The Abbey and its Restoration

Reading Abbey was founded in 1121 by King Henry I. The Abbey was one of Western Europe’s most prestigious religious and political centres, and one of the ten wealthiest monastic houses in England by the 14th century. It changed the shape of Reading, making it the most important town in the Thames Valley. After the Dissolution, in 1539, the buildings were used as a stone quarry and most of them rapidly disappeared.

For more about the Abbey and the daily life of the monks look at the Reading Museum website

and on the Reading Abbey Quarter project

Texts from the Abbey Miscellany

Although the round Sumer is Icumen In was probably not written at the Abbey, it was contained in a collection of texts found in the Abbey and which are now in the British Library.

MS Harley 978, is a manuscript from Reading Abbey dating from the mid-thirteenth century. Reading Abbey, however, did not have a scriptorium, and the MS was probably copied at Oxford, which as a university town was a major centre of book production by this period. It was probably owned by one of the three Reading monks it mentions, William of Winchester, a lover of music whose history was otherwise undistinguished and occasionally scandalous; on a visit to Leominster Priory in the 1270s, he was brought before the Bishop of Hereford for incontinence with a number of women, including a nun of Limebrook Priory.

The manuscript is a miscellaneous compilation, mainly of Latin and French texts, useful or entertaining rather than devotional; it includes other musical pieces (all religious), medical material, Goliardic satires, the earliest and best text of the Lais of Marie de France, and a French poem on hawking. “Sumer is icumen in” is the only Middle English text in the manuscript, and it is possible that it was included primarily for its musical interest

“Sumer” is important in musical history because at the time the Church was singing in Latin, the Royal Courts in French and this is the first piece of English music,” said Barbara Morris, an expert on the song and member of Reading Bach Choir.

“It’s so early; there is nothing similar in terms of composition.”