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03 August 2018

‘I, King Alfred …’

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The 870s were probably not King Alfred’s favourite decade. His brother, King Æthelred I had died after Easter 871, and Alfred became king in the middle of fierce fighting with viking forces. According to entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, compiled later in Alfred’s reign, West Saxon forces fought no fewer than nine battles that year alone. Alfred himself may have narrowly avoided capture. The rest of the decade did not go much better. His kingdom remained under attack as two ‘great armies’ advanced across the island, while neighbouring Anglo-Saxon kings were killed or disappeared.

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Entries for the years 872-876 in the second-oldest manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: Cotton MS Tiberius A VI, f. 19r

Remarkably, a document survives on a single sheet of parchment from these turbulent early years of Alfred’s reign. It is one of only three documents in Alfred’s name that survive in copies made during his lifetime: the others are British Library Cotton MS Augustus II 28 and Canterbury, DCc/ChAnt/F/150 (formerly D. & C., Red Book no. 11). This particular document records how, in 873, the archbishop of Canterbury sold land at Ileden in Kent to a man called Liaba for 25 gold coins, apparently with King Alfred’s permission:

‘In the name of the nourishing, three-part divinity, I, King Alfred, with the consent and permission and advice of my wise counsellors, in hope of eternal reward. I, Æthelheard, archbishop, and all my household from Christ Church give to Liaba, Birgwine’s son, [the land that] we call Gilding … for 25 coins of good gold ...’

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Grant of King Alfred of the West Saxons (r. 871–899) and Archbishop Æthelred of Canterbury (d. 888) to Liaba, 873: Stowe Charter 19

This charter gives an important insight to events besides warfare that were taking place in Alfred’s domains, events which were often omitted from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s panicked narrative for the 870s. Land was still being bought and sold. The church at Canterbury may even have been motivated to sell off their property to pay for extra defences, as has been suggested by Susan Kelly and Nicholas Brooks.

This charter also suggests that Latin learning had somewhat declined at Canterbury, or at least that documents were being written by people whose grammar and syntax left something to be desired. Charters produced at Canterbury had shown a decline in the quality of Latin and handwriting since the reign of Æthelwulf, Alfred's father; but this particular charter-writer made some spectacular errors. The first sentence is missing a verb. It starts out as though it were a charter issued by King Alfred, then switches suddenly to record a sale by the archbishop of Canterbury. Did the writer start writing one document and then change his mind? The writer routinely swapped ‘b’ for ‘u’, writing ‘obserbe’ instead of ‘observe’ (obserbare for observare). He also used ð, a symbol used to represent the ‘th’ sound, for ‘d’, even though the ‘th’ sound did not really exist in Latin. Most jarringly, the scribe occasionally replaced words in common phrases with something that sounded similar but does not quite make sense. For example, he tried to warn that anyone who contravened the terms of this sale would have to ‘give his account before the Lord’ (coram Deo … rationem reddere). However, he instead wrote ‘sciad se rectum redditurum coram a Deo’, which could be uncharitably interpreted as ‘render his bottom/intestine before God’. The charter-writer also copied the witness-list from older sources, so it includes several people who were long dead by 873.

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Detail of Stowe Ch 19, including the Old English addition in a darker ink

That said, while the script of the charter may not have been the finest and the Latin not the most grammatical, it was still valued. Soon after it was made, a different hand added in English, ‘Leafa [another spelling of Liaba?] bought this charter and this land from Archbishop Æthelred and from the community at Christ Church, with the freedom as that given to Christ Church, in perpetual possession’. On the back of the document, a contemporary scribe wrote, ‘This is the charter for Gilding’, so that it could be easily identified.

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The dorse of the charter: Stowe Ch 19

After the rocky start to his reign, Alfred’s fortunes improved. He won major battles and secured his territories. There was such a revival of learning in the 890s that Alfred’s name became associated with one of the first major flowerings of English literature.

The British Library's Anglo-Saxon charters have now been added to our Digitised Manuscripts site. To learn more about Alfred and the later part of his reign, please come to our major exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, which opens at the British Library on 19 October 2018.

 

Alison Hudson

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29 July 2018

Pilgrimages: medieval summer holidays?

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In Chaucer’s famous opening line to the Canterbury Tales, ‘Aprille with his shoures soote’ (April with its sweet showers) was the time when people longed to set off on their travels. Of course, holidays as we know them were not enjoyed by medieval folk. The word itself comes from ‘Holy Days’ in the Church calendar, when a break from daily routine usually involved praying and fasting, not sunbathing and drinking cocktails on the beach. But people have always enjoyed visiting new places, and so pilgrimages were a popular way of taking a break at the same time as showing piety and atoning for one’s sins — a great all-inclusive package!  

One medieval pilgrim was St Roch, who tended plague victims. He is usually pictured in typical pilgrim’s garb, with the staff, scrip or bag and shell (the symbol of Santiago and all pilgrims) on his hat. When he caught the plague himself, he was healed by a hunting dog who licked his wounds and brought him bread.

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Miniature of Roch, showing a plague-spot on his thigh, with an angel and a dog holding a loaf, from the Prayer-book of Joanna of Ghistelles, Ghent, c. 1516: Egerton MS 2125, f. 209v

Instead of backpacking in Thailand, booking a package holiday to the Costa Brava or braving the traffic jams to the English seaside, medieval pilgrims headed for Palestine, northern Spain or Kent. Some of the leading destinations for English pilgrims were Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela and Canterbury.

 

Pilgrimage to the Holy Land

The holy places in Palestine were the ultimate destination for medieval Christian pilgrims, although the journey could be arduous. Margery Kempe, the famous English mystic, travelled from Norfolk to Jerusalem and Rome in 1413–15, as recounted in her autobiography. Even kings could be pilgrims, including Louis IX of France: when on crusade to the Holy Land in 1251, he went on a pilgrimage from Acre to Nazareth on the Feast of the Annunciation.

Travellers to distant places needed maps. This plan of Jerusalem is found in a book of maps and sea charts, produced in Venice. It shows the holy sites including David's Tower, the Holy Sepulchre, Calvary, Pilate's house, St Anne's house and the Temple of Solomon.

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Plan of Jerusalem in Pietro Vesconte’s book of charts, maps and plans, Venice, c. 1331: Add MS 27376*

 

Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela

This city in northern Spain is believed to be the resting place of St James, one of the twelve apostles. According to legend, James went to Spain to spread the Gospel before returning to Jerusalem, where he was beheaded. His friends placed his head and body in a boat, which miraculously carried them to the Galician coast. After suffering trials and persecutions at the hands of local pagans, they finally buried his remains on a hill (now the site of the famous cathedral of Santiago), where they lay forgotten for many centuries. The cult of St James was revived in the 7th and 8th centuries when Christianity in Spain was under threat from Muslim expansion. St James allegedly appeared in a dream to Charlemagne, urging him to liberate his tomb from the Moors and showing him the direction to follow by the Milky Way: the name Compostela is believed to derive from the Latin campus stellae (field of stars).

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Charlemagne pointing the way to Spain, from the Chroniques de France, Paris, 1st half of the 14th century: Royal MS 16 G VI, f. 166r

The first known pilgrim to Santiago de Compostela was Gotescalc, bishop of Puy in France, who visited the shrine in 950. The Empress Matilda, granddaughter of William the Conqueror, went on pilgrimage there in 1097. By the 12th century, half a million pilgrims were travelling from as far as Scandinavia, England and southern Italy, and hospitals, hostels, roads and bridges had been built to accommodate them. A pilgrims’ guide, the Liber Sancti Iacobi, was produced, listing the towns along the way, providing useful phrases in Basque to use when travelling through that region, and warning pilgrims against certain local foods and customs.

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St James, in the Liber Sancti Jacobi, Santiago?, 1st half of the 14th century: Add MS 12213, f. 3v 

The Camino de Santiago is now a very popular pilgrimage route, with many walking from St Jean Pied de Port in the Pyrenées, a journey of six weeks. Getting there and back is much easier than in the Middle Ages, when most people walked or rode on horseback. The ‘Camino Ingles’ (English Way) has starting points at the ports of La Coruña and Ferrol, where medieval pilgrims arrived by boat from Britain.

 

Pilgrimage to Canterbury

Pilgrims came from all corners of Europe to worship at Canterbury Cathedral, where Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered by four knights on the evening of 29 December 1170. In this compilation of Becket’s letters, accompanied by John of Salisbury's account of his life and death, is an image showing the martyrdom in four narrative scenes. The upper two depict Becket at table, being told of the knights' arrival. The lower sections show Becket’s martyrdom in the church and the later veneration of his shrine by four kneeling figures.

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The martyrdom of Thomas Becket, England, 4th quarter of the 12th century: Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 341r

Chaucer’s pilgrims travelled from Southwark in London to Becket’s shrine at Canterbury. The routes from London and Winchester remain popular with modern pilgrims, passing through the Sussex and Kent countryside.

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Pilgrims on the road to Canterbury, from John Lydgate’s Prologue of the Siege of Thebes, London, c. 1457–1460: Royal MS 18 D II, f. 148r

 

‘Couch’ pilgrimages

Many people like to watch travel programmes on television, seeing places we may never visit. Some people were unable to go on pilgrimage, but they could make a spiritual journey using guides or maps. Numerous medieval versions of the allegorical pilgrimage were written for this purpose, where the pilgrim had to overcome various obstacles to reach the final goal of spiritual fulfilment. In this French text, the pilgrim is guided by the lady Grace-Dieu.

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The pilgrim is given his bag by Grace-Dieu, from Guillaume Deguilleville, Les Trois Pèlerinages, France, c. 1400: Add MS 38120, f. 28r

Matthew Paris’s famous itinerary of the route to Jerusalem is considered to be a guide for a spiritual rather than a real journey from London to the Holy Land, as he does not provide distances or practical details. As far as we know, Matthew never made the journey himself, instead learning of the route from travellers who passed through St Albans Abbey in the 13th century. The first part of his plan shows the journey from London in the lower left-hand column to Dover and then, in the right-hand column, from Boulogne-sur-Mer on the French coast to Beauvais. Each place is one day’s journey from the preceding one.

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Section of an illustrated itinerary to Jerusalem, from London to Beauvais, St Albans, 1250s: Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 2r

 

Animal pilgrims

In the medieval world, animals also went on pilgrimage. Here is an example from the Smithfield Decretals.

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A rabbit shooting at a dog who is dressed as a pilgrim, from the glossed Decretals of Gregory IX  (the 'Smithfield Decretals'), Toulouse?, late 13th or early 14th century: Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 57v

In this collection of animal tales in German, a fox, having grown old and setting off on a pilgrimage, refuses the companionship of the watch-dog, wild ass, bear, lion, peacock, wolf, pig and mule. Instead, he chooses to travel with the panther, ape, lamb, hare, hedgehog, ox, the young hound and the ant (let’s hope someone offers the ant a ride!).

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A fox choosing its companions for a pilgrimage, from Ulrich von Pottenstein, Spiegel der Weisheit, Salzburg, c. 1430: Egerton MS 1121, f. 36r

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Chantry Westwell

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19 July 2018

Leeds in July: The Polonsky Foundation Pre-1200 Project

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For the past twenty-five years, thousands of medievalists from around the world have travelled every July to the Leeds International Medieval Congress. This is the United Kingdom’s largest academic conference and one of the largest global gatherings of medievalists. With nearly 3,000 participants this year, the IMC provided the perfect opportunity for The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project team to showcase their work ahead of its official launch in November.

On the morning of 3 July, the project’s cataloguers, Laura Albiero and Francesco Siri from the Bibliothèque nationale de France, and Cristian Ispir from the British Library, presented research on manuscripts in the project, highlighting aspects which have benefitted particularly from the availability of digital images. Thanks to The Polonsky Foundation, everyone will soon be able to access 800 medieval manuscripts online.

Laura’s paper gave examples of the project’s liturgical manuscripts, and discussed how the names of different saints in the calendars help us to trace the origin and movement of individual manuscripts across the Channel. Erasures and additions tell their own tale of changing ownership through analysis of the veneration of particular local saints.

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Laura Albiero discussing a calendar originally from 12th-century Tewkesbury, now Paris, BnF, Latin 9376.

Cristian followed with an overview of author portraits and decorative elements in manuscripts containing Classical Latin texts. Francesco’s presentation focused on diagrams and their use in texts such as philosophical works, and defined the different functions they perform.

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Cristian Ispir and Francesco Siri presenting on the visual content in some of the project manuscripts.

The second session presented by the team gave an overview of the project itself. Tuija Ainonen, The Polonsky Foundation Project Curator at the British Library, drew attention to The Polonsky Foundation and the roles of the two project partners. She highlighted the various goals of the project: the full digitisation of 800 manuscripts (400 from the British Library and 400 from the BnF); the publication of a book highlighting selected manuscripts from the project; and the building of two websites — one hosting all 800 manuscripts, with 260,000 digitised images in total, and another bilingual interpretative site for a wide public audience which will present a selection of manuscripts in the project. Even interoperable image viewers, annotations, and the plan to allow image downloads had their few minutes in the spotlight: see this earlier blogpost for more details.

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The project’s coordinators Tuija Ainonen and Francesco Siri at the discussion and question time.

The audience then saw the different stages in the digitisation of 800 manuscripts and online publication in various forms. In this evening session Francesco Siri discussed the demands and challenges of cataloguing and conservation in digitisation projects. Alison Ray, Curatorial Web Officer at the British Library, discussed the workflow, from photography and image processing through to presentation in various online environments including social media and the bilingual interpretative website that will launch in November. She also reminded the audience that 600 project manuscripts are already fully digitised and available via Digitised Manuscripts for the British Library and Gallica for the BnF.

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Alison Ray discussing the various digital environments for showcasing selected manuscripts.

As the project is ongoing, the IMC presentation was very much a sneak preview of things to come. Our readers will be able to see the full outcomes at our project conference in Paris in 21–23 November 2018. Attendance is free but registration is required.

You will also be able to see some of the project’s manuscripts in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition that opens at the British Library on 19 October: tickets are available here. To hear more about Manuscripts in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, you can also attend a conference and early career symposium at the British Library on 13–15 December: please book tickets here.

 

The Polonsky Pre-1200 Project Team

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval (#PolonskyPre1200)

 

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

In collaboration with

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Supported by

The Polonsky Foundation logo

12 July 2018

Anglo-Saxon charters online

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In anticipation of the British Library's major Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, which opens on 19 October, we are delighted to have added the vast majority of our Anglo-Saxon single-sheet charters to our Digitised Manuscripts site. A full list of the 203 charters currently available can be downloaded here; we plan to add the remaining 8 charters in due course.

Cotton MS Augustus II 3 Face

King Æthelbald of the Mercians and of the South Angli grants ten hides at Ismere by the river Stour and land at Brochyl in Morfe forest, Worcestershire, to Cyneberht, comes, for the construction of a minster, dated 736: Cotton MS Augustus II 3

The British Library holds the world's largest collection of Anglo-Saxon charters. They are issued in the names of kings, bishops and laypeople, and include a considerable number of writs, wills, records of disputes and decrees of synods. The charters supply significant testimony to the evolution of English handwriting (the scripts deployed include uncial, pointed minuscule, square minuscule and English Caroline minuscule). They are composed primarily in Latin but with a considerable number in Old English (or with Old English bounds). Some of the documents are originals or were issued contemporaneously, while others are later copies or are deemed to be forgeries. Collectively, these charters provide us with substantial evidence for early English political, ecclesiastical, administrative and social history.

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Archbishop Wulfstan grants a lease, for three lives, of a half hide at Perry Wood in St Martin’s-without-Worcester, to Wulfgifu, with reversion to the church of Worcester, 1003 × 1016: Add Ch 19795

We recently learned the sad news of the death of Peter Sawyer, whose handlist of Anglo-Saxon charters (published in 1968) has proved invaluable to generations of scholars. Many of the charters now available online have also been edited in recent years on behalf of the British Academy/Royal Historical Society Joint Committee on Anglo-Saxon Charters, and we are indebted to scholars such as Susan Kelly, Simon Keynes and the late Nicholas Brooks for their editions and painstaking investigations into these documents.

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Record of a dispute between Archbishop Wulfred of Canterbury, King Coenwulf of the Mercians, and Abbess Cwoenthryth, concerning the minsters of Reculver and Minster-in-Thanet, and of the dispute’s settlement by the transfer to Wulfred of a hundred hides at Harrow, Herefrethinglond, Wembley, and Yeading, all in Middlesex, and thirty hides at Combe, Kent, 825: Stowe Ch 15

 

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King Æthelstan of England grants privileges to the bishopric of Crediton in return for 60 pounds of silver, 933: Cotton MS Augustus II 31

 

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King Edgar of England grants 22 hides at Ringwood, Hampshire, to Abingdon Abbey, 961: Cotton MS Augustus II 39

 

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King Edgar of England grants land at Bleadon, Somerset, to the Old Minster, Winchester, 975 (copied in the 15th century): Cotton Ch VIII 18

 

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Bishop Eadnoth of Crediton mortgages a yardland by the river Creedy, Devon, to Beorhtnoth, probably 1018 (copied in the 13th century): Cotton Roll II 11

 

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King Cnut of England grants his crown and the port of Sandwich to Christ Church, Canterbury, 1023 (copied in the 12th century): Stowe Ch 39

 

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Will of Bishop Ælfric of Elmham (d. 1038): Cotton MS Augustus II 85

 

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King Edward the Confessor of England grants seven hides at Millbrook, Hampshire, to Bishop Ælfwine of Winchester, 1045: Cotton Ch VIII 9

 

Over the coming months, and throughout the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, we will be blogging about some of the Anglo-Saxon charters in the British Library's collections, starting with this charter made 1,025 years ago (Cotton MS Augustus II 38). While charters may not be as beautiful as some of the magnificently illuminated manuscripts from the period, they are every bit as exciting. Many of the charters we have digitised are presumed to be originals: they may have been seen and touched by some of the historical figures mentioned in the text, at crucial moments in history.

Cotton MS Augustus II 38 face

King Æthelred of England confirms the privileges of Abingdon Abbey, including the right of free election of a new abbot, 993: Cotton MS Augustus II 38

In this charter, King Æthelred (‘the Unready’) confirmed the rights and property of Abingdon Abbey. The text mentions ‘frequent and numerous difficulties to me [Æthelred] and my nation’ in the past decade. This seems to be a reference to the Scandinavian forces that had begun attacking England again in the 980s, culminating with the disastrous defeat of English forces at the Battle of Maldon. Æthelred therefore repented of his youthful indiscretions and issued a series of ‘penitential’ charters, including this one, to try to protect some of the churches he had neglected and to set his kingdom right. 

We know at least some of the people mentioned in this text actually touched this piece of parchment because some of them left marks in the shape of a cross next to their names in the witness list. (Alas, the parchment is damaged next to Æthelred’s name).

In addition to revealing major governmental reshuffles and wars, charters can also reveal more personal details. For instance, one of Æthelred’s ‘youthful indiscretions’ involved kicking his mother out of his court when he was a teenager. In this charter, she appears in the witness list, suggesting that she had become a powerful force in the kingdom and was accepted at court again. She appears in the witness list next to Æthelred’s sons, whom she was helping to bring up. Removing your mother from the palace clearly did not preclude relying on her for childcare.

 

Julian Harrison & Alison Hudson

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25 June 2018

Live like an eleventh-century prince

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Have you ever wondered what it must have been like to have been a prince one thousand years ago? Would you have eaten off of silver plates? How many swords would you have had? Which horse would be your favourite, and which saint? Who would your friends be? Would you miss your grandmother? Which side would you be on in court intrigues? What kind of jewellery would you wear? We can answer some of these questions — at least in the case of one prince — from a document held in the British Library, dated 25 June 1014.

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Detail of worldly treasures which match the items mentioned in Æthelstan’s will, from a Psalter made in Winchester, mid-11th century: Cotton MS Tiberius C VI, f. 10v

That document is the will of Æthelstan, the eldest son of King Æthelred ‘the Unready’ of England (d. 1016). Inconveniently, Æthelstan died in 1014, in the middle of an invasion by Scandinavian forces (vikings). Nevertheless, shortly before he died, Æthelstan had time to divide his possessions, giving us a glimpse into elite English society.

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Will of Æthelstan, 25 June 1014: Stowe Ch 37

In Æthelstan’s will, he bequeathed some of his most precious possessions. These included extensive lands in 10 different shires, several horses, and various objects made out of precious metals. A full translation of the will is available here.

  • Swords/blades: 12
  • Horses: 7
  • Cups/bowls: 2
  • Shields: 2
  • Arm ring: 1
  • Drinking horn: 1
  • Trumpet: 1
  • Coat of mail: 1
  • Golden belt: 1
  • Cross: 1...

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‘To my brother Edmund, the sword that King Offa had’: detail of Stowe Ch 37

The many swords described in Æthelstan’s will have attracted particular attention. Swords were some of the most expensive weapons available in early medieval Europe. Æthelstan’s will indicates how many and what kind of swords an early medieval war leader might have needed. Several of the swords are described as ‘ornamented’, ‘with a silver hilt’, or ‘damaged.’ There is a sword with ‘a silver hilt that Wulfric wrought’ and there is another 'on which a hand is marked.’ There was even one, Æthelstan claimed, that had belonged to Offa, the 8th-century king of Mercia. Æthelstan gave this sword and another with a ‘pitted hilt’, as well as many other things, to his brother Edmund, who became heir to the throne after he died.

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Detail of a feast, with a drinking horn being filled on the far left-hand side of the image, from a mid-11th -century calendar: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 4v

Beyond the swords, shield and chainmail, other items mentioned in the will give us insights into Æthelstan’s domestic life. His mealtimes could be glittering affairs, literally: the will mentions a ‘silver cauldron/basin worth five pounds’, and possibly a silver bowl, in addition to a costly drinking horn. On special occasions, Æthelstan perhaps wore his 'golden belt' and arm-ring. He may have dined with his brothers and his ‘dish-then’ (steward or seneschal) Ælfmaer, who received a roan stallion and a damaged sword in the will. Æthelstan might also have shared meals with his retainers and allies including Æthelweard the Stammerer, Godwine the Driveller and Ælfric of Barton. Other members of Æthelstan’s entourage mentioned in the will include a priest, a ‘staghuntsman’ and, perhaps unsurprisingly, a ‘sword-furbisher.’

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Drawing that might depict Queen Ælfthryth among a crowd, from the Benedictional of Æthelwold, made c. 971-984: Add MS 49598, f. 118v

The will even offers glimpses of the prince’s childhood, since Æthelstan mentions two women who were important in his upbringing. The first was his foster mother, Ælfswith, to whom he gave land worth 250 mancuses of gold ‘because she greatly deserved it’. Royal and noble children in early medieval England were frequently sent to other families to be brought up or were cared for by foster mothers. The second major influence on Æthelstan’s childhood was apparently his grandmother, Ælfthryth (d. 999 x 1001), wife of King Edgar (d. 975) and mother of Æthelred: she ‘brought me [Æthelstan] up’, according to the text of the will. Indeed, the first time Æthelstan appeared in the surviving written record, he was listed with his grandmother as witnesses of a charter for Abingdon Abbey. Ælfthryth must have been an important influence on Æthelstan throughout his life. Many of the churches to which he made donations in his will she had also patronised, such as Ely Abbey. Touchingly, Ælfthryth is the last person mentioned in the will: Æthelstan asserts that all his gifts to God and God’s church are done for the soul of his father, his own soul and that of Ælfthryth.

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Æthelstan (spelled Æþelstan) first appears in the historical record in this charter from 993: Cotton MS Augustus II 38

Æthelstan’s will also records charitable donations he made for the sake of his soul at the end of his life. These pious donations offer stark reminders of how difficult life could be for those outside the elite in 11th-century England: the will makes provisions for 100 paupers to be fed on the feast day of St Æthelthryth of Ely and begins by freeing all of the penal slaves owned by Æthelstan. Penal slaves were people who were made slaves because they had been convicted of a crime. The will does not mention the hereditary slaves who worked on Æthelstan’s extensive estates or ran his household.

At least two copies of this will were made, for safekeeping, and were sent to Winchester and Christ Church Canterbury. The copies were written on the same piece of parchment, and the word ‘CYROGRAPHUM’ was written along the middle. The parchment was then divided along that word, so that the copies could be verified by lining up the two halves and matching the letters. Æthelstan perhaps took these precautions because he was anxious that the provisions might not be respected. Several times, he emphasized that these bequests were made with his father’s permission.

One copy of the will, the upper portion of the cyrograph, can be viewed on our Digitised Manuscripts site. You can also learn more about Æthelstan, Ælfrthryth and Æthelred at the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, which will be on display at the British Library between 19 October 2018 and 19 February 2019. Don't forget the prince who died over 1000 years ago, who loved swords, horses and his grandmother.

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

09 June 2018

Sir Robert Cotton's manuscripts added to Memory of the World register

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We are delighted that Sir Robert Cotton's collection of manuscripts, held at the British Library, has been added to the UNESCO Memory of the World UK Register. Cotton's library contains many historical and literary treasures of national and international significance, such as Magna Carta, the Lindisfarne Gospels, the only surviving copies of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the autograph papers of a number of British monarchs. Collectively they form a key part of the intellectual heritage of the nation. 

Vespasian Psalter (Cotton MS Vespasian A I  f31r)

A page from the Vespasian Psalter, known as Cotton MS Vespasian A I following Robert Cotton's system of arranging his manuscripts in presses named after Roman emperors and imperial ladies. This manuscript, made in Kent in the 8th century, contains an interlinear Old English gloss of the Psalter text: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 31r

Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631) was a politician and antiquarian scholar, who began to assemble his collection of manuscripts as early as 1588, aged just seventeen. Cotton's collecting interests focused on works central to the study of British history, such as chronicles, cartularies, maps and state papers.

Matthew Paris Map of Britain (Cotton MS Claudius D VI 1)

A map of Britain by Matthew Paris, monk and chronicler of St Albans (d. 1259). Scotland is joined to the mainland by a bridge at Stirling, while Kent is located due South of London: Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1

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The Cotton library contains a nationally significant collection of medieval chronicles. The manuscript of the Chronicle of Melrose Abbey, shown here recording (in red ink) the foundation of the monasteries of Rievaulx in 1132 and Melrose in 1136, is the oldest surviving annalistic chronicle from Scotland: Cotton MS Faustina B IX, f. 18r

The importance of these manuscripts for our knowledge of the past cannot be overstated. For example, Robert Cotton brought together the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in the world, including two early copies of Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum and five manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, as well as the earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon charter, dating from AD 679. Many of these manuscripts will be on display later this year in the Library's major Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition (19 October 2018–19 February 2019).

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The earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon charter, a grant of land by King Hlothhere of Kent to Abbot Beorhtwald and his monastery, dated 679. This document is also sometimes known as the 'Reculver charter' after the place where it was issued: Cotton MS Augustus II 2

After Robert Cotton's death, the library passed in turn to his son, Sir Thomas Cotton (d. 1662), and grandson, Sir John Cotton (d. 1702). In 1702, the Cotton library was acquired by the British government, the first occasion that any library passed into national ownership in Britain – an important step in the creation of a national, public library.

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Some of the greatest works of medieval English literature are preserved uniquely in the Cotton library, among them the only surviving copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Cotton MS Nero A X/2, ff. 94v–95r

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The Cotton library is integral to our knowledge of early modern British history. This document, written by King Edward VI of England in January 1551/2, is headed 'Certein pointes of weighty matters to be immediatly concluded on by my counsell': Cotton MS Vespasian F XIII, f. 273r. Edward's diary is also held in the Cotton collection: Cotton MS Nero C X, ff. 10–83

Most of the collection survived a major fire in 1731, which formed part of the impetus for the creation of the British Museum in 1753. Some of the manuscripts were damaged significantly in that fire, with a small number being completely destroyed. The volumes in question were restored in the 19th century and they continue to support scientific research into the preservation and digitisation of fire-damaged artefacts.

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In October 1731, the Cotton library narrowly escaped near-total destruction when a fire broke out at Ashburnham House in London. In the 19th century, it was discovered that the fire-damaged parchment leaves could be inlaid in modern paper mounts, as shown here in a page from Bede's Ecclesiastical History: Cotton MS Tiberius A XIV, f. 39r

Ever since the library's formation, the Cotton manuscripts have been made available for consultation by scholars worldwide. You can read more about the Cotton manuscripts in our collection guide here.

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The Cotton library is particularly rich in illuminated manuscripts from Britain and beyond. Here is the opening page of the Coronation Book of King Charles V of France, commissioned in 1365: Cotton MS Tiberius B VIII/2, f. 35r 

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Many of the manuscripts are written in Latin or in English (including Old English, Middle English and Scots English). Other European languages represented in the collection include Cornish, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Irish, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Welsh. Non-European languages include Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew, Inuit, Persian and Turkish. Here is page from a Latin-Old Cornish glossary, copied in South-East Wales in the 12th century: Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV, f. 8v

You can view many of the Cotton manuscripts on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site. We recommend that, on the homepage, you type into the Manuscripts search box 'Cotton MS' or 'Cotton Ch' in order to see those currently available; more are being added all the time.

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Sir Robert Cotton was closely acquainted with many of the leading scholars and collectors of his day. In this letter, Sir Edward Dering (d. 1644) sent him the charter of King John dated at Runnymede, now known as Magna Carta, and preserved as Cotton Charter XIII 31A: Cotton MS Julius C III, f. 143r

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Cotton was renowned for rearranging his manuscripts and for preserving pages from other books and documents. Prefacing a gospelbook is this cutting from the Breviary of Margaret of York, which in turn incorporates a mounted papyrus fragment of Gregory the Great, Homiliae XL in Evangelia, dating from the late 6th or 7th century: Cotton MS Titus C XV, f. 1r

The British Library's two manuscripts of Magna Carta, issued by King John in 1215 and both forming part of Sir Robert Cotton's library, were inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World International Register in 2009. We are thrilled that this whole manuscript collection of national and international importance has now been recognised by UNESCO. We hope that the Cotton library will continue to inspire research into the rich cultural and historical heritage of the British Isles. The full list of inscriptions on the UNESCO Memory of the World UK Register can be accessed here.

Tickets for the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, featuring a number of the Cotton manuscripts, can be purchased online.

 

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08 June 2018

Registration now open for our ‘Manuscripts in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms’ conference

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On 13–14 December 2018, the British Library will be hosting an international conference to coincide with the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition which runs from 19 October 2018 to 19 February 2019. Registration for the conference is now open.


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A calendar page for December, from a geographical and scientific collection made in England in the mid-11th century: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 8v

The programme comprises twenty-two of the leading experts in the study of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. They were invited on the basis of their long-established study of these manuscripts, their senior professional standing and the high calibre of their contributions to the field. The speakers were selected, with the advice of the exhibition’s advisory group, to ensure that the conference covers the full time-period, geographical range and themes reflected in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.

The conference will open and close with keynote lectures by Professor Lawrence Nees of the University of Delaware on 'The European context of manuscript illumination in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, 600–900' and Professor Julia Crick of King’s College London on 'English scribal culture in an age of conquest, 900–1100'.

Other confirmed speakers are Sue Brunning, Richard Gameson, Helen Gittos, Michael Gullick, David Johnson, Catherine Karkov, Simon Keynes, Rosalind Love, Rosamond McKitterick, Bernard Meehan, Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, Andy Orchard, Susan Rankin, Winfried Rudolf, Joanna Story, Francesca Tinti, Elaine Treharne, Immo Warntjes, Tessa Webber and Jonathan Wilcox. The conference will include an evening private view of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.

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Opening page of the Gospel of St Mark featuring a border and an initial in gold and colours with animal head decorations, from the Bury Gospels, England (Canterbury?), c. 1020–1030: Harley MS 76, f. 45r

The conference will be followed on 15 December 2018 by a symposium in which early career researchers will discuss their new work on manuscripts from Anglo-Saxon England. The speakers were selected following an open call for papers held last year.

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Patientia talking to other virtues, from the Psychomachia, England, early 11th century,
Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII, f. 4r

As the Old English poem Maxims I urges, ‘Gleawe men sceolon gieddum wrixlan’ (‘Wise people ought to exchange learned speeches’). We hope you will be able to join us in December.  

Register for the International Conference only (13 and 14 December)

Register for the International Conference and Early Career Symposium (13, 14 and 15 December)

 

We are very grateful to the donors who are generously supporting the conference and symposium:

The Polonsky Foundation

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Patrick Donovan 

The Association for Manuscripts and Archives in Research Collections

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Past & Present Postgraduate Fund

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17 May 2018

The legends of King Arthur

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Have you ever wondered who King Arthur really was? The British Library's Discovering Literature: Medieval site features a fascinating essay on this very subject, written by Dr Hetta Elizabeth Howes of City, University of London. Howes traces and contextualises the evolution of the Arthurian legend, based on the historical and literary sources, and illustrated with images of manuscripts in our collections, from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Thomas Malory. As the essay pertinently asks, 'Will the real King Arthur please stand up?'

Among the manuscripts featured in The legends of King Arthur is Wace's Roman de Brut, a poem written in Anglo-Norman French. In the copy shown here, made in England in the 14th century (Egerton MS 3028), Arthur's exploits are described in a series of narrative images.

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The coronation of King Arthur, in Wace's Roman de Brut: Egerton MS 3028, f. 37r

 

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The opening page of Wace's Roman de Brut: Egerton MS 3028, f. 1r

 

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Another page from Wace's Roman de Brut, showing the building of Stonehenge: Egerton MS 3028, f. 30r

 

Wace's work was translated in turn by Laȝamon into Middle English, known as Laȝamon's Brut. This manuscript (Cotton MS Caligula A IX) was made probably in the last quarter of the 13th century. It is one of two surviving copies of Laȝamon's work, but the second (Cotton MS Otho C XIII) was damaged by fire in 1731.

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The opening page of Laȝamon's Brut: Cotton MS Caligula A IX, f. 3r

 

Medieval manuscripts such as these helped to popularise the legend of Arthur. As Howes fittingly concludes, 'King Arthur may not have returned from the dead, as the myths promise, [but] he has certainly enjoyed a number of afterlives in popular culture.'

The legends of King Arthur is one of many essays found on our Discovery Literature website. Other include Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: an introduction by Simon Armitage, Old English by David Crystal and Dream visions by Mary Wellesley.

 

Julian Harrison

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