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Restoring Lost Songs: Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy



There are no indications about instrumental performance in the surviving neumed manuscripts of De consolatione philosophiae, in which only a single melodic line is notated for any given song.  There is nevertheless significant contextual evidence that instruments were used for performances of Boethian metra in particular and learned Latin song in general.  Evidence for instrumental participation will be assessed on this page; reflection on what instrumentalists might have played is found under Sequentia videos.


Ergo ubi disposita venit mercede iocator
Taurinaque chelin cepit deducere theca,
Omnibus ex vicis populi currunt plateisque,
Affixisque notant oculis et murmure leni
Eminulis mimum digitis percurrere cordas,
Quas de vervecum madidis aptaverat extis,
Nuncque ipsas tenuem, nunc raucum promere bombum.
Ille fides aptans crebro diapente canoras,
Straverit ut grandem pastoris funda Goliath,
Ut simili argutus uxorem Suevulus arte Luserit,
utque sagax nudaverit octo tenores
Cantus Pytagoras, et quam mera vox philomenę,


'A minstrel was brought in, his fee arranged;
He took his harpout of a leather case,
And people rushed in from the streets and courtyards.
Watching intently, murmuring admiration,
They see the artist run his fingers over
The strings (made of dyed sheep-gut), trying out
The notes, now delicately, now clanging them.
Harmonising the tuneful strings in fifths,
He sang of how the shepherd with his sling
Laid great Goliath low; of how the little
Swabian cuckold tricked his wife in turn;
How wise Pythagoras discovered octaves;
And how the nightingale sings with flawless voice.' [1]


This colourful passage is found in a satire written by Sextus Amarcius, who was resident in Speyer around the middle of the eleventh century. The fictional but acutely observed tale relates how after-dinner entertainment was arranged for a patron staying at an inn. Having arranged his fee, the professional musician (iocator) sang four poems to the accompaniment of his harp (chelys).  All four of the songs mentioned in the passage are found in the Cambridge Songs collection, which was compiled in around the 1030s in the Rhineland, possibly at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry III (1017-1056). The same collection includes a series of notated Boethian metra, implying a similar mode of performance.

Supporting evidence may be drawn from the example of a learned singer-harpist from the previous century. Dunstan was a skilled harpist and singer in his youth and was dismissed from the court of King Athelstan (r. 924-39) for singing ‘the vain songs of ancestral heathenism’ and ‘frivolous incantations of fables’, references in all likelihood to epic narratives in the vernacular.[2] At Glastonbury, where he was later appointed abbot, he kept his harp in his cell; he also corrected manuscripts, among which was a copy of the De consolatione philosophiae (Vat. lat 3363) that contained at least one notated metrum (i.e. O stelliferi conditor orbis, I:5). It remains possible that Dunstan also sang Boethian metraat St Augustine’s Canterbury, where he was Archbishop of Canterbury from 960-988 and continued to teach.

Occasions on which Boethian metra might have been performed are hard to identify.  Evidence survives for the singing of songs to instrumental accompaniment at episcopal feasts: as reported by Notker Balbulus of St Gall (d. 912), one unnamed bishop ‘desiring to show still more plainly his magnificence and glory, ordered masters most skilled in singing to come forward, withall kinds of musical instruments, the sound of whose voices could soften the hardest heartsor turn to ice the swiftly flowing waters of the Rhine’.[3]  There are also accounts of clerics playing the harp, including in educational contexts: Tuotilo of St Gall (d. c. 915) was reportedly not only skilled in composing ‘poetry and melodies’ (versus et melodias), but ‘instructed the sons of nobility in playing the lyre [fidibus] in a room specified by the abbot for the purpose’.[4]

It is less clear whether other instruments might have been used in performance of Boethian metra.  Flute players (tibicines) are referred to alongside cithaeredae and secular singers, both men and women, in a ninth-century treatise that praises their dedication to the rules of their art.[5]  The nightingale song (Aurea personet lira) in the Cambridge Song collection, one of the four cited by Sextus Amarcius, refers to the bird’s melodious voice as exceeding the tibia and fistula, as well as the cithara and lira, implying that both were used in accompanying secular song.  Reference in the same poem to non-liturgical song as suited to the pastime of young scholars and the palaces of kings adds to the overall picture of a continuous culture of Latin song stretching from oblates through to magnates.

Archaeological and iconographic evidence for the type of harps and flutes that were used in this period are discussed by members of Sequentia in their videos.  Further references and links to images of surviving instruments are appended to each video.  What may be noted in closing is that the harp was particularly associated with noblemen; Boethius himself may have had some technical understanding and expertise since he was asked in 507 to select a lyre player to send to the Frankish King, Clovis.[6]  The possibility that Boethius in his imprisonment in Pavia in the 520s sang his own metra to the harp should not be hastily dismissed as romantic fantasy.

[1] Text reproduced from Jan M. Ziolkowski (ed. and trans.), The Cambridge Songs (Carmina Cantabrigiensia), Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies 192 (Tempe, Arizona), 1998, p. xlv.  The translation given is by Peter Dronke, The Medieval Lyric (Cambridge, 3rdedn., 1996), 28. 

[2]‘sed avitae gentiliatis vanissima didicisse carmina et histriarum frivoleas coluisse incantationes’, Vita S. Dunstani 6.2, in Michael Winterbottom and Michael Lapidge (ed. and trans.), The Early Lives of St Dunstan (Oxford, 2012), 20.

[3] ‘ut eis magnificentiam suam et gloriam manifestius ostenderet, iussit procedere peritissimos cantandi magistros cum omnibus organis musicorum, de quorum vocibus et sonitu fortissimo corda mollescerent et liquidissima Rheni fluenta durescerent’, Gesta Karoli magni imperatoris I. 18, ed. Hans F. Haefele, MGH Scriptores rerum Germanicarum NS 12 (Berlin, 1962), 24; translation from David Ganz (trans.), Einhard and Notker the Stammerer: Two Lives of Charlemagne (London, 2008) 69.

[4] ‘nam et filios nobilium in loco ab abbate destinato fidibus edocuit’, Ekkehard IV, Casus Sancti Galli, ch. 34, in Hans F. Haefele (ed. and trans.), Ekkehard IV, Casus sancti Galli (Darmstadt, 1980), 78.Translation from J. Duft, ‘The Contribution of the Abbey of St. Gall to Sacred Music’, in J. C. King and W. Vogler (eds.), The Culture of the Abbey of St Gall: An Overview (Stuttgart and Zurich, 1991), 59.

[5] ‘Cithaeredae et tibicines et reliqui musicorum vasa ferentes vel etiam cantores et cantrices seculares omni student conatu quod canitur sive citharizatur ad delectandos audientes artis ratione temperare’, Commemoratio brevis, ch. 1 (6).  Text from Hans Schmid (ed.), Musica et scolica enchiriadis una cum aliquibus tractatulis adiunctis, Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Veröffentlichungen der Musikhistorischen Komission 3 (Munich, 1981), 157. 

[6] Cassiodorus,Variae II, 40, in Å. J. Fridh and J. W. Halporn (eds.), Magni Aurelii Cassiodori I: Variarum libri XII – De anima, Corpus Christianorum. Series Latina 96 (Turnhout, 1973), 87.