THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

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

23 February 2018

Old English masterclass at the British Library

Add comment Comments (0)

In the 13th century, a mysterious annotator with shaky handwriting made marginal or interlinear notes (glosses) in around 20 manuscripts which belonged to Worcester Cathedral Priory. The Tremulous Hand — as he is now known — was from one of the last generations of people who could understand Old English. He is thought to have suffered from a nerve condition called ‘essential tremor’, a type of uncontrollable shaking that mainly affects the hands, which today affects around four out of 100 adults over the age of 40. His glosses show that he was concerned that knowledge of the past, as well as knowledge of an earlier form of his language, should not be lost. Here at the British Library we regard him in very fond terms, because we try to do the same things today.

In one of the British Library manuscripts which contains glosses by the Tremulous Hand, we get a powerful sense of how much Modern English owes to Old English, but also to Latin. Have you ever felt amorous? Or maybe only loving? Presumably you’ve been to villages as well as towns? Have you ever contemplated the celestial realm, which we also call heaven? The words in these sentences have both Old English and Latin roots and some of them are largely unchanged from their earlier forms. If we take a look at this page of the manuscript in question (Cotton MS Otho C I/2), we get some sense of this.

Cotton_ms_otho_c_i!2_f003v

Gregory the Great's Dialogues (England, 11th century): Cotton MS Otho C I/2, f. 3v

Here you may be able to make out the words ‘amore’ [love] above ‘lufan’; ‘celestis’ [heaven] above ‘heofen’; ‘villa’ [town] above ‘tun’; ‘parentes’ [kinsmen] above ‘magas’; ‘abstinentia’ [abstinence, restraint] above ‘for-hæfednes’; and ‘sermone’ [speech,words, conversation] above ‘wordum’. In the last case, the letter that looks like a ‘p’ is actually a runic ƿ, wynn, for ‘w’… So, you see you can already understand some Old English and some Latin.

We like to think that if the Tremulous Hand ever came across the text called Ælfric’s Colloquy, he might have approved of it. The Colloquy, which was written by Ælfric of Eynsham (c. 950–c. 1010), was an educational text aimed at helping novice monks learn Latin. It is structured like a conversation between a teacher and his pupils, who all have different professions. When we learn languages today, we often practice conversations, again not so dissimilar to our forebears.

In the copy of this text at the British Library, which dates from 1025–1050, a glossator (not the Tremulous Hand) added an Old English translation of the Latin text, in the spaces between the lines. In one exchange, the teacher asks his pupils: 

Interrogo uos cur tam diligenter discitis?
Ic ahsige eoþ forhƿi sƿa geornlice leorni ȝe? 

[I ask you, why are you so keen to learn?]

Quia nolumus esse sicut bruta animalia que nihil sciunt nisi herbam et aquam. 
Forþam ƿe nellaþ ƿesan sƿa stunte nytenu þa nan þinȝ ƿitaþ buton ȝærs 7 ƿæter.

[We do not want to be as wild beasts, who know of nothing but grass and water.]

Cotton_ms_tiberius_a_iii_f064r

Ælfric’s Colloquy (England, 11th century): Cotton MS Tiberius A III, f. 64r

The Tremulous Hand would surely have agreed. He was keen that others after him should also be able to learn. Have you ever wanted to understand more about the Old English Language, and to be able to read some of the most magical texts of the Anglo-Saxon period? If so, please sign up for our Old English Masterclass, which will be held from 28–29 April. Places are strictly limited, so we advise you to book your place on the course soon.

You can find out more about the Tremulous Hand and Ælfric’s Colloquy on the British Library's new site, Discovering Literature: Medieval, which contains a host of accessible articles about aspects of literature in England from the 8th to the 16th centuries.

 

Mary Wellesley

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

17 February 2018

How to make yourself invisible

There have been times when everyone has wanted to become invisible. But did you know that there is actually a relatively simple way of achieving this? We say 'simple', because you merely have to pronounce the words found in the text known as The Book of King Solomon called The Key of Knowledge. We have a 17th-century copy of this work on show in our exhibition Harry Potter: A History of Magic, and up to now you've had to visit London in person to read aloud this charm. But now we are giving everyone who reads this blog the same opportunity. Do let us know if it works. You just have to recite the following words.

Stabbon, Asen, Gabellum, Saneney, Noty, Enobal, Labonerem, Balametem, Balnon, Tygumel, Millegaly, Juneneis, Hearma, Hamorache, Yesa, Seya, Senoy, Henen, Barucatha, Acararas, Taracub, Bucarat, Caramy, by the mercy whitch you beare towardes mann kynde, make me to be invysible.

Add_ms_36674_f010r

‘Howe experyments to be invysible must bee preparedd’, in The Book of King Solomon called The Key of Knowledge

We SO want this charm to be successful. If it didn't work for you first-time round, it may be that you didn't pronounce the words properly. The manuscript was once owned by the writer and scholar, Gabriel Harvey (1552/3-1631), but whether he had the power to become invisible is lost in the mists of time.

You can see this fantastic manuscript (if you are lucky enough to have a ticket) in Harry Potter: A History of Magic, where it is displayed near a real invisibility cloak (honestly), on loan from a private lender.

Julian Harrison

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

14 February 2018

The Medieval Origins of Valentine's Day

At the bottom of folio 243r of the beautiful Queen Mary Psalter, there is an image of a kneeling man about to have his head cut off. Given that he is being threatened with imminent decapitation, his expression is calm. His hands are pressed together in prayer and he seems blithely unconcerned that the man standing in front of him with a raised sword has grabbed him by his tonsured head. There is little in this image that would make you think of romance. And nothing here seems loving, so it is perhaps surprising to the modern viewer that the inscription at the bottom of the image indicates that this is an image of Saint Valentine.

Valentine

The Queen Mary Psalter, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 243r

When the Queen Mary Psalter was made, in the early 14th century, there was probably little or no association between Saint Valentine and love. So why is 14th February considered a day for romance?

Who was Saint Valentine?

The Roman Martyrology (the official list of martyrs in the Catholic Church) lists two Saint Valentines for 14th February – one was a bishop from Terni, in Central Italy, who was martyred in Rome, while the other was a Roman priest martyred on the Flaminian Way. Some sources suggest there weren’t actually two and that these two were the same person: so far, so unromantic.

The association between Saint Valentine’s Day and lovers is the fault of one Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340–1400). In his late 14th-century comic dream-vision, the Parliament of Fowls, he describes a group of birds who gather together in the early spring – on ‘seynt valentynes day’ – to choose their mates for the year. Some scholars have suggested that the poem was written for King Richard II (1367–1400) during the negotiations over his marriage to Anne of Bohemia in 1380.

Either way, it seems that the poem sparked (or at least cemented) a tradition. In 1477, Margery Brews, a Norfolk woman, wrote a letter to her cousin John Paston, calling him ‘my right well beloved Valentine’. It is the earliest known letter of its kind. In the 15th century, the poet John Lydgate wrote a valentine’s poem addressed to the Virgin Mary. This is the inevitable consequence of letting a Benedictine monk get behind the wheel of a courtly love poem.

Paston_valentines_day_love-hst_tl_1400_add_ms_43490

The earliest valentine's note? The Paston Letters, February 1477, Add MS 43490, f.24r

Don’t like Valentine’s Day? Fear not – the poem ends with the birds singing a song, having failed to choose their mates and deciding to defer the decision until the next year.

You can read more about the Parliament of Fowls on our new learning website, Discovering Literature: Medieval, which contains a host of resources for finding out more about literature in England throughout the medieval period, from the 8th to 16th century.

Mary Wellesley

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval