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St. Thomas More and Music: The Epigrams

  • Nan C. Carpenter (a1)


Among the Latin epigrams of Thomas More, several are highly interesting for musical reasons. Two bear the caption ‘Poem Translated from an English Song.’ The first of these (63), beginning ‘O cor triste,’ reads in literal English translation,

Break, sad heart, pitiably engulfed in deepest woe. Let this be the end of your punishment. Show your mistress your bloody wounds. In short, it is she, only she, who will keep us two apart. Alas, how long shall I in my misery thus weep and complain? Come, dreaded death, and release me from monstrous woes.

The song on which this is based has apparently not yet been found.



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1 The Latin Epigrams of Thomas More, ed. and tr. Leicester Bradner and Charles A. Lynch (Chicago, 1953), Latin pp. 39-40, English pp. 162-163.

2 Published by the American Institute of Musicology in its Corpus Mensurabilis Musicae, series 17 (n.p., 1959-66), Vol. III, 2-4. The MS is described in great detail by Stevens, John, Music and Poetry in the Early Tudor Court (London, 1961), pp. 351385 , and is referred to throughout his study, since it is one of the (three) songbooks from the early Tudor period on which our knowledge of the music of that period is based. Interestingly, Dr. Stevens has singled out ‘Benedicite! What dremyd I?’ as a typical song from the MS (ca. 1500) and prints two-thirds of the piece (pp. 99-100,102) in order to commentupon it stylistically.

Most recent appearance of the piece is in Early Tudor Songs and Carols, transcribed and edited by Stevens, John, Musica Britannica, XXXVI (London, 1975), 4041 .

In general, amid Mori seem not to know that the song is available for scrutiny or for singing. There is no mention of it in Gibson, R. W., St. Thomas More: A Preliminary Bibliography of His Works (New Haven, 1961), nor in additions to Gibson (chiefly sought out by Charles Doyle) in various issues of Moreana. See, for example, Doyle, Charles Clay, ‘The Popular Aspect of Sir Thomas More's Latin Epigrams,’ Southern Folklore Quarterly, 37 (1973), 88 : ‘Epigrams 63 and 64 are announced as translations from English songs, neither of which seems ever to have been printed.'

3 Bradner, and Lynch, , Latin Epigrams, pp. 6869 , 189-190; u and v have been modernized throughout.

4 See, e.g., the article in Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians (5th ed., London, 1954) and the short sketch by John Caldwell in the encyclopedia Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, ed. F. Blume (1949- ), 15, 18, in both of which these two lines are quoted as high praise from More. Reese, Gustave, Music in the Renaissance (rev. ed. New York, 1959), p. 850 , quotes More's phrase ‘optimus orgaquenista’ without comment on the peculiarity of the word.

5 See More's epigrams to Brixius, Bradner and Lynch, number 170ff. For an account of this controversy, with many quotations, see Hudson, Hoyt H., The Epigram in the English Renaissance (Princeton, 1947), pp. 4958 . Modern biographies of More discuss the subject. Chambers, R. W., Thomas More (Westminster, Maryland, 1936), pp. 190191 , points out how Brixius tried to ‘make bad blood between More and Henry VIII’ by political implications in his rejoinders: ‘both More and Erasmus were alarmed at Henry's name being dragged into the controversy.’

6 See Grace Book A, ed. Stanley M. Leathes (Cambridge, 1897), pp. 41, 45: ‘Item admissus fuit Henricus Abyngton in musica bachalaureus…. Concessa est gracia henrico habynton quod post admissionem ad gradum bachalarii in Musica possit admitti ad incipiendum in eadem sic quod continuet hie ante admissionem per annum.’

The English universities were unique among Western universities in giving degrees in music (with the possible exception of Salamanca centuries earlier); often these awards were honorary—as obviously Abyngdon's were—to confer a mark of distinction upon a man for his lifetime attainments: see Carpenter, Nan C., Music in the Medieval and Renaissance Universities (Norman, 1958), sections on Oxford and Cambridge.

In a curiously ineffectual article, Holahan, Susan, ‘More's Epigrams on Henry Abyngdon,’ Moreana, 17 (1968), 2125 , ostensibly analyzes these epigrams primarily for language, reaching some rather odd conclusions (because of strange premise and strangely argued supporting observations)—e.g., that More in 143 denigrates ‘both the mourner and the mourned.’ It is significant that Miss Holahan (who must have written this paper in Professor Sylvester's seminar and should have left it in a chest for nine years) makes no mention of the most famous, egregious, and perhaps wittiest line in the entire poem where the emphatic ‘que’ is enclosed in the word ‘organista’ ('Praeter et haec ista, fuit optimus orgaquenista’).

7 Bradner and Lynch, Latin Epigrams, pp. 85 and 207. One recalls John Skelton's tirade ‘Against a Comely Coistrown,’ who, unable to sing properly himself, teaches others.

8 Bradner and Lynch, Latin Epigrams, pp. 111 and 232.

9 Ibid., pp. 118-119 and 239-240. For date of Lac puerorum, see Manley, Frank and Sylvester, Richard, ed. and tr. Richard Pace, De Fructu Qui ex Doctrina Percipitur (New York, 1967), p. xx .

10 Bradner, and Lynch, , Latin Epigrams, pp. 101102 and 222-223.

11 In a letter to Erasmus (May 1516), More openly appreciates his friendship with Busleiden—‘who entertained me with a magnificence suitable to his noble fortune, and a kindness proportioned to the goodness of his heart'—and proceeds to describe the beautiful home and its contents: see Nichols, F. M., ed. and tr., The Epistles of Erasmus (New York, 1962), II, 260261 .

For information about Busleiden's organ, see Vocht, Henry de, Jerome de Busleyden, Founder of the Louvain Collegium Trilingue (Turnhout, 1950), pp. 59ff.

12 I shall expand on this subject in a forthcoming essay. For More's remarks about the expressive powers of music (now related by music historians to musica reservata and other aspects of Renaissance music), see The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, IV, ed. Edward Surtz, S.J., and J. H. Hexter (New Haven and London, 1965), 237 : ‘ … in one respect undoubtedly they are far ahead of us. All their music, whether played on instruments or sung by the human voice, so renders and expresses the natural feelings, so suits the sound to the matter (whether the words be supplicatory or joyful or propitiatory or troubled or mournful or angry), and so represents the meaning by the form of the melody that it wonderfully affects, penetrates, and inflames the souls of the hearers.’

St. Thomas More and Music: The Epigrams

  • Nan C. Carpenter (a1)


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