THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

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

24 November 2017

Gifts for manuscripts lovers

Add comment Comments (0)

Books make great presents — just ask Charlemagne, Alcuin, Anne of Burgundy, Henry VI, Henry VIII or Elizabeth I, all of whom gave or received manuscripts for Christmas or New Year. So, now that the Christmas shopping season is upon us, we would like to recommend some of our colleagues' wonderful recent publications as gifts for the historian/art-lover/calligrapher/bibliophile in your life.

Tudor Monarchs

This year saw the publication of Andrea Clarke’s fantastic Tudor Monarchs: Lives in Letters. This book contains transcriptions and translations, images and discussions of dozens of original documents. These include letters from Wolsey to Cromwell, a letter jointly written by Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn to Wolsey, and the draft of Elizabeth I’s Tilbury speech (‘I have the heart and stomach of a king ...’). For everyone who is interested in the Tudors, this beautifully written book is a wonderful way to get to know the people behind the portraits. It is an indispensable guide to some of the most significant surviving documents from the Tudor period, and you can buy it here.

Art of the Bible stack

For art lovers, there is Kathleen Doyle’s and Scot McKendrick’s The Art of the Bible. This gorgeously illustrated book explores 1,000 years of history. It examines the diverse ways in which scribes and artists from Iraq to Northumbria to Ethiopia have presented sacred texts. Each page is breath-taking. This book is also available in French, German, Dutch and Italian. Buy it here.

Our other recent publications are the books associated with the exhibition Harry Potter: A History of Magic. One of these is intended for children (Harry Potter: A Journey Through the History of Magic) and the other for a general audience (Harry Potter: A History of Magic). Buy them here.

Harry Potter Book Cover

And don’t just take our word for it — the Guardian has recommended Harry Potter: A History of Magic as one of the top 10 books to buy this holiday season. Harry Potter: A History of Magic is currently the best-selling item in the British Library shop, so order it soon!

A range of other books relating to medieval manuscripts and magic are available in the British Library shop, including Sophie Page’s Magic in Medieval Manuscripts and Astrology in Medieval Manuscripts. There are also postcards and even Oyster Card holders featuring medieval manuscripts in the British Library's shop. So whether you are transfixed by the Tudors, enthralled by illuminations or fascinated by phoenixes, there is something for everyone this Christmas.

 

21 November 2017

The original Hermione

Add comment Comments (0)

Bushy hair, writing furiously — why, it must be Hermione! But this is not an early image of Hermione Granger. This is the Hermione of Greek mythology. She features in Greek and Latin writings about the Trojan War, from Homer’s Odyssey to the plays of Euripides and the poems of Ovid.


Harley_ms_4867_f060v
Hermione writing a letter, from a copy of a French translation of Ovid’s Heroides, made in Paris at the end of the 15th century: Harley MS 4867, f. 60v

In classical mythology, Hermione was said to be the daughter and only child of Helen of Troy and Menelaus, king of Sparta. She was only a young girl when her mother ran off with (or was kidnapped by) Paris, starting the Trojan War. Hermione’s love life became just as complicated as her mother’s. She was initially engaged to Orestes, the son of Agamemnon. In some versions of the story she even secretly married him. However, Hermione’s oblivious father married her to Achilles’s son, Neoptolemus, also known as Pyrrhus. This wedding is one of the first events in Homer’s Odyssey. Odysseus’s son Telemachus travels to Sparta to ask Menelaus if he has heard any news about the missing Odysseus and

found [Menelaus] in his own house, feasting with his many clansmen in honour of the wedding of his son, and also of his daughter, whom he was marrying to the son of that valiant warrior Achilles … [Menelaus’s] son, Megapenthes, was born to him of a bondwoman, for heaven vouchsafed Helen no more children after she had borne Hermione, who was fair as golden Venus herself (translated by Samuel Butler).

Harley_ms_6325_f026r
Beginning of Book IV in a 15th-century copy of Homer’s Odyssey: Harley MS 6325, f. 26r

There is magic in some of the stories about the mythological Hermione. After the sack of Troy, Hermione’s husband Neoptolemus/Pyrrhus was given Andromache, the widow of Hector, as a concubine. In Euripides’s play Andromache, Hermione accuses Andromache of putting a spell on her so she is unable to bear children. She tries to persuade her father, Menelaus, to kill Andromache and her child while her husband is away, but Andromache is protected by Neoptolemus's grandfather, Peleus.

Papyrus_3040(verso)_f001r
Epitomes of Euripedes's Andromache and other works, Egypt, c. 100-125 AD: Papyrus 3040

Meanwhile, Hermione's ex-fiancé Orestes arrives. He has killed Neoptolemus. Orestes declares that he is still in love with Hermione and takes her back to his kingdom.

Royal_ms_20_d_i_f187r
Andromache flees with her child while Hermione talks to Pyrrhus, from a copy of Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César, made in Naples, c. 1330–1340: Royal MS 20 D I, f. 187r

The love of Orestes and Hermione also inspired the Roman writer Ovid. She is one of the heroines of Ovid’s poems known as the Heroides. These 15 poems take the form of letters written by mythological heroines to the men in their lives who have let them down. Ovid portrayed Hermione as a woman who, against her will, had been dragged off by Neoptolemus/Pyrrhus. She writes to Orestes, begging him to come and rescue her.

Pyrrhus … holds me

prisoner here, contrary to the laws of both gods and men ...

Deafer to [my pleas] than the sea, he dragged me into his palace,

as I tore my hair in grief and shouted your name …

When the Greeks won the war and set wealthy Troy on fire,

they didn’t maltreat Andromache as badly as this ...

Follow my father’s example of claiming back an abducted wife …

[But] don’t muster a thousand ships with swelling sails

Or an army of Greek warriors — come yourself!’

(Ovid’s Heroides translated by Paul Murgatroyd, Bridget Reeves and Sarah Parker, pp. 89–90).

The sense of these verses is similar in the later medieval French translation, see in the first image in this post. This translation was made by Octavien de Saint-Gelais for King Charles VIII between 1490 and 1493. 

Harley_ms_4867_f115r
Paris and Helen writing to each other, from a copy of a French translation of Ovid’s Heroides, made in Paris at the end of the 15th century: Harley MS 4867, f. 115r

In Ovid’s poem, Hermione then wonders whether the women in her family have been struck with a curse ‘that makes all us female descendants of Tantalus ripe for the ravishing’, citing the examples of her mother Helen and her grandmother Leda. Ovid’s Hermione is not entirely sympathetic to her mother, however. Part-way through the letter, Hermione addresses her mother directly, allowing Ovid to give a haunting, child’s eye-view of the start of the Trojan War:

‘I tore my girlishly short hair and kept on shouting:

“Are you going away without me, mother?” …

I went to meet you when you came home, and — honestly —

I didn’t know what my mother’s face looked like.

I realized you were Helen because you were so beautiful.’

(Ovid’s Heroides translated by Paul Murgatroyd, Bridget Reeves and Sarah Parker, p. 92).

Hermione was a fascinating character who continued to inspire writers, musicians and artists in the Middle Ages and beyond, as Greek and Latin texts were recopied, rewritten and reintepreted. The manuscripts featured here are only a small sample of the books that feature the original Hermione.

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

19 November 2017

Happy birthday, Statute of Marlborough!

Earlier this month, we celebrated the 800th anniversary of the Forest Charter, Magna Carta’s little sibling. It inspired a new Tree Charter, with accompanying events ranging from bike rides to pole launches. Today, we commemorate the Statute of Marlborough. At 750 years old, issued on 19 November 1267, it’s one of the the oldest pieces of legislation in England still in force today.

The Statute of Marlborough almost didn’t make it to this day. Only four of its twenty-nine sections are still in force. In 2014, the Law Commission made plans to scrap it altogether. The surviving sections are now known as the Distress Act and the Waste Act. The Distress Act states that anyone seeking reimbursement for damages must do so through the courts, while the Waste Act ensures that the tenants do not lay waste, sell or ruin their lands and other resources without special permission. This is still a concern in modern agriculture:

Fermors, during their Terms, shall not make Waste, Sale, nor Exile of House, Woods, Men, nor of any Thing belonging to the Tenements that they have to ferm, without special Licence had by Writing of Covenant, making mention that they may do it; which thing if they do, and thereof be convict, they shall yield full Damage, and shall be punished by Amerciament grievously.

The closing page of the Statute of Marlborough: Cotton MS Claudius D II, f. 131r
The closing page of the Statute of Marlborough: Cotton MS Claudius D II, f. 131r

There are eight pieces of English legislation from the 13th century that have not been repealed. One of those is Magna Carta, which was originally issued by King John in 1215; the earliest versions were repealed, with the version now in force dating from 1297.

One of the two sources for the official Latin text of the Statute of Marlborough is held at the British Library (Cotton MS Claudius D II). It forms part of a book collecting English laws — the medieval version of legislation.gov.uk, you might say. You can see the Cotton manuscript of the Statute of Marlborough right now in our free Treasures Gallery, alongside a copy of the Forest Charter that was narrowly saved from destruction and a plan of the waterworks at Waltham Abbey

A plan of the waterworks at Waltham Abbey: Harley MS 391, ff. 5v–6r
A plan of the waterworks at Waltham Abbey: Harley MS 391, ff. 5v–6r

The plan of the waterworks at Waltham Abbey is further evidence of how the environment shaped the medieval world. Medieval monasteries aimed to be self-reliant, and water was key to this. This plan of a conduit built in 1220–22 at Waltham Abbey is one of the earliest surviving English maps. The water flows from three round sources at the top, through a filtration system, and into a pipe towards the abbey. It is found in a cartulary made for the abbey, a collection of charters copied into a single volume for reference and preservation. The agreements in this book show that the monks had to negotiate with several different landlords to build across their land.

 

Andrew Dunning (@anjdunning)