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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 August 2017

Colin Tite: a tribute

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We were extremely sorry to hear of the recent death of Colin Tite. Colin was, without question, the greatest scholar ever to work on the history of the Cotton collection of manuscripts, housed here at the British Library. Over a number of years, Colin delivered the Library's Panizzi lectures (1993), compiled an invaluable record of the early modern history of the Cotton manuscripts, and wrote a number of insightful studies of individual volumes in the collection. But Colin was perhaps best known, for those fortunate enough to encounter him at work in our Manuscripts Reading Room, as the most generous of all men, generous with his time, generous with his support, and generous with sharing his knowledge.

Colin Tite's research had as its primary focus the formation of the Cotton library in the late 16th and early 17th century. His Panizzi lectures dealt with that subject in three stages: (1) The Development of the Manuscript Collection, 1588–1753; (2) Librarians and Aspiring Librarians; and (3) Cotton House and the Reputation of Sir Robert. His investigations were always meticulous, based on first-hand scrutiny of the early, handwritten catalogues of the Cotton library, on the papers of Sir Robert Cotton and his contemporaries, and on the later plans for housing the manuscripts. He argued persuasively that Robert Cotton, an antiquary and Member of Parliament, was the first 'librarian' of his own collection; and he uncovered little-known nuggets about those who used (and abused) the manuscripts. The story of Humfrey Wanley's interest in the library is recounted in these lectures, including the infamous reaction by Thomas Smith, the then Cotton librarian, to Wanley's request to borrow the Augustus charters (among them, perhaps, one of the original copies of Magna Carta, 1215): 'the mountaine cannot come to Mahomet, Mahomet must condescend to go to the mountaine'. Colin Tite then moved on to completing his seminal survey of the early modern formation, cataloguing and use of the Cotton collection (The Early Records of Sir Robert Cotton's Library, 2003), before devoting his attention to locating Cotton's surviving printed books.

In tribute to Colin Tite, we publish here a selection of images from some of the Cotton manuscripts which meant so much to him. Everyone who works on the Cotton collection is deeply indebted to Colin's work, and we remember him with the deepest gratitude.

Cotton

Portrait of Sir Robert Cotton, commissioned in 1626 and attributed to Cornelis Janssens van Ceulen (d. 1661)

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An original Cottonian binding, 17th century: Cotton MS Domitian A VII

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A Cottonian binding instruction: Cotton MS Caligula A VII, f. 1r

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 A preparatory sketch for a Cottonian title-page: Cotton MS Vespasian F XIII/1, f. 2r

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 A fire-damaged Cottonian title-page, from the Beowulf manuscript, 17th century: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 2r

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The opening page of Matthew Paris's Liber Additamentorum, with Sir Robert Cotton's signature in the lower margin: Cotton MS Nero D I, f. 2r 

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A letter of Sir Edward Dering, 30 May 1630, sending an original manuscript of Magna Carta to Sir Robert Cotton: Cotton MS Julius C III, f. 143

 

Colin G. C. Tite: A Select Bibliography

‘The early catalogues of the Cottonian library’, The British Library Journal, 6, (1980), 144–157

Thomas Smith, Catalogus Librorum Manuscriptorum Bibliothecæ Cottonianæ (Oxford, 1696): facsimile edited by C. G. C. Tite, Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Cottonian Library, 1696 (Cambridge: Brewer, 1984)

‘A catalogue of Sir Robert Cotton’s printed books?’, The British Library Journal, 17 (1991), 1–11

‘Sir Robert Cotton and the gold mancus of Pendraed’, The Numismatic Chronicle, 152 (1992), 177–81

[with James P. Carley] ‘Sir Robert Cotton as collector of manuscripts and the question of dismemberment: British Library MSS Royal 13 D. I and Cotton Otho D. VIII’, The Library, 14 (1992), 94–99

The Manuscript Library of Sir Robert Cotton, The Panizzi Lectures, 1993 (London: The British Library, 1994)

‘“Lost or stolen or strayed”: a survey of manuscripts formerly in the Cotton library’, in C. J. Wright (ed.), Sir Robert Cotton as Collector: Essays on an Early Stuart Courtier and his Legacy (London: The British Library, 1997), pp. 262–306

[with James P. Carley] Books and Collectors 1200-1700: Essays presented to Andrew Watson (London: The British Library, 1997)

The Early Records of Sir Robert Cotton’s Library: Formation, Cataloguing, Use (London: The British Library, 2003)

'The Durham Liber Vitae and Sir Robert Cotton', in David Rollason et al. (eds.), The Durham Liber Vitae and its Context (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2004), pp. 3–15

‘The printed books of the Cotton family and their dispersal’, in Giles Mandelbrote and Barry Taylor (eds.), Libraries within the Library: The Origins of the British Library’s Printed Collections (London: The British Library, 2009), pp. 43–75

'The printed books of the Cotton family and their dispersal: additions', Electronic British Library Journal (2011), article 15

 

 

Julian Harrison

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

21 August 2017

Total eclipse of the Sun

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On 21 August 2017, American readers of our Blog have the exciting opportunity to witness a full solar eclipse (some of them may even be able to hear Bonnie Tyler singing 'Total Eclipse of the Heart' at the very same time: what more could you want?). Of course, solar and lunar eclipses have been a source of wonder across the centuries, with or without Bonnie Tyler. Since Antiquity, astronomers and astrologers have had a clear understanding of how and why eclipses occur, and they were able to predict their arrival using diagrams and tables. Eclipses were also described by medieval chroniclers, who often interpreted them as an omen.

Our first historical example of an eclipse is found in this 15th-century French manuscript of the History of Alexander the Great. The scene it depicts is not a contemporary one, rather it shows the lunar eclipse which occurred during the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC, when Alexander the Great’s army met the Persian army of Darius III. Alexander is shown consulting his astrologers about the eclipse's meaning: the soldiers perhaps interpreted it as a bad omen.

Burney 169 f.69

Miniature of Alexander the Great consulting his astrologers about an eclipse of the sun after the battle of Arbela: British Library Burney MS 169, f. 69r

Early medieval scholars knew that a solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the Sun and Earth. One of our favourite medieval writers, the Anglo-Saxon scholar Bede (d. 735), explained this phenomenon in his scientific texts entitled De natura rerum (On the Nature of Things), composed around 703. In the chapter headed 'On the eclipse of the sun and the moon', Bede described how a solar eclipse occurs when the Sun is hidden by the intervention of the Moon, and a lunar eclipse when the Sun, Earth and moon are aligned with Earth in the centre.

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Extract from an 11th-century copy of Bede’s De natura rerum: British Library Royal MS 13 A XI, f. 18r

In some medieval manuscripts, astrological texts are accompanied by diagrams illustrating an eclipse. For example, this diagram, found in  a 14th-century compilation of mathematical and astronomical texts, illustrates the Sun's position in relation to the Earth and Moon.

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Diagram of a solar eclipse: British Library Royal MS 12 C XVII, f. 32r

Elsewhere, we sometimes find diagrams showing the different stages of the Sun's visibility during an eclipse.

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Series of diagrams of solar eclipses: British Library Additional MS 10628, f. 28r

Diagrams of lunar and solar eclipses could also be included in almanacs, alongside calendars and other astrological material. Almanacs were used to predict the movement of the stars and the tides, often during medical consultations. A special kind of folding almanac, favoured by medical practitioners, could be hung from its owner's belt. This folding almanac, produced in the 15th century, contains a series of diagrams of the solar eclipse, based on the Kalendarium of John Somer.

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Diagrams of solar and lunar eclipses: British Library Harley MS 937, f. 8r

For those with no astronomical knowledge, the darkening of the sky during a solar eclipse may have been particularly ominous. People would have heard or read about such events from the Old Testament story of the Plagues of Egypt, describing a darkness that lasted for three days. According to the Gospel of St Matthew, a period of darkness lasting for three hours, accompanied by earthquakes and the raising of the dead, followed the Crucifixion of Christ. These apocalyptic associations were supported by other medieval accounts. For instance, the Middle English copy of The Fifteen Signs before Doomsday found in British Library Harley MS 913, explained that the first sign of the approaching Apocalypse is that the ‘Sun will give no light and will be cast down to Earth – while you now see it [the Sun] as pleasing and bright, it will become as black as coal.'

Harley 913

The Fifteen Signs before Doomsday: British Library Harley MS 913, f. 20v

You may wish to muse on this as you observe or read about this August's solar eclipse (with or without Bonnie Tyler on your headphones, obviously!). 

Sun and moon

God creating the Sun and the Moon: British Library Additional MS 18856, f. 5v

Becky Lawton and Clarck Drieshen

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20 August 2017

Guess the song 3

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We're on a bit of a (rock and) roll now with our Guess the song competition. But we've decided that the previous ones haven't been devious enough, so this week we are making it ever so slightly trickier.

There are no prizes, just smug satisfaction when you get it right. Simply guess the name of the popular song from the clues provided by these medieval manuscripts. You can send us your suggestions via Twitter or using the comments field below this post. Good luck!

 

Update 21 August: Did you work it out? See below for the answer!

 

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Image 1, from Boccaccio’s Des cleres et nobles femmes 1st quarter of the 15th century, Royal 20 C V, f. 54r

 

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Image 2, from Christine de Pizan, Collected works (‘The Book of the Queen’), c. 1410–c. 1414, Harley MS 4431, f. 259v

 

Image 3_royal_16_g_v_f080r
Image 3, from Boccaccio’s De Claris mulieribus, c. 1440, Royal MS 16 G V, f. 80r

 

Image 4_add_ms_24686_f002r

Image 4, from the Alphonso Psalter, c. 1284–1316, Add MS 24686, f. 2r

 

Image 5_add_ms_24098_f021v

Image 5, from the Golf Book, c. 1540, Add MS 24098, f. 21v

 

Answer

 

1. Helen of Troy 2. Christine de Pizan teaching 3. Jaia with sculptor's tools 4. St Martin 5. Couple courting

She came from Greece, she had a thirst for knowledge, she studied sculpture at St Martin's College, that's where I caught her eye

= Pulp, 'Common People'!