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201 posts categorized "Latin"

22 April 2017

How our ancient trees connect us to the past

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Some of the most stunning creations of the Middle Ages are still alive. Britain is dotted with trees planted hundreds of years ago, with over 120,000 listed in the Woodland Trust’s Ancient Tree Inventory. Some of them are over a thousand years old. This year, organisations across the United Kingdom have created a Tree Charter, which seeks to recognise the importance of trees to our national life. This charter harks back to a very important medieval document, the Forest Charter, which was originally issued in the name of King Henry III of England (1216–1272) on 6 November 1217. 

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The Forest Charter, in the version reissued in 1225, with the great seal of King Henry III: Add Ch 24712.

The Forest Charter can be thought of as the younger sibling of Magna Carta. One of its primary aims was to regulate royal forests, which had been created by William the Conqueror and covered around a quarter of England during the 12th and 13th centuries. Today, we think of forests as lands covered with trees, but in the 13th century royal forests also included pastures and even villages – indeed, almost the entire county of Essex was declared a royal forest. From our perspective, this move to make huge swathes of land into royal forests seems remarkably forward-thinking. We might think that in doing this William was seeking to preserve England's trees, but he had a specific purpose for his conservation effort: he wanted lands for the crown to hunt wild animals and game, particularly deer. 

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Animals romping in the margin of a manuscript of the works of Gerald of Wales: Royal MS 13 B VIII, f. 10v.

To regulate these vast tracts of land, a special ‘forest law’ was created to promote their use as royal game preserves, enforced by a small army of foresters. In theory, they could impose enormous punishments on offenders, up to capital punishment. In practice, they normally issued fines, making the forest an important source of income for the crown.

The barons living under this rule took issue with the 'forest law'. They drafted the Forest Charter, which sought to scale back this law (translation from The National Archives):

Henceforth, no man shall lose his life or suffer the amputation of any of his limbs for killing our deer. If any man is convicted of killing our deer, he shall pay a grievous fine, but if he is poor and has nothing to lose, he shall be imprisoned for a year and a day. After the year and a day expired, if he can find people to vouch for him, he shall be released; if not, he shall be banished from the realm of England.

The charter further rolled back the area of the forests to their boundaries at the beginning of the rule of King Henry II in 1154, where the lands could be shown to have been taken wrongfully. (Henry II had vigorously expanded the forest borders, to the point of creating hardship.) Crucially, the charter also sought to expand common access to the forests. In this period, people relied on areas of woodland to provide fuel for heating and cooking, as well as pasture in which to graze livestock. The Forest Charter, therefore, had important implications for common people. 

The charter was repeatedly confirmed as part of English law. It was in association with the Forest Charter that the name ‘Magna Carta’ was first used, to distinguish it as the large charter as opposed to its littler (and later) sibling. The British Library’s copy of the charter is a reissue from 1225, and appears to have narrowly escaped destruction.

The Forest Charter represents a pragmatic approach to define the value of forests and ensure that they can be accessed as a resource crucial to the everyday functioning of society. Aspects of this approach are still valuable, such as in attempts to calculate the natural capital of forests in economic terms. The story of the royal forests are also the subject of a new book to be published next month by the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, entitled Ancient Oaks in the English Landscape.

Andrew Dunning

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10 April 2017

The Wonders of Rome

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Even after the fall of the Roman Empire, the city of Rome never lost its draw. Objects of Roman provenance, whether art, saints’ relics, or even copies of texts, often continued to be treated with reverence. They were integrated into new creations and imitated in new artistic endeavours. Rome’s reception is the subject of a new exhibition in Germany, at the Diözesanmuseum Paderborn, running from 31 March to 13 August 2017, to which the British Library is delighted to be a lender: the exhibition is called (in English) The Wonders of Rome from a Northern Perspective.

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A view of the exhibition at Paderborn

One medieval manuscript included in the Paderborn exhibition is Matthew Paris’s Liber additamentorum (British Library Cotton MS Nero D I). Matthew Paris (d. 1259) was a monk of St Albans Abbey in Hertfordshire, and is renowned as a historian, artist and cartographer. His Liber additamentorum ('Book of Additions') is a collection of documents relating to the history of his abbey, and includes, among other texts, Matthew's Lives of the Two Offas and his Deeds of the Abbots of St Albans Abbey. On display in the exhibition is Matthew Paris's description of the gems and rings that belonged to the church of St Albans in his day (De anulis et gemmis et pallis que sunt de thesauro huius ecclesie), with his own illustrations.

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Matthew Paris’s description of the gems of St Albans: Cotton MS Nero D I, f. 146v.

Among the gems depicted by Matthew Paris is one passed on from antiquity: a cameo now thought to have depicted an emperor, Jupiter, or Asclepius. Matthew describes it in extensive detail, noting that it was used in childbirth: ‘For an infant about to be born escapes the approaching stone’ (Infantulus enim nasciturus lapidem subterfugit appropinquantem, f. 147r). This seems to have come about through interpretation of the classical imagery, which he describes as showing a man with a spear in his right hand, with a serpent crawling up it, and a boy on his left hand.

Also on display at Paderborn is the British Library’s Additional MS 12154, containing a description of Rome written in Syriac by Pseudo-Zacharias in the 6th century. It outlines its splendours in detail, including what is believed to be the first mention of Christian buildings in the city.

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Installing the exhibition at Paderborn

The British Library is a regular lender to exhibitions in the United Kingdom and overseas. We are very pleased to have been able to lend two of our early manuscripts, one in Latin and the other in Syriac, to the Diözesanmuseum, and we hope that our German readers are able to view these books in person at Paderborn. You may like to know that Matthew Paris's Liber additamentorum is also available to view in full, online and in high definition, on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.

Andrew Dunning

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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 !

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16 February 2017

The Seven Sages of Rome: Stories of the Wicked Ways of Women

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The Seven Sages of Rome is a varied collection of moral stories or exempla that includes over 100 tales in one or more of the many versions that exist throughout Europe and the East, where they originated. The unifying theme is provided by the story of Florentin, son of the Emperor Diocletian, who is under threat of death.

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The Seven Sages and the emperor’s son, with the rubric, Incipit liber septem philosophorum cuiusda[m] Imperatoris Romani, Italy, N. (Venice), 1440s, Add MS 15685, f. 83r

He has been accused by his young stepmother of seducing her and plotting against his father. For seven days the seven sages, tutors of the prince, try to obtain a stay of execution by telling the Emperor stories of the wickedness of women, while the stepmother counters these with stories of her own, pointing to Florentin’s guilt. Having remained mute all this time, the prince himself speaks on the eighth day to proclaim his innocence, and the Queen is judged guilty and executed.


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Detail of the Emperor and Empress playing chess, from the Continuation des Sept Sages, France, Central (Paris); 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Harley MS 4903, f. 106v

The tales in the original collection have names like Arbor or ‘The Pine and its Sucker’, Canis or ‘The Greyhound and the Serpent’, and Puteus (the Well) or ‘The Husband Out of Doors’, in which an unfaithful wife, who has been locked out (or locked away, depending on the version) by her husband as punishment, pretends to drown herself in the village well, and when he goes  to the village square to investigate, she locks him out in turn and he is then arrested for breaking the curfew. 

Ward’s Catalogue of Romances in the British Museum lists 6 manuscripts in Volume II, Eastern Legends and Tales, as the roots of the cycle of tales is in the East: The Book of Sindibad, believed by some to originate in India, possibly as early as the 5th century BC. The earliest medieval western example in the British Library's collections, Harley MS 3860, is in French, and was copied in the north of England in the early 14th century. The manuscript comprises historical chronicles, Grosseteste’s Chateau d’amour  and the Manuel des Pechies  and has just been published in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

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A tinted drawing of the Empress and a decorated initial 'L' ('emperur), Les Sept Sages de Rome, England, N. (?Durham), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Harley MS 3860, f. 31r

Also from the early 14th century is Additional MS 27429, translated into Italian from the French, based partly on the version in Harley 3860 and partly on an earlier French version.  The relationships between the texts are complex.

A copy in Latin, Additional MS 15685, is from mid-15th-century Venice, with colourful miniatures:

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The Empress attempting to seduce her stepson, Liber Septem Philosophorum or Book of the Seven Sages, Venice, 1440–1450, Add MS 15685, f. 84v

Out of a total of 9 surviving manuscripts in Middle English, 3 are in the British Library, each originally containing 15 tales, though one, Arundel MS 140,  is now incomplete.

Cotton MS Galba E IX from the late-14th and Arundel MS 140 from the early-15th century are collections of moral and religious texts, both containing The Prik of Conscience as well as the Seven Sages. In the first, the pine tree becomes a ‘pineappel tre’.

Egerton MS 1995, a miscellany of prose and verse from the south of England, begins with the Seven Sages and includes the original version of John Page’s poem on the siege of Rouen.

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The beginning of ‘The fyrste tale of the Emperasse’ from The Seven Sages of Rome, Egerton MS 1995, f. 10r

Continuation of the Sept Sages

There exist further tales in the cycle, known as the Continuation of the Sept Sages, not described by Ward, but related to the above. Harley MS 4903, also recently digitised, contains the second part of this text:  the first part is in Paris, BnF ms francais 17000. The tales are broadly grouped around the character of Cassidorus, Emperor of Constantinople, and the ones in the Harley volume are Helcanus (the concluding part), Peliarmenus and Kanor. Helcanus is the son of Cassidorus and Peliarmenus is brother of the emperor, who tries to get rid of his nephew in order to rule by himself.

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Dyalogus throwing Cassidorus’s children into the river; Dorus is rescued by a fisherman; an unidentified coat of arms in the margin, at the beginning of the Roman de Peliarmenus, France, Central (Paris), 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Harley MS 4903, f. 16r

The tale of Peliarmenus ends with the death of Cassidorus. The Roman de Kanor begins with a lion, an old friend of Cassidorus, taking his four sons, one of whom is Kanor, to a hermitage to be raised by a hermit named Dieudonne, and Nicole, a servant of their mother, the Empress for seven years then educated at the court of the King of Hungary. There are several sub-plots involving firstly Celydus, illegitimate son of Cassidorus who becomes King of Jerusalem, and secondly Nero, son of the Empress Nera, switched at birth with the child of a monk, and later switched with Libanor, son of the Queen of Carthage. One of them (it is hard to tell which) becomes Emperor of Constantinople and Kanor eventually becomes Emperor of Rome!

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The empress’s baby and the monk’s baby being switched at birth, from the Roman de Kanor, France, Central (Paris); 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Harley MS 4903, f. 171r

This collection of disparate and convoluted tales is not always easy for a modern reader to interpret, but it contains representatives of the narratives and tropes that have characterised human storytelling from the very beginning and across all cultures: the wicked stepmother, children brought up by an animal, babies swapped at birth, hermits and emperors. Many of these would have been familiar to a medieval audience and still are today.

Chantry Westwell

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14 February 2017

Love Me Do: Medieval Love Spells

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Valentine’s Day is all about love — mutual love and shared love. But what if love is unrequited or one-sided? The problem, as always, is not a new one. It was well known in ancient and medieval times alike, but different people had their own ways of dealing with it.

Some people simply believed in persuasion. Some nice words on a bench may break the ice and turn the lover’s heart in the desired direction. 'You can try this with men or women alike', as the caption of the image says.

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Detail from a herbal, Northern Italy (Lombardy), c. 1440, Sloane 4016, f. 44v

If this does not make a break-through, a picnic set up in an entertaining landscape of flowers, trees and a little brook might bring better results.

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Miniature of the duke of true love and his companions entertaining ladies, from the Book of the Queen, c. 1410–1414, France (Paris), Harley 4431, f. 145

You could even include some sport in these outdoor activities and win their hearts in a race. This is how Hippomenes won over Atalanta after beating her in an (actually unfair) running competition. He rolled golden apples in the girl’s way, slowing her down so that he could finally win and get her hand.

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Miniature of Hippomenes racing Atalanta, from Harley 4431, f. 128r

Others had completely different methods and, convinced about the power of their poetry and music, bravely revealed their feelings before their lovers. Orpheus did it in a live performance for Eurydice. It worked, melting the heart of Death himself who gave his dead wife back to him.

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Miniature of Orpheus looking back at Eurydice, from Harley 4431, f. 126v  

Others, probably less skilled in performing arts, preferred to do this in a less direct way and offered luxury editions of their poetry to their loved ones — enclosing their own burning hearts in the volumes.

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Detail from 49 Love Sonnets, Italy (Milan?), c. 1425–1475, King's 322, f. 1r

There were some, however, who did not deter even from violence and took what they wanted by force. They fought wars, battled kings and occupied cities, just like Menelaus did when his beloved Helena escaped from Sparta, starting the ten-year long Trojan War. The British Library does not endorse this approach! 

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Detail from a series of miniatures on the temptations of lovers, from Breviari d'Amour, Southern France (Toulouse), c. 1300-1325, Royal 19 C I, f. 204r

Sometimes, when the above methods have all proven useless, there was one final risky and dangerous method that only a few have ever tried: magic. The British Library houses an excellent collection of ancient love spells and charms from the first three centuries CE. Papyrus 121 (2), one of the largest extant scrolls in the collection, preserves a whole series of uncanny methods of gaining someone’s heart. Column 12 of this extraordinary papyrus, for example, has a special recipe that proved useful enough to be recorded and come down to us in the 21st century. It reads as follows:

Take a shell from the sea and draw on it with myrrh ink the figure of a demon given below, and in a circle write his names, and throw it into the heating of a hot bath. But when you throw it, keep reciting these words 'attract to me XY, whom XY bore, on this very day from this very hour, with a soul and a heart aflame, quickly, quickly; immediately, immediately.' The picture should be as depicted below.

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Detail of a love spell, from a collection of magical spells and charms, Egypt, 3rd century, Papyrus 121 (2)

Unfortunately the image to be used in the process was not copied in the papyrus, but other parts of the same document preserve similar images of demons with names written around them that can help us imagine what is needed here.

Papyrus 121 a

Papyrus 121 b

There is also a special charm to be used in the process that is supposed to guarantee its success but we decided not to replicate it here. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Peter Toth

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09 February 2017

Dying to Archive: John Lakenheath at Bury St Edmunds Abbey

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On 21 June 1381, during the Peasants’ Revolt, a mob in Bury St Edmunds was out to kill. Among their chosen targets was John Lakenheath, a monk at the abbey as well as keeper of the barony (custos baronie), making him responsible for collecting dues and fines for the abbey’s manors. His crime: putting the abbey’s archives in order after they had been sacked by the townspeople as long ago as 1327. With all the relevant documentation at hand, the abbey had been asserting its claims stridently.

Index in Harley MS 743, f. 4r.

Index in Harley MS 743, f. 4r.

The book that made John so hated survives in the British Library as Harley MS 743, the ‘Lakenheath Register’. It is a calendar or directory of the documentary evidence held at the abbey in John’s time, showing its claim to properties, fees it was owed by tenants, and other legal privileges. It is not highly decorated, but it is full of energy, as reflected in the opening to John’s preface (translated from Harley MS 743, f. 3v):

After our monastery was destroyed by robbers and fire, and the registers of the abbots and other muniments were stolen stealthily without return, the thin ears of corn behind the backs of the reapers had hardly remained from such an abundant harvest of evidence for the church. Because of this, I, brother John Lakenheath, have arranged from various registers a kind of calendar, whatever the circumstances. In it, I have laid out in alphabetical order the names of certain manors about which I learnt any documentary evidence. By this, the evidence may more openly be accessible to future generations, that within and outside their liberty, the abbot and convent may have the power to proclaim their royal rights and other liberties more confidently. I ask the reader to mark this work in kindness rather than presumption.

John’s preface in Harley MS 743, f. 3v.

John’s preface in Harley MS 743, f. 3v.

John goes on to lay out his organisational scheme. Writing in 1379, tensions were already growing, and he may have already realised the danger he was in as he was compiling his register. He ends on an ominous note: ‘If for certain reasons I am unable to complete something noted above, may the reader accept the will for the deed, and may he ask the omnipotent to have mercy on the soul of the compiler.’ The book allows the reader to look up a particular estate, and find all the documents associated with it, going back to the day of William the Conqueror. In a society that was placing an ever-increasing value on written over oral evidence, one can easily imagine the power this conveyed.

The story of John Lakenheath’s death: Cotton MS Claudius A XII, f. 135v.

The story of John Lakenheath’s death: Cotton MS Claudius A XII, f. 135v.

John’s work led to personal disaster. The story of his death is told by another Bury monk, John Gosford, in his Election of John Timworth (Electio domini Iohannis Tymwrith in abbatem, Cotton MS Claudius A XII, ff. 135v–136r):

Hanging the prior’s head on a pillory, that whole cursing band came into the monastery, naming certain brothers, of whom they sought one before all the others, namely Walter Toddington; but when they could not find him, they sought another, namely the keeper of the barony. Although he could have fled from their hands, he refused to do so, declaring that he could not fall to a better cause than for the rights of his church, which he was always defending to the best of his ability, and therefore he wished to await the atonement of death for its sake, if it would drive their murderous hands from it. Some people from the village who hated him very much, pretending that they would be clean by his blood, arranged for the wicked people from the region to capture, hold, and kill him. When they came into his cloister where he had been stationed, they shouted, ‘Where is that betrayer?’ He answered them, ‘I am not a betrayer; but if you wish to have me, here I am.’ They shouted, ‘We have found the betrayer!’ They carried him away from the cloister, and led him into the middle of the marketplace: leading him through the road, they dragged him along. They not only attacked him with blows, but inflicted many mortal wounds on him, so that he was nearly dead by the time he reached that place. There, the killer struck him seven times before he was able to cut off his head. They set it up on the pillory with the other heads.

Depending on one’s point of view, the Lakenheath Register can mean something quite different: the townspeople must have thought it an instrument of tyranny, while the abbey depicted John’s work as that of a martyr. The truth, as always, is somewhere in between.

Andrew Dunning

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06 February 2017

A New Opening for the Lindisfarne Gospels

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If in the next few months you visit the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery here at the British Library, you can feast your eyes on a new part of the famous Lindisfarne Gospels (Cotton MS Nero D IV), which we have changed from displaying the letter of Eusebius at the beginning of the manuscript to a page from the Gospel of John at the end:

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 A text page from the Gospel of St John in the Lindisfarne Gospels (Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 239v)

While the new leaves don’t contain the Gospels’ more famous illustrations, such as the Carpet Pages, they are a good example of what the majority of the Lindisfarne Gospels looks like: simple text on a page, highlighted by the use of colours on the initial letters marking the start of many of the Gospel verses.

The pages currently on display are taken from Chapter 12, verses 7-25. The text is divided into two columns, with Aldred’s Old English translation visible above each Latin word in small brown ink. The scribe has decorated some (but not all) of the initials at the beginning of the verses; the lowest decoration is simple colouring in of an initial (i.e. the yellow ‘h’ for ‘Haec non cognoverunt…’), while more effort has been placed into other initials, such as the more elaborate colours and use of decorative points on the ‘In’ of ‘In crastinum autem…’. The Roman numerals in the margins are references to both the number of verse and to the corresponding verses in the three other Gospels.

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Another text page from the Lindisfarne Gospels (Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 240r)

Stop by and see the pages for yourself! The Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery is free to enter and open to all members of the public, seven days a week. More information, including current opening hours, can be found here.

And remember, you can view the whole of the Lindisfarne Gospels on our Digitised Manuscripts site. For conservation reasons, we change the pages on display on a regular basis; so be sure to check back in three months’ time to read about the new pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels on view.

Taylor McCall

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29 January 2017

The Book with a Fur Cover

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People who visit the British Library would be well advised to take heed of the adage, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover.’ Today, most medieval manuscripts have lost their original covers. As a result, some of the British Library’s finest treasures are hiding behind some rather unassuming-looking brown or blue bindings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Nevertheless, the British Library is lucky enough to possess a few examples of medieval bookbinding and covers. These range from wooden boards or pieces of leather to more elaborate examples of tooled leather, ivory and even jewelled metal bindings.

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Left:
Front cover from the St Cuthbert Gospel, England (Wearmouth Jarrow), early 8th century, Add MS 89000 Right: Ivory and turquoise upper cover of the Melisende Psalter, Kingdom of Jerusalem, c. 1131-43, Egerton MS 1139/1

One binding, however, has recently caught our eyes. It contains a glossed copy of Genesis from Rievaulx Abbey (Add MS 63077), made in the 2nd half of the 12th century. And it stands out because it is covered in… fur.

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Detail of fur on the cover of a glossed copy of Genesis, England (Rievaulx Abbey), 12th century, Add MS 63077

Dark brown hairs stand out from the worn cover. Originally the binding was probably completely covered in fur, and preliminary analysis suggests Add MS 63077's cover may have been made from sealskin. 

Leather was a common material for binding many different types of books in the Middle Ages, from the St Cuthbert Gospel’s carefully tooled leather cover to the less elaborate, rather loose leather that drapes over the thick wooden boards holding together the Sherborne Cartulary (Add MS 46487). In those cases, however, the animal skin would have been treated to remove the fur or hair before the material was added to the binding. Add MS 63077 is not unique in possessing a fur cover (or even a sealskin cover), but it is not clear why its cover was treated in this way (or why the fur survives in this case). 

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In addition to fur, the binding features a small metal roundel describing the manuscript’s contents: a glossed study-copy of the book of Genesis. The roundel is decorated with a zig-zag pattern and is written in capitals.

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The binding also features metal bosses sticking out on that cover. These were perhaps more functional than decorative: there is evidence that books would have been stacked horizontally in western libraries, rather than placed upright along shelves.

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Opening of the book of Genesis, Add MS 63077, f. 1r

Inside the binding, the contents of the manuscript were carefully laid out, with modest decoration. The central column of text contains the book of Genesis. Various notes and commentaries by medieval authors have been added around the side, showing that this volume was carefully planned before the text was written.

ADD 63077 f72r
Page from Genesis with commentary from the writing of Bede and Jerome, Add MS 63077, f. 72r 

This manuscript was probably made and owned in the 12th century at Rievaulx Abbey, a house of Cistercians, a relatively new monastic Order which had been founded around 1098. These monks criticised Benedictine monks for what they felt was too opulent a lifestyle. The Cistercians emphasized hard labour as well as study and worship in their day-to-day routines. Some of their surviving manuscripts, such as this glossed Genesis, provide an insight into their scholarly pursuits and priorities. Interestingly, another manuscript with a furry sealskin covering is also associated with a Cistercian house in the late 12th century: from Fountains Abbey, there survives a manuscript containing works of Augustine, the consuetudines (customs) of the Cistercian monks and the passion and miracles of St Olaf protected by a 'sealskin chemise' (now Oxford, Corpus Christi College, MS 209).

Still, this manuscript with its furry cover remains a bit mysterious. Have any of our readers seen similar manuscripts or know any reasons why the hair may have been left on this cover?

Alison Hudson

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