THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

9 posts from May 2016

27 May 2016

Utopia 500

At the start of Thomas More’s Utopia the narrator describes a fictional meeting with a stranger in Antwerp. The man is sunburned, his beard is untrimmed, his cloak hangs carelessly from his shoulder. He appears to be a sea-captain. Later, the narrator is informed that ‘there is no human alive who can give you more information about unknown peoples and lands, and I know you are very eager to hear about them.’ After some description of exotic lands and mythic beasts, the sea-captain – Raphael Hythloday – tells the narrator about a place called ‘Utopia’, a Communist island of religious toleration where a national system of education is open to both men and women. The island’s inhabitants work for only six hours a day and have access to free healthcare. Divorce and euthanasia are legal. The word, ‘Utopia’ means ‘Nowhere land’.

Utopia frontispiece

The Frontispiece of the original edition of 'Utopia', showing the fictional, Utopian alphabet. Published in Louvain : Arte Theodorici Martini, 1516 (C.27.b.30.)

More’s Utopia – a radical work of political fiction -- is one of the most influential texts in the Western literary and philosophical tradition. This year marks the 500th anniversary of the work’s publication, in Louvain, in 1516. Its author, Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) was an English lawyer, diplomat, statesman, writer and philosopher, who worked for Henry VIII. Throughout the text, the often humorous dialogue between the narrator and Raphael Hythloday allowed More to voice his anger at the social injustice he saw in English society in the early 16th century. The issues he raised included the problems of political influence and capitalism, the role of surveillance, education, the nature of citizenship, and the relationship between urban and rural spaces. These issues are as topical for us today as they were for More. Utopia has a timeless relevance.

 To mark the 500th anniversary we have a new display in the Treasures Gallery which seeks to place the author and his work in their historical context and illustrate the circumstances under which the text was written. The display brings together printed books and manuscripts.

The manuscripts give a sense of More’s intellectual environment and patronage by Henry VIII. Here you can see a beautifully illustrated copy of More’s verses on the king’s coronation. Henry VIII’s  support was vital for More’s career. In 1517, he joined the King’s Council and in 1529 was appointed Lord Chancellor.  But it was his relationship with Henry that would, ultimately, lead to his untimely death. A devout Catholic, More refused to acknowledge Henry as the Supreme Head of the Church of England, after the Reformation, and in 1535 he was executed for treason. 

  Cat 49 both

Thomas More's Verses on the Coronation of Henry VIII, London, 1509, Cotton MS Titus D iv, ff.12v-13

Alongside the selection of manuscripts, you can see a series of printed books which illustrate the text’s popularity and its afterlives. In the period that followed its publication, the Latin text was translated multiple times -- into German in 1524, Italian in 1548, French in 1550, English in 1551, Dutch in 1553, and Spanish in 1637. It was subsequently re-published in different forms and also established a new literary genre, that of the Utopian novel, which soon developed in its own right. Utopia is a work which continues to inspire authors and artists to the present day – many works of modern science fiction use the form of the Utopian novel. The display runs until 18th September.

~ Mary Wellesley

26 May 2016

Bede: The Greatest Hits

On this day in AD 735 the Venerable Bede died in his monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria. Bede is most famous for his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, and is often affectionately known as the father of English history. However, this text was written at the end of a long career, in which Bede wrote many works on hagiography, natural science and theology. When another monk of Wearmouth-Jarrow wrote an account of Bede’s death, he described how Bede continued with his scholarly pursuits right up until his final moments. On the anniversary of Bede’s death, it seems fitting to explore some of Bede’s greatest hits, which can be found within the British Library’s manuscript collections.

Cotton_ms_tiberius_a_xiv_f039r
Beginning of the second book from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, England (Wearmouth-Jarrow?), c. 775-825, Cotton MS Tiberius A XIV, f. 39r

The Ecclesiastical History of the English People survives in a number of copies here at the British Library. Our earliest copy of the text can be dated to the late 8th century or the beginning of the 9th century, having been made in the decades after Bede’s death. Although this manuscript was damaged in the Ashburnham House fire in 1731, it is still possible to see ornate features such as the decorated initials above which begin book 2 of the History.

012090
Opening page of Bede’s Eccesiastical History, England (Southumbria), c. 800-850, Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 5v

Bede’s work was widely copied within a few years of his death and for centuries thereafter. The British Library has a lavishly illuminated, early 9th-century manuscript of the Ecclesiastical History from Southumbria (Cotton MS Tiberius C II), which will soon be available in full on Digitised Manuscripts. We have also recently uploaded a 10th-century copy of the Ecclesiastical History to Digitised Manuscripts (Royal MS 13 C V).

Cotton_ms_domitian_a_ix_f011r
Page from an Old English translation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, England, late 9th or early 10th century, Cotton MS Domitian A IX, f.11r

The British Library also holds several fragments of an Old English translation of the Ecclesiastical History written in the late 9th or early 10th century, including the recently digitised fragment in Cotton MS Domitian A IX. It is not known exactly when the Ecclesiastical History was first translated into Old English, although it is thought to have been part of King Alfred of Wessex’s programme to provide the ‘books most needful for men to know’ in English in the late 9th century.

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St Cuthbert greeting King Ecgfrith, from Bede’s Prose Life of Cuthbert, England (Durham), c. 1175-1200, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 51r

Bede is also well known for writing biblical commentaries, hagiographies, and poems on religious subjects (such as the recently digitised Add MS 11034). These include both a prose and a verse Life of St Cuthbert. A number of manuscripts of Bede's Lives of St Cuthbert were recently uploaded to Digitised Manuscripts, including a 12th-century manuscript which contains a number of well-known illustrations to the text (Yates Thompson MS 26).

Yates_thompson_ms_26_f002r
Image of a scribe, perhaps Bede, from Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 2r

In this same manuscript, the preface to the prose Life of St Cuthbert includes a miniature of a scribe writing at a desk. As it accompanies the preface, the figure within this drawing is often thought to be Bede himself.

Cotton_ms_domitian_a_i_f002r
Page from Bede, De natura rerum, England, c. 975-1025, Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 2r

Bede’s scholarly interests were not limited to history, hagiography and theology; he also wrote a number of works describing the natural world. He was the first European to note the relationship between the moon and the tides and he was skilled in very complex forms of mathematics. One of these works was entitled On the Nature of Things, and includes chapters on the creation of the world, and descriptions of astronomical and metrological features. The page above is taken from a 10th-century fragment of this text.

Egerton 3088   f. 16v
Page from Bede’s De temporibus illustrated with zodiac symbols, England, c. 1244, Egerton MS 3088, f. 16v

Bede wrote a brief introduction to the subject of computus, which was designed to give its readers basic knowledge of the methods of calculating the date of Easter. This was a tricky subject in Bede’s day, and in this work he used simple Latin and short sentences in order to make the text accessible to a beginner. Pictured above is a 13th-century English copy of the text, and is accompanied by an illustration of four zodiac figures; Aries, Gemini, Taurus, and Cancer.

Egerton 3088   f. 17v
Page from Bede's De temporibus illustrated with a diagram of the sun, moon, earth and planets, Egerton MS 3088 f. 17v

In addition to these other works, Bede wrote a number of letters throughout his life. The letter on the page below is a 12th-century copy of a letter written by Bede to Bishop Ecgberht of York only a few months before Bede’s death in May 735. In this letter, Bede is heavily critical of the current state of the Northumbrian Church and outlines various ways in which it could be reformed. Within this letter, Bede explains to Ecgberht that he is writing a letter because he is physically unable to travel to York in order to speak to Ecgberht in person. This gives some sense of Bede’s declining health in the months before his death.

Harley 4688 f89
Beginning of Bede's letter to Ecgberht, England (Durham), c. 1100-1150, Harley MS 4688, f. 89r

Cuthbert, a monk from Wearmouth-Jarrow, wrote an account of Bede’s death in the form of a letter. This letter can often be found in manuscripts of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History such as Harley MS 3680, copied in the 12th century. In his account of Bede’s death Cuthbert included a short poem, which he claimed was composed by Bede in Old English upon his deathbed. The poem translates as:

Facing that enforced journey, no man can be

More prudent than he has good call to be,

If he consider, before his going hence,

What for his spirit of good hap or of evil

After his day of death shall be determined.

Trans. J. McClure and R. Collins (eds), The Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Oxford, 1994), p. 301

Arundel ms 74 f2v
Image of Bede from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, England (East Anglia?), c. 1375- 1406, Arundel MS 74, f.2v

Cuthbert described how, upon hearing this poem, he and his fellow monks shared in Bede’s sorrow. He claims that they ‘read and wept by turns’ or wept continually as they read. Their reaction demonstrates that Bede was heavily valued as a scholar and a teacher at Wearmouth-Jarrow. Perhaps there are also a few modern readers of this blog who will shed a little tear on this anniversary of Bede’s death.

~Becky Lawton

23 May 2016

Size Matters

The British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website reveals a number of remarkable things in the text and decoration of over 1460 complete manuscripts (and counting). One thing Digitised Manuscripts cannot show you, however, is the actual size of the manuscripts, since our viewer is limited by the size of your screen. Medieval book-makers did not have those limitations, and the British Library’s manuscripts come in all shapes and sizes.

Little and Large 2
The Royal Bible vol. 2, Royal MS 1 E VII, next to the Taverner Prayerbook, Add MS 88991

We recently uploaded a two-volume Anglo-Saxon Bible to Digitised Manuscripts (Royal MS 1 E VII and Royal MS 1 E VIII). These volumes are notable for a number of reasons: first, they form one of only two more or less complete Bibles which were made in England before 1066 and which still survive. Secondly, they are remarkable for their large size, measuring 570 x 350 mm (making it the size of a small child). Here’s one of these volumes next to a 22 cm ruler.

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Front cover of the Royal Bible vol. 2, Royal MS 1 E VIII

Many of the British Library’s largest manuscripts are Bibles or liturgical manuscripts. This makes sense, given these texts’ spiritual importance and the role they might have been expected to play in ceremonies and impressive performances. Other texts exist in large formats, too. Cotton MS Augustus V—which recently travelled to the Everlasting Flame exhibition in New Delhi—contains the Trésor des histoires, a middle French version of an anonymous historical compilation in prose from Creation to the pontificate of Clement VI, with other 14th-century texts interpolated. Like many luxurious manuscripts, it was designed to express the social status of its owner. Such manuscripts were sometimes copied more to be seen than read. Cotton Augustus V was made in Bruges and measures an impressive 480 x 230 mm. Its elaborate fifty-five miniatures show a special concern for the treatment of light. This manuscript was part of King Henry VIII of England’s library: it is the 'item 23' in the 1535 Richmond Palace booklist (February 1535). Its size, the high quality of illumination and script, and the rarity of the text make it a perfect example of a deluxe manuscript intended to display the King’s treasures at court.

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Page with miniature from Trésor des histoires, Low Countries (Bruges), c. 1475-1500, Cotton Augustus V, f. 18r

At the other end of the scaleliterallythe British Library recently acquired a very small manuscript, known as the Taverner Prayerbook (Add MS 88991). Probably made for Anne Seymour (b. c. 1497, d. 1587), Countess of Hertford and later Duchess of Somerset, this manuscript contains a number of prayers and beautifully detailed illumination on pages measuring only 70 x 52 mm.

Taverner Pratyerbook Ruler
The Taverner Prayerbook, Add MS 88991, with a 22-cm ruler 

But the Taverner Prayerbook is by no means the smallest manuscript in the British Library’s collection. For example, the tiny Stowe MS 956 may have been worn on a necklace or girdle and is only slightly bigger than a modern postage stamp.

Stowe 956 ff. 1v-2
Portrait of Henry VIII, from Psalms in English Verse, South East England, c. 1540, Stowe MS 956, ff. 1v-2r

In between these, there are many other interestingly shaped manuscripts at the British Library, from long thin almanacs designed to be worn on belts to the earliest surviving ‘pocket-sized’ English law book (Cotton MS Nero A I) to the recently acquired St Cuthbert Gospel (Add MS 89000). That handy manuscript is just slightly larger than a person's palm.

CB with Add 89000
The St Cuthbert Gospel, England (Wearmouth-Jarrow), early 8th century, Add 89000

You can see the St Cuthbert Gospel and many of the other manuscripts mentioned in this post on Digitised Manuscripts, but remember to check the dimensions listed in the 'Full Display' page: size matters! 

Laure Miolo and Alison Hudson

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Related Content:

 Lady Jane Grey’s Prayer Book

The Ceolfrith Bible

Codex Sinaiticus Online

The Giant Stavelot Bible

19 May 2016

An Anglo-Saxon ‘Renaissance Man’: St Dunstan

Dunstan (d. 988), whose feast is celebrated on 19 May, was a scholar and reformer, but also a craftsman, said to have been a skilled metalworker, painter, embroiderer, musician, and even organ-builder. He was later claimed by goldsmiths, jewellers, and locksmiths as their patron saint.

The British Library collections include several delightful images of Dunstan as a bishop, though his biographers claimed that this was a role he took only reluctantly.

Cotton MS Tiberius A. iii, f. 2v

Miniature of St Dunstan, King Edgar, and St Æthelwold, from the Regularis Concordia, England (Canterbury?), mid-11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius A. iii, f. 2v.

Cotton MS Claudius A. iii, f. 8r

Miniature of St Dunstan enthroned, England (Canterbury?), c.1120, Cotton MS Claudius A. iii, f. 8r.

The key source for Dunstan's life is a biography by one of his colleagues, known only by the first letter of his name, B. The British Library has digitized one of the key sources for this work, Cotton MS Cleopatra B. xiii.

Dunstan himself took a keen interest in manuscripts. He is depicted as a scribe in Royal MS 10 A. xiii, f. 2v. The Life of Dunstan in Arundel MS 16, f. 2r, which includes an initial with an image of the scribe, 'Osbearnus', being incensed, might have been a reference to this. His representation as a scribe may have had some basis in reality: the 'St Dunstan's classbook', now Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Auct. F. 4. 32 (SC 2176), includes on f. 1r an illustration of Christ with a monk at his feet in prayer. In the thirteenth century, an inscription was added at the top of the page declaring it to be the work of Dunstan himself. Whether or not this is true, it is still thought that two lines of verse written above the monk's head are in his hand:

Merciful Christ, I ask you to defend me, Dunstan,
That you may not permit the storms of Taenarus to swallow me.

Dunstanum memet clemens rogo Criste tuere
Tenarias me non sinas sorbsisse procellas

The reference to Taenarus, the mythical entrance to the underworld, reflects the classical learning of the Anglo-Saxons (he might have picked up the reference from Ovid, Metamorphoses 10.13 or Virgil, Georgics 4.467). Some of Dunstan's own books even survive, notably the Bosworth psalter, Add. MS 37517, and a pontifical (a book containing texts of liturgical rites performed by a bishop), now Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS lat. 943.

Dunstan was equally comfortable in church and court, and his earliest biographers portrayed him in close company with Kings Edmund (920/21–946) and Eadred (d. 955). As a result, he is associated with the so-called ‘Dunstan B’ charters of King Eadred, sometimes thought to have been written by Dunstan himself.

London, British Library, Cotton Augustus ii. 57

Charter of King Eadred, anticipating the ‘Dunstan B’ type, granting Reculver minster and its lands to Canterbury Cathedral, 11th century, London, British Library, Cotton Augustus ii. 57 (Sawyer no. 546).

As an artisan, however, Dunstan might have been most satisfied with his portrait in Harley MS 315, f. 15v, where he is cheerfully pinching a demon's nose with a pair of tongs. Harley 315 is on display at the Wellcome Collection until 31 July 2016 as part of its This is a Voice exhibition.

Harley MS 315, f. 15v

Initial from the Life of Dunstan in the Canterbury Passionale, second quarter of the 12th century, London, British Library, Harley MS 315, f. 15v.

— Andrew Dunning (@anjdunning)

12 May 2016

St Pancras: From Roman Martyr to London Station

May 12 is St Pancras’s Day, writes Peter Toth. As the name of London’s second busiest railway and underground station, the name ‘St Pancras’ is well known to many Londoners, as well as travellers from abroad, as the station is the terminus for Eurostar trains arriving from Europe.

The station is also across the road from the British Library. Colin St John Wilson's iconic, red-brick design for the library visually riffs on St Pancras Station's Victorian architecture. But how many of the thousands of people who pass through St Pancras Station and past the British Library each day are aware of the story behind the name?

Not much is known about the martyr St Pancras. The main source for his life is a short Latin account of his martyrdom. According to this text, Pancras was born to a wealthy Christian family somewhere in Phrygia (in modern day Turkey). After the death of his parents, he moved to Rome with his guardian. There Pancras and his guardian gave shelter to Christians persecuted by the Emperor Diocletian (284-305 CE). When the Emperor heard of  Pancras’s efforts to save Christians, he immediately summoned him. To his surprise, he discovered that Pancras was only 14 years old and, seeing his youth and determination, subjected him to a long trial.

Detail Royal 2 B VII f. 249v
Detail of St Pancras and the Emperor Diocletian, from Queen Mary Psalter, England (Westminster or East Anglia?), c. 1310-1320,  Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 249v

According to this account, Diocletian was impressed by Pancras, telling him, “My dear boy, take my advice and save yourself and give up this madness and I will treat you as my own son.” But, even after a long discussion to dissuade him from Christianity, Pancras remained true to his faith. Enraged, the Emperor ordered his immediate execution. Pancras was beheaded and buried by the Via Aureliana in Rome around 287CE.

Detail Royal 2 B VII f 250
Detail of St Pancras's martyrdom, from Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 250r

As with many of the early Christian martyrs, it was not his life or even his martyrdom that made Pancras' cult so popular, but the miracles associated with his tomb and relics. In around 590CE Gregory, the archbishop of Tours in France, claimed that anyone making a false oath at the saint’s tomb would be seized by a demon or would collapse and die. Consequently, an oath on Saint Pancras' relics was thought so potent that it could be held up in court as proof of a witness's testimony. 

No wonder, therefore, that Pancras’s relics were soon distributed to many other churches, towns and countries, including far-flung regions like Britain.

Detail Tib A XIV f 111r
End of Pope Vitalian’s letter to Oswiu, from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, England (Wearmouth-Jarrow?), c. 775-825,  Cotton MS Tiberius A XIV, f. 111r

Perhaps the earliest written reference to the cult of Pancras in Britain comes from a letter from Pope Vitalian to King Oswiu of Northumbria in the 660s, copied by Bede into his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. The British Library has recently digitised a very early copy of Bede’s History (Cotton Tiberius A XIV). Vitalian mentions that he has sent Oswiu’s messengers back with relics of St Pancras and other Roman saints. The relics of Pancras sent by popes to England may have been used to re-consecrate old Romano-British churches or to set up new churches. As a result, churches dedicated to Pancras often claim to be among the oldest in Britain. These include St Pancras Old Church in Camden, a church near the British Library, from which the railway station takes its name.

From the 18th century onwards, St Pancras Old Church was widely regarded as one of the earliest churches in England. Although historical and archaeological evidence shows that the church does have early medieval origins, its early history before it is mentioned in Domesday Book is difficult to unravel. Efforts to do so, however, have resulted in important finds and discoveries.

One of the residents of the area, Ambrose Heal Sr, chairman of Heal’s Furniture in the early 1900’s, gathered a considerable collection of materials related to the parish of St Pancras. It was his enthusiasm for documents relating to Pancras that led him to acquire an eleventh-century manuscript containing one of the earliest copies of the life and the office (a set of prayers and hymns) of the saint. This manuscript, which his widow generously bequeathed to the British Library in 1914, is a part of a large collection of saints’ lives from eleventh-century Fulda, in what is now Germany. 

St Pancras Office
Page from an Office for St Pancras, Fulda, 11th century, Add MS 38914A, f. 2r

St Pancras’s name marks a large spot on London’s street map, but the figure of the fourteen-year old Roman child-martyr himself is now forgotten. 12th May, the anniversary of his execution in Rome, is a good occasion to reflect on his long journey from early Christian Rome to the centre of Britain's bustling capital.

 

10 May 2016

Florimont, Flower of the World, Grandfather of Alexander the Great

The Cycle of Alexander the Great, a group of stories surrounding the great hero of antiquity, is dealt with at length in H.L.D. Ward’s Catalogue of Romances in the British Museum, along with other legends with classical origins: Apollonius of Tyre, The Destruction of Jerusalem and The Prophecy of the Tenth Sybil. Some of our most beautifully illuminated manuscripts of the Roman d’Alexandre and the Histoire Ancienne, containing the legends of Alexander the Great, have been fully digitised, including Additional MS 15268, produced in Acre in the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the late 13th century.

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The Amazons surrendering to Alexander on his throne, Histoire Universelle, Acre, late 13th-century, Additional MS 15268, f. 203r

Also digitised are Add MS 19669, Royal MS 20 D I, Royal MS 19 D I and perhaps the most famous of our Alexander manuscripts, Royal MS 20 B XX, which featured in our very popular blogpost Lolcats of the Middle Ages. The young Alexander is often depicted with his father, Philip II of Macedonia, accompanying him on his campaigns.

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Philip and Alexander discussing envoys; Philip and Alexander setting out against Armenia; Pausanias and others marching against Philip, Roman d’Alexandre en prose, France, 1333-1340, Royal MS 19 D I, ff. 7v-8r

No earlier forebears are mentioned. In time, though, a popular hero like Alexander needed to have more than one illustrious ancestor, and so a prequel involving a fearless hero, Florimont, his paternal grandfather, came to light.

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The Village of Chatillon d’Azergues (Rhone, France), photographed by Milardello, 2009

Aimon de Varennes, a native of Chatillon d’Azergues in the Lyonnais district of France, claims to have unearthed the tale of Florimont during a trip to Philippopolis (now Plovdiv, Bulgaria) in the late 12th century. He may have in fact travelled to that part of the world, but his assertion that he translated the text from Greek to Latin and then into French appears to be fictive, though he retains certain ‘Greek’ words, which in fact demonstrate a very elementary knowledge of the language. The author’s intentions and his claims as to the origins of the tale are laid out at the beginning of the text in Harley MS 4487, one of the manuscripts of the text in the British Library:

Aymez….Fist le Rommans si sagement         Aymon conceived the romance well

(f. 3r: column 1, lines 8-9)

Il lavoit en grece veue                                           He had seen it in Greece

……..

A Phelippole la trova                                            He found it in Philippolis

A chastillon len aporta                                         Brought it to Chatillon

Ainsi com il lavoit enpris                                     As he had learned it

Lat de latin en romanz mis                                 He changed it from Latin into Romance

(lines 31-36)

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Opening folio with author’s name and 14th century ownership inscription, 'Pierre Derloit prestre ?Corodathis' in the lower margin, Florimont, France, East (?Lotharingia), 1295, Harley MS 4487, f. 3r

The romance of Florimont is in two parts, beginning with the story of the original King Philip I of Macedonia, whose daughter and heiress, Romadanaple married Florimont (‘flower of the world’), son of Mataquas, Duke of Albania. Their son, Philip II, married Olympias and was father to Alexander the Great.

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Olympias giving birth to Alexander the Great, with two eagles on the roof of the palace (foretelling Alexander's two empires in Europe and Asia), Netherlands, S. (Bruges); c. 1485 – 1490, Royal MS 20 C III f. 15r

In some versions of the legend, Nectanebus, the last pharaoh, is involved in Alexander’s conception, as depicted in this miniature from a manuscript of the Roman d’Alexandre en Prose.

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The conception of Alexander, with Nectanebus in the form of a dragon, flying over Queen Olympias and King Philip in bed, Roman d’Alexandre en prose, France, N. or Netherlands, S., 1st quarter of the 14th century, Royal MS 20 A V, f. 6r 

The second part of the story tells of Florimont’s victory over the monster terrorising his father’s kingdom and his love for the enchantress of the Isle of Celée, which causes him to reject his birth-right and travel to Albania under the name Pauvre Perdu (Poor lost boy). We do not have an image of Florimont, but here is one of his grandson, Alexander, fighting monsters:

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Alexander fighting monsters, Roman d’Alexandre en prose, France, 1333-1340, Royal MS 19 D I, f. 35v

He defeats Camdiobras, king of Hungary, enemy of Mataquas of Albania, and is awarded the hand of his daughter, Romadanaple, together with his lands, which he unites with his own.

Ward’s Catalogue lists two manuscripts of the Romance of Florimont in the British Library. Both have recently been digitised, as, although they are not illustrated, they are important early copies of the text and contain examples of the south-eastern dialect of French. The earliest of the two manuscripts, Harley MS 4487, is dated to 1295 in the scribal colophon and on the previous page the author states that French is not his mother tongue:

As fransois voel de tant server

Que ma langue lor est sauvage

(f. 85v: column 2, lines 13 and 14)

Harley_ms_4487_f085v
The penultimate folio of Florimont, France, East (?Lotharingia), 1295, Harley MS 4487, f. 85v

The later Harley MS 3983 is written in a neat Gothic cursive of the early 14th century with decorated initials and flourishes in the upper margin.

Harley_ms_3983_f034r
Text page from Florimont with decorated initials at ‘A lostel le povre perdu’ and ‘Romanadaple la pucelle’, France, 1323, Harley MS 3983, f. 34r

Florimont is followed by a French minstrel’s chronicle known as the Récits d’un ménestrel de Reims that begins with the conquest of Antioch by Godefroi de Bouillon and ends with the death of the eldest son of St Louis, King of France, in 1260, including a fable relating to Ysengrin the wolf and Renard the Fox. The manuscript is dated to 1323 in the scribal colophon at the end of the Florimont text.

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Last folio with colophon, Florimont, France, 1323, Harley MS 3983, f. 81v

There are close to 20 surviving manuscripts of Florimont including several in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France with miniatures illustrating the text.

~Chantry Westwell

08 May 2016

God as Mother and Julian of Norwich

In May 1373, a 30 and a half year-old woman lay dying. A local priest arrived to give her the last rites and held a crucifix in front of her. In that moment, however, the woman—Julian of Norwich— experienced a series of visions, ranging from graphic details of Christ’s passion to an image of a humble hazelnut. When she miraculously recovered from her illness, this experience formed the basis for Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love, the first book in English which is known to have been authored by a woman. This book continues to be studied and to challenge theologians today. In particular, Julian is famous for her extended comparison of God to a mother:

'when [a child] is hurt or frightened it runs to its mother for help as fast as it can; and [God] wants us to do the same, like a humble child, saying, "My kind Mother, my gracious Mother, my dearest Mother, take pity on me"' (trans. by Elizabeth Spearing, Julian of Norwich: Revelations of Divine Love (London: Penguin 1998),  p. 144). 

Since some of our American readers are celebrating Mothers’ Day today, it seems like a good occasion to highlight Julian and her writings.

ADD 3779 f97V
Description of Julian’s illness and vision in 1373, from a shortened version of Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, England, 15th century, Add MS 37790, f. 97v
 

Julian spent much of her life as an anchoress, or religious recluse, in a room attached to the Church of St Julian at Conisford in Norwich. Her writings do not reveal much about her life before she became an anchoress. The learning she displayed might suggest that she was an educated woman, possibly a Benedictine nun. On the other hand, her descriptions of some crucifixion scenes and her interest in Christ as mother might indicate that she was a mother or had given birth herself. She composed both a long version and a short version of her Revelations (also called The Showings of Julian of Norwich). Julian probably either wrote or dictated the long version around 1393, since she states that it took her 19 years and 9 months (‘twenty yere saue thre monthys’) to fully understand the visions she had in 1373.

Add_ms_25588_f109v
Detail of a crucifixion scene possibly made in Norwich during Julian’s lifetime, from a missal, England (Norwich?), c. 1400-1425, Add MS 25588, f. 109v

Julian’s works seem to have been popular and were copied during her own lifetime. Other mystics, like Margery Kempe, visited Julian’s cell, because she was ‘an expert in such things [i.e. visions] and could give good counsel’ (‘þe ankres was expert in swech thyngys and good cownsel cowd 3euyn’). Her writings give the impression that Julian was a kind and reassuring counselor: she famously stated that God would ensure that ‘All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.’

Stowe_42_005r
Page from Julian of Norwich’s Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love, England, 1625, Stowe MS 42,  f. 5r

If you are in London between now and 31 July 2016, you can see a 17th-century copy of Julian’s Revelations at the Wellcome Collection’s THIS IS A VOICE exhibition. The long version of Julian’s Revelations primarily survives in 17th-century copies, which shows how close this important theologian’s work came to being lost altogether. Julian’s works are being displayed near works of other famous women writers who had visions or heard voices, from Virginia Woolf to Julian's contemporary and acquaintance, Margery Kempe, who wrote the earliest known autobiography of an English person. Mother’s Day is also a good occasion to remember Margery: by her own account, she had 14 children.

~Alison Hudson

06 May 2016

The Scottish Play and the Real Macbeth

Here at the British Library (writes Julian Harrison) we look after everything from early papyri to the state papers of Tudor monarchs. Our Printed Books colleagues care for no fewer than 5 copies of the Shakespeare First Folio, 2 of which are currently on display in London (Shakespeare in Ten Acts). And that brings us to the topic of today's blogpost: how does the historical Macbeth differ from his portrayal for the stage by William Shakespeare?

King and Pilgrim

Let's start with what we know about the real, historical Macbeth. The most succinct account is found in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry by Professor Dauvit Broun (available to subscribers online), which I summarise here. Macbeth became king of Moray in 1032 when his cousin, Gille Comgáin mac Maíl Brigte, was burnt with 50 of his followers, possibly at Macbeth's instigation. Gille Comgáin had killed Macbeth's father in 1020; intriguingly, Macbeth then married Gille Comgáin's widow, Gruoch (the real Lady Macbeth). In 1040, Duncan I, king of Scots, led a campaign against Moray, culminating in Duncan's death in battle against Macbeth, probably at Pitgaveny near Elgin. As a result, Macbeth then became king of Scots. Macbeth was the first reigning Scottish king to undertake a pilgrimage to Rome, in 1050, where he ‘scattered money like seed to the poor’; and in 1052 he was the first to take Norman knights into his own service. However, in 1054 he was challenged by Malcolm Canmore, Duncan I's now adult son, with the support of a Northumbrian army. A bloody battle took place on 27 July, probably at Dunsinane, after which Macbeth was forced to concede land to Malcolm. Malcolm then challenged Macbeth a second time, and he killed him on 15 August 1057 at Lumphanan in Mar. Macbeth was succeeded as king by his stepson, Lulach, whose father, Gille Comgáin, had been killed by Macbeth.

Mya Gosling Macbeth

Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 1, by the utterly brilliant Mya Gosling (@GoodTickleBrain)

The Chronicle of Melrose

One of the earliest narrative accounts of the life of Macbeth is found in the Chronicle of Melrose Abbey, preserved uniquely in a manuscript at the British Library (and available on our Digitised Manuscripts site). This account was copied around 1174, but it is based on older source material. The Melrose Chronicle has intrigued me for many years (together with Dauvit Broun I found a new fragment of it at the British Library, and our account of the manuscript was published by the Scottish History Society in 2007). The historical Macbeth is mentioned a handful of times in this Melrose text. In 1039 (the chronology is slightly astray) he is said to have usurped the throne upon the death of King Duncan; in 1050 he visited Rome, where he distributed alms; finally, in 1054, Siward, earl of Northumbria, invaded Scotland at the behest of Edward of Confessor, defeated Macbeth in battle (whereupon Macbeth fled), and installed Malcolm in his place. No mention of daggers, witches or windswept heaths, no Banquo, Fleance or Macduff, no Lady Macbeth walking in her sleep. It's all rather disappointing, if you've been brought up on a diet of Shakespeare.

Cotton_ms_faustina_b_ix_f012v 

Cotton_ms_faustina_b_ix_f013r

Cotton_ms_faustina_b_ix_f013v

References to Macbeth in the Chronicle of Melrose Abbey (London, British Library, Cotton MS Faustina B IX, ff. 12v, 13r, 13v): (a) his succession to the throne in 1039; (b) his pilgrimage to Rome in 1050; (c) his defeat in battle in 1054.

The Tragedy of Macbeth

What, then, do we know about Shakespeare's Macbeth? The play was first printed in the First Folio (1623), published 7 years after its author's death. Indeed, Macbeth is one of several Shakespearean plays whose text would probably be unknown but for the First Folio: other plays published for the first time in 1623 include The TempestTwelfth Night and Julius Caesar. We suspect, however, that Macbeth was written in the early years of the reign of King James I of England (1603–25). James Shapiro has recently argued that it contains echoes of the infamous Gunpowder Conspiracy of 1605 (1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear, Faber & Faber, 2015). James I was patron of the King's Men, Shakespeare's acting troupe, and he had a particular interest in demonology and witchcraft, which underpin Shakespeare's play.

Shakespeare-first-folio-title-page-introduction

The First Folio of the plays of William Shakespeare, in which Macbeth was printed for the first time (London, British Library, C.39.k.15)

The Second Murderer's Bowler Hat

The first recorded performance of what is probably Macbeth took place in London in 1611. Over the next 400 years, many leading actors have taken on the rôles of Macbeth and his partner in crime, Lady Macbeth, among them Richard Burbage, David Garrick, Sarah Siddons and, most recently, Michael Fassbender. A stand-out production is often said to be that directed for the Royal Shakespeare Company by Trevor Nunn (1976), starring Ian McKellen and Judi Dench. But two of the most significant versions of Macbeth involved Laurence Olivier: first, the Birmingham Rep production in modern-dress at the Court Theatre in London in 1928 (one member of the audience commented on the Second Murderer's Bowler Hat); and secondly, opposite his wife, Vivien Leigh, at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1955.

Garrick-club-portrait-of-g0743    Vivien Leigh as Lady Macbeth 1955

Portrait of Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth, by George Henry Harlow (1814), copyright Garrick Club, currently on display at the British Library; photograph of Vivien Leigh as Lady Macbeth by Angus McBean, currently on display at the Library of Birmingham

Humming A Gaelic Song

You can see artefacts from the Olivier/Leigh production of Macbeth at the British Library (until 6 September 2016) and at the Library of Birmingham (until 3 September). Contemporary critics were quietly reserved about Vivien Leigh's seductive performance as Lady Macbeth ('more viper than anaconda', wrote Kenneth Tynan), but over time they have revised their opinions, and count it among her finest rôles. Her beautiful, green silk dress and embroidered gown for the part is on display in London, having been kindly loaned by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Meanwhile, some of Angus McBean's photographs of Olivier and Leigh are on show in the Library of Birmingham's Our Shakespeare exhibition (organised jointly with the British Library). Also in Birmingham are other items from the British Library's Olivier archive relating to his proposed follow-up film of Macbeth, possibly the greatest Shakespeare film never made. These include Laurence Olivier's own annotated screenplay for the film. I am especially fond of the direction when the witches appear: ‘Macbeth is seen to stop. We CUT to him incredulously listening to the prophesies, which seem to emanate from the hills. Banquo rides gently on oblivious of these happenings, humming a Gaelic song.'

Olivier's annotated screenplay for Macbeth

Two pages from Laurence Olivier's annotated screenplay for his never-made film of Macbeth (London, British Library, Add MS 80508), currently on display at the Library of Birmingham

Separating Truth from Fiction

So let's recount: which facts does William Shakespeare get right in The Tragedy of Macbeth?

  • According to Shakespeare, Macbeth stabs to death the sleeping Duncan, who is a guest at Macbeth's castle? Wrong, Duncan dies in battle against Macbeth.
  • Macbeth is Thane of Glamis and Thane of Cawdor. Wrong again, Macbeth is King of Moray (these false titles originated with Hector Boece, whose account was copied in turn in Ralph Holinshed's Chronicles, Shakespeare's chief source for Macbeth).
  • An English army defeats Macbeth at Dunsinane, and he is killed by Macduff. Third time unlucky, alas. There was a battle at Dunsinane, in 1054, but Macbeth remained king for a further 3 years. One fact that Shakespeare does get 'right' is the death of the 'young Siward' during the Northumbrian invasion: this refers to the death of Osbeorn, son of Earl Siward, at the hands of the Scots, though doubtless not in single combat fighting Macbeth.

But then again, why let the facts get in the way of a good story?! Which version of Macbeth do you prefer, the historical alms-giver or the blood-thirsty regicide?

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Julian Harrison (@julianpharrison)