THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

13 posts from April 2018

27 April 2018

Medieval manuscripts internship

Thanks to external funding, the British Library is pleased to be able to offer an internship for a doctoral or post-doctoral student in art history, history or other relevant subject to work on The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200. As part of this project, 800 illuminated manuscripts made in England and France before 1200 have been digitised. The internship is a six-month position based in the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section of the Western Heritage Department at the Library in London.

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The eagle, in a medieval bestiary: Harley MS 4751, f. 35v

The focus of the internship will be to assist the curatorial team in all aspects of the project, particularly in the promotion of it to general and academic audiences in preparation for its launch later this year. Duties may include researching, creating and enhancing our Explore Archives and Manuscripts online catalogue records, and publicising them in blogposts and other interpretative material. This may involve writing or researching short descriptions of manuscripts and groups of manuscripts. During the internship at the Library, the intern will enjoy privileged access to printed and manuscript research material, and will work alongside specialists with varied research interests.

This internship is designed to provide an opportunity for the intern to develop research skills and expertise in medieval history and manuscripts, and in presenting manuscripts to a range of audiences. Previous interns have given feedback that they felt a valued member of the team, gained professional confidence and developed their career by carrying out a ‘real’ job with specific duties.

The programme is only open to students who are engaged actively in research towards, or have recently completed, a PhD in a subject area relevant to the study of medieval manuscripts and who have a right to work in the UK full time.

The term of internship is full time (36 hours per week over 5 days) for 6 months. The salary is £10.20 per hour, which is the current London Living Wage. The internship will start on 30 July 2018 or as soon as relevant security checks have been completed.

To apply, please visit www.bl.uk/careers. Full details of this internship (reference 01982) can be found here.

Closing Date: 20 May 2018

Interviews will be held on 4 June 2018 and it is hoped that the successful candidate will start on 23 July 2018. The selection process may include questions about the date and origin of a particular manuscript to be shown at the interview.

 

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

Supported by

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23 April 2018

The oldest English writing in the British Library?

Today the British Library holds over 150 million collection items and counting. They include most known languages but many, not surprisingly, are in English. So what is the oldest example of the English language held at the Library? The answer is more complicated than it might appear. Many Old English texts only survive in later copies, while the vast majority of our oldest manuscripts from early medieval England are in Latin, the principal language of learning and writing in western Europe at this period. As Bede wrote in his Ecclesiastical History, completed in 731, 'At the present time, languages of five peoples are spoken in the island of the Britain ... English, British, Irish, Pictish and the Latin languages.'

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The languages spoken in Britain, according to Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Canterbury, 9th century): Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 6v

The English language first developed around the middle of the 5th century. It was based on the languages spoken by immigrants to the British Isles, who came from southern Scandinavia and parts of present-day Germany. These early dialects are collectively called 'Old English'.

The earliest texts in English survive as very short runic inscriptions on metal objects and ceramic pots. The earliest substantial example of English is the lawcode of King Æthelberht of Kent (reigned c. 589–616), but that work survives in just one manuscript (the Textus Roffensis), made in the 1120s. Several Old English manuscripts in the British Library may contain texts that were based on much earlier exemplars and stories, but their dates are uncertain, unlike the lawcode, which can be linked to a particular reign.

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Charter of King Wihtred of Kent, late 7th or early 8th century: Stowe Ch 1

From the mid- to late 7th century, texts written in Latin survive from the region that is now England. One of these-- the second oldest single-sheet charter to survive from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms-- does contain a few snippets of English. This is a charter of King Wihtred of Kent, written between 697 and 712, giving land to St Mary’s Church, Lyminge. The land is described as having ‘very well known boundaries’, including ‘barley way’ (bereueg) and ‘Maegwine’s path’ (meguines paed). These few words are possibly the oldest writing in Old English held at the British Library.

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Detail of the boundaries with Old English names: Stowe Ch 1

Some of the earliest substantial texts in English in the British Library were written down at the end of the 8th century or the beginning of the 9th century. (Other institutions hold earlier examples, such as Old English versions of Caedmon’s hymn). One prayerbook made around 800 includes a translation of the Lord’s Prayer into Old English, along with other notes. It has also been associated with a female scribe or patron, so one of the earliest surviving examples of English may have been written by or for a woman. In the early 9th century, a gloss in Old English was added to parts of the 8th-century Vespasian Psalter (Cotton MS Vespasian A I). From the later 9th-century, there are fragments of the Old English Martyrology, some of the earliest manuscripts in the British Library to contain text primarily in English. The earliest, 'complete' book in English that survives at the British Library may be the Tollemache Orosius, an Old English adaptation of Orosius's History against the Pagans, made around 900. 

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Detail of the Lord’s Prayer in Latin (in black ink) and Old English (written above the Latin text, in ink that now appears brown), in the Royal Prayerbook (Canterbury?, c. 800): Royal MS 2 A XX, f. 11v

Old English texts surviving in later manuscripts range from heroic epics, such as Beowulf and Judith, to legal documents. Scientific texts were written or translated into Old English, and parts of the Bible were translated into Old English. Many of these manuscripts are now available on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site.

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A page from the Old English Hexateuch, depicting Miriam and the daughters of Zion playing harps to celebrate victory over Pharaoh (England, 11th century): Cotton MS Claudius B IV, f. 92v

If you’d like to learn more about the development of the English language, among other things, please come to the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, which runs from 19 October 2018 to 19 February 2019. You can book tickets to the exhibition here. You can also find further articles about Old English and examples of Old English literature on the British Library’s Discovering Literature: Medieval site.

 

Alison Hudson

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22 April 2018

Lover, sorceress, demon: Circe's transformations

On 30 April the British Library is hosting the launch of a new novel by the award-winning novelist Madeline Miller, whose book, Circe, revisits the powerful story of this mythological witch known from Homer’s Odyssey.

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The beginning of Circe’s story in a 15th-century copy of Homer’s Odyssey: Harley MS 6325, f. 81v

Circe’s story features in Book 10 of the Odyssey, where Homer describes how the crew of the wandering Odysseus reached Circe’s beautiful island, where they met this powerful sorceress. Circe invited Odysseus’s comrades to a fatal dinner, offering them a potion that transformed them into pigs while retaining their human souls. Arriving slightly later, Odysseus learned about the imminent danger from the god Hermes, who gave him a special drug making him resistant to Circe’s transformative potions. Realising that Odysseus was immune, Circe not only transformed his crew back to men but offered her love to Odysseus and hosted the entire crew for a year of feasting, while instructing them about their journey home. Circe's advice guided Odysseus through the dangers of the seas and the netherworld and finally back home to his wife.

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Circe and her herd of human-beasts with Odysseus’s crew, from the works of Christine de Pizan (Paris, c. 1410–c. 1414): Harley MS 4431, 140r

This strange story of dark magic and unearthly love is full of puzzling details, which lend themselves to a variety of interpretations. Why does Circe transform the men into beasts so that she is surrounded by a herd of human-minded animals? When she realises that Odysseus is immune to her charms, why does she suddenly agree to help the hero? These questions have intrigued generations of readers and have resulted in many interpretations and retellings of the story, of which Madeline Miller’s book is the most recent.

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Circe as a frivolous lover surrounded by her animals from a French translation of Boccaccio’s work on famous women (Rouen, c. 1440): Royal MS 16 G V, f. 42v

Some people have regarded Circe as a simple prostitute, who charmed her clients and held them captive by desire, and whose ultimate aim may even have been to emasculate her lovers. Other interpretations are more subtle. In a marginal note in one Greek manuscript, Circe is explained as an allegory to unchaste pleasure, that for the sake of short-lived satiety offers a life more pitiful than pigs. Odysseus alone is strong and disciplined enough to resist her pleasures and even his own nature.

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Marginal note from a 13th-century copy of the Odyssey: Harley MS 5674, f. 52r

Another interpretation is preserved in a 16th-century collection of philosophical extracts at the British Library. The text is attributed to Porphyry, a 3rd-century Greek philosopher, and describes Circe’s story as "the most wonderful theory about the human soul". The enchanted men have an animal form but their mind remains as it was before, and so Circe represents the circular journey of the soul, dying in one form and awakening in another, becoming death and rebirth at the same time. According to this manuscript, "This is no longer a myth nor poetry but the deepest truth of nature”.

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An explanation of Circe’s story in a 16th-century philosophical compendium: Harley MS 6318, f. 127r

Re-reading Circe’s story did not stop with the arrival of Christianity. Medieval interpreters regarded her as a demon or an embodiment of fortune or even as the Apocalyptic Whore of Babylon. James Joyce’s Ulysses inherited the age-old understanding of Circe as a prostitute, while Margaret Atwood regarded her as a demon. We are looking forward to hearing Madeline Miller in conversation with Kate Mosse, talking about her new book. You can discover more about Circe's world on our Greek manuscripts website.

 

Madeline Miller in conversation with Kate Mosse

The British Library

30 April, 19.00–20.30

 

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21 April 2018

Annual Walton Lecture in Athens

Dr Scot McKendrick, the Head of Western Heritage Collections at the British Library, will be delivering the Annual Walton Lecture in Athens on Tuesday, 24 April at 7:00 p.m. His lecture, entitled English Collectors of Greek Manuscripts at the British Library: Lord Guilford and Anthony Askew, will be delivered in Cotsen Hall, 9 Anapiron Polemou Street, and is sponsored by The American School of Classical Studies at Athens.

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The Golden Canon Tables: Add MS 5111/1, f. 11r

Among other important Greek manuscripts collected by English antiquarians and collectors, Scot will be discussing the Golden Canon Tables, Add MS 5111/1 (ff. 10–11), produced in the capital of the Roman Empire of Constantinople (now Istanbul) in the 6th or 7th century. This impressive fragment from a Gospel-book is fully digitised and is available on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website. It has been featured previously on this Blog and in an article on Greek illuminated Gospels on our Greek Manuscripts site.

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The Golden Canon Tables: Add MS 5111/1, f. 10v

Another featured manuscript will be the illuminated Phillipps Gospel lectionary, containing readings from the Gospels to be read in services throughout the year, now Add MS 82957, available in full here. This illuminated copy was also made in Constantinople, in the 11th century. Regular readers of this Blog may recall our two earlier blogposts on this volume, A Window into Byzantine Illumination and Handle with Care.

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Illuminated headpiece, in the Phillipps Gospel lectionary: Add MS 82957, f. 59r

These works mark two ends of the chronological spectrum of the Library’s active engagement with Greek manuscripts. The first was purchased for the Library at auction in London in 1785; the second was assigned to the Library in lieu of tax in 2007. Each was a major acquisition, the first the most expensive purchase of a single Greek manuscript made since the Library’s foundation in 1753, and the second the most important acquisition of an illuminated Byzantine manuscript since the purchase of the Bristol Psalter in 1923. Scot’s talk will explore the importance of individual British collectors in promoting the understanding and appreciation of Greek culture both in their own time, but also as a legacy to future generations. In particular it will consider the contributions of the philhellene Frederick North, 5th Earl of Guilford, and the 18th-century London physician Anthony Askew. You can find out more in our essay British collectors of Greek manuscripts.

The British Library’s holdings of Greek manuscripts and printed books are widely recognised for their significance. The collection of c. 1000 manuscript volumes includes two of the three oldest Greek Bibles, the remains of c. 227 manuscripts of the Greek New Testament and c. 50 Greek codices dating from before the first millennium. Thanks to the generosity of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation almost all these can be viewed in full online on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website.

The Library also holds c. 3500 papyri and c. 4000 ostraca preserving Greek literary and documentary texts from Ptolemaic, Roman and Byzantine Egypt. Its collections also encompass 60 out of the 68 printed editions of Greek texts produced up to 1500 as part of its remarkably comprehensive sequence of early Greek printing. Thanks to its acquisition of the Cotton, Harley and Royal manuscripts in the 1750s, the Library offered scholars a rich new public resource in the metropolitan capital outside of the old universities.

The lecture is open to all.

 

Annual Walton Lecture

Scot McKendrick, English Collectors of Greek Manuscripts at the British Library: Lord Guilford and Anthony Askew

Tuesday, 24 April, 7:00 p.m.

Cotsen Hall, 9 Anapiron Polemou Street, Athens

 

Ο Δρ. Scot McKendrick, Προϊστάμενος του Τμήματος Western Heritage Collections της Βρετανικής Βιβλιοθήκης θα δώσει την 37η Ετήσια Διάλεξη προς τιμήν του Francis Walton στη Γεννάδειο Βιβλιοθήκη της Αμερικανικής Σχολής Κλασικών Σπουδών στην Αθήνα, στις 24 Απριλίου στις 7:00μμ. Η διάλεξη του έχει ως τίτλο Άγγλοι Συλλέκτες Ελληνικών Χειρογράφων στη Βρετανική Βιβλιοθήκη: Λόρδος Guilford και Anthony Askew. Μεταξύ άλλων σημαντικών ελληνικών χειρογράφων που συνέλεξαν Άγγλοι αρχαιοδίφες και συλλέκτες, ο Δρ. McKendrick θα παρουσιάσει το χειρόγραφο Golden Canon Tables (Add MS 5111/1), το χειρόγραφο Ευαγγέλιο από τη συλλογή του Phillipps (Add MS 82957), καθώς και άλλους θησαυρούς. Εάν δεν μπορείτε να παραστείτε στη διάλεξη και ενδιαφέρεστε να ακούσετε περισσότερα για τους Άγγλους συλλέκτες ελληνικών χειρογράφων, μπορείτε να επισκεφθείτε την ιστοσελίδα: British collectors of Greek manuscripts

 

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19 April 2018

A Bible fit for a king

As regular readers of this Blog will know, the display of the Lindisfarne Gospels follows a conservation programme recommended by an international committee of experts. It is now back in secure storage for a rest period, until the autumn when it will be back on display and featured in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the British Library. 

In its place we have just put out on display in the British Library's Sir John Ritblat Gallery (Royal MS 15 D I and Royal MS 18 D IX) two volumes that have been described as forming the most beautiful Bible in French ever made (Berger, La Bible (1884), p. 389; a companion volume is Royal MS 18 D X). Their large number of images, which illustrate a wide range of Old and New Testament subjects, certainly make the Bible among the most profusely illustrated. Moreover, many of their illustrations treat their biblical subjects with a painterly breadth and spaciousness that distinguish them from other late medieval Bible miniatures. Overall, the Bible is an eloquent witness to why Gabriel Tetzel, a visitor to England, described the court of Edward IV (r. 1461–83) in February 1466 as ‘the most splendid … in all Christendom’ (cited in Charles Ross, Edward IV (London, 1974), p. 259).

These volumes were produced in Bruges, one of the most vibrant commercial and artistic centres in Europe during the second half of the 15th  century. Bruges teemed with book artisans capable of producing high quality manuscripts for wealthy clients.

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As he sits feasting at his table, King Belshazzar is distressed at the sight of a disembodied human hand writing on the wall of his chamber, in the book of Daniel: Royal MS 15 D I, f. 45r

As in many such volumes, the illumination is the result of close collaboration between several artists. All but one of its eleven large miniatures in the volume including the books of Tobit to the Acts of the Apostles (Royal MS 15 D I) were contributed by a principal artist working with a talented assistant. In such images as Belshazzar’s Feast these two illuminators developed striking compositions, the basic simplicity of which is enlivened by the bold application of a lively palette and the introduction of a range of complicated figure poses. Despite their large size, all the illustrations focus almost entirely on one episode each.

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Christ dies on the Cross between the two thieves, as Mary falls into the arms of St John, the other two women look on in grief and the Centurion and soldiers converse, in the Gospel Harmony: Royal MS 15 D I, f. 353r

Additional scenes are relegated to obscure corners of the miniatures and easily overlooked by the viewer. In putting together their paintings, the two miniaturists drew on a stock of patterns of both individual figures and groups. Sources for the impressive Crucifixion, for example, include an earlier Netherlandish engraving of the same subject for the two thieves and a panel painting of the Crucifixion by the celebrated Netherlandish painter Rogier van der Weyden (d. 1464) for the crucified Christ.

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Judith holds the head of the Assyrian general Holofernes whom she has beheaded while in a drunken stupor in his tent outside the besieged city of Bethulia; in the background she carries his head on the point of her sword back to the city, in the book of Judith: Royal MS 15 D I, f. 66v

The only large miniature not painted by these two artists, The Death of Holofernes, was contributed by a painter who worked with a more subdued palette and had greater interest in the depiction of space and the play of light over forms.

Like many of his royal predecessors, Edward IV sought to possess some of the finest books produced on the Continent. As a result he established a remarkable collection of lavish south Netherlandish manuscripts that reflected contemporary aristocratic taste for French instructional and historicising texts enlivened by colourful illuminations. At the beginning of the Tobit to Acts volume, an inscription by the scribe Jan du Ries identifies the date of his manuscript as 1470 and its patron as Edward. However, the volume appears not to have been originally intended for the English king. Edward’s name and titles have clearly been written over an erasure and were not part of du Ries’s original text. Further evidence suggests that the volume was completed for Edward much later.

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Tobit is blinded by bird droppings while he lies asleep in his house; outside Tobit’s son Tobias converses with the angel Raphael disguised as a traveller, at the beginning of the book of Tobit: Royal MS 15 D I, f. 18r

The two companion volumes that make up the remainder of his Bible historiale are dated 1479, a date that conforms to what we now know to have been Edward’s principal period of collecting Netherlandish illuminated manuscripts. Detailed analysis of the heraldry and border decoration, together with an analysis of the costumes of the figures, confirms that the decoration of this volume also formed part of that campaign around 1479.

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God creating the animals: Royal MS 18 D IX, f. 5r

The other volume on display features a magnificent image of God creating the animals, painted in vivid detail. Probably for lack of an earlier patron with sufficient interest and wealth, the high ambition of the planners of this copy of the Bible historiale remained unfulfilled until several years after the writing of the text, when the painting was finally completed for the English king.

 

Further reading

Samuel Berger, La Bible française au Moyen Âge: Étude sur les plus anciennes versions de la Bible écrites en prose de langue d’oïl (Paris, 1884), pp. 389–90.

Thomas Kren and Scot McKendrick, Illuminating the Renaissance: The Triumph of Flemish Manuscript Painting in Europe (Los Angeles, 2003), no. 82.

John Lowden, ‘Bible historiale: Tobit to Acts’, in Scot McKendrick, John Lowden and Kathleen Doyle, Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination (London, 2011), no. 53.

Scot McKendrick, ‘The Manuscripts of Edward IV: The Documentary Evidence’, in 1000 Years of Royal Books and Manuscripts, ed. by Kathleen Doyle and Scot McKendrick (London, 2013), pp. 149–77.

Scot McKendrick and Kathleen Doyle, The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World (London: Thames & Hudson, 2016), no. 42.

 

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17 April 2018

Naming a royal baby

With the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge expecting their third child any day now, the question on many people's lips is: what will the baby's name be? In the light of our upcoming exhibition on Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, we have a few medieval suggestions for naming the royal baby.

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The naming of John the Baptist depicted in the Cotton Troper: Cotton MS Caligula A XIV, f. 20v

In the case of the present-day British royal family, most of their names are derived ultimately from Biblical sources (Elizabeth), classical sources (George, Philip) or Continental medieval sources (William, Charles). Prince Edward's name, popular throughout English and British royal history, is instead of Anglo-Saxon origin and was then spelled Eadweard, meaning 'blessed guardian'. Rather appropriately, the modern Edward was made Earl of Wessex on his marriage.

The nobility of the kingdom of Wessex, which later became the nobility of all England, favoured names beginning with E(a)d- and Alf- and Æthel- sounds. Many personal names at that time were made up of two parts. Typically, the first would be something like Ead- (blessed), Wulf- (wolf), Ælf- (elf), Æthel- (noble) or Byrht-(bright), all of which could be used for both male and female names. The second part was gendered: -flæd (dwelling), -thryth (strength), -gi(e)fu (gift), -wynn (joy) and -burh (castle, town) are all female name-endings, whereas male names could end with a word such as -stan (stone), -ric (power), -weard (guardian), -wine (friend) or -ræd (advice). It is not known how much thought the Anglo-Saxons gave to the derivations of their names, but we do know that some of them enjoyed a good pun on their name, including Archbishop Wulfstan ‘the Wolf’ of York.

A range of possible medieval names for the new royal baby can be found in the will of a wealthy woman called Wynflæd, who owned lands and slaves mostly in the south-west of England in the 10th or 11th century. Many of her beneficiaries had one of these two-part names, such as Eadwold, Cynelufu and Æthelflæd (her own daughter), although others had one-part names, such as Else.

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Wynflæd's will: Cotton Ch VIII 38

Anglo-Saxon nobles may have preferred ‘Eds’ and ‘Alfs’ and compound names, but that doesn’t mean that those are the only early medieval precedents for royal names. If new parents are feeling daring, they might be inspired by this early 9th-century lists of kings, including names such as Woden, Ocga, Wihtgils, Saebald and Ida.

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List of Northumbrian kings: Cotton MS Vespasian B VI/1, f. 109r.

Likewise, the Durham Liber Vitae, complied from the 9th to the 12th century, records the names of many kings and nobles. These include not just Anglo-Saxon names, such as Aðelstan (Æthelstan) and Adgar (Edgar), but also those of the Norse kings of England such as Cnut (Canute) and Suain (Sweyn). If William and Kate prefer to take their inspiration from the Scottish side of the family, the Liber Vitae also records the names of kings of Scotland, such as Duncan, Alexander and Malcolm. Malcolm III's queen, Margaret, is named below their daughter Matilda, who was the consort of King Henry I of England and was originally baptised as Edith.

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List of kings and nobles in the Durham Liber Vitae: Cotton MS Domitian A VII, f. 15v

Having more than one name was certainly not unique among royalty at this time. For instance, the second consort of King Æthelred II was Emma of Normandy, who adopted the name Ælfgifu after coming to England. Confusingly, Ælfgifu was also the name of Æthelred's first wife. After his death, Emma was married to King Cnut: the Encomium Emmae Reginae, written in praise of the queen, depicts her receiving the book from its author, in the presence of her sons Edward the Confessor and Harthacnut, whose names are equally significant as well. Edward the Confessor was her son with Æthelred, and his name follows West Saxon royal naming conventions. By contrast, Emma's son with Cnut was given the overtly Scandinavian name Harthacnut. The manuscript of the Encomium Emmae Reginae Add MS 33241, has been digitised as part of the The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project.

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Encomium Emmae Reginae: Add MS 33241, f. 1v

With all these manuscripts to hand, we can offer plenty of early medieval ideas for naming the new royal baby. Will it be called Æthelflæd or Aðelstan? We can't wait to find out.

 

Kate Thomas and Alison Hudson

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14 April 2018

Italian splendour now on display in Treasures

During the second half of the 13th century the northern Italian city of Bologna became one of the most prolific and influential centres for the production of fine books. Here a succession of illuminators exercised their skills in many hundreds of copies of the Church law, liturgy and the Bible.

Whereas the law books reflected the city’s status as the principal place in Europe to study Church law, the Bibles arose from the presence in the city of one of the largest houses of the Dominican order in Europe. Founded by St Dominic (d. 1221), the Order of Preachers had quickly established a key role within the Church in the promotion of scholarship and countering of heresy. Together with the Franciscans (founded in 1209) they harnessed to these purposes the so-called Paris Bible, a single-volume copy of the Latin Vulgate of relatively small proportions. This Bible included a new sequence of biblical texts and aids to the reader that had emerged from the classrooms and bookshops of Paris in the first quarter of the 13th century. In mendicant hands such pocket Bibles became a potent instrument of the travelling preacher. At Bologna, the final resting place of St Dominic, the dominant influence of his Order led to the production of many more such Bibles than anywhere else in Italy.

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Christ’s genealogy, starting from Jesse, the Annunciation, Nativity and Presentation in the Temple, all at the opening of the Gospel of St Matthew: Additional MS 18720, f. 410r

The Bible now on display in the British Library’s Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery is a closely related manifestation of Bologna’s important role in the production and dissemination of the Latin Bible, although it was produced in a much bigger format. But as in the pocket Bibles, the biblical text of the Old and New Testaments is contained within one volume and follows the same revised sequence, clearly highlighted by running titles in alternating red and blue ink.

Each book of the Bible is preceded by a preface and most notably, divided into the numbered chapters used by modern Bibles. Often ascribed to the commentator Stephen Langton (d. 1228), archbishop of Canterbury, this reference system is seen in its full maturity in the Bolognese manuscript, with each chapter starting on a new line and preceded on the previous line by the relevant Roman numbers penned in red and blue ink.

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Two Dominicans stands to the left and right of a seated figure reading from a roll, at the opening of St Jerome’s Letter to Paulinus: Additional MS 18720, f. 2r (detail)

Depictions of the friars also pervade the illumination. Two Dominicans in their distinctive white gowns and black hooded cloaks are depicted standing to right and left of Paulinus, bishop of Nola (d. 431), who was the recipient of the letter of St Jerome that recommended committed study of the Bible and came to form an overall preface to the Vulgate. Friars in the brown robes of the Franciscans also appear as the recipients of several of the Pauline and Catholic Epistles.

Yet, in its much larger scale and more lavish illumination, the Bolognese volume clearly differs from the average pocket Bible. As in a few other related Bibles produced in Bologna towards the end of the 13th century, its producers were responding to a different commercial market in which prospective owners were capable of paying for significantly greater investment of labour and talent. Most spectacularly they produced at the beginning of both the Old and New Testaments an opulent page in which the principal initial letter ‘I’ extends the full height of the page and encroaches into the text block to left and right.

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God creates the world; Adam and Eve are drive out of the Garden of Eden; Cain and Abel make their sacrifices to God; and Cain kills Abel, all at the opening of Genesis: Additional MS 18720, f. 5r

Here a richly coloured cascade of figures is offset against a ground of highly polished gold leaf and complemented by historiated and inhabited roundels in the upper and lower margins.

Elsewhere 103 historiated initials of remarkably uniform and high stylistic quality and accompanied by beautifully executed marginal decoration mark the beginning of prefaces and biblical books. The initials of the chronologically arranged historical books of the Old Testament include narrative scenes, those of the Prophets and Gospels are limited to fictive portraits of their authors and those of the Epistles depict both author and recipient.

Within these figurative illuminations the artists adopted an eclectic artistic style fusing Italian elements with those of Byzantine art. The panoply of archangels accompanying the Days of Creation are clad in Byzantine court costume. Crouching men reading from rolls draped over their knees evoke even older traditions. For some of these features the illuminators may have drawn, like other contemporary Bolognese artists, directly on works of art recently created by Byzantine artists.

This manuscript may be viewed in full on Digitised Manuscripts (Add MS 18720/1 and Add MS 18720/2).

 

Further Reading


Alessandro Conti, La miniatura Bolognese: Scuole e botteghe, 1270–1340 (Bologna, 1981), pp. 45–47.

Larry Ayres, ‘Bibbie italiane e bibbie francesi: il XIII secolo’, in Il Gotico europeo in Italia, ed. by Valentino Pace and Martina Bagnoli (Naples, 1994), pp. 361–74 (pp. 370–71).

Ducento: Forme e colori del Medioevo a Bologna, ed. by Massimo Medica and Stefano Tumidei (Venice, 2000), no. 114.

Scot McKendrick and Kathleen Doyle, The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World (London: Thames & Hudson, 2016), available here.

 

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12 April 2018

Juggling with fire: the poetry of the Gawain-manuscript

Manuscripts, one of my colleagues once observed, are often like dumplings — plain on the outside, but delicious in the middle. Arguably the best dumpling-manuscript is the sole surviving copy of four famous Middle English poems: Sir Gawain and the Green KnightPearl, Patience and Cleanness. These anonymous poems, which are almost baffling in their complexity, are masterpieces of their genres. Yet the manuscript which contains them, now known as Cotton MS Nero A X/2, is a bit of a dumpling. It’s rather plain: the scribal hand is functional and, when originally written, there was little decoration apart from a few coloured penwork initials. Some time afterwards, a cycle of images was added in the spaces between the poems; but you could not, in good conscience, call them the work of a great artist, unless your definition of ‘great artist’ includes someone with a rudimentary knowledge of perspective and a tendency to inflate the size of the human head.

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The first illustration preceding Pearl: Cotton MS Nero A X/2, f. 41r

That said, the appearance of the manuscript is not why generations of scholars have been captivated by this book. It is the linguistic finesse and metrical dexterity of the poems that makes this manuscript one of the most important in the British Library’s medieval collections.

Pearl the first item in the manuscript — is a poem of grief and loss, in which an anguished father searches for a lost pearl in a beautiful garden. His search reveals more than just the lost jewel. Pearl has an astoundingly complicated structure and makes use of the symbolism of numbers, or ‘numerology’. The poem is 1,212 lines long and is composed of 12-line stanzas. This is in homage to the heavenly Jerusalem which is described in the poem’s final section. The heavenly Jerusalem is 12 furlongs long, and has 12 gates, each of which are set with pearls. The stanzas are grouped into sets of five, but the fifteenth set contains an extra stanza, which brings the total number of stanzas to 101 — the same number of stanzas contained in Gawain.

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The opening page of Pearl: Cotton MS Nero A X/2, f. 43r

As well as veining the poem with complex numerological references, the poet’s choice of rhyme schemes is also highly sophisticated. The poet uses a number of rhyme-schemes in the poem. Pearl is end-rhymed, but also contains internal, alliterative rhymes within the unit of the lines themselves. As well as this, it has a concatenating rhyme scheme, whereby each stanza-set is held together by a ‘concatenation’ word or phrase appearing at the beginning and end of each stanza. In simple terms, the first line of each section picks up and dismisses the concatenation word from the previous one — the final line of the poem echoes the first, and this connection between the first and last lines creates a circular, round structure — reflecting the poem’s subject. Simon Armitage, who translated the poem into modern English in 2016, writes that this is ‘a sort of poetic passing of the baton’.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a tale of wild landscapes, knightly deeds and sexual temptation. It begins when a Christmas feast at Camelot — the court of the legendary King Arthur — is interrupted by the arrival of a mysterious green knight with green skin and green hair, riding a green horse. He challenges the assembled company to a bizarre game which sets off a chain of events culminating in a meeting between Gawain and the Green Knight in a strange, green chapel.

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The mysterious Green Knight arrives at King Arthur's court: Cotton MS Nero A X/2, f. 94v

Like Pearl, Gawain also has a complicated structure. It uses alliteration but as well as this, it uses a metrical form called the ‘bob and wheel’, where each stanza ends with a short half-line of only two syllables (the bob), followed by a mini-stanza of longer lines which rhyme internally (the wheel). The use of this complicated form over 2,500 lines of verse is a showy demonstration of the poet’s skill. If writing good prose is a tightrope walk, and writing good poetry is a tightrope walk while juggling, then the Gawain-poet is tightrope walking while juggling with fire.

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The first page of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Cotton MS Nero A X/2, f. 95r 

The manuscript was part of the collection of Sir Robert Cotton, which in the 18th century was stored in the ominously named Ashburnham House in London. In 1731, a terrible fire ripped through the library and many of the manuscripts were lost or irreparably damaged. The fact that this manuscript, which contains the sole surviving examples of these bewitching texts, might also have been lost makes the book especially precious.

Both Pearl and Gawain feature on the British Library’s Discovering Literature: Medieval website. On the site you can find an article on Gawain by the poet Simon Armitage, and the whole manuscript can be viewed on Digitised Manuscripts.

 

Mary Wellesley

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