THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

12 posts from April 2017

26 April 2017

Blooming lovely

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 » !

 Laure Miolo

 

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22 April 2017

How our ancient trees connect us to the past

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

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  

Please follow us on Twitter, @BLMedieval, to get the latest news about our digitisation projects, exhibitions and events. 

19 April 2017

Another day, another caption competition

We know, it's been weeks since we asked you to put on your thinking caps, to come up with witty responses to our dastardly caption competition. But today we can put you out of your misery/make all your dreams come true/drive you to desperation [delete as appropriate].

What's going on in this 16th-century Italian manuscript? We'd love you to share your captions with us via the comments button at the foot of this blogpost or via our Twitter feed (we are @BLMedieval, if you didn't already know). There are no prizes, save for the glory of having your name put up in lights outside the British Library (okay, we made that up). We will publish the best suggestions here and by retweeting those that most tickle our fancy. So go on, give it a try!

And if you're stuck for ideas, please head to our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, where you can see other images from the herbal in question, Add MS 22332 (it is special).

Add MS 22332

14 April 2017

A hunt for medieval Easter eggs

Easter eggs are a popular symbol of the springtime holiday, but did you know that the association of eggs and Easter is much older than our modern chocolate varieties?

During the Middle Ages, the period of 40 days before Easter known as Lent was observed by Christian families as a time of fasting. Several foods were forbidden during this period, particularly meats, fats, milk and eggs. To overcome these restrictions, cooks became creative and a playful tradition emerged of imitation foods, that is, dishes made to look like other foods. Popular dishes included imitation meats, to indulge cravings guilt-free and also to allow cooks to show off their culinary skills. Another playful joke that proved popular in medieval Europe was imitation eggs. The British Library holds a 15th-century recipe for one imitation egg made from almond paste in an English cookery book (now Harley MS 279).

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Scrambled, not stirred: recipe for ‘Eyroun in lentyn’, imitation eggs of almond paste for Lent from a cookery book, England, c. 1430–1440, Harley MS 279, f. 32v

This recipe called for some technical skill, as one prepared an almond paste to put into a real egg shell. It also includes an ‘egg-yolk’, almond paste dyed with saffron, in the egg’s centre:

Eyroun in lentyn.

Take Eyroun & blow owt þat ys with-ynne ate oþer ende; þan waysshe þe schulle clene in warme Water; þan take gode mylke of Almaundys, & sette it on þe fyre; þan take a fayre canvas, & pore þe mylke þer-on, & lat renne owt þe water; þen take it owt on þe cloþe, & gader it to-gedere with a platere; þen putte sugre y-now þer-to; þan take þe halvyn- dele, & colour it with Safroun, a lytil, & do þer-to pouder Canelle; þan take & do of þe whyte in the neþer ende of þe schulle, & in þe myddel þe ȝolk, & fylle it vppe with þe whyte; but noȝt to fulle, for goyng ouer; þan setter it in þe fyre & roste it, & serue forth (transcription taken from Thomas Austin, ‘Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery-Books’, The Early English Text Society, London: 1888).

If you don’t find almonds appealing, imitation eggs were also known to have been made using pike roe, or fish eggs. Banned foods were allowed once more by Easter, and decorated eggs were possibly used to celebrate the ending of the Lent fast. The earliest documented mention in England of this features in the household accounts of King Edward I for 1290, where the decoration of 450 eggs in gold leaf or boiled and dyed is recorded for the cost of 18 pence; these eggs were presented to the royal household at Easter. 

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Medieval mystery play s influenced later Easter egg traditions: Shipwrights performing the building of Noah’s Ark from the York Mystery Plays,
Add MS 35290, f. 24v

The tradition of celebrating Easter with eggs continued into the modern era, but some of the traditions continued to be shaped by medieval Easter celebrations. From the 18th century, parts of Northern England such as Lancashire and West Yorkshire developed the tradition of Pace Eggs and Pace Egg plays, so-called because the Latin name for Easter is pascha. The Pace Egg plays were inspired by medieval mystery plays, retellings of religious or Biblical stories which were performed by trade guilds on holidays such as Easter or Corpus Christi. The British Library has recently digitised two of the four surviving sets of mystery plays, the York Mystery Plays (Add MS 35290) and the N-Town Plays (Cotton MS Vespasian D VIII). In later Pace Egg plays, local performers known as mummers performed the tale of St George and the Dragon, while also giving out Pace Eggs. These hen, duck or goose eggs were hard boiled and colourfully decorated and were often used in egg-rolling races!

However you like your eggs, enjoy your Easter sunny side up!

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Got to hatch them all! Detail of an ape carrying a basket of eggs and empty hood on a stick from the Maastricht Hours, Low Countries (Liège), c. 1300-1325, Stowe MS 17, f. 256v

Alison Ray

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13 April 2017

Chaucer hitteth the Web

It has been a warm few days in London and at the British Library we feel that Spring has sprung. Spring is, of course, a time when it rains sweet rain and little birds stay up all night singing amorous songs. Or so Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1343–1400) would have us believe. And we see no reason to doubt that this is what happens. So, to celebrate the arrival of Spring, we have digitised one of our manuscripts of Geoffrey Chaucer's collection of pilgrims' stories, The Canterbury Tales. In the image below you can see the famous opening lines, which read,  ‘Whan that aprille with his schowres swoote / The drought of marche haþ perced to þe roote’ [When that April with his showers sweet/ The drought of March has pierced to the root'].

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The opening of the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales: Harley MS 7334, f. 1r.

The Canterbury Tales was written at the end of the fourteenth century and tells the story of a group of 29 pilgrims who meet while travelling to the shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury. To pass the time on the journey, they decide to each tell two tales to the assembled company on the journey there and the journey home. The result is regarded as a master-work of medieval literature.  The Tales, however, are unfinished. The poem never describes the return journey and not all the pilgrims who appear in the poem's prologue end up telling a tale. The prologue describes a plowman among the company, for example, whose tale is nowhere to be found. The poem survives in 92 manuscripts -- some of them only tiny fragments and others beautifully decorated masterpieces. Yet none of these manuscripts date from Chaucer's lifetime. Trying to work out what Chaucer intended has been a headache for editors for over a century.

The number of pilgrims' tales and their ordering differs between the copies, so debate continues to swirl concerning the relationships between these manuscripts. The manuscripts do not only vary in the order of the stories included: some copies include additions that were not Chaucer's work. Both Harley MS 7334 and Harley MS 1758 include the 'Tale of Gamelyn' as a conclusion to the 'Cook’s Tale', which breaks off after only 58 lines in most copies. Someone was evidently uncomfortable with such untidiness, and made an attempt to tie off the loose ends.

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The Cook’s Tale: Harley MS 1758, f. 45v.

Some people have argued that the Canterbury Tales is intentionally unfinished, that Chaucer deliberately left such hanging ends, to encourage readers to engage with their own tales. Whatever the truth might be, it did not dampen the work’s popularity. Chaucer died in 1400 and in the century after his death he was celebrated by poets like Thomas Hoccleve (c. 1368–1426) and John Lydgate (c.1370–1450), who wrote about him as the father of English literature. One of the earliest portraits of Chaucer appears in a manuscript of Thomas Hoccleve’s Regiment of Princes, Harley MS 4866, which is now online.

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Chaucer with a rosary in Thomas Hoccleve’s Regiment of Princes: Harley MS 4866, f. 88r.

John Lydgate was such a super-fan of Chaucer that in his poem, The Siege of Thebes, he imagines himself bumping into the Canterbury Tales pilgrims on their road to Canterbury. 

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Lydgate bumping into Chaucer's pilgrims, from 'The Siege of Thebes', by John Lydgate, Royal MS 18 D II, f. 148r

The Canterbury Tales was among the first books to be printed in English. William Caxton printed the Tales in 1476 or 1477. It appears to have sold well — he brought out a new edition in 1483, complete with woodcut images of the pilgrims. Both versions are available for comparison through the British Library's Treasures in Full website.

After the Reformation, the incompleteness of the Tales gave later writers an opportunity to reframe Chaucer's work.  A fake anti-Catholic story called ‘The Plowman’s Tale’ was added to The Canterbury Tales and reprinted in various editions of Chaucer’s works throughout the 1540s and 1560s. This gave some people a rather odd idea about Chaucer's intentions. The protestant historian John Foxe (1516/17–1587) wrote in his Actes and Monuments that by reading Chaucer, people in a bygone age were ‘brought to the true knowledge of Religion’. 

Recent years have produced a trove of riches for those studying the Canterbury Tales. The most highly regarded manuscripts of the work, the Hengwrt Chaucer and the Ellesmere Chaucer, are already online. These are believed to have been written by Adam Pinkhurst, a scribe who knew Chaucer personally. But there is still more to learn about the text beyond these two books and we hope that by making another manuscript available digitally, more discoveries might be made. 

Mary Wellesley & Andrew Dunning

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11 April 2017

Scandal, espionage, treason: discover Renaissance writers

 

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Which Renaissance playwright killed an actor in a duel? Which Tudor poet narrowly escaped the executioner's block for an alleged affair with Anne Boleyn? Which 17th-century writer was reputedly a 'great visitor of ladies'?

You can find answers to these and other questions on the new Renaissance module of the British Library’s Discovering Literature site. From espionage and imprisonment to a secret marriage and an untimely death, the site allows you to uncover the colourful lives and works of key poets and playwrights including John DonneBen JonsonChristopher Marlowe and John Webster.

On the site you can find out more about the scandalous life and ignoble death of Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593). Marlowe wrote seven plays and three poems in a brief period in his 20s, before he was killed in a brawl, on 30 May 1593, at the age of 29. Earlier that month, Marlowe had been arrested and charged with heresy. The case against him was supported by the testimony of the double agent and informer, Richard Baines. You can see the document in which Baines makes damning accusations that Marlowe was an ‘Atheist’ with too much love for ‘Tobacco & Boies [boys]’. (Those words are visible in the 4th line of the image below.)

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Richard Baines' accusations against Marlowe, Harley MS 6848, f. 185v

Also on the site, you can read about a manuscript notebook compiled by Sir Walter Ralegh (1554–1618) during his imprisonment for treason in the Tower of London. In July 1603 Ralegh was arrested for his alleged involvement in a plot against the new king, James I (r. 1603–1625). He would spend 13 years in incarceration, during which time he wrote several prose works, including the History of the World (1614), and this notebook  contains his research for that work. On the final page is one of Ralegh's poems, written in his own hand, which has been identified as one of the ‘Cynthia poems’, in praise of Queen Elizabeth I. His fortunes had taken a turn for the worse since the accession of James I, so the poem of praise addressed to the now-dead queen is an intriguing addition to the notebook's final pages.

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The last page of Raleigh’s notebook, containing one of the Cynthia poems, ‘Now we have present made’ which he addressed to Queen Elizabeth I, Add. MS 57555, f. 172v

Another writer whose life and work you can discover more about is Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503–1542). Wyatt was a diplomat, courtier, poet and possibly a murderer. The opening lines of one of his poems reads, 'What wourde is that that chaungeth not/Though it be tourned and made in twain?'. The lines mean, ‘what word is there that does not change, even when it is turned and cut in half?’ Wyatt’s point is about how words can be turned and changed easily. He knew this better than many. In May 1534 he was imprisoned after a fight he was involved in resulted in the death of one of the sergeants of London. The circumstances of the fight are unclear and we can only speculate on what words were said — or turned — to lead to the death of a man.

Wyatt spent his adult life in the court of Henry VIII. This was an environment of intrigue and danger, where words could turn, and turn against you. On 5 May 1536, he was arrested and sent to the Tower of London on charges of treason. There were rumours that he had had an affair with Anne Boleyn. On the 17th of that month, Anne’s supposed lovers were executed at the Tower. Wyatt may have seen their deaths from his cell window. In the end, he escaped their fate and was released from the Tower.

 There are several manuscripts containing Wyatt's poems which survive, but the British Library holds arguably the most important one, Egerton MS 2711, which contains around 100 of his poems. This is the key manuscript because some of the poems are written in Wyatt’s own hand and he has gone through the manuscript, marking the poems which are his and making changes. In one poem he makes reference to 'her that did set our country in a rore', which some scholars have interpreted as a reference to Anne Boleyn. Intriguingly, however, the line has been revised in Wyatt's hand so that the lines seem to refer to a generic brunette. The altered line reads, 'Brunet that set my welth in such a rore'.  

 

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Wyatt’s translation of one of the poems which intersperses the sonnets in Petrarch’s ‘Canzionere’,  Egerton MS 2711, f. 67

Another writer who was also imprisoned more than once in his lifetime was the poet and playwright Ben Jonson (1572–1637), who was a contemporary of Shakespeare. In September 1598 Jonson killed the actor Gabriel Spencer in a duel. He only escaped being hanged by reciting Psalm 51 (colloquially known as ‘neck verse’), a loophole in the law available to anyone who could read. In 1605 he was imprisoned again, this time for contributing to the comedy Eastward Ho, which was deemed offensively anti-Scottish by the new king, James I (James VI of Scotland). Jonson wrote that he feared execution yet again and recounts a story of his mother preparing poison for him to make his death less painful.

Jonson was released and returned to royal favour, writing entertainments for the monarch, including the Masque of Queenes, written in 1609 and performed at Whitehall Palace in honour of Henry Stuart, Prince of Wales (1594–1612), the king's eldest son.

 

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Page from the autograph manuscript of Ben Jonson’s ‘Masque of Queenes’, executed in a stylish Italian cursive hand, Royal MS 18 A XLV, f. 3v

Manuscripts like these are a window into the literary culture of Renaissance England. This was an environment in which poems often circulated in manuscript form rather than being printed. On the Discovering Literature site you can find out more about the enigmatic Devonshire Manuscript, compiled by various noblemen and ladies in the Court circle of Henry VIII and the richest surviving record of early Tudor poetry and the literary activities of 16th-century women.

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The first two stanzas of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey’s poem ‘O, happy dames’ inscribed by his sister Mary, Duchess of Richmond, Add. MS 17492, f. 55

Another poet whose poetry was circulated in manuscript form was John Donne (1572–1631). Donne was famous in his own day for his sermons, which are rhetorical masterpieces largely written when he was Dean of Saint Paul's in London. Today he is more famous as a poet who wrote complex, cryptic and often erotic verse. In his youth, Donne had a reputation as a womaniser. One of his contemporaries wrote that he was 'a great visitor of Ladies, a great frequenter of Plays, a great writer of conceited Verses'. When he did marry at the age of 29, it was in secret. In 1601 he wed the niece of his employer, Sir Thomas Egerton. Egerton was horrified that one of his juniors had presumed to marry into his own family. Donne was sacked and briefly imprisoned, before he was barred from public office altogether.

On the site you can find articles about Donne and his work, including material about The Newcastle Manuscript, an anthology of verse and prose made for Sir William Cavendish (1592–1676), the first Duke of Newcastle. It includes 98 poems by John Donne and masques and poems by Ben Jonson.  

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Copy of John Donne’s poem ‘Elegy: To his Mistress Going to Bed’, Harley MS 4955, f. 95v

While these manuscripts tell us about the kind of literature that people were reading and copying, we also have links to the only known copy of William Scott’s (c. 1570–1612) The Modell of Poesye. Written in the summer of 1599, it is one of the earliest examples of English literary criticism. It has much to tell us about what people thought about literature itself in this period.  

 

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Scott's dedicatory letter to Sir Henry Lee, introducing his treatise on the art of poetry, Add. MS 81083, f. 2

The Renaissance module is the latest phase to be added to Discovering Literature, which will continue to expand in the near future to cover the whole of English literature from Beowulf to the present day.

Mary Wellesley & Andrea Clarke

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10 April 2017

The Wonders of Rome

Even after the fall of the Roman Empire, the city of Rome never lost its draw. Objects of Roman provenance, whether art, saints’ relics, or even copies of texts, often continued to be treated with reverence. They were integrated into new creations and imitated in new artistic endeavours. Rome’s reception is the subject of a new exhibition in Germany, at the Diözesanmuseum Paderborn, running from 31 March to 13 August 2017, to which the British Library is delighted to be a lender: the exhibition is called (in English) The Wonders of Rome from a Northern Perspective.

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A view of the exhibition at Paderborn

One medieval manuscript included in the Paderborn exhibition is Matthew Paris’s Liber additamentorum (British Library Cotton MS Nero D I). Matthew Paris (d. 1259) was a monk of St Albans Abbey in Hertfordshire, and is renowned as a historian, artist and cartographer. His Liber additamentorum ('Book of Additions') is a collection of documents relating to the history of his abbey, and includes, among other texts, Matthew's Lives of the Two Offas and his Deeds of the Abbots of St Albans Abbey. On display in the exhibition is Matthew Paris's description of the gems and rings that belonged to the church of St Albans in his day (De anulis et gemmis et pallis que sunt de thesauro huius ecclesie), with his own illustrations.

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Matthew Paris’s description of the gems of St Albans: Cotton MS Nero D I, f. 146v.

Among the gems depicted by Matthew Paris is one passed on from antiquity: a cameo now thought to have depicted an emperor, Jupiter, or Asclepius. Matthew describes it in extensive detail, noting that it was used in childbirth: ‘For an infant about to be born escapes the approaching stone’ (Infantulus enim nasciturus lapidem subterfugit appropinquantem, f. 147r). This seems to have come about through interpretation of the classical imagery, which he describes as showing a man with a spear in his right hand, with a serpent crawling up it, and a boy on his left hand.

Also on display at Paderborn is the British Library’s Additional MS 12154, containing a description of Rome written in Syriac by Pseudo-Zacharias in the 6th century. It outlines its splendours in detail, including what is believed to be the first mention of Christian buildings in the city.

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Installing the exhibition at Paderborn

The British Library is a regular lender to exhibitions in the United Kingdom and overseas. We are very pleased to have been able to lend two of our early manuscripts, one in Latin and the other in Syriac, to the Diözesanmuseum, and we hope that our German readers are able to view these books in person at Paderborn. You may like to know that Matthew Paris's Liber additamentorum is also available to view in full, online and in high definition, on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.

Andrew Dunning

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