Sacra et Profana: Music in Medieval Manuscripts

This exhibition encompasses the sacred music of Christian, Jewish, and Islamic peoples as well as the profane, or secular, music performed at courts across Europe and the Middle East. Sometimes expected boundaries between sacred and profane or between geographic and cultural regions were porous. In thirteenth-century Spain, hymns to the Virgin Mary were written and performed in the manner of love songs. Persian music for royal wedding celebrations engaged spirit and heart. The troubadors' song-poems, first developed in France, were performed both north and south of the Alps. Hebraic as well as many other types of chant later influenced the creation of Christian music known as Gregorian chant. The exhibit also considers manuscripts' physical nature, their production by hand and development to print.

Medieval music was first written to aid the memorization and performance of religious music, while profane music continued longer as a strictly oral tradition. Notation both preserved musical repertoires and enabled the development of complex, polyphonic musical forms. Music manuscripts also open a window onto medieval culture, not only through the music but also through the manuscripts' decoration. The depictions of secular musicians, who perform in the manuscripts' margins, provide valuable information about aristocratic attitudes toward musical entertainment and toward the rising middle-class society.

The beautifully decorated and illustrated medieval music manuscripts exhibited here also highlight the richness of University of Houston and other major Houston collections. The display and catalog further reflect the collaboration of University of Houston art, art history, and history students who created this exhibit.

About the Exhibit


1st Floor MD Anderson Library


October 10, 2012-February 8, 2013


Original Medieval Manuscripts at the University of Houston Libraries

The University of Houston Libraries' Special Collections is fortunate to have among its collections twelve complete medieval manuscripts, codex books written and decorated entirely by hand. The earliest of these dates from approximately 1250-1300, with examples up to 1450-1499. In addition, the department owns seven single leaves dating from the same period.

While these books and leaves form only a small part of Special Collections' holdings, they do figure largely in academic instruction at the University of Houston, thereby getting significant use by faculty and students. In an effort to preserve these one-of-a-kind resources and to make them more widely available, we have just completed digitization of the entire Book of Hours (Use of Reims), displayed in the current exhibit. The entire manuscript will become available in the UH Digital Library within the current academic year, 2012-13. Other of our manuscript books also have been targeted for future digitization.

Education and Exhibits

For students, working closely with original materials -- in this case, medieval manuscript books and leaves -- taking part in a highly collaborative, inquiry-based learning experience involving hands-on building of an exhibit is, quite possibly, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Today, academic special collections departments work to provide as many of these sorts of learning opportunities as possible because of the clear benefits provided to students, professors, and librarians alike.

Professor Steinhoff agrees:

This exhibit was produced in the context of a seminar entitled "Art Exhibition: Music in Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts," which engaged the students in all aspects of the creation of an art exhibit. The resources, facilities, and staff of the UH Libraries' Special Collections were indispensable. For many students, this was their first direct experience with illuminated manuscripts. Working with such materials first-hand is an educational experience of rare value; designing and executing an exhibition allows students to further explore thoughts about the ways works of medieval art and culture can be presented to engage and educate others.

In addition to UH Libraries' Special Collections, the students visited Rice University's Woodson Research Center, another local core collection with significant holdings in medieval music manuscripts. It is a testament to the positive working relationships between UH's and Rice's libraries that the latter's staff members were so helpful in allowing UH students access to the collection and granting all requests for loaned materials for the exhibit. Rice also provided copies of their archived documents for some of the manuscripts.

In addition to these universities, other institutional collections within the City of Houston have graciously lent original materials or facsimiles, thereby strengthening what the exhibit has to offer. The Houston Metropolitan Research Center at the Houston Public Library also counts important medieval manuscript books and leaves among its collections, and four examples enrich this exhibit. The Museum of Printing History owns an important collection of materials relating to the history of the development of print media. A book of Gregorian chant, as well as printing tools from their collections, are on display.

While the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston has only a small collection of medieval art, the manuscript leaf facsimile in this exhibit has not been on view at the museum for several years due to its fragility. Thanks to the Menil Collection, this exhibit offers a special opportunity to see high-quality facsimiles of two of its gems. And while houses of religion don't immediately come to mind when thinking about manuscripts, Houston is fortunate to count among its treasures the Kaplan Collection of Judaica at the Congregation Beth Yeshurun, one of the largest and highest quality Judaica collections -- including several Esther scrolls -- outside the major U.S. Jewish museums.

Dr. Steinhoff's students are indeed fortunate not only to be in a location with several institutions that hold important medieval manuscripts, but that these institutions have been so generous in granting access to their collection for study and loaning materials for the University of Houston Libraries' fall 2012 exhibit, Sacra et Profana: Music in Medieval Manuscripts.