Readers perplexed by this title can be assured that I was as well when I first came across it. It is 15th-century Scots for “Book of the Owl”. This leads to the equally perplexing question: what is a book about an owl doing on a harpsichordist’s website?

The poem was composed around 1450 by a Catholic priest – and how odd it is to recall that Scotland was once Catholic – named Richard Holland, who was a retainer of and probably chaplain to the powerful Douglas clan. Their overreach was abruptly ended when the head of the family, William Douglas, was assassinated by order of King James II of Scotland.

Holland was trying to warn his patrons of the danger of hubris. His poem frames a central panegyric to the Douglasses with an allegory of anthropomorphic birds, probably inspired by Chaucer’s “Parlement of Foules”. Tales of animals behaving like humans, often thinly disguised satires, go back at least as far as Hesiod. Our owl is dissatisfied with his appearance, and goes to the Pope (a peacock) for redress. A synod of all the birds is called; they grant the owl one feather each. Rendered vain and obnoxious by his new splendor, the owl is condemned to resume his former look. William Douglas, if he had the poem read to him, took no heed of the moral.

Another common medieval literary device appears in stanza LIX: a list of musical instruments. That found in the Roman de la Rose is probably the best known. Here they are part of a banquet given by the Pope to his lesser feathered clergy. It includes the citoll (see article 42), the “monycordis” (clavichord), the “dulsate” and “dulsacordis” – one of them Henri-Arnaut de Zwolle’s “dulce melos”? – the “amyable organis”, the “portativis”, and, finally getting to the point:

     “Symbaclanis in the cellis that soundis so soft.”

The “n” is obviously a misreading by the copyist of the similar-looking “v”. Why Holland reversed the two usual elements of “clavisymbal” is puzzling, as is his placement of the instrument in the (monks’?) “cells”. And why “so soft”? If I were a monk trying to sleep in a cell next to one where an instrument of the harpsichord family was being played, I would have uncharitable thoughts.

This very early mention of the harpsichord type in Scotland seems to have escaped the notice of organologists. No less a one than John Koster could find no reference in the literature, and that is good enough for me.

A footnote on page 11 of the “Houlate” study, somewhat surprisingly published in 1893 (in English and Scots) by Dr. Arthur Diebler, Realgymnasialoberlehrer in Chemnitz, mentions three other early lists of instruments that may be of interest:

- The Roman de Brut (1155) by the Norman poet Wace, a rough, expanded translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth, mentions vièle, rote, lire, satérion, harpe, gighe, and simphonie.

- Hugo von Trimberg’s 26,661-line Morallehre, Der Renner (completed 1313), has in verse 9454 an admonition against the use of Harpfen, rotten, lîren, gîgen at table, since they contribute to the deadly sin of gluttony.

- Gavin Douglas, a poetically inclined Scottish clergyman, later bishop of Dunkeld in the Highlands and statesman, wrote his dream-allegory “Palice of Honour” in 1501. It contains a marvelous, long passage on music-making revealed in the dream, with a list of instruments similar enough to Holland’s to justify the assumption that this Douglas knew the earlier work. Portative, monycord and organe are included – but no harpsichord, unless his “cymbell” is a shortened version of Holland’s “symbaclavis”. But since it comes after the “tympane”, it is probably the percussion instrument.

(Douglas also mentions the “sytholl”, more than a century after “New Grove” says it was disused.)

December 7, 2021 (80th anniversary)

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