article 18:   Clauycordes and the Knight of the Tower

Article 15 on this site dealt with misuses of the word “clavichord” in translations of Tolstoy. Here is another curious example from four centuries previous.

A colleague in St. Petersburg (Russia, not Florida) recently sent me a query regarding the use of the word clauycordes in a book published in 1484, the year Richard III began his reign, by England’s first printer and seller of printed books, William Caxton. I went to the Oxford English Dictionary and found it to be the first recorded use of the word in English. The early nomenclature of stringed keyboard instruments is notoriously variable even within one country, and I wanted to find out exactly what was meant.

Caxton’s publication, euphoniously entitled “The booke of thenseygnementes and techynge that the Knyght of the Towre made to his doughters”, was a translation of a book written in 1371-2 by a French knight, Geoffroy de la Tour, lord of La Tour-Landry, Bourmont, La Galonière, Loroux-Bottereau, and Cornouaille, for the edification of his three daughters. Geoffroy de la Tour-Landry, as he is generally known, fought against the English in the 100 Years’ War, and resided in the family castle in the old province of Anjou on the lower Loire. Some ruins survive, while a 19th-century house, converted into a luxury hotel boasting its connections with the ghastly Second Empire of Napoleon III, occupies the grounds. One of Geoffroy’s sons died at Agincourt, and a great-grandson commissioned one of the last of the old romances celebrating mythical family histories, the Roman de Ponthus.

Geoffroy’s book is a collection of devout and ofttimes scandalous stories, collected with the help of his domestic staff, about the terrible things that happen to young women who misbehave, and the rewards granted by Providence to the chaste. It spread through Europe in manuscript, and became one of the big publishing hits in the next century, as the new craft of printing sought marketable “content”. Several sources for the original French text survive. It was first printed in France in 1514, but before that a German translation (as Der Ritter vom Turm) by a baron named Marquard vom Stein appeared in Basel (1493), lavishly illustrated with woodcuts by the young Albrecht Dürer.

The earliest known English translation is preserved in a manuscript in the Harleian collection of the British Library (MS. Harl. No. 1764), and is available as a print-on-demand from Alpha Editions in the transcription by Thomas Wright published in 1906. Here is the beginning of Geoffroy’s prologue, in the language of the anonymous translator from the reign of Henry VI, which Wright deems far superior to Caxton’s:

“In the yere of the incarnation of oure lord M iiic lxxj [1371], as y was in a gardin, al hevi and full of thought, in the shadow, about the ende of the monthe of Aprill, but a litell y reioysed me of the melodie and song of the wilde briddes; thei sang there in her languages, as the Thrustill, the thrusshe, the nytingale, and other briddes, the whiche were full of mirthe and ioye; and thaire suete songe made my herte to lighten, and made me to thinke of the tyme that is passed of my youthe, how love in great distresse had holde me, and how y was in her service mani tymes, full of sorugh and gladnesse as mani lovers ben. But my sorw was heled, and my service wel ysette and quitte, for he gave me a fayr wyff...”

The Knight of the Tower goes on to explain how the memory of his former passionate nature and experience of the wicked stratagems of some men in the pursuit of the fair caused him to fear for the good name of his daughters. He therefore resolved to put together his set of historical and legendary examples for their study and future self-protection.

But to return to the question of Caxton’s clauycordes, and what was originally meant by the word: after finding the trail back to Geoffroy de la Tour Landry and his translators, I had to find mention of the instruments in the several sources. It turned out to be part of a story about how a young nobleman came a-wooing to a castle banquet, gaudily dressed in the German fashion (de la guise dalemaigne). The young lady’s father mockingly asks him where his instruments are, so that he can show something of his ability as a minstrel. The fellow says he is nothing of the kind; the prospective father-in-law asks why he is then dressed like one. This particular story has a happy ending; the boy returns later, properly attired, and is held up for all as an example of humility and willingness to reform.

In the French original, the host’s question reads, “ou estoit sa viele et tout son Instrument, et que il faist de son mestier” – “where his fiddle/hurdy-gurdy and all his instruments were, and that he show something of his profession”. According to the eminent organologist John Koster, “viele” is ambiguous at this time. The illustrations of the list of instruments in various versions of the Roman de la Rose show it sometimes as the one, sometimes as the other. For our purposes, though the interesting thing is that no keyboard is mentioned. A late-14th-century French minstrel might conceivably have had a chekker, the predecessor of the clavichord, in his tool kit, but there is no reason to think that is implied under the umbrella of “tout son Instrument”.

Chapter CXVII of Wright’s transcription of the Harleian MS has, “where his fedyll or his Ribible, or such an Instrument as longithe unto a mynstrall.” “Ribible”, a word already used by Chaucer, probably means a small form of bowed string instrument similar to a rebec, the medieval predecessor of the violin descended from the Moorish rebeb. There seems even less possibility of a keyboard here.

Caxton’s 1484 translation reads, “where his vyell or clauycordes were”. Moving on chronologically, we arrive at the Basel translation of 1493, which reads, “wo sein leiren und seittenspil were”. A 1519 Strasbourg edition of the same translation has slightly different spellings: “lyre” and “seytenspil”. The former is a hurdy-gurdy (as in the Leiermann at the end of Schubert’s Winterreise), the latter can be any stringed instrument; but in the case of a minstrel, something hand-held is surely implied.

So we are left at a loss as to how Caxton’s translator arrived at the earliest known reference in English to a clavichord, whatever stringed keyboard he meant by “clauycordes” (“u” and “v” had not taken on separate existences in print at this point).

The only hypothesis I can offer starts back with the original French instrument. 16th-century German sources often use the word Instrument as specifically meaning stringed keyboard; sometimes for the harpsichord only, and in later centuries sometimes for the clavichord as well. It may also be of some significance that Virdung’s (1511) first example of his Geschlecht “Seytenspill” is a clavichord. There is no way of knowing how far back these confusing usages may have gone, but if Caxton’s translator was working from an intermediate German version (as his somewhat stilted language might indicate), this could be the back door through which instrument (Fr.) became Instrument (Ger.) became clauycordes (Eng.). Alternatively, a similar usage of the word “instrument” in English, as yet undocumented, may have been a more direct route. For the moment the question will have to remain moot.

November 2020

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