Dr James Merryweather

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 Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of New Brunswick.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.

Neckam: a mystery solved

Professor Richard Rastall

A long-standing problem in wait-history has been the apparent first use of “wait” in England, by Alexander Neckam (1157-1217), reportedly in his book De naturis rerum (On the Nature of Things). Unfortunately, as James Merryweather noted in his essay “Neckham” on this website, the quotation could not be found, and the use of the word therefore could not be verified.

The quotation does in fact exist, and it is by Neckam – but not in De naturis rerum, which was perhaps cited in error because it is his most famous work. The sentence occurs in another Neckam book, his vocabulary De nominibus utensilium (On the Names of Things). This is available in an edition by Thomas Wright, A Volume of Vocabularies (privately printed, 1857), pp. 96-119. There, on p. 106, is the quotation at issue (the comma is presumably Wright’s):

Assint etiam excubie vigiles, cornibus suis strepitum et clangorem et sonitum facientes.

This is not without its problems, but I am grateful to Dr William Flynn for offering the following translation:

Let the night watches be at hand with their horns making harsh, ringing and loud noise.

Neckam must have written this work c1183-c1200, but the copy used by Wright as his base text (British Library Cotton MS Titus D xx, ff. 3r-50v) dates from the second half of the 13th century. This copy, alone of the surviving MSS, includes interlinear glosses in Anglo-Norman, which must therefore date from no later than the second half of the 13th century. In the sentence that concerns us, glosses are written for the following words: “veytes” above “excubie”; “veliables” above “vigils”; “noyse” above “strepitum”; “noyse” again above “clangorem”; and “sun” above “sonitum”. This explains the bracketed “(veytes)” written by 20th-century wait-historians after “excubie”: it is a 13th-century gloss.

The use of “veytes” here seems consistent with the next-known early use of the word, which occurs in London’s Letter Book A under date 1286-7 (see Records of Early English Drama: Civic London to 1558, volume I, p. 3). According to this, each of the city’s gates was to be guarded by two armed men during the day; and at night they were to be closed by the servants living there; and each of those servants was to have a wait (vnum woyte) at his own expense. Since the outdoor watchman used a horn for signalling the approach of someone to the gate, or to raise the hue and cry, it seems that the man is meant, not an instrument. The French word for a watchman, guet, was taken into English as “wait”, of which these are early examples.

Although it is pleasant to make progress with a problem of this sort, this unfortunately makes no difference to the history of the town waits. The Neckam quotation is entirely irrelevant to civic musicians, pipers or indeed any kind of minstrel, since these “waits” were not musical, and their watching duties did not lead to the very different duties of the civic minstrels. The same is true of the London example.

Richard Rastall: December 2015