Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cotton, John (12th cent.?)

COTTON, JOHN (12th cent.?), is the author of a valuable treatise on music, first printed by Gerbert in 1784. Of this work there are two manuscripts at Vienna, and one each at Leipzig, Paris, Rome, and Antwerp. A sixth, from which Gerbert printed his edition, was destroyed in the fire at St. Blasien in 1768. The Vatican copy is said by Fetis to contain much the best text. The exact date of the treatise is unknown. The Vienna and St. Blasien copies entitle it merely ‘Joannis Musica,’ while the Paris and Antwerp copies have the name of Cotton or Cottonius. The anonymous monk of Melk who wrote the work (De Script. Eccles.) quoted by Gerbert, says that there was a learned English musician known as Joannes, and the English origin of the work is rendered more probable by the author's dedicating it ‘Domino et patri suo venerabili Anglorum antistiti Fulgentio,’ though the latter, like Cotton, cannot be identified. One theory attributes the work to Pope John XXII (1410–1417), but this rests on the very slight foundation that the author styles himself ‘Joannes servus servorum Dei.’ Gerbert has pointed out that this title was not solely used by popes, besides which it is improbable that a supreme pontiff would address Fulgentius in the deferential manner adopted by the author. The work is also clearly of earlier date, for it speaks of neums being in ordinary use at the time of writing. Another theory ascribes it to a certain Joannes Scolasticus, a monk of the monastery of St. Matthias at Trèves, all that is known of whom is that he was living about 1047, and that he wrote much music, but there seems to be no reason why the work should not have been written by the unknown Englishman, John Cotton. From internal evidence its date appears to be the latter part of the eleventh or beginning of the twelfth century. On the system of harmony of the period the whole work throws much light.

[Gerbert's Scriptores Ecclesiastici de Musica Sacra, 1784, tom. ii.; A. de la Fage's Essais de Dipthérographie Musicale, 1864; Coussemaker's Histoire de l'Harmonie au Moyen Age, 1852; Fétis's Biographie des Musiciens, vol. ii.; Ambros's Geschichte der Musik, ii. 192.]

W. B. S.