Elephantine chant book dates to 1600

Library archivists at Western have purchased and unboxed an elephant of a story – a hugely important volume of sacred vocal music that dates to 1600.

The antiphoner, bound in calf leather and weighing 20 kilograms, is a trove of choral chants with early musical notations that mark Roman Catholic saint days throughout the year.

The one-of-a-kind book – requiring two people to carry it and dubbed an ‘elephant antiphoner’ because of its size – was first used in churches in southern Spain in 1600 during the bishopric of Don Francisco de Reynoso, bishop of Cordova, said Deb Meert-Williston, special collections and rare books librarian at Western Libraries archives and special collections.


“We purchased it from a rare-books shop in the U.S. It looked like a match to an antiphoner that we already had in our collection,” Meert-Williston said.

In fact, as they discovered when they unboxed it, this volume is much, much better, and most of its 199 sheepskin parchment pages remain intact.

For medieval music scholar Kate Helsen, the antiphoner is less a frozen-in-time artifact than it is confirmation of a book well-used; and of music well-sung.

'Elephant' chant book and mini-antiphoner

The ‘elephant’ antiphoner’s size, contrasted with a pocket-sized chant book from the 1400s.

Each generation of chanters since medieval times has added its own colour to the pages: pencil marks to indicate a flat, for example, or the addition of modernized page numbers to supplement Roman numerals. In places where the original illuminated letters wore out, 19th-century Spanish monks replicated them, either well or inexpertly.

“I love how there is evidence of use throughout the centuries,” said Helsen, a professor at Western’s Don Wright Faculty of Music. “It’s got the fingerprints of 400 years of human beings having used it. You can see it was used as a tool, a living thing. It’s not a museum piece.”

The notation of the music, and the marks of musicians who read and chanted from its pages, make it a physical manifestation of time itself. “I love that these books keep living.”

History’s artwork

During its unboxing, Helsen discovered the chants are a series of “sanctorale” music – chants that mark fixed saint days in the Catholic church’s liturgical year (in contrast to “temporale” chants, which celebrate changing feast days such as Lent and Easter).

“This is a complete volume, running from January to December,” Helsen said. It even includes a contents page.

Meert-Williston is more fascinated by the physical art of rare and ancient books: the rich texture of vellum; the hint of follicles on the coarser side of the stretched animal skin, where scraping hadn’t quite removed all the animal hair; the way the pages ripple from centuries’ cycles of humidity and dry weather.

rippled parchment pages of medieval book

The sheepskin parchment pages of the huge antiphoner have become rippled over time.

She interprets entire stories of people and places in how a book is stitched and bound.

On this volume, decorative metal knobs, called “bosses” in the book business, are attached like bumpers to protect the cover from damage when opened on a table or when stored flat on a shelf.

While this antiphoner is of impressive mass and historical importance, an even older “baby” antiphoner, also newly acquired, is just as exciting to both researchers.

Unboxed at the same time as the Spanish antiphoner, the pocket-sized volume has original gold-paint illuminations and an original clasp.

A small antiphoner from the 1400s

A pocket-sized antiphoner from the 1400s. Debora Van Brenk / Western News

A note on one page suggests it may have belonged to a French Cardinal in the 1400s.

“It’s beautiful,” Helsen said. “It’s for somebody who has status in the church. It’s been used but it’s also been kept very well.”

The little volume was a chance find by medieval scholar and English professor Jane Toswell, who spotted it as part of an online estate auction and knew its significance, Meert-Williston said.

Both the miniature and elephant antiphoners are available for scholars to view in Western Libraries archives and special collections. They are also good candidates for digitization so they can be shared electronically with the world, Meert-Williston said.

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