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Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

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

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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25 February 2017

The Art and History of Calligraphy

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On Thursday, 2 March (19.00–20.30), professional calligrapher Patricia Lovett will be giving a talk at the British Library, entitled 'The Art and History of Calligraphy'. Patricia will be drawing from the Library’s rich collections of manuscripts to tell us about the art and history of calligraphy from her own practitioner’s perspective. Not only will her talk be accessible for a lay audience, but it will also offer insights that should interest experienced book historians. Patricia is able to identify in manuscripts aspects of the historical processes of writing that may not be obvious to academic audiences, such as when the quill was refilled, when it needed to be cut, how it was cut, and the relationship of the lettering to illumination.

Prudentia

Detail of a miniature of Prudence writing at her desk, with pupils before her, from Laurent d’Orleans, La somme le roi, France (Paris), 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Royal MS 19 C II, f. 48v

In her talk, Patricia Lovett will be showing some of the most extraordinary examples of historical scripts found in British Library manuscripts. She will illustrate how, from Roman times until the present day, different writing styles and materials have changed the ways in which letters were formed, and how this resulted in a range of scripts that men and women used to express their ideas and beliefs. (Her talk features the earliest example of a British woman’s handwriting!) Patricia will explain how the scribe of the Lindisfarne Gospels, writing around the year 700 at the monastery of Lindisfarne, created his beautifully decorated Insular script; how the approximately 20 scribes of the Moutier-Grandval Bible, working in 9th-century Tours, executed the then recently-developed Caroline minuscule; how scribes in subsequent centuries developed the much more narrow and angular Gothic script in some of the most sumptuous late medieval manuscripts (such as the Luttrell Psalter and the Bedford Hours); and how changes in writing style in Renaissance Italy resulted in the so-called humanistic script.

Lindisfarne   Bedford

The Evangelist Matthew writing his Gospel, England, c. 700, Cotton MS Nero D IV, the Lindisfarne Gospels, f. 25v (left). St Jerome writing the Vulgate, France, c. 1410 – 1430, Add MS 18850, the Bedford Hours, f. 24r (right).

You also get a chance to see Patricia at work: after her talk she will be signing copies of her new British Library book calligraphically!

 

Patricia Lovett, 'The Art and History of Calligraphy'

The British Library

Thursday, 2 March 2017, 19:00–20:30

 

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23 February 2017

Old English 'Spell' Books

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In the list of books bequeathed by Bishop Leofric of Exeter (d. 1072) to his cathedral, one entry might, at first glance, take a modern reader by surprise: a ‘ful spelboc’, or a full spell book.  This is not, however, evidence that the learned bishop was dabbling in magic. In Old English, spell just meant ‘saying’ or ‘speech’.

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Different sorts of ‘spells’: miniature of Cuthbert preaching from a copy of Bede's Prose Life of Cuthbert. England (Durham), c. 1175–1200, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 22v

The term ‘spell’ had a range of meanings in Old English. As a noun, it could mean story, discourse or message. For example, it was applied to the tale told about Beowulf, a story (spel) crafted skilfully by a ‘boast-laden man, mindful of songs’. Old English writers also used spell to refer to learned discourses or works of history. Spell could also mean news or message, as in the English translation of the Greek εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion): ‘gospel’, or ‘good spell’. As a verb, it meant ‘to talk’ or ‘to converse’. (Ironically, the modern English verb ‘to spell’ actually comes from the French épeler, although that also has a proto-Germanic root.) 'Spells' only seem to have become associated with magic much later: according to the Oxford English Dictionary, one of the first recorded use of ‘spell’ to mean magical incantation was in 1579, in Edmund Spenser’s Shepheardes Calendar. In Old English, terms like galdor or seiðr seem to have been used for incantations and charms, in some contexts. In the case of Leofric’s spell book, then, ‘spell’ probably referred to speeches or sermons in Old English, intended to instruct listeners about Biblical and church history and to inspire them to think about their own lives.

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The word ‘spel’ from Beowulf, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 152r

Although some items on Leofric’s list have been identified with manuscripts which survive to this day (including a collectar and a book of riddles and poetry), scholars have yet to agree on whether any surviving books of Old English sermons are Leofric’s ‘ful spelboc’. The British Library does, however, possess a few sermons which were copied at Leofric’s Exeter, in the opening folios of Cotton MS Cleopatra B XIII. These include sermons for different times of year, like the second Sunday after Easter, sermons for special occasions, like the dedication of a church, and other sermons that could have been used at any time. It ends with a promise a king was supposed to make at his consecration, to uphold justice and protect his people. These folios are now followed by a life of St Dunstan and a later history.

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Sermon on the beginning of creation, Cotton MS Cleopatra B XIII, f. 13r

In addition to the sermons in Cotton Cleopatra B XIII, the British Library has many other Old English ‘spellbooks’, including some of the earliest known copies of Ælfric’s sermons and books of Old English sermons produced several decades after the Norman Conquest, showing the continuing use of Old English (such as Cotton MS Faustina A IX).

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‘Understand that the Devil has led this nation astray for many years, and that little loyalty has remained among men!’
Copy of the Sermon of the Wolf to the English with Wulfstan’s own annotations, Cotton MS Nero A I, f. 110r

Reading these Old English sermons, one can see how they fit the many meanings of ‘spell’, in Old and Modern English. They often include retellings of exciting stories: contrary to the modern stereotype about sermons being boring, these Old English sermons feature cases of mistaken identity, cross-dressing monks, miraculous animals, and more. These sermons were also supposed to act like modern magical spells, in the sense that they were intended to change the speakers’ world by persuading listeners to alter or stop their behaviours: see the bombastic ‘Sermon of the Wolf to the English’, written by Archbishop Wulfstan of Worcester-York during the Second Viking Age. These speakers and their spells knew the power of words, even without any magical force behind them.

So if you use words in any form today, remember: you are casting spells, in the oldest sense of the word. Use them well!

 

Alison Hudson

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