Manuscript Spotlight

Students at Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College

Students at Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College

The largest manuscript in the Mortimer Rare Book Room at Smith College is MS.321, a Catholic Church Antiphonary. MS.321 is prime example of an antiphonary and is often used as an example for students visiting the rare book room. This unique manuscript, dated approximately ca. 1490, is so big it takes two people to move it. Measuring 72 x 53 cm, the antiphonary is a giant compared to the Book of Hours seen in my last post. It has 344 leaves, bound between two leather covered boards adorned with metal fittings. Not much is known about the provenance of this manuscript, but an antiphonary of this size is as beautiful as it is special.

Here we can see my hand held up to the manuscript o show size comparison.

Here we can see my hand held up to the manuscript o show size comparison.

An antiphonary is made up of a collection of antiphons,  which are sung portions of the divine office. The church choir would be split into two sections, one singing the verses of the psalm and the other singing the refrain. This back and forth style of singing often had the two halves separated spatially, which in turn meant that the one book read by both groups needed to be quite large.

The musical aspect of the manuscript is also intriguing. Gregorian chant is often found fascinating to listen to, but on average the modern day listener won’t have seen written scores. Chant is written very differently than the music we are familiar with today. It is written  on a four line staff instead of our five line staff, uses modes instead of major or minor keys, and has no meter and instead employs a rhythm of groupings. The largest difference is that chant uses neumes, which are notes sung on a single syllable. To learn more about Gregorian chant, visit: 

antiphonal2Since not much is known about this particular manuscript, I decided to try identifying one of antiphons. To do this, I first chose a section of text: ‘Ecce nomen domino venit de longinquo et claritas eius replete orbem terrarum’, translating to ‘Behold the name of God comes from afar and its brightness fills the circle of the lands’. This is one of the psalms of the bible, Isaiah 30:27. This particular psalm is sung on the first Sunday of Christmas Advent, and is the Magnificent Antiphon of Sunday Vespers. So now I know that this antiphonary was used during the services leading up to Christmas.

If you have questions about this manuscript, contact the Mortimer Rare Book Room:

CANTUS: A Database for Latin Ecclesiastical Chant is a great resource for searching and identifying chants. To see more manuscripts where the same incipit appears (both information and images of manuscripts available), visit:



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