Discussion Essays

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Assint etiam excubiæ vigiles (veytes) cornibus suis strepitum et clangorum facientes.

Let there be watchmen (waits) on guard making a loud noise and din with their horns.

De Naturis Rerum. Alexander Neckam, Abbott of Cirencester (1157-1217)

The above is alleged to be the earliest reference to waits, providing evidence of their ancient connection with watchmen. Until I have seen it in its original context, I have grave doubts.

Anon. (1915). The Waits. Notes on their origin and history. In: Hill, AF ed. (1915) and republished by Crewdson, HAF ed. (1971) in The Worshipful Company of Musicians. 162-173.

Bridge, JC (1928). Town waits and their tunes. Proc. Br. Mus. Assoc. 63-92.

The passage above was quoted, inadequately referenced, in Hill, 1915 and repeated by Crewdson (1971).
It was copied verbatim by Bridge, 1928 (who said he got it from Hill).
Langwill, 1952, quoted it again, but with a slightly different introduction and translation:
Assint etiam excubiæ vigiles (veytes) cornibus suis strepitum et clangorum facientes.

Let there also be on guard watchmen (waits) making a loud noise upon their horns.

Langwill, L (1952). The Waits. A short history. Hinrichson's Musical Year Book. vol. VII. 170-183.

also quoted by Janssen, Carole Ann (1978). The waytes of Norwich and renaissance civic pageantry. Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of New Brunswick. who says: "Quoted in Eric Blom, ed., Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 5th ed. (London: Macmillan & Co., Ltd., 1954), IX, 127. I have been unable to locate this reference in De Naturis Rerum".

The Passage. Bridge states that he copied this Neckam passage from Hill (and they are identical), but neither gives a full reference. Langwill does not give his source and his reference is no more informative. What I'd like to know is its location and context in De Naturis Rerum. After carefully scanning every page more than once (also De laudibus divinae sapientiae just in case), I have failed to find the passage in the edition I've been looking at (ed. Thomas Wright, Longman, London, 1863. Morrell Q42 BRI 8 vol. 34 Quarto), and I can't find anything to suggest that Neckam ever put words or passages in parentheses. Janssen (1979) also looked and failed to find the passage. James Cummings has also tried and failed. Wright quotes several different copies that he worked from and there are some minor differences, e.g. different spellings and word changes.

veytes. Could it be that "(veytes)" has been copied from an edition/copy, produced later than the mss. worked from by Wright, and in which "(veytes)" is an editorial addition/clarification? As far as I can ascertain, there has only ever been the Rolls edition (Wright) anyway. I have never before encountered waits spelled with a "v", although in Germanic languages, "w" and "v" are the interchangeable. A very convenient example in this discussion would be Watch (English), Wächter (German), Vakter (Swedish) and Vekter (Norwegian).

I'd like to consider the passage without "(veytes)" as a reasonable quotation of Neckam's original text but, I get the feeling that this much quoted passage is either erroneously attributed to Neckam or is entirely bogus! Until it's found again, I would never quote it without careful qualification. Even if the passage does exist and Neckam has mentioned late 12th century watchmen and their use of the horn for signalling, we can assume no more. There is no evidence in this passage for watchmen-musicians or, more specifically, waits.