THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

12 posts categorized "Exhibitions"

20 September 2018

The Book of Durrow to be displayed at the British Library

Add comment Comments (1)

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

25_MS57_85v - Copy

Elaborated initial at the opening of the gospel of Mark

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

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

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

Cotton_ms_nero_d_4_f027r - Copy

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

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

Page showing twisted anmals of Anglo-Saxon or germanic influence

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

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

Eagle symbol at teh start of the gospel of Mark

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

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

 

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

14 September 2018

Wynflaed and the price of fashion

Add comment Comments (0)

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

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

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

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

Add_ms_47967_f062v_detail
A badger? Detail of a decoration around a flaw in parchment, from the Tollemache Orosius, England (Winchester?), late 9th or early 10th century: Add MS 47967, f. 62v

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Alison Hudson and Kate Thomas

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

06 September 2018

One-day tickets for ‘Manuscripts in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms’ symposium

Add comment Comments (0)

As regular readers of this blog will be aware, we are hosting an international academic conference on manuscripts from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms on 13–14 December 2018. This conference is now sold out. However, tickets are still available for the one-day Early Career Symposium on Saturday 15 December (9.00–17.30) and you can register here.

Harley_ms_603_f016v
Detail of the Harley Psalter, made in Canterbury in the 11th century: Harley MS 603, f. 16v

Speakers at the Symposium and their topics will be:

Colleen Curran (Junior Research Fellow, Corpus Christi College, Oxford)
‘960 and All That: An Earlier ‘Style’ of English Caroline Minuscule’

Robert Gallagher (Junior Research Fellow, St Cross College, Oxford)
‘Latin Verse and Book Culture in the Age of Æthelstan’

Louise Garner (doctoral candidate, Durham University)
‘Underneath the Arches: Pigments in the York Gospels and the Wider Canterbury Context’

Alison Hudson (Project Curator, Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts, The British Library)
‘Laymen, Churchmen and Literacy around the Turn of the First Millennium AD: Multispectral Imaging of Æthelweard’s Chronicle’

Eleanor Jackson (Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts, The British Library)
‘Consolation in the Labyrinth: A Picture Poem in Cambridge University Library, MS Kk.3.21’

Rebecca Lawton (doctoral candidate, University of Leicester)
‘Papyrus, Performance, Prestige: Examining the Physicality of Papal Letters in Early Anglo-Saxon England’

Esther Lemmerz (doctoral candidate, University of Göttingen)
‘Visualising Latin in the In Cena Domini Version in London, British Library, Cotton Faustina MS A IX’

Stephenie McGucken (University of Edinburgh)
‘The Psychomachia in Late Anglo-Saxon England: Transmission, Adaptation, and Manipulation’

Alexandra Reider (doctoral candidate, Yale University)
‘The Search for the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Codex’

Simon Thomson (Research Assistant, Ruhr Universität, Bochum)
‘Scribal Interactions: The Communal Making and Remaking of Manuscripts in Late Anglo-Saxon England’

Jiří Vnouček (doctoral candidate, University of York)
’The Parchment of Codex Amiatinus and Ceolfrith’s Bibles’

Christine Voth (Dorothea Schlözer Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Göttingen)
‘Intellectual Professionals in Anglo-Saxon England: A Case Study of the Medical Manuscript London, British Library, Royal 12 D XVII’

If you would like to be added to a waiting list to attend the first two days of the conference, please email manuscriptsconference@bl.uk. The conference and symposium are being held in connection with the Library’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdom: Art, Word War exhibition, which opens on 19 October. More information about the exhibition and other associated events is available here.

 

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

01 September 2018

A calendar page for September 2018

Add comment Comments (1)

Spears to the ready! It’s time to go on a hunt. So says a calendar page for September, made over one thousand years ago. You can read more about this calendar in the first of our series of posts about it this year, and soon you can come to see it in person at our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.

Cotton_ms_julius_a_vi_f007r lower detail
Detail of a scene with hunters and pigs: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 7r

This calendar is one of only two calendars from Anglo-Saxon England that are illustrated with scenes of daily life (the other is in Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1). For the preceding months these scenes have tended to focus on agriculture, but for September the artist has drawn a hunting scene. Two men with spears, a hunting horn and a dog follow a group of boars or possibly domestic pigs into a forest of sinuous trees. The oblivious pigs, meanwhile, munch on items hanging near the base of the trees. This scene nicely matches a description in an Old English riddle from the Exeter Book on Creation/the World/the Universe:

‘I am bigger and fatter than a fattened swine,
a swarthy boar, who lived joyfully
bellowing in a beech-wood, rooting away …’ (translated by Megan Cavell)

Cotton_ms_julius_a_vi_f007r
Calendar page for September: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 7r

This page is also notable for containing the only depiction of a woman to feature in this calendar. She represents the astrological sign Virgo and appears in a roundel at the top of the page. She is shown holding a plant. Her dress seems to be that of an 11th-century English woman: she wears a veil on her head and has flowing sleeves.

Cotton_ms_julius_a_vi_f007r virgo
Detail of a roundel depicting Virgo: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 7r

The absence of women elsewhere in the calendar is puzzling, since women would have participated in many agricultural activities. For example, notes on farming equipment, produce and workers from early 11th-century Ely mention dairymaids and other women working on farms. Women also attended feasts, such as the one depicted in the calendar page for April. Even the poem Beowulf — not noted for its gender representation — mentioned women attending a feast, including Queen Wealhtheow and her maidens.

Add_ms_61735_f001r
Farm records mentioning female agricultural workers: Add MS 61735

The absence of women elsewhere in the calendar is perhaps puzzling. The only other surviving calendar from Anglo-Saxon England that is illustrated with agricultural and pastoral scenes (Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1) does not include women, either. Perhaps these artists were working from models that did not feature women. Additionally, it is tempting to speculate that these images conveyed a spiritual meaning as much as depicting contemporary activities: scenes of ploughing and harvesting were well-known Biblical metaphors. It is therefore possible that female figures were excluded not because women did not play a role in 11th-century agriculture, but because women’s participation in preaching and spiritual teaching was being curtailed in some circles by the 11th century.

Cotton_ms_julius_a_vi_f007r Michaelmas
Detail of a verse on the feast of Michael the Archangel: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 7r

In addition to the artwork, this calendar features tables for calculating the day of the month, the day of the week, and lunar cycles, along with a poem with a verse for every day. Three major feast days have been marked out with gold crosses in the margin: the Virgin Mary’s birthday (8 September); the feast of St Matthew the Evangelist (21 September); and the feast of the Archangel Michael, or Michaelmas (29 September). Michaelmas continued to be an important feast throughout the Middle Ages, and its date still affects several institutions that originated in the medieval period. For example, law courts in England and Ireland and several universities in England, Wales and Scotland use Michaelmas as the start date for their terms.


Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

Supported by

PF Logo

31 August 2018

Magical manuscripts in the Spellbound exhibition

Add comment Comments (0)

The exhibition Spellbound: Magic, Ritual & Witchcraft is now open at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Among the other exhibits, it features a selection of spellbinding manuscripts on loan from the British Library, revealing attitudes to magic in the Middle Ages.

Royal_ms_19_c_i_f050r

Breviari d'Amor: Royal MS 19 C I, f. 50r

Medieval beliefs in magic were closely linked to people’s understanding of the order of the universe. Classical and medieval science envisioned the universe as a series of rotating concentric spheres, as pictured in this cosmological diagram in a 14th-century French manuscript. Earth was at the centre of this scheme, surrounded by the seven spheres of the ‘wandering stars’ — the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn — and finally Heaven, the sphere of the fixed stars. It was thought that the motions of these spheres and the actions of the spiritual beings residing there were instrumental in influencing events on Earth.

Add_ms_47680_f031v
Secretum Secretorum: Add MS 47680, f. 31v

This idea is illustrated in Secretum Secretorum, a Latin translation of an Arabic treatise falsely attributed to Aristotle. The text is a ‘mirror of princes’, or guide to being a good ruler, presented as advice given by Aristotle to Alexander the Great. This manuscript was commissioned for Prince Edward (the future King Edward III, reigned 1327–1377), by the King's Clerk, Walter of Milemete. The image shown here is from a portion of the treatise discussing the importance of keeping good counsel, in which Aristotle’s character stresses the importance of astrological knowledge in selecting ministers.

Aristotle demonstrates his point with a story, illustrated in the miniature above. There was once a weaver’s son who was born under highly auspicious stars. When he grew older, the bookish boy would do nothing but study history and science. Eventually he became a government minister and managed the affairs of kings. Another boy was the son of an Indian king, but the stars at his birth foretold that he would become a smith. Although his father tried to give him a princely education, the boy was interested only in smithing, and he went on to produce the finest swords in all of India.

In the miniature, Alexander listens to the advice of two astrologers. Each points to the stars and to a birth scene, one royal and one humble. The gestures of the astrologers indicate that, regardless of their families’ social status, the children’s futures were written in the stars.

Royal_ms_17_a_xlii_f068v

The Sworn Book of Honorius: Royal MS 17 A XLII, f. 68v

Medieval magic often attempted to harness the power of the stars more directly. This 15th-century manuscript is an English translation of the Sworn Book of Honorius, a Latin book of magic written in the early 14th century. The text explains how to summon heavenly intermediaries to do your bidding, with the page above discussing the service of the angels of the seven spheres. Accompanying this passage are illustrations of the red angels of Mars, Samahel, Satyhel, Ylurahyhel and Amabyhel, whose 'nature is to cause and stir up war, murder, destruction and mortality of people and of all earthly things'. Alongside them are the friendlier golden angels of the Sun, Raphael, Cashael, Daryhel and Haurathaphel, whose nature is to 'give love and favour and riches to a man and power also to keep him hail and to give dews, herbs, flowers and fruits in a moment'. The text emphasises that this magic is entirely Christian and virtuous, asserting that the spirits would never answer the requests of the wicked.

Harley_roll_t_11_f002r

An amuletic roll: Harley Roll T 11 (detail)

Magical materials were widely adapted for different uses. The circular diagrams in this 15th-century English roll are closely related to those found in collections of incantations such as the Book of Honorius, but employed here as protective charms. The roll was designed to be worn as an amulet for personal protection. Of the four magical diagrams shown here, the first gave protection against enemies, the second against storms and thunder, the third claims that ‘by it all things were made’, and the fourth claims ‘this is the name of God, whoever carries it with him will be safe’. Underneath is an image of Christ’s side-wound, demonstrating the fluid relationship that could exist between magical and devotional beliefs.

Cotton_ms_tiberius_a_vii!1_f070r

The Pilgrimage of Man: Cotton MS Tiberius A VII, f. 70r

Magic was strongly criticised by many medieval commentators. The above image is a scathing representation of magic from a 15th-century copy of John Lydgate’s The Pilgrimage of Man, a verse translation of Guillaume de Deguileville's Pèlerinage de la vie humaine. In this moralising account of an allegorical journey, the pilgrim ‘everyman’ meets an old hag who, it turns out, is the personification of sorcery. This unpleasant character is peddling inscriptions, images, ointments, herbs and astrological readings, which she uses for malicious ends. The pilgrim asks her, “Tell on without more tarrying, where learnest thou all thy cunning?” “Soothly as I rehearse can, I learned my cunning off Satan”, she replies.

Specifically, she was a student at Satan's school, as depicted in this miniature. It appears that classes at Satan’s academy involved brewing green potions and abducting babies. The school fees were also notably high: when the pilgrim asks, “what gave thou him for thy cunning?”, the hag answers, “The truth, if I tell shall, my soul I gave him, whole and all”.

If you'd like to learn more about these manuscripts, we'd highly recommend that you visit the Spellbound exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, from 31 August 2018 until 9 January 2019. You can also view all the manuscripts described above on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.

 

Eleanor Jackson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

27 August 2018

Anglo-Saxon elephants

Add comment Comments (0)

My favourite Old English word — for the moment — is ‘ylp’. It means ‘elephant’. I was discussing this over lunch with my colleagues at the British Library, when someone asked a fair question: why was there a specific Old English word for elephant, when writers such as Ælfric (d. c. 1010) acknowledged, ‘Some people will think it wondrous to hear [about these animals], because elephants have never come to England’? The short answer is: elephants did not have to physically come to the British Isles to influence early medieval culture. They are a good example of the links that existed between Anglo-Saxon England and the wider world, through the exchange of books.

Cotton_ms_tiberius_b_v!1_f081r
An elephant, from the Marvels of the East, in a mid-11th century scientific collection: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 81r

Some people in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had travelled long distances, and if they had visited the southern Mediterranean, they may have seen elephants there. One elephant had also reportedly been given to the Emperor Charlemagne (d. 814). However, many Anglo-Saxon people had never seen an elephant, as is evident from their attempts to illustrate them. But literate people who had never left England could still encounter elephants in their books. Elephants appear in several of the classical and Late Antique texts which were available in early medieval Britain. Church fathers such as Augustine used elephants as metaphors, since their large size and apparently calm demeanour suggested stability and chastity. Such beliefs led to the motif of the noble elephant fighting the demonic dragon in later medieval art.

Cotton_ms_vitellius_c_iii_f082r
An elephant and a monkey, from an illustrated Old English translation of medical remedies, England (? Christ Church Canterbury or Winchester), c. 1000–1025: Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 82r

Mediterranean medical texts that circulated in the British Isles also mentioned elephants. For example, an Old English translation of the group of remedies known as the Pseudo-Apuleius complex recommended that elephants be used as a beauty product: to remove ‘disfiguring marks’ on the body, ‘take elephant bone [possibly ivory] and point with honey and apply it. It removes the marks wonderfully.’ Don't try this at home!

Other classical and Late Antique texts described elephants being used in military campaigns. Some of these works were translated into Old English, including Orosius’s History Against the Pagans. The earliest surviving manuscript of this translation includes a passage which described how Hasdrubal, king of Carthage, set out with 30 elephants (‘mid xxx elpenda’). The scribe of a later copy of this text mistakenly changed the passage to 30 helpers ('helpenda'). 

Add_ms_47967_f055v
Detail of a passage discussing elephants, from the Tollemache Orosius, England (Winchester?), late 9th or early 10th century: Add MS 47967, f. 55v

Based on these texts, many Old English writers understood elephants as war animals. In his sermon on the Book of Maccabees, Ælfric described how:

‘Five hundred mounted men went with every elephant, and a war-house (wighus) was built on each of the elephants, and in each war-house were thirty men … An elephant is an immense animal, larger than a house, completely surrounded with bones within its hide, except at the navel, and it never lies down. The mother carries the foal for 24 months, and they live for 300 years … and man can tame them wonderfully for battle’ (translated by Joe Allard & Richard North, Beowulf and Other Stories, 2nd ednLondon: Pearson, 2012).

As a sidenote, if for some reason you ever need to ask for directions to the Elephant and Castle Underground station in Old English, according to Ælfric you should ask for ‘Ylp ond Wighus’.

Royal_ms_12_c_xxiii_f100v
Start of a riddle about an elephant, from a copy of Aldhelm's riddles, England (Canterbury), c. 1000: Royal MS 12 C XXIII, f. 100v 

Elephants were also characterised by their military role in war in a Latin riddle composed by Aldhelm (d. 709/10), bishop of Sherborne:

‘As armoured troops and soldiers pack in tight

(Wretches who with vain lust incite a fight

While arms taint sacred civil loyalties),

A trumpet sucks in air with bursts of breeze

And raucous, clanging battle horns resound;

Fierce, bold, I’ve come to know their savage sound…’

(translated by A.M. Juster, St Aldhelm’s Riddles, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, p. 59).

Aldhelm’s riddle also shows that elephants were known for more than just their skills in battle. They were also prized for their ivory. The riddle continues:

‘Although God made me ugly at my start, I picked up gifts of life once I debuted ...

I can’t be beaten by fine sheets of gold,

Although the precious polished metal’s decked

With gleaming gems and stylish luxuries.

Nature won’t let me kneel when I feel old

Or rest my eyelids while on bended knees.

Indeed, I have to spend my life erect.’

Elephant ivory may have been known in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. It has been detected in some 6th-century bag frames, although walrus ivory is more common. 

Beyond copying texts that mentioned elephants as metaphors or resources, many Old English writers were fascinated by them out of a sense of wonder that such creatures could exist. Ælfric marvelled at their size, and both he and Aldhelm believed that elephants never sat down.

A text that exists in both Latin and Old English versions, known as the Marvels of the East, similarly presents elephants as a wonder. It claims that elephants stand 15 feet high with a ‘long nose’ covered in black hair. It also states that they are plentiful in India. The artists who illustrated two copies of this text did not pay much heed to this description. One artist portrayed a pink-skinned elephant with a long tongue and tusks, instead of a long nose, as shown at the start of this blogpost. Meanwhile, the artist of the Marvels of the East in the Nowell Codex (which also contains Beowulf) drew elephants in a way that is suspiciously reminiscent of the way they also illustrated camels.

Cotton_ms_vitellius_a_xv_f101v
Elephants, from the Marvels of the East, England, late 10th century or early 11th century: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 101v

Elephants probably did not arrive in England for several more centuries. The earliest recorded elephant in England is the gift that King Louis IX of France presented to King Henry III of England in 1255. The chronicler Matthew Paris was on hand to illustrate and to describe it, claiming that ‘we believe [it was] the only elephant ever seen in England …’ But even before that, elephants had already had a significant impact on English literature and culture.

Would you like to learn more about the earliest English literature and its connections to the wider world? You can find out more on our Discovering Literature: Medieval site. And don't miss our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, on show at the British Library from 19 October 2018 to 19 February 2019.

 

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

11 August 2018

More ways to learn about Harry Potter: A History of Magic

Add comment Comments (0)

It may be a while since our Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibition closed its doors, but there are still plenty of opportunities for you to get your fix of Harry Potter, medieval style. Our friends at Pottermore have just announced the publication of a new audiobook to accompany the exhibition and there are other ventures in the pipeline. Here is a run-down of the many ways you can still learn about the traditions, myths and folklore that lie behind J.K. Rowling's stories.

HOM_Mainstill

The audiobook of the exhibition will be published by Pottermore on 4 October. It is narrated by Natalie Dormer, and features contributions by Stephen Fry, Jim Dale, Jim Kay and Olivia Lomenech Gill, as well as the curatorial team.

HPHOM

HPFAMMAGIC

The two exhibition books, dear reader, were published in the UK by Bloomsbury, where they were no. 1 and no. 5 in last year's non-fiction charts. Worldwide, they have also been translated into languages including French, German, Hungarian, Thai and Vietnamese. One book was aimed at a family audience — Harry Potter: A Journey Through the History of Magic — and the other at an adult readership, with essays by contributors such as Tim Peake and Steve Kloves, alongside descriptions by the British Library's curators.

Room

Alex

Towards the end of the exhibition's run, a virtual tour was released by Google Arts and Culture. This enables you to see views of each room of the show in London, highlights of some of the exhibits, and commentaries by Jim Kay and the curators. We even made it to the Google homepage. (Don't mention this to anyone, but Harry Potter is the most successful collaboration, in terms of visits, ever undertaken by Google Arts and Culture.)

HARRY_POTTER_DVD_3D

To accompany the exhibition, the British Library contributed to a major BBC documentary, filming some of the exhibits alongside J.K. Rowling and Jim Kay. The DVD of the documentary is now available and clips can be viewed on the BBC website, such as the time we showed the author the incredible Ripley Scroll.

Finally, our readers in North America may be interested to know that Harry Potter: A History of Magic is due to open this autumn at the New-York Historical Society, where it will run from 5 October until 27 January 2019. Tickets can be obtained here. We hope that as many of you as possible get the opportunity to see the show: as Ron Weasley said, "When in doubt, go to the library".

 

Julian Harrison

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

03 August 2018

‘I, King Alfred …’

Add comment Comments (0)

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.

Cotton_ms_tiberius_a_vi_f019r

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 ...’

Stowe_ch_19_f001r

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.

Stowe_ch_19_f001r

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.

Stowe_ch_19_f001v

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

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval