Gruuthuse manuscript

The Gruuthuse Manuscript contains a collection of 147 songs, 7 prayers and 16 Middle Dutch poems written around 1400. The manuscript originated in Bruges. Around 1400, Bruges was a rich metropolis bustling with trade, music, art and culture. Therefore, we encounter many themes in the texts that deal with life in the city in the late Middle Ages: religion and love, for example, but also subjects such as drunkenness and sex.  

The book in which this was written down is well preserved, complete with notes for the music. However, it was rebound in the 19th century, with the pages cut off on three sides. We know most of the texts from no other source. This makes this manuscript a great source of inspiration for researchers into early Dutch literature.  

Provenance of the Gruuthuse manuscript

Louis of Gruuthuse as knight of the Golden Fleece. Den Haag, KB, KW 76 E 10, fol. 69r

Gruuthuse is not the writer of this manuscript or the composer of the songs in it. It is the name of a soldier and diplomat in the service of the Burgundian court. Around 1460, this Louis van Gruuthuse came into possession of the Middle Dutch manuscript and had his coat of arms placed in the manuscript. A later owner of the book added the name 'Gruythuyse'. The name of the old owner has thus remained part of the manuscript.

Origin and use of the Gruuthuse manuscript

Various writers have worked on the manuscript. It came about in phases. Initially, it had to be a professionally prepared book, with beautifully decorated initials. Within a short time, more and more texts were added to the book, by writers who paid more attention to the content than to the appearance of the book. Some texts come directly from the circles of the authors themselves. There is a good chance that the book was made for and by the poets, musicians and recitation artists whose texts appear in it. The book has also been used intensively within this Bruges cultural elite.

How did the KB obtain this masterpiece?

The manuscript remained in personal possession for 6 centuries. This left researchers with little access to the material. In 2007, the KB managed to purchase the manuscript and immediately published it in full online. The KB received financial support from the Mondriaan Foundation, the VSB Fund, the BankGiro Lottery, the VandenEnde Foundation and the Association of Friends of the Royal Library. In 2015, an exemplary edition of the texts and music in the manuscript was published. As a result, the contents of the medieval book are now optimally accessible to researchers and other interested parties.

Well-known songs, poems and prayers from the collection

The Egidius song

In the best-known song from the collection, the main character is sad about his friend Egidius, who has passed away:

Egidius, waer bestu bleven?
Mi lanct na di, gheselle mijn.
Du coors die doot, du liets mi tleven.
Dat was gheselscap goet ende fijn,
Het sceen ten moeste ghestorven zijn
Nu bidt vor mi, ic moet noch sneven
Ende in de weerelt liden pijn.
Verware mijn stede di beneven:
Ic moet noch zinghen een liedekijn,
Nochtan moet emmer ghestorven sijn. (II, 98)

It translates roughly to:

Egidius, where have you gone? / I long for you, my friend / You died, you left me alive / It was once so good between you and me / but you had to die. / Now pray for me. I must live in sin / and suffer pain in the world. / Save a place for me next to you. / I still have to sing a song, / but one day I have to die.

Egidius is no longer there. He just died. And his friend must live. He is sad about that. The realization that Egidius is saving a place for him next to him gives the poet comfort.

  • Start of the Egidius song, fol. 28

The love song 'Calle'

Many Gruuthuse songs and poems are about love. Sometimes they are about desperate lovers and their unattainable loved ones. And sometimes the songs seem to describe real encounters between lovers. For example, in the following song in which the first letters of the lines together form the name 'Calle', then a form of Katelijne:

C om haer te mi, mijns hertzen vrouwe,
A n dir so staen de zinnen mijn.
L iever wijf ic niewer scouwe.
L aet dir genoughen mijn jonstlijc pijn
E nde doet mir dienen troost anschijn) (II,31

(Come quickly, my Heartbreaker, to me, / All my feelings are for you. / Dear, always the dearest, my secret / Love-is-suffering, never repent / And comfort me visibly, my Madam!)

Gruuthuse songs about sex

The Gruuthuse manuscript also makes fun of sex. In the song 'I have a scuerdeur open staen' (II, 86) the first character sees Brother Lollaert and Sister Lute making love in a barn:

Mettien slopic ter duren in
Al achter eenen corentas
Daer hoordic dat dat zusterkijn
Den cokerduunschen zouter las
Beede laghen zi int vlas
De cueule die daer vpperst was
Die docht mi drauen als een paert (II,86)

(Immediately I crept through the door / behind a sheaf of wheat. / There I heard that the little sister / was reading the 'Koverduins' psalm book. / They were both lying in the flax. / The brother who lay highest there / seemed to me to be trotting like a horse.)

The prayer 'Sonder smette saliche rose'

Daily life in medieval Bruges was mainly determined by the Catholic Church. Maria appears frequently in the Gruuthuse manuscript. She is compared to a rose and other flowers or to a fountain overflowing with grace. The most important Marian text in the manuscript is the adaptation of the Latin prayer 'Salve Regina', now called: 'Sonder smette saliche rose' (I,5). This prayer has 256 verses. The initial letters of the prayer together form the lyrics of the original song.

  • Start of the prayer 'Sonder smette saliche rose', adaptation of the Latin prayer 'Salve Regina', fol. 6r.

Did you know...

There are a lot of 'Gruuthuse manuscripts'? Lodewijk van Gruuthuse owned a large collection of books, which was spread across various libraries in Europe and the United States. A large number of his books ended up in Paris. These are usually showpieces, with miniatures, lots of gold and other decorations, written in Latin or French. The manuscript in the KB is barely decorated and is written in Middle Dutch. To distinguish it from the other 'Gruuthuse manuscripts', a better name for it would be 'Egidius manuscript'. Because there is only 1!

Huygens ING, in collaboration with the KB, made an interesting video about the Gruuthuse manuscript, which can be viewed here.

Browse the Gruuthuse manuscript online

You can browse this masterpiece online. Images of this book are available via Wikimedia Commons. You will find this masterpiece in the KB catalogue under request number KW 79 K 10.

Poets working with the Gruuthuse manuscript

During Museumnacht Den Haag 2022 the KB asked 6 poets to work with the Gruuthuse manuscript. They made their own interpretation of the of the multilingualism that plays such a major role in this manuscript. You can see the videos here.

Read more about the Gruuthuse manuscript

The following books about the Gruuthuse manuscript can be viewed in the reading room of the KB:

Want to know more?

Ed van der Vlist
Conservator medieval manuscripts