THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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09 June 2018

Sir Robert Cotton's manuscripts added to Memory of the World register

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We are delighted that Sir Robert Cotton's collection of manuscripts, held at the British Library, has been added to the UNESCO Memory of the World UK Register. Cotton's library contains many historical and literary treasures of national and international significance, such as Magna Carta, the Lindisfarne Gospels, the only surviving copies of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the autograph papers of a number of British monarchs. Collectively they form a key part of the intellectual heritage of the nation. 

Vespasian Psalter (Cotton MS Vespasian A I  f31r)

A page from the Vespasian Psalter, known as Cotton MS Vespasian A I following Robert Cotton's system of arranging his manuscripts in presses named after Roman emperors and imperial ladies. This manuscript, made in Kent in the 8th century, contains an interlinear Old English gloss of the Psalter text: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 31r

Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631) was a politician and antiquarian scholar, who began to assemble his collection of manuscripts as early as 1588, aged just seventeen. Cotton's collecting interests focused on works central to the study of British history, such as chronicles, cartularies, maps and state papers.

Matthew Paris Map of Britain (Cotton MS Claudius D VI 1)

A map of Britain by Matthew Paris, monk and chronicler of St Albans (d. 1259). Scotland is joined to the mainland by a bridge at Stirling, while Kent is located due South of London: Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1

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The Cotton library contains a nationally significant collection of medieval chronicles. The manuscript of the Chronicle of Melrose Abbey, shown here recording (in red ink) the foundation of the monasteries of Rievaulx in 1132 and Melrose in 1136, is the oldest surviving annalistic chronicle from Scotland: Cotton MS Faustina B IX, f. 18r

The importance of these manuscripts for our knowledge of the past cannot be overstated. For example, Robert Cotton brought together the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in the world, including two early copies of Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum and five manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, as well as the earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon charter, dating from AD 679. Many of these manuscripts will be on display later this year in the Library's major Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition (19 October 2018–19 February 2019).

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The earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon charter, a grant of land by King Hlothhere of Kent to Abbot Beorhtwald and his monastery, dated 679. This document is also sometimes known as the 'Reculver charter' after the place where it was issued: Cotton MS Augustus II 2

After Robert Cotton's death, the library passed in turn to his son, Sir Thomas Cotton (d. 1662), and grandson, Sir John Cotton (d. 1702). In 1702, the Cotton library was acquired by the British government, the first occasion that any library passed into national ownership in Britain – an important step in the creation of a national, public library.

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Some of the greatest works of medieval English literature are preserved uniquely in the Cotton library, among them the only surviving copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Cotton MS Nero A X/2, ff. 94v–95r

Vesp F XIII  f 273 C8483-03

The Cotton library is integral to our knowledge of early modern British history. This document, written by King Edward VI of England in January 1551/2, is headed 'Certein pointes of weighty matters to be immediatly concluded on by my counsell': Cotton MS Vespasian F XIII, f. 273r. Edward's diary is also held in the Cotton collection: Cotton MS Nero C X, ff. 10–83

Most of the collection survived a major fire in 1731, which formed part of the impetus for the creation of the British Museum in 1753. Some of the manuscripts were damaged significantly in that fire, with a small number being completely destroyed. The volumes in question were restored in the 19th century and they continue to support scientific research into the preservation and digitisation of fire-damaged artefacts.

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In October 1731, the Cotton library narrowly escaped near-total destruction when a fire broke out at Ashburnham House in London. In the 19th century, it was discovered that the fire-damaged parchment leaves could be inlaid in modern paper mounts, as shown here in a page from Bede's Ecclesiastical History: Cotton MS Tiberius A XIV, f. 39r

Ever since the library's formation, the Cotton manuscripts have been made available for consultation by scholars worldwide. You can read more about the Cotton manuscripts in our collection guide here.

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The Cotton library is particularly rich in illuminated manuscripts from Britain and beyond. Here is the opening page of the Coronation Book of King Charles V of France, commissioned in 1365: Cotton MS Tiberius B VIII/2, f. 35r 

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Many of the manuscripts are written in Latin or in English (including Old English, Middle English and Scots English). Other European languages represented in the collection include Cornish, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Irish, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Welsh. Non-European languages include Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew, Inuit, Persian and Turkish. Here is page from a Latin-Old Cornish glossary, copied in South-East Wales in the 12th century: Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV, f. 8v

You can view many of the Cotton manuscripts on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site. We recommend that, on the homepage, you type into the Manuscripts search box 'Cotton MS' or 'Cotton Ch' in order to see those currently available; more are being added all the time.

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Sir Robert Cotton was closely acquainted with many of the leading scholars and collectors of his day. In this letter, Sir Edward Dering (d. 1644) sent him the charter of King John dated at Runnymede, now known as Magna Carta, and preserved as Cotton Charter XIII 31A: Cotton MS Julius C III, f. 143r

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Cotton was renowned for rearranging his manuscripts and for preserving pages from other books and documents. Prefacing a gospelbook is this cutting from the Breviary of Margaret of York, which in turn incorporates a mounted papyrus fragment of Gregory the Great, Homiliae XL in Evangelia, dating from the late 6th or 7th century: Cotton MS Titus C XV, f. 1r

The British Library's two manuscripts of Magna Carta, issued by King John in 1215 and both forming part of Sir Robert Cotton's library, were inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World International Register in 2009. We are thrilled that this whole manuscript collection of national and international importance has now been recognised by UNESCO. We hope that the Cotton library will continue to inspire research into the rich cultural and historical heritage of the British Isles. The full list of inscriptions on the UNESCO Memory of the World UK Register can be accessed here.

Tickets for the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, featuring a number of the Cotton manuscripts, can be purchased online.

 

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08 March 2018

Epic women

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When many people think of Old English epics, they tend to think of Beowulf: an almost all-male story of warriors doing battle against monsters. However, did you know that some of the longest heroic poems in Old English have female central characters? Three epic Old English poems are named after and centre on women: Judith, Juliana and Elene. These poems are preserved in three of the four major Old English poetic codices, which will be displayed together for the first time during the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the British Library (19 October 2018–19 February 2019).

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Page from Judith, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 205r

Perhaps the most action-packed story is Judith. Only one, fragmentary copy of the poem survives, in the same manuscript that contains the only surviving copy of Beowulf. The surviving copy begins when Judith, a beautiful Jewish heroine, is summoned to the bedroom of the enemy general Holofernes. She finds Holofernes drunk and beheads him with a sword. She and her maid then sneak out of the camp with his severed head, which Judith then presents in front of the walls of her city while giving a rousing speech to the troops:

‘Here, you heroes renowned in victory, leaders of men, you can gaze unobstructed at the head of the most despicable heathen war-maker, lifeless Holofernes, who of all people caused us the most loss of life, bitter pain ... I drove the life out of him through God’s help. Now I want to request of every man of this citizenry, every shield-bearer, that you prepare yourselves without delay for battle after the God of origins, that compassionate king, send from the east his bright light. Bear forth your linden shields before your breast, garments of mail and bright helmets into the crowd of attackers …’ (translated by R. D. Fulk, The Beowulf Manuscript (Harvard, 2010), pp. 311–13).

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Part of Judith’s speech, quoted above, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 206v

Two more lengthy Old English poems are named after women: Juliana and Elene, both of which were written by Cynewulf. Judging by the form of Old English he used, Cynewulf probably came from Mercia, and he lived during the 9th century. Unusually for an Old English poet, he ‘signed’ his works with puns based on the runes used to spell his name. Juliana survives only in the Exeter Book (Exeter Cathedral MS 3501) and Elene survives only in the Vercelli Book (Vercelli, Biblioteca Capitolare, CXVII). 

Juliana is the story of a beautiful Roman from Nicomedia, who catches the eye of Eleusias, ‘a rich man of noble lineage, a mighty prefect’ (translated by Charles W. Kennedy, Juliana (Cambridge, Ontario, 2000), p. 2). Juliana’s father, Africanus of Nicomedia, is delighted when Eleusias wants to marry Juliana, but Juliana herself is less thrilled: she publicly refuses to marry him unless he converts to Christianity. Furious and humiliated, Eleusias has Juliana tortured and thrown in prison. While in prison, Juliana encounters a demon in disguise. She catches the demon and beats it up. Although the pages which describe Juliana’s fight with the demon are missing (the text breaks after the words, ‘she seized upon that devil’), when the text resumes it is clear that Juliana has physically and intellectually bested the demon, who is forced to confess all his plans and crimes, crying out:

‘Behold, thou hast afflicted me with painful blows, and in truth I know that, before or since, never did I meet, in all the kingdoms of the world, a woman like to thee, of more courageous heart, or more perverse … Clear it is to me that thou wouldest be in all things unashamed in thy wise heart’ (translated by Kennedy, Juliana, p. 12).

Stowe MS 944  f. 7r
A demon and souls in Hell, from the New Minster Liber Vitae, England (New Minster, Winchester), c. 1031, Stowe MS 944,  f. 7r

Juliana eventually releases the demon, who encourages Eleusias to order Judith’s death. When he fails to kill her with boiling lead (which does not even harm her clothes), he eventually has her beheaded. Cynewulf notes that Eleusias eventually dies in a shipwreck, while Juliana’s memory endures.

Cynewulf also wrote a poem about Elene, or Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, who allegedly rediscovered the True Cross in Jerusalem. Cynewulf portrays Elene debating, browbeating (and eventually torturing) whole committees of Jews and Christians to tell her the location of the True Cross.

Vercelli Book f. 121r
Opening of Elene, Vercelli, Biblioteca Capitolare CXVII, f. 121r

Of course, there are female characters in other epics, such as Grendel’s mother in Beowulf and Eve in the Genesis poems. Women's voices also appear in shorter Old English poems and elegies, like the Wife’s Lament. We might also draw attention to Prudentius’s Psychomachia, a Latin text written in northern Spain that became popular in early medieval England. The Psychomachia features an all-female cast, who are personifications of feminine abstract nouns. To learn more about the role of women in medieval literature, please have a look at the British Library’s new Discovering Medieval Literature site.

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Hope and Lowliness behead Pride, from Prudentius’s Psychomachia, England, late 10th and early 11th century, Add MS 24199, f. 15v

We should also admit that there is no such thing as gender equality (or other types of equality) in Old English literature. For example, it may not be to modern audiences' tastes that both Judith and Juliana fixate on their subject’s virginity. But it is still worth noting that, over a thousand years ago, women had a starring role in some of the earliest English epics.

Alison Hudson

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16 March 2017

Our First 100 Polonsky Pre-1200 Manuscripts Are Now Online

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The first 100 manuscripts are up! The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700–1200 is celebrating its first digitisation milestone. 100 manuscripts from the British Library have now been added to our Digitised Manuscripts site for you to explore!  A full list of the 100 digitised manuscripts with links to the viewer can be found here:  100 MSS Online.

These manuscripts cover a wide variety of topics and images from the Project’s focus of AD 700–1200 (you can read more about the Project or listen to the French interview of Matthieu Bonicel, Head of Innovation at the BnF). Some of the highlights include lavishly illuminated Gospels, like the Préaux Gospels from early 12th-century Normandy, with its amazing miniatures of the Evangelists and luxurious canon tables.

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Canon table with Evangelist surrounded by dragons and overgrown vines. The Préaux Gospels, Add MS 11850 f. 10v

A Rule of St Benedict datable to 1129 from the Benedictine abbey of St Gilles, in the diocese of Nîmes, opens with a gilded image of four tonsured men. The marginal letters in gold leave no doubt that this is St Benedict presenting a book (undoubtedly the Rule) to his disciple St Maurus. According to the account in the Life of St Maurus, St Maurus was responsible for establishing the Benedictine order in Francia (modern-day France).

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The opening folio of the Rule of St Benedict, Add MS 16979, f. 21v

The manuscripts now fully digitised also include plenty of material that requires a certain level of specialist knowledge to interpret. For example, a table similar to a graph sheet from a turn of the 12th century manuscript from Canterbury provides information for calculating the correct date of Easter and other movable feasts, in addition to scientific observations related to calendars, meteorology, astronomy and the keeping of time. Added material shows that the tables were still in use in the 15th century!

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Table for calculating the date of Easter, from Egerton MS 3314, f. 31v

Another fascinating manuscript is a 9th-century text on the liberal arts: grammar, rhetoric, music and astronomy from Lotharingia (covering modern day Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, some eastern areas of France and western areas of Germany). How many students has this Lady Rhetoric seen with her wide eyes; how many readers have been intimidated (or amused) by her unimpressed expression?

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A diagram of rhetorical argument, Harley MS 2637, f. 12r

We hope you enjoy exploring these exciting manuscripts. Happy discoveries!

Tuija Ainonen

Partez  à la découverte de 100 manuscrits antérieurs à 1200 grâce au projet The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200.

Nous sommes ravis de vous annoncer l’achèvement de cette première étape, qui consiste en la publication des 100 premiers manuscrits entièrement numérisés, sélectionnés par la British Library. Ceux-ci seront disponibles en ligne, sur notre site internet Digitised Manuscripts. Une liste complète de ces volumes pourvue d’un lien vers l’interface est fournie ici: 100 MSS Online.

Venez découvrir l’extraordinaire richesse de ces manuscrits, couvrant une période de 5 siècles (entre 700 et 1200). Ces derniers présentent une importante variété d’œuvres et d’enluminures. Voyagez dans diverses régions et époques au travers de ces manuscrits. Vous apprécierez ainsi l’Evangéliaire des Préaux (XIIe siècle), somptueusement décoré, ou la règle de saint Benoît, provenant de l’abbaye de Saint-Gilles, près de Nîmes (1129), et sa représentation magistrale de saint Benoît et son disciple saint Maur. Les collections ayant trait  aux arts libéraux ainsi que les manuels pédagogiques fournissent également de précieux témoins de l’enseignement et du renouveau de ces disciplines. Un  manuscrit du IXe siècle originaire de Lotharingie est ainsi représentatif de l’instruction à l’époque carolingienne. Nous espérons que vous apprécierez cette sélection et qu’elle vous mènera à de nombreuses découvertes. Bonne visite !

Laure Miolo (French summary)

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