THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

12 posts from September 2017

28 September 2017

Feats in well-fashioned lines: Heaneywulf

Today, to celebrate National Poetry Day, we have a post about one of the oldest poems in the English language and its translation by the Nobel prize-winner, Seamus Heaney.

In 1999, the Ulster poet Seamus Heaney (1939–2013) published a translation of the great Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, to critical acclaim. ‘Heaney-wulf’, as the translation is sometimes affectionately known, is regarded as a masterpiece in its own right. Heaney had been at work on the text for some time — the British Library possesses nine pages of his early manuscript draft dating from 1980 (he subsequently put the work aside before returning to it in 1995). In it, we see the poet feeling his way through his rendering of Beowulf.

Heaneywulf

A draft of Seamus Heaney's award-winning version of Beowulf (London, British Library, Additional MS 78917).

Beowulf is a complex work. The only surviving manuscript of the poem was copied c. 1000, but parts of the work seem to be much older, having been composed orally years before. The text describes a mythic, pagan past in 6th-century Scandinavia, yet the events were recorded by Christian scribes, probably in a monastic context. So, what we have in the manuscript is layers of text — a work which was probably added to and adapted over time, by different figures, in different contexts. Reading Beowulf is a bit like being a textual archaeologist — we encounter layers of composition, like layers of soil. I like to think that Heaney might have thought about the poem in the same way, too. His other verse shows an abiding interest in archaeology, in the secrets beneath the earth (as in poems like ‘The Grauballe Man’ from the collection North).  

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The opening part of the description of the scop recounting the tale of Sigemund from Beowulf, England, 4th quarter of the 10th century or 1st quarter of the 11th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 151v

Within the original poem of Beowulf itself there are two poems-within-the-poem at lines 883–914 and at lines 1070–1158. The first of these is the tale of Sigemund the dragon-slayer. This story is told by a minstrel (Old English: ‘scop’) to a group of men on horse-back. The description of the episode gives us an insight into how Anglo-Saxon poetry was composed. Today we value novelty in works of art, but in Anglo-Saxon society a poet’s skill lay in his ability to use well-known formulas and to refashion them in a new context:

Hwilum cyninges þegn, 

guma gilphlæden, gidda gemyndig, 

se ðe ealfela ealdgesegena 

worn gemunde, word oþer fand 

soðe gebunden; secg eft ongan 

sið Beowulfes snyttrum styrian 

ond on sped wrecan spel gerade, 

wordum wrixlan. 

Heaney translates this episode as:

Meanwhile, a thane

Of the king’s household, a carrier of tales,

A traditional singer deeply schooled

In the lore of the past, linked a new theme

To a strict metre. The man started

To recite with skill, rehearsing Beowulf’s

Triumphs and feats in well-fashioned lines,

Entwining his words. (ll. 866–73)

Heaney’s poem here gets at the very magic of his own work, his ability to link ‘a new theme/To a strict metre’, to rehearse ‘Beowulf’s/ Triumphs and feats in well-fashioned lines’. This is almost like a verse version of a Russian doll — this is a poem within a poem, translated by a modern poet and made into a new poem.

In the introduction to his translation, Heaney writes about how, despite the centuries separating his work from the Old English original, he was able to find a personal connection to the language of the poem. He describes coming across the Old English word ‘þolian’, transliterating the unfamiliar ‘þ’ into the modern ‘th’ and realising its similarity to an Ulster dialect word ‘thole’ which he had heard his aunt use in his youth. He says that the word was ‘a little bleeper to remind me that my aunt’s language was not just a self-enclosed family possession but an historical heritage’. This was an historical heritage into which Heaney breathed new life.

You'll be able to read more about Beowulf  and Heaney's translation of it on the medieval section of the British Library's Discovering Literature site, which will go live early next year. Happy National Poetry Day.

Mary Wellesley

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27 September 2017

Fifty shades of grisaille

The medieval period had a fascinating relationship with colour, producing beautifully illuminated manuscripts, vibrant stained glass and other richly decorated artworks. It is surprising then, that during the later Middle Ages a new highly prized art form developed almost entirely in shades of grey. From the French word gris (‘grey’), the technique of grisaille was only used in luxury manuscripts and signified the wealth and social status of their owners.

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Miniature of Philosophy holding the planetary spheres, in a French translation of Augustine’s De civitate Dei, last quarter of the 15th century, from Royal MS 14 D I, f. 337v

The use of grisaille possibly originated in the 12th century, following an attempted ban on the use of colour in stained-glass painting made by the Cistercian Order. During the 12th and 13th centuries, windows decorated in grisaille rose in popularity and were installed in medieval churches alongside coloured glass portraits of figures. The Italian artist Giotto (c. 1267–1337) is credited with the first use of grisaille in wall painting in the early 14th-century allegorical fresco of the Seven Virtues and Vices. Featuring on the north and south walls of the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, the monochrome figures of the Virtues and Vices are painted to resemble stone and marble sculpture.

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Details of Charity and Envy, from the Seven Virtues and Vices fresco cycle, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy, c. 1303–1306

Manuscript illuminations began to feature grisaille painting from the first half of the 14th century onwards, and the art technique was used to indicate the manuscript’s status as a luxury product. The British Library houses several examples of the grisaille style of illumination, including a French Bible historiale in two volumes produced for Charles V of France in 1357 before his coronation as king in 1364. Both volumes (now Royal MS 17 E VII vol 1 and vol 2) open with large miniatures partially in grisaille. The second volume opens with scenes from the life of Solomon with a playful bas-de-page scene underneath of a lion, Charles V’s symbol.

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Opening page of Guyart des Moulins, Bible historiale with miniature of scenes from the life of Solomon and bas-de-page below of lion and monkeys, France, 1357, from Royal MS 17 E VII vol 2, f. 1r

Grisaille continued to be used in manuscript illuminations into the 15th and 16th centuries, as seen in a French translation of Augustine’s De civitate Dei (now Royal MS 14 D I) made for an unknown noble patron and featuring 11 miniatures in grisaille at the beginning of each book,  and containing a depiction of Philosophy holding the planetary spheres. Similar illuminations appear in a later copy of Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War (now Harley MS 6205) produced for Francis I in 1519. The manuscript’s decoration was completed by a Flemish artist, Godefroy le Batave, including a dramatic night scene illustration of Caesar in battle.

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Miniature of Caesar in battle, in Commentaires de la Guerre Gallique, France, 1519, from Harley MS 6205, f. 21v

Monochrome painting techniques soon developed beyond the colour grey. A 16th-century luxury Book of Hours features beautiful examples of camaïeu decoration, that is, single-colour painting in any colour other than grey. This Book of Hours (now Add MS 35313) was possibly produced for Joanna ‘The Mad’ I, Queen of Castille and Aragon, and illustrated by two Ghent master artists known as the Master of James IV of Scotland and the Maximilian Master. The calendar pages at the beginning of the manuscript are accompanied by illustrations of the labours of the months and zodiac signs completed in colour, as well as medallions in camaïeu of imitation gold. These medallions illustrate the lives of saints that have feast days listed in the calendar. The November page medallions depict All Saints; the soul in purgatory; St Martin of Tours; St Clement; St Catherine; and St Andrew. They are ordered by appearance in the calendar page from earliest (top) to latest (bottom), and the feast days are written in red ink to highlight them. The medallions also appear to imitate wood panel and the careful highlighting and shadow provides a 3-D relief effect, much like Giotto’s earlier fresco panels. These medallions are best seen close up: you can zoom in on their fascinating detail on our Digitised Manuscripts site here.

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Calendar page for November bordered by medallions in camaïeu depicting saints’ lives, from the Hours of Joanna I of Castile, Add MS 35313, f. 6v

 

Alison Ray

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25 September 2017

Drop dead gorgeous

At the beginning of the Office for the Dead in a 15th-century Book of Hours at the British Library, an initial was decorated with an image of a richly-attired skeleton admiring herself in a mirror.  This image may already be familiar to readers of this blog. What we haven't previously mentioned, however, is this manuscript's connection to a powerful duchess, the Renaissance artist Titian and a real skeleton. 

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Detail of an initial in the Office for the Dead, from the Hours of Dionora of Urbino, Central Italy, c. 1480–1520, Yates Thompson MS 7, f. 174r 

The stylish skeleton appears in a Book of Hours owned by Eleanora (also called Dionora) Gonzaga della Rovere, duchess of Urbino. She was an important patron of the arts and a political figure. We know that this book was owned by Eleanora because it is inscribed with her name and because her family's arms and her husband's arms appear throughout the decoration. The scribe, who signed his work, was Matteo Contugi de Volterra, who worked around the year 1480. The illumination, completed later, may be the work of one of the most notable illuminators from Renaissance Italy, Matteo da Milano. 

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Detail of a border with the inscription 'Diva Dio(nora) Duci(ssa) Ur(bini)' and with the arms of Della Rova impaling Gonzaga, Yates Thompson MS 7, f. 14r

Eleanora was a great patron of other artists, too. She supported writers such as Baldassare Castiglioni and the poet, Torquato Tasso. Today, she is particularly associated with Titian, who painted her portrait and that of her husband. Some people have even argued that Titian used Eleanora's face as a model for other paintings, namely La Bella, Girl in a Fur Cloak and the Venus of Urbino, although this is now disputed. That is probably just as well: the Venus of Urbino was bought by Eleanora's son Guidobaldo, possibly as a gift for his wife, so it might have been a bit odd if Titian had used the eventual recipient's mother-in-law as one of the models!

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Spot the difference! Yates Thompson MS 7, Titian's portrait of Eleanora (now in the Uffizi Gallery) and the Venus of Urbino (now also in the Uffizi Gallery)

Eleanora Gonzaga della Rovere died in 1570 and she was buried in the church of Santa Chiara in Urbino. All that now remains of Eleanora , former owner of the British Library's Book of Hours, is a skeleton. Indeed, the skeleton believed to be hers was exhumed and analysed in 2005, with the study using craniofacial superimposition to compare its skull with Titian's portrait of Eleonora. The analysis concluded that 'the face of Eleonora [in the painting] matches the skull fairly closely except for the length of the nose'. Titian may have portrayed her with a smaller nose to exaggerate her beauty. If that was the case, it is an interesting coda to the story of the duchess who owned this Book of Hours, with its famous image of a skeleton warning against vanity!

Yates Thompson 7   f. 42v
Detail of a border and an initial 'D' inscribed with the words 'Dionara Gonzaga Duc(issa) Urbini et cet[era]' , Yates Thompson MS 7, f. 42v

 

Alison Hudson

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22 September 2017

Inside the Tudor court

The House of Tudor reigned over England for almost a century and a quarter, and is renowned for its displays of indulgence. King Henry VIII (1509–1547) is especially associated with having led a luxurious and decadent lifestyle: he is thought to have squandered a large part of the treasure amassed by his father, King Henry VII (1485–1509), on banquets and festivities. Even so, their account books show that the Tudor kings, including Henry VIII, were very much interested in book-keeping, and did not simply throw money around at will. Such behaviour was thought to have a corrupting effect — it was portrayed as a shower of coins in a near-contemporary prayer-book commissioned by William of Hastings (d. 1483), Master of the Royal Mint.

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A shower of coins in the borders of a prayer to the Three Kings, in the Hastings Hours: Add MS 54782, f. 43r

The British Library has recently digitised four account books of Kings Henry VII and Henry VIII. These two kings clearly kept track of their income and expenses by inspecting their account books. This is indicated by the fact that three of the account books, (partially) written by John Heron (1470–1522), Treasurer of the Chamber, include the kings’ signatures at the end of several of their entries.

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The signature of King Henry VII, 1499–1505: Add MS 21480, f. 10v

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The signature of King Henry VIII, 1509–1518: Add MS 21481, f. 4v

The household books give us an insight into the life and activities at the courts of Henry VII and Henry VIII. They contain records with payments for many types of labourer and artisan: gardeners, such as the ‘moletaker’; cooks, such as the ‘Frenche coke’ employed by Henry VIII; tailors, such as the ‘yeman of the robes’ and the ‘fethermaker’; falconers; trumpeters; crossbow makers and maintainers, known as the ‘grome of the crosbows’; clockmakers, such as Nicholas Kratzer, a German astronomer who was commissioned by Henry VIII to design an astronomical clock for Hampton Court; engravers, referred to as  the ‘graver of precious stones’; courtiers; soldiers; secretaries; ambassadors and other officials. They also document material goods, such as horses and greyhounds, as well as spiritual goods, such as alms and prayers.

One account book (Add MS 21481) contains a letter dated 23 January 1512 (ff. 347r–348v), in which Henry VIII orders John Heron to make payments to Gilbert Talbot (1452–1517), Lord Deputy of Calais, and Edward Poynings (1459–1521), military commander and diplomat, for ‘certain men of arms and houses in Flanders for our war’s purpose’ [‘certain men of armes and hooysse in fflaunders for oure werres use’] in preparation for a campaign against France. But the books also give insight into the kings' personal lives. For example, we can see that Henry VIII, several years after the annulment of his marriage with his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, was still making payments directly to her and her treasurer Wymond Carewe, for ‘her officers and certain gentlewomen an gentlemen’ [‘her Officers and certeyn gentilwomen and gentilwomen’]. 

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An entry for a payment to Anne of Cleves, 1543–1544: Add MS 59900, f. 70v

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An entry for a payment to Wymond Carewe for the household of Anne of Cleves, 1543–1544: Add MS 59900, f. 63r

You can explore the world of the Tudor court for yourself by viewing the following household books online:

King Henry VII’s household book for the years 1499-1505

King Henry VII's household book for the years 1502-1505

King Henry VIII’s household book for the years 1509-1518

King Henry VIII's household book for the years 1543-1544

 

Clarck Drieshen

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20 September 2017

Where's Walter?

There was once a scribe named Walter, a canon and deacon who lived at Cirencester Abbey in the latter part of the 12th century. And that is practically all we know of him. With little biographical information, is it possible to make personalities of the past feel closer? Studying Walter’s handwriting can actually take us a little bit further. He is known to us from his meticulous scribal work and the marginal notes that he made in surviving manuscripts.

Walter’s hand appears throughout an exceptionally early copy of the letters of Thomas Becket (Cotton MS Claudius B II), dating to the 1180s, both in the main text and in the margins. (We have recently digitised this manuscript as part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project, and it can be viewed in full on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.) Walter’s notes compare the manuscript’s text to that of another rescension, which he calls his exemplar or the alius liber, the ‘other book’. His heightened editorial interest in this text suggests he was keenly aware of the political importance of Becket’s letters, assembled only a few years earlier by Alan of Tewkesbury, and which laid out the murdered archbishop’s dispute with King Henry II (1154–1189). According to Michael Gullick, Walter probably worked on the manuscript over several years, in a self-directed campaign (‘A twelfth-century manuscript of the letters of Thomas Becket’, in English Manuscript Studies 1100–1700, 2 (1990), pp. 1-31).

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Margaret or Matilda? Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 49r

Walter's notes highlight disparities between the two books. For instance, on one page a Latin note appears in the margin beside a rubric stating that the following letter is from ‘Thomas the Archbishop of Canterbury to Margaret Queen of the Sicilians’. It tells us that in his other book, in alio libro, the text names her as Matilda, Matildi. As a Queen of Sicily named Margaret actually lived between 1135 and 1183, we can conclude that, in this instance, the version we are looking at here is more accurate than the ‘other book’. Walter placed a line and a dot above the ‘in’ of his note (which is abbreviated). The same symbol appears above the word ‘Margerete’ in the rubric, to help match them up.

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A decorative ‘S’: Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 233v

The notes are not mere musings. This is demonstrated both by their meticulously composed content and their decorative treatment. For example, now and again Walter added a coloured initial to the manuscript. Again, we can tell what part of the text this note relates to from matching symbols in the margin and in the text proper (look to the left of the green ‘T’). In some cases, Walter even arranged his notes in an elaborate shape.

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Diamonds are forever: Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 80r

For instance, this diamond with stepped sides and ornate finials shows particular commitment to the decorative cause. But there is one delightful glimpse in this manuscript of fallibility. Finding a mistake can sometimes feel like meeting the person behind the script for the first time. So let’s ‘find’ Walter.

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Cotton_ms_claudius_b_ii_f177r

Mistakes may be rare, but they can allow us to glimpse the personality behind the pen: Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 177r

In column two of one page about half-way through the book, Walter carefully outlined and ruled a triangle, filling it with neat lines of script. When proof-reading the text, however, he must have kicked himself. Drawing a line from the top of the triangle to the space beneath the first column, he directed the reader to a confession in chastened cursive script: ‘I should have written this note here.’

Hello, Walter.

 

Cotton MS Claudius B II est une compilation des lettres de Thomas Becket. Cet article présente des notes marginale de Walter de l’abbaye de Cirencestre et l'erreur qui l’a poussé à ajouter, ‘Je devais écrire cette note ici’.

 

Amy Jeffs

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19 September 2017

Richard the Lionheart in Speyer

A major new exhibition devoted to Richard the Lionheart has recently opened in Speyer, to which the British Library is pleased to have loaned three of our magnificent medieval manuscripts. The books in question can be viewed in Richard Löwenherz: König-Ritter-Gefangener (Richard the Lionheart: King, Knight, Prisoner) at the Historisches Museum der Pfalz until 14 January 2018. Alongside precious artefacts such as the Cross of Henry the Lion, the exhibition features the Psalter of Henry the Lion, Matthew Paris's Chronicles of England and pages from an illustrated, verse chronicle. Here we tell you a little more about the stunning Psalter on loan to the Speyer exhibition.

In February 1168, Henry the Lion, Duke of Bavaria and Saxony (b. 1129, d. 1195), married the 12-year-old Princess Matilda of England in Minden Cathedral. Matilda provided an important political connection for Henry: she was the third child and eldest daughter of King Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and she had four surviving brothers, including Richard the Lionheart. The ducal couple had five children, the last of whom was William of Winchester, who was born while Matilda was in England, as his epithet suggests. Matilda died a few days before her father, in the summer of 1189, so she did not live to see her brothers, Richard the Lionheart and John, become kings of England. Nevertheless, her descendants also became kings: the current English royal family is descended from William of Winchester through the ducal house of Brunswick-Lüneburg and the royal house of Windsor.

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Representation of the Crucifixion with a portrait of Henry and Matilda (below), from Lansdowne MS 381/1, f. 10v 

A portrait of Henry and Matilda is preserved in an image that originally formed part of a luxury copy of a Psalter (British Library Lansdowne MS 381/1). The ducal pair appear below a representation of the Crucifixion, and opposite the Resurrection. They are identified with their names and titles ‘Henricu[s] dux’ (Duke Henry) and ‘Mathilt[a] ducissa’ (Duchess Mathilda) just above them, and each holds a scroll with a text appropriate to the scene above, from the Feast of the Inventio Crucis (the Finding of the Cross). Henry’s scroll reads ‘Adoram[us] te xre [Christe] et benedicim[us] tibi’ (We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you), while Matilda’s declares ‘Salva nos xre [Christe] salvator p[er] virtute[m] crucis’ (Save us, O Saviour Christ, by the virtue of the Cross).

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Calendar page for the month of September portraying the zodiac symbol of Libra and the month’s labour of wine-making, from Lansdowne MS 381/1, f. 5v

Only eleven leaves from this small Latin Psalter are preserved, but they give an indication of just how splendid the book must have been originally. Psalters include the book of the Psalms, but also other texts that add to the book’s devotional character, such as a calendar, which provided its user with information about saints’ days and other holidays. In the Psalter of Henry the Lion, six months of the calendar survive, showing the saints’ days for June to December. In most Psalters the Canticles and personalized prayers and litanies follow the Psalms, but these are not among the surviving leaves of the Henry the Lion Psalter.

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Representation of the Resurrection, from Lansdowne MS 381/1, f. 11r

Particularly opulent Psalters, like this one, also featured full-page devotional images, usually placed before the Psalms. Two such paintings survive in the Henry of Lion Psalter (the Annunciation and the Presentation), but, more unusually, full-page scenes also appear at important divisions of the Psalms itself. For example, the Duke and Duchess were placed right before the beginning of Psalm 101, as is clear from the text on the other sides of the Crucifixion and Resurrection scenes. This is an important position in the book, at a division of one of the so-called ‘three fifties’, dividing the Psalms into three groups, and at a point where a donor portrait sometimes appears.

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Opening of Psalm 1 with foliated initial of ‘B’(eatus vir), from Lansdowne MS 381/1, f. 8v

The decoration and painting in the Psalter is of high quality, and includes precious materials. Moreover, the beginning of Psalms 1 and 101 and the calendar pages are written on a stained or painted purple background, and written in liquid gold ink. Purple is replete with both imperial and spiritual references; certain Roman emperors famously reserved the use of purple clothing for themselves, and books, too, written on purple were high-status objects. In a Christian context, the purple also may refer to the blood of Christ’s sacrifice, while the gold and silver reflected the preciousness of the sacred text itself. The richness of the illumination is appropriate as well to the status of the book’s princely owners.

The Psalter of Henry the Lion together with the Chronicles of England (Cotton MS Claudius D VI) and the illustrated verse chronicle (Cotton MS Vitellius A XIII/1) can be viewed in person at the Historisches Museum der Pfalz in Speyer until 15 April 2018. We would be delighted if you were able to visit the exhibition; but if you can’t get to Germany, you can also see all three manuscripts online in full on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts website.

Kathleen Doyle

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15 September 2017

Fragmentarium and the burnt Anglo-Saxon fragments

Have you ever been intrigued by the survival of fragments of medieval manuscripts, used perhaps as waste in later bookbindings, or damaged in catastrophic events such as the Ashburnham House fire? The recent launch of Fragmentarium (the Digital Research Laboratory for Medieval Manuscript Fragments) will enable many of these fragments to be analysed in greater detail, and in some cases to be digitally reunited. The British Library is one partner in this project, alongside institutions and collections from Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Norway, Switzerland, the USA, the Vatican and the United Kingdom. As the project states, 'Fragmentarium enables libraries, collectors, researchers and students to publish images of medieval manuscript fragments, allowing them to catalogue, describe, transcribe, assemble and re-use them.'

Some of our readers may have come across the story of the Ashburnham House fire of 23 October 1731. This tragic event left a number of manuscripts in the famous collection of manuscripts assembled by Robert Cotton in an extra-crispy state. After a remarkable conservation effort undertaken in the 18th and 19th centuries, many of these volumes did not look so bad, all things considered, as you can see for yourself with Beowulf. But some of these manuscripts did not fare so well — to the naked eye they often resemble something approaching a burnt biscuit!

Cotton MS Otho A X, f. 1v, as it looks in person.

Cotton MS Otho A X, f. 1v, as it looks in person

The burnt Cotton fragments are among the most evocative artefacts of medieval culture, both for the tragedy of their destruction and the mystery of their contents. Many of the surviving leaves remain critical to scholarship, often containing unique texts or their earliest known copies. Work on other fragments at the British Library has already shown that multispectral photography can make it possible to extract more information from what survives. The burnt leaves remain vulnerable, and so it is critical that digital techniques be used to document and preserve their present state.

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Cotton MS Otho A X, f. 1v: a blend of photographs taken across light spectra

For several decades, technology has been applied to improve the readability of the Cotton fragments. In the early 1950s, ultraviolet photography was applied to Æthelweard’s Chronicle (in Cotton MS Otho A X and Cotton MS Otho A XII) in order to make new sense of a handful of pages. The same process was also used with Cotton MS Otho A I. At the time, however, these photographs did not achieve wide dissemination due to the limitations of publishing in print.

Multispectral imaging setup at the British Library.

Multispectral imaging setup at the British Library

The recent application of multispectral photography has enabled us to recover more details of these fragments, and with reconstructed colour. At the same time, regrettably but inevitably, this technology has revealed that, in the course of half a century, the condition of these fragments has sometimes deteriorated. A few volumes that seemingly could be read without technological assistance only a few decades ago have details that today are difficult to read with the naked eye. In some cases, the volumes are so fragile that they can only be issued in the British Library's Manuscripts Reading Room with special curatorial permission.

We are currently publishing key remnants of some of the burnt Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in the Cotton collection on Fragmentarium. Dr Christina Duffy, the British Library's Imaging Scientist, has photographed over a hundred of these fragments and has skilfully processed them to make their reconstruction as legible as possible. The results will be available under a Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication. Fragmentarium has also built the capacity into their site to handle multiple images of a single folio — rare but critical functionality for dealing with multispectral imaging, since the images you will see are a scientific but also very much a human reconstruction.

Andrew Dunning

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12 September 2017

The Mostyn Psalter-Hours: a new acquisition

We are delighted to announce that the Mostyn Psalter-Hours has been acquired for the national collection at the British Library, thanks to the support of the National Heritage Memorial Fund and other generous supporters. The manuscript is a late 13th-century illuminated Psalter-Hours produced in London, and is now Additional MS 89250.

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The Mostyn Psalter-Hours: British Library Add MS 89250, f. 52r

The book includes a calendar, decorated with twenty small miniatures of the labours of the months and the signs of the Zodiac (two months are lacking), and a Psalter with eight of the original ten large historiated initials, the Hours of the Virgin, and the Office of the Dead. 

The manuscript’s original patron is unknown, but its high quality illumination indicates that it was made for an important individual, possibly a bishop, as an image of a bishop appears in the illustration for Psalm 101, where a donor portrait might be expected.      

Importance to the national heritage

The manuscript can be identified securely as having been produced in London: its calendar records a sequence of London saints, including the 7th-century bishops of London, Melitus and Erkenwald, and the feast of the translation of Edward the Confessor in Westminster in 1269. Relatively few examples of luxury books made in London survive from the medieval period. The book is therefore of clear national heritage importance and a natural fit for the national collection, which holds the largest collection of English Psalters made in this period. 

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The Mostyn Psalter-Hours: British Library Add MS 89250, f. 13r

As an outstanding example of English illumination of the highest quality, the manuscript represents a crucial piece of evidence for the history of English painting. Textually, it is an interesting example of a combined Psalter Hours. Because it is localised to London, it is a critical focus around which to group other manuscripts—of Psalter texts and others—in a Westminster/London context, and to compare with books made in other centres.  

The addition of the Mostyn Psalter to the British Library’s collections will facilitate identification of other London-based scribes and artists in other manuscripts. Similarly, the representation of the possible patron within the book, as noted above, may also shed light on the production of these luxury books. 

Access

The manuscript has been digitised in full, and has been added to our Digitised Manuscripts website (Add MS 89250), where it may be accessed free of charge. In the coming months it will be placed on display in the Library’s Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery, which is open seven days a week. Thereafter it will be available to scholars in the Library’s Manuscripts Reading Room. 

Funders

The purchase price of the manuscript was £775,000. We are grateful to the many funders who made this acquisition possible: the National Heritage Memorial Fund, who contributed £390,000, the Art Fund, Sir Siegmund Warburg’s Voluntary Settlement, the late Bernard Breslauer, the Friends of the British Library, and the Friends of the National Libraries.