Tinctoris and Nivelles: The Obit Evidence

Ronald Woodley

This paper derives from archival research carried out in July 2007 at the Archives générales du Royaume in Brussels. I would like to thank Barbara Haggh-Huglo for her advice on some aspects of the documents discussed, and also Birmingham Conservatoire, part of Birmingham City University, for providing funding to initiate this ongoing research.

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[1] For as long as Tinctoris has been acknowledged by historians as a significant figure in fifteenth-century music, it has been known that for at least part of his life he enjoyed a formal relationship with the collegiate church (ex-abbey) of St Gertrude in Nivelles. One of the richest, most powerful, and most closely politically connected ecclesiastical institutions of Brabant in the later Middle Ages, St Gertrude's was also situated only a few miles from Tinctoris's village of birth, Braine-l'Alleud (see also Biographical Outline: 1. Life, and Woodley 2007a: §20). There are still many details of Tinctoris's relationship with St Gertrude's that continue to elude us, but the recent discovery in July 2007 of some new references to the theorist in the obit records of the church gives us an opportunity to revisit what little evidence has survived regarding his later years, to make one or two hypotheses concerning the remaining gaps, and, not least, to establish for the first time the likely calendar date of his death.

[2] Over a period of nearly four hundred years, up to the mid-nineteenth century, the sole evidence for linking Tinctoris with St Gertrude's was the statement by Trithemius, at the start of his 1495 biographical notice, that the musician was 'Brabantine by birth, originating from the commune of Nivelles, and canon in the church of the same city' ('patria brabantinus, ex civitate nivellensi oriundus, et in ecclesia eiusdem urbis canonicus').1 Whilst generally accepted over the years as intrinsically at least plausible, this statement remained unverified, and certainly none of Tinctoris's own self-descriptions in the treatises, all dating from the 1470s and early 1480s, give any further corroboration for his tenure of this, or any other, benefice during the middle period of his career. During the nineteenth century, in the midst of quite convoluted debates concerning various proposed editions of the theorist's work (discussed in Woodley 2007a), Edmond vander Straeten made a valuable addition to our knowledge in his essay on the theorist, by publishing a brief text referring to a placet issued on 12 October 1511 by the civil authorities of Brabant, giving binding force to a papal bull (not yet traced) and granting for the sum of 7s. 6d. full possession of a prebend at St Gertrude's, recently vacated on Tinctoris's death, to his successor Peter de Coninck. Since Vander Straeten's announcement of this find in 1875 (Vander Straeten 1867–88: iv. 9 and 46; fuller discussion in Woodley 1981: 240 and 247–8), the original document concerned has lain somewhat buried, and it seems opportune, in the context of the other new obit material presented later in this article, to identify it properly here for the first time under its current call-mark of Brussels, Archives générales du Royaume, Archives des chambres des comptes, comptes des droits des sceaux, Sceau de Brabant, No. 20785, fol. 260 (see Plate 1 and detail). The document is the last of three entered into the account book on 21 October 1511 by Hubert de Stratis (Van Straten), ordinary secretary and court usher ('audiencier') of the 'droits de sceau de Brabant', the placet (of which the surviving account entry in Flemish is only a summary) having been originally drawn up by Henri de Hane, ordinary secretary and acting receiver of writs and summonses for the Council of Brabant ('receveur provisoire des exploits du Conseil de Brabant'; Gachard 1848: 354). The text, accurately conveyed by Vander Straeten, reads 'Van eenen placet voer peteren de Coninck om te comen totter possessien van eender provende van Nijvele vacerende bij doode van wijlen herren Janne tinctoris ende dat vuijt crachte van zekeren bullen apostolike etc. de data xij octobris anno xio signata Hane vijs. vid.'

[3] A full century after Vander Straeten's discovery, in 1976, Jeremy Noble made the important observation that a reference to a 'Johannes Trutoris' in a modern edition of the Vatican Libri annatarum for the pontificates of Innocent VIII and Alexander VI (1484–1503), which concerns the payment of annates for a canonry at St Gertrude's, must be a misreading for 'Tinctoris' (Noble 1976: 83). Although this document has been discussed in detail before (Woodley 1981: 236–7; text of document ibid.: 246), it is worth outlining its essentials again here in order to orientate ourselves as regards dating.

[4] The document concerned (Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Fondo dell'Archivio di Stato, Annatae, Reg. 36, fol. 14v) is in two parts, separated chronologically. The main entry informs us that on 24 September 1488 Nicolaus Rembert, canon of (the diocese of) Cambrai, registers his obligation to the Apostolic Camera as procurator for Tinctoris with regard to the payment of annates (a tax levied by the Holy See on newly conferred, minor reserved benefices) on a canonry and prebend at St Gertrude's, in the diocese of Liège, which had become vacant on the death of its previous holder, Johannes de Campis on, or at least by, 9 December 1487. (The wording of the document is a little ambiguous in this last respect.) The benefice is valued at the sum of 50 livres tournois.2 Rembert – an individual not well studied,3 but presumably acquainted with Tinctoris through his known legal and musical activities – further promises to pay the amount due to the Camera within one year, or else to certify that the canonry concerned has not been taken up by Tinctoris. A marginal annotation to this main entry provides a little further context. According to this, Rembert's procuratorship had been put in place around a week before the registration of his obligation, by force of a public instrument drawn up on 18 September 1488 in Naples by the local notary Francisco Pappacoda, written in his own hand, and confirming that Tinctoris is himself resident in Naples ('ubi ipse Johannes moram habet'; Woodley 1981: 246; further discussion ibid.: 237). The main purpose of this marginal reference to Pappacoda's instrument in the Vatican annate register is to confirm that on 27 February 1490 Rembert registered, in turn, Tinctoris's obligation to him to repay the monies owed in respect of his procuratorship. It is reasonable to assume, then, that Tinctoris had been offered the benefice, and had negotiated Rembert's assistance as intermediary not long before he had Pappacoda draw up the formal instrument, and also that Tinctoris took possession of the canonry at some point during the twelve months between September 1488 and September 1489.4

[5] What is less clear, though – and this has not been addressed up to now – is why Tinctoris needed to appoint Rembert as procurator in the first place, if he was himself in Naples and presumably in a position to pay the annate personally. The most logical explanation for this is that the mission to recruit new singers for Ferrante's court from northern Europe, which Tinctoris had recently embarked upon, following the royal instruction instigated in October 1487 (Woodley 1981: 235), was still continuing a year on. Indeed the coincidence of timing with the death of Johannes de Campis in or before December 1487, mentioned above, is particularly noteworthy. Perhaps, indeed, in addition to his formal instruction from Ferrante to visit the courts of Charles VIII and the Emperor Maximilian, armed with the letters of introduction cited in the instruction, Tinctoris's journey had taken him much closer to home; Ferrante's request, after all, was worded in such a way as to give Tinctoris flexibility to travel wherever he felt appropriate for his search ('et in qualunque altra regione paese et loco ve parera posserne trovare'; Woodley 1981: 245). The opportunity, therefore, to cement a formal relationship with St Gertrude's may have been especially attractive, providing a significant injection of additional income which may even have influenced, directly or indirectly, his move away from the Neapolitan court within a small number of years thereafter. (The only other benefice we know Tinctoris to have held was that at the parish church of St George 'at the old market' ('ad mercatum veterem') in Naples, which he eventually resigned personally at the Papal See in 1502 (Sherr 1983: 9). There is also the possibility that Tinctoris had been awarded an expectative benefice in his home diocese of Cambrai as early as 1462, though there is no record of an actual prebend having materialised: see Woodley 1981: 227.)

[6] Tinctoris's canonry at St Gertrude's, then, can be fairly securely dated from late 1488 or 1489. No further Vatican documents have yet emerged relating directly to the collation of the benefice, and it is perhaps curious that Tinctoris made no mention of his Nivelles canonry when making his remarkable supplication to the Pope on 24 October 1490, requesting that he be accorded the title and privileges of Doctor of Civil and Canon Law in recognition of his earlier legal studies and experience (first reported in Sherr 1994; original document forthcoming within the present online edition). In this, Tinctoris styles himself simply as 'cleric of [the diocese of] Cambrai' and 'cantor capellanus' of the King of Naples (ibid.: 69) Nevertheless, the evidence is clear enough to show that Trithemius's biographical notice of 1495 was indeed founded on good information. But apart from the three documents outlined above, no other primary material has come to light up to now which connects Tinctoris and St Gertrude's in any way.

[7] The Archives ecclésiastiques du Brabant (henceforth AEB) form an extensive fonds within the Archives générales du Royaume (henceforth AGR) based in Brussels, with other satellite repositories housed elsewhere throughout Belgium. Among the quite copious, though by musicologists virtually unstudied, material relating to St Gertrude's, Nivelles, are a number of obit calendars recording the commemorations of deceased chapter members and other dignitaries across the year, alongside the normal major and minor feasts. MS 30.072 of the AEB is one such obit calendar, containing multiple layers of entries covering a period from its first compilation probably at some point in the mid-sixteenth century through to the eighteenth century. On fol. 51, in the hand which one can securely associate with the original layer, and entered against the date of 9 February (Plate 2), is the following:

'Maistre Jehan tinctoris chanoine xxiiij patards cest a messires – x patards'

[8] The detailed sense of this brief entry requires some unpicking. The mixed, secular chapter of St Gertrude's comprised forty canonesses and thirty male canons;5 the female canonries were restricted, by the long history of the abbey, to members of the nobility, but such a restriction did not apply to the male canons. From 1332, seven of the thirty male canonries (every third vacancy) were restricted to priests, who were required to reside permanently in Nivelles.6 At the head of the institution was the Abbess herself, assisted by the four most senior canonesses and a female Provost who, again from the fourteenth century, functioned as head of the chapter and presided at chapter meetings. Heading the male section of the chapter (known as the 'État de Saint-Paul') and overseeing the body of chaplains was the Dean, whose importance in the church's administrative and spiritual hierarchy gradually increased in the later Middle Ages, and a male provost, whose powers waned as those of the Dean waxed over the years.7 The collation of the female prebends remained essentially in the gift of the Abbess, while, from around the mid-fifteenth century, that of the male canonries became split equally between the Abbess and the Holy See. The later Middle Ages and sixteenth century, moreover, saw increasing political tensions with the Dukes of Brabant and the Holy Roman Emperor (especially from the time of Charles V) regarding patronage and powers of appointment at the church, partly stemming from the chapter's long-standing exemption from the authority of the diocese of Liège, within whose boundaries it stood (see, for instance, Tarlier and Wauters 1862: 90 ff.).

[9] This gender division of the chapter had direct consequences for its own handling of the institution's revenues, and hence for our interpretation of the financial implications of documents such as the obit entry for Tinctoris cited above. Unlike the position at the majority of similar but single-gender chapters, the prebends were not individualized. The total revenues to the church were divided into two unequal parts, 7/12 to the canonesses and 5/12 to the canons. Each part was then divided again pro rata for the actual number of female and male canons, forming the 'gros fruits'. The 'menus fruits', that is, the income from foundations for obits, vigils, daily masses and offices, etc. were also divided 7/12 and 5/12, and then redistributed to those members actually present at the relevant offices, chapter ceremonies, and so forth. This is the crucial element in understanding the wording of the Tinctoris obit: the amount of money initially cited, i.e. 24 patards (the patard being a Netherlandish unit of circulating coin, rather than money of account),8 presumably therefore represents that part of the 'menus fruits' income from Tinctoris's obit foundation, which is then divided in the accepted proportion, so that 5/12 of this, i.e. 10 patards, are actually distributed to those male canons ('messires') present at the commemoration that year.9 The terminology of such obit entries at St Gertrude's, specifying the amount to be distributed either 'a messires' or 'a damoiselles' (i.e. the canonesses) is entirely commonplace in the calendars,10 with some distributions being stipulated as being in bread or wheat rather than coinage, and in these cases the proportional divisions are given in the documents by units of weight rather than currency.

[10] Aside from the financial minutiae, however, the overwhelmingly significant feature of this newly discovered obit entry is that it probably gives us the correct calendar date for Tinctoris's death: 9 February. In some cases deceased chapter members, especially those of senior rank who had left more fulsome endowments, were commemorated on more than one date in the year: for instance (to take an admittedly extreme example), on this same date of 9 February we find the obit of 'maistre Jehan Ostonis prevost' (see Plate 2 again), but obit entries for him are also to be found in the same calendar on 17 January, 9 March, 4 April, 15 September, 31 October, 27 November and 17 December. Clearly in such a case the correlation of obit entry with actual death-date is not straightforward, but where a single commemoration is recorded, current research (in a still very under-studied area) suggests that the correlation can normally be presumed, except where the commemoration has had to be moved in order to avoid, say, clashing with another major feast.11 On the day of Tinctoris's obit, as well as Jehan Ostonis, the deceased canoness 'Madamoiselle Jehanne de houpplinnes [= Houppelines]' was commemorated in this first layer of entries, along with the celebration of the feast of St Apollonia, virgin and martyr. Also entered in this same calendar (fol. 72v) is Tinctoris's predecessor as canon, Johannes de Campis (see §4 above), whose obit, falling on 4 May, again raises the question of correlation of obit and death-date – though in this case a more likely explanation is that the date of 9 December 1487 given in the Vatican annate register, discussed above, is a date of record rather than of the death itself.

[11] A little more context to the Tinctoris obit can be extracted from a series of account-books from St Gertrude's known as the 'comptes des mois', also surviving in the AEB. This class of accounts gives details of month-by-month income and payments, including those relating to specified obits and graces, whose outgoings are then rolled up into the annual 'comptes généraux'. The first reference to monies relating to Tinctoris's obit can be found in AEB, MS 1851/xviii, fol. 26v, for the year 1515–16, again under the month of February (Plate 3 and detail):

'Lobit maistre Jan Tinctoris lxxij patards'

A very similar entry occurs in the next surviving account, for the year 1518–19 (AEB, MS 1851/xix, fol. 22), replicated in 1519–20 (AEB, MS 1851/xx, fol. 24v):

'Lobit maistre Jehan Tinctoris chanoine lxxij patards'

[12] This sum of 72 patards, then, presumably represents the gross income from Tinctoris's obit endowment, prior to its proportional, formulaic 'top-slicing' as described above. There is, however, a small arithmetical inconsistency here: an initial division of 7/12 plus 5/12 should make available 30 patards for the canons, rather than the 24 patards recorded in MS 30.072. This may, nevertheless, be simply the result of the inexorable diminution of capital that would have occurred in the period between 1515 and the compilation of MS 30.072 around the middle of the century, at a time when such foundation capital was unable to be invested by the institution to accrue interest in the modern sense.12 Unfortunately, no record has yet been traced of the actual terms of Tinctoris's obit foundation, or when it was set up. At some institutions, such as the Marian confraternity of St Goedele in Brussels, Barbara Haggh has reported that members were required to produce money up-front for their obit services at the time of their initiation (Haggh 1988: 356–6); at others, such as the Charterhouse convent in Anderlecht in 1473, it was necessary for the money to be provided only when making one's testament (Haggh 1988: 356). It has not so far been possible to establish what the regulation or convention was at St Gertrude's, though it is possible that some evidence may come to light in due course through a more detailed reading of the few surviving, though fragile and often barely decipherable, chapter acts of the period. (A large proportion of the chapter records was destroyed in the sack of Nivelles by the Prince of Parma in 1580; see, for instance, Fréson 1890: 182.) Similarly, no will for Tinctoris has yet been traced within the existing St Gertrude archives, though there is certainly still scope for some such discovery.

[13] The other significant musician, of course, who is known to have had a close attachment to St Gertrude's is Marbrianus de Orto. Having been granted an expectative benefice there by Innocent VIII in 1486 (Picker 1994: 531–2), it seems that his actual appointment to a canonry was blocked for a number of years by the chapter (as had also happened at Tournai), perhaps on grounds of his illegitimacy, resulting in a compensatory canonry at Maastricht in 1489 (ibid.). His personal links with St Gertrude's, however, were clearly strong, as he was named executor of the will of Abbess Marguerite de Langastre, who died on 3 November 1489, using the residue of the late abbess's estate to furnish the church with a large, solid bronze candelabrum, placed in the middle of the choir, as well as a bronze lectern in the shape of an eagle, inscribed in memory of its donor (Lemaire 1848: 140–1). Eventually, after some years as canon, and following another period of resistance from the chapter, De Orto rose to the powerful position of Dean around 1496–7, having openly supported the eventually successful Abbess Isabeau de Herzelles during a contested election with her sister Gertrude in 1494 (Lemaire 1848: 143; Picker 1994: 533–4). Following a period of high-level service at the Habsburg-Burgundian courts of Philip the Fair, Juana and Charles (later Charles V), during which he seems to have retained the position of Dean at St Gertrude's (Meconi 2003: 73–5; Picker 1994: 535–7),13 De Orto apparently returned to Nivelles towards the end of his life, where he died, probably in his seventies, in 1529 (new style). As a senior dignitary, he was accorded a burial within the church, between the altars of St Peter and St Gertrude (Lemaire 1848: 151), and an inscription in his memory is known to have survived in the floor of the choir right up until the fateful bombing raid of May 1940, which destroyed much of the building as well as the statue of Tinctoris in the square outside (see Woodley 2007a: §22–3): 'Hic iacet a mense februario anni 1528 Marbrianus Orto huius ecclesie decanus atque canonicus qui hoc feretro ereo aliisque donis eam decoravit.' The bronze (or brass?) coffer or bier referred to here was the magnificent donation made to the church by De Orto in which the reliquary ('la châsse') of St Gertrude was kept, originally surrounded by a two-metre high ballustrade which opened to allow inspection of the reliquary, but which was later (after the church restoration of 1753) redeployed as a screen between the great choir and sanctuary (Tarlier and Wauters 1862: 123–4; Lemaire 1848: 151). De Orto's coffer survived the World War II bombing, and is still displayed in the transept of the restored church.

[14] This apparent digression into the life of De Orto acts as a preliminary to a further new archival reference that has surfaced during the present research, namely the obit commemoration of De Orto himself in the same calendar as that cited above for Tinctoris, in AEB, MS 30.072, fol. 54v, entered under the date of 24 February (the year given being old style: Plate 4):

'Maistre Marberien de Orto doyen obiit 1528 Trois florins cest a messires pour la moytie xxx patards'

[15] The discovery of this entry has a number of spin-off implications, in addition to its intrinsic worth. As regards dating, the obit commemoration of De Orto on 24 February clearly provides some corroboration for the wording of his tombstone epitaph, given above; in turn (since this appears to be the sole commemoration of De Orto across the year), such a corroboration gives further credence to the assumption that the 9 February commemoration of Tinctoris does indeed reflect his true death-date. De Orto's endowment was clearly considerably more generous than that of Tinctoris – a reflection, no doubt, of the greater wealth accrued though his various benefices (enabled following his formal legitimation by Sixtus IV; see Picker 1994: 531) in the dioceses of Cambrai and his home Tournai, Liège, Antwerp and Brussels, as well as his time served in the Papal Chapel, his Nivelles deanship, and the prestigious posts held at the Habsburg-Burgundian court. The arithmetical calculation of De Orto's obit distribution seems to work on a slightly different basis than the normal 7/12 plus 5/12, since the three florins of income at this point in the accounting process (equivalent to 60 patards) yield 30 patards for distribution rather than the expected 25. The anomaly is clearly intentional – hence the scribe's explicit 'pour la moytie' – and may perhaps reflect a more generous distribution allowed for the more senior figure. (Immediately underneath De Orto's obit entry is the cancelled line 'Encore pour ledit obbit xxvi patards cest a messires x patards xx deniers': see Plate 4 again. The calculation here does follow the 5/12 distribution (one patard being worth 24 deniers), but the wider significance of the cancelled entry is not entirely clear.) This larger endowment, along with the seniority of his position in the chapter, may also help explain why De Orto's obit commemoration persisted much longer than that of Tinctoris through the subsequent history of St Gertrude's. For instance, in a surviving obit calendar from the eighteenth century (AEB, MS 30.073) there is no sign of Tinctoris's obit, the only commemoration on 9 February being that of the late canon 'Reverendus Dominus Franciscus Le Waite' who died in 1668; but that of De Orto is still going strong at this time, and still commemorated on 24 February.

[16] It is noteworthy, too, that De Orto's year of death, 1528 (1529 new style) is consistently repeated throughout the obit records, in contrast to Tinctoris's entry. Certainly the obit calendars seem far from transparent in this respect, when one examines the volumes as a whole: sometimes a year is given – in which case it is usually repeated in subsequent records – and sometimes there appears to be a degree of correlation, again, with relative seniority in the chapter; but occasionally one does find an ordinary canon or canoness accorded a year of decease, for no immediately apparent reason. The absence of Tinctoris's year of death, though, may involve another, geographical factor. One particularly curious feature of the 'comptes des mois', cited above, is that the revenue from Tinctoris's obit foundation only reaches the chapter's monthly accounts for the first time in the year 1515–16. Since we already know that Tinctoris's death took place most likely on 9 February 1511, it seems rather strange that there is no sign of any obit income in the surviving account records for 1512–13, 1513–14, or 1514–15. For whatever reason, it appears to have taken some four years after his death for the chapter to process and administer the financial implications of whatever obit foundation Tinctoris had put in place. Perhaps, indeed – returning to a question raised earlier at §12 – this indicates that its endowment had not been set up in advance, but rather was bound up in the terms of Tinctoris's (so far untraced) last will and testament. Furthermore, one might speculate that the time taken to put this side of his affairs in order (duties which themselves would have fallen in the first place to De Orto as Dean) may have been in part due to his death having taken place in distant, foreign parts. Unlike De Orto, who clearly resided in Nivelles for considerable periods of time during his tenure as Dean,14 and probably sporadically as canon before this, there is absolutely no indication so far that Tinctoris took up residence, or was himself buried, at St Gertrude's.15 On the other hand, surely De Orto and Tinctoris were personally acquainted with each other, and with each other's music, from their experiences in Italy (especially in Rome around the time of Alexander VI's enthronement in 1492), as well as through the Nivelles connection. Indeed, Tinctoris, as canon, would as far as was practicable have been directly involved ex officio in the major deliberations of the chapter, such as the election of Isabeau de Herzelles as Abbess in 1494 for which De Orto so openly campaigned, even if Tinctoris were geographically distant at the time. And one might even suggest that their nearly simultaneous appointments to canonries around 1488–9 may have involved mutual support (as well as, one must assume, support from Rome) in some way, or that Tinctoris may have been consulted, along with the rest of the chapter, regarding De Orto's election as Dean in the later 1490s.

[17] At any rate, contrary to what I suggested at times in earlier studies (e.g. Woodley 1985: 257), one must accept that the weight of evidence, unless this is seriously skewed by current lacunae, is not that Tinctoris returned to Nivelles to live out his last years in his homeland, just down the road from his place of birth – even after his resignation in 1502 from the benefice at St George 'ad mercatum veterem' in Naples – but rather that he stayed in Italy into his old age. And this may also help to explain why a little more than the normal period of six months apparently elapsed between his death on 9 February 1511 and the placet from the Council of Brabant granting possession of his Nivelles canonry to his successor in October of that year. It may be that, having acquired the additional income from the St Gertrude's prebend around 1488–9 as a preparatory move to leaving Ferrante's employment in Naples, he used his apparently successful supplication to the Pope in 1490 for doctoral recognition in canon and civil law as a means of shifting his focus of activity purposely away from front-line music and back to the legal studies of his Orléans training. We musicologists, then, may fare better seeking to uncover more evidence for his final twenty years in this domain, rather than in the normal institutions of musical production.16


Version 1.00: last updated 18.12.07