THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

9 posts from September 2017

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.

Image 1 - Tudor Court

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.

Image 2 - Tudor Court

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

Image 3 - Tudor Court

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’]. 

Image 4 - Tudor Court

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

Image 5 - Tudor Court

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).

Cotton_ms_claudius_b_ii_f049r

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.

Cotton_ms_claudius_b_ii_f233v
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.

Cotton_ms_claudius_b_ii_f080r

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.

Cotton_ms_claudius_b_ii_f177r

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.

Image 1_lansdowne_ms_381!1_f010v

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).

Image 2_lansdowne_ms_381!1_f005v

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.

Image 3_lansdowne_ms_381!1_f011r

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.

Image 4_lansdowne_ms_381!1_f008v

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.

Cotton MS Otho A X 1v_PSC-blendwith17-5770

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.

Add_ms_89250_f052r

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. 

Add_ms_89250_f013r

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. 

09 September 2017

Guess the Song 4

It’s that time again to put your best moves and suggestions forward for our Guess the Song Competition!

Simply guess the name of the popular song and the artist from the clues provided by these medieval manuscripts. There are no prizes, just feel the rhythm and send us your answers via Twitter or using the comments field below this post. Good luck!

 

Update 11 September: Put your hands up if you got it, answer below!

 

Image 1
Image 1, from the Queen Mary Psalter, c1310-1320,
Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 229r

Image 2
Image 2, from Roman de la Rose, c1340-1350,
Royal MS 20 A XVII, f. 9r

Image 3
Image 3, from Omne Bonum, c1360-1375,
Royal MS 6 E VI/2, f. 553r

Image 4
Image 4, from a physician’s folding almanac, 1st half of the 15th century,
Sloane MS 2250, f. 12r

Image 5
Image 5, from the Dunois Hours, c1439-1450,
Yates Thompson MS 3, f. 201v

 

  1. A choir of virgins singing before St Dunstan of Canterbury = All the single ladies
  2. Love’s dance (‘la karole damours’) with ten figures dancing to drum and bagpipes = Now put your hands up, Up in the club
  3. Donacio propter nupcias (bridal gift) = If you liked it, then you should have put a ring on it
  4. Zodiac Man with the signs of the zodiac illustrated on the body parts under their rule = A man on my hips
  5. Soul rising to angels from a corpse, as demon attempts to snatch it = Like a ghost, I’ll be gone

= Beyoncé, All the Single Ladies

 

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06 September 2017

A rough guide to making a manuscript

Tonight, when you pick up your book, observe the legacy of sewn gatherings in the fixings of the pages. Discern, in your fountain pen, the memory of the hollow feather.

What follows is a general, Wiki-How-style overview of how a medieval manuscript would have been fashioned. The craft flourished for over 1,000 years and dominates the material foundation of Western literary culture.

Harley_ms_2805_f149r
A page which bears the scars of vigorous scraping, which have become ingrained with dirt over the years: from a Bible, Central France (Tours), 1st half of the 9th century,
Harley MS 2805, f. 149r

1. Make your parchment

You may choose to outsource parchment but, just for the sake of it, here's the process:

  • Source an animal, such as a cow, sheep or goat.
  • For high-quality pages, select an unblemished skin (skins are a consequence of meat production, as much in the Middle Ages as today).
  • Remove hair by soaking the skin in lime for a few days and rubbing over a wooden stump.
  • Stretch skin on a frame and scrape with a curved blade to get rid of all the flesh.
  • Stitch fly-bites or tears with strips of parchment.
  • Dry the stretched skin in a warm place.

Add MS 46487 f.48r Royal MS 1 B XI f53r
Fly-bites received while the animal lived grow when the skin is stretched and dried. Larger flaws can be stitched: examples from the Sherborne Cartulary, 2nd quarter of the 12th century, Add MS 46487, f. 48r (left) and a 12th-century Gospel-book from St Augustine's, Canterbury, Royal MS 1 B XI, f. 53r (right).

2. Prepare your gatherings (or quires)

  • Cut sheets from your parchment. You may need more than one skin for each gathering of sheets. If you’re making a deluxe Bible, you may need thousands.
  • Fold your sheets into bifolia (Latin for two leaves, or pages).
  • Prick your sheets as a guide for ruling, using a knife or other metal point.

Add MS 46487 f.38v
Pricking marks on folio 38v of Add MS 46487
.

  • Rule your sheets in dry-point (using a sharp-ish stylus) or lead-point. Ruling defines the position, number and spacing of the lines of text per folio (page or leaf). If you (and your patron) are feeling flush, leave nice big margins and lots of space between lines.

Royal MS 1 B XI f.45starr
Royal MS 1 B XI
, f. 45*r, how pages might have looked prior to writing.

  • Assemble your bifolia into a gathering or quire. It is quite common for quires to consist of four bifolia (called quaternians), which will give you eight folios. Books are made up of multiple quires, stacked and stitched together.

Sheet to quire 2

3. Write your text

  • Prepare your quill, which may be a goose feather and can be sourced from the bank of a lake in late summer when they moult. The wing your feather comes from will be the opposite from the hand you write with. In Latin, penna (wing) is the root of our word ‘pen’. Incidentally, it’s also the root of ‘penne’ pasta which, like a quill, is a hollow cylinder!

Goose

  • It will need regular sharpening with your pen-knife (which is the origin of the modern term).
  • Prepare your ink, perhaps a dark ink made from oak galls.
  • Decide in advance or on-the-go where to leave gaps for illustrations and decorative initials. Making a note of the page order, you may want to separate your bifolia so that you have a single-layer, flat surface to write on. 
  • Choose your script. Scripts in the Middle Ages were very prescribed (excuse the tautology). What you use will vary according to the time and area in which you live (maybe half-uncial in 8th-century Northumbria, English Caroline minuscule in late 10th-century Winchester) and the nature of the book (majuscule, minuscule, cursive and so on).
  • Start writing! You may be copying meticulously from an exemplar. 

4. Decorate!

It is unusual for manuscripts to be the product of a single person's labour. Certainly at the decorating stage, multiple hands are likely to be at work.

  • Do under-drawings in crayon or lead-point and outline.
  • Apply gesso (a mixture containing gum) to areas intended for gilding. This might be stained red.

Cotton MS Caligula A VII 1 6v
In a 12th-century image of the angel appearing to the shepherds, the red gesso is visible through the worn gilding: Cotton MS Caligula A VII/1, f. 6v.

  • Carefully apply the fragile gold leaf and burnish (polish). The gold will stick to gesso, the red tone of which enhances its warm glow.
  • Apply pigments made from organic (usually plant-based) and inorganic (mineral) ingredients, suspended in a water soluble medium such as egg yolk.

Royal MS 1 B XI   Royal MS 1 B XI f72r
Royal MS 1 B XI, ff. 9r and 72r, are unfinished.

Royal MS 1 B XI f72r detail
Royal MS 1 B XI
, f. 72r, detail showing the ruling, under-drawing and ink outline.  

5. Bind your book

  • Sew along the spine of each gathering.
  • Now, sew your quires together at evenly spaced sewing stations along their spine (see drawing of binding process) and affix long cords across to them.
  • Sew end bands to the top and bottom for extra reinforcement.

 

Quarter sawnBinding

  • Source your book-boards for the front and back covers. In Northern Europe, book boards were commonly made from quarter sawn slabs (see drawing of tree-trunk) of dense, durable timbers such as oak and beech.
  • Thread the cords into holes and channels in your two book-boards, binding them to the edges of the spine.
  • Cover with leather and hide the cut edges on the inside covers with paste downs. Odds and ends from around the workshop will do.

Add MS 46487 top
Notice how the ends of the boards of this 12th-century binding show short sections of the growth rings of the tree. Cutting the board this way ensured the least amount of warping as the wood dried: Add MS 46487.

Optional Extra: decorate your binding

  • Sheets of precious metal, ivory plaques, roman gems and jewels will enhance your binding no end. But be warned, these rarely stand the test of time, being a particular favourite of plundering invaders, wont to rip treasure-encrusted bindings from their pages.  

Add MS 46487 front Add MS 46487 enamel
The 12th-century binding of Add MS 46487 has been carved to receive a plaque or some other decoration. At some point in the later 13th century, this was replaced with a small Limoges enamel, affixed upside down.

And voilà, you should now have made your own medieval manuscript. Easy, isn't it?

Further reading and links:

M. P. Brown & P. Lovett, The Historical Source Book for Scribes (London, 1999)

Under the Covers: the conservation and rebinding of Fitzwilliam MS 251 [accessed 31/08/2017]

Short Documentary: How Parchment is Made - Domesday - BBC Two [accessed 31/08/2017]

Amy Jeffs

with thanks to Jessica Pollard

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

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04 September 2017

Ping pong merrily on high

In 1934, two exceptional discoveries in the history of medieval studies were made. And they were both made by accident.

In July 1934, Walter Oakeshott, a teacher at Winchester School, decided to go looking for some interesting book bindings in the Fellows’ Library, at the suggestion of his friend, James Basil Oldham. He was keen to look at some manuscript bindings. The manuscripts were kept separately from the books, in a safe in the Warden’s bedroom. Oakeshott wrote that this safe had

'a legendary reputation with me since not so many years before a knowledgeable visitor who had made his way into it had recognised in the bedside mat, a magnificent piece of Tudor tapestry … probably woven for the occasion of the christening of Prince Arthur, Henry VII’s eldest son in Winchester Cathedral.' 

Roses Tapestry

Image of the 'Roses Tapestry', formerly known as a bedside mat, Winchester College

Opening the safe, Oakeshott felt immediate ‘disappointment’. There were no interesting bindings. He decided to glance at the manuscripts nonetheless. One of them was ‘clearly about King Arthur and his Knights’, but it was lacking a beginning and an end. Oakeshott ‘made a vague mental note’ of the manuscript and moved on to the next one.

What Oakeshott had stumbled on was the only known manuscript of Thomas Malory’s great work of Arthurian legend, the Le Morte Darthur — the last major work on Arthurian legend to be produced in the Middle Ages, but also the first and only text in Middle English to recount the entire legend of Arthur from his birth to his death. It was only when, a few weeks later, he was preparing for a visit from the Friends of the National Libraries that Oakeshott returned to the safe and realised the significance of what is now called ‘the Winchester Manuscript’, British Library Add MS 59678.

Add_ms_59678_f009r

The first surviving folio of Thomas Malory's 'Le Morte Darthur', Add MS 59678, f. 9r

When Oakeshott made his discovery, the only surviving copy of this text was a print by England’s first printer, William Caxton (c. 1422–c. 1491). The manuscript is not the original one made by the author, but its version of the text is thought to be closer to the original.

*

Later that summer, in September 1934, another chance discovery was made. This time, the discoverers were not even looking for books, but ping pong balls. Maurice Butler-Bowdon described how he was playing ping pong with some friends at his family’s Georgian house near Chesterfield and how,

'one of us trod on the Ping Pong ball and my father went to the cupboard to get out a replacement and it was soon apparent that he was having difficulty in finding either a ball or a tube of balls … There was in there an entirely undisciplined clutter of smallish leather books.'

Ping pong

Image courtesy http://elsebremsrejsefond.dk/?page_id=856

Butler-Bowdon recounted his father’s exasperation at this pile of book-clutter: ‘I am going to put this whole ­­­­­––– lot on the bonfire tomorrow and then we may be able to find Ping Pong balls & bats when we want them’. Thankfully, the books were not burnt before one of them in particular had been identified: its cover ‘had been eaten away, presumably by a mouse’. It was none other than the lost Book of Margery Kempe, which had previously only been known in seven pages of extracts printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1501. How the manuscript came into the possession of the Butler-Bowdons is unclear — they apparently owned it in the late 18th century, but before the Reformation it belonged to the Carthusian brothers at Mount Grace Priory in Yorkshire.

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The opening folio of  the 'Book of Margery Kempe', Add MS 61823, f. 1r

The Book of Margery Kempe, Add MS 61823, is sometimes called the earliest autobiography in English. Margery lived in the East Anglian town of Lynn in the early 15th century and was at various times a horse-mill owner and a brewer, but later in her life she became a visionary and mystic. She was also the mother of 14 children. Her remarkable Book is a window into the life of an ordinary, middle-class person in a prosperous town in late-medieval England but, perhaps more importantly, it is a rarely-opened window into medieval female experience.

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Never judge a book by its mouse-eaten cover: the chemise binding of Add MS 61823, the 'Book of Margery Kempe'.

 

At the end of the essay in which he describes his extraordinary encounter with the Malory manuscript, Oakeshott compares his discovery to the biblical story of King Saul, who was sent to seek his father’s lost asses:

'We are told that Saul the son of Kish went out to seek his father’s asses and found a kingdom. The fate of the literary detective is comparable only in that, if he finds anything at all, he will find something different from that for which he is looking. It is seldom a kingdom … The asses almost always prove obstinately elusive. Certainly I did not, on this occasion, find them. All I could tell Oldham was that there were no bindings on the manuscripts to interest him.'

The lesson of this remarkable year in literary history is clear: you must always keep searching, because you might find something magical, beneath a mouse-eaten cover, while looking for something quite different altogether.

I have been reading more about these stories of discovery as part of my writing and research for the medieval section of the library’s Learning site, Discovering Literature, which will go live early in 2018. The site ties in with a new on-site adult learning course, Discovering Literature: Beowulf to Chaucer, which will run over six weeks, on Tuesdays, from 24 October 2017. The final session of this course will feature a rare opportunity to work with original manuscripts from the British Library. You can find the course description and booking form here. Places are now down to the last few, so please book as soon as you can.

Mary Wellesley

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