Medieval manuscripts blog

8 posts from March 2018

20 March 2018

Call the medieval midwife

Tucked away in a 14th-century encyclopaedia and bestiary is an oath written alongside a black cross. The person who made it had borrowed the book, and identified themselves as ‘abestetrix heifmoeder’ (echoing the Latin ‘obstetrix’, meaning ‘midwife’). Midwifery was as vital in the medieval world as it is today. Medieval manuscripts can provide a variety of evidence for the hardships, mysteries and triumphs of this historic profession.


Detail of an oath written by a midwife: Add MS 11390, f. 94v

Accounts of famous births from history are often accompanied by illustrations of the birthing chamber, depicting midwives and their female companions. This image accompanies the account of the birth of St Edmund in John Lydgate's Lives of SS Edmund and Fremund. The new mother lies in bed, tended by her companions, while the baby is warmed before the fire.

011HRL000002278U00013V00 - Copy

Miniature of the birth of St Edmund, from Lydgate's Lives of SS Edmund and Fremund, England, 1434–1439: Harley MS 2278, f. 13v

The caesarean birth of Julius Caesar is frequently illustrated in medieval accounts of his life. Many of these illustrations depict men performing the caesarean, most likely because of the more surgical nature of the procedure. However, it may not have been uncommon for midwives to perform a caesarean themselves. These two illustrations of Caesar's birth depicts a midwife pulling the baby from the mother, accompanied by a female attendant, and the same birth, with a man playing the midwife's role.

Royal 16 g vii

Miniature of the birth of Julius Caesar, showing a female midwife: Royal MS 16 G VII, f. 219r


Miniature of the birth of Julius Caesar, showing a man performing the caesarean: Royal MS 16 G VIII, f. 32r

Information on pregnancy and childbirth was also included in medical treatises. Copied into one 15th-century manuscript is a gynaecological text taken from Gilbertus Anglicus’ Compendium of Medicine. The text is accompanied by illustrations of foetuses in the womb, depicted in a variety of unusual positions. It is difficult to determine whether this work would ever have been consulted by a woman. The manuscript's first known owner was Richard Ferris, sergeant surgeon to Elizabeth I, the queen who famously never married or had children. 


Roundels showing various foetal presentations: Sloane MS 2463, f. 218v

Books may not have been an unusual sight in the birthing chamber, as women were known to have had texts read aloud to them while they were in labour. The Passio of St Margaret was a popular choice. St Margaret is thought to have emerged from a dragon's womb ‘unharmed and without any pain’, and came to be widely regarded as the patron saint of women in childbirth. Many manuscripts of the Passio of St Margaret are accompanied by instructions to bless the expectant mother with a copy of the Passio to secure the safe delivery of her child.


Miniature of a woman lying in a bed screened by a curtain, with a swaddled infant held by a midwife (the miniature has been smudged by kissing): Egerton MS 877, f. 12r

In the 14th century, relics of St Margaret’s girdle were often used as birthing aids. One 15th-century amulet roll (Harley Ch 43 A 14), which is thought to have been used as a birth girdle, contains a text in Middle English invoking the protection of the Cross, specifically referencing childbirth. This invocation was likely read aloud, perhaps by the midwife, as the girdle was worn by the expectant mother. Invocations to aid pregnancy and childbirth were also used in the Anglo-Saxon period. The Old English Lacnunga contains a charm to be used by women who struggled to carry a child to term. The text includes a set of prose introductions and a series of short poems intended to be recited aloud in a ritual process: 

Se wífman, se hire cild áfédan ne mæg, gange tó gewitenes mannes birgenne and stæppe þonne þríwa ofer þá byrgenne and cweþe þonne þríwa þás word:
þis mé tó bóte þǽre láþan lætbyrde,
þis mé tó bóte þǽre swǽran swǽrbyrde,
þis mé tó bóte þǽre láðan lambyrde.

'Let that woman who cannot nourish her child walk to the grave of a departed person and then step three times over the burial, and then say these words three times:
this as my remedy for the hateful late birth, this as my remedy for the oppressive heavy birth, this as my remedy for the hateful lame birth.'

(translated by Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie, The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records: A Collective Edition (New York, 1942))


A charm for ‘delayed birth’ in Lacnunga: Harley MS 585, f. 185r

It is difficult to prove that midwives were literate or regularly consulted texts in the medieval period. However, many medical manuscripts often included information regarding childbirth and the written word was certainly not out of place in the birthing chamber. The midwife who made the oath to return the book may not have been the only member of her profession to be borrowing books in the 14th century.


Becky Lawton

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

17 March 2018

Medieval lucky charms

Today is St Patrick’s Day, and to celebrate all things Irish we are exploring medieval Irish charms in the British Library's collections. The use of protective charms in Ireland can be traced back to the early medieval period, and possibly to St Patrick’s own lifetime.


St Patrick asleep, with a figure holding a book, France, 2nd quarter of the 13th century: Royal MS 20 D VI, f. 213v


Text page of the lorica of St Patrick, 15th century: Egerton MS 93, f. 19r

A lorica is a medieval Christian charm or prayer that will grant Divine protection when invoked. In classical Latin, the word ‘lorica’ refers to a protective breastplate worn as armour by Roman soldiers. The lorica of St Patrick, or St Patrick’s Breastplate, was supposedly composed by the saint himself to celebrate the victory of the Irish Church over paganism. The British Library houses one of only three surviving medieval copies of this charm, in a 15th-century manuscript containing an account in Middle Irish of St Patrick’s life (now Egerton MS 93). The lorica is also composed in Middle Irish, and is formed of seven verses beginning Attoruig indiu nert triun togairm trinoite (‘I arise today through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity’). A preface accompanies the lorica in an 11th-century manuscript known as the Liber hymnorum (Trinity College Dublin MS 1441), which states that the prayer was written to safeguard St Patrick and his monks against deadly enemies and would protect anyone who read it from devils and sudden death.


Text page of the lorica of St Fursey: Add MS 30512, f. 35v

Another notable protective charm is attributed to St Fursey (d. c. 650), an Irish monk from modern day Co. Galway and the first recorded Irish missionary to Anglo-Saxon England in c. 630. The only known copy of St Fursey’s lorica survives in a Middle Irish collection of theological works composed in the 15th and 16th centuries, known as the Leabhar Uí Maolconaire (Add MS 30512). Like the lorica of St Patrick, St Fursey’s prayer invokes the power of the Holy Trinity to protect one against evil. The text begins Robé mainrechta Dé forsind [f]ormnassa (‘The arms of God be around my shoulders’).


Head, shoulders, knees and bones: the opening of the lorica of Laidcenn to protect the body, late 8th or early 9th century: Harley MS 2965, f. 38r

Protective Irish charms also survive in medieval English manuscripts, such the Book of Nunnaminster (Harley MS 2965), produced in Mercia in the late 8th or early 9th century. This manuscript contains the earliest known copy of the lorica of Laidcenn (d. c. 660), a monk and scholar at the monastery of Clonfert-Mulloe in modern day Co. Laois. The text was copied in Latin, and invokes the protection of individual limbs and body parts from demons, including the eyes:

Deliver all the limbs of me a mortal

with your protective shield guarding every member,

lest the foul demons hurl their shafts

into my sides, as is their wont.

Deliver my skull, head with hair and eyes.

mouth, tongue, teeth and nostrils,

neck, breast, side and limbs,

joints, fat and two hands.

In the same manuscript, Laidcenn’s lorica is accompanied by a prayer against poison. These many surviving protective charms give new meaning to the saying, ‘the luck of the Irish’!


A charm against poison: Harley MS 2965, f. 37r


Alison Ray

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval



Edition and translation of the preface and lorica of St Patrick: Whitley Stokes & John Strachan (eds.), Thesaurus palaeohibernicus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1903), vol. 2, pp. 354–58.

Translation of the lorica of St Fursey: John Ó Ríordáin, The Music of What Happens (Dublin: The Columba Press, 1996) pp. 46–47.

Edition and translation of the lorica of Laidcenn: Michael W. Herren, The Hisperica famina (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1987), vol. 2, pp. 76–89.

14 March 2018

Augustine’s De Trinitate in London and Paris

Two manuscripts of Augustine’s treatise on the Trinity, both dating between 1120 and 1150, have recently been digitised as part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project. One is from St Albans Abbey (now British Library Egerton MS 3721); the other, containing the full text of De Trinitate, was made at an unknown location in England (now Bibliothèque nationale de France ms latin 12204).


The opening page of Augustine's De Trinitate, England (St Albans), between 1119 and 1146: British Library Egerton MS 3721, f. 9r


The opening page of De Trinitate, England, 1120–1130: Bibliothèque nationale de France ms lat. 12204, f. 2r

One of the most influential theologians of the early Church, St Augustine (354–430) became bishop of Hippo in present-day Algeria in 395. An extensive collection of his writings survive, in which he tackled the key theological questions of his time and interpreted them in a personal and practical way. His works were widely copied in medieval monastic scriptoria: after the Bible, they are the most common works listed in their library catalogues. For example, the library of Lorsch in Germany contained 98 volumes of Augustine out of a total of 590, and of 204 books in the inventory of Reading Abbey around 1192, 18 were the works of Augustine, more than double that of any other author.


Augustine enthroned, in a cutting from a Gradual or Antiphoner, Italy (?Cremona), 3rd quarter of the 15th century: British Library Additional MS 38897C

Augustine devoted nearly thirty years of his life to his 15-book treatise on the Trinity, in which he emphasised the resemblance between God and man and the ultimate role played by faith. In monastic communities such as Norwich and Fécamp in Normandy, there are records of it being read at mealtimes throughout the week following Trinity Sunday. At Reading, several copies were kept in the dormitory for use in the refectory, according to a late-14th-century list of books.

In Egerton 3721, the text of De Trinitate is incomplete, ending at book 15, chapter 8. It is preceded by a calendar and a short excerpt from Augustine’s De doctrina christiana.


A page from the calendar: Egerton MS 3721, f. 7v

This is a small work-a-day book, thicker but not much bigger than a smartphone, and written in Protogothic script. It is datable between 1119 and 1146, based on entries in the calendar. In the main text there is one rather smudged gold initial at the beginning (f. 9r) and a few decorated initials in red and green. Paragraph numbers and marginal notes have been added in some books, in others only the book and chapter numbers are supplied.


De Trinitate's book and chapter numbers: Egerton MS 3721, f. 72r

Halfway down the final page, De trinitate ends abruptly, and is followed by a short hymn, Cives celesti patriae, based on a meditation on the twelve stones that form the foundations of the heavenly Jerusalem. Each stone is assigned a different colour, to which a moral or physical meaning is attached. The final three verses are missing.


The end of De Trinitate and the opening lines of Cives celesti patriae: Egerton MS 3721, f. 86r

The copy of De Trinitate in BnF ms lat. 12204, also made in England, was recorded in the 15th century in the library of the abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, an important religious and cultural institution then located just outside Paris.


Initial ‘D’ with birds and a dragon-like creature at the beginning of St Augustine’s letter no 174 to Aureius: BnF lat. 12204, f. 1v

It is a larger manuscript than Egerton 3721, written in two columns and with more elaborate decoration. The book divisions are marked by ornate initials, some containing fantastic creatures.


A large initial with zoomorphic decoration at the beginning of book 5 of De Trinitate: BnF lat. 12204, f. 52v

Although the two manuscripts were made around the same time, the script in the Paris manuscript is more compact, as these images of the same passage from the first chapter show.

Egerton_ms_3721_f010r     Augustinus_Hipponensis_De_Trinitate_Augustin_2v(sain_btv1b10542349s

A comparison of the script of Egerton MS 3721, f. 10r, and BnF lat. 12204, f. 2v

The Paris volume is approximately three times larger than its counterpart, roughly the dimensions of an A4 page, and it shows marks of regular usage. There are notes, glosses and symbols throughout its margins, some in formal script in red or black, others mere jottings and aides-memoire.


A page from De Trinitate, showing marginal notes and symbols: BnF lat. 12204, f. 69v 

The format and marginal notes provide keys to the way the two manuscripts may have been used at their respective institutions, both well-established and important abbeys close to the cities of London and Paris. The first was probably for personal study, whereas the second may have been read in the refectory.


Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval


Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

Supported by

The Polonsky Foundation logo

08 March 2018

The voices of ancient women

The lives of women from former times often go unrecognised. But here at the British Library we hold a number of ancient Greek private letters, written on papyri, that preserve glimpses of everyday life from a world long disappeared. For International Women’s Day, we are taking a closer look at some of these stories, which contain the intimate voices of ancient women who would otherwise be unknown.


A girl serving drinks at a table, from an illustrated copy of the Life of Secundus, the Silent Philosopher: Egypt, 6th century (Papyrus 113 (15c))

One of the earliest British Library papyri to preserve a woman's voice is a petition from 235 BCE. A mother, Haynchis, wrote to an official, asking for assistance in a dispute involving her daughter. Although probably not written by her, but dictated to a professional scribe, the voice resonating from this document is still vivid.

Demetrios the vine dresser deceived my daughter and took her away and keeps her hidden saying that he is going to live with her without me. She was managing my store and supported me, since I am old. But he has a wife and children so he cannot live with a woman he deceived. Please help me, an old woman, to return my daughter back to me.”


Haynchis’s letter to Zenon to return her daughter to her: Philadelphia, Egypt, 253 BCE (Papyrus 2660)

Possibly the earliest female hand in the collection is preserved in a letter dated 168 BCE. Isias wrote to her husband, who had been away from his family on temple service, and for some reason had failed to return home.

“You have not even thought about coming home, disregarding that I was in need with your child going through hard times and every extremity … I am ill-pleased and so is your mother, so please both for her sake and for ours, return to the city if nothing more pressing holds you back.”


Isias’s letter to her husband Hephaistion: Memphis, Egypt, 168 BCE (Papyrus 42)

At the very end of the letter, which she probably dictated to a professional scribe, Isias added in her own shaky hand: “Farewell”.


Isias’s hand-written “farewell” (ἔρρωσθε) to her husband from her letter to Hephaistion (Papyrus 42)

One mother from around 250 CE was particularly concerned about her daughter breastfeeding her new-born, so she wrote to her son-in-law to express her views.

I hear that you are compelling my daughter to nurse. If she wants, let the infant have a nurse, for I do not permit my daughter to nurse the baby.”

Unfortunately, the beginning of the papyrus is lost, but the mother's strong-willed character still emerges in the surviving lines.


Letter of a woman to her son-in-law: Egypt, second half of 3rd century (Papyrus 951 verso)

Another mother from around 150 CE addressed her henpecked son:

I know your quick temper but it is your wife who inflames you when she says all the time that I do not give you anything. When you came, I gave you a little money … but this month I could not find anything.” In the margin she added one final reproach: “Nobody can love you, for she shapes you to her own will”.


“No one can love you, for she shapes you at her own will” Mother’s reproach from the margin of her letter to her son Copres: Arsinoe, Egypt, 2nd century CE (Papyrus 1920)

A more formal letter written by a lady called Aureliana (nicknamed Lolliana) in 253 CE preserves a different voice. She wrote to the local authorities to apply for the legal independence granted to women with three children, in accordance with a Roman law issued by Augustus in 18 BCE. Aureliana’s words still touch us today:

“I enjoy the happy honour of being blessed with three children and as I am a literate woman who can write with a high degree of ease so it is with abundant confidence that I appeal to your highness by this application of mine to be enabled to accomplish without any hindrance whatever business I henceforth transact.”


“I am a literate woman who can write with a high degree of ease”, from Aurelia’s application letter for independence: Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, 253 CE (Papyrus 2458)

Aureliana’s application was preserved with the official archive of her city, and now it is held with other papyri at the British Library, alongside other papyri which preserve the voices of ancient women. If you'd like to find out more about our Greek collections, please visit our dedicated website.


Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Epic women

When many people think of Old English epics, they tend to think of Beowulf: an almost all-male story of warriors doing battle against monsters. However, did you know that some of the longest heroic poems in Old English have female central characters? Three epic Old English poems are named after and centre on women: Judith, Juliana and Elene. These poems are preserved in three of the four major Old English poetic codices, which will be displayed together for the first time during the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the British Library (19 October 2018–19 February 2019).

Page from Judith, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 205r

Perhaps the most action-packed story is Judith. Only one, fragmentary copy of the poem survives, in the same manuscript that contains the only surviving copy of Beowulf. The surviving copy begins when Judith, a beautiful Jewish heroine, is summoned to the bedroom of the enemy general Holofernes. She finds Holofernes drunk and beheads him with a sword. She and her maid then sneak out of the camp with his severed head, which Judith then presents in front of the walls of her city while giving a rousing speech to the troops:

‘Here, you heroes renowned in victory, leaders of men, you can gaze unobstructed at the head of the most despicable heathen war-maker, lifeless Holofernes, who of all people caused us the most loss of life, bitter pain ... I drove the life out of him through God’s help. Now I want to request of every man of this citizenry, every shield-bearer, that you prepare yourselves without delay for battle after the God of origins, that compassionate king, send from the east his bright light. Bear forth your linden shields before your breast, garments of mail and bright helmets into the crowd of attackers …’ (translated by R. D. Fulk, The Beowulf Manuscript (Harvard, 2010), pp. 311–13).

Part of Judith’s speech, quoted above, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 206v

Two more lengthy Old English poems are named after women: Juliana and Elene, both of which were written by Cynewulf. Judging by the form of Old English he used, Cynewulf probably came from Mercia, and he lived during the 9th century. Unusually for an Old English poet, he ‘signed’ his works with puns based on the runes used to spell his name. Juliana survives only in the Exeter Book (Exeter Cathedral MS 3501) and Elene survives only in the Vercelli Book (Vercelli, Biblioteca Capitolare, CXVII). 

Juliana is the story of a beautiful Roman from Nicomedia, who catches the eye of Eleusias, ‘a rich man of noble lineage, a mighty prefect’ (translated by Charles W. Kennedy, Juliana (Cambridge, Ontario, 2000), p. 2). Juliana’s father, Africanus of Nicomedia, is delighted when Eleusias wants to marry Juliana, but Juliana herself is less thrilled: she publicly refuses to marry him unless he converts to Christianity. Furious and humiliated, Eleusias has Juliana tortured and thrown in prison. While in prison, Juliana encounters a demon in disguise. She catches the demon and beats it up. Although the pages which describe Juliana’s fight with the demon are missing (the text breaks after the words, ‘she seized upon that devil’), when the text resumes it is clear that Juliana has physically and intellectually bested the demon, who is forced to confess all his plans and crimes, crying out:

‘Behold, thou hast afflicted me with painful blows, and in truth I know that, before or since, never did I meet, in all the kingdoms of the world, a woman like to thee, of more courageous heart, or more perverse … Clear it is to me that thou wouldest be in all things unashamed in thy wise heart’ (translated by Kennedy, Juliana, p. 12).

Stowe MS 944  f. 7r
A demon and souls in Hell, from the New Minster Liber Vitae, England (New Minster, Winchester), c. 1031, Stowe MS 944,  f. 7r

Juliana eventually releases the demon, who encourages Eleusias to order Judith’s death. When he fails to kill her with boiling lead (which does not even harm her clothes), he eventually has her beheaded. Cynewulf notes that Eleusias eventually dies in a shipwreck, while Juliana’s memory endures.

Cynewulf also wrote a poem about Elene, or Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, who allegedly rediscovered the True Cross in Jerusalem. Cynewulf portrays Elene debating, browbeating (and eventually torturing) whole committees of Jews and Christians to tell her the location of the True Cross.

Vercelli Book f. 121r
Opening of Elene, Vercelli, Biblioteca Capitolare CXVII, f. 121r

Of course, there are female characters in other epics, such as Grendel’s mother in Beowulf and Eve in the Genesis poems. Women's voices also appear in shorter Old English poems and elegies, like the Wife’s Lament. We might also draw attention to Prudentius’s Psychomachia, a Latin text written in northern Spain that became popular in early medieval England. The Psychomachia features an all-female cast, who are personifications of feminine abstract nouns. To learn more about the role of women in medieval literature, please have a look at the British Library’s new Discovering Medieval Literature site.

Hope and Lowliness behead Pride, from Prudentius’s Psychomachia, England, late 10th and early 11th century, Add MS 24199, f. 15v

We should also admit that there is no such thing as gender equality (or other types of equality) in Old English literature. For example, it may not be to modern audiences' tastes that both Judith and Juliana fixate on their subject’s virginity. But it is still worth noting that, over a thousand years ago, women had a starring role in some of the earliest English epics.

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

05 March 2018

Polonsky Pre-1200 Project: we're halfway there

From illuminated Gospel-books to heavenly depictions of the constellations, from texts in Old English to works on the natural world, the first fruits of our exciting collaboration with the Bibliothèque nationale de France are ripe for the picking. The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200 has reached its halfway milestone with 400 manuscripts made before 1200 now digitised, newly catalogued and available to view online. A complete list of the manuscripts with links to the current image viewers can be found here: PolonskyPre1200 PDF (also available as PolonskyPre1200 Excel).

Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII f019v

A lively scene with musicians and a dancer from illustrated Psychomachia by Prudentius, in a late 10th-century manuscript from England: British Library Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII, f. 19v

By the end of the Project a total of 800 manuscripts will be available through this resource, so the halfway point is a good moment to reflect on what the Project has achieved so far, as well what we hope to achieve over the coming months. As we focus on 500 years of collaboration and the coexistence of medieval English and French book culture and illumination, we are also currently exchanging texts and ideas. We are working together in close partnership with the Bibliothèque nationale de France on two exciting platforms for the display and interpretation of the manuscripts that have been digitised. All of the photography is now complete, and we are working on the design of a new IIIF compatible viewer that will be hosted on the BnF’s Gallica website. We are also writing articles and descriptions of many of the Project manuscripts for a new website hosted at the British Library, to explore the cultural and historical context of the manuscripts together with their artistic importance.


Illustrated herbal in Old English picturing a mandrake, from 11th-century England: British Library Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 57v


Image of St Benedict handing a book to his disciple, St Maurus from the beginning of the Rule of St Benedict made in Nîmes in 1129: British Library Add MS 16979, f. 21v

To follow the progress of our French partner, do consult their new blog Manuscripta. For inspiring glimpses of individual manuscripts check out the Project on Twitter (using the hashtag #PolonskyPre1200). And, of course, follow our own Blog for regular updates.


The Polonsky Pre-1200 Project Team

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval


Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

Supported by

The Polonsky Foundation logo


02 March 2018

Domesday Book is coming to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition

Tickets are now on sale for the British Library’s major exhibition on the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (19 October 2018–19 February 2019). As we previously announced, the exhibition will feature manuscripts that have not been in the British Isles for over 1,000 years, some of the earliest writing in English, and recent discoveries such as the Staffordshire Hoard. Today we are also thrilled to announce that the exhibition will feature Domesday Book, one of the most iconic manuscripts in English history.


Part of the survey for Yorkshire, in Great Domesday: The National Archives, E 31/2/2 (image courtesy of The National Archives)

Domesday Book will be generously loaned to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition by The National Archives. It represents one of the most remarkable administrative endeavours in the history of medieval government. Although often thought of as a spectacular achievement of the Norman invaders, it is also a uniquely rich record of the landscape of late Anglo-Saxon England.


Domesday Book with Dr Claire Breay (Head of Medieval Manuscripts, The British Library) and Dr Jessica Nelson, Head of Medieval Collections, The National Archives

The volumes known as Great Domesday contain the final summary of a survey of land and property ownership in England, commissioned by William the Conqueror at Christmas 1085. Domesday Book was so-called because its judgements, like the Last Judgement on Doomsday, could not be appealed. As one government administrator put it in the 1170s, 'We have called the book ‘the Book of Judgement’ [liber iudiciarium or Domesdei in English], not because it contains decisions on various difficult points, but because its decisions, like those of the Last Judgement, are unalterable' (Richard Fitz Nigel, Dialogus de Scaccario: The Course of the Exchequer, ed. and trans. by Charles Johnson and others (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), p. 64).


Part of the survey for Cheshire, in Great Domesday: The National Archives, E 31/2/2 (image courtesy of The National Archives)

The Domesday inquest or survey was completed in a mere seven months. Domesday Book records the landholders, tenants and resources of over 13,418 settlements in England and some in Wales. It lists churches, forests for deer hunting, plough teams, slaves, meadows, arable land and other details. Not all regions are covered in the surviving survey. Cities such as London and Winchester were notably left out, together with England north of the River Tees. Even areas that are featured in Domesday Book do not always have complete information. There are some interesting examples of rural areas where plough teams and other resources are listed, but, mysteriously, no people. Nevertheless, Domesday Book provides unparalleled detail about the landscape and economy in England shortly before and soon after the Norman Conquest.

The country was divided into seven areas called circuits. Teams of nobles and officials, called commissioners, were sent to each area to record who owned which pieces of land and which humans and animals lived on the land, both between the time of King Edward the Confessor (1066) and the time the survey was carried out (1086).  Not ‘one ox nor one cow nor one pig was left out’, as one contributor to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle complained. A copy of the list of questions asked by the commissioners survives in the 12th-century Inquisitio Eliensis at Trinity College in Cambridge. This manuscript is also being loaned to the exhibition and will be on display in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms.


A list of the questions asked by the Domesday commissioners: Cambridge, Trinity College, MS O.2.41, p. 161 (reproduced with the permission of the Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge)

The process by which the survey was compiled is revealed by Exon Domesday, which covers the south-western counties of Cornwall, Devon, Somerset and Wiltshire. Exon Domesday preserves evidence of how data was collected and reorganised in the phase of the survey which immediately preceded the compilation of Great Domesday itself, and we are delighted that part of the manuscript will be on loan from Exeter Cathedral Library in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms as part of the story of the landscape of 11th-century England.

The exhibition will feature a number of books and documents from the British Library's own collections, alongside key manuscripts and artefacts loaned by other institutions. In addition to Domesday Book, visitors to the exhibition will be able to view Beowulf and Codex Amiatinus. In the coming months we will reveal more news about the exhibits and our events programme on the Medieval Manuscripts Blog.

­Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms will be on display at the British Library between 19 October 2018 and 19 February 2019. You can book your tickets for the exhibition here.

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

01 March 2018

A calendar page for March 2018

There’s something fishy about the blog today: it’s Pisces, the zodiac sign for March, from the 11th-century calendar we are exploring month by month this year (Cotton MS Julius A VI).

A calendar page for March, Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 4r

The zodiac symbol Pisces, represented by two fish, appears at the top of the page. Other zodiac symbols went through many different interpretations and presentations in different medieval calendars, even in closely related manuscripts. For example, Capricorn is depicted differently in this manuscript from the way Capricorn appears in its close relative, another 11th-century calendar also attributed to Canterbury (Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1). The representation of Pisces is remarkably consistent in much of medieval art, as two fish facing opposite directions, connected by a line.

Cotton_ms_julius_a_vi_f004r pisces
Detail of Pisces, Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 4r

Reading down the page, you’ll notice several gold crosses. These were added by an early user of the calendar (or possibly by its original scribe) to mark out important feasts. In contrast to the pages for January and February, each of which had one or two crosses, four feasts were highlighted with gold crosses on the page for March: the death of Pope Gregory the Great (12 March), the feast of St Cuthbert (20 March), one of the feasts of St Benedict of Nursia (21 March), and the feast of the Annunciation (25 March).

Cotton_ms_julius_a_vi_f004r gold crosses
Detail of the feasts of St Cuthbert, St Benedict and the Annunciation  marked out with gold crosses, Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 4r

This proliferation of important feasts may reflect the number of significant saints with feast days in March. The calendar and its models were probably made at a reformed monastery or cathedral, as discussed in the post for January. As a community that followed the Rule of St Benedict, his feast days would inevitably have been important to the calendars' creators and owners, and reformed monks were particularly devoted to the Virgin Mary and her feast days. Meanwhile, Gregory the Great was celebrated in England for sending missionaries and establishing the see of Canterbury, while Cuthbert, the 7th-century Northumbrian saint, was popular throughout Europe in the early Middle Ages.  

Saints Gregory, Benedict and Cuthbert are depicted in the front row of the choir of confessors. They can be identified by the names on their stoles. From the Benedictional  of St Æthelwold, England (Winchester or Thorney), c. 963-984, Add MS 49598, f.1r

There may also be another explanation for the number of feasts singled out in March. The month of March often coincided with Lent, the period of fasting before Easter. Sundays and major feast days were exempt from the fast. Perhaps it was in the annotator’s interest to highlight many important feast days when fasting could be suspended.

Detail of diggers and sowers, from Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 4r

The page ends with the labour of the month. Here, labourers are portrayed digging and sowing. Sowing, along with ploughing, was also portrayed in the calendar page for January. However, sowing may not have taken place in January, and the January image may have been more symbolic. For many crops, March was closer to the time for sowing than January.  

For more on this manuscript (and details about when you will be able to see it in person), click here. For previous years’ calendar pages, and for explanations of medieval calendars, click here.

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval


Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

Supported by

PF Logo