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106 posts categorized "English"

18 August 2017

Discovering Literature: Beowulf to Chaucer

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What should you do when your Christmas is rudely interrupted by a Green Man, wielding an axe? How should you respond when a monster nightly terrorises your home? And what is the best way to entertain 29 travellers on the road to Canterbury? 

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Chaucer's pilgrims on the road to Canterbury, from 'The Siege of Thebes', by John Lydgate, England, 1457–60, Royal MS 18 D II, f. 148r


These are just some of the questions we’re going to be exploring in our latest on-site adult learning course, ‘Discovering Literature: Beowulf to Chaucer’, which offers students of any level the opportunity to learn more about the literature of medieval England. It contains Arthurian legends, dream-visions, dragons, chatty pilgrims and talking books. From the first great epic of English poetry, Beowulf, to the captivating tales of Geoffrey Chaucer, over six weeks participants will consider iconic works in Old English, Middle English and Anglo-Norman French, exploring the rich diversity of literary production in medieval England. We’ll be looking at works of comedy as well as of religious devotion, alongside haunting texts that explore the pain of adultery, loss and social exile.

Beowulf

Detail of the opening words of Beowulf, beginning 'Hwæt' ('Listen!), from Beowulf, England, 4th quarter of the 10th century or 1st quarter of the 11th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 132r.

The course uses original texts in translation but, with expert guidance, you’ll also be led through close-readings of selected passages in their original languages. The course runs over six weeks, on Tuesdays, from 24 October 2017, and the final session will feature a rare opportunity to work with original manuscripts from the British Library’s collections.

The course is available to 16 participants only, and places are limited, so book as soon as possible. The full course description and booking form is available here.

Mary Wellesley

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15 August 2017

Call for papers: Manuscripts in Anglo-Saxon England

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Manuscripts in Anglo-Saxon England

A postgraduate and early career symposium on the book culture of early medieval England before 1100

On Saturday 15 December 2018 the British Library will be holding a postgraduate and early career symposium on Manuscripts in Anglo-Saxon England. The symposium follows an international conference taking place on 13 and 14 December 2018. Both events are being held during a major exhibition on Anglo-Saxon England which will open at the British Library in October 2018. We expect that there will be a reduced joint registration fee for the conference and symposium for students and unwaged early career researchers.

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The Vespasian Psalter, 8th century: British Library Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 31r

Proposals for papers are invited from advanced postgraduate students and early career researchers. We wish to encourage paper proposals from a wide variety of institutions. This symposium is intended to foster discussion about books, documents, the uses of writing, the transmission of ideas, the survival of evidence, and intellectual contact within and beyond Anglo-Saxon England. Manuscripts that were made or used in Anglo-Saxon England should be central to all proposals.

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Liber Wigorniensis, early 11th century: British Library Cotton MS Tiberius A XIII, f. 77v

If you would like to submit a proposal, please complete the attached form (Download 2018 Anglo-Saxon Symposium CFP) and send it to Claire Breay (claire.breay@bl.uk) by 1 December 2017. Decisions will be announced by 2 February 2018.

Claire Breay

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08 August 2017

Illuminated manuscripts for polyglots

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Here at the British Library we have just completed our latest digitisation project, with over 100 manuscripts added to our website between January 2016 and July this year. The project, funded by a private donor, has focused on collection items in French and other European vernacular languages that are notable either for their illuminations or for texts of particular interest. A list of the manuscripts digitised in this project is available at online: Download French and Vernacular Illuminated project digitisation list. Here are examples of some of the most remarkable items from our collections newly available on Digitised Manuscripts.

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God with the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist, surrounded by angels and cherubim, a winged woman with a crown addressing a council of the Church, the four Evangelists and scenes from the Old and New Testament in roundels, from the Bible Historiale, France, Central (Paris), c.1420, Add MS 18856, f. 3r

Manuscripts in French

Among the numerous French manuscripts digitised are the Library’s remaining copies of the Roman de la Rose, a popular French allegorical poem beginning with a dream-vision of love, and developed by a second author into a discussion of the philosophical and scientific knowledge of the day. There are now 14 copies of this very popular text on Digitised Manuscripts. For details of the Rose manuscripts in our collections, see our blogpost, ‘Everything’s coming up Roses’.

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The Lover’s dream, from Roman de la Rose, France, Central? (Paris?), c. 1380, Add MS 31840, f. 3r

Some of the most beautifully-illuminated manuscripts in French tell familiar stories from the Bible and the classical past, allowing for imaginative depictions of well-known episodes and characters like Alexander the Great. The first image in this post is of a Bible Historiale, an illustrated collection of Bible stories and commentary. The Roman d’Alexandre is another example.

 

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The coronation of Alexander and the wedding banquet of King Philip and Cleopatra, from the Roman d’Alexandre, Low Countries, 1st quarter of the 14th century. Harley MS 4979, f. 17v

Anglo-Norman is the version of French that evolved in England after the Norman Conquest, and in the 14th century it was still being used alongside Middle English and Latin. This volume is a compilation in all three languages, believed to have been produced in the Hereford area around 1320–1340, with an assortment of religious, mathematical, legal and astrological texts. This book is copied in an everyday cursive script with only minor decoration, but it is of great importance for the unique texts it contains, including the only known manuscript copy of the Romance of Fulk le Fitz-Warin, recipes in Anglo-Norman French and macaronic verses (with alternating lines in French, Latin and English).

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Macaronic satirical verses from a prose and verse miscellany, England, Central (Hereford), 1st half of the 14th century, Royal MS 12 C XII, f. 7r

Manuscripts in Middle English

Manuscripts containing key Middle English texts have also been included in this project: we have digitised 8 of these, including works by Chaucer, Lydgate and Gower.

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Detail of a miniature of the discovery of Edmund's head with a scroll with gold inscription 'heer heer herr', with a wolf guarding it, and a man blowing a horn, from John Lydgate's Lives of Saints Edmund and Fremund, between 1461 and c. 1475, England, S. E. (Bury St Edmunds?), Yates Thompson MS 47, f. 54r

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A Carthusian anthology of theological works in English includes works on contemplation by Julian of Norwich and Richard Rolle, 
'The myrroure of symple saules' a Middle English translation of a French text by Marguerite Porète, from the ‘Amherst Manuscript’, England, mid-15th century, Add MS 37790, f. 137r

Among the manuscripts digitised is a copy of the Canterbury Tales, with the spurious ‘Tale of Gamelyn’, not written by Chaucer, but of particular interest for the themes it shares with the contemporary Ballad of Robin Hood.

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Prologue and opening lines of the Squire’s Tale from the Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, England; 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 1758, f. 68r

 

Manuscripts in other European vernacular languages featuring in the project include:

Middle Dutch

This version of the Medea legend in Middle Dutch has some extremely graphic images of Medea’s horrific actions and is followed by a work on the game of chess.

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Jason, Creusa and her father, the King of Corinth are seated at the wedding table; Medea enters with four dragons and tears her son to pieces in front of them, from Medea and Dat Scaecspel (Chess Book) in Dutch, Add MS 10290, f. 138r 

Jacob van Maerlant’s Middle Dutch work, Der naturen bloeme (The Flower of Nature) is a natural encyclopaedia and bestiary in verse, written around 1270 at the request of the nobleman Nicolaas van Cats to contain all available knowledge about the natural world. Almost every page is illustrated, with some creatures more easily identifiable than others. This manuscript seems to have been a lending copy, and it is also notable for its book curse.

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A page from Der Naturen Bloeme  featuring a steer, a mole and other creatures, c 1300–c 1325, Netherlands, Add MS 11390, f. 25v

 

Occitan (Langue d’Oc) and Catalan

The Breviari d’Amor, composed by Matfre Ermengaud in 1288–1292 in Occitan (or Langue d’Oc, the dialect of Southern France), is a poem containing a compendium of contemporary knowledge under the umbrella of faith, and seen as a manifestation of God’s love. Ermengaud describes himself as a senher en leys e d’amor sers, in other words a master or doctor of law but also a poet who serves the ideal of love.

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The Tree of Love or 'Arbre d'Amor', with the figure of 'Amors Generals' at the centre, from the Breviari d’Amor in Occitan, early 14th century, France, S. (Toulouse?), Royal MS 19 C I, f. 11v

The work was adapted into Catalan prose. This magnificent copy comes from the collection of illuminated manuscripts formerly belonging to Henry Yates Thompson.  

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The Offices of the Angels from the Breviari d’Amor in Catalan prose, Spain, E. (Catalonia, Gerona?); last quarter of the 14th century, Yates Thompson MS 31, f. 39v

Two other Yates Thompson manuscripts, MS 47 (see above) and MS 21, a copy of the Roman de la Rose have also now been digitised. For information on this collection, see the virtual exhibition in our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.   

Mantuan dialect of Italian

The extremely influential scientific work, De proprietatibus rerum, was compiled in the 1240s by a Franciscan, Bartholomeus Anglicus (Bartholomew the Englishman), for the instruction of his fellow Franciscans. This copy was translated from Latin into Mantuan for Guido dei Bonacolsi (d. 1309).

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Map of the world, supported by Christ, with the Continents depicted as different buildings, from De proprietatibus rerum, Italy, N. (Manua), c 1300–1309, Add MS 8785, f. 315r

A home-grown alphabetical encyclopaedia in Latin

Encyclopaedias have been a theme running through this project: to the De nature and the Breviari above, we can add the Omne Bonum, a huge alphabetical reference work compiled in the 14th century by the Englishman James le Palmer, who was clerk of the Exchequer under Edward III. Most of the entries are illustrated.

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‘Ebrietas’ (Drunkenness), from the Omne Bonum, England, S. E. (London), c. 1360–c. 1375,  Royal MS 6 E VII/1, f. 1r

For further details, see our recent blogpost that accompanied the digitisation of these manuscripts. 

lluminated Apocalypse Manuscripts

And last but not least, the Apocalypse (the biblical book of Revelation with a commentary) was among the most popular works of the medieval period, and numerous illustrated copies were produced in England. 11 manuscripts in Latin, French or Middle English, and some in dual-language versions, have been digitised in this project, so that all 20 illuminated copies of the Apocalypse in our collections are now online. See our recent blogpost ‘The End of the World as we know it’ for the complete list.

This copy is in three languages, with the main text in Latin, a verse translation and prose commentary in Anglo-Norman French and an added paraphrase in Middle English prose.

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The dragon attacks the mother and child, from the Apocalypse in three languages, England, 2nd half of the 13th century, Add MS 18633, f. 22v

Chantry Westwell

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27 June 2017

Curator, Early Modern Collections

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The British Library is recruiting for a Curator of Early Modern Collections. This is a full time, fixed term position, for six months. Full details of the post and how to apply can be found here.

As Curator of Early Modern Collections, you will assist lead curators in the Department of Western Heritage Collections with preparations for an exhibition on 16th-century British History to be held at the British Library in 2020–21. You will also use your specialist knowledge to catalogue early modern manuscripts and will help to interpret and present the Library’s early modern collections through online resources and engagement with academic and general users.

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Detail from Elizabeth I’s autograph speech dissolving Parliament, in which she rebukes ministers for their unwelcome ‘lip-laboured orations’ on the matter of her marriage and succession, January 1567: British Library Cotton Charter IV. 38 (2)

With a post-graduate degree, or equivalent, in 16th-century British history, you will have research experience using early modern manuscripts and printed books and a personal area of expertise relevant to the British Library’s collection. Strong palaeographical skills, excellent written and oral communication skills in English and the ability to promote the collections to a wide range of audiences are essential.

The deadline for applications is 11 July 2017, and interviews will be held on 20 July  2017.

Curator, Early Modern Collections (reference COL1309)

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The first page of William Cecil’s paper on ‘Things to be considered upon the Scottish Queen coming into England’, May 1568: British Library Cotton MS Caligula C I, f. 97.

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17 May 2017

Digging for the past at Norton Priory

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Despite the trail of desolation left by the dissolution of the monasteries in England and Wales beginning in 1536, former monastic sites remain among the most beautiful places to visit in Britain. The Norton Priory Museum and Gardens, thought to be the most extensively excavated monastic site in Europe, has long been known for its spectacular grounds. In August 2016, the museum opened an entirely new building, adding a fascinating interpretation of the site that shows just how much we can understand about the past, even when it appears that little is left on the surface.

Plan of Norton Priory by Randle Holme: Harley MS 2073, f. 107r.

Plan of Norton Priory, probably by Randle Holme: Harley MS 2073, f. 107r.

The dissolution of the monasteries in England and Wales was one of the most significant upheavals of British society — it is estimated that one in fifty adult males were in religious orders at the outset of the 16th century, and within a generation these people, their functions, and their lands had to be absorbed elsewhere. Nonetheless, the process of the dissolution is still little understood. Although it has often been thought to have been a decisive blow, executed purely out of the greed of King Henry VIII, the reality is somewhat more complicated and was the result of years of agitation. This is exemplified in a letter of Piers Dutton to Thomas Cromwell, on loan from the British Library and now on temporary display at Norton Priory.

Sir Piers Dutton claimed descent from the same Dutton family that had been a supporter of the priory (and later abbey) since the 12th century, but sought to take control of Norton for his own purposes. The first Act for the Suppression of the Monasteries applied only to houses worth £200 or less, under which Norton fell. It seems unlikely that this could have occurred without falsification of documentary evidence, which Sir Piers could have accomplished as a royal commissioner for Cheshire.

Letter from Piers Dutton to Thomas Cromwell, 3 August 1536: Harley MS 604, f. 60r.

Letter from Piers Dutton to Thomas Cromwell, 3 August [1535?]: Harley MS 604, f. 60r.

The chronology of the letter has been debated, as Dutton only gives the date as 3 August: it was first published as being from 1534, but has been proposed to be from 1535 or even 1536. Certainly, when it was written, the closure of Norton was not yet finalized. It has recently been emphasized that the initial Act of 1536 should be read as aiming at the reform of the monastic system, and not its total destruction.

Sir Piers writes to Cromwell that he has arrested the abbot of Norton, Thomas Birkenhead, and other canons, though he does not explain why. It may relate to his attempt in 1535 to accuse the abbot of counterfeiting money. Meddling with Norton is not enough: he also seeks to put forward Dom ‘Rondull Wilmyslow’ (or Randulph Wilmeslowe) as abbot of Vale Royal, a Cistercian monastery, after the death of its abbot in 1534 or 1535:

Please it \your/ gud mastership my duetie remember this to aduertise you that I haue taken the bodies of thabbot of Norton Robert Jannyns and the straunger a connyng Smythe two of the seid abbottes seruantes also Randull brereton baron of the kynges excheker of chestre and John hale of chestre merchuant and haue theym in my custody and kepyng⸝ And the rest I entende to haue as spedely as I can and to be with you with theym god wylling in all convenyent spede as I possiblie may. Moreouer I haue causet dan Rondull wilmyslow the moncke of the Valle royall to cum vp to you⸝ for whom I spake vnto your gud mastership whiche is a gud religious man dyscrete and wel groundet in lernyng and hathe many gud qualites most apte to be a master of a religious howse then any other moncke of that howse Wherfore it may \please/ your gud mastership to be his gud master toward his preferrement that he may be admitted master of the same And that I did promyse your mastership this seid Moncke will accomplishe accordyngly. Wherfore I beseche your mastership that this berer and the seid moncke may resorte vnto you from tyme to tyme to knowe youre pleasure therin ensuryng you what ye do for me or my frende all is your owne as knowithe our lord god who mercifully preserue you At dutton the iiide day of auguste By youres assured

                                                         Perus
                                                         Dutton K.

He did not achieve his aims: the abbot was cleared of charges, and John Harware (or Harwood) instead became the new abbot of Vale Royal. Sir Piers attempted to have Abbot Thomas executed at the dissolution of the priory, but eventually he became a secular priest, and like other monastics was paid off with a state pension. This letter is a glimpse into the complexity of the often undocumented machinations that surrounded abbeys leading up to their closure.

Norton Priory itself had a tumultuous few centuries ahead of it, but today makes a delightful visit. It is still graced by a splendid 14th-century statue of St Christopher, and the grounds cover nearly fifty acres. The gardens from the monastery and later residents are now kept in top condition. Its new museum is truly innovative, combining cutting-edge archaeological, historical, and even medical research, and presenting it in accessible terms to both young and advanced audiences. We very much hope that you are able to visit Norton Priory, and to see our wonderful document while it is on display until 1 August 2017.

Updated 30 May 2017 to reflect debates surrounding the dating of the letter; thanks to Dr Andrew Abram of Manchester Metropolitan University for pointing out references earlier omitted.

Andrew Dunning

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13 April 2017

Chaucer hitteth the Web

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It has been a warm few days in London and at the British Library we feel that Spring has sprung. Spring is, of course, a time when it rains sweet rain and little birds stay up all night singing amorous songs. Or so Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1343–1400) would have us believe. And we see no reason to doubt that this is what happens. So, to celebrate the arrival of Spring, we have digitised one of our manuscripts of Geoffrey Chaucer's collection of pilgrims' stories, The Canterbury Tales. In the image below you can see the famous opening lines, which read,  ‘Whan that aprille with his schowres swoote / The drought of marche haþ perced to þe roote’ [When that April with his showers sweet/ The drought of March has pierced to the root'].

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The opening of the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales: Harley MS 7334, f. 1r.

The Canterbury Tales was written at the end of the fourteenth century and tells the story of a group of 29 pilgrims who meet while travelling to the shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury. To pass the time on the journey, they decide to each tell two tales to the assembled company on the journey there and the journey home. The result is regarded as a master-work of medieval literature.  The Tales, however, are unfinished. The poem never describes the return journey and not all the pilgrims who appear in the poem's prologue end up telling a tale. The prologue describes a plowman among the company, for example, whose tale is nowhere to be found. The poem survives in 92 manuscripts -- some of them only tiny fragments and others beautifully decorated masterpieces. Yet none of these manuscripts date from Chaucer's lifetime. Trying to work out what Chaucer intended has been a headache for editors for over a century.

The number of pilgrims' tales and their ordering differs between the copies, so debate continues to swirl concerning the relationships between these manuscripts. The manuscripts do not only vary in the order of the stories included: some copies include additions that were not Chaucer's work. Both Harley MS 7334 and Harley MS 1758 include the 'Tale of Gamelyn' as a conclusion to the 'Cook’s Tale', which breaks off after only 58 lines in most copies. Someone was evidently uncomfortable with such untidiness, and made an attempt to tie off the loose ends.

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The Cook’s Tale: Harley MS 1758, f. 45v.

Some people have argued that the Canterbury Tales is intentionally unfinished, that Chaucer deliberately left such hanging ends, to encourage readers to engage with their own tales. Whatever the truth might be, it did not dampen the work’s popularity. Chaucer died in 1400 and in the century after his death he was celebrated by poets like Thomas Hoccleve (c. 1368–1426) and John Lydgate (c.1370–1450), who wrote about him as the father of English literature. One of the earliest portraits of Chaucer appears in a manuscript of Thomas Hoccleve’s Regiment of Princes, Harley MS 4866, which is now online.

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Chaucer with a rosary in Thomas Hoccleve’s Regiment of Princes: Harley MS 4866, f. 88r.

John Lydgate was such a super-fan of Chaucer that in his poem, The Siege of Thebes, he imagines himself bumping into the Canterbury Tales pilgrims on their road to Canterbury. 

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Lydgate bumping into Chaucer's pilgrims, from 'The Siege of Thebes', by John Lydgate, Royal MS 18 D II, f. 148r

The Canterbury Tales was among the first books to be printed in English. William Caxton printed the Tales in 1476 or 1477. It appears to have sold well — he brought out a new edition in 1483, complete with woodcut images of the pilgrims. Both versions are available for comparison through the British Library's Treasures in Full website.

After the Reformation, the incompleteness of the Tales gave later writers an opportunity to reframe Chaucer's work.  A fake anti-Catholic story called ‘The Plowman’s Tale’ was added to The Canterbury Tales and reprinted in various editions of Chaucer’s works throughout the 1540s and 1560s. This gave some people a rather odd idea about Chaucer's intentions. The protestant historian John Foxe (1516/17–1587) wrote in his Actes and Monuments that by reading Chaucer, people in a bygone age were ‘brought to the true knowledge of Religion’. 

Recent years have produced a trove of riches for those studying the Canterbury Tales. The most highly regarded manuscripts of the work, the Hengwrt Chaucer and the Ellesmere Chaucer, are already online. These are believed to have been written by Adam Pinkhurst, a scribe who knew Chaucer personally. But there is still more to learn about the text beyond these two books and we hope that by making another manuscript available digitally, more discoveries might be made. 

Mary Wellesley & Andrew Dunning

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11 April 2017

Scandal, espionage, treason: discover Renaissance writers

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Which Renaissance playwright killed an actor in a duel? Which Tudor poet narrowly escaped the executioner's block for an alleged affair with Anne Boleyn? Which 17th-century writer was reputedly a 'great visitor of ladies'?

You can find answers to these and other questions on the new Renaissance module of the British Library’s Discovering Literature site. From espionage and imprisonment to a secret marriage and an untimely death, the site allows you to uncover the colourful lives and works of key poets and playwrights including John DonneBen JonsonChristopher Marlowe and John Webster.

On the site you can find out more about the scandalous life and ignoble death of Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593). Marlowe wrote seven plays and three poems in a brief period in his 20s, before he was killed in a brawl, on 30 May 1593, at the age of 29. Earlier that month, Marlowe had been arrested and charged with heresy. The case against him was supported by the testimony of the double agent and informer, Richard Baines. You can see the document in which Baines makes damning accusations that Marlowe was an ‘Atheist’ with too much love for ‘Tobacco & Boies [boys]’. (Those words are visible in the 4th line of the image below.)

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Richard Baines' accusations against Marlowe, Harley MS 6848, f. 185v

Also on the site, you can read about a manuscript notebook compiled by Sir Walter Ralegh (1554–1618) during his imprisonment for treason in the Tower of London. In July 1603 Ralegh was arrested for his alleged involvement in a plot against the new king, James I (r. 1603–1625). He would spend 13 years in incarceration, during which time he wrote several prose works, including the History of the World (1614), and this notebook  contains his research for that work. On the final page is one of Ralegh's poems, written in his own hand, which has been identified as one of the ‘Cynthia poems’, in praise of Queen Elizabeth I. His fortunes had taken a turn for the worse since the accession of James I, so the poem of praise addressed to the now-dead queen is an intriguing addition to the notebook's final pages.

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The last page of Raleigh’s notebook, containing one of the Cynthia poems, ‘Now we have present made’ which he addressed to Queen Elizabeth I, Add. MS 57555, f. 172v

Another writer whose life and work you can discover more about is Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503–1542). Wyatt was a diplomat, courtier, poet and possibly a murderer. The opening lines of one of his poems reads, 'What wourde is that that chaungeth not/Though it be tourned and made in twain?'. The lines mean, ‘what word is there that does not change, even when it is turned and cut in half?’ Wyatt’s point is about how words can be turned and changed easily. He knew this better than many. In May 1534 he was imprisoned after a fight he was involved in resulted in the death of one of the sergeants of London. The circumstances of the fight are unclear and we can only speculate on what words were said — or turned — to lead to the death of a man.

Wyatt spent his adult life in the court of Henry VIII. This was an environment of intrigue and danger, where words could turn, and turn against you. On 5 May 1536, he was arrested and sent to the Tower of London on charges of treason. There were rumours that he had had an affair with Anne Boleyn. On the 17th of that month, Anne’s supposed lovers were executed at the Tower. Wyatt may have seen their deaths from his cell window. In the end, he escaped their fate and was released from the Tower.

 There are several manuscripts containing Wyatt's poems which survive, but the British Library holds arguably the most important one, Egerton MS 2711, which contains around 100 of his poems. This is the key manuscript because some of the poems are written in Wyatt’s own hand and he has gone through the manuscript, marking the poems which are his and making changes. In one poem he makes reference to 'her that did set our country in a rore', which some scholars have interpreted as a reference to Anne Boleyn. Intriguingly, however, the line has been revised in Wyatt's hand so that the lines seem to refer to a generic brunette. The altered line reads, 'Brunet that set my welth in such a rore'.  

 

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Wyatt’s translation of one of the poems which intersperses the sonnets in Petrarch’s ‘Canzionere’,  Egerton MS 2711, f. 67

Another writer who was also imprisoned more than once in his lifetime was the poet and playwright Ben Jonson (1572–1637), who was a contemporary of Shakespeare. In September 1598 Jonson killed the actor Gabriel Spencer in a duel. He only escaped being hanged by reciting Psalm 51 (colloquially known as ‘neck verse’), a loophole in the law available to anyone who could read. In 1605 he was imprisoned again, this time for contributing to the comedy Eastward Ho, which was deemed offensively anti-Scottish by the new king, James I (James VI of Scotland). Jonson wrote that he feared execution yet again and recounts a story of his mother preparing poison for him to make his death less painful.

Jonson was released and returned to royal favour, writing entertainments for the monarch, including the Masque of Queenes, written in 1609 and performed at Whitehall Palace in honour of Henry Stuart, Prince of Wales (1594–1612), the king's eldest son.

 

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Page from the autograph manuscript of Ben Jonson’s ‘Masque of Queenes’, executed in a stylish Italian cursive hand, Royal MS 18 A XLV, f. 3v

Manuscripts like these are a window into the literary culture of Renaissance England. This was an environment in which poems often circulated in manuscript form rather than being printed. On the Discovering Literature site you can find out more about the enigmatic Devonshire Manuscript, compiled by various noblemen and ladies in the Court circle of Henry VIII and the richest surviving record of early Tudor poetry and the literary activities of 16th-century women.

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The first two stanzas of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey’s poem ‘O, happy dames’ inscribed by his sister Mary, Duchess of Richmond, Add. MS 17492, f. 55

Another poet whose poetry was circulated in manuscript form was John Donne (1572–1631). Donne was famous in his own day for his sermons, which are rhetorical masterpieces largely written when he was Dean of Saint Paul's in London. Today he is more famous as a poet who wrote complex, cryptic and often erotic verse. In his youth, Donne had a reputation as a womaniser. One of his contemporaries wrote that he was 'a great visitor of Ladies, a great frequenter of Plays, a great writer of conceited Verses'. When he did marry at the age of 29, it was in secret. In 1601 he wed the niece of his employer, Sir Thomas Egerton. Egerton was horrified that one of his juniors had presumed to marry into his own family. Donne was sacked and briefly imprisoned, before he was barred from public office altogether.

On the site you can find articles about Donne and his work, including material about The Newcastle Manuscript, an anthology of verse and prose made for Sir William Cavendish (1592–1676), the first Duke of Newcastle. It includes 98 poems by John Donne and masques and poems by Ben Jonson.  

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Copy of John Donne’s poem ‘Elegy: To his Mistress Going to Bed’, Harley MS 4955, f. 95v

While these manuscripts tell us about the kind of literature that people were reading and copying, we also have links to the only known copy of William Scott’s (c. 1570–1612) The Modell of Poesye. Written in the summer of 1599, it is one of the earliest examples of English literary criticism. It has much to tell us about what people thought about literature itself in this period.  

 

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Scott's dedicatory letter to Sir Henry Lee, introducing his treatise on the art of poetry, Add. MS 81083, f. 2

The Renaissance module is the latest phase to be added to Discovering Literature, which will continue to expand in the near future to cover the whole of English literature from Beowulf to the present day.

Mary Wellesley & Andrea Clarke

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05 April 2017

An illustrated Old English Herbal

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Plant-based remedies were a major feature of Anglo-Saxon medicine. Thanks to our current digitisation project with the Bibliothèque nationale de France, funded by The Polonsky Foundation, one of the British Library’s earliest illustrated collections of such remedies has just been digitised.

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Entries for chamomile and ‘hart clover’, from an illustrated Old English Herbal, England (? Christ Church Canterbury or Winchester), c. 1000–1025, Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 29v

This manuscript (Cotton MS Vitellius C III) is the only surviving illustrated Old English herbal, or book describing plants and their uses. (There are other, non-illustrated manuscripts of the same text, for example in Harley MS 585.) The text is an Old English translation of a text which used to be attributed to a 4th-century writer known as Pseudo-Apuleius, now recognised as  several different Late Antique authors whose texts were subsequently combined. The manuscript also includes Old English translations of Late Antique texts on the medicinal properties of badgers (framed as a fictional letter between Octavian and a king of Egypt) and another on medicines derived from parts of four-legged animals. Together, the herbal and the text on four-legged animals are now known as part of the so-called 'Pseudo-Apuleius Complex' of texts.

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A man and a centaur presenting a book to a figure in a blue veil or hood, captioned 'Escolapius Plato Centaurus', from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 19r

Each entry features an illustration of a plant or animal; its name in various languages; descriptions of ailments it can be used to treat; and instructions for finding and preparing it. Remedies for poisonous bites were marked out with drawings of snakes and scorpions. For instance, a snake appears near the entry for sweet basil, called ‘snake plant’ (naedderwyrt), because it was reported to grow where snakes were found and to be useful against injuries caused by snakes. 

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‘Snakeplant’, from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 57r

Although it might seem like a practical guide to finding plants and preparing remedies, this manuscript's uses are debated. First, the illustrations are not always very useful for identifying plants and animals in the wild: take, for example, these depictions of strawberries and elephants.

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‘Streawberian’, from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 33v

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A monkey and elephant, from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 82r

Secondly, the texts include plants and animals from Mediterranean regions and beyond which are not known to be native to the British Isles, such as cumin and licorice. Scholars debate whether the Anglo-Saxons knew these plants through trade or whether the early medieval climate could have permitted such plants to grow in England. Alternatively, the scribes and artists could simply have copied them from their Mediterranean source. The text sometimes explicitly acknowledges that plants are best found in distant regions. For example, ‘dragonswort… is said that it should be grown in dragon’s blood. It grows at the tops of mountains where there are groves of trees, chiefly in holy places and in the country that is called Apulia’ (translated by Anne Van Arsdall, in Medieval Herbal Remedies: The Old English Herbarium and Anglo-Saxon Medicine (New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 154). The Herbal also includes mythical lore about some plants, such as the mandrake, said to shine at night and to flee from impure persons. To pick it, the text claimed you needed an iron tool (to dig around it), an ivory staff (to dig the plant itself up), a dog (to help you pull it out), and quick reflexes.

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A mandrake, from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 57v

However, while this manuscript’s exact uses are debatable, it continued to be used into the 16th century: later users added numbers to the table of contents, some recipes and variants of plants' names in Latin, Anglo-Norman French, and English. Eventually, a later copy of Peter of Poitiers’ Chronicle and a 9th-century copy of Macrobius’s Saturnalia were bound with the herbal. The volume may once have belonged to William Harvey (b. 1578, d. 1657), who discovered the circulation of blood. Some of his own recipes — featuring ‘licoris’, ‘cinemon’ and opium — are found at the end of the volume.

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Recipe for ‘A Diet Drinke’ in the hand of William Harvey, 1624, Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 140v

__________

Le printemps s'annonce et en Angleterre les jardins commencent à renaître. La British Library vient de numériser un manuscrit rempli d’images de plantes (et d’animaux). Ce manuscrit (Cotton MS Vitellius C III) contient des textes médicaux attribués à Pseudo-Apulée: un herbier, qui précise les usages médicaux des plantes, et aussi un texte qui concèrne les usages médicaux des animaux. Tous ces textes sont traduits en vieil anglais.

Ce manuscrit est le seul exemple d’un herbier anglo-saxon illustré. Les images dépeignent les plantes et les animaux décrits dans le texte.  Cependant, les images des fraises et de l’éléphant révèlent un certain manque de vraisemblance de la part de l’artiste.

Malgré cela, plusieurs lecteurs ont utilisé ce manuscrit: il y a des additions dans des mains datant de l'onzième jusqu’au seizième siècle. Il est possible que William Harvey, le médecin qui a découvert les lois de la circulation du sang, l’ait possédé : des recettes médicales, dans sa propre main, se trouvent maintenant à la fin du manuscrit. Aujourd’hui, ce volume contient aussi une copie du Compendium historiae de Pierre de Poitiers.

 

Alison Hudson

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