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Rare medieval plainsong is discovered in Norfolk

PUBLISHED: 09:00 18 April 2016 | UPDATED: 09:11 18 April 2016

Conservator Lorraine Finch, at Norwich Cathedral library, with the 600-year-old plain chant parchment written by a monk, with a doodle in the margin, found hidden as recycled binding in an old religious book. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Conservator Lorraine Finch, at Norwich Cathedral library, with the 600-year-old plain chant parchment written by a monk, with a doodle in the margin, found hidden as recycled binding in an old religious book. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Copyright: Archant 2016

For almost 700 years it remained hidden behind the cover of a religious text book.

The monk's doodle in the margin of a 600-year-old plain chant parchment found hidden as recycled binding in an old religious book. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYThe monk's doodle in the margin of a 600-year-old plain chant parchment found hidden as recycled binding in an old religious book. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

But thanks to the work of a Great Yarmouth conservator, a rare medieval plainsong has now been discovered.

The piece of parchment, thought to be from the 14th century, had been used to help bind a book produced in 1548.

And it is thought that until last month, when it was uncovered by Lorraine Finch, it had not been seen since.

Miss Finch, 46, said: “I think this is a really significant find and it is only because the book was falling apart that I managed to see it.

The 600-year-old plain chant parchment written by a monk, with a doodle in the margin, found hidden as recycled binding in an old religious book. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYThe 600-year-old plain chant parchment written by a monk, with a doodle in the margin, found hidden as recycled binding in an old religious book. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

“If you think what this has been through – if it is from the 14th century, it could be 700 years old and has survived all of the biggest events in British history. It is the largest re-used music manuscript in a binding that I have ever seen in my 20 years as a conservator.”

The parchment, made from either sheep or cow skin, features Latin scripture that would have once been chanted by monks.

It also features a small caricature of an unknown figure, thought to be a monk, in the margin of the piece.

Miss Finch said the parchment had been pasted to the inside of the book’s cover and then covered over with another piece of paper.

It remained that way for centuries, but years of wear and tear eventually separated the pages while it was being kept in storage.

The manuscript was then discovered by Miss Finch while she was surveying Norwich Cathedral’s parish library last month.

She said the book, called Erasmus, had originally belonged to the parish of Shipdham, near Dereham.

Gudrun Warren, librarian and curator at Norwich Cathedral, said the plainsong would have been chanted by Catholic monks during a service.

She said: “It is certainly the biggest bit of manuscript we have got here. It is exciting as it belongs to a parish church and it is a link between pre-reformation books and post-reformation.”

She explained that when the Catholic monasteries were dissolved in 1536, such manuscripts were no longer needed and were instead used to bind new books together.

It is believed the plainsong was called Feast of Epiphany, which commemorates the visit of the wise men to Jesus.

Norwich Cathedral is hosting an open day next month, which will include a tour and expert talks on historic manuscripts, archival research and parish history.

It is on from 2.30pm to 5pm on Thursday, May 19. For more information visit www.cathedral.org.uk/events/openafternoon

Have you made an interesting historical discovery? Call Luke Powell on 01603 772684 or email luke.powell@archant.co.uk

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