The Peterborough Antiphoner

Page of musical notation from the Peterborough Antiphoner. The book curse is written at the top of the page
Old Library F.4.10, Peterborough Antiphoner, f.8v. The ‘book curse’ is at the top of the page.

Dating from the fourteenth century and written in a neat Gothic script, the Peterborough Antiphoner (Old Library F.4.10) provides compelling examples of musical notation and liturgical texts during the medieval period. The colophon on fol.8v enables us to trace its origin to Peterborough Abbey: iste liber est s.petri de Burgo. Quem qui ei abstulerit uel titulum deleuerit anathema sit (“This book belongs to the religious house at Peterborough and whoever steals or damages it will be cursed”). Similar ‘book curses’ can be found in other medieval manuscripts, intended to encourage readers to take care of the books.

Thanks to the digitisation team at the Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music (DIAMM), the Peterborough Antiphoner is now available to view and study online, and it is the first manuscript from the Old Library to be digitised.  Prof. David Hiley from the University of Regensburg says that the digitisation of this manuscript ‘makes accessible one of the most important English chant sources of the thirteenth century…. the Peterborough Antiphoner is one of the richest sources of chants peculiar to English sources or even unique to one [monastic] house. Sincere thanks to Magdalene College and DIAMM for bringing this invaluable manuscript onto our screens’.

How did the Peterborough Antiphoner become a part of Magdalene College’s Old Library collections? In a study published in 2010, Hiley concludes the manuscript was likely to have come to the College via Simon Gunton (1609-76). An English clergyman, antiquary and alumnus of Magdalene College, Simon Gunton was born in Peterborough and became a minor canon of the Cathedral there in 1643. He was the author of The History of the Church of Peterburgh, published posthumously in 1686.

Gold, illuminated letter h from the Peterborough Antiphoner
Illuminated initial from the Peterborough Antiphoner, f.15v.

The religious and political upheavals of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had a profound impact on the libraries of religious houses across the country. The dissolution of the monasteries under King Henry VIII and the conversion of Peterborough Abbey into a cathedral see in 1541 resulted in the loss of a number of its medieval manuscripts.[1]  There was still further disruption when Cromwell’s forces sacked Peterborough Cathedral in 1643, trashing its fixtures, defacing its monuments, and looting treasures which included books. One of the most detailed accounts of this incident appears as an appendix to Gunton’s History written by Francis Standish, precentor of the Cathedral after 1667,  entitled A Short and True Narrative of the Rifling and Defacing the Cathedral Church of Peterburgh in the Year 1643. The account describes the destruction of the library, together with the damage incurred by individual texts, such as the Great Bible, which “had the good hap to escape woth loss only to the Apocrypha”.[2] Other manuscripts are recorded as having been destroyed or confiscated, with some later re-purchased by the Cathedral from Cromwell’s soldiers.

College library Donor's Register, featuring a handwritten list of books donated to the College by Simon Gunton during the 1650s and 1660s
Old Library F.4.33, Donor’s Register, f. 12v.

Simon Gunton’s donations of books to the Old Library appear in the library’s Donors’ Register (F.4.33) from the seventeenth century.  The entry for Gunton’s donation of books to the College is undated, but Gunton is recorded as prebend of Peterborough, which suggests that the entry was written sometime after his appointment in 1643. Michael Hetherington has argued that the books listed in the register were likely to have been donated during Gunton’s own lifetime, as they are not indicated in Gunton’s will (other philosophical and theological works from Gunton’s collection are detailed, though none are specified as bequests to Magdalene).[3] By taking into consideration the dates of the two donors appearing either side of Gunton’s entry, it’s likely that Gunton donated his books to the College during the 1650s and 1660s.  Donations may have occurred on two separate occasions, since it appears that of the thirteen books donated by Gunton, the first and the last are later additions, having been inserted into the Register by a different hand.[4]

However, no antiphoner is listed under Gunton’s list of donations.  If the Peterborough Antiphoner was donated by Gunton, then one might surmise that it was given in conjunction with other donations made during his lifetime and consequently recorded in the Register. Even if the manuscript were not given on either of the two occasions that I suggest for Gunton’s other donations, the date range covered by the Register, spanning the period from Gunton’s time as a student at Magdalene to after his death in 1676, means that one might presume the details of the manuscript to have been recorded had Gunton been its source.

For the time being, there is no concrete evidence to explain how the Peterborough Antiphoner made its way to Cambridge. It is recorded as being at Magdalene in a 19th century printed catalogue, Gustav Haenel’s Catalogi librorum manuscriptorum (1830) so it was certainly in the Old Library at that time. Yet more research is needed into the possible links between Magdalene College and Peterborough prior to the mid-seventeenth century, in order to better understand the context in which this manuscript was acquired.

By Eleanor Swire

Curator and Librarian, Winchester Cathedral

Former Libraries Assistant at Magdalene College

[1] Kelly 2009: 1. Various pieces from the Cathedral’s collections were passed from private ownership to the Society of Antiquaries, where they remain today.

[2] Gunton 1686: 335.

[3] Hetherington 2014: 88.

[4] M.R James does not include MS.F.4.10 in his list of manuscripts believed to have been given by Gunton to the College: these he identifies as MSS.F.4.5, 15, 16, 23, 26, and 27, with a question mark over MS.F.4.21. For further discussion of the provenance of MS.F.4.21, see Hetherington 2014.


Drieshen, C. “Frying pans, forks and fever: Medieval book curses”. The British Library Medieval Manuscripts blog. 23 May 2017. [Accessed 21 April 2018].

Friis-Jensen, K. & J.M.W. Willoughby (eds.) Peterborough Abbey. Corpus of British medieval library catalogues no.8. London: The British Library, 2001.

Gunton, S. The history of the Church of Peterburgh wherein the most remarkable things concerning that place, from the first foundation thereof, with other passages of history not unworthy publick view, are represented / by Symon Gunton…illustrated with sculptures; and set forth by Symon Patrick. London: Printed for Richard Chiswell, 1686.

Hetherington, M. “Reading the Seventeenth Century – An Old Library commonplace book”. Magdalene College Magazine. No. 58 (2013-14): p.p. 80-88

Hiley, D. ‘The Saints Venerated in Medieval Peterborough as Reflected in the Antiphoner Cambridge, Magdalene College, F.4.10’ in Hornby, E., and Maw, D.N. (eds.), Essays on the History of English Music in Honour of John Caldwell: Sources, Style, Performance, Historiography. London: Boydell & Brewer, 2010: 22-46.

James, M.R. Descriptive catalogue of the manuscripts in the College Library of Magdalene College Cambridge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1909.

Kelly, S.E. (ed.) Charters of Peterborough Abbey. Anglo-Saxon Charters 14. The British Academy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

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