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The Ranworth Antiphoner

When I was growing up in the village I never heard much talk about this ancient manuscript. It was kept on a shelf in the priest's room and I remember being shown a photograph of the vicar rescuing this huge book from a fire in the church back in the 1960's. Today it is on permanent display in the church providing a fabulous example of visual story telling. It wasn't until the present vicar asked me to photograph the illuminations that I fully realised the remarkable use of line to express character.

Written in Medieval Latin, it contains psalms, hymns, and antiphons (responsory sentences) set to plain song for the 7 daily services sung by clerks in parish churches throughout the year. These services followed the Sarum (Salisbury) pattern, which was used in most of Southern England and the Midlands from thirteenth century until 1549. It also contains a calendar with added inscriptions linking the Antiphoner to Ranworth’s church and leading families.

The Ranworth Antiphoner was taken away during the reign of Edward VI (1547-1553). Instead of being burnt, it was probably hidden in a Catholic household. It re-appeared in the nineteenth century, when it was purchased by the banker and book collector Frederick Huth, who rebound it. Following his death it was put back on the market, and was noticed in the saleroom window by Brigadier Holdich, who recognised his ancestors’ names in the calendar and its connection with Ranworth. It was purchased for St. Helen’s Church Ranworth in 1911 by my great grandfather, John Cator. Before the sixteenth century Reformation, every parish church in England would have possessed at least one antiphoner. Today, 550 years later, only Ranworth retains its antiphoner in the church for which it was originally intended.

A charming nativity scene portraying general bewilderment at the Christ child on his bed of straw-turned-to-gold. Two characterful shepherds stare incredulously over the manger-boards; the third, not yet even inside the stable, shakes his head in such disbelief that his hat topples off.

The coming of the wise men at Epiphany. Here they are depicted as King's bearing gifts. Note the tiled floor and the domestic setting. What I find interesting is the look of indifderence in the faces of the Kings.

Clerks and a young novice singing from a service book on a cantor's desk.

Jonah, calmed perhaps by God's benign expression, prays as the 'pike like' fish disgorges him on to the shore. Locally we refer to this illumination as Jonah and the big fish.

Feast of Corpus Christi illumination. This celebration took place on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday and shows a priest elevating a consecrated host during mass while the deacon and sub deacon support the weight of his blue chastibule. I love the slightly mischievous look in the face of the deacon.

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