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les Enluminures

Choir Book (Gradual)

In Latin, stenciled book on paper
Belgium, Hainaut (Wisbecq, Brugelette), dated August 2, 1769

TM 1023
  • 8 800 €
  • £7,900
  • $10,000

 v + [172 pages = 86 folios] + v, original pagination 1-100,i-lxxii, top outer corner recto (cited here), watermark fleur-de-lys with crown and cross with an additional mark below (a “VI”?), a variety of the widely disseminated Strasbourg Lily, complete, collation impracticable due to the tightness of the binding, no catchwords or signatures, ruled in lead (aligned with the lines of text), single full-length vertical bounding lines (justification 470-458 x 262 mm.), created by means of stencils with up to twelve four-line red staves and twelve lines of text (some pages with fewer staves), text based on Roman type, square musical notation, red running titles, rubrics in various sizes in two shades of red, paper fore-edge tabs throughout (a bit tattered), flyleaves soiled, otherwise very fine condition.  ORIGINAL CALF BINDING blind-tooled with three sets of triple fillets framing a floral and palmette border and a retangular center panel with fleurons at each corner, large ornate openwork gilt metal corner pieces and central ornament, brass clasps and catches, brass fore edge protectors, two metal catches, fastens back front, spine with seven raised bands, remnants of white paper bookmarks on fore edge, modern red cloth case, slightly rubbed, spine expertly repaired, in very good condition.  Dimensions 525 x 360 mm.

This complete Gradual in its original binding was made for a historic convent of nursing and teaching sisters in Belgium just thirty years before the suppression of monasteries during the French Revolution. Containing songs for the mass, this enormous volume was made as large as possible to ensure that the community could gather to sing from it.  Its elegant script and immaculate notation were created using hand stencils, a process increasingly recognized for its craft and ingenuity. Securely dated with established provenance, this is an important example of a stenciled liturgical document created on the eve of the Revolution.


1. Made by Jean Baptiste Lebeau, the director of the Gray Sisters of Wisbecq in Brugellete as stated on the title page; completed on August 2, 1769 (dated at the end on p. lxii).

Wisbecq, a hamlet in Hainaut, Belgium, near Brugelette, was the site of a hostel dedicated to St. Nicholas since the thirteenth century, caring for travelers who were poor and ill.  The Soeurs grises hospitalières (the Gray Hospital Sisters) of the Third Order of St. Francis were established there in 1406; in 1435-1436, Quentine de Jauche, daughter of the seigneur de Mastaing, donated a new convent building to the nuns, and the Order prospered, founding daughter houses in Picardy and Flanders.  By 1478, the house had grown to 120 sisters.  In 1483, the chapter establishing the general statutes of this nursing order was held in Wisbecq (Lemaire, 1911).  In 1626 they adopted the Rule of the Penitents-Recollects of Limbourg and were cloistered.  The sisters ran a school for young girls of the region, and as late as 1787 had twenty-four boarders (Mahy, p. 26-7).  They also provided hospitality to poor travellers, and nursed the sick.  At the time of the supression, there were twenty-two nuns (Mahy, 35).  After the expulsion of the nuns in 1798, the hospital served as a retirement home, before becoming a Jesuit college from 1835 to 1854. When the Sisters of the Infant Jesus of Nivelles bought back the building, they made it into an orphanage.  The old buildings of the convent now house the Sainte-Gertrude institution, serving the disabled.

2. Erased dealer’s notes, inside front cover; inside back cover in pencil, “40699.”


[title page, f. iv], Graduel Romain a l’Usage des Religieuses Soeurs Grises de Wisbecq en Brugelette Fait par Monsieur Jean Baptiste Lebeau Directeur Desdittes Religieuses;

[f. v], Antiphona, incipit, “Asperges me Dominie hysopo …”; Tempore paschali Antiphona, incipit, “Aperges me etc., Vidi aquam …”;

pp. 1-62, Proprium Missarum de Tempore Dominca Prima Adventus, introitus, incipit, “Ad te levavi …”;

Temporale from the first Sunday in Advent through the twenty-eighth Sunday after Pentecost (through the twenty-third Sunday in full, and with the final Sundays indicated in brief, “Dominica xxiv xxv xxvi xxvii et xviii ut supra.”; Corpus Christi with the Sequence, “Lauda sion salvatore.”

pp. 63-97, Proprium Missarum de Sanctis, …; [pp. 98-100, blank with red staves].

Sanctorale from Andrew (30 November)-S. Catharine (25 November); organized by month, with headings that include the day; including: 3 December, Francis Xavier; 4 December, Francis Chrisologus; 29 January, Francis of Sales, 31 January, Peter Nolasco; 4 February, Andrew Corsinus; 7 February, Romuladus; 8 February, John of Matha; 8 March, Johannes de deo; 2 April, Francis de Paola; May 7, Stanislaus; June 6, Norbert; July 12, Gualbert; August 3, Ignatius; 7 August, Cajetan; 30 August, Rose of Lima; October 4, Francis; 15 October, Theresa; and 15 November, Gertrude.

pp. i-xxi, Commune Sanctorum, concluding with the Anniversary of a Dedication of a Church;

pp. xxii-xxxv, Votive Masses for the Trinity, Holy Spirit, Sacrament, Cross, Virgin Mary, Pro sponso et sponsa, pro defunctis;

pp. xxxvi-lvii, Settings of the Kyrie, Gloria, Benedicamus, Qui tollis, Amen, Patrem omnipotentem, Sanctus;

pp. lviii-lx, Aliud Credo Ad Libitum;

pp. lxi-lxiii, Supplementum ad Graduale Romanum;

Including: In festo expectationis BMV, 18 December; John of Nepomuk, 16 May; Ferdinand III, king of Castille, 30 May; Aloysius Gonzaga, 21 June; [p. lxiv, blank];

pp. lxv-lxxii, Missae Propriae Sanctorum Ordinis Minorum …, [concluding] FINIS, 2. Augusti 1769.

Including, In festo impressionis sacrorum Stigmatum in corpore S.P.N. Francisci and In festo S. P. N. Francisci.

This book is a Gradual, the volume that contains the sung portions of the Mass, the Introit, Gradual, and Alleluia, all with square musical notation.  In contents, musical notation, and size, it is a direct ancestor of the Choir Books which were copied from the thirteenth century into the modern era, centuries after the invention of printing.  Large, and sometimes even giant volumes, these books were large enough that a whole group of singers could share a single volume.  Our volume is eighteenth century, and even at this late date, it is noteworth that the liturgy of the Catholic Church was not static or complete uniform; it includes two “supplementary” sections, incuding more recent feasts (Suplementum ad Gradulae Romanum), and feasts particular to the Franciscan Order.

At first glance, one might assume that this volume is a manuscript.  The script, however, although it is clearly not produced by type face, is also not written by hand, and it was in fact produced by a stencil.  The stenciled letters can be recognized by the small breaks in the body of the letter (stencil-templates must avoid contiguous shapes that would cause them to fall apart).  Stenciled manuscripts are curious hybrids. They are unique items, like handwritten manuscripts, but were produced with a mechanical aid, and in that sense are more like printed books. Stenciled liturgical books, many of the Choir Books with musical notation, often made in monastic settings, are known from the mid seventeenth century until the latter decades of the nineteenth century, and in some cases later. This practice probably began in France, and then spread around Catholic western and southern Europe, including the Low Countries (presently francophone Belgium), Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, and Portugal, and possibly even Mexico. One example has been identified in England (I thank Mr. Eric Kindel for sharing his research, in correspondence, 2012). In Germany in the monasteries around Mainz were known for their stenciled books (see Schreiber, 1927; Gottron, 1938; Rodrigues, 1973; and Rosenfeld, 1973).  Numerous stenciled books were also produced in France (François, 2010; O’Meara, 1933).

Gilles Filleau des Billettes composed an extensive account of the process for the “Description des Arts et Métiers” of the French Royal Academy of Science c. 1700 (edited in Kindel, 2013). In his description he suggests the practice was created by someone (name unknown) c. 1650, and specifically mentions that books for particular churches were written in this way, as opposed to printed books used more generally by the whole church (“C’est celui par lequel on écrit les plus beaux livres d’églises particulières qui n’ont pas besoin d’être autant répandus que ceux qu’on imprime pour l’usage général du clergé ...”; quoted by François, 2010). Another early historian of these books, Fischer van Waldheim, writing c. 1800, suggested that they were invented by a Trappist monk in 1674. 


Cornet, L.-J. “Les anciennes communautés franciscaines de femmes dans le belgique wallonne soumise aux récollets de la province de la Flandre,” Analectes Pour Servir À L'histoire Ecclésiastique De La Belgique 8 (1864), pp. 451-499, at pp. 470-471.

François, Claude-Laurent. “Les lettres réalisées au pochoir,” in Histoire de l’écriture typographique, de Gutenberg à nos jours, volume 2.1, Le XVIIIe siècle, ed. Yves Perrousseaux, Gap, Atelier Perrousseaux, 2011, pp. 48-77.                  

Gottron, Adam. “Beiträge zur Geschichte der kirchenmusikalischen Schalbonendrücke in Mainz,” Gutenberg-Jahrbuch (1938), pp. 187-93.

Harper, J. The Forms and Orders of Western Liturgy from the Tenth to the Eighteenth Century: A Historical Introduction and Guide for Students and Musicians, Oxford, 1991.

Hiley, D. Western Plainchant: A Handbook, Cambridge and New York, 1995.

Hughes, A. Medieval Manuscripts for Mass and Office: A Guide to their Organization and Terminology, Toronto, 1982.

Huglo, M. Les livres de chant liturgique, Turnhout, 1988.

Huglo, M. Chant grégorien et musique médiévale, Aldershot, 2005.

Kindel, Eric. “Recollecting Stencil Letters,” Typography Papers 5 (2003), pp. 65-101.

Kindel, Eric. “A Reconstruction of Stencilling Based on the Description by Gilles Filleau des Billettes,” with two appendices by Fred Smeijers, Typography Papers 9 (December, 2013).

Kindel, Eric, ed. “The Description of Stencilling by Gilles Filleau des Billettes: Transcription and Translation,” Typography Papers 9 (December, 2013).

Lemaire, Henri. “Statuts des Religieuses du Tiers Ordre Franciscain Dites Soeurs Grises Hospitalieres (1483),” Archivum Franciscanum Historicum 4 (1913), pp. 713-731, at p. 719

Mahy, L. Le couvent de Wisbecq en Brugelette, Brussels, 1919.

Maillard-Luypaert, Monique. Papauté, Clercs Et Laïcs: Le diocèse de Cambrai à l’épreuve du grand schism d’occident (1378-1417), Brussels, 2001, p. 99, note. 25.

Mosley, James. “A Note on Gilles Filleau des Billettes,” Typography Papers 9 (December, 2013).

O’Meara, Eva Judd. “Notes on Stencilled Choir-Books,” Gutenberg-Jahrbuch (1933), pp. 169-85.

Platelle, Henri, Alain Lottin, Louis Trénard, and Pierre Pierrard. Histoire des diocèses de Cambrai et de Lille, Paris, 1978.

Online Resources

Institut d'Enseignement Secondaire Sainte-Gertrude de Brugelette

TM 1023