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 October 2018

Fire in the library

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Our new exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, has been receiving rave reviews. Don't just take our word for it, read here why The Guardian and the Evening Standard have both given it a coveted 5 stars. The show features outstanding archaeological finds alongside incredible illuminated manuscripts and literary treasures, from Sutton Hoo and the Staffordshire Hoard to Beowulf and Codex Amiatinus.

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The Old English epic poem Beowulf survives uniquely in a manuscript from the Cotton collection: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 169r

Approximately a quarter of the manuscripts on display come from one collection alone, namely that of the 17th-century politician and antiquary, Sir Robert Cotton. They include books such as the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Vespasian Psalter, and documents such as the oldest surviving charter written in England. We are incredibly lucky to have them in our show, but even more so because they escaped near-total destruction in one of the most devastating events in modern library history: the Cotton fire, which broke out on the night of 23 October 1731.

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The manuscript of Gildas' The Ruin of Britain was almost ruined by fire in 1731: Cotton MS Vitellius A VI, f. 15r

A quick look at the pages of the unique surviving manuscripts of Beowulf and Gildas' The Ruin of Britain gives some idea of the damage they sustained in that fire. Their parchment pages started to warp in the heat of the flames, and the edges began to crumble. In some sad cases, the manuscripts were blackened and rendered almost useless, and in a handful of instances ‚ÄĒ such as that of the only medieval copy of Asser's Life of King Alfred ‚ÄĒ the volume was destroyed for ever.

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A page from the London portion of the Otho-Corpus Gospels, showing the severe damage this manuscript sustained in the 1731 Cotton fire: Cotton MS Otho C V, f. 27r

The story of the Cotton library fire has been told elsewhere. Essentially, the Cotton collection was  presented to the British nation in 1702, upon the death of Sir John Cotton, Sir Robert's grandson. It had ultimately been taken for safekeeping to the (inappropriately named) Ashburnham House, located near Westminster School in London. When the fire took hold, desperate efforts were made to save the books from the flames. The next morning, the Westminster schoolboys were reported to have collected scraps of burnt parchment, which were blowing in the breeze.

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The Marvels of the East: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 82r

A miraculous and pioneering programme of restoration, carried out at the British Museum in the 19th century, managed to preserve the burnt Cotton volumes for posterity. The manuscripts seem to have been soaked in a 'solution of wine', enabling their pages to be separated, and then they were often inlaid (like Beowulf and Gildas) in paper mounts. This whole process has been documented meticulously in Andrew Prescott's seminal article, ‚Äė‚ÄúTheir present miserable state of cremation‚ÄĚ: the restoration of the Cotton library‚Äô, in C. J. Wright (ed.), Sir Robert Cotton as Collector: Essays on an Early Stuart Courtier and his Legacy (London, 1997), pp. 391‚Äď454.

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The Æthelstan Psalter was singed in the Cotton fire: Cotton MS Galba A XVIII, f. 21r

Below is a full list of the Cotton manuscripts and charters on display in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. To their number, we could also add the magnificent Utrecht Psalter, which was alienated from Cotton's collection in the 1620s, and which ultimately made its way to the Universiteitsbibliotheek in Utrecht in the 18th century.

The Cotton collection was recently added to the UNESCO Memory of the World UK register. We feel sure that you would agree that, without the enterprise of Sir Robert Cotton himself, and without the endeavours of those who salvaged the damaged manuscripts in the 18th and 19th centuries, our knowledge of the Anglo-Saxon period ‚ÄĒ as well as our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition ‚ÄĒ would be much the poorer.

Cotton Charter VIII 16 (grant of King Æthelstan and the will of Wulfgar)
Cotton Charter VIII 38 (will of Wynflæd)
Cotton MS Augustus II 2 (grant of King Hlothhere of Kent, AD 679)
Cotton MS Augustus II 3 (grant of King Æthelbald of the Mercians)
Cotton MS Augustus II 18 (letter of Bishop Wealdhere of London)
Cotton MS Augustus II 20 (Council of Kingston)
Cotton MS Augustus II 61 (decree of a synod of Clofesho, 803)
Cotton MS Caligula A VIII (Libellus de primo Saxonum uel Normannorum aduentu)
Cotton MS Caligula A XIV (Caligula Troper)
Cotton MS Claudius B IV (Old English Hexateuch)
Cotton MS Cleopatra B XIII (Old English coronation oath)
Cotton MS Domitian A I (Isidore, De natura rerum)
Cotton MS Domitian A VII (Durham Liber Vitae)
Cotton MS Faustina A X (Ælfric's Grammar)
Cotton MS Galba A XVIII (Æthelstan Psalter)
Cotton MS Julius A VI (Julius Work Calendar)
Cotton MS Julius E VII (√Ülfric's Lives of Saints)
Cotton MS Nero A I (law-code of King Cnut)
Cotton MS Nero D IV (Lindisfarne Gospels)
Cotton MS Otho A VI (Boethius)
Cotton MS Otho C I/1 (Old English gospel-book)
Cotton MS Otho C V (Otho-Corpus Gospels)
Cotton MS Tiberius A II (Æthelstan or Coronation Gospels)
Cotton MS Tiberius A III (Regularis concordia)
Cotton MS Tiberius A VI (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle B)
Cotton MS Tiberius A XIII (Liber Wigorniensis)
Cotton MS Tiberius B I (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle C)
Cotton MS Tiberius B IV (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D)
Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1 (Marvels of the East)
Cotton MS Tiberius C II (Tiberius Bede)
Cotton MS Tiberius C VI (Tiberius Psalter)
Cotton MS Titus D XXVII (√Ülfwine‚Äôs Prayer Book)
Cotton MS Vespasian A I (Vespasian Psalter)
Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII (New Minster Charter)
Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV (letter-book of Archbishop Wulfstan)
Cotton MS Vespasian A XIX (Libellus √Üthelwoldi)
Cotton MS Vitellius A VI (Gildas)
Cotton MS Vitellius A XV (Beowulf)
Cotton MS Vitellius C III (Old English herbal)
Cotton MS Vitellius C XII/1 (St Augustine's martyrology)

Our once-in-a-generation exhibition Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms is on at the British Library until 19 February 2019.

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Julian Harrison

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

20 October 2018

Golden oldies

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When we say the early medieval period was a golden age of art, we mean that literally. Skilled craftsmen made intricate golden jewellery, belt buckles and sword fittings. Kings such as Offa and Coenwulf of Mercia issued gold coins. Books, too, were covered with gold, inside and out: some of the most precious books were given jewelled treasure bindings. You can find examples of all of this at the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the British Library (on until 19 February 2019), including two manuscripts written entirely in gold, as well as objects from the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found.

Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII  f. 2v shiny
Detail of King Edgar from a charter for the New Minster, Winchester, 966: Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII, f. 2v

Gold was used in highly illuminated manuscripts relatively early in the Anglo-Saxon period, as in Ezra's golden halo in the Codex Amiatinus, and the names written in gold and silver in a Northumbrian monastery's book of benefactors. Indeed, one 8th-century gospel-book is known as the 'Codex Aureus' because of the lavish gold writing and gold backgrounds on some of its pages. Its pages alternate purple-plain-purple-plain. According to an inscription on one of the gilded pages, this book was seized by a viking army in the 9th century, but the nobleman √Ülfred and his wife Werburg 'acquired these books from the heathen army with our pure gold'. 

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Page with inscription about √Ülfred and his wife Werburg: National Library of Sweden, MS, A 135, f. 11r

Gold was very heavily used in illuminations from the 10th and 11th centuries, as artists and their patrons demonstrated their devotion to God. 

  Cambridge  Trinity College  MS B.10.4  f. 60r
Opening of the Gospel of St Mark, Cambridge: Trinity College, MS B.10.4, f. 60r; image courtesy of the Master and Fellows of Trinity College Cambridge 

One surviving manuscript from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms was written entirely in gold. This is an unusual charter for the New Minster, Winchester, issued in 966. It begins with an image of King Edgar, flanked by St Peter and the Virgin Mary, offering a golden book to Christ. You may recognise this manuscript from the exhibition poster. This is followed by 60 pages of text, all in gold.

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Beginning of the list of witnesses: Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII, f. 30r 

This dramatic document was made in the aftermath of a dramatic event. When the reformer √Üthelwold became bishop of Winchester in 963, he expelled those clerics who refused to become monks from the two biggest churches in Winchester: the Old Minster (now Winchester Cathedral) and the New Minster, which later became Hyde Abbey. The expulsion was controversial, and some disgruntled clerics even tried to poison √Üthelwold. The situation in Winchester may have still been unstable in 966, when King Edgar ‚ÄĒ √Üthelwold‚Äôs former pupil ‚ÄĒ issued this charter. √Üthelwold himself probably composed the text. The lavish use of gold underlined the monks‚Äô sophistication and their connections to powerful supporters such as the king.

Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII Lea
Detail of 
Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII, f. 12r (Photo credit Lea Havelock) 

Gold could be applied to parchment in two main ways. The first involved writing/drawing in gesso (a type of glue or light cement) and then applying gold leaf to the gesso. The second way involved using powdered gold mixed with liquids to create a sort of gold ink. In the case of the New Minster Charter, the way the letters and golden details are slightly raised off the page might suggest a layer of gesso underneath (or very globby gold 'ink'). Gesso was certainly used in the lavish artwork and illuminations in other manuscripts from this period. 

The other manuscript in the exhibition that is written entirely in gold ‚ÄĒ known as the Harley Golden Gospels ‚ÄĒ used powdered gold mixed with glair or gum. The decoration and text on its pages therefore appears flat. The Harley Golden Gospels were made in the Carolingian Empire in the first quarter of the 9th century. Elements of the decoration and layout of some initials in this book show connections to the art from Ireland and England. In turn, the lavish use of gold in Carolingian manuscripts may have inspired artists working in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. 

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Beginning of St Matthew’s Gospel, from the Harley Golden Gospels, E Francia (Aachen), first quarter of the 9th century: Harley MS 2788, f. 14r

Some precious books were covered with gold on the outside as well as within. These jewelled 'treasure bindings' are recorded in inscriptions, but very few survive intact to this day. Thanks to a generous loan from the Morgan Library in New York, there is a rare example of an early medieval treasure-binding in the exhibition. This covers one of the gospel-books owned by a noblewoman called Judith. Judith was born in Flanders, and she married Tostig, the brother of King Harold II (who was killed at Hastings). Her book  is covered in silver-gilt and jewels, with cast, 3-D figures depicting Christ in glory and the Crucifixion. 

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Treasure binding from a gospel-book owned by Judith of Flanders, New York, Morgan Library, MS M 708, upper cover

In addition to books, the exhibition contains golden objects, including the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found: the Staffordshire Hoard. This was found in 2009 and it seems to have been deposited before 675. Most of the pieces are associated with military equipment, including pommels from at least 74 swords. Some of these were made from gold and some were encrusted with garnets, like the cross pendant that was also found in the hoard.  The exhibition also includes golden sword hilts and two snake-or eel-like decorations, also crafted from gold.

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Golden sword hilt from the Staffordshire Hoard; Photo ¬© Birmingham Museums Trust

The exhibition also features gold and jewellery found at other sites. The Alfred Jewel, found near Alfred's fortress at Athelney, has a golden beast's head and the inscription 'Alfred had me made' in wrought gold around the side.

Alfred Jewel
The Alfred Jewel
; ¬© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford  

Perhaps the most amazing example of goldsmithing from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms is the belt buckle found at the Sutton Hoo ship burial of a 7th-century warrior. The buckle doubles as a hinged box with a triple-lock mechanism. It is decorated with 13 biting beasts that twist around each other. Each creature is stamped with a different pattern to give it a different texture. How practical it would have been to wear is another matter: it weighs just under half a kilogram! 

Sutton Hoo Belt Buckle
Sutton Hoo Belt Buckle
; ¬© The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.

The Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition is a literal treasure-trove of amazing art, as well as unique historical documents and literary masterpieces. It's on until 19 February 2019, and you can book your tickets here.

 

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

18 October 2018

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: a once-in-a-generation exhibition

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Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, the largest ever exhibition on the history, literature and culture of Anglo-Saxon England, opens at the British Library on 19 October.

We are delighted to give you a brief glimpse here of some of the stunning exhibits that will be on show. They range from outstanding archaeological objects to unique literary texts, alongside intricately illuminated manuscripts, some of which are returning to England for the first time. The exhibition highlights the key role manuscripts played in the transmission of ideas, literature and art across political and geographical boundaries, spanning all six centuries from the eclipse of Roman Britain to the Norman Conquest.

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The Utrecht Psalter, on loan from Universiteitsbibliotheek, Utrecht

 

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Spong Man, on loan from Norwich Museums Service

 

The exhibition presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to encounter original evidence from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, a time when the English language was used and written for the first time and the foundations of the kingdom of England were laid down.

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms is on display at the British Library in London from 19 October 2018 to 19 February 2019. You can buy your tickets here. A book accompanying the exhibition, edited by Lead Curator Dr Claire Breay (The British Library) and Professor Joanna Story (University of Leicester), is available to buy from the Library's online shop.

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Don't forget that the British Library has made its outstanding collection of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts and charters available online in full, allowing people around the world to explore them in detail, and to support future research in the field.

Regular stories about the exhibition will be published on the Medieval Manuscripts Blog. You can also follow us on Twitter, @BLMedieval, using the hashtag #BLAngloSaxons. We'd love you to tell us which is your favourite exhibit, from the selection published here. 

 

Codex Amiatinus, the earliest surviving complete Bible in Latin, was made at the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in the north-east of England in the early 8th century and taken to Italy in 716 as a gift for the Pope. It has returned to England for the first time in more than 1300 years, on loan from the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence.

Codex Amiatinus  MS MAD Amiatino  f.1v (c) Firenze  Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana

Codex Amiatinus, on loan from Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence

 

Here is a small selection of some of the outstanding illuminated manuscripts on display. They include the St Augustine Gospels, the Book of Durrow, the Echternach Gospels, the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Durham Cassiodorus, the Codex Aureus, the MacDurnan Gospels and the Boulogne Gospels.

St Augustine Gospels (c) The Parker Library  Corpus Christi College  Cambridge

 The St Augustine Gospels, on loan from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

Book of Durrow (Ms.57  ff.85v-86r) (c) The Board of Trinity College  Dublin

The Book of Durrow, on loan from Trinity College Dublin

 

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The Echternach Gospels, on loan from Biblioth√®que nationale de France, Paris

 

Lindisfarne Gospels p.2 (c) British Library Board

The Lindisfarne Gospels (The British Library)

 

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The Durham Cassiodorus, on loan from Durham Cathedral Library

 

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The Codex Aureus, on loan from Kungliga Biblioteket, Stockholm

 

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The MacDurnan Gospels, on loan from Lambeth Palace Library

 

129. Boulogne-sur-mer MS 11

The Boulogne Gospels, on loan from Biblioth√®que municipale, Boulogne-sur-mer

 

The exhibition also presents an opportunity to compare side-by-side the Utrecht Psalter with its later descendants, the Harley Psalter and the Eadwine Psalter. 

Utrecht Psalter (MS 32  ff. 8r) (c) Universiteitsbibliothek  Utrech

The Utrecht Psalter, on loan from Universiteitsbibliotheek, Utrecht

 

Harley Psalter (Harley MS 603  f. 7v) (c) British Library Board

The Harley Psalter (The British Library)

 

Eadwine Psalter (MS R.17.1  ff. 24r) (c) the Master and Fellows of Trinity College Cambridge

The Eadwine Psalter, on loan from Trinity College, Cambridge

 

Also on display is the magnificent treasure binding on the Judith of Flanders Gospels.

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The Judith of Flanders Gospels, on loan from The Morgan Library, New York

 

The four principal manuscripts of Old English poetry are on display together for the first time. The British Library’s unique manuscript of Beowulf is on show alongside the Vercelli Book, returning to England for the first time from the Biblioteca Capitolare in Vercelli; the Exeter Book, on loan from Exeter Cathedral Library; and the Junius Manuscript, on loan from the Bodleian Library.

Beowulf (c) British Library Board

Beowulf (The British Library)

 

Exeter Book ff. 112v (c) University of Exeter  Digital Humanities and the Dean & Chapter  Exeter Cathedral

The Exeter Book, on loan from Exeter Cathedral Library

 

Vercelli Book (c) Biblioteca Capitolare de Vercelli (Italy)

The Vercelli Book, on loan from Biblioteca e Archivio Capitolare, Vercelli

 

Junius Manuscript p.35 (c) The Bodleian Library  Unviersity of Oxford

The Junius Manuscript, on loan from the Bodleian Libraries, Oxford

 

Domesday Book, the most famous book in English history and earliest surviving public record, is on loan from The National Archives. It provides unrivalled evidence for the landscape and administration of late Anglo-Saxon England.

Domesday (c) The National Archives

Domesday Book, on loan from The National Archives

 

Also on display are a number of recently discovered archaeological objects including the Binham Hoard, the largest collection of gold from 6th century Britain, on loan from the Norfolk Museums Service; the Lichfield Angel, which has never been displayed outside of Lichfield since it was excavated in 2003, on loan from Lichfield Cathedral; and key objects from the Staffordshire Hoard, discovered in 2009, the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found, on loan from Birmingham Museums Trust and the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent.

Binham Hoard (c) Norwich Castle Museum

The Binham Hoard, on loan from Norwich Museum Service

 

Lichfield Angel (c) Lichfield Cathedral

The Lichfield Angel, on loan from Lichfield Cathedral

 

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The Staffordshire Hoard, on loan from Birmingham Museums Trust and the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent

 

Other objects on display (did we say that this is a once-in-a-generation exhibition?) include the Sutton Hoo gold buckle on loan from the British Museum, and the Alfred Jewel, on loan from the Ashmolean Museum.

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The Sutton Hoo gold buckle, on loan from the British Museum

 

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The Alfred Jewel, on loan from the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

 

The River Erne horn, a wooden trumpet from the 8th century discovered in the river in the 1950s, is displayed for the first time alongside the Vespasian Psalter, which includes the oldest translation of part of the Bible into English and depicts two musicians playing very similar instruments.

River Erne horn © National Museum NI

The River Erne Horn, on loan from National Museums Northern Ireland

 

Vespasian Psalter (c) British Library Board

The Vespasian Psalter (The British Library)

 

A number of important documents are on display in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. They include the earliest surviving English charter, issued in 679 and granting land to the Abbot of Reculver; the oldest original letter written in England, from the Bishop of London to the Archbishop of Canterbury, dating from early 8th century; and the earliest surviving letter in English, the Fonthill letter, from the early 10th century on loan from Canterbury Cathedral.

Earliest surviving English charter (c) British Library Board

The earliest surviving charter (The British Library)

 

Earliest surviving original letter from England (c) British Library Board

The oldest letter written in England (The British Library)

 

Fonthill letter  earliest surviving letter in English (c) Reproduced courtesy of the Chapter  Canterbury Cathedral

The Fonthill Letter, on loan from Canterbury Cathedral Archives

 

The St Cuthbert Gospel, the oldest intact European book with its original binding, was made at the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in the north-east of England in the early 8th century. It was acquired by the British Library in 2012 following the Library‚Äôs most ambitious and successful fundraising campaign for an acquisition.

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The St Cuthbert Gospel (The British Library)

 

Last, and certainly not least, the exhibition has on display a number of significant historical manuscripts from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, such as the Moore Bede, Textus Roffensis, the New Minster Liber Vitae, and the will of Wynfl√¶d, a 10th-century English noblewoman.

 

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The Moore Bede, on loan from Cambridge University Library

  

 

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Textus Roffensis, on loan from Rochester Cathedral

 

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The New Minster Liber Vitae (The British Library)

Wynflaed Will (c) British Library Board

 Wynfl√¶d's will (The British Library)

 

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War

The British Library, London

19 October 2018‚Äď19 February 2019

 

 

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