THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

10 posts from January 2017

29 January 2017

The Book with a Fur Cover

People who visit the British Library would be well advised to take heed of the adage, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover.’ Today, most medieval manuscripts have lost their original covers. As a result, some of the British Library’s finest treasures are hiding behind some rather unassuming-looking brown or blue bindings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Nevertheless, the British Library is lucky enough to possess a few examples of medieval bookbinding and covers. These range from wooden boards or pieces of leather to more elaborate examples of tooled leather, ivory and even jewelled metal bindings.

Bindings
Left:
Front cover from the St Cuthbert Gospel, England (Wearmouth Jarrow), early 8th century, Add MS 89000 Right: Ivory and turquoise upper cover of the Melisende Psalter, Kingdom of Jerusalem, c. 1131-43, Egerton MS 1139/1

One binding, however, has recently caught our eyes. It contains a glossed copy of Genesis from Rievaulx Abbey (Add MS 63077), made in the 2nd half of the 12th century. And it stands out because it is covered in… fur.

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Detail of fur on the cover of a glossed copy of Genesis, England (Rievaulx Abbey), 12th century, Add MS 63077

Dark brown hairs stand out from the worn cover. Originally the binding was probably completely covered in fur, and preliminary analysis suggests Add MS 63077's cover may have been made from sealskin. 

Leather was a common material for binding many different types of books in the Middle Ages, from the St Cuthbert Gospel’s carefully tooled leather cover to the less elaborate, rather loose leather that drapes over the thick wooden boards holding together the Sherborne Cartulary (Add MS 46487). In those cases, however, the animal skin would have been treated to remove the fur or hair before the material was added to the binding. Add MS 63077 is not unique in possessing a fur cover (or even a sealskin cover), but it is not clear why its cover was treated in this way (or why the fur survives in this case). 

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In addition to fur, the binding features a small metal roundel describing the manuscript’s contents: a glossed study-copy of the book of Genesis. The roundel is decorated with a zig-zag pattern and is written in capitals.

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The binding also features metal bosses sticking out on that cover. These were perhaps more functional than decorative: there is evidence that books would have been stacked horizontally in western libraries, rather than placed upright along shelves.

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Opening of the book of Genesis, Add MS 63077, f. 1r

Inside the binding, the contents of the manuscript were carefully laid out, with modest decoration. The central column of text contains the book of Genesis. Various notes and commentaries by medieval authors have been added around the side, showing that this volume was carefully planned before the text was written.

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Page from Genesis with commentary from the writing of Bede and Jerome, Add MS 63077, f. 72r 

This manuscript was probably made and owned in the 12th century at Rievaulx Abbey, a house of Cistercians, a relatively new monastic Order which had been founded around 1098. These monks criticised Benedictine monks for what they felt was too opulent a lifestyle. The Cistercians emphasized hard labour as well as study and worship in their day-to-day routines. Some of their surviving manuscripts, such as this glossed Genesis, provide an insight into their scholarly pursuits and priorities. Interestingly, another manuscript with a furry sealskin covering is also associated with a Cistercian house in the late 12th century: from Fountains Abbey, there survives a manuscript containing works of Augustine, the consuetudines (customs) of the Cistercian monks and the passion and miracles of St Olaf protected by a 'sealskin chemise' (now Oxford, Corpus Christi College, MS 209).

Still, this manuscript with its furry cover remains a bit mysterious. Have any of our readers seen similar manuscripts or know any reasons why the hair may have been left on this cover?

Alison Hudson

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25 January 2017

Address to a Medieval Haggis

Today we celebrate the birthday of Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns (1759–1796). Robert Burns was born in Alloway, a small village near the river Doon just south of Ayr in south-west Scotland. He was made famous by his innovative volume of verse, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, first published in Kilmarnock, Ayrshire in 1786. Burns is perhaps best known for composing the poem ‘Auld Lang Syne’, which is to this day sung to ring in the New Year. Every year on 25 January, Scotland and the world celebrate his literary legacy by hosting Burns Night suppers with delicious treats such as neeps and tatties, and the famous Scottish dish of haggis. The British Library holds one of the oldest known recipes for haggis in a text composed around 1430, the Booke of Curtassye (now Sloane MS 1986). The recipe for ‘hagese’ features in English verse along with references to potages, roasted meats and humble pie. The whole collection is translated here.

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Address to hagese: one of the earliest recipes for haggis, Sloane MS 1986, f. 55r

For hagese

The hert of schepe the nere thou take
    Thou bowel noȝt thou schall forsake
On the turbilen made & boyled wele
    Hacke all togeder wit gode parsole
Isop saueray thou schall take then
    And suet of schepe take in I ken
Wit powder of peper & egges gode wonne
    And seth hit wele & serue hit thenne
Loke hit be saltyd for gode menne
    In wynter tyme when erbs ben gode
Take powder of hom I wot in dede
    As saueray mynt & tyme full gode
Isop & sauge I wot by the rode

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The town of Ayr appears as ‘Aier’ in the 16th-century Nowell-Burghley Atlas, 
Add MS 62540, f. 4r

If you are inclined to try a more exotic haggis, look no further than this 15th-century English recipe for pudding of porpoise that appears in a cookbook of extravagant banquets (now Harley MS 279). Prepared in the same manner as traditional haggis made with sheep’s stomach, one must mix porpoise blood, porpoise grease, oatmeal, salt, pepper and ginger, then stuff the ingredients into the porpoise stomach before cooking. Perhaps this dish should be served with a side of 'dolphinoise' potatoes?

Harley_ms_279_f32v
Great chieftain o’ the porpoise pudding-race! Recipe for 'puddyng of purpaysse' in Harley MS 279, f. 32v

However you choose to celebrate Burns Night, remember to raise your dram to the Scottish bard!

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Bagpipes, from the Hours of the Earls of Ormond, England (London), c. 1460, 
Harley MS 2887, f. 29r

Alison Ray

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24 January 2017

Stars in Their Eyes: Art and Medieval Astronomy

After coming across a familiar-looking diagram of the planets in a 10th-century manuscript a few months ago, I asked my colleagues here at the British Library how cosmology was represented in some of the manuscripts on which they are currently working. The manuscripts they recommended offered a diverse array of ways to represent the planets and stars. Stargazing may have been a common human pastime throughout the ages, but how to depict the night sky was evidently another matter.

Harley 4431   f. 189v
Christine and the Sybil pointing to a ladder from the heavens, from the Book of the Queen, France (Paris), c. 1410-1414, Harley MS 4431, f. 189v

Today, planets are often depicted with a diagram which shows their orbits as a series of concentric circles. This type of diagram may have ancient roots, stretching back to Greek philosophers and astronomers like Ptolemy and Heraclides. Such models illustrated excerpts from the Roman thinker Pliny’s Natural History  in some early medieval manuscripts. Over time, some copies were elaborated to take into account planets’ apparent retrogrades, leading to some spectacular models where planets are given overlapping or even zig-zagging paths. Diagrams using concentric circles were incorporated into medieval authors' works, too. Such a diagram illustrates a copy of Isidore of Seville’s influential text, De Natura Rerum (On the Nature of Things), made in England in the 10th century. These diagrams reverse the positions of the Earth/moon and the sun, and some of the names of the planets are different from the names we use today, but otherwise they are largely recognizable to modern viewers.

Concentric 2
Left:
Diagram of the planets, from excerpts of Pliny’s Natural History, France (Fleury), c. 990-1000, Harley MS 2506, f. 53r; Right: Diagram of the planets’ orbits, from Isidore of Seville’s De Natura Rerum, England (St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury?), Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 23v.

In some cases, diagrams illustrating Pliny and other classical texts were also combined with theories attributed to Pythagoras about the relationship between musical tones, mathematical ratios and planets' orbits. Hence, a 12th-century diagram includes notes about tonus (tones) in between the planets.

Burney 224 f. 191v
Diagram of the harmony of the planets, marked with names of Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, and the Moon, following a commentary on Ovid's Metamorphoses, France, c. 1225-1275, Burney MS 224, f. 191v

The concentric model was expanded in later medieval art to include the seven planets and the earth encircled by a layer of ‘fixed stars’ which was held up by angels. The elements of fire, air, water and earth were given their own layers, under the moon.

Yates Thompson 31   f. 66
Circular diagram of the spheres of the Ptolemaic system, including the four elements, the seven planetary spheres, and the sphere of fixed stars, with four angels surrounding them, from Matfré Ermengau of Béziers's Breviari d'Amour, Spain (Gerona?), c. 1375-1400, Yates Thompson 31
, f. 66r 

Other depictions of the ‘spheres’ could be even more elaborate, with Hell at the centre and the throne of God at the outermost layer.

Royal 19 A IX   f. 149
Full-page miniature of the Universe as a diagram formed of concentric circles, from Gautier de Metz’s L’Image du monde, Low Countries (Bruges), 1464, Royal MS 19 A IX, f. 149r  

But concentric circles were not the only way of depicting star systems in medieval manuscripts. By contrast, the model of the sun, moon and earth, from a 13th-century copy of Bede’s De temporibus, might look a bit alien to modern viewers.

Egerton 3088   f. 17v
Page from Bede's De temporibus illustrated with a diagram of the sun, moon, earth and planets,
 England, c. 1244, Egerton MS 3088 f. 17v

Earth is represented by a house-/ tomb-/ reliquary-shaped box at the bottom of the diagram, while the moon is labelled in a roundel above it. According to the annotations on the side, the other roundels include Mercury, Venus and other planets, all the way up to Saturn, ‘in the 7th heaven’. The diagram accompanies a passage explaining ‘why the moon, though situated beneath the sun, sometimes appears to be above it’ (translated by F. Wallis, Bede: The Reckoning of Time (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999), p. 77). While these diagrams look rather different from modern textbook representations of the sun, moon and earth, some of Bede’s text, updating to previous models of the universe, still stands. In particular, Bede is notable for being the first European to observe and record the connection between phases of the moon and the tides of the ocean.

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Diagram of planets’ orbits, from a scientific miscellany, France or England, late 11th or 12th century, Royal MS 13 A XI, f. 143v
 

The diagram in a scientific miscellany made in the late 11th or early 12th century takes yet another approach, mapping planets’ orbits onto a sort of graph. The sun’s regular appearance in the sky here contrasts with the other planets’ (and the moon's) more variable appearances over days, months and years.

  Egerton 845   f. 21v
Astrological drawing of the moon and Zodiac constellations, from a collection of astronomical and alchemical treatises, England, 16th century, Egerton MS 845, f. 21v

Other depictions of cosmology and the stars prioritised artistic creativity over mathematical calculations.

 Harley_ms_4940_f028r
Two angels turning the axes of the world, from Matfre Ermengaud's Breviari d'amor, France (Toulouse?), mid-14th century, Harley MS 4940, f. 28r

Byzantine manuscripts provide some stunning examples of the planets as personified, depicted containing tiny portraits.

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Planets, from the Theodore Psalter, Constantinople, February 1066, Add MS 19352, f. 135v

Like the concentric model, these personified models were also based on classical sources, which meant that these common themes emerged even in manuscripts produced in distant regions. For example, 11th-century manuscripts from as far apart as Constantinople and England depict the sun as a charioteer.

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A personification of the rising sun, orbs of day and night, and a personification of the setting sun, from the Bristol Psalter, Eastern Mediterranean (Constantinople), 11th century, Add MS 40731, f. 80v

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The chariots of the sun and the moon, from a scientific miscellany, Southern England, c. 1030-1060, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 47r

Maps of the constellations were another way of representing the stars that was classically inspired and widespread in the Middle Ages: see our earlier blog post on Cicero’s ‘map to the stars’. Although the image of a night sky teeming with mythical monsters, ships and heroes contrasts with the model of orderly concentric orbits that began this post, we also use some of the same imagery of constellations today. See the similarities between an early medieval map of the constellations below and an advertisement for Air France which features in the British Library’s exhibition on Maps and the 20th Century (on until 1 March 2017). 

Harley_ms_647_f021v
 
Map of the constellations of disputed origin, 9th or 11th-century, Northwestern Europe (Northern France? Low Countries? St Augustine’s, Canterbury?), Harley MS 647, f. 21v 

This is just a small sample of the ways the planets and stars were portrayed in medieval manuscripts. It does not even begin to touch on diagrams outlining specific celestial events, like eclipses, phases of the moon and zodiac cycles. Hopefully, however, this post gives a small taste of the myriad of ways medieval people thought about and depicted the heavens. 


Add 8785 f108v
Men observing the stars, from Bartholomaeus Anglicus' De Proprietatibus rerum, 
Italy (Mantua), c. 1300-1310, Add MS 8785, f. 108v

Alison Hudson

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20 January 2017

The Psychomachia: An Early Medieval Comic Book

What do Captain America, Wonder Woman and a 10th-century Anglo-Saxon manuscript have in common? The answer may be more surprising than you think. The Psychomachia, or ‘War of the Soul’, was composed by the Late Antique poet Prudentius in the 5th century and depicts an action-packed battle between the Virtues and Vices for possession of the human soul. This allegory of good versus evil was hugely popular in the medieval period with about 300 surviving copies of the work, 20 of which were illuminated. Two illuminated Anglo-Saxon copies are held at the British Library (now Additional MS 24199 and Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII) and their illustrations can be compared to our comic books today.

Cotton_cleopatra_c_viii_f015v

No need for utility belts: Pride rides down Humility and Hope, with Latin and Old English captions in Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII, f. 15v

These two manuscripts of the Psychomachia were produced in England in the 10th and 11th centuries, and like comics they feature illuminations in bordered frames, frequently accompanied by captions to summarise the often fast-paced plotline. The seven virtues are portrayed as seven female champions of the Christian faith against seven female pagan idolaters, who ultimately claim victory on the battlefield in front of a thousand cheering martyrs. The deaths of each vice are comically violent: Faith beheads Idolatry, Chastity slays Lust with her sword, and Sobriety uses the cross of the Lord to sabotage Indulgence’s chariot before striking her with a flint stone.

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Is it a plane? Sobriety defeating Indulgence as depicted in Additional MS 24199, f. 20r

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Kerpow! Anger’s sword breaks when used against Patience in Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII, f. 12r

Both manuscripts were probably used as classroom aids by Anglo-Saxon monks. Cleopatra C VIII was written at Christ Church, Canterbury, and Additional MS 24199 may later have been owned by the abbey at Bury St Edmunds. These copies of the Psychomachia contain numerous glosses, or commentary writings, that are often present in schoolbooks of monastic communities.

Why would monks and their students study such a graphic text? Although monks lived in a warrior society, they could not take up arms against others and were encouraged to fight a spiritual battle instead. Alcuin wrote a letter to Bishop Higbald and the Lindisfarne community after the 793 Viking attack telling them to ‘be a model of all goodness to all who can see you, a herald of salvation to all who hear you’. Later, the New Minster Refoundation Charter (Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII), probably written by Bishop Æthelwold of Winchester in 966, noted that just as the king fought visible enemies, so too did monks protect the realm by fighting spiritual battles with invisible enemies. Similarly, the Psychomachia conveyed a message to monastic communities that moral combat against spiritual enemies was just as heroic as facing physical opponents in war.

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It’s Clobberin’ Time: Patience undaunted by the vices in Additional MS 24199, f. 8r

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Spiritual combat: Cuthbert of Lindisfarne extinguishing a fire set by a demon, from Chapter 13 of Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert in Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 30r

 

La Psychomachia fut composée au 5ème siècle par le poète Prudence. Ce poème épique met en scène la bataille allégorique des vices et vertus, dont l’enjeu principal est le contrôle de l’âme humaine. Ce “Combat de l’âme” fut largement diffusé tout au long du Moyen Age puisqu’on compte plus de 300 manuscrits subsistants.

Deux d’entre eux sont aujourd’hui conservés à la British Library: Add MS 24199 et Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII. Ils furent copiés en Angleterre, respectivement aux 10ème et 11ème siècles, et présentent une décoration comparable à celles des bandes dessinées actuelles. Chaque scène encadrée illustre l’intrigue, en regard du texte. La vocation pédagogique de ces illustrations suggère que ces manuscrits furent probablement utilisés dans les écoles monastiques. Après l’attaque de Lindisfarne (793), le message délivré n’en devenait que plus clair pour les communautés monastiques: le combat spirituel et moral doit l’emporter sur le glaive.

Alison Ray

Laure Miolo (French summary)

                                                                                                                                Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

Supported by

Polonsky Credit

 

19 January 2017

Magna Carta at the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival

The British Library is delighted to be a participant in this year's ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival. Throughout the Festival, from 19 to 23 January, a facsimile of one of the four original Magna Carta documents from 1215, now held at the British Library in London, will be on display at the Diggi Palace in Jaipur. The Festival itself was inaugurated by Chief Minister of Rajasthan Smt. Vasundhara Raje, who was one of the first to view the facsimile.

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Children viewing the facsimile of Magna Carta at the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival

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Claire Breay (The British Library) showing the facsimile of Magna Carta to Chief Minister of Rajasthan Smt. Vasundhara Raje

Then, on Saturday 21 January, the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival is holding a panel discussion entitled ‘Magna Carta: Spirit of Justice’. The five speakers — writer and lawyer Chintan Chandrachud, historian David Carpenter, barrister Helena Kennedy, biographer and historian Patrick French and curator Claire Breay — will explore the history, impact and global legacy of the 4,000 words of Latin issued by King John at Runnymede in 1215. The British Library is represented at the Festival by Claire Breay (Head of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts), who will be discussing with Professor David Carpenter (King's College London) the medieval history of Magna Carta, and how the Library's major 2015 exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, explored both the medieval story of Magna Carta and how it came to be such a famous international symbol of rights and liberties.

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The crowd at the inauguration ceremony of the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival

The loan of the Magna Carta facsimile is part of an ambitious British Library programme of engagement with India, which will also see the loan of one of the Library’s copies of the First Folio of William Shakespeare, to CSMVS Museum in Mumbai from 20 January to 8 March. The programme also includes a major project to digitise thousands of Indian printed books held by the Library: the first phase of ‘Two Centuries of Indian Print’ aims to digitise and make available online 4,000 printed books in Bengali, unlocking their riches to researchers and a wider public than ever before.

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Outside the room where the facsimile of Magna Carta is on display at the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival

Claire Breay

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

#ZEEJLF

13 January 2017

New PhD Placements: Greek Papyri in the British Library

The British Library is offering a PhD placement opportunity for a student working on Greek papyri. This three-month placement will allow someone studying various aspects of Greek literature, papyrology, Late Antique history and religion to have first-hand experience with the ancient sources preserved in one of the world’s most renowned collections of papyri.

Papyrus 2068

Fragments from a papyrus scroll containing Sophocles’ play ‘The Trackers’ (Ichneutae), 2nd half of the 2nd century, Egypt (Papyrus 2068)

The British Library houses one of the most important collections of Greek papyri in the world, comprising unique witnesses of Greek classical literature, early biblical and Christian fragments and a large corpus of Greek documentary papyri. This collection of more than 3000 Greek papyri will now be digitised and then published online with new catalogue entries over the next few years. The PhD placement student will contribute towards the cataloguing associated with this digitisation project, enabling the digitised images to be described and published in the Library’s online catalogue and viewer. The placement student will also contribute to the Medieval Manuscripts Blog and Twitter feed and to Library events in order to promote the papyrus collection and its international importance for the study of Antiquity.

Papyrus 3053

The Bear Papyrus, Fragment of an illuminated papyrus, Egypt, 3rd–6th century (Papyrus 3053)

In addition to the fascinating challenges of dealing with world-famous treasures (such as Aristotle’s Constitution of the Athenians or the Egerton Gospel) or hitherto unpublished fragments, the placement student will get an insight into the daily life of the British Library’s collection. He or she will assist in the selection and delivery of the material, liaising with colleagues in the Library’s conservation and imaging studios, and checking image quality.

View a full placement profile.

Papyrus 177

Fragment from the Anonymus Londiniensis Papyrus, one of the most important medical papyri surviving from Antiquity, Egypt, 1st century (Papyrus 137)

Funding

This is an unpaid professional development opportunity, which is open to current PhD researchers as part of the Library’s PhD placement scheme. To apply, applicants need to have the support of their PhD supervisor and their department’s Graduate Tutor (or equivalent senior academic manager). The British Library PhD placement scheme has been developed in consultation with Higher Education partners and stakeholders to provide opportunities for PhD students to develop and apply their research skills outside the university sector. Please note that the Library itself is not able to provide payment to placement students, nor can it provide costs for daily commuting or relocation to the site of the placement. Students applying for a placement at the Library are expected to consult their HEI or Doctoral Training Partnership/Doctoral Training Centre to ascertain what funding is available to support them. The Library strongly recommends to HEIs that a PhD student given approval to undertake a placement is in receipt of a stipend for the duration of the placement.

Application guidelines

For full application guidelines and profiles of the other placement opportunities being offered under this scheme, visit the Library’s Research Collaboration webpages.

The application deadline is 20 February 2017.

For any queries about this placement opportunity, please contact Research.Development@bl.uk

 

09 January 2017

Medieval Spin-Offs of the Roman de la Rose

Over the past year, many critics have noted the dominance of 'spin-offs', new releases which are sequels to or take place in the same imaginary worlds as already-popular blockbusters. But popular spin-offs are not a modern phenomenon. Take the example of 'satellite texts' of the Roman de la Roseone of the most famous poems in the French language. The medieval equivalent of a best-seller, it survives in more than 300 manuscript copies, and was composed in two sections, written decades apart: the first part was written by Guillaume de Lorris (c. 1230) and it was continued by Jean de Meun 40 years later. In many manuscripts, the Roman de la Rose was copied with other texts attributed to Jean de Meun, which are often described as 'satellite' or spin-off texts. Although the Roman de la Rose tends to overshadow some of these other texts, they were nevertheless popular in the Middle Ages.

Royal 20 A XVII   f. 35v
Image of Jean de Meun, from a copy of the Roman de la Rose,  Northern France (Artois or Picardy), c. 1340–1350: Royal MS 20 A XVII, f. 35v.

The Testament

In many manuscripts, the Roman de la Rose is followed by a text entitled the Testament de maistre Jehan de Meun. It acts as a morally edifying conclusion to the famous allegorical poem, opening with the lines:

‘'Li peres et li filz et li sains esperis/ Un dieu en trois personnes adoures et cheris'.

The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit/God in three persons, loved and adored

Attributed to Jean de Meun, the Testament was composed at the end of the 13th century and comprises 544 alexandrine quatrains. The author explains to the reader that he wants to apologize for the works he wrote during his youth just to achieve success: is this remorse a reference to Meun’s work on the Roman de la Rose? Some of Jean de Meun’s leitmotivs are present in this poem, especially his criticism of women and mendicants.

Yates Thompson 21   f. 143
A miniature in grisaille of the Trinity with a finely-worked coloured background, from the Testament, 1380–1390: Yates Thompson MS 21, f. 143r.

The Testament is described by its author as a moral treatise inspired by God and charity. It was elaborated as a spiritual journey for the discovery of Truth and Good in which the author confesses to the reader his awareness of the vanity and finite nature of human life. The poem focuses on the themes of death and on the utility of prayers to the dead as well as the living.

The construction of the poem is inspired by disputation, the exercise commonly practised in medieval universities. The author combines the rigour of university culture with the traditions of vernacular literature. The success of the Testament was significant, probably due to its attribution to de Meun. It was widely disseminated throughout the late Middle Ages, though rarely alone: its transmission was closely linked to that of the Roman de la Rose, especially during the 14th century.

Add_ms_42133_f145r
The Trinity with a full bar border with zoomorphic decoration, the Testament attributed to Jean de Meun, last quarter of the 14th century: Additional MS 42133, f. 145r.

The Codicille

The Testament is often accompanied by two other texts attributed to Jean de Meun: the Codicille or ‘petit Codicille’ and the ‘Grant Codicille’, also known as the Sept articles de foi. The ‘petit Codicille’ is sometimes considered to be an appendix to the Testament and is sometimes even entitled ‘petit Testament’. It includes 88 lines of eight syllables per line. Composed at the end of the 13th century, it takes the form of a prayer, beginning:

‘Dieux ait l’ame des trespasses/ Car des biens qu’ilz ont amasses/ Dont ils norent oncques assez’.  

God keep the Soul of the dead/ because of the goods they amassed/ they did not get never enough of these.

Add_ms_42133_f143v
Framed initial in colours on gold and blue grounds with partial foliate border with rinceaux,  the Codicille, last quarter of the 14th century: Additional MS 42133, f. 143v.

The Sept articles de foi

The final bestseller attributed to Jean de Meun is the Sept articles de foi, also called Trésor de la foy or, confusingly, just Codicille (see, for example, ’Cy commence le codicille maistre Jehan de Meun': Royal MS 19 B XII, f. 181r). However, although for a long time this work was attributed to Jean de Meun, it has now been established that it was composed by Jean Chapuis around 1300.

Royal_ms_19_b_xii_f181r
Tinted drawing in colours showing the Trinity, 1st half of the 15th century, the Sept articles de foi: Royal MS 19 B XII, f. 181r.

This is a devotional and eschatological poem advocating contempt for the world and the necessity to praise God, Christ and the Virgin Mary for the salvation of the soul. It deals with the symbolic number seven such as the seven virtues and the seven liberal arts in opposition to the seven deadly sins.

Although it is now accepted that Meun did not write this poem, in 1401 this poem was at the centre of an attempt to clear Jean de Meun’s reputation in a tumultuous debate involving Christine de Pizan. One of Jean de Meun’s defenders, Gontier Col, secretary to Charles VI, sent her a copy of the Sept articles de foi to try to persuade her to renounce her condemnation of Jean de Meun. In response, Christine de Pizan, with irony, denounced people who attributed any works to Jean de Meun. Her answer shows that the poem’s attribution to Meun was already disputed at the beginning of the 15th century.

Yates_thompson_ms_21_f069v
Detail of Jean de Meun writing the opening words of this poem:
Yates Thompson MS 21, f. 69v.

The above three texts gained popular success during the 14th and 15th centuries, partly because of their close association with the Roman de la Rose and Jean de Meun, and because they seemed to show the presumed author’s repentance. It is tempting to draw parallels with modern spin-offs, which are often framed as responses to earlier criticisms of franchises and whose popularity is sometimes attributed to their association with other well-known subjects and creators. But the satellites of the Roman de la Rose are also worth analysing as examples of the popularity of devotional literature aimed mainly at lay people.

Laure Miolo

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07 January 2017

Another Year, Another Caption Competition

It may be a new year, but some things never change. We're delighted to offer you yet another opportunity to provide a daft/inspired/wacky (delete as appropriate) caption to the following image from one of the British Library's medieval manuscripts. You can share your ideas with us via Twitter (@BLMedieval) or using the comments box below this post: we'll publish our favourites in a few days. So it's time to put your thinking caps on: good luck!

Harley ms 3244, f. 41v

British Library Harley MS 3244, f. 41v (England, 13th century)