THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

123 posts categorized "English"

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. 

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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 and Professor Julia Crick of King’s College London.

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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23 April 2018

The oldest English writing in the British Library?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Alison Hudson

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12 April 2018

Juggling with fire: the poetry of the Gawain-manuscript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Mary Wellesley

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20 March 2018

Call the medieval midwife

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Tucked away in a 14th-century encyclopaedia and bestiary is an oath written alongside a black cross. The person who made it had borrowed the book, and identified themselves as ‘abestetrix', echoing the Latin ‘obstetrix’, meaning ‘midwife’. (Another hand has glossed this as 'heifmoeder’.) Midwifery was as vital in the medieval world as it is today. Medieval manuscripts can provide a variety of evidence for the hardships, mysteries and triumphs of this historic profession.

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Detail of an oath written by a midwife: Add MS 11390, f. 94v

Accounts of famous births from history are often accompanied by illustrations of the birthing chamber, depicting midwives and their female companions. This image accompanies the account of the birth of St Edmund in John Lydgate's Lives of SS Edmund and Fremund. The new mother lies in bed, tended by her companions, while the baby is warmed before the fire.

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Miniature of the birth of St Edmund, from Lydgate's Lives of SS Edmund and Fremund, England, 1434–1439: Harley MS 2278, f. 13v

The caesarean birth of Julius Caesar is frequently illustrated in medieval accounts of his life. Many of these illustrations depict men performing the caesarean, most likely because of the more surgical nature of the procedure. However, it may not have been uncommon for midwives to perform a caesarean themselves. These two illustrations of Caesar's birth depicts a midwife pulling the baby from the mother, accompanied by a female attendant, and the same birth, with a man playing the midwife's role.

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Miniature of the birth of Julius Caesar, showing a female midwife: Royal MS 16 G VII, f. 219r

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Miniature of the birth of Julius Caesar, showing a man performing the caesarean: Royal MS 16 G VIII, f. 32r

Information on pregnancy and childbirth was also included in medical treatises. Copied into one 15th-century manuscript is a gynaecological text taken from Gilbertus Anglicus’ Compendium of Medicine. The text is accompanied by illustrations of foetuses in the womb, depicted in a variety of unusual positions. It is difficult to determine whether this work would ever have been consulted by a woman. The manuscript's first known owner was Richard Ferris, sergeant surgeon to Elizabeth I, the queen who famously never married or had children. 

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Roundels showing various foetal presentations: Sloane MS 2463, f. 218v

Books may not have been an unusual sight in the birthing chamber, as women were known to have had texts read aloud to them while they were in labour. The Passio of St Margaret was a popular choice. St Margaret is thought to have emerged from a dragon's womb ‘unharmed and without any pain’, and came to be widely regarded as the patron saint of women in childbirth. Many manuscripts of the Passio of St Margaret are accompanied by instructions to bless the expectant mother with a copy of the Passio to secure the safe delivery of her child.

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Miniature of a woman lying in a bed screened by a curtain, with a swaddled infant held by a midwife (the miniature has been smudged by kissing): Egerton MS 877, f. 12r

In the 14th century, relics of St Margaret’s girdle were often used as birthing aids. One 15th-century amulet roll (Harley Ch 43 A 14), which is thought to have been used as a birth girdle, contains a text in Middle English invoking the protection of the Cross, specifically referencing childbirth. This invocation was likely read aloud, perhaps by the midwife, as the girdle was worn by the expectant mother. Invocations to aid pregnancy and childbirth were also used in the Anglo-Saxon period. The Old English Lacnunga contains a charm to be used by women who struggled to carry a child to term. The text includes a set of prose introductions and a series of short poems intended to be recited aloud in a ritual process: 

Se wífman, se hire cild áfédan ne mæg, gange tó gewitenes mannes birgenne and stæppe þonne þríwa ofer þá byrgenne and cweþe þonne þríwa þás word:
þis mé tó bóte þǽre láþan lætbyrde,
þis mé tó bóte þǽre swǽran swǽrbyrde,
þis mé tó bóte þǽre láðan lambyrde.

'Let that woman who cannot nourish her child walk to the grave of a departed person and then step three times over the burial, and then say these words three times:
this as my remedy for the hateful late birth, this as my remedy for the oppressive heavy birth, this as my remedy for the hateful lame birth.'

(translated by Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie, The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records: A Collective Edition (New York, 1942))

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A charm for ‘delayed birth’ in Lacnunga: Harley MS 585, f. 185r

It is difficult to prove that midwives were literate or regularly consulted texts in the medieval period. However, many medical manuscripts often included information regarding childbirth and the written word was certainly not out of place in the birthing chamber. The midwife who made the oath to return the book may not have been the only member of her profession to be borrowing books in the 14th century.

 

Becky Lawton

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08 March 2018

Epic women

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When many people think of Old English epics, they tend to think of Beowulf: an almost all-male story of warriors doing battle against monsters. However, did you know that some of the longest heroic poems in Old English have female central characters? Three epic Old English poems are named after and centre on women: Judith, Juliana and Elene. These poems are preserved in three of the four major Old English poetic codices, which will be displayed together for the first time during the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the British Library (19 October 2018–19 February 2019).

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Page from Judith, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 205r

Perhaps the most action-packed story is Judith. Only one, fragmentary copy of the poem survives, in the same manuscript that contains the only surviving copy of Beowulf. The surviving copy begins when Judith, a beautiful Jewish heroine, is summoned to the bedroom of the enemy general Holofernes. She finds Holofernes drunk and beheads him with a sword. She and her maid then sneak out of the camp with his severed head, which Judith then presents in front of the walls of her city while giving a rousing speech to the troops:

‘Here, you heroes renowned in victory, leaders of men, you can gaze unobstructed at the head of the most despicable heathen war-maker, lifeless Holofernes, who of all people caused us the most loss of life, bitter pain ... I drove the life out of him through God’s help. Now I want to request of every man of this citizenry, every shield-bearer, that you prepare yourselves without delay for battle after the God of origins, that compassionate king, send from the east his bright light. Bear forth your linden shields before your breast, garments of mail and bright helmets into the crowd of attackers …’ (translated by R. D. Fulk, The Beowulf Manuscript (Harvard, 2010), pp. 311–13).

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Part of Judith’s speech, quoted above, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 206v

Two more lengthy Old English poems are named after women: Juliana and Elene, both of which were written by Cynewulf. Judging by the form of Old English he used, Cynewulf probably came from Mercia, and he lived during the 9th century. Unusually for an Old English poet, he ‘signed’ his works with puns based on the runes used to spell his name. Juliana survives only in the Exeter Book (Exeter Cathedral MS 3501) and Elene survives only in the Vercelli Book (Vercelli, Biblioteca Capitolare, CXVII). 

Juliana is the story of a beautiful Roman from Nicomedia, who catches the eye of Eleusias, ‘a rich man of noble lineage, a mighty prefect’ (translated by Charles W. Kennedy, Juliana (Cambridge, Ontario, 2000), p. 2). Juliana’s father, Africanus of Nicomedia, is delighted when Eleusias wants to marry Juliana, but Juliana herself is less thrilled: she publicly refuses to marry him unless he converts to Christianity. Furious and humiliated, Eleusias has Juliana tortured and thrown in prison. While in prison, Juliana encounters a demon in disguise. She catches the demon and beats it up. Although the pages which describe Juliana’s fight with the demon are missing (the text breaks after the words, ‘she seized upon that devil’), when the text resumes it is clear that Juliana has physically and intellectually bested the demon, who is forced to confess all his plans and crimes, crying out:

‘Behold, thou hast afflicted me with painful blows, and in truth I know that, before or since, never did I meet, in all the kingdoms of the world, a woman like to thee, of more courageous heart, or more perverse … Clear it is to me that thou wouldest be in all things unashamed in thy wise heart’ (translated by Kennedy, Juliana, p. 12).

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A demon and souls in Hell, from the New Minster Liber Vitae, England (New Minster, Winchester), c. 1031, Stowe MS 944,  f. 7r

Juliana eventually releases the demon, who encourages Eleusias to order Judith’s death. When he fails to kill her with boiling lead (which does not even harm her clothes), he eventually has her beheaded. Cynewulf notes that Eleusias eventually dies in a shipwreck, while Juliana’s memory endures.

Cynewulf also wrote a poem about Elene, or Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, who allegedly rediscovered the True Cross in Jerusalem. Cynewulf portrays Elene debating, browbeating (and eventually torturing) whole committees of Jews and Christians to tell her the location of the True Cross.

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Opening of Elene, Vercelli, Biblioteca Capitolare CXVII, f. 121r

Of course, there are female characters in other epics, such as Grendel’s mother in Beowulf and Eve in the Genesis poems. Women's voices also appear in shorter Old English poems and elegies, like the Wife’s Lament. We might also draw attention to Prudentius’s Psychomachia, a Latin text written in northern Spain that became popular in early medieval England. The Psychomachia features an all-female cast, who are personifications of feminine abstract nouns. To learn more about the role of women in medieval literature, please have a look at the British Library’s new Discovering Medieval Literature site.

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Hope and Lowliness behead Pride, from Prudentius’s Psychomachia, England, late 10th and early 11th century, Add MS 24199, f. 15v

We should also admit that there is no such thing as gender equality (or other types of equality) in Old English literature. For example, it may not be to modern audiences' tastes that both Judith and Juliana fixate on their subject’s virginity. But it is still worth noting that, over a thousand years ago, women had a starring role in some of the earliest English epics.

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

05 March 2018

Polonsky Pre-1200 Project: we're halfway there

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From illuminated Gospel-books to heavenly depictions of the constellations, from texts in Old English to works on the natural world, the first fruits of our exciting collaboration with the Bibliothèque nationale de France are ripe for the picking. The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200 has reached its halfway milestone with 400 manuscripts made before 1200 now digitised, newly catalogued and available to view online. A complete list of the manuscripts with links to the current image viewers can be found here: PolonskyPre1200 PDF (also available as PolonskyPre1200 Excel).

Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII f019v

A lively scene with musicians and a dancer from illustrated Psychomachia by Prudentius, in a late 10th-century manuscript from England: British Library Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII, f. 19v

By the end of the Project a total of 800 manuscripts will be available through this resource, so the halfway point is a good moment to reflect on what the Project has achieved so far, as well what we hope to achieve over the coming months. As we focus on 500 years of collaboration and the coexistence of medieval English and French book culture and illumination, we are also currently exchanging texts and ideas. We are working together in close partnership with the Bibliothèque nationale de France on two exciting platforms for the display and interpretation of the manuscripts that have been digitised. All of the photography is now complete, and we are working on the design of a new IIIF compatible viewer that will be hosted on the BnF’s Gallica website. We are also writing articles and descriptions of many of the Project manuscripts for a new website hosted at the British Library, to explore the cultural and historical context of the manuscripts together with their artistic importance.

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Illustrated herbal in Old English picturing a mandrake, from 11th-century England: British Library Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 57v

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Image of St Benedict handing a book to his disciple, St Maurus from the beginning of the Rule of St Benedict made in Nîmes in 1129: British Library Add MS 16979, f. 21v

To follow the progress of our French partner, do consult their new blog Manuscripta. For inspiring glimpses of individual manuscripts check out the Project on Twitter (using the hashtag #PolonskyPre1200). And, of course, follow our own Blog for regular updates.

 

The Polonsky Pre-1200 Project Team

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

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