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226 posts categorized "Anglo-Saxons"

17 October 2018

Manuscripts from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms online

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The British Library holds the world’s most important collections of books made or owned in England between the eclipse of Roman Britain and the Norman Conquest of 1066. These books and documents contain crucial evidence for the development of society, economy, literature, government, art and religion during the transformative period between the 7th and the 11th centuries. Ahead of the Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, we are delighted to announce that over 200 manuscripts made or owned in England before 1100 can now be viewed in full online on our Digitised Manuscripts website, along with the surviving single-sheet documents produced before the Norman Conquest. We’ve produced a list of manuscripts digitised as of October 2018 that appear in Helmut Gneuss and Michael Lapidge, Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts: A Bibliographical Handlist of Manuscripts and Manuscript Fragments Written or Owned in England up to 1100 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014): Download Digitised Manuscripts from the AngloSaxon Kingdoms. The list is available here as a spreadsheet (this format does not work with all web browsers): Download Digitised Manuscripts from the AngloSaxon Kingdoms

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Miniature of David surrounded by musicians and scribes, from the Vespasian Psalter, made in Kent in the 8th century with later additions: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 30v

Many of these manuscripts were digitised in 2015 and 2016 in memory of Melvin R. Seiden. Others have been digitised thanks to the generosity of a variety of other funders. These books and documents demonstrate the range of writing produced by early English speakers, including the oldest intact European book; epic poems; short riddles; mesmerising illuminated Gospel-books; even rough notes on 200 cheeses. The list includes not only books that were made in England, but works whose annotations show they were owned in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. For example, the oldest book known to have been owned in England in this period was made in Africa. 

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Detail of Biblical quotations from the letters of Cyprian, made in North Africa in the 4th century, with annotations added in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms around the 8th century: Add MS 40165a, f. 3v

Still more Anglo-Saxon manuscripts are being digitised all the time under The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200. Stay tuned to the #PolonskyPre1200 hashtag on Twitter for the latest updates. 

Other early manuscripts could not be photographed in the traditional way due to historic damage, such as burning and erasures. However, Christina Duffy and the British Library's Conservation Centre have been doing pioneering work with new forms of imaging. Come to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition to learn more, and to see some of these manuscripts in person, as well as online. 

 
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13 October 2018

The last Anglo-Saxon kings

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This weekend marks two important anniversaries. 13 October is the feast-day of King Edward the Confessor, who ruled England from 1042 until his death in January 1066. His successor, King Harold II, was killed 952 years ago at the Battle of Hastings, on 14 October 1066. In the week that our major exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, opens at the British Library, here is some of the manuscript evidence for these last kings of Anglo-Saxon England.

Hastings is often cited as ‘the end of Anglo-Saxon England’. But how ‘English’ were these last Anglo-Saxon kings? Harold had a Norse name, and his parents were closely linked to King Cnut, who ruled England and Scandinavia; while Edward the Confessor spent most of his formative years in exile in Normandy.

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Seal of Edward the Confessor: LFC Ch XXI 5

Although Edward the Confessor died in January 1066, his saint’s day was eventually set for 13 October: the last day England was ruled by an ‘English’ king, as opposed to a Norman. (A handy tip: you can enter Westminster Abbey for free on this day, since Edward’s shrine is there.) But Edward had many close connections to Normandy. His parents were Æthelred the Unready and Emma of Normandy, the daughter of Richard I, duke of Normandy. During Edward’s childhood, England was repeatedly attacked by Scandinavian forces.When he was about 10, he fled to Normandy wih his mother, his brother Alfred and his sister Godgifu. After Æthelred died, Emma returned to England to marry the conquering King Cnut, but Edward and his siblings remained in Normandy, probably living with their relatives.

When King Cnut died in 1035, Alfred and Edward, now in his 30s, invaded England in order to claim the throne. They were probably supported by Norman forces and possibly encouraged by Emma. After being defeated, Edward escaped but Alfred was captured, blinded and killed by Cnut’s son, Harald Harefoot. Edward seems never to have forgiven his mother for marrying Cnut or for her role in their failed coup.

Harald Harefoot died in 1040 and Emma’s son by Cnut, Harthacnut, succeeded to the throne. Harthacnut and Emma had trouble retaining power, so Emma invited Edward to return from Normandy and rule as king alongside Harthacnut. Harthacnut choked at a wedding feast and died, and Edward was crowned as sole king of England in 1043, when he was around 40 years old. Up to that point, he had spent three-quarters of his life outside England.

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Portrait of Emma being presented with the Encomium Emmae Reginae, while Harthacnut and Edward look on, c. 1041: Add MS 33241, f. 1v

One of Edward’s first actions within a few months of becoming king was to deprive Emma of her property. He still had many Continental connections. His inner circle included his relative Ralph of Mantes, who stationed troops in England. Edward also promoted the interests of the Norman abbot Robert of Jumièges, who was eventually made archbishop of Canterbury. He also promoted Leofric, a Cornishman educated in Liège, to be his bishop of St Germans and Crediton (Exeter). In 1051, Edward even hosted a visit from his cousin, William, duke of Normandy.

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The only record of William the Conqueror visiting England before the Conquest, from Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D: Cotton MS Tiberius B IV, f. 74r

Another close advisor to Edward was his father-in-law, Earl Godwine. Godwine was an English noble, but he had risen through the ranks of Cnut’s regime and had married a Scandinavian woman. A sign of these connections is the Norse names he gave some of his sons: Swein (Sven), Tostig and Harold. While Harold may not have grown up outside England, he still travelled widely and his family relied on the support of Continental powers.

In 1051, after Earl Godwine had a dispute with Eustace of Boulogne and Edward's other Continental advisors, his family fled to Bruges. His sons travelled to Flanders and Scandinavia to raise a fleet to force Edward to allow them to return, and Harold travelled to Ireland, also seeking support. The family succeeded in being reinstated. Harold also travelled much further afield, to Flanders, the German lands and Rome, where he collected relics.

Further evidence of connections on both sides of the English Channel, even before the Norman Conquest, is that Harold had probably stayed at the court of William of Normandy. In 1064, two years before they faced off across the battlefield at Hastings, William and Harold may have even fought together during William’s campaigns in Brittany. Later Norman sources made much of this meeting, claiming that Harold swore on relics to allow William to succeed Edward as king of England. These claims seem slightly too convenient in light of the later Norman Conquest. However, The Life of King Edward commissioned by Harold’s sister mentioned that ‘Harold had a tendency to be too generous with his promises. Alas!’

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Opening page from the Vita Ædwardi Regis: Harley MS 526, f. 38r

Whatever happened between Harold and William, when Edward died in 1066, Harold was swiftly elected king by the English nobility, who claimed that Edward has nominated Harold on his deathbed. Harold’s 10-month reign was dominated by warfare, first with the Welsh kings and then with challengers for his own throne. England was attacked from the sea by the Scandinavian leader Harald Hardrada, who was supported by Harold Godwinson’s own brother, Tostig. Harold defeated Harald Hardrada and Tostig was killed at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September 1066. The English king then immediately marched South, since William of Normandy had landed on the coast and was devastating the surrounding countryside.

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Account of Harold Hardrada's and Tostig’s attacks, from Anglo-Saxon Chronicle C: Cotton MS Tiberius B I, f. 162v

On 13 October 1066, as Harold marched to confront William's invading forces, few could have predicted the sweeping changes that would occur when William won the Battle of Hastings. English government, the aristocracy, architecture and the English language would undergo radical change in the following decades. But some things did not change. English rulers, nobles and tradespeople had close links to the Continent before the Norman Conquest, and there was already cultural and artistic exchange between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and the wider world.

You can discover more about these connections in the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition (19 October 2018–19 February 2019).

Alison Hudson

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09 October 2018

Jim Carter meets Bede

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The second series of the Sky Arts documentary Treasures of the British Library concludes tonight with an episode following Jim Carter, the actor, as he explores items in the British Library’s collections. Since childhood, Jim has been fascinated by the early history of the British Isles, and particularly the history of Roman Britain. Jim was eager to discover what Julius Caesar found when he landed in Britain, and how this period of Roman rule left its mark on the British landscape. 

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Jim Carter of Downton Abbey fame at the British Library

A fascinating resource for the history of Roman Britain is the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed by the Anglo-Saxon monk Bede in 731. Although Bede was a scholar with many strings to his bow, the Ecclesiastical History is undoubtedly his most famous work, earning him the unofficial title the ‘Father of English History’. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History is written in five books, beginning with an account of Roman Britain and ending with a summary of events in Bede’s own day.

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Late 12th-century image of a scribe, possibly representing Bede himself, from the Lives of St Cuthbert, Durham, 4th quarter of the 12th century: Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 2r

During his visit to the British Library, Jim was able to view one of the earliest surviving copies of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. This manuscript was copied in the first half of the 9th century in a southern English scriptorium, most likely Canterbury. The manuscript features a distinct style of insular interlace decoration, cleverly interwoven with the heads of small beasts, which is used to write the first letter of each of the five books in Bede’s narrative. This wonderfully decorated letter ‘B’ begins the opening passage of the whole text, Brittania Oceani insula ('Britain, an island of the Ocean').

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The beginning of Book I of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History: Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 5v

The first book of the Ecclesiastical History begins with the arrival of Julius Caesar, and charts the successes and failures of the Roman campaigns in Britain. Bede vividly described the advancement of Caesar’s cavalry as they marched north. Upon reaching the River Thames, they encountered the sharp, wooden defensive stakes which the native Britons had laid into the riverbank. According to Bede, traces of these stakes were still visible in his own day, and he compared them to the thickness of a man’s thigh.

Bede also described the construction of Hadrian’s Wall. Bede stated that the Wall was 8 feet wide and 12 feet high, and marvelled that it, too, was still standing in his own day. Bede’s knowledge may have been drawn from first-hand observation, since he was writing from his monastery at Wearmouth-Jarrow, located a few miles from the Wall itself. The two Roman walls in the north of Britain would later be depicted in the map of Britain produced by Matthew Paris in the 13th century.

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Matthew Paris’ map of Britain: Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1, f. 12v

When speaking of his visit to the British Library, Jim was amazed by what he had learned from the venerable Bede. This lavishly decorated copy of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History will be on display in the Library's forthcoming Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. Visitors may be able to discover, just as Jim did, what Bede and this splendid manuscript can reveal about the early history of Britain. The Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition runs from 19 October 2018 to 19 February 2019, and you can book tickets here.

 

Becky Lawton

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06 October 2018

A female doctor

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A few months ago, when it was announced that Jodie Whitaker would be the new ‘Doctor Who’, we tweeted an image of a 1000-year-old school-book that anticipated this situation. It included a word for a female doctor: ‘doctrix’.

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Detail of ‘Doctrix’, from a copy of Priscian’s Grammar, possibly made at Abingdon, 11th century: Add MS 32246, f. 11r

The main text of this manuscript contains excerpts from a Latin grammar by the North African scholar Priscian (fl. c. 500). This was one of the standard textbooks for teaching Latin in the Middle Ages. The passage that mentions ‘doctrix’ shows how to make the feminine equivalent of masculine words. For example, rex (king) becomes regina (queen), leo (lion) becomes leona (lioness). A different ending is needed for a female doctor (teacher) or medicus (medical doctor), because doctrina means teaching and medicina means medicine. And so a female doctor is a doctrix.

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Passage on making masculine nouns feminine: Add MS 32246, f. 11r

This school-book was made around AD 1000. It belonged to the monastery at Abingdon, which was a major intellectual centre. Around the edges of its pages, a student or teacher has added in vocabulary lists and even a schoolroom exercise: a dialogue designed to help young students practice their Latin.

Priscian’s Grammar was very influential in early England, and it was used by the writer Ælfric to create an English-Latin textbook and glossary. Ælfric was the most prolific Old English writer and extremely influential. You can learn more about him in the British Library's upcoming Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. Ælfric's Grammar and Glossary is the earliest surviving textbook written in English. It includes a list of feminine forms of masculine nouns:

Modern English

Latin (m)

Latin (f)

Old English (m)

Old English (f)

Teacher

Doctor

Doctrix

Lareow

—

Victorious ruler

Victor rex

Victrix  regina

Sigefaesta cyning

Sigefaeste cwen

Reader

Lector

Lectrix

Raedere

Raedestre

Singer

Cantor

Cantrix

Sangere

Sangestre

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How to make masculine nouns feminine, from Ælfric’s Grammar, England, late 11th century: Cotton MS Faustina A X, f. 17v

Ælfric was hardly a feminist: he probably included all these female equivalents just to show off his Latin. However, in his other works he did write about female saints who instructed or taught, such as St Cecilia. Female leaders and teachers were prominent figures in Old English epic poetry as well: hopefully the new Doctor will get to meet some of them on her new adventures.

This 1000-year-old school-book has had its own adventures. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century, it seems to have been sold, with part of the manuscript ending up in the possession of Jan Moretus, a printer in Antwerp. Moretus worked for his father-in-law, Christoffel Plantin, and their manuscript collections show what sorts of script they were interested in, as they commissioned new typefaces from the French designer Robert Granjon. One of these typefaces — which resembles the Caroline-style script of 11th-century English manuscripts — became the basis for the Plantin typeface. A modified version, known as Times New Roman, was used by the Times of London from the 1930s. Times New Roman was then turned into a computer font, and it was the default font in many Microsoft programmes until 2007.

The monks of Abingdon would probably would have recognized this font. They might have been astonished by the concept of computers and televisions but, to judge by this school-book, they would not have been surprised by the idea that a Doctor could be a woman.

Alison Hudson

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01 October 2018

A calendar page for October 2018

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It's October! That means it is only 19 days until the British Library's Â­Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition opens. Visitors will see a treasure trove of manuscripts, from spectacular art to early examples of English literature. Book your tickets now!

You’ll also be able to see this calendar, made in England over 1000 years ago. Of course, the makers of this manuscript did not anticipate that — a millennium later — the opening of an exhibition in London would be important, and so they didn’t mention ‘exhibition viewing’ as the ultimate October activity. Instead, hawking and falconry are depicted on the page for October.

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A calendar page for October, made in England in the mid-11th century: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 7v

Falconry was a popular pastime throughout the Middle Ages, and has been illustrated in most of the previous calendars featured on this blog, albeit at different months. 11th-century English noblemen who enjoyed hawking may have included King Harold II, who was depicted with a hawk on the Bayeux Tapestry. After the Norman Conquest, Earl Hugh of Chester may have arranged his entire property portfolio around hawking: records of his lands in Domesday Book include an above-average number of hawks and deer parks. (Did we mention that Domesday Book will also be on display in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition?)

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Detail of a man with a bird, Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 7v

A striking feature of the hawking scene in Cotton MS Julius A VI is how recognisable the birds are to a modern eye. While the artist(s) of this calendar depicted plants and trees in a highly stylized manner, the birds in these images look very similar to ducks and cranes today. This parallels are even clearer in the colourful image of the same scene found in another illustrated 11th-century calendar, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1.

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Detail of men hawking on foot and on horseback, from a calendar in a scientific miscellany from 11th-century England: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 7v

The rest of the calendar contains the usual astronomical, astrological and time-keeping information. Libra is portrayed as a man wearing a cloak and holding scales in a roundel at the top of the page. There is only one feast-day marked out with a gold cross: the feast of St Simon and St Jude on 28 October. Today these saints are considered to be the patrons of lost causes.

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Alfred mentioned in the calendar (first line in the image) that was added to a Psalter in England in the early 10th century: Cotton MS Galba A XVIII, f. 12v

There is someone missing from this calendar and its poem that describes every day of the year. The earliest surviving manuscript of this poem commemorates the death of King Alfred of Wessex (871–899) on 26 October. The calendar in Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, which was made in the 11th century, also commemorates Alfred. But the mid-11th century Julius Work Calendar does not, nor does it commemorate the death of Alfred’s wife, Ealhswith, on December 5.

There are several possible explanations for this omission. First, the scribe of this calendar could have been copying an earlier version of the poem, perhaps composed before Alfred and Ealhswith died. Alternatively, Alfred and Ealhswith could have been replaced in later versions of the poem. While Alfred the Great is arguably the best known Anglo-Saxon king today, he was not necessarily so well remembered in the centuries after his death. In the mid-11th century, his grandson Æthelstan and his great-grandson Edgar were the kings who were fondly remembered in speeches and chronicles. Moreover, these calendars were probably made at monasteries, and specific monasteries took different views of Alfred. While Alfred and his wife were well-remembered in the history of the New Minster, Winchester (where they were buried), the monks of Abingdon in Oxfordshire believed that he had stolen from them.

Instead of Alfred, on 26 October this calendar commemorates the deaths of Maximian and St Amand (Amandus). Amand (d. 675) was a bishop who founded monasteries in Ghent and elsewhere in Flanders, and these churches had close links to English houses in the 10th and 11th centuries. Amand is also remembered today as the patron saint of beer, brewers and bartenders.

To learn more about all these people — and to see some of the books associated with Alfred, Ealhswith and Æthelstan â€” please come to the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition between 19 October and 19 February. It promises to be a once-in-1302-years experience.

 

Alison Hudson 

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29 September 2018

Memory of the World award ceremony

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On 19 September, at an official award ceremony in London, the Cotton collection of manuscripts held at the British Library was formally admitted on to the UNESCO UK Memory of the World register. We are thrilled that the Cotton library has received this recognition, alongside treasures from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the British Antarctic Survey and other institutions. 

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Dr Claire Breay, Head of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts at the British Library, receiving the inscription certificate for the Cotton collection from UNESCO Ambassador Matthew Lodge (©Simon O’Connor)

The Memory of the World programme serves to preserve significant documentary heritage from across the globe for future generations. The UK Register recognises documentary heritage deemed by a panel of experts on behalf of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to be of outstanding significance to the United Kingdom. As we reported earlier this year, the British Library nominated Sir Robert Cotton's collection of manuscripts for such recognition, on account of its importance as the first library to pass into national ownership in 1702. The Cotton library contains many manuscripts and charters of global and national significance, including two of the original copies of Magna Carta issued by King John in 1215, the Lindisfarne Gospels, and the state papers of several British monarchs.

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The opening page of the Psychomachia, with Sir Robert Cotton's signature: Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII, f. 4r

The Cotton collection contains the largest surviving number of manuscripts written or owned in Anglo-Saxon England. They include volumes such as the oldest English cartulary (Cotton MS Tiberius A XIII), made in 11th-century Worcester; the Coronation Gospels, presented to King Æthelstan in the 10th century and taken by Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631) to the coronation ceremony of Charles I in 1625 (Cotton MS Tiberius A II); and a beautifully illustrated copy of the Psychomachia (Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII).

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Another Anglo-Saxon manuscript owned by Sir Robert Cotton is the Vespasian Psalter: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 31r

At any given time, several of the Cotton manuscripts can usually be found on display in the Treasures Gallery at the British Library. Many of the Anglo-Saxon volumes in Sir Robert Cotton's collection will be displayed in the Library's forthcoming major exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, which opens on 19 October.

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The Coronation Gospels, made in the 9th century and later owned by Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631): Cotton MS Tiberius A II, f. 3r

 

 

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20 September 2018

The Book of Durrow to be displayed at the British Library

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It is now less than one month until the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition opens at the British Library on 19 October. Today, we are delighted to announce that the Book of Durrow will be on display in the exhibition, on loan from the Library of Trinity College Dublin. This manuscript, dated to the late 7th or turn of the 8th century, is believed to be the earliest fully decorated gospel-book to survive from Ireland or Britain.

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Elaborated initial at the opening of the gospel of Mark

The carpet page and opening of the Gospel of Mark, in the Book of Durrow (Trinity College Library, Dublin, MS 57, ff. 85v–86r). © The Board of Trinity College, Dublin.

The date and origin of the manuscript have long been debated. Strong parallels with early Anglo-Saxon metalwork, including objects from the Sutton Hoo ship burial, encouraged former attributions to Northumbria. A sword pommel from the Staffordshire Hoard, discovered in 2009, also closely resembles some aspects of the decoration in the Book of Durrow and will be on display in the exhibition. However these similarities seem to reflect the dispersal and durability of Anglo-Saxon metalwork, and the strong cultural and artistic connections between Ireland and the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The Book of Durrow is now generally considered to have been produced in the monastery of Durrow, Co. Offaly, or to have arrived there from Iona.

Our forthcoming exhibition will be the first opportunity to see the Book of Durrow in Britain since it was displayed at the Royal Academy in the ‘Treasures of Trinity College Dublin’ exhibition in 1961. The only loan to that exhibition was the Lindisfarne Gospels. Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms will be the first occasion on which the two manuscripts have been exhibited together for nearly 60 years. As we announced in November last year, the exhibition will also include Codex Amiatinus, which was made in Northumbria in the early 8th century and is returning to Britain for the first time since it was taken to Italy in 716.

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The opening of the Gospel of Matthew, in the Lindisfarne Gospels (British Library Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 27r).

The Book of Durrow contains the text of the four Gospels, adorned with spectacular decoration. Its artists drew inspiration from Ireland, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, Pictland and as far away as the Mediterranean. Its designs are outstanding for their precise geometry, harmonious compositions and bold style of drawing. One of the most striking features of the manuscript is its ‘carpet pages’, so-called because they are completely covered with complex geometric designs. Putting abstract ornament centre stage was new to manuscript illumination, and went on to play an important role in Anglo-Saxon gospel-books such as the Lindisfarne Gospels.

Page showing twisted anmals of Anglo-Saxon or germanic influence

The carpet page preceding the Gospel of John, in the Book of Durrow (Trinity College Library, Dublin, MS 57, f. 192v). © The Board of Trinity College, Dublin.

 Other important elements of the manuscript’s artwork are the images of the evangelist symbols, the creatures that symbolise the gospel-writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Early Christian writers assigned the evangelists the symbols of the man, the lion, the ox/calf and the eagle based on the visions of Ezekiel and John the Evangelist in the Bible. The Book of Durrow is the first surviving manuscript in which each Gospel opens with a picture of the evangelist symbol instead of a portrait of the human evangelist. It is also the first surviving instance of a ‘four-symbols page’ in a manuscript, an image of all four evangelist symbols arranged in a cross shape. The linear style and flat blocks of colour suggest that the creatures were inspired by metalwork objects.

Eagle symbol at teh start of the gospel of Mark

The eagle, acting as the evangelist symbol of St Mark, in the Book of Durrow (Trinity College Library, Dublin, MS 57, f. 84v). © The Board of Trinity College, Dublin.

The Book of Durrow is one of the most spectacular surviving works of early medieval art and we are very grateful to Trinity College Dublin for loaning this manuscript to the exhibition. If you haven’t already booked tickets to see the Book of Durrow — along with the earliest surviving complete Latin Bible, Old English poetry, Domesday Book and more early art — you can book them here. The Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition runs from 19 October 2018 to 19 February 2019.

 

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14 September 2018

Wynflaed and the price of fashion

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Some of the most interesting texts in the British Library’s collections have deceptively unassuming appearances. For example, this fragile piece of parchment is the closest equivalent of the Vogue wardrobe for early medieval England. Written in Old English, it is one of the earliest wills which survive from England in the name of a woman only. It details bequests made by a noblewoman called Wynflæd sometime before the late 10th or early 11th century, and it describes her wardrobe as well as her estates, slaves, metalwork, livestock and familial relationships. 

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Will of Wynflæd, England, late 10th or early 11th century: Cotton Ch VIII 38

We can’t be sure as to Wynflæd's exact identity. One of King Edgar’s grandmothers was called Wynflæd, but this will could pertain to someone else with the same name. What we do know is that our Wynflaed was a widow, and that she had a daughter called Æthelflæd and a son called Eadmer. We also know that she was rich. Her will mentions several estates, bands of tamed and untamed horses, slaves, many coins, livestock, items in gold and silver, and even books (annoyingly for us, no further information is given). The compiler of her will described some of the other items, such as Wynflæd's ‘wooden cups decorated with dots’ and her ‘red tent’. Anglo-Saxon nobles often travelled around — Wynflæd may have had to travel to manage her estates — and they stayed in tents when doing so. The Durham Collectar, for instance (Durham Cathedral Library MS A.IV.19), mentions that some of its text was written before tierce (around 9 a.m.) on Wednesday, 10 August 10, ‘for Ælfsige the bishop [of the community of St Cuthbert] in his tent’ while he was travelling in Dorset.

Wynflæd's will also gives details about her attire, from her engraved bracelet to linen gowns to caps and headbands. Such detailed descriptions of clothes are relatively unusual in Old English texts. A particularly striking item among Wynflæd’s clothes is a ‘twilibrocenan cyrtel’. This garment has been alternatively interpreted as a ‘badger-skin dress’, an embroidered dress or even a dress that was only worn twice. Gale Owen-Crocker and Kate Thomas have already discussed Wynflæd’s clothes, if you’d like to learn more.

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A badger? Detail of a decoration around a flaw in parchment, from the Tollemache Orosius, England (Winchester?), late 9th or early 10th century: Add MS 47967, f. 62v

Wynflæd may have taken religious vows towards the end of her life, but that does not seem to have impeded her fashion sense. Her will mentions a ‘holy veil’ and at the beginning it focuses on her donations to an unspecified church. This church seems to have housed women, since the first part of the will also specifies bequests to ‘slaves of God’ there with female names such as Ceolthryth, Othelbriht and Elsa. At least one of these names appears again towards the end of the will as the recipient of some of the finer pieces in Wynflæd's wardrobe: Ceolthryth was to receive ‘whichever she prefers of her black tunics and her best holy veil and best headband’ (translated by D. Whitelock, Anglo-Saxon Wills, Cambridge, 1930, p. 15). Nor were these the only fashionable religious women or nuns in late 10th-century England, if later stories about St Edith are to be believed.

Stowe_ms_944_f006r Emma
A holy veil? An angel presents Queen Emma with a veil, from the New Minster Liber Vitae: Stowe MS 944, f. 6r

Wynflæd’s will highlights another important aspect of fashion history: who made the clothes. Wynflæd not only bequeathed her clothes to her relatives, but she also bequeathed the people who made them. To Eadgifu (possibly her granddaughter), she gave ‘a woman-weaver and a seamstress, the one [also] called Eadgifu, the other called Æthelgifu’. One gets the impression that her granddaughter Eadgifu was a favourite: she also received the ‘best bed-curtain’, ‘best dun tunic’, best cloak and an ‘old filigree brooch’, among other objects.

Eadgifu the weaver and Æthelgifu the seamstress were not so lucky. While Wynflæd freed some of her slaves in her will, these two may have been condemned by their skill. They are two of only four slaves whose professions are specified in the will, the others being a wright and a cook called Ælfsige. Wynflæd was — and is — not alone in exploiting garment makers. To this day, the fashion industry has an uncomfortably close relationship with exploitation and poor labour conditions in many parts of the world.

Cotton Ch viii 38 names
Detail of the names of Eadgifu (Edgyfu) and Æthelgifu (Æþelyfu): Cotton Ch VIII 38

Although Cotton Ch VIII 38 is a copy of the original will, it shows signs of how such a document might have been used.  It is a single sheet, folded carefully in half, then lengthways, and then again into thirds, as if it has been used and been put away for safe keeping.  The interlinear additions to the text are also intriguing: as these are meaningful pieces of text, rather than occasional words, they are clearly not just the result of scribal error, but were intended as clarifications, or to add extra information.  For example, when Wynflaed bequeaths her cloak, an extra word is added to specify which one: it is 'hyre beteran mentel' (her better cloak).  Many of these additions are concerned with what would happen to Wynflaed's slaves.  The will specifies that 'at Faccombe Eadhelm and Man and Johanna and Sprow and his wife … and Gersand and Snel are to be freed,' with Sprow and his wife added between the lines; while elsewhere, where 'aelfferes dohtor' (Aelffere's daughter) is given to Aethelflaed, someone has added 'þa geonran' (the younger) between the lines, specifying which one of his daughters was to be Aethelflaed's slave.  Needless to say, these additions had serious consequences for the futures of Sprow, his wife, and of Aelffere's daughter.

Cotton Ch VIII 16 detail
Detail of folds and interlinear additions: Cotton Ch VIII 38

The British Library's major exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, opens on 19 October 2018: tickets and further details are available here.

 

Alison Hudson and Kate Thomas

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