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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

26 April 2017

Blooming lovely

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Spring is finally here with spells of sunshine, birds singing and flowers blooming! It’s the perfect time of year to explore medieval gardens and their many uses. Gardens during this period were highly practical and used to grow both food produce and medicinal plants. The British Library houses a blooming lovely collection of early medieval texts that reveal the activities of English gardens at this time.

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Miniature depicting vine-cutting beneath the calendar page for February, Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 3v

Illuminated calendars often depict the labours of the months, scenes depicting the rural activities that were commonly performed in the months of the year. A calendar copied in the first half of the 11th-century (now Cotton MS Julius A VI) features line drawing miniatures of the late winter and early springtime activities of ploughing, cutting vines, digging and sowing, and the month of April is accompanied by a scene of Anglo-Saxon noblemen feasting on the fruits of the agricultural labours. Domesday Book records many vineyards in South-East England, but the quality of wine was poor and by the 12th century wine was imported from Bordeaux, the French territory under English rule following the marriage of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Instead, orchards gained popularity in England and apple cider was widely consumed.

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Bottoms up: The Indicia sign for ‘beor’, beer or cider from an Old English copy of Monasteriales Indicia, England (Christ Church Canterbury), 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius A III, f. 100r

Cotton MS Tiberius A III contains an Anglo-Saxon food list in the Monasteriales Indicia (ff. 97r-101v), an Old English sign language for use when Benedictine monks had to keep silence at Christ Church, Canterbury, including during meal times. This food list reveals the foods consumed by the monks at Canterbury and includes a sign for beor, a drink that may be the Old English word for beer or cider. To request beor at meal times, one had to make the following sign: Beores taken is þaet þu gnide þine hand on þa oþre, ‘you grind your hand on the other’, which might stand for pressing apples.

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Reaping the rewards: Miniature depicting feasting beneath the calendar page for April, Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 4v

As well as vineyards, the herbal garden featured prominently in everyday life in early medieval England. Herbs and plants were grown for both culinary and medicinal purposes, to flavour food as well as being prepared for their healing properties. For example, the Old English herbal (now Cotton MS Vitellius C III) lists the chamomile plant, commonly used to flavour drinks, as being used to treat eye pain. This manuscript is the only surviving illustrated Old English herbal, or book describing plants and their uses. It is an Old English translation of Late Antique texts on medicinal properties of plants, and each entry features an illustration of a plant or animal and instructions for preparing it for treatment of specific ailments. The manuscript also contains a work known as the Medicina de quadrupedibus (‘four-legged animals’), and includes a text on the medicinal properties of badgers.

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Entries for chamomile and ‘hart clover’, from an illustrated Old English Herbal, England (? Christ Church Canterbury or Winchester), early 11th century, Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 29v

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A spoonful of honey makes the medicine go down: Recipe for oxymel from England (Bury St Edmunds), late 11th century, Sloane MS 1621, f. 64v

Honey is another foodstuff that was popularly used in medical treatments. An 11th-century English collection of medical recipes (now Sloane MS 1621) includes a recipe for oxymel, a herbal drink made by a mixture of vinegar of honey that was commonly used as a medicine. Bees were likely kept in England from pre-Roman times and the first written evidence of hive beekeeping is recorded c. 705 by Aldhelm, abbot of Malmesbury and later bishop of Sherborne in his work De virginitate, with a reference to hives made of wicker. The British Library has several manuscripts of the prose version of De virginitate, including Royal MS 5 F III.

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Never mind the buzzing: A depiction of beekeeping in the earliest extant manuscript of Clark’s Second-family bestiaries, England, c. 1175-1200, Add MS 11283, f. 23v

Beekeeping was widespread in early medieval England, with hives recorded in hundreds of places in Little Domesday Book which primarily covered the counties of Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk. Honey was also an essential ingredient in mead, the alcoholic drink most popularly associated with feasting. Mead appears in the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, which includes a gigantic mead-hall called Heorot. The British Library holds the only medieval manuscript copy of Beowulf (now Cotton MS Vitellius A XV), produced in Anglo-Saxon England in the late 10th or early 11th century. We hope you feel inspired to try growing your own medieval garden!

Alison Ray

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Opening folio, from Beowulf, England, late 10th century to early 11th century, in Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 132r
 

Le soleil rayonne, les oiseaux chantent et les fleurs commencent à éclore, nous y sommes, c’est enfin le printemps. C’est la période parfaite pour découvrir les jardins médiévaux et leurs multiples vocations! A cette époque, ils ont une dimension pratique et sont destinés à la production de denrées ainsi qu’à la culture d’herbes médicinales. La British Library abrite ainsi une riche collection de textes témoignant d’activités relatives aux jardins.

Les calendriers dépeignent le plus souvent les travaux de la saison et les activités rurales qui y sont attachées : labours, coupe des vignes, plantation des semailles.

Si les vignobles étaient nombreux dans le sud-est de l’Angleterre, la qualité du vin demeurait médiocre. Dès le XIIe siècle, le vin est ainsi importé de Bordeaux, alors terre anglaise du fait du mariage d’Henri  II et d’Aliénor d’Aquitaine. Les vignobles anglais ne rencontrèrent certes pas de succès, mais il en était autrement des vergers, fournissant à la population un délicieux cidre. Le cidre et la bière constituaient les boissons les plus répandues, y compris chez les moines.

Les jardins dédiés aux herbes et aux plantes destinées tant aux soins médicaux qu’à la cuisine faisaient également partie du quotidien au Moyen Age. Ces usages sont décrits dans des herbiers, des œuvres répertoriant les qualités et les usages des différentes plantes. Les manuscrits médicaux sont également loin d’être exempts de recettes à base de plantes.

Le contenu de ces jardins vous a certainement donné des idées de recettes, mais en attendant on ne peut qu’en déduire et en conclure : « il faut cultiver notre jardin Â» !

 Laure Miolo

 

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22 April 2017

How our ancient trees connect us to the past

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Some of the most stunning creations of the Middle Ages are still alive. Britain is dotted with trees planted hundreds of years ago, with over 120,000 listed in the Woodland Trust’s Ancient Tree Inventory. Some of them are over a thousand years old. This year, organisations across the United Kingdom have created a Tree Charter, which seeks to recognise the importance of trees to our national life. This charter harks back to a very important medieval document, the Forest Charter, which was originally issued in the name of King Henry III of England (1216–1272) on 6 November 1217. 

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The Forest Charter, in the version reissued in 1225, with the great seal of King Henry III: Add Ch 24712.

The Forest Charter can be thought of as the younger sibling of Magna Carta. One of its primary aims was to regulate royal forests, which had been created by William the Conqueror and covered around a quarter of England during the 12th and 13th centuries. Today, we think of forests as lands covered with trees, but in the 13th century royal forests also included pastures and even villages – indeed, almost the entire county of Essex was declared a royal forest. From our perspective, this move to make huge swathes of land into royal forests seems remarkably forward-thinking. We might think that in doing this William was seeking to preserve England's trees, but he had a specific purpose for his conservation effort: he wanted lands for the crown to hunt wild animals and game, particularly deer. 

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Animals romping in the margin of a manuscript of the works of Gerald of Wales: Royal MS 13 B VIII, f. 10v.

To regulate these vast tracts of land, a special ‘forest law’ was created to promote their use as royal game preserves, enforced by a small army of foresters. In theory, they could impose enormous punishments on offenders, up to capital punishment. In practice, they normally issued fines, making the forest an important source of income for the crown.

The barons living under this rule took issue with the 'forest law'. They drafted the Forest Charter, which sought to scale back this law (translation from The National Archives):

Henceforth, no man shall lose his life or suffer the amputation of any of his limbs for killing our deer. If any man is convicted of killing our deer, he shall pay a grievous fine, but if he is poor and has nothing to lose, he shall be imprisoned for a year and a day. After the year and a day expired, if he can find people to vouch for him, he shall be released; if not, he shall be banished from the realm of England.

The charter further rolled back the area of the forests to their boundaries at the beginning of the rule of King Henry II in 1154, where the lands could be shown to have been taken wrongfully. (Henry II had vigorously expanded the forest borders, to the point of creating hardship.) Crucially, the charter also sought to expand common access to the forests. In this period, people relied on areas of woodland to provide fuel for heating and cooking, as well as pasture in which to graze livestock. The Forest Charter, therefore, had important implications for common people. 

The charter was repeatedly confirmed as part of English law. It was in association with the Forest Charter that the name ‘Magna Carta’ was first used, to distinguish it as the large charter as opposed to its littler (and later) sibling. The British Library’s copy of the charter is a reissue from 1225, and appears to have narrowly escaped destruction.

The Forest Charter represents a pragmatic approach to define the value of forests and ensure that they can be accessed as a resource crucial to the everyday functioning of society. Aspects of this approach are still valuable, such as in attempts to calculate the natural capital of forests in economic terms. The story of the royal forests are also the subject of a new book to be published next month by the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, entitled Ancient Oaks in the English Landscape.

Andrew Dunning

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21 April 2017

Digitised Manuscripts hyperlinks Spring 2017

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From ancient papyri to a manuscript given by the future Queen Elizabeth I to King Henry VIII for New Year's Day, from books written entirely in gold to Leonardo da Vinci's notebook, there is a wealth of material on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site. At the time of writing, you can view on Digitised Manuscripts no fewer than 1,783 manuscripts made in Europe before 1600, and more are being added all the time. For a full list of what is currently available, please see this file: Download PDF of Digitised MSS Spring 2017. This is also available in the form of a spreadsheet (although this format can not be downloaded on all web browsers): Download Spreadsheet of Digitised MSS Spring 2017 .

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Image of St Æthelwold, King Edgar and St Dunstan, at the beginning of a copy of the Regularis Concordia, England (Canterbury?), mid-11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius A III, f. 2v

If you are looking for something more specific, there are separate lists of Greek manuscripts, pre-1200 manuscripts digitised thanks to funding from the Polonsky Foundation and manuscripts written or owned in England before 1066.

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Image of the patron, Lord Lovell, and possibly the artist, John Siferwas, from the Lovell Lectionary, Southern England (Glastonbury?), c. 1400–1410, Harley MS 7026/1, f. 4v

If you'd like to know how to make the most of Digitised Manuscripts, we highly recommend this blogpost. Downloadable images of portions of our manuscripts can also be found on our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts (which allows for searches by image content, origin, scribe, etc) and on the British Library's Collection Items pages, which includes the only known playscript to contain William Shakespeare's handwriting and the burnt copy of Magna Carta

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The Anastasis, from the Melisende Psalter, Eastern Mediterranean (Jerusalem), c. 1131–1140, Egerton MS 1139, f. 9v  

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