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Introduction

What do Magna Carta, Beowulf and the world's oldest Bibles have in common? They are all cared for by the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section. This blog publicises our digitisation projects and other activities. Follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval. Read more

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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22 April 2018

Lover, sorceress, demon: Circe's transformations

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On 30 April the British Library is hosting the launch of a new novel by the award-winning novelist Madeline Miller, whose book, Circe, revisits the powerful story of this mythological witch known from Homer’s Odyssey.

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The beginning of Circe’s story in a 15th-century copy of Homer’s Odyssey: Harley MS 6325, f. 81v

Circe’s story features in Book 10 of the Odyssey, where Homer describes how the crew of the wandering Odysseus reached Circe’s beautiful island, where they met this powerful sorceress. Circe invited Odysseus’s comrades to a fatal dinner, offering them a potion that transformed them into pigs while retaining their human souls. Arriving slightly later, Odysseus learned about the imminent danger from the god Hermes, who gave him a special drug making him resistant to Circe’s transformative potions. Realising that Odysseus was immune, Circe not only transformed his crew back to men but offered her love to Odysseus and hosted the entire crew for a year of feasting, while instructing them about their journey home. Circe's advice guided Odysseus through the dangers of the seas and the netherworld and finally back home to his wife.

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Circe and her herd of human-beasts with Odysseus’s crew, from the works of Christine de Pizan (Paris, c. 1410–c. 1414): Harley MS 4431, 140r

This strange story of dark magic and unearthly love is full of puzzling details, which lend themselves to a variety of interpretations. Why does Circe transform the men into beasts so that she is surrounded by a herd of human-minded animals? When she realises that Odysseus is immune to her charms, why does she suddenly agree to help the hero? These questions have intrigued generations of readers and have resulted in many interpretations and retellings of the story, of which Madeline Miller’s book is the most recent.

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Circe as a frivolous lover surrounded by her animals from a French translation of Boccaccio’s work on famous women (Rouen, c. 1440): Royal MS 16 G V, f. 42v

Some people have regarded Circe as a simple prostitute, who charmed her clients and held them captive by desire, and whose ultimate aim may even have been to emasculate her lovers. Other interpretations are more subtle. In a marginal note in one Greek manuscript, Circe is explained as an allegory to unchaste pleasure, that for the sake of short-lived satiety offers a life more pitiful than pigs. Odysseus alone is strong and disciplined enough to resist her pleasures and even his own nature.

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Marginal note from a 13th-century copy of the Odyssey: Harley MS 5674, f. 52r

Another interpretation is preserved in a 16th-century collection of philosophical extracts at the British Library. The text is attributed to Porphyry, a 3rd-century Greek philosopher, and describes Circe’s story as "the most wonderful theory about the human soul". The enchanted men have an animal form but their mind remains as it was before, and so Circe represents the circular journey of the soul, dying in one form and awakening in another, becoming death and rebirth at the same time. According to this manuscript, "This is no longer a myth nor poetry but the deepest truth of nature”.

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An explanation of Circe’s story in a 16th-century philosophical compendium: Harley MS 6318, f. 127r

Re-reading Circe’s story did not stop with the arrival of Christianity. Medieval interpreters regarded her as a demon or an embodiment of fortune or even as the Apocalyptic Whore of Babylon. James Joyce’s Ulysses inherited the age-old understanding of Circe as a prostitute, while Margaret Atwood regarded her as a demon. We are looking forward to hearing Madeline Miller in conversation with Kate Mosse, talking about her new book. You can discover more about Circe's world on our Greek manuscripts website.

 

Madeline Miller in conversation with Kate Mosse

The British Library

30 April, 19.00–20.30

 

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21 April 2018

Annual Walton Lecture in Athens

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Dr Scot McKendrick, the Head of Western Heritage Collections at the British Library, will be delivering the Annual Walton Lecture in Athens on Tuesday, 24 April at 7:00 p.m. His lecture, entitled English Collectors of Greek Manuscripts at the British Library: Lord Guilford and Anthony Askew, will be delivered in Cotsen Hall, 9 Anapiron Polemou Street, and is sponsored by The American School of Classical Studies at Athens.

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The Golden Canon Tables: Add MS 5111/1, f. 11r

Among other important Greek manuscripts collected by English antiquarians and collectors, Scot will be discussing the Golden Canon Tables, Add MS 5111/1 (ff. 10–11), produced in the capital of the Roman Empire of Constantinople (now Istanbul) in the 6th or 7th century. This impressive fragment from a Gospel-book is fully digitised and is available on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website. It has been featured previously on this Blog and in an article on Greek illuminated Gospels on our Greek Manuscripts site.

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The Golden Canon Tables: Add MS 5111/1, f. 10v

Another featured manuscript will be the illuminated Phillipps Gospel lectionary, containing readings from the Gospels to be read in services throughout the year, now Add MS 82957, available in full here. This illuminated copy was also made in Constantinople, in the 11th century. Regular readers of this Blog may recall our two earlier blogposts on this volume, A Window into Byzantine Illumination and Handle with Care.

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Illuminated headpiece, in the Phillipps Gospel lectionary: Add MS 82957, f. 59r

These works mark two ends of the chronological spectrum of the Library’s active engagement with Greek manuscripts. The first was purchased for the Library at auction in London in 1785; the second was assigned to the Library in lieu of tax in 2007. Each was a major acquisition, the first the most expensive purchase of a single Greek manuscript made since the Library’s foundation in 1753, and the second the most important acquisition of an illuminated Byzantine manuscript since the purchase of the Bristol Psalter in 1923. Scot’s talk will explore the importance of individual British collectors in promoting the understanding and appreciation of Greek culture both in their own time, but also as a legacy to future generations. In particular it will consider the contributions of the philhellene Frederick North, 5th Earl of Guilford, and the 18th-century London physician Anthony Askew. You can find out more in our essay British collectors of Greek manuscripts.

The British Library’s holdings of Greek manuscripts and printed books are widely recognised for their significance. The collection of c. 1000 manuscript volumes includes two of the three oldest Greek Bibles, the remains of c. 227 manuscripts of the Greek New Testament and c. 50 Greek codices dating from before the first millennium. Thanks to the generosity of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation almost all these can be viewed in full online on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website.

The Library also holds c. 3500 papyri and c. 4000 ostraca preserving Greek literary and documentary texts from Ptolemaic, Roman and Byzantine Egypt. Its collections also encompass 60 out of the 68 printed editions of Greek texts produced up to 1500 as part of its remarkably comprehensive sequence of early Greek printing. Thanks to its acquisition of the Cotton, Harley and Royal manuscripts in the 1750s, the Library offered scholars a rich new public resource in the metropolitan capital outside of the old universities.

The lecture is open to all.

 

Annual Walton Lecture

Scot McKendrick, English Collectors of Greek Manuscripts at the British Library: Lord Guilford and Anthony Askew

Tuesday, 24 April, 7:00 p.m.

Cotsen Hall, 9 Anapiron Polemou Street, Athens

 

Ο Δρ. Scot McKendrick, Προϊστάμενος του Τμήματος Western Heritage Collections της Βρετανικής Βιβλιοθήκης θα δώσει την 37η Ετήσια Διάλεξη προς τιμήν του Francis Walton στη Γεννάδειο Βιβλιοθήκη της Αμερικανικής Σχολής Κλασικών Σπουδών στην Αθήνα, στις 24 Απριλίου στις 7:00μμ. Η διάλεξη του έχει ως τίτλο Άγγλοι Συλλέκτες Ελληνικών Χειρογράφων στη Βρετανική Βιβλιοθήκη: Λόρδος Guilford και Anthony Askew. Μεταξύ άλλων σημαντικών ελληνικών χειρογράφων που συνέλεξαν Άγγλοι αρχαιοδίφες και συλλέκτες, ο Δρ. McKendrick θα παρουσιάσει το χειρόγραφο Golden Canon Tables (Add MS 5111/1), το χειρόγραφο Ευαγγέλιο από τη συλλογή του Phillipps (Add MS 82957), καθώς και άλλους θησαυρούς. Εάν δεν μπορείτε να παραστείτε στη διάλεξη και ενδιαφέρεστε να ακούσετε περισσότερα για τους Άγγλους συλλέκτες ελληνικών χειρογράφων, μπορείτε να επισκεφθείτε την ιστοσελίδα: British collectors of Greek manuscripts

 

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