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79 posts categorized "French"

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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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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23 June 2017

The language of love (and poetry and history)

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Old Occitan or Langue d’oc, the language of Eleanor of Aquitaine and the troubadours, was claimed by Dante to be the perfect language for verse. It is still spoken in southern France and in pockets of Italy and northern Spain. Early genres and themes first developed by the troubadour poets of Provence and the surrounding regions were adopted by French trouveres and German minnesanger. Occitan literature of the 12th and 13th centuries is arguably ‘a primary reference for the medieval literatures of what we now call France, Spain, Italy and Germany’ (Burgwinkle, ‘The troubadours’ (2011)).

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The seven virtues and vices of lovers, from the Breviari d’Amor, mid-14th century; France, S. (Toulouse?), Harley MS 4940, f. 227r

As we mentioned in a previous blogpost, the British Library's earliest manuscript containing Old Occitan is Harley MS 2928, probably copied in the 12th century. Many of our Occitan manuscripts date from the 13th and 14th centuries. The Breviari d’Amor, the Vie de St Honorat and the Somme le Roi  are the most popular surviving texts, along with Chansonniers or collections of lyrics, many of which were copied in Italy and Catalunya. Three of our 14th-century manuscripts, all from southern France, have recently been digitised; two of them contain the Breviari d’Amors and a third is an Occitan version of an illustrated almanac.

The Breviari d’Amors

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The author, Matfre, holding a large book from which he is instructing four crowned figures with books or scrolls, from the Breviari d’Amor, early 14th century; France, S. (Toulouse?), Royal MS 19 C I, f. 7r

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The Devil incites people to the sins of robbery, lust, violence and avarice and brings disaster to a ship at sea, from the Breviari d’Amor, mid-14th century; France, S. (Toulouse?), Harley MS 4940, f. 27r

The Breviari d’Amors is a poetic work composed by Matfre Ermengaud in 1288–1292. Ermengaud described 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. His work contains a compendium of contemporary knowledge under the umbrella of faith, seen as a manifestation of God’s love.

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The hierarchy of angels adoring the Trinity from the Breviari d’Amor, Royal MS 19 C I, f. 30v

Both volumes in our collections are believed to have been copied in Toulouse in the 14th century. They are filled with remarkable illuminations showing God and Love at the centre of all creation. They are in a unique style associated with southern Europe in this period.

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The Tree of Love from the Breviari d’Amor, Royal MS 19 C I, f. 11v

Scientific topics focus on astronomy and meteorology, while spiritual matters such as theology, angelology, demonology, mystical anthropology, sacred and scriptural studies are treated at length, together with the art of living on earth, and the subject of human love. Love is the metaphysical link between the spiritual realm and the created universe.

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A circular diagram of the planets governing the days of the week, from the Breviari d’Amor, Royal MS 19 C I, f. 53v

For Ermengaud, angels are at the centre of many of the functions governing life on earth.

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The six ages of the world, with an angel in the centre, from the Breviari d’Amor, Royal MS 19 C I, f. 58v

There is a third copy of the Breviari  in our collections and also fully digitised (Yates Thompson MS 31) but it is in Catalan prose rather than Occitan, and was made in Catalunya (probably Girona) towards the end of the 14th century. The style of the illuminations is rather different. There are some rather elegant images of Hell-mouths (always a favourite subject on this blog) that almost look inviting!

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The Christ and the Harrowing of Hell, souls in Purgatory, unbaptised infants in Limbo and the Damned engulfed in flames, last quarter of the 14th century, Spain, E. (Catalonia, ?Gerona ), Yates Thompson MS 31, f. 250r

The Abreujamen de las Estorias

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Synchronic table of kings and emperors of the world with Alexander the Great and Ptolemy from the Abreujamen de las Estorias,  France, S. (Avignon); 2nd quarter of the 14th century (after 1323), Egerton MS 1500, f. 13v

Love, the universe and poetry were not the only topics of Occitan manuscripts. The Abreujamen de las Estorias (Egerton MS 1500) is a diagrammatic chronicle in Occitan, based on the Latin chronicle of Paolino (c. 1275–c. 1344), a Fransiscan friar and diplomat from Venice. It consists of genealogical diagrams with notes and synchronic tables of popes, emperors and kings, including English kings, and it marks the canonisation of Thomas Aquinas in 1323. Of special note is an account of the First Crusade, 'Passazia et auxilia Terre Sancte', inserted in the almanac, with miniatures and maps of Antioch and Jerusalem. This was featured in our recent blogpost on the Crusades.

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A synchronic table of kings including King John of England, Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, Roger of Sicily and Saladin, with scenes from the Crusades, from the Abreujamen de las Estorias,  Egerton MS 1500, f. 53v

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Map of Jerusalem from the Abreujamen de las Estorias, Egerton MS 1500, f. 49r

Brunel listed 11 manuscripts in Occitan then held at the British Museum (now in the British Library) and there are two more in our collections today. Of these 13 manuscripts, 4 have been digitised in full, as described above, and a selection of images of a further 5 are online on our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts:

Egerton MS 945: A liturgical collection in Norman French and Occitan 

Harley MS 3041: Eleucidarium with a page of lyrics in Occitan  

Harley MS 3183: A devotional manual from the Périgord 

Harley MS 4830: Laws of the city of Avignon 

Harley MS 7403: Religious texts, some in Occitan 

The remainder have descriptions in our Archives and Manuscripts catalogue:

Add MS 10323: La vie de St Honorat

Add MS 17920: A Collection of Historical works, formerly part of Egerton MS 1500 

Add MS 22636: Thesaurus Pauperum and a collection of medical texts in Latin, with a fragment of a poem in Occitan 

Chantry Westwell

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Bibliography

Clovis Brunel, Bibliographie des manuscrits littéraires en ancien provençal, Société de publications Romanes et Françaises, 13 (Paris: Librairie E. Droz, 1935).

William Burgwinkle, ‘The troubadours : the Occitan model’, in The Cambridge History of French Literature, ed. by William Burgwinkle, Nicholas Hammond and Emma Wilson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 20-27.

16 June 2017

Old Occitan at the British Library

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Old Occitan or langue d’Oc was a language widely spoken and written in southern France and parts of Italy up to the French Revolution. The name is based on the word for "yes": ‘òc’ as opposed to the ‘oïl’ (modern ‘oui’) of Paris and northern France. The earliest literary manuscripts date from the 11th century, though there was an earlier oral tradition, and written fragments found in official documents in Latin and responses in litanies date back to the 9th and 10th centuries.

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The Lord in a mandorla surrounded by the four symbols of the Evangelists, from a Psalter, Breviary and other theological texts, 1075–1225, France, S. W., Harley MS 2928, f. 14v

Clovis Brunel’s Bibliographie des manuscrits littéraires en ancien provençal lists 376 literary manuscripts in Old Occitan (excluding legal and administrative documents),  of which only 8 are from the 11th and 12th centuries, though many of the key texts were composed in this period.

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Text page of a passage from John’s gospel in Old Occitan, Harley MS 2928, f. 190r

One of the oldest surviving texts in Old Occitan prose is a translation of four chapters of John’s Gospel from a manuscript in the British Library's collections that has recently been digitised, along with many of our pre-1200 manuscripts, as part of the Polonsky digitisation project: Harley MS 2928

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Historiated initial ‘D’(ixit dominus), at the beginning of Psalm 110, of the Lord enthroned with a human figure lying prostrate at his feet, Harley MS 2928, f. 74v

This late 11th- or early 12th-century manuscript from southern France (perhaps the town of Solignac in the Limousin) contains chapters 13 to 17 of John’s Gospel in Old Occitan (ff. 187v–191v). It is the only vernacular text in a collection of Latin liturgical texts including a psalter, litanies, prayers, and a book of Hymns (Expositio hymnorum).   

There are 11 historiated initials illustrating the most important Psalms. 

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Historiated initial ‘B’(eati) of a ?pilgrim with a staff, at the beginning of Psalm 119, Harley MS 2928, f. 77r

The section of John’s Gospel in Occitan, pictured below, relates the events of the Last Supper, the washing of the feet and Christ’s sermon to the assembled Disciples. The rubric preceding the text is in Latin:

Incipit sermo domini nostri Ihesu Christi quem fecit in cena sua quando pedes lavit discipulis suis

(Here begins the sermon of our Lord Jesus Christ which he gave at his supper when he washed the feet of his disciples).

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Text page with rubric at the beginning of John, Chapter 13 in Occitan, Harley MS 2928, f. 187v

The Old Occitan text begins:

Avan lo dia festal de la Pasca sabia lo Salvadre que la soa ora ve que traspasse da quest mun au Paer

(Before the feast of Passover when Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart from this world to the Father)

This short extract contains several examples of key variations between Old Occitan and standard French:

  • final consonants in clusters like –nt and -nd fall away completely (in standard French they are nasalised) to produce  ‘avan’ instead of  ‘avant’ (before) and ‘mun’ instead of ‘monde’ (world)
  • some words are closer to modern Spanish than to French: ‘dia’ instead of ‘jour’ (day) and ‘sabia’ instead of ‘savait’ (knew)
  • vowel sounds differ in many common words: ‘lo’ for ‘le’ (masculine article), ‘Paer’ for ‘Père’ (father) and again ‘mun’ for ‘monde’

According to Wunderli , whose 1969 edition of the Occitan text is included in the bibliography, the dialect is from the Limousin or Périgord regions.

The Old Occitan section are not the only interesting parts of this manuscript. The Expositio Hymnorum (Hymnal or Book of Hymns) is arranged according to the liturgical day and year and includes collects from the Gospels and homilies of St Ambrose and St Gregory. It contains 12th-century musical notation, or neumes, from southern France on ff. 127r–187v.

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Folio from the Expositio Hymnorum with 12th-century neumes, Harley MS 2928, f. 134r

4 full-page miniatures in colours, sadly rather worn (ff. 13v, 14v, 17r, 18r), precede the Psalms, which begin with the Prologue by Pseudo Augustin on f. 19r, 'Laus Psalmorum. Canticum psalmorum animas decorat'.  In one image, what appears to be of a kneeling saint, perhaps Saint Stephen, is being stoned by two figures in tunics, while  gazing at the sun, or perhaps watching a comet.

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A kneeling saint is stoned, Harley MS 2928, f. 13v

4 more full-page miniatures of scenes from the New Testament (ff. 15r, 15v, 16r, 16v), were added in Bologna in the 13th century and have been attributed to the ‘Master of 1285’ (see Conti, La Miniature Bolognese (1981)).

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Added miniature of the Raising of Lazarus, last quarter of the 13th century, Italy, N. (Bologna), Harley MS 2928, f. 15r

 

Harley MS 2928 contient un des plus anciens exemples écrits de la langue d’oc ou de l'occitan : il s'agit d'une traduction de quatre chapitres de l’Evangile de saint Jean. Désormais disponible en ligne, entièrement numérisé, sur notre site internet Digitised Manuscripts, ce manuscrit comprend aussi un psautier, une ‘Expositio hymnorum’, avec neumes du XIIe siècle et une collection liturgique en Latin. Selon Winderli, il fut copié dans le Limousin ou le Périgord à la fin du XIe ou début du XIIe siècle.  Quatre grandes enluminures occupent les feuillets ff. 13v, 14v, 17r et 18r et onze lettrines historiées illustrent le Psautier. L’usure a parfois rendu ces illustrations peu lisibles, mais le style est distinctif.  Quatre enluminures furent ajoutées à Bologne à la fin du XIIIe siècle.  L’extrait de l’évangile (Jean, chapitres 13 à 17) raconte les évènements du Jeudi saint et le discours de Jésus à ses disciples lors de la cène.

                                                                                                Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Bibliography

Clovis Brunel, Bibliographie des manuscrits littéraires en ancien provençal, Société de publications Romanes et Françaises, 13 (Paris: Librairie E. Droz, 1935).

William Burgwinkle, ‘The troubadours : the Occitan model’, in The Cambridge History of French Literature, ed. by William Burgwinkle, Nicholas Hammond and Emma Wilson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 20-27.

Alessandro Conti, La Miniature Bolognese: Scuole e botteghe 1270-1340 (Bologna: ALFA, 1981), pp. 25–26.

Peter Wunderli, La plus ancienne traduction provençale (XIIe siecle) des chapitres XII à XVII del’évangile de saint Jean (BM Harley 2928), Bibliotheque Francaise et Romane, D.4 (Paris: Klincksieck, 1969).

 

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19 March 2017

A Tale as Old as Time

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Magic is in the air this weekend, as audiences worldwide have been going to see Disney’s live action remake of its classic animated tale, Beauty and the Beast. In Disney’s version of this classic tale, an enchantress places a curse on a vain prince which turns him into a hideous beast. If the prince does not learn to love another by the time the last petal falls on a magical rose, he will remain in his beastly state forever. Some years later, a young village girl, known for her love of reading and beauty, is taken prisoner in his castle. Naturally, romance ensues and Belle and her now-handsome prince live ‘happily ever after’.

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'Canon fuga in dyatessaron': from Magister Sampson’s Motets, Low Countries (Antwerp), c. 1516, Royal MS 11 E XI, f. 2v

Contrary to some reviewers, who describe the setting of Disney’s film as ‘medieval’, Disney’s adaptation was based on the fairytale by the French novelist, Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, written in 1741. However, like many fairy tales composed during the 17th and 18th centuries, these narratives have roots which reach back into antiquity and draw on aspects of medieval and early modern life, from the use of roses in heraldry to its portrayal of literate women to the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ story itself.

A particularly popular aspect of Disney’s adaptation of this tale is Belle's love of literature and enthusiasm for reading. There are numerous examples of women from the medieval period that wrote texts of their own, and clearly shared this same love of the written word.

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Her nose stuck in a book: detail of a miniature of Christine de Pizan in her study, from the Book of the Queen, France (Paris), c. 1410–1414, Harley MS 4431, f. 4r

In a recent post, we explored the work of female scribes in manuscripts dating back to the 2nd century BC. In these early texts, it is possible to deduce from the context, content and the pronouns used that it may have been written by a woman. Later in the Middle Ages, it is possible to identify specific women who wrote, read or owned a variety of books. A particularly well known female author is Christine de Pizan (1364–1430).  One of Christine’s most famous works, The Book of the City of the Ladies, was written for Isabel of Bavaria, Queen consort of Charles VI of France, and discussed the important contributions to society made by women in the past.

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Be our guest: detail of Christine de Pizan presenting her book to Queen Isabel of Bavaria, Harley MS 4431, f. 3r

Another medieval female writer from the medieval period was Marie de France (1160–1215). Although little is known about Marie’s personal life, it is clear that she had an interest in literature and a desire to share her passion with others. During her lifetime, she translated part of the collection of Aesop’s fables and wrote about the importance of proverbs to moral instruction within society.

Marie also composed 21 short lais poems. These lais were romantic narratives, which glorified the concept of courtly love through the adventures of the main characters. In one particular lai Marie combined the theme of love with the supernatural and fairytale motifs to create a story that will be familiar to fans of the Beauty and the Beast tale.

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The tale of Bisclavret: from the lais of Marie de France, c. 1250–75, England (Oxford?), Harley MS 978, f. 131v

This lai is called Bisclavret (or The Werewolf), and tells of a baron who shape-shifts weekly into a wolf. He disappears from his home for three days, and then reverts to his human form by putting his clothes back on. When his wife discovers his secret, she decides to get rid of him by sending a knight, her suitor, to steal his clothes after his next transformation. Bisclavret, unable to return to his human form, is forced to spend the rest of his life roaming the woods. His luck changes, however, when the king finds him and adopts him as a pet. But the story unravels when the king takes him on a visit to his former lands, now governed by his wife and her suitor. Seeing his wife, Bisclavret goes into a rage, attacks her and rips off her nose. She then confesses her deeds and returns the stolen clothes, enabling Bisclavret to change back to his human form and regain his lands. This is, of course, a much darker version than Disney’s joyful adapatation.

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Positively primeval! A woman demonstrates displeasure at a wodewose's advances, Smithfield Decretals, Southern France (?Toulouse), c. 1300–40,
Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 73r

Nor was Marie de France’s tale the only instance of a ‘Beauty and the Beast’ type story in medieval art and literature. Wodewoses, or hairy wild men from the forest, often appear in the margins of manuscripts attempting (usually unsuccessfully) to woo beautiful women. There were also stories about a handsome young knight forced to marry a much older woman, who became beautiful when he learned to respect her. This is the plot of the Wife of Bath’s tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

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The beginning of the Wife of Bath's Tale: England, mid-15th century, Harley MS
1758, f. 97v 

As a female who loves to read and marvels at the contents of a library, Belle continues to be an important role model for young girls who share this love of the written word. Christine de Pizan and Marie de France are just two examples of many women throughout history who were clearly passionate about reading and writing texts of their own. Marie de France’s story of physical transformation as a barrier of love is just one example of how fairytale narratives recur throughout history, and still delight audiences today. One could even say that this kind of narrative is a tale as old as time…

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Beauty is found within: historiated initial with a rose, Royal MS 11 E XI, f. 13v

Becky Lawton and Clarck Drieshen

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28 February 2017

Pancake Tuesday

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Today is Pancake Tuesday, when many cooks whip up pancakes in every size, shape and flavour! This popular tradition coincides with Shrove Tuesday, the last day before the start of Lent. Lent is the period of 40 days which comes before Easter, and during the Middle Ages this time was observed by fasting. As the day before Lent, Shrove Tuesday was marked by families indulging in foods forbidden over the fasting period, including meat, fats, eggs and milk. These were also foodstuffs that would not remain fresh over the 40-day fasting period, so it was necessary for households to use up these ingredients.

One common dish that combined fats, milk and eggs, with an addition of flour, was the pancake. Did you know that the British Library holds a 13th-century recipe for pancakes from an English collection of culinary recipes (now Additional MS 32085)?

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Detail of a rabbit baking its own bread in a miniature oven, from Lansdowne MS 451, f. 6r

This recipe for white crepes or pancakes is composed in Anglo-Norman French, and it is similar to modern pancake recipes.

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Nice day for a white pancake: recipe for ‘blanche escrepes’, from Add MS 32085, f. 117v

Here is a translation so you can judge for yourself:

2. White pancakes. Here is another dish, which is called white pancakes. Take best white flour and egg white and make batter, not too thick, and put in some wine; then take a bowl and make a hole in it; and then take butter, or oil, or grease; then put your four fingers in the batter to stir it; take the batter and put it in the bowl and pour it through the hole into the (hot) grease; make one pancake and then another, putting your finger in the opening of the bowl; then sprinkle the pancakes with sugar, and serve with the ‘oranges’.

(translation taken from Constance B. Hieatt & Robin F. Jones, 'Two Anglo-Norman Culinary Collections Edited from British Library Manuscripts Additional 32085 and Royal 12.C.xii', Speculum, vol. 61, issue 4 (Oct. 1986), 859-882)

Watch out, though, these ‘oranges’ actually refer to another recipe in the collection for pork meatballs made to resemble fruit. However you enjoy your pancakes, get them while they’re hot!

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Bas-de-page scene of Salome dancing on her hands before the feasting of Herod and Herodias from the Taymouth Hours, Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 106v

Alison Ray

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16 February 2017

The Seven Sages of Rome: Stories of the Wicked Ways of Women

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The Seven Sages of Rome is a varied collection of moral stories or exempla that includes over 100 tales in one or more of the many versions that exist throughout Europe and the East, where they originated. The unifying theme is provided by the story of Florentin, son of the Emperor Diocletian, who is under threat of death.

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The Seven Sages and the emperor’s son, with the rubric, Incipit liber septem philosophorum cuiusda[m] Imperatoris Romani, Italy, N. (Venice), 1440s, Add MS 15685, f. 83r

He has been accused by his young stepmother of seducing her and plotting against his father. For seven days the seven sages, tutors of the prince, try to obtain a stay of execution by telling the Emperor stories of the wickedness of women, while the stepmother counters these with stories of her own, pointing to Florentin’s guilt. Having remained mute all this time, the prince himself speaks on the eighth day to proclaim his innocence, and the Queen is judged guilty and executed.


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Detail of the Emperor and Empress playing chess, from the Continuation des Sept Sages, France, Central (Paris); 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Harley MS 4903, f. 106v

The tales in the original collection have names like Arbor or ‘The Pine and its Sucker’, Canis or ‘The Greyhound and the Serpent’, and Puteus (the Well) or ‘The Husband Out of Doors’, in which an unfaithful wife, who has been locked out (or locked away, depending on the version) by her husband as punishment, pretends to drown herself in the village well, and when he goes  to the village square to investigate, she locks him out in turn and he is then arrested for breaking the curfew. 

Ward’s Catalogue of Romances in the British Museum lists 6 manuscripts in Volume II, Eastern Legends and Tales, as the roots of the cycle of tales is in the East: The Book of Sindibad, believed by some to originate in India, possibly as early as the 5th century BC. The earliest medieval western example in the British Library's collections, Harley MS 3860, is in French, and was copied in the north of England in the early 14th century. The manuscript comprises historical chronicles, Grosseteste’s Chateau d’amour  and the Manuel des Pechies  and has just been published in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

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A tinted drawing of the Empress and a decorated initial 'L' ('emperur), Les Sept Sages de Rome, England, N. (?Durham), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Harley MS 3860, f. 31r

Also from the early 14th century is Additional MS 27429, translated into Italian from the French, based partly on the version in Harley 3860 and partly on an earlier French version.  The relationships between the texts are complex.

A copy in Latin, Additional MS 15685, is from mid-15th-century Venice, with colourful miniatures:

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The Empress attempting to seduce her stepson, Liber Septem Philosophorum or Book of the Seven Sages, Venice, 1440–1450, Add MS 15685, f. 84v

Out of a total of 9 surviving manuscripts in Middle English, 3 are in the British Library, each originally containing 15 tales, though one, Arundel MS 140,  is now incomplete.

Cotton MS Galba E IX from the late-14th and Arundel MS 140 from the early-15th century are collections of moral and religious texts, both containing The Prik of Conscience as well as the Seven Sages. In the first, the pine tree becomes a ‘pineappel tre’.

Egerton MS 1995, a miscellany of prose and verse from the south of England, begins with the Seven Sages and includes the original version of John Page’s poem on the siege of Rouen.

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The beginning of ‘The fyrste tale of the Emperasse’ from The Seven Sages of Rome, Egerton MS 1995, f. 10r

Continuation of the Sept Sages

There exist further tales in the cycle, known as the Continuation of the Sept Sages, not described by Ward, but related to the above. Harley MS 4903, also recently digitised, contains the second part of this text:  the first part is in Paris, BnF ms francais 17000. The tales are broadly grouped around the character of Cassidorus, Emperor of Constantinople, and the ones in the Harley volume are Helcanus (the concluding part), Peliarmenus and Kanor. Helcanus is the son of Cassidorus and Peliarmenus is brother of the emperor, who tries to get rid of his nephew in order to rule by himself.

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Dyalogus throwing Cassidorus’s children into the river; Dorus is rescued by a fisherman; an unidentified coat of arms in the margin, at the beginning of the Roman de Peliarmenus, France, Central (Paris), 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Harley MS 4903, f. 16r

The tale of Peliarmenus ends with the death of Cassidorus. The Roman de Kanor begins with a lion, an old friend of Cassidorus, taking his four sons, one of whom is Kanor, to a hermitage to be raised by a hermit named Dieudonne, and Nicole, a servant of their mother, the Empress for seven years then educated at the court of the King of Hungary. There are several sub-plots involving firstly Celydus, illegitimate son of Cassidorus who becomes King of Jerusalem, and secondly Nero, son of the Empress Nera, switched at birth with the child of a monk, and later switched with Libanor, son of the Queen of Carthage. One of them (it is hard to tell which) becomes Emperor of Constantinople and Kanor eventually becomes Emperor of Rome!

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The empress’s baby and the monk’s baby being switched at birth, from the Roman de Kanor, France, Central (Paris); 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Harley MS 4903, f. 171r

This collection of disparate and convoluted tales is not always easy for a modern reader to interpret, but it contains representatives of the narratives and tropes that have characterised human storytelling from the very beginning and across all cultures: the wicked stepmother, children brought up by an animal, babies swapped at birth, hermits and emperors. Many of these would have been familiar to a medieval audience and still are today.

Chantry Westwell

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09 January 2017

Medieval Spin-Offs of the Roman de la Rose

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Over the past year, many critics have noted the dominance of 'spin-offs', new releases which are sequels to or take place in the same imaginary worlds as already-popular blockbusters. But popular spin-offs are not a modern phenomenon. Take the example of 'satellite texts' of the Roman de la Roseone of the most famous poems in the French language. The medieval equivalent of a best-seller, it survives in more than 300 manuscript copies, and was composed in two sections, written decades apart: the first part was written by Guillaume de Lorris (c. 1230) and it was continued by Jean de Meun 40 years later. In many manuscripts, the Roman de la Rose was copied with other texts attributed to Jean de Meun, which are often described as 'satellite' or spin-off texts. Although the Roman de la Rose tends to overshadow some of these other texts, they were nevertheless popular in the Middle Ages.

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Image of Jean de Meun, from a copy of the Roman de la Rose,  Northern France (Artois or Picardy), c. 1340–1350: Royal MS 20 A XVII, f. 35v.

The Testament

In many manuscripts, the Roman de la Rose is followed by a text entitled the Testament de maistre Jehan de Meun. It acts as a morally edifying conclusion to the famous allegorical poem, opening with the lines:

‘'Li peres et li filz et li sains esperis/ Un dieu en trois personnes adoures et cheris'.

The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit/God in three persons, loved and adored

Attributed to Jean de Meun, the Testament was composed at the end of the 13th century and comprises 544 alexandrine quatrains. The author explains to the reader that he wants to apologize for the works he wrote during his youth just to achieve success: is this remorse a reference to Meun’s work on the Roman de la Rose? Some of Jean de Meun’s leitmotivs are present in this poem, especially his criticism of women and mendicants.

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A miniature in grisaille of the Trinity with a finely-worked coloured background, from the Testament, 1380–1390: Yates Thompson MS 21, f. 143r.

The Testament is described by its author as a moral treatise inspired by God and charity. It was elaborated as a spiritual journey for the discovery of Truth and Good in which the author confesses to the reader his awareness of the vanity and finite nature of human life. The poem focuses on the themes of death and on the utility of prayers to the dead as well as the living.

The construction of the poem is inspired by disputation, the exercise commonly practised in medieval universities. The author combines the rigour of university culture with the traditions of vernacular literature. The success of the Testament was significant, probably due to its attribution to de Meun. It was widely disseminated throughout the late Middle Ages, though rarely alone: its transmission was closely linked to that of the Roman de la Rose, especially during the 14th century.

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The Trinity with a full bar border with zoomorphic decoration, the Testament attributed to Jean de Meun, last quarter of the 14th century: Additional MS 42133, f. 145r.

The Codicille

The Testament is often accompanied by two other texts attributed to Jean de Meun: the Codicille or ‘petit Codicille’ and the ‘Grant Codicille’, also known as the Sept articles de foi. The ‘petit Codicille’ is sometimes considered to be an appendix to the Testament and is sometimes even entitled ‘petit Testament’. It includes 88 lines of eight syllables per line. Composed at the end of the 13th century, it takes the form of a prayer, beginning:

‘Dieux ait l’ame des trespasses/ Car des biens qu’ilz ont amasses/ Dont ils norent oncques assez’.  

God keep the Soul of the dead/ because of the goods they amassed/ they did not get never enough of these.

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Framed initial in colours on gold and blue grounds with partial foliate border with rinceaux,  the Codicille, last quarter of the 14th century: Additional MS 42133, f. 143v.

The Sept articles de foi

The final bestseller attributed to Jean de Meun is the Sept articles de foi, also called Trésor de la foy or, confusingly, just Codicille (see, for example, ’Cy commence le codicille maistre Jehan de Meun': Royal MS 19 B XII, f. 181r). However, although for a long time this work was attributed to Jean de Meun, it has now been established that it was composed by Jean Chapuis around 1300.

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Tinted drawing in colours showing the Trinity, 1st half of the 15th century, the Sept articles de foi: Royal MS 19 B XII, f. 181r.

This is a devotional and eschatological poem advocating contempt for the world and the necessity to praise God, Christ and the Virgin Mary for the salvation of the soul. It deals with the symbolic number seven such as the seven virtues and the seven liberal arts in opposition to the seven deadly sins.

Although it is now accepted that Meun did not write this poem, in 1401 this poem was at the centre of an attempt to clear Jean de Meun’s reputation in a tumultuous debate involving Christine de Pizan. One of Jean de Meun’s defenders, Gontier Col, secretary to Charles VI, sent her a copy of the Sept articles de foi to try to persuade her to renounce her condemnation of Jean de Meun. In response, Christine de Pizan, with irony, denounced people who attributed any works to Jean de Meun. Her answer shows that the poem’s attribution to Meun was already disputed at the beginning of the 15th century.

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Detail of Jean de Meun writing the opening words of this poem:
Yates Thompson MS 21, f. 69v.

The above three texts gained popular success during the 14th and 15th centuries, partly because of their close association with the Roman de la Rose and Jean de Meun, and because they seemed to show the presumed author’s repentance. It is tempting to draw parallels with modern spin-offs, which are often framed as responses to earlier criticisms of franchises and whose popularity is sometimes attributed to their association with other well-known subjects and creators. But the satellites of the Roman de la Rose are also worth analysing as examples of the popularity of devotional literature aimed mainly at lay people.

Laure Miolo

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