Finding the Functions of Music Books in England in the late 15th and early 16th Centuries: The Ritson MS and the Wharton Partbooks

  • Rachel Albert

Student thesis: Master of Philosophy


This thesis is an experiment in source studies with a hypothesis that an analysis of the individual characteristics of music manuscripts can help determine their function and practical use. Those characteristics include size and materials, mise-en-page, contents, and paratexts. Taken one by one, these characteristics provide only limited information on the ways music manuscripts were used, but when they are studied in conjunction a plausible function can be reached by systematically collating the data from single sources. Concentrating on individual manuscripts allows the characteristics (data points) to provide a clearer picture of their actual use by narrowing the field of possibility. Contextualizing this narrowed field with any available secondary information produces the most plausible conclusions. Two case studies have been chosen to act as test subjects for this experiment: The Ritson MS GB-Lbl Add. MS 5665 and the Wharton partbooks GB-Cjc MS 234 (K.31) and GB-Cu Dd.13.27. The former is a choirbook from the beginning of the sixteenth century originating in Devon, England. It contains a variety of genres including bilingual carols, Masses, hymns, chansons, antiphons, and secular pieces in French and English. The latter consists of the remaining two partbooks from a set of five that are held in separate libraries in Cambridge. The bassus partbook GB-Cjc MS 234 (K.31) currently resides at St. John’s College Library and the contratenor GB-Cu Dd.13.27 at The University Library. They hold sacred music of Masses, motets, and a Magnificat from some of the most revered English composers of the early-sixteenth century. The manuscripts in these case studies are lesser-known examples from England from 1480–1530 that have not been the subjects of recent comprehensive research. The primary functions of these books are speculative since there is no secondary evidence to prove or refute any theory, but plausible functions have been determined using the method of characteristic analysis. The Ritson MS expanded over time from a collection of carols to an anthology of music for use at Exeter Cathedral. The Wharton partbooks were the prized possessions of Launcelot Wharton, the prior of Rumburgh, that may have been used as a master set from which copies were made. Characteristic analysis and contextualization can be applied to other manuscript sources from this period (or any period) to aid in determining what can, at times, be an elusive aspect of music manuscripts—functional use.
Date of Award1 Aug 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorRoddy Hawkins (Supervisor) & Thomas Schmidt (Supervisor)


  • GB-Lbl Add. MS 5665
  • gathering
  • carol
  • Rumburgh
  • GB-Cjc MS 234 (K.31)
  • Exeter Cathedral
  • Taverner
  • characteristics
  • GB-Cu Dd.13.27
  • 15th century
  • 16th century
  • function
  • partbook
  • Wharton
  • Ritson
  • Manuscript
  • England
  • initials

Cite this