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114 posts categorized "English"

23 February 2018

Old English masterclass at the British Library

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In the 13th century, a mysterious annotator with shaky handwriting made marginal or interlinear notes (glosses) in around 20 manuscripts which belonged to Worcester Cathedral Priory. The Tremulous Hand — as he is now known — was from one of the last generations of people who could understand Old English. He is thought to have suffered from a nerve condition called ‘essential tremor’, a type of uncontrollable shaking that mainly affects the hands, which today affects around four out of 100 adults over the age of 40. His glosses show that he was concerned that knowledge of the past, as well as knowledge of an earlier form of his language, should not be lost. Here at the British Library we regard him in very fond terms, because we try to do the same things today.

In one of the British Library manuscripts which contains glosses by the Tremulous Hand, we get a powerful sense of how much Modern English owes to Old English, but also to Latin. Have you ever felt amorous? Or maybe only loving? Presumably you’ve been to villages as well as towns? Have you ever contemplated the celestial realm, which we also call heaven? The words in these sentences have both Old English and Latin roots and some of them are largely unchanged from their earlier forms. If we take a look at this page of the manuscript in question (Cotton MS Otho C I/2), we get some sense of this.

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Gregory the Great's Dialogues (England, 11th century): Cotton MS Otho C I/2, f. 3v

Here you may be able to make out the words ‘amore’ [love] above ‘lufan’; ‘celestis’ [heaven] above ‘heofen’; ‘villa’ [town] above ‘tun’; ‘parentes’ [kinsmen] above ‘magas’; ‘abstinentia’ [abstinence, restraint] above ‘for-hæfednes’; and ‘sermone’ [speech,words, conversation] above ‘wordum’. In the last case, the letter that looks like a ‘p’ is actually a runic ƿ, wynn, for ‘w’… So, you see you can already understand some Old English and some Latin.

We like to think that if the Tremulous Hand ever came across the text called Ælfric’s Colloquy, he might have approved of it. The Colloquy, which was written by Ælfric of Eynsham (c. 950–c. 1010), was an educational text aimed at helping novice monks learn Latin. It is structured like a conversation between a teacher and his pupils, who all have different professions. When we learn languages today, we often practice conversations, again not so dissimilar to our forebears.

In the copy of this text at the British Library, which dates from 1025–1050, a glossator (not the Tremulous Hand) added an Old English translation of the Latin text, in the spaces between the lines. In one exchange, the teacher asks his pupils: 

Interrogo uos cur tam diligenter discitis?
Ic ahsige eoþ forhƿi sƿa geornlice leorni ȝe? 

[I ask you, why are you so keen to learn?]

Quia nolumus esse sicut bruta animalia que nihil sciunt nisi herbam et aquam. 
Forþam ƿe nellaþ ƿesan sƿa stunte nytenu þa nan þinȝ ƿitaþ buton ȝærs 7 ƿæter.

[We do not want to be as wild beasts, who know of nothing but grass and water.]

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Ælfric’s Colloquy (England, 11th century): Cotton MS Tiberius A III, f. 64r

The Tremulous Hand would surely have agreed. He was keen that others after him should also be able to learn. Have you ever wanted to understand more about the Old English Language, and to be able to read some of the most magical texts of the Anglo-Saxon period? If so, please sign up for our Old English Masterclass, which will be held from 28–29 April. Places are strictly limited, so we advise you to book your place on the course soon.

You can find out more about the Tremulous Hand and Ælfric’s Colloquy on the British Library's new site, Discovering Literature: Medieval, which contains a host of accessible articles about aspects of literature in England from the 8th to the 16th centuries.

 

Mary Wellesley

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

17 February 2018

How to make yourself invisible

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There have been times when everyone has wanted to become invisible. But did you know that there is actually a relatively simple way of achieving this? We say 'simple', because you merely have to pronounce the words found in the text known as The Book of King Solomon called The Key of Knowledge. We have a 17th-century copy of this work on show in our exhibition Harry Potter: A History of Magic, and up to now you've had to visit London in person to read aloud this charm. But now we are giving everyone who reads this blog the same opportunity. Do let us know if it works. You just have to recite the following words.

Stabbon, Asen, Gabellum, Saneney, Noty, Enobal, Labonerem, Balametem, Balnon, Tygumel, Millegaly, Juneneis, Hearma, Hamorache, Yesa, Seya, Senoy, Henen, Barucatha, Acararas, Taracub, Bucarat, Caramy, by the mercy whitch you beare towardes mann kynde, make me to be invysible.

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‘Howe experyments to be invysible must bee preparedd’, in The Book of King Solomon called The Key of Knowledge

We SO want this charm to be successful. If it didn't work for you first-time round, it may be that you didn't pronounce the words properly. The manuscript was once owned by the writer and scholar, Gabriel Harvey (1552/3-1631), but whether he had the power to become invisible is lost in the mists of time.

You can see this fantastic manuscript (if you are lucky enough to have a ticket) in Harry Potter: A History of Magic, where it is displayed near a real invisibility cloak (honestly), on loan from a private lender.

Julian Harrison

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

06 February 2018

Independent woman: Æthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians

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If you live in the United Kingdom, you may be aware that 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act, which for the first time gave some women in Britain the right to vote. The commemorations being held this year celebrate earlier efforts to enfranchise women, as well as examples of remarkable women from former times. In recent months, this blog has featured the Greek poet, Sappho, and Lady Jane Grey, England's forgotten Queen. 2018 also marks the 1,100th anniversary of the death of Æthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, who is the subject of today's blogpost.

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Æthelflaed’s name (spelled Æþelflæd), in the B-text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: Cotton MS Tiberius A VI, f. 30r

Æthelflaed was the eldest child of Alfred the Great, king of the West Saxons (reigned 871–899), and his wife Ealhswith. Ealhswith may have been related in turn to the royal house of the nearby kingdom of Mercia. Under pressure during the viking invasions at the end of the 9th century, King Alfred made an alliance with Æthelred, lord of the Mercians. Æthelflaed subsequently married Æthelred, strengthening this bond.

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This Mercian prayer-book probably belonged to Æthelflaed's mother, Ealhswith: Harley MS 2965, f. 4v

By the first years of the 10th century, Æthelred had become very ill. When he died in 911, Æthelflaed became the ruler of the Mercians in her own right. As lady of the Mercians ('Myrcna hlæfdige'), Æthelflaed expanded her territories to the north, east and west. She fortified settlements, or burhs, and led her armies into Wales and Northumbria. In the final year of her life, the people of York even pledged to obey her ‘direction’ ('rædenne'). It is possible that some of her military exploits were coordinated to help her brother, King Edward the Elder (reigned 899–924), but at other times Æthelflaed seems to have been acting independently.

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A page from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle showing the entries of the Mercian Register: Cotton MS Tiberius B I, f. 140v

You may wonder how we know so much about Æthelflaed. We are fortunate in Æthelflaed's case because a narrative of Mercian affairs, for the years 904–924, is found embedded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. This is known as the ‘Mercian Register’, and it provides a very different account of events from the main text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which focuses on Edward the Elder. For example, when discussing what happened during the same months in 916, one chronicle focuses on Edward building a burh; the other details the causes and results of Æthelflaed’s military campaign into Wales.

The Mercian Register was copied into three manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, all of which are held today at the British Library (Cotton MS Tiberius A VI, Cotton MS Tiberius B I and Cotton MS Tiberius B IV). A medieval library catalogue from Durham also refers to a copy of ‘Elfledes Boc’, now lost, which can possibly be identified as ‘Æthelflaed’s chronicle.’ Although Æthelflaed is mentioned in West Saxon and later Irish sources, our knowledge of her career would be greatly diminished if the Mercian Register did not survive.

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Æthelflaed was remembered long after her death. Here she is depicted in a roundel from a 13th-century geneaology of the kings of England: Royal MS 14 B V, membrane 2

Æthelflaed’s reign was unusual. Her successful political career did not necessarily reflect tolerant contemporary attitudes towards women, and (with one brief exception) she did not pave the way for future Anglo-Saxon female leaders. According to Asser, her father’s biographer, the West Saxon court where she grew up was particularly opposed to over-mighty queens: 'The West Saxons do not allow a queen to sit beside the king, nor to be called a queen, but only the king’s wife [because of] a certain obstinate and malevolent queen [from Mercia], who did everything she could against her lord and whole people' (Asser, Life of Alfred, chapter 13, translated by M. Lapidge and S. Keynes, Alfred the Great).

Æthelflaed was initially succeeded by her daughter, Ælfwynn, whose reign was significantly shorter. The Mercian Register claims that just one year later, in 919, 'the daughter of Æthelred, lord of the Mercians, was deprived of all authority in Mercia and taken into Wessex, three weeks before Christmas' (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Revised Translation, trans. by D. Whitelock and others (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1961), p. 67). England would have to wait several hundred years for another queen to rule unchallenged in her own right.

 

Alison Hudson

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31 January 2018

Discovering our medieval literature

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Are you enchanted by Chaucer, bewitched by Beowulf or mesmerised by Malory? Did you know that the earliest autobiography in English was written by a woman, or that several different languages were spoken and written in medieval Britain? You now have the chance to learn more about our rich literary heritage, with the launch of the British Library's Discovering Literature: Medieval webspace, making nearly 1,000 years of our literary history freely available online.

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Christine presenting her book to Isabeau of Bavaria, 'The Book of the City of Ladies', Christine de Pizan, Harley MS 4431, f. 3r

Bringing together over 50 unique medieval manuscripts and early print editions from the 8th to 16th centuries, Discovering Literature: Medieval presents a new way to explore some of the earliest works and most influential figures of English literature. From the first complete translation of the Bible in the English language to the first work authored by a woman in English, the website showcases many rarities and ‘firsts’ in the history of English literature. Some of the highlights include:

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The mythical Cynocephalus, a man with a dog-like head, in the 'Marvels of the East', which appears in the 'Beowulf' manuscript, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 100r

The new website features medieval drama, epic poetry, dream visions and riddles, and includes works in Anglo-Latin, Anglo-Norman French, Old English, Middle English and Older Scots. We are especially pleased to be able to showcase the works of a number of female writers, such as Julian of Norwich, Marie de France, Margery Kempe and Christine de Pizan, and to include engaging human stories, such as that of the Tremulous Hand of Worcester. Users of the site will be able to encounter the first work of theatre criticism in English — the Tretise of Miraclis Pleyinge (a Lollard sermon against mystery plays) — and the story of Caedmon, a shy cowherd and the first named English poet (in an early manuscript of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History).

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The first work of theatre criticism in English, the Tretise of Miraclis Pleyinge, Add MS 24202, f. 14r

Discovering Literature: Medieval contains more than 20 articles exploring themes such as gender, faith and heroism, written by poets, academics and writers including Simon Armitage, BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinker, Hetta Howes, and David Crystal. We are equally thrilled to have worked with other institutions to host their own treasures on our site, giving a broader sense of the richness and diversity of medieval literary production.

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Henry VI praying at the shrine of Saint Edmund, 'The Lives of Saint Edmund and Saint Fremund', John Lydgate, Harley MS 2278, f. 4r

Discovering Literature is a free website aimed at A-Level students, teachers and lifelong learners, providing unprecedented access to the British Library’s literary and historical treasures. Also featured on the site are collections relating to Shakespeare and the Renaissance, the Romantic and Victorian periods, and 20th century literature. The project has been generously supported by Dr Naim Dangoor CBE The Exilarch’s Foundation, along with the British Library Trust and the British Library Patrons. Further development of the project is being supported by the Garfield Weston Foundation, Mark Pigott KBE KStJ, Evalyn Lee, Luci Baines Johnson and Ian Turpin, The American Trust for the British Library, The John S Cohen Foundation, The Andor Trust, and Allan and Nesta Ferguson Charitable Trust.

Mary Wellesley

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17 December 2017

A medieval recipe for gingerbread

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‘Tis the season to be merry, and what better way to celebrate than enjoy a festive treat of gingerbread. A medieval recipe for gingerbread features in a 15th-century English cookery book of extravagant banquets held at the British Library (Harley MS 279). Unlike our modern cake or biscuit-like version of gingerbread, the medieval recipe is more similar to confectionery in texture but experts agree that it will satisfy any sweet-tooth.

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The opening of a medieval recipe for gingerbread, from Harley MS 279, f. 27v

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Continued: a medieval recipe for gingerbread, from Harley MS 279, f. 28r

        Gyngerbrede-

        Take a quart of hony, & seethe it, & skyme

        it clene. take Safroun pouder Pepir, & throw ther-on. take gra-

        tyd Bred, & make it so chargeaunt that it wol be y lechyd.

        then take pouder Canelle, & straw ther on y now. then make yt

        square, lyke as thou wolt leche yt. take when thou lechyst hyt

        an caste Box leves a bouyn y stykyd ther on. on clowys. And

        if thou wolt haue it Red coloure it with Saunderys y now.

The recipe calls for honey, saffron and powdered pepper to be mixed with grated bread. Cinnamon is then added before the gingerbread is shaped and cut into slices, and finally decorated with box leaves attached to cloves. If you wish to colour the gingerbread red, you may add saunders (sandlewood) as dye.

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Miniature of a zinziber, or ginger plant (left) with a zedoary, or turmeric plant, from a medieval herbal, Egerton MS 747, f. 105v

Keen-eyed readers may have noticed that the recipe is missing one key ingredient – ginger! We can speculate that this ingredient may have been left out accidentally by the scribe, but we cannot know for sure. Ginger was a popular spice in more luxurious medieval culinary recipes, especially winter dishes. Along with cinnamon, nutmeg and pepper, ginger was believed to have heating properties, and it was thought to be able to warm the stomach and aid the digestive process. These spices are still found in modern Christmas dinner recipes, so medieval gingerbread will complement your holiday roast nicely.

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Miniature of a banquet with courtiers, servants, and dogs, from Harley MS 4372, f. 215v

 

Alison Ray

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28 September 2017

Feats in well-fashioned lines: Heaneywulf

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hwilum cyninges þegn, 

guma gilphlæden, gidda gemyndig, 

se ðe ealfela ealdgesegena 

worn gemunde, word oþer fand 

soðe gebunden; secg eft ongan 

sið Beowulfes snyttrum styrian 

ond on sped wrecan spel gerade, 

wordum wrixlan. 

Heaney translates this episode as:

Meanwhile, a thane

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

A traditional singer deeply schooled

In the lore of the past, linked a new theme

To a strict metre. The man started

To recite with skill, rehearsing Beowulf’s

Triumphs and feats in well-fashioned lines,

Entwining his words. (ll. 866–73)

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

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

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

Mary Wellesley

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

22 September 2017

Inside the Tudor court

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Clarck Drieshen

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04 September 2017

Ping pong merrily on high

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

Ping pong

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Mary Wellesley

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval