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Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

Introduction

What do Magna Carta, Beowulf and the world's oldest Bibles have in common? They are all cared for by the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section. This blog publicises our digitisation projects and other activities. Follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval. Read more

22 July 2017

Job opportunities with the England and France 700-1200 Project

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We are pleased to announce that the British Library is recruiting for two new positions for The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200. Both positions are full time, fixed term positions, for 1 year, in the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section of the Western Heritage Department. Full details of the posts and how to apply can be found on bl.uk/careers.

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Page with St Mark  holding an empty scroll, from the Sherborne Cartulary which also contains account of the Passion by the four Evangelists, 2nd quarter of the 12th century, England (Sherborne), Add MS 46487, f. 43v.

The British Library is collaborating with the Bibliothèque nationale de France to enhance access to and promote 800 pre-1200 manuscripts, half of which are held by each Library. In addition to digitising and cataloguing 400 pre-1200 illuminated manuscripts held at the British Library, we will also create a new interpretative website to highlight and interpret some of the exceptional manuscripts in the project.

(1) England and France 700-1200 Project Cataloguer and Researcher (Reference COL 01328)

The first new role is for a Project Cataloguer and Researcher. This post is to catalogue and research the manuscripts in the project and enhance existing catalogue records. Other tasks will include the preparation of short summaries of the digitised manuscripts to be placed on the interpretative website. Further responsibilities may include preparing blog posts, checking and publishing images, answering enquiries, presenting medieval manuscripts to specialist and non-specialist audiences, and other activities promoting the project. Full details and how to apply for Project Cataloguer and Researcher.

(2) Curatorial Web Officer, The Polonsky England and France Project (Reference COL 01360)

The second position is for a Curatorial Web Officer. This post is to process, edit and prepare articles, manuscript descriptions and images of selected project manuscripts for the interpretative website, and to assist in the selection and description of images and the uploading of them on the website. The website will also include several films about the manuscripts in the project, and this post-holder will assist in the organisation for and scripting of those films, at least one of which will be animated. The duties of this position may also include the promotion of the website and project through blogs and presentations for researchers and general audiences. Full details and how to apply for Curatorial Web Officer.

Both positions are one year, fixed term contracts, beginning in September 2017, dependent on the necessary security clearances being obtained. The positions are only open to applicants with the right to work in the UK.

The deadline for both applications is 16 August 2017.

The interviews for the Cataloguer and Researcher will be held on 4 September 2017 and for the Curatorial Web Officer on 5 September 2017. The selection processes may include questions about the date and origin of a particular manuscript to be shown at the interview, and a short written exercise.


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Bede, De temporum ratione, beginning of the prologue in a manuscript made either in Northern France or in England in the 11th or 12th century; Royal MS 13 A XI, f. 30v.

Tuija Ainonen

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19 July 2017

Matthew Paris and His Abbreviated Chronicle of England

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If you're interested in medieval English history, you may at some stage have come across the works of Matthew Paris. A monk of St Albans in Hertfordshire, Matthew Paris (c. 1200–1259) wrote his chronicles of the history of England over several decades, constantly revising and updating his information; he is also thought to have drawn the majority of the illustrations. King Henry III (reigned 1216–1272) visited St Albans no less than nine times between 1250 and Matthew’s death in 1259, and we can presume that Henry hoped to be favourably represented in Matthew Paris's writings.

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Self portrait of Matthew Paris from the Historia Anglorum, Royal  MS 14 C VII, f. 6r

The British Library has recently digitised a manuscript containing some of Matthew Paris's historical writings: an abbreviated version of his Chronica Majora ('Great History') and Historia Anglorum ('History of England'), found in Cotton MS Claudius D VI. This shortened version, which focuses primarily on the period between 1066 and Matthew’s day, is known as the Abbreviatio chronicorum Angliae ('Abbreviated Chronicle of England'). Not only was this chronicle written by Matthew, but it is likely that he was responsible for many of the accompanying illustrations.

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The most recent kings of England in Matthew’s time, from L-R, top-bottom: Henry II, Richard I (‘the Lionheart’), John I (‘Lackland’) and Henry III, Cotton MS Claudius D VI, f. 9v 

The Abbreviated Chronicle of England begins with thirty-two drawings of the kings of England, including legendary rulers such as King Arthur. The first king was believed to be Brutus of Troy, a mythical ruler descended from the Trojan warrior Aeneas, who sailed to Britain and established a ruling dynasty. Upon his death, the kingdom was divided between his three sons: Locrinus ruled England, Albanactus ruled Scotland (Albany), and Camber ruled Wales. King Henry III believed that he shared the blood of Trojan heroes and demigods. 

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King Brutus of Troy and his three sons (clockwise): Albanactus, Camber and Locrinus, Cotton MS Claudius D VI, f. 6r

This style of images is known as ‘tinted drawings’, in reference to the delicate coloured washes used to accent drawings outlined in dark ink, rather than opaque paint. Matthew Paris was so closely associated with this technique that tinted drawings of this period came to be called ‘School of St Albans’ or ‘School of Matthew Paris’ in later art historical writing. This nomenclature was subsequently discontinued, when it was proved that this style was actually widespread in England at the time.

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Map of Britain, Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1 (formerly f. 12v of Cotton MS Claudius D VI)

Perhaps the most well-known part of this manuscript is a full-page map of Britain, which is now kept separately as Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1. We have discussed this map and the other maps drawn by Matthew Paris in the blogposts Our Favourite Map and Medieval Maps of the Holy Land.

The Abbreviated Chronicle of England was left unfinished, possibly due to Matthew Paris’s death in May or June of 1259. A later monk of St Albans, known as William Rishanger, continued the chronicle until the year 1293, and the manuscript also contains other historical writings. We're delighted that you can now look at the manuscript in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site (and we hope that Matthew Paris would have been pleased, too).

Taylor McCall

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16 July 2017

The future is in the Moon

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On this day in 1969, Apollo 11 was launched to take the first men to the Moon. For many medieval men and women, the idea of a journey beyond Earth’s atmosphere would have rocked their worldview: they saw mankind as part of the ‘sub-lunar sphere’, a world where nature is temporal, changing and corruptible. The Moon and other celestial bodies, on the other hand, were thought to inhabit a region where nature is eternal, permanent and incorruptible. A journey to the Moon would have seemed  all the more impossible because of the solid, impenetrable spheres through which the celestial bodies were thought to travel. If you are wondering how comets were accounted for: they were explained as atmospheric phenomena only!  

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Medieval Cosmology from England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Egerton 2781, f. 1v

Classical writings and translated Arabic sources (from the 12th century onwards) nurtured the belief that the celestial bodies exert a strong influence on the sub-lunar world — both on elements and human bodies — to such a degree that they determine the outcome of daily activities and events. This belief resulted in a variety of astrological writings that provided predictions about future events (prognostications) based on the positions of the celestial bodies. Especially popular among these writings were ‘lunaries’ or ‘moonbooks’. An example of such a lunary is the Middle English verse text The Dayes of the Mone. It presents prognostications for each of the days of the synodic month: the period between two consecutive new moons that alternately has 29 and 30 days. The text, extant in the 15th-century medical and astrological miscellanies Harley MS 2320 and Harley MS 1735, helps readers determine for each day of the lunar month whether the Moon's position makes it into a good or a bad day for bloodletting, buying and selling, travelling, finding lost possessions, and for being born. For example, the text tells us that a child that is born today (16 July, the 23th day of a lunar month) will become ‘a good clerk’.

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The Dayes of the Mone, England, 1st quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 2320, f. 31r

Users of lunaries had a need for diagrams and devices that could help them keep track of the lunar months. An example can be found in a mid-15th-century German manuscript (Additional MS 17987), where a lunary is preceded by a diagram that shows the phases of the Moon.

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A diagram with the Moon's phases, Germany, 1446, Additional MS 17987, ff. 49v-50r

Perhaps a unique example of a ‘lunary device’ may be found in a series of four paper wheels that are sewn into parchment disks inscribed with Middle Dutch biblical citations and the year ‘1585’ (Additional MS 21549). Its function is not entirely clear, but its contents suggest that it may have been used for determining favourable days for praying for the souls of the dead.

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A Middle Dutch Lunary Device ? Netherlands, 1585, Additional MS 21549

The large wheel records the 30 days of a lunar month and cites Sirach 27:12: ‘A holy man continues in wisdom as the sun: but a fool is changed as the Moon’. The small disk in the large disk’s upper right corner allows the user to record whether a synodic month has 29 or 30 days. The wheel in the left-hand corner, numbered from 1 until 9, cites Proverbs 10:7: ‘The memory of the just is with praises’. Perhaps this wheel was used to track a period of 9 months of prayer — a so-called novena — for the souls of the dead. A separate fourth wheel, numbered from 1 until 14, states that it is holy to pray for the dead. Maybe it helped users to track the period of 14 days from the lunar month’s New Moon until its Full Moon, which may have been the preferred day for prayer.

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Another view of Additional MS 21549

Another unique device can be found in a 15th-century German ‘Book of Fate’ (Additional MS 25435). This book provides answers to questions related to a variety of subjects (‘hope’, ‘happiness’, ‘dreams’, ‘wealth’, etc.) provided by 28 Old Testament prophets. These prophets should be consulted on specific days of the sidereal month: a period of time that is based on the Moon's passage through 28 segments of the zodiac (lunar mansions). In order to establish which prophet a reader should turn to for advice and on what day, the reader first needs to work his or her way to four tables with instructions from Classical and Christian authorities at the beginning of the book. For example, if your question pertains to the subject of warfare (‘crieg’), the Roman poet Cicero, in the first table, tells you that ‘what needs to be done shall be answered by Alexander [the Great]’. Alexander, in a second table, instructs you to wait until the month’s 25th day and then ask Pilate what to do. But Pilate, whose advice is found in a third table, wants you to wait until the next month’s 14th day and then consult Mercury. Mercury, finally, reveals that you should ask your question to the Old Testament prophet Zechariah on the month’s 15th day. The latter’s advice is relatively general, but allowed each reader to find a statement that was applicable to his or her situation.

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A table in the Book of Fate; Zechariah’s advice, Germany, 14th/15th century, Additional MS 25435, f. 2v and f. 10r

What makes this manuscript remarkable is that it features a wooden panel on the inside of its upper cover with, on a moveable disk, a figure with his or her hand in a pointing position that enabled the book’s user to track the days of the sidereal month. Click on the image to see it move!

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The lunary device in the Book of Fate, Germany, 14th/15th century, Additional MS 25435

Today, astrology, for many, is a form of entertainment, but for many medieval men and women it was a very serious matter. Astrology gave them an insight into God’s design of the universe and intended influences of the celestial bodies on earth. The Moon was well beyond their reach, but its perceived importance was much greater than it is for most of us today. To us the Moon's effect on earth begins and ends with its influence on the tides. For medieval men and women its tidal effect only confirmed its much wider influence on the elements and bodily humours.

Clarck Drieshen