of the principal motivations for the production of troper-prosers in the abbey's scriptorium during this period. Successive generations of musicians at Saint Martial sought to record their preferences in writing by selecting, editing and suppressing items from the preserved tradition, and adding new material as they saw fit or as they perceived institutional demands to require. Adémar and his uncle Roger, the abbey's cantor in the previous generation, actively contributed to this process, and left their imprint on the abbey's musical practices and repertories.

A very different repertory appears in the earliest layers of Pa 1154. Although it is quite possible that this codex was not copied at Saint Martial, it was definitely present at the abbey by Adémar's time, as his quotation from its version of the prosa Concelebremus for Martial in his Epistola de apostolatu shows (see Chapter 2 below).24 The manuscript contains a rich collection of lyric song from the Carolingian period, remarkable for, among other things, having been compiled over a century after the composition of the newest items in the manuscript as a kind of musical retrospective of the era. Whatever the motivation may have been for its production, the monks of Saint Martial acquired it soon after it was copied or in the early eleventh century at the latest. Perhaps they were attracted by the range of issues that the texts in the collection debate, including penitential and devotional themes, the Last Judgement, and the topic of death as considered in the genre of the planctus. Jacques Chailley characterizes it as a personal collection that draws together the compiler's own favourite poems on these issues.25

Many of the poems are furnished with musical notation in the Aquitanian dialect that was added later, probably in the late tenth century.26 While it is impossible to say whether the musical settings were created at Saint Martial or even whether the notation was inscribed there, we may presume that the music held some interest for the abbey's singers, and I would venture to say that they undertook its performance there at least occasionally.27 We perhaps have a hint in this repertory and the abbey's possession of the codex of the enthusiasm for the Latin lyric that was to develop at Saint Martial throughout the twelfth century and flourish into a sophisticated practice of monophony and two-voiced polyphony with both sacred and secular texts.28

From these two manuscript witnesses, then, we can characterize the musical environment at the abbey of Saint Martial around AD 1000. The abbey's musicians embraced a wide variety of repertories that reflected the latest developments in liturgical music, on the one hand, and a retrospective fascination with lyric expression from the Carolingian era on the other. The latter body of song also broadens the focus of the abbey's musical practice outside the realm of liturgical music, although the lyric repertory does concern itself largely with spiritual issues. The very fact that we can make these deductions, that these witnesses survive from the tenth century, emphasizes that the musical community at Saint Martial greatly valued musical literacy and the preservation of musical manuscripts.

© Cambridge University Press

Meet the Author

James Grier is Professor of Music History at the University of Western Ontario.

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