New Brunswick

N.B. Museum archivist discovers 'spooky' songbook in basement library

It could be the opening scene of a horror movie. A young archivist ventures into the dark basement of the museum library and stumbles across a stained and tattered book covered with symbols of death.

Officium Defunctorum contains chants sung hundreds of years ago on All Souls Day for the repose of the dead

The cover art includes symbols often used as reminders of the impermanence of life. (Julia Wright/CBC)

It could be the opening scene of a horror movie.

A young archivist ventures into the dark basement of the museum library where he's acting as manager and stumbles across a stained and tattered book covered with symbols of death — crossed bones, an hourglass, a scythe, a snake eating its tail.

Inside the book is what appears to be a Latin incantation. The music is written in a weird way. The notes are square and the staff has only four lines.

Officium Defunctorum, it says at the top of the page. Office of the Dead.

Should he dare to utter the words on the paper, you might imagine the next scene would show a torrent of spirits being unleashed.

"This is definitely the thing that you don't read on Halloween while you're alone in the basement," said Nathan Gavin, acting manager at the New Brunswick Museum's Archives and Research Library.

"I've watched too many horror movies to pull the trigger on that one."

Frightful find for any horror-loving bibliophile

2 years ago
Duration 2:32
New Brunswick Museum archivist stumbles upon centuries-old book, Officium Defunctorum, or Office of the Dead.

All kidding aside, Gavin knows this is exactly the thing that was read, or sung, around All Souls Day, Nov. 2, a couple of hundred years ago.

He was a student in history, religious studies and music at St. Thomas University and has been working in the heritage sector for several years. 

This book was part of a "prayer cycle of canonical hours," he said, meaning a set of prayers chanted at different times of day for the repose of the souls of the dead.

Words may be familiar 

Page one is a morning invitation, or Ad Matutinum.

The words, or at least their English translations, will be familiar to many modern-day churchgoers.

Regem, cui omnia vivunt, Venite adoremus / The King, unto whom all things do live, come let us adore.

Venite exultemus Domino, iubilemus Deo salutari / Come let us rejoice unto our Lord, let us make joy to God our saviour

The term "office" was used because it was part of an "official" set of prayers.

The musical notation is monophonic, said Gavin, one line of melody with no harmony or chords, typical of something like a Gregorian chant.

Some other sections in the book are titled ad laudes (to praise), ad missam (to mass), responsorium (in reply), and pro defunctis (for the dead).

Nathan Gavin carefully opens the Office of the Dead book at the New Brunswick Museum library, believed to date back to the late 1700s. (Julia Wright/CBC)

The songs "don't line up with any of the other more popular" Officium Defunctora Gavin has seen.

He believes it was a personal, handwritten copy that belonged to the father of the woman who donated it to the museum around 1925. 

Thomas Morley was born around 1845, said Gavin, in Oxford, England, and moved to Saint John in 1887.

Morley was an organist at the Anglican Mission Church on Paradise Row. That church stood approximately across from where Brenan's Funeral Home is today but was torn down in the late 1960s as part of a North End renewal project, Gavin said.

Could have been made in 1790s

Morley was also the conductor for the Oratorio Society and the Rothesay Choral Club.

The book itself likely had a previous owner, said Gavin.

"When you hold the pages up to the light, you can see the watermarks and oftentimes those watermarks would have dates on them or the years that they were made.

"We suspect this dates back to the late 1790s."

More than its age, what really makes the book stand out to Gavin is "the dichotomy" between the religious texts within and the secular and pagan cover art.

The first page is a chant sung early in the day. (Julia Wright/CBC)

"I've never seen anything like this before," he said.

Gavin isn't sure why a religious man like Morely would own a book with that kind of symbolism.

"Honestly, it's odd," he said.

But he has some theories.

Most of the symbols are likely memento mori, he said.

"These are symbols to remind folks that death is inevitable, death is something for everybody," Gavin said. "That is something that you do see in a lot of Christian readings and writings.

"Memento mori was all the rage throughout the 19th century."

He feels the artist likely took inspiration from that concept.

"The crossed bones, the hourglass and the scythe all make sense under this explanation."

Can only speculate about tail-eating snake

But the snake eating its tail, called an ouroboros, with origins in both Egyptian mythology and Norse mythology, presents "a bit of a conundrum," Gavin said.

"It's usually used as a symbol of rebirth, of regrowth. I think it still flows in the same thought pattern of the artist, but it may just have been misguided or based in mild ignorance."

It may all seem a little "spooky" from a modern cultural perspective, said Gavin, but the symbols held different meaning back then.

"This was probably more comforting for them than it is for us."

With files from Information Morning Saint John