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32 posts categorized "Literature"

27 August 2018

Anglo-Saxon elephants

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My favourite Old English word — for the moment — is ‘ylp’. It means ‘elephant’. I was discussing this over lunch with my colleagues at the British Library, when someone asked a fair question: why was there a specific Old English word for elephant, when writers such as Ælfric (d. c. 1010) acknowledged, ‘Some people will think it wondrous to hear [about these animals], because elephants have never come to England’? The short answer is: elephants did not have to physically come to the British Isles to influence early medieval culture. They are a good example of the links that existed between Anglo-Saxon England and the wider world, through the exchange of books.

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An elephant, from the Marvels of the East, in a mid-11th century scientific collection: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 81r

Some people in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had travelled long distances, and if they had visited the southern Mediterranean, they may have seen elephants there. One elephant had also reportedly been given to the Emperor Charlemagne (d. 814). However, many Anglo-Saxon people had never seen an elephant, as is evident from their attempts to illustrate them. But literate people who had never left England could still encounter elephants in their books. Elephants appear in several of the classical and Late Antique texts which were available in early medieval Britain. Church fathers such as Augustine used elephants as metaphors, since their large size and apparently calm demeanour suggested stability and chastity. Such beliefs led to the motif of the noble elephant fighting the demonic dragon in later medieval art.

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An elephant and a monkey, from an illustrated Old English translation of medical remedies, England (? Christ Church Canterbury or Winchester), c. 1000–1025: Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 82r

Mediterranean medical texts that circulated in the British Isles also mentioned elephants. For example, an Old English translation of the group of remedies known as the Pseudo-Apuleius complex recommended that elephants be used as a beauty product: to remove ‘disfiguring marks’ on the body, ‘take elephant bone [possibly ivory] and point with honey and apply it. It removes the marks wonderfully.’ Don't try this at home!

Other classical and Late Antique texts described elephants being used in military campaigns. Some of these works were translated into Old English, including Orosius’s History Against the Pagans. The earliest surviving manuscript of this translation includes a passage which described how Hasdrubal, king of Carthage, set out with 30 elephants (‘mid xxx elpenda’). The scribe of a later copy of this text mistakenly changed the passage to 30 helpers ('helpenda'). 

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Detail of a passage discussing elephants, from the Tollemache Orosius, England (Winchester?), late 9th or early 10th century: Add MS 47967, f. 55v

Based on these texts, many Old English writers understood elephants as war animals. In his sermon on the Book of Maccabees, Ælfric described how:

‘Five hundred mounted men went with every elephant, and a war-house (wighus) was built on each of the elephants, and in each war-house were thirty men … An elephant is an immense animal, larger than a house, completely surrounded with bones within its hide, except at the navel, and it never lies down. The mother carries the foal for 24 months, and they live for 300 years … and man can tame them wonderfully for battle’ (translated by Joe Allard & Richard North, Beowulf and Other Stories, 2nd ednLondon: Pearson, 2012).

As a sidenote, if for some reason you ever need to ask for directions to the Elephant and Castle Underground station in Old English, according to Ælfric you should ask for ‘Ylp ond Wighus’.

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Start of a riddle about an elephant, from a copy of Aldhelm's riddles, England (Canterbury), c. 1000: Royal MS 12 C XXIII, f. 100v 

Elephants were also characterised by their military role in war in a Latin riddle composed by Aldhelm (d. 709/10), bishop of Sherborne:

‘As armoured troops and soldiers pack in tight

(Wretches who with vain lust incite a fight

While arms taint sacred civil loyalties),

A trumpet sucks in air with bursts of breeze

And raucous, clanging battle horns resound;

Fierce, bold, I’ve come to know their savage sound…’

(translated by A.M. Juster, St Aldhelm’s Riddles, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, p. 59).

Aldhelm’s riddle also shows that elephants were known for more than just their skills in battle. They were also prized for their ivory. The riddle continues:

‘Although God made me ugly at my start, I picked up gifts of life once I debuted ...

I can’t be beaten by fine sheets of gold,

Although the precious polished metal’s decked

With gleaming gems and stylish luxuries.

Nature won’t let me kneel when I feel old

Or rest my eyelids while on bended knees.

Indeed, I have to spend my life erect.’

Elephant ivory may have been known in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. It has been detected in some 6th-century bag frames, although walrus ivory is more common. 

Beyond copying texts that mentioned elephants as metaphors or resources, many Old English writers were fascinated by them out of a sense of wonder that such creatures could exist. Ælfric marvelled at their size, and both he and Aldhelm believed that elephants never sat down.

A text that exists in both Latin and Old English versions, known as the Marvels of the East, similarly presents elephants as a wonder. It claims that elephants stand 15 feet high with a ‘long nose’ covered in black hair. It also states that they are plentiful in India. The artists who illustrated two copies of this text did not pay much heed to this description. One artist portrayed a pink-skinned elephant with a long tongue and tusks, instead of a long nose, as shown at the start of this blogpost. Meanwhile, the artist of the Marvels of the East in the Nowell Codex (which also contains Beowulf) drew elephants in a way that is suspiciously reminiscent of the way they also illustrated camels.

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Elephants, from the Marvels of the East, England, late 10th century or early 11th century: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 101v

Elephants probably did not arrive in England for several more centuries. The earliest recorded elephant in England is the gift that King Louis IX of France presented to King Henry III of England in 1255. The chronicler Matthew Paris was on hand to illustrate and to describe it, claiming that ‘we believe [it was] the only elephant ever seen in England …’ But even before that, elephants had already had a significant impact on English literature and culture.

Would you like to learn more about the earliest English literature and its connections to the wider world? You can find out more on our Discovering Literature: Medieval site. And don't miss our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, on show at the British Library from 19 October 2018 to 19 February 2019.

 

Alison Hudson

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22 August 2018

A bumper crop of manuscripts (part 2)

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We recently reported that we have added several new manuscripts to our Digitised Manuscripts site. We're delighted to say that many more can now be found online. Here are some of our favourites.

The elegaic Livre des Quatre Dames

In this poem by Alain Chartier (d. c. 1433), an ambassador for King Charles VII of France, the poet meets four ladies, who tell of the fates of their four lovers who were lost at the battle of Agincourt. One lover was killed, one lost, one taken prisoner and one fled. This manuscript is believed to have been commissioned by Anne de Laval (d. 1466) of the Montmorency-Laval family of Brittany and Maine, supporters of the French king. Their coat of arms can be found in the initial on f. 1r.

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The poet with the four ladies, from the Livre des Quatre Dames, France, c. 1425: Add MS 21247, f. 1r

 

The romantic Guiron le Courtois

The legend of Guiron is part of the Arthurian cycle, dealing with the exploits of earlier generations of heroes, the ancestors of Tristan, Erec and the knights of the Round Table (including Palamedes and Meliadus). On this page, a historiated initial signals the beginning of the adventures of ‘Brehus sans pitie’, who meets Guiron’s grandfather in a cave. From him he hears the whole history of Guiron’s lineage, and of his exploits at the castle of Malaonc, where he befriended Lord Danyn the Red and fell in love with his wife, the Lady of Malaonc, the most beautiful woman in Britain. Later, they both fell in love with the Lady Bloye and Guiron first defeated Danyn, then rescued him from a dragon.

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Brehus finds a knight lying dead in a beautiful chamber, from Guiron le Courtois, northern Italy, 14th century: Add MS 36880, f. 40v

 

The gruesome German Missal

This early 15th-century Missal was produced for the Use of Cologne, as is indicated by the calendar and the offices in honour of St Severin, archbishop of Cologne. It contains 7 full-page miniatures of Rhenish execution, and added on single folios, seemingly inserted at random in relation to the text. This image of the 10,000 martyrs probably illustrates the medieval legend of the Roman soldiers, led by St Acacius, who converted to Christianity and were crucified on Mount Ararat by the King of Persia by order of the Roman emperor. They appear to be males, but the calendar of saints includes the feast of the 11,000 virgin-martyrs of Cologne, legendary companions of St Ursula, who, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth writing in the 12th century, was the daughter of the ruler of Cornwall.

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The Ten Thousand Martyrs, from a Missal, Cologne, 1st quarter of the 15th century: Egerton MS 3018, f. 43r

 

The mysterious Biblia Pauperum

This manuscript consists of a series of black outline drawings. Every second page has a large drawing of a subject relating to Christ’s Passion at the top; below this are two drawings, usually of subjects from the Old Testament; and beneath are two further drawings of the habits of animals, including snakes, birds, dogs, wild boars, fish, an owl, an elephant and a peacock, based on classical authors. Surrounding them are busts of human figures, including prophets. On the facing pages are corresponding texts and quotations in Latin, with explanatory comments.

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Christ is scourged, with other images including a figure tied to a tree, a wild boar being slaughtered, and a figure harvesting acorns, from the Biblia Pauperum, ?Germany, 2nd half of the 15th century: Add MS 15705, f. 10r

 

The horticultural Carrara Herbal

This herbal is a luxury copy created for Francesco Carrara II, Lord of Padua, rather than a practical, medicinal manual. Based on Arabic compilations that were translated into Latin, this treatise written in the Paduan dialect describes the medicinal properties of plants, animals, and minerals. It is accompanied by numerous illustrations of plants that appear more decorative than scientific.

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Illuminated initial and a plant illustration from the Carrara Herbal, northern Italy (Padua), c. 1400: Egerton MS 2020, f. 11v

 

The historical Chronicles of Matthew Paris

This mid-13th century St Albans’ manuscript contains a collection of chronicles and historical material, including the Abbreviatio compendiosa chronicorum Anglie, compiled and copied in part by Matthew Paris himself. At its beginning is a collection of 32 portraits of English monarchs and other historial figures from Britain. It once included Matthew Paris’s full-page map of Britain, now kept separately as Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1.

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Utherpendragon, Æthelberht, Arthur and St Oswald, in the chronicles of Matthew Paris, St Albans, c. 1255–1259: Cotton MS Claudius D VI, f. 218v

 

For the other manuscripts recently added to Digitised Manuscripts, please see our previous blogpost, A bumper crop of manuscripts (part 1).

 

Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

17 August 2018

A bumper crop of manuscripts (part 1)

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The summer holidays may be here but we have been busy at the British Library, adding more items to our Digitised Manuscripts site. Here are some of the highlights.

 

The beautiful: a Spanish Book of Hours

This gorgeous Book of Hours, about the size of a modern paperback, contains 10 full-page miniatures — attributed to Juan de Carrion, an artist associated with Toledo — and 14 illuminated initials, with full borders in glorious pinks, blues and greens. They are decorated with an amazing variety of flowers, birds and all manner of creatures. This is one of eight stunning illuminated manuscripts acquired from the collector and philanthropist, Charles William Dyson Perrins (1864–1958) of Lee and Perrins, the makers of Worcester sauce. They include the Gorleston Psalter, the de Brailles Hours and the Hours of Elizabeth the Queen.

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The Circumcision of Christ, from a Book of Hours, Spain, 4th quarter of the 15th century: Add MS 50004, f. 41v

 

The bejewelled: Isocratis de Regno

These two works by Isocrates and Lucian were translated by Johannes Boerius or Giovanni Battista Boerio (d. before 1530), for Prince Henry, the future Henry VIII. Boerio was astrologist and physician to Henry VII, and this copy was made for him in Italy by Pierantonio Sallando. It contains gold borders with jewelled decoration at the beginning of each text. Lucian’s work, usually known as De calumnia, is titled Non facile credendum esse calumniate (‘On not believing rashly in slander’), good advice for a young monarch, but not necessarily followed by Henry VIII later in his reign, particularly with regard to the treatment of his wives.

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The opening page of Lucian, De calumnia, with a border incorporating the arms of Henry VII and Henry VIII, supported by the dragon and greyhound, and in the border, phoenixes and leopards, and numerous all'antica elements such as vases, cornucopia, and jewels with foliate motifs, northern Italy (Bologna), c. 1505: Add MS 19553, f. 19r

 

The fabulous: the Spalding manuscript

This collection of Old French texts contains a rare copy of Le Songe Vert, accompanied by a chanson de geste, two classical romances and the Ordene de Chivalrie, a set of instructions on chivalry allegedly given by Hue de Tabarie to Saladin. Le Songe Vert is a 14th-century allegorical poem, written in the Picard dialect and described by its early editor, Leopold Constans, as a ‘curieux poeme’. At the end of the plague of 1347–48, the author dons a black mourning dress and wanders into an orchard. He is consoled by a vision of love and returns with his dress a bright green. You may wonder why this volume is known as the 'Spalding manuscript': its name refers to a previous owner, Maurice Johnson (1815–1861) of Ayscoughfee Hall, Spalding, in Lincolnshire.

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The opening page of Le Songe Vert, from the Spalding manuscript, France, 14th century: Add MS 34114, f. 227r

 

The weird: Liber Belial

The Liber Belial or Processus Luciferi contra Jesum Christum takes the form of a lawsuit between Lucifer and Jesus Christ, with Solomon presiding. The Devil sues Christ for trespass by descending into Hell. A note on f. 2v states that the text was written on 30 October 1382 at Aversa, near Naples; it is dedicated to Angellus de Castellone of Arezzo, archpriest of Padua.

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The opening page of the Liber Belial, Naples, 1382: Harley MS 3134, f. 3r

 

The boastful: the life and genealogy of Edward IV

For any aspiring medieval ruler intent on vaunting their prowess and legitimate claim to the throne, a connection to biblical antecedents was an absolute must. In this roll five pairs of large coloured miniatures each show an event in the career of King Edward IV on the right, with its biblical type or precedent on the left. It provides an allegorical representation of Edward's success and the fulfilment of the prophecies that he would attain the throne. To crown it all, his genealogical tree below is in the form of a biblical tree of Jesse (traditionally portraying Christ’s descent from King David), and shows Henry III reclining at the bottom, with Edward IV and Henry VI emerging as opponents at the top.

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The life and genealogical tree of King Edward IV, England, 1461–c. 1470: Harley MS 7353, f. 1r

 

The wonderful: Ovide moralise and other French texts

In this French translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is illustrated the legend of the ill-fated lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe. Here they are shown at their secret meeting place under a mulberry tree. Pyramus, believing Thisbe to have been killed by a lion, has fallen on his sword and lies dead. Thisbe is about to plunge his sword into her throat. As a result, the gods changed the colour of mulberries to red to honour their forbidden love. This manuscript also contains Christine de Pizan's L'Epistre Othea, in which Hector, prince of Troy, is tutored in statecraft and political morality by Othea, the goddess of wisdom.

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Pyramus and Thisbe beside a fountain, from Ovid's Metamorphoses, southern Netherlands, 4th quarter of the 15th century: Royal MS 17 E IV, f. 55r

 

We are adding new content to Digitised Manuscripts every week. A second blogpost will describe some of the other recent additions: keep your eyes peeled!

 

Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

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. 

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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.

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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

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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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17 May 2018

The legends of King Arthur

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Have you ever wondered who King Arthur really was? The British Library's Discovering Literature: Medieval site features a fascinating essay on this very subject, written by Dr Hetta Elizabeth Howes of City, University of London. Howes traces and contextualises the evolution of the Arthurian legend, based on the historical and literary sources, and illustrated with images of manuscripts in our collections, from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Thomas Malory. As the essay pertinently asks, 'Will the real King Arthur please stand up?'

Among the manuscripts featured in The legends of King Arthur is Wace's Roman de Brut, a poem written in Anglo-Norman French. In the copy shown here, made in England in the 14th century (Egerton MS 3028), Arthur's exploits are described in a series of narrative images.

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The coronation of King Arthur, in Wace's Roman de Brut: Egerton MS 3028, f. 37r

 

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The opening page of Wace's Roman de Brut: Egerton MS 3028, f. 1r

 

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Another page from Wace's Roman de Brut, showing the building of Stonehenge: Egerton MS 3028, f. 30r

 

Wace's work was translated in turn by Laȝamon into Middle English, known as Laȝamon's Brut. This manuscript (Cotton MS Caligula A IX) was made probably in the last quarter of the 13th century. It is one of two surviving copies of Laȝamon's work, but the second (Cotton MS Otho C XIII) was damaged by fire in 1731.

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The opening page of Laȝamon's Brut: Cotton MS Caligula A IX, f. 3r

 

Medieval manuscripts such as these helped to popularise the legend of Arthur. As Howes fittingly concludes, 'King Arthur may not have returned from the dead, as the myths promise, [but] he has certainly enjoyed a number of afterlives in popular culture.'

The legends of King Arthur is one of many essays found on our Discovery Literature website. Other include Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: an introduction by Simon Armitage, Old English by David Crystal and Dream visions by Mary Wellesley.

 

Julian Harrison

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12 April 2018

Juggling with fire: the poetry of the Gawain-manuscript

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Manuscripts, one of my colleagues once observed, are often like dumplings — plain on the outside, but delicious in the middle. Arguably the best dumpling-manuscript is the sole surviving copy of four famous Middle English poems: Sir Gawain and the Green KnightPearl, Patience and Cleanness. These anonymous poems, which are almost baffling in their complexity, are masterpieces of their genres. Yet the manuscript which contains them, now known as Cotton MS Nero A X/2, is a bit of a dumpling. It’s rather plain: the scribal hand is functional and, when originally written, there was little decoration apart from a few coloured penwork initials. Some time afterwards, a cycle of images was added in the spaces between the poems; but you could not, in good conscience, call them the work of a great artist, unless your definition of ‘great artist’ includes someone with a rudimentary knowledge of perspective and a tendency to inflate the size of the human head.

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The first illustration preceding Pearl: Cotton MS Nero A X/2, f. 41r

That said, the appearance of the manuscript is not why generations of scholars have been captivated by this book. It is the linguistic finesse and metrical dexterity of the poems that makes this manuscript one of the most important in the British Library’s medieval collections.

Pearl the first item in the manuscript — is a poem of grief and loss, in which an anguished father searches for a lost pearl in a beautiful garden. His search reveals more than just the lost jewel. Pearl has an astoundingly complicated structure and makes use of the symbolism of numbers, or ‘numerology’. The poem is 1,212 lines long and is composed of 12-line stanzas. This is in homage to the heavenly Jerusalem which is described in the poem’s final section. The heavenly Jerusalem is 12 furlongs long, and has 12 gates, each of which are set with pearls. The stanzas are grouped into sets of five, but the fifteenth set contains an extra stanza, which brings the total number of stanzas to 101 — the same number of stanzas contained in Gawain.

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The opening page of Pearl: Cotton MS Nero A X/2, f. 43r

As well as veining the poem with complex numerological references, the poet’s choice of rhyme schemes is also highly sophisticated. The poet uses a number of rhyme-schemes in the poem. Pearl is end-rhymed, but also contains internal, alliterative rhymes within the unit of the lines themselves. As well as this, it has a concatenating rhyme scheme, whereby each stanza-set is held together by a ‘concatenation’ word or phrase appearing at the beginning and end of each stanza. In simple terms, the first line of each section picks up and dismisses the concatenation word from the previous one — the final line of the poem echoes the first, and this connection between the first and last lines creates a circular, round structure — reflecting the poem’s subject. Simon Armitage, who translated the poem into modern English in 2016, writes that this is ‘a sort of poetic passing of the baton’.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a tale of wild landscapes, knightly deeds and sexual temptation. It begins when a Christmas feast at Camelot — the court of the legendary King Arthur — is interrupted by the arrival of a mysterious green knight with green skin and green hair, riding a green horse. He challenges the assembled company to a bizarre game which sets off a chain of events culminating in a meeting between Gawain and the Green Knight in a strange, green chapel.

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The mysterious Green Knight arrives at King Arthur's court: Cotton MS Nero A X/2, f. 94v

Like Pearl, Gawain also has a complicated structure. It uses alliteration but as well as this, it uses a metrical form called the ‘bob and wheel’, where each stanza ends with a short half-line of only two syllables (the bob), followed by a mini-stanza of longer lines which rhyme internally (the wheel). The use of this complicated form over 2,500 lines of verse is a showy demonstration of the poet’s skill. If writing good prose is a tightrope walk, and writing good poetry is a tightrope walk while juggling, then the Gawain-poet is tightrope walking while juggling with fire.

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The first page of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Cotton MS Nero A X/2, f. 95r 

The manuscript was part of the collection of Sir Robert Cotton, which in the 18th century was stored in the ominously named Ashburnham House in London. In 1731, a terrible fire ripped through the library and many of the manuscripts were lost or irreparably damaged. The fact that this manuscript, which contains the sole surviving examples of these bewitching texts, might also have been lost makes the book especially precious.

Both Pearl and Gawain feature on the British Library’s Discovering Literature: Medieval website. On the site you can find an article on Gawain by the poet Simon Armitage, and the whole manuscript can be viewed on Digitised Manuscripts.

 

Mary Wellesley

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20 March 2018

Call the medieval midwife

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Tucked away in a 14th-century encyclopaedia and bestiary is an oath written alongside a black cross. The person who made it had borrowed the book, and identified themselves as ‘abestetrix', echoing the Latin ‘obstetrix’, meaning ‘midwife’. (Another hand has glossed this as 'heifmoeder’.) Midwifery was as vital in the medieval world as it is today. Medieval manuscripts can provide a variety of evidence for the hardships, mysteries and triumphs of this historic profession.

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Detail of an oath written by a midwife: Add MS 11390, f. 94v

Accounts of famous births from history are often accompanied by illustrations of the birthing chamber, depicting midwives and their female companions. This image accompanies the account of the birth of St Edmund in John Lydgate's Lives of SS Edmund and Fremund. The new mother lies in bed, tended by her companions, while the baby is warmed before the fire.

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Miniature of the birth of St Edmund, from Lydgate's Lives of SS Edmund and Fremund, England, 1434–1439: Harley MS 2278, f. 13v

The caesarean birth of Julius Caesar is frequently illustrated in medieval accounts of his life. Many of these illustrations depict men performing the caesarean, most likely because of the more surgical nature of the procedure. However, it may not have been uncommon for midwives to perform a caesarean themselves. These two illustrations of Caesar's birth depicts a midwife pulling the baby from the mother, accompanied by a female attendant, and the same birth, with a man playing the midwife's role.

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Miniature of the birth of Julius Caesar, showing a female midwife: Royal MS 16 G VII, f. 219r

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Miniature of the birth of Julius Caesar, showing a man performing the caesarean: Royal MS 16 G VIII, f. 32r

Information on pregnancy and childbirth was also included in medical treatises. Copied into one 15th-century manuscript is a gynaecological text taken from Gilbertus Anglicus’ Compendium of Medicine. The text is accompanied by illustrations of foetuses in the womb, depicted in a variety of unusual positions. It is difficult to determine whether this work would ever have been consulted by a woman. The manuscript's first known owner was Richard Ferris, sergeant surgeon to Elizabeth I, the queen who famously never married or had children. 

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Roundels showing various foetal presentations: Sloane MS 2463, f. 218v

Books may not have been an unusual sight in the birthing chamber, as women were known to have had texts read aloud to them while they were in labour. The Passio of St Margaret was a popular choice. St Margaret is thought to have emerged from a dragon's womb ‘unharmed and without any pain’, and came to be widely regarded as the patron saint of women in childbirth. Many manuscripts of the Passio of St Margaret are accompanied by instructions to bless the expectant mother with a copy of the Passio to secure the safe delivery of her child.

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Miniature of a woman lying in a bed screened by a curtain, with a swaddled infant held by a midwife (the miniature has been smudged by kissing): Egerton MS 877, f. 12r

In the 14th century, relics of St Margaret’s girdle were often used as birthing aids. One 15th-century amulet roll (Harley Ch 43 A 14), which is thought to have been used as a birth girdle, contains a text in Middle English invoking the protection of the Cross, specifically referencing childbirth. This invocation was likely read aloud, perhaps by the midwife, as the girdle was worn by the expectant mother. Invocations to aid pregnancy and childbirth were also used in the Anglo-Saxon period. The Old English Lacnunga contains a charm to be used by women who struggled to carry a child to term. The text includes a set of prose introductions and a series of short poems intended to be recited aloud in a ritual process: 

Se wífman, se hire cild áfédan ne mæg, gange tó gewitenes mannes birgenne and stæppe þonne þríwa ofer þá byrgenne and cweþe þonne þríwa þás word:
þis mé tó bóte þǽre láþan lætbyrde,
þis mé tó bóte þǽre swǽran swǽrbyrde,
þis mé tó bóte þǽre láðan lambyrde.

'Let that woman who cannot nourish her child walk to the grave of a departed person and then step three times over the burial, and then say these words three times:
this as my remedy for the hateful late birth, this as my remedy for the oppressive heavy birth, this as my remedy for the hateful lame birth.'

(translated by Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie, The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records: A Collective Edition (New York, 1942))

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A charm for ‘delayed birth’ in Lacnunga: Harley MS 585, f. 185r

It is difficult to prove that midwives were literate or regularly consulted texts in the medieval period. However, many medical manuscripts often included information regarding childbirth and the written word was certainly not out of place in the birthing chamber. The midwife who made the oath to return the book may not have been the only member of her profession to be borrowing books in the 14th century.

 

Becky Lawton

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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).

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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.

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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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