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15 posts categorized "Literature"

19 March 2017

A Tale as Old as Time

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Magic is in the air this weekend, as audiences worldwide have been going to see Disney’s live action remake of its classic animated tale, Beauty and the Beast. In Disney’s version of this classic tale, an enchantress places a curse on a vain prince which turns him into a hideous beast. If the prince does not learn to love another by the time the last petal falls on a magical rose, he will remain in his beastly state forever. Some years later, a young village girl, known for her love of reading and beauty, is taken prisoner in his castle. Naturally, romance ensues and Belle and her now-handsome prince live ‘happily ever after’.

  Royal_ms_11_e_xi_f002v
'Canon fuga in dyatessaron': from Magister Sampson’s Motets, Low Countries (Antwerp), c. 1516, Royal MS 11 E XI, f. 2v

Contrary to some reviewers, who describe the setting of Disney’s film as ‘medieval’, Disney’s adaptation was based on the fairytale by the French novelist, Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, written in 1741. However, like many fairy tales composed during the 17th and 18th centuries, these narratives have roots which reach back into antiquity and draw on aspects of medieval and early modern life, from the use of roses in heraldry to its portrayal of literate women to the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ story itself.

A particularly popular aspect of Disney’s adaptation of this tale is Belle's love of literature and enthusiasm for reading. There are numerous examples of women from the medieval period that wrote texts of their own, and clearly shared this same love of the written word.

Harley 4431   f. 4
Her nose stuck in a book: detail of a miniature of Christine de Pizan in her study, from the Book of the Queen, France (Paris), c. 1410–1414, Harley MS 4431, f. 4r

In a recent post, we explored the work of female scribes in manuscripts dating back to the 2nd century BC. In these early texts, it is possible to deduce from the context, content and the pronouns used that it may have been written by a woman. Later in the Middle Ages, it is possible to identify specific women who wrote, read or owned a variety of books. A particularly well known female author is Christine de Pizan (1364–1430).  One of Christine’s most famous works, The Book of the City of the Ladies, was written for Isabel of Bavaria, Queen consort of Charles VI of France, and discussed the important contributions to society made by women in the past.

Tw harley_ms_4431_f003r
Be our guest: detail of Christine de Pizan presenting her book to Queen Isabel of Bavaria, Harley MS 4431, f. 3r

Another medieval female writer from the medieval period was Marie de France (1160–1215). Although little is known about Marie’s personal life, it is clear that she had an interest in literature and a desire to share her passion with others. During her lifetime, she translated part of the collection of Aesop’s fables and wrote about the importance of proverbs to moral instruction within society.

Marie also composed 21 short lais poems. These lais were romantic narratives, which glorified the concept of courtly love through the adventures of the main characters. In one particular lai Marie combined the theme of love with the supernatural and fairytale motifs to create a story that will be familiar to fans of the Beauty and the Beast tale.

  Harley_ms_978_f131v
The tale of Bisclavret: from the lais of Marie de France, c. 1250–75, England (Oxford?), Harley MS 978, f. 131v

This lai is called Bisclavret (or The Werewolf), and tells of a baron who shape-shifts weekly into a wolf. He disappears from his home for three days, and then reverts to his human form by putting his clothes back on. When his wife discovers his secret, she decides to get rid of him by sending a knight, her suitor, to steal his clothes after his next transformation. Bisclavret, unable to return to his human form, is forced to spend the rest of his life roaming the woods. His luck changes, however, when the king finds him and adopts him as a pet. But the story unravels when the king takes him on a visit to his former lands, now governed by his wife and her suitor. Seeing his wife, Bisclavret goes into a rage, attacks her and rips off her nose. She then confesses her deeds and returns the stolen clothes, enabling Bisclavret to change back to his human form and regain his lands. This is, of course, a much darker version than Disney’s joyful adapatation.

Royal MS 10 E IV  f. 73r
Positively primeval! A woman demonstrates displeasure at a wodewose's advances, Smithfield Decretals, Southern France (?Toulouse), c. 1300–40,
Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 73r

Nor was Marie de France’s tale the only instance of a ‘Beauty and the Beast’ type story in medieval art and literature. Wodewoses, or hairy wild men from the forest, often appear in the margins of manuscripts attempting (usually unsuccessfully) to woo beautiful women. There were also stories about a handsome young knight forced to marry a much older woman, who became beautiful when he learned to respect her. This is the plot of the Wife of Bath’s tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Harley_ms_1758_f097v
The beginning of the Wife of Bath's Tale: England, mid-15th century, Harley MS
1758, f. 97v 

As a female who loves to read and marvels at the contents of a library, Belle continues to be an important role model for young girls who share this love of the written word. Christine de Pizan and Marie de France are just two examples of many women throughout history who were clearly passionate about reading and writing texts of their own. Marie de France’s story of physical transformation as a barrier of love is just one example of how fairytale narratives recur throughout history, and still delight audiences today. One could even say that this kind of narrative is a tale as old as time…

Royal_ms_11_e_xi_f013v
Beauty is found within: historiated initial with a rose, Royal MS 11 E XI, f. 13v

Becky Lawton and Clarck Drieshen

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14 July 2016

Manuscript the Tube

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Some time ago I was alone in the office on a Friday evening and was left in charge of the @BLMedieval Twitter account. This is sometimes dangerous. Among my sillier inventions is the hashtag #WodewoseWednesday, which created a low-velocity Twitter storm as people sent us images of endearing, furry Wildmen (or Wodewoses) from manuscripts across the world. By the end of that day, Twitter had reduced me to near hysterical giggles and I wondered if I might have to lie down under my desk. 

It all started quite innocently on the Friday in question, when Johan Oosterman @JohanOosterman posted an image of the British Library’s Egerton MS 1900, f. 100r, with the caption ‘Elephant and Castle’. Here is that image, taken from a late 15th-century German travelogue, which describes a journey from Venice to Egypt.

Elephant and castle

Amused by this tweet, I thought of other names of London Tube stations that could be represented by manuscript images. I retweeted the first suggestion and invited people to #manuscriptthetube. The results showed just how inventively people engage with manuscripts that have been made digitally available. It was also a reminder that medieval London is not far from the surface and you do not need to dig deep, not even as deep as a Tube platform, to find its traces. Here, in the most modern of media – digital images representing a modern transport network – was a reminder of the city’s past, of its rich lexicon of medieval place names and the imagination of its inhabitants and an online community further afield.

 Royal 16 F II f73
Earliest known topographically accurate view of London, with the Tower of London and Duke Charles d’Orléans writing in the Tower, from Charles d’Orléans, Poetry and Pseudo-Heloise, Epistles, 'Les demands d'amours', and  'Le livre dit grace entiere', Low Countries (Bruges), c. 1483 (this image) with later additions, c. 1492 – c. 1500, Royal MS 16 F II, f. 73r

Tower of London Underground Ralf Roletschek
A 21st-century view of the Tower of London, photographed by Ralf Roletschek, England (London), 13 October 2010. 

Like many Londoners, I have a great affection for the iconic London Tube map. It’s a masterpiece of design. The map was designed by Henry Beck (1902-1974) in 1932. His innovation was to take some liberties with geography and thereby make the stations appear evenly spaced, ordered and legible. In its broad palette and dovetailing lines it’s a visual representation of all of London’s colour and variety. In many ways, Beck's map is similar to a manuscript like Egerton MS 1900, itself a colourfully illustrated travelogue with some distortions of distance. 

Below is a run-down of some of our favourite tweets which #manuscriptthetube. Please continue to send us your suggestions via @BLMedieval. We've embedded the links to all the original tweets in everyone's Twitter handles. 

 

A Run-Down of Our Favourites

Some suggestions gestured to the medieval history embedded in London's place names, like this one from Buckland Abbey @BucklandAbbeyNT, for Blackfriars. Blackfriars is named after a community of Dominican monks or ‘black friars’, so called because of the black habit they wore. It was established in 1221 near Lincoln’s Inn. The image here is from @thegetty's MS 107, f. 224r

Blackfriars

Some punned on the names of Tube stations, like Acton Town from Susannah Davis @aethelflaed with an image from the Bodleian Library @bodleianlibs MS Auct F 2 13

Acton Town

Harrow on the Hill  station proved to be a rich source of inspiration for Adam @pseudomonas, with an image from our 'Taymouth Hours', ?London, c. 1325-50, Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 68v

Harrow on the hill, YT

Harrow on the Hill got a second outing in my personal favourite of the punning suggestions from @SLevelt, Sjoerd Levelt, with an image from our Speculum humanae salvationis, England, c.1485-1509, Harley MS 2838, f. 33v

  Harrow on the hill

Geoff Griffiths @Cheoffors offered both Baker Street/Baker's Treat and also Pudding Lane with this image from the Getty Museum @theGetty from a mid 13th-century psalter, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 14, f. 8v

 

Baker's treat

@Cheoffors also suggested a wonderful image for Heat-throw/Heathrow (All Terminals) from Codex Skylitzes Matritensis, Biblioteca Nacional de Madrid, Vitr. 26-2, Bild-Nr. 77, f.  34 v

  Heathrow

Richard Fitch @tudorcook was in playful mood with an image of Arsenal from @MorganLibrary's late 14th-century copy of Jacques de Longuyon's Vows of the Peacock, in MS G 24, f. 25v

 

Arsenal

And we also loved his suggestion for Hatch End from the Hague's MS MMW 10 B 25, f. 31r

Hatch end

 

 Commonplace Berk @stambuch was typically witty in his suggestion for Kilburn from the Bodleian Library's Douce MS 332. You can see his other suggestion here (caution advised). 

Kilburn

Others were more literal representations of the names of tube stations, like London Bridge (Mind the gap!) from @DollyJorgensen with an image from our Yates Thompson MS 47, a copy of John Lydgate's Life of Saint Edmund, made in ?Bury St Edmunds, c. 1461-75.

  London bridge

 

We are thrilled that the Getty Museum @thegetty took up our British challenge and suggested Seven Sisters from an image of Philosophy presenting the seven liberal arts to Boethius by the Coëtivy Master.

 
Seven sisters

 Geoff Griffiths @Cheoffors also used this image for High Barnet. For our non-British readers, 'barnet' is cockney rhyming slang for 'hair' (it comes from 'Barnet fair') and also means 'head'.

 High barnet

Rayners Lane, from Susannah Davis @aethelflaed was a very British suggestion, with a detail of Croesus from John Lydgate's Fall of Princes, ?Bury St Edmunds, c. 1450-60, Harley MS 1766, f. 133r

H 1766 f133r

And there was a bleak and brilliant humour to her suggestion for Amersham from Add MS 18851, the Breviary of Queen Isabella of Castile, made in Bruges in c. 1497. 

Amersham

Elephant and Castle  got a second outing from @SophieVHarwood with a detail of the death of Codrus, from Speculum humanae salvationis, England (London), c. 1485-1509, Harley MS 2838

H 2838 f27

C R Stillman-Lowe @SICathy sent us this lovely angel for, um, Angel from the 'Taymouth Hours', our Yates Thompson MS 13

  Angel

C R Stillman-Lowe @SICathy also tagged some bemused-looking barons for Barons Court, with a detail of Merlin standing before King Arthur, from the Lancelot-Grail (The Prose Vulgate Cycle), Northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai), 1316, Add MS 10292, f. 200v 

Tw Add 10292 f200v

@DollyJorgensen was on fine form, suggesting Hammersmith with detail of a blacksmith, from a fragmentary Book of Hours, England (London), c. 1320 - c. 1330, Harley MS 6563, f. 68   

H 6563 f68v

I loved some of the madder ones. Like this suggestion of Oval from Anthony Bale @RealMandeville. Yep, it's a wound. 

Oval

Our very own @julianpharrison gave us Fulham Broadway (or possibly Tott[ering]ham Court Road?). No we didn't get it either, but we thought we should put it up in any case to keep him happy. And it does depict a pig on stilts, from Jean Froissart's Chroniques (the 'Harley Froissart'), Low Countries (Bruges), c. 1470-1472, Harley MS 4379, f. 19v

H 4379 f19v

Finally, Erik Kwakkel @erik_kwakkel gave us a very witty suggestion which gestured to the history of our collection. He suggested Burnt Oak, with an image of some of the charred fragments of manuscripts destroyed in the Cotton Fire. You can read about the terrible fire which destroyed part of the library's Cotton collection here

Burnt oak

 Which are your favourite entries from #manuscriptthetube? We'd love to hear your suggestions: please tweet us @BLMedieval or leave a comment below this blogpost.

 ~@marywellesley

 

Related

 

Susan Reed @sureed67 reminded us that Saint Pancras was 'Beheaded by the Emperor. So you could say the King was Cross with St Pancras'. Find out more about who this king, or rather emperor, was and why he was cross with St Pancras,  by checking out our St Pancras' Day blog post).

Detail Royal 2 B VII f. 249v


Detail of St Pancras and the Emperor Diocletian, from Queen Mary Psalter, England (Westminster or East Anglia?), c. 1310-1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 249v

07 June 2016

‘I Am an Antichrist’: Demons, Vices and Punks

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The British Library’s new free exhibition, Punk 1976-78 is now open to the public (until 2 October 2016). This exhibition examines Punk’s influence on music, fashion, print and politics in the 40 years since the Sex Pistols came to prominence. However, the Medieval Manuscripts Section is here to tell you that rebellious attitudes and rad hairstyles have been around for much longer than 40 years!

COTCLEC VIII
Wrath fights Patience, from Prudentius's Psychomachia, England, 11th century, Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII, f. 11r

The British Library’s manuscripts depict a variety of medieval rule breakers or expectation-defiers, from colourful fools to rebels who violently challenged social and political norms.

Royal_ms_18_e_i_f165v
Detail of Wat Tyler and John Ball leading the Peasants' Revolt, from
Jean Froissart, Chroniques, vol. 2, Low Countries (Bruges), c. 1475-1500, Royal MS 18 E I, f. 165v

One set of medieval rule breakers seem particularly pertinent to the later punk scene: demons and vices. In the opening lines of the Sex Pistols’ controversial debut single ‘Anarchy in the UK’, Johnny Rotten proclaims, ‘I am an antichrist.’ Since Late Antiquity, artists and poets in Western Europe often used imagery of antichrists—opponents of Christ, conceived of as false prophets or demons or vices—to signal countercultural status. The Sex Pistols were, consciously or unconsciously, tapping into a tradition that was over a thousand years old.

Add_ms_11695_f143r
The Antichrist from the Silos Apocalypse, Spain (Santo Domingo de Silos), c. 1091-1109, Add MS 11695, f. 143r

In particular, the British Library is in the process of digitising two sets of texts related to demons, virtues, vices, rulebreakers, antichrists and anarchy. The first are Apocalypse manuscripts, of which we have 19 in our collections, 10 of which have been recently digitised. One of these, Additional MS 19896, a 15th- century Latin copy made in Germany, contains a four-part miniature of the Book of Revelation, Chapter XI, which features a beast often described as the Antichrist:

Add_ms_19896_f008v Add_ms_19896_f009r

Scenes from the Antichrist story, with the Antichrist represented as the beast of the bottomless pit who kills the two witnesses (here Enoch and Elias), followed by the great earthquake, 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Germany, Additional MS 19896, ff. 8v-9r

A parallel version of the Book of Revelation in Latin and Anglo-Norman French verse, also recently digitised (Royal MS 2 D XIII), contains an illustration of the same scenes: vengeance rains down on the Antichrist and the souls of the two witnesses are taken up into heaven.

Royal_ms_2_d_xiii_f023v Royal_ms_2_d_xiii_f024r

The Antichrist kills the two witnesses; the ascension of the witnesses and the persecution of the Antichrist in the great earthquake (Revelation XI: 7-13), early 14th century, England or France, Royal MS 2 D XIII, ff. 23v-24r

Although the fashions and hairstyles do not obviously call to mind the punk asethetic, wild and wacky characters and dress are everywhere, as you will see if you look at our previous blogposts on the Apocalypse manuscripts.

A different take on anti-christs-- in the sense of opponents of Christ-- comes from the second set of manuscripts depicting rule breakers which we are digitising. These are copies of the Psychomachia by Prudentius, a provincial governor-turned-ascetic from Northern Spain (d. c. 413).  This poem describes seven virtues, such as Faith, Chastity and Patience, duelling seven vices, including Worship-of-the-Old-Gods, Sodomy, and Wrath.  In between, the poet digresses with Biblical examples to emphasize that vices oppose what Christ stands for, whereas the virtues will help save souls. We have already digitised one of the illustrated copies of the Psychomachia in the British Library’s collection (Additional MS 24199), made in England in the late 10th and early 11th century.

Add_ms_24199_f010r
Wrath fighting Patience, from Prudentius, Psychomachia, England (Bury St Edmunds?),  c.980-1010, Add MS 24199, f. 10r

In particular, having just seen the Punk exhibition’s cases on punk fashion, some members of the section were struck by the wild hairstyle which the Anglo-Saxon artist gave Wrath. She would not have looked out of place in Vivienne Westwood’s and Malcolm McLaren’s circle 1000 years later (although the illustrator did not intend Wrath to be seen as a trendsetter). Demons, too, were frequently depicted with gravity-defying hairdos and revealing or torn clothing in western medieval art.

Tweet add_ms_24199_f012r
Detail of Pride’s entrance, from Additional MS 24199, f. 12r

But while the punk movement used torn clothing and wild hair as a sign of countercultural rebellion, in the Psychomachia such attire was not, it should be noted, a feature of all vices, nor was it necessarily forbidden from virtues. In the recently digitised copy of the Psychomachia, Pride (Superbia) is depicted with particularly flamboyant and sumptuous attire. Meanwhile, the text describes Faith taking to the field of battle with ‘her rough dress disordered, her arms exposed’ as she faces off against Worship-of-the-Old-Gods (translated by H. J. Thomson, Prudentius, with an English translation (1949), p. 281). The Anglo-Saxon illustrator did depict Faith fully dressed, however, as she crowned a group of martyrs.

Add_ms_24199_f004v
Detail of Faith fighting Worship-of-the-Old-Gods, from Additional MS 24199, f. 4v

There are many other parallels that can be drawn between the punk movement and the medieval period. Indeed, punks themselves sometimes explicitly invoked medieval imagery. Tenpole Tudor’s band name may have been a reference to its lead singer’s name, rather than Henry VIII’s jousting exploits, but their song ‘Swords of 1000 Men’ and its accompanying cover art show how they were inspired by neo-medievalism and also subverted it. If any aspiring punk rockers are reading this, please bear in mind digitised manuscripts from the 1470s and 1000s, as well as albums from the 1970s, as a source of inspiration.

~Alison Hudson and Chantry Westwell

Read more about demons in medieval art:

Demons in a Bible moralisée 

Demons (and a medieval umbrella) in the Harley Psalter

Guthlac the Demon Slayer 

Prepare to meet your doom

10 May 2016

Florimont, Flower of the World, Grandfather of Alexander the Great

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The Cycle of Alexander the Great, a group of stories surrounding the great hero of antiquity, is dealt with at length in H.L.D. Ward’s Catalogue of Romances in the British Museum, along with other legends with classical origins: Apollonius of Tyre, The Destruction of Jerusalem and The Prophecy of the Tenth Sybil. Some of our most beautifully illuminated manuscripts of the Roman d’Alexandre and the Histoire Ancienne, containing the legends of Alexander the Great, have been fully digitised, including Additional MS 15268, produced in Acre in the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the late 13th century.

Add_ms_15268_f203r
The Amazons surrendering to Alexander on his throne, Histoire Universelle, Acre, late 13th-century, Additional MS 15268, f. 203r

Also digitised are Add MS 19669, Royal MS 20 D I, Royal MS 19 D I and perhaps the most famous of our Alexander manuscripts, Royal MS 20 B XX, which featured in our very popular blogpost Lolcats of the Middle Ages. The young Alexander is often depicted with his father, Philip II of Macedonia, accompanying him on his campaigns.

K038129
Philip and Alexander discussing envoys; Philip and Alexander setting out against Armenia; Pausanias and others marching against Philip, Roman d’Alexandre en prose, France, 1333-1340, Royal MS 19 D I, ff. 7v-8r

No earlier forebears are mentioned. In time, though, a popular hero like Alexander needed to have more than one illustrious ancestor, and so a prequel involving a fearless hero, Florimont, his paternal grandfather, came to light.

Rm_pb_Châtillon_d'azergues.WIKI
The Village of Chatillon d’Azergues (Rhone, France), photographed by Milardello, 2009

Aimon de Varennes, a native of Chatillon d’Azergues in the Lyonnais district of France, claims to have unearthed the tale of Florimont during a trip to Philippopolis (now Plovdiv, Bulgaria) in the late 12th century. He may have in fact travelled to that part of the world, but his assertion that he translated the text from Greek to Latin and then into French appears to be fictive, though he retains certain ‘Greek’ words, which in fact demonstrate a very elementary knowledge of the language. The author’s intentions and his claims as to the origins of the tale are laid out at the beginning of the text in Harley MS 4487, one of the manuscripts of the text in the British Library:

Aymez….Fist le Rommans si sagement         Aymon conceived the romance well

(f. 3r: column 1, lines 8-9)

Il lavoit en grece veue                                           He had seen it in Greece

……..

A Phelippole la trova                                            He found it in Philippolis

A chastillon len aporta                                         Brought it to Chatillon

Ainsi com il lavoit enpris                                     As he had learned it

Lat de latin en romanz mis                                 He changed it from Latin into Romance

(lines 31-36)

Harley_ms_4487_f003r
Opening folio with author’s name and 14th century ownership inscription, 'Pierre Derloit prestre ?Corodathis' in the lower margin, Florimont, France, East (?Lotharingia), 1295, Harley MS 4487, f. 3r

The romance of Florimont is in two parts, beginning with the story of the original King Philip I of Macedonia, whose daughter and heiress, Romadanaple married Florimont (‘flower of the world’), son of Mataquas, Duke of Albania. Their son, Philip II, married Olympias and was father to Alexander the Great.

E023482
Olympias giving birth to Alexander the Great, with two eagles on the roof of the palace (foretelling Alexander's two empires in Europe and Asia), Netherlands, S. (Bruges); c. 1485 – 1490, Royal MS 20 C III f. 15r

In some versions of the legend, Nectanebus, the last pharaoh, is involved in Alexander’s conception, as depicted in this miniature from a manuscript of the Roman d’Alexandre en Prose.

E124218
The conception of Alexander, with Nectanebus in the form of a dragon, flying over Queen Olympias and King Philip in bed, Roman d’Alexandre en prose, France, N. or Netherlands, S., 1st quarter of the 14th century, Royal MS 20 A V, f. 6r 

The second part of the story tells of Florimont’s victory over the monster terrorising his father’s kingdom and his love for the enchantress of the Isle of Celée, which causes him to reject his birth-right and travel to Albania under the name Pauvre Perdu (Poor lost boy). We do not have an image of Florimont, but here is one of his grandson, Alexander, fighting monsters:

Royal_ms_19_d_i_f035v
Alexander fighting monsters, Roman d’Alexandre en prose, France, 1333-1340, Royal MS 19 D I, f. 35v

He defeats Camdiobras, king of Hungary, enemy of Mataquas of Albania, and is awarded the hand of his daughter, Romadanaple, together with his lands, which he unites with his own.

Ward’s Catalogue lists two manuscripts of the Romance of Florimont in the British Library. Both have recently been digitised, as, although they are not illustrated, they are important early copies of the text and contain examples of the south-eastern dialect of French. The earliest of the two manuscripts, Harley MS 4487, is dated to 1295 in the scribal colophon and on the previous page the author states that French is not his mother tongue:

As fransois voel de tant server

Que ma langue lor est sauvage

(f. 85v: column 2, lines 13 and 14)

Harley_ms_4487_f085v
The penultimate folio of Florimont, France, East (?Lotharingia), 1295, Harley MS 4487, f. 85v

The later Harley MS 3983 is written in a neat Gothic cursive of the early 14th century with decorated initials and flourishes in the upper margin.

Harley_ms_3983_f034r
Text page from Florimont with decorated initials at ‘A lostel le povre perdu’ and ‘Romanadaple la pucelle’, France, 1323, Harley MS 3983, f. 34r

Florimont is followed by a French minstrel’s chronicle known as the Récits d’un ménestrel de Reims that begins with the conquest of Antioch by Godefroi de Bouillon and ends with the death of the eldest son of St Louis, King of France, in 1260, including a fable relating to Ysengrin the wolf and Renard the Fox. The manuscript is dated to 1323 in the scribal colophon at the end of the Florimont text.

Harley_ms_3983_f081v
Last folio with colophon, Florimont, France, 1323, Harley MS 3983, f. 81v

There are close to 20 surviving manuscripts of Florimont including several in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France with miniatures illustrating the text.

~Chantry Westwell

08 May 2016

God as Mother and Julian of Norwich

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In May 1373, a 30 and a half year-old woman lay dying. A local priest arrived to give her the last rites and held a crucifix in front of her. In that moment, however, the woman—Julian of Norwich— experienced a series of visions, ranging from graphic details of Christ’s passion to an image of a humble hazelnut. When she miraculously recovered from her illness, this experience formed the basis for Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love, the first book in English which is known to have been authored by a woman. This book continues to be studied and to challenge theologians today. In particular, Julian is famous for her extended comparison of God to a mother:

'when [a child] is hurt or frightened it runs to its mother for help as fast as it can; and [God] wants us to do the same, like a humble child, saying, "My kind Mother, my gracious Mother, my dearest Mother, take pity on me"' (trans. by Elizabeth Spearing, Julian of Norwich: Revelations of Divine Love (London: Penguin 1998),  p. 144). 

Since some of our American readers are celebrating Mothers’ Day today, it seems like a good occasion to highlight Julian and her writings.

ADD 3779 f97V
Description of Julian’s illness and vision in 1373, from a shortened version of Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, England, 15th century, Add MS 37790, f. 97v
 

Julian spent much of her life as an anchoress, or religious recluse, in a room attached to the Church of St Julian at Conisford in Norwich. Her writings do not reveal much about her life before she became an anchoress. The learning she displayed might suggest that she was an educated woman, possibly a Benedictine nun. On the other hand, her descriptions of some crucifixion scenes and her interest in Christ as mother might indicate that she was a mother or had given birth herself. She composed both a long version and a short version of her Revelations (also called The Showings of Julian of Norwich). Julian probably either wrote or dictated the long version around 1393, since she states that it took her 19 years and 9 months (‘twenty yere saue thre monthys’) to fully understand the visions she had in 1373.

Add_ms_25588_f109v
Detail of a crucifixion scene possibly made in Norwich during Julian’s lifetime, from a missal, England (Norwich?), c. 1400-1425, Add MS 25588, f. 109v

Julian’s works seem to have been popular and were copied during her own lifetime. Other mystics, like Margery Kempe, visited Julian’s cell, because she was ‘an expert in such things [i.e. visions] and could give good counsel’ (‘þe ankres was expert in swech thyngys and good cownsel cowd 3euyn’). Her writings give the impression that Julian was a kind and reassuring counselor: she famously stated that God would ensure that ‘All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.’

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Page from Julian of Norwich’s Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love, England, 1625, Stowe MS 42,  f. 5r

If you are in London between now and 31 July 2016, you can see a 17th-century copy of Julian’s Revelations at the Wellcome Collection’s THIS IS A VOICE exhibition. The long version of Julian’s Revelations primarily survives in 17th-century copies, which shows how close this important theologian’s work came to being lost altogether. Julian’s works are being displayed near works of other famous women writers who had visions or heard voices, from Virginia Woolf to Julian's contemporary and acquaintance, Margery Kempe, who wrote the earliest known autobiography of an English person. Mother’s Day is also a good occasion to remember Margery: by her own account, she had 14 children.

~Alison Hudson

20 April 2016

A Firsthand Experience: Great Writers' Handwriting

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Christian Dior once claimed that one could tell more about a person from her perfume than from her handwriting, but we in the Medieval Manuscripts section at the British Library would disagree, particularly as we have recently digitised manuscripts which the author of the text copied in his or her own hand. These include works by famous figures, like Shakespeare and more enigmatic ones, like a poet named Frithegod. 

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Image of a scribe, from Germany (?), mid-12th century, Cotton Claudius A III, f. 30r

Such ‘autograph’ manuscripts from the early modern and medieval periods are rare and often difficult to prove. Features such as spelling, punctution and substantial corrections can all be instructive. The British Library has recently digitised several manuscripts which are generally believed to be autograph copies or contain notes by known scribes.

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Miniature of Margaret of York before the resurrected Christ,
from Nicholas Finet, Dialogue de la Duchesse, Low Countries (Brussels), c. 1468, Additional 7970, f. 1v

For example, one newly digitised manuscript includes the handwriting of Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy. The Dialogue de la Duchesse de Bourgogne à Jésus Christ (Dialogue of the Duchess of Burgundy with Jesus Christ) was a devotional tract written especially for Margaret by her almoner or chaplain, and is discussed in more detail here. Margaret later gave the book to her friend and lady-in-waiting Jeanne de Hallewin, according to a dedicatory inscription written by Margaret herself at the end of the manuscript: ‘margarete dyork de angleterre au done a jane de halevyn dame vessenar et dame de la planc se lyvre...’ Interestingly, at some point Margaret erased the words ‘dyork’ (of York) and instead decided to describe herself as ‘de angleterre’ (of England).

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Dedication in Margaret of York’s hand written c. 1502, from
Additional 7970, f. 140vr

Another notable recent upload to the British Library's website may come from the pen of the most famous English author himself. The Book of Sir Thomas More is the only play script believed to contain Shakespeare’s own handwriting (Harley MS 7368). As noted on this blog in February, Shakespeare helped to revise the Book of Sir Thomas More in 1603 or 1604. The page in his handwriting includes a speech defending immigrants and foreigners against the ‘mountainish inhumanity’ of a mob seeking to banish them during the Evil May Day riots of 1517. Come and see it in person at the British Library’s current exhibition, Shakespeare in Ten Acts, or read more about it on the Library's Discovering Literature site.

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Page containing Thomas More’s speech to the rebels, thought to be written in the hand of William Shakespeare, from the Book of Sir Thomas More, England, c. 1603-4, Harley MS 7368, f. 9r

Shakespeare is not the only notable figure from the history English literature whose handwriting appears in recently digitised manuscripts. The handwriting of two of the most prolific Old English writers—Ælfric of Eynsham and Wulfstan, bishop of Worcester and archbishop of York— have been identified in several British Library manuscripts. For example, some scholars believe that the bossy instructions for deletions and corrections in the earliest surviving copy of the first series of Ælfric’s Catholic Homilies were made by Ælfric himself. In the passage below, the hand associated with Ælfric blocks off a segment of text for deletion, on the grounds that this anecdote is discussed in his ‘oðre bec’ (other book), presumably the Second Series of his Catholic Homilies.

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Detail of annotations possibly in Ælfric’s hand, from Ælfric, Catholic Homilies (First Series), England (Cerne?), 990s, Royal MS 7 C XII, f. 64r

Similarly, several manuscripts contain annotations and underlining believed to be in Wulfstan’s handwriting. These include annotations to a manuscript containing law codes, homilies (including Wulfstan's Sermo lupi) and Wulfstan's work on political and social order, Institutes of Polity (Cotton MS Nero A I) and to material in his letterbook (Cotton Vespasian A XIV), as discussed in a previous blog post.

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Page believed to contain Archbishop Wulfstan's handwriting among others, from Wulfstan's Institutes of Polity, England, c 1000-1023, Cotton MS Nero A I, f 120r

Curiously enough, one of the more substantial additions to the letterbook in Wulfstan’s own hand is a poem praising... an archbishop called Wulfstan. One line of this poem states, ‘[This poem's] beauty is a praise for the kind Bishop Wulfstan, to whom may the Lord be endlessly merciful.’ The poem also acknowledges Wulfstan’s involvement in its production: the last stanza can be roughly translated as, ‘This work was prepared with Archbishop Wulfstan advising. The subtle supervisor [Archbishop Wulfstan] impressed it with his learned thumb.’ It is unclear why Wulfstan wanted to copy out his poem in his own hand. He could have been paying a compliment to its author. He could have been vain or in need of some good PR. Wulfstan may also have been drawn to this poem because he was anxious about the fate of his soul and the poem emphasizes God’s approval of Wulfstan and Wulfstan’s place in heaven. This seems to have been a particular concern of Wulfstan’s in the wake of renewed Viking attacks in the early 11th century, as demonstrated by the contents of the rest of the manuscript. Wulfstan even added an extra line to the poem that approximately translates as, ‘May the Lord give [Wulfstan] the holy kingdom of heaven, and may he protect all those entrusted to him from malignant hosts.’

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Verses written in Archbishop Wulfstan's own hand, from the letterbook of Archbishop Wulfstan, England, c. 1002-1023, Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV, f. 148v

 Recent uploads to Digitised Manuscripts also include a text which may have been copied almost entirely by its author: the Breviloquium Wilfridi, written by a figure called Frithegod (Cotton Claudius A I). The Breviloquium is a poem about an early Northumbrian saint called Wilfrid, written for Oda the Good, a mid-tenth-century archbishop who brought some of Wilfrid’s relics to Canterbury. Its complex structure and obscure vocabulary have led scholars to dub it one of the most difficult pieces of Latin ever written in England.

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Page from Frithegod, Breviloquium Wilfridi, England? (Christ Church Canterbury?), mid-10th century, Cotton Claudius A I, f. 36v

The poem’s author, Frithegod, was probably a monk from the continent—possibly from Brioude, in what is now southern France—who was working for Oda at Canterbury. The script of the British Library’s manuscript of the Breviloquium shows it was copied down in the mid-tenth-century, when the work was first composed, by someone trained on the continent. The substantial nature of some of the corrections also suggests that the text was copied by Frithegod himself.

The way these writers interacted with the texts which they themselves had composed and the corrections they made suggest a whole array of possibilities about how they worked as writers, where they were educated, what their influences were, and even how they perceived themselves. Autograph manuscripts also offer a uniquely intimate connection to people who lived 400, 500, and even 1000 years ago: please click through to Digitised Manuscripts and have a look.

~Alison Hudson

Read More about Previously Digitised Autograph Manuscripts:

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Christine de Pizan’s Book of the Queen

Digitised Manuscripts Update 

Chronicles of Holland Online

Documentary of a Royal Coronation

07 April 2016

Everything’s Coming Up (Roman de la) Roses

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by Chantry Westwell

Spring is in the air and April is upon us, so it is high time for a floral gift to our readers. Here it is: all 14 of our Roman de la Rose  manuscripts have now been fully digitised and are or will soon be available online at Digitised Manuscripts

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Detail of the God of Love locking the Lover's heart with a large gold key, from Roman de la Rose, France (Paris), c. 1380, Additional MS 42133, f. 15r

The ‘Roman de la Rose’, the most famous allegorical love poem of all time, was composed in France in the thirteenth century, at the height of the age of chivalry and courtly love. It was a best-seller in the Middle Ages, with over 300 manuscripts surviving from the 13th to the 16th centuries (many more than Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales).  This work exerted a strong influence on literature in France and beyond: Dante, Petrarch, Gower and Chaucer were well acquainted with it and the latter’s Middle English ‘Romaunt de la Rose’ is a partial translation.

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Historiated initial 'M'(aintes) of the lovers sleeping, with a full border bar border at the beginning of the Roman de la Rose, France (Paris), 15th century, Royal MS 19 B XII, f. 2r

Our collections are representative of the types of Rose manuscripts produced, mainly in France: some have extensive cycles of miniatures and others, for more modest patrons, have little or no decoration. Below, a page from one of the most lavishly illuminated copies, made in Bruges, is compared to a plainer manuscript from France; both were produced in the 15th century.

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Miniature of the Lover outside the Castle of Jealousy, where Bel Accueil (Fair Welcome) is imprisoned by Jealousy, from Roman de la Rose, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1500, Harley MS 4425, f. 39r

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Text page with decorated initials from the Roman de la Rose, France, 1st quarter of the 15th century, Royal 20 D VII, f. 39r

The first part of the Roman de la Rose, by Guillaume de Lorris, consists of about 4030 lines composed between 1225 and 1245 and tells of the Lover’s dream in which he is let into the garden by Oiseuse (Idleness), and there he takes part in a carole or dance, meets representatives of the courtly virtues, including Amour and  Doux Regard (Sweet glance) and sees the fountain where Narcissus fell in love with his own image and perished.  Narcissus and the fountain is a popular subject with artists, featuring in most series of Rose illuminations

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Detail of Narcissus at the fountain, from Roman de la Rose, France (Paris), c. 1320-1340, Royal MS 20 A XVII, f. 14v

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The Lover with a rosebud at Narcissus’ fountain, from the Roman de la Rose, France, 14th century, Additional MS 31840, f. 14r

The above are two of our earliest Rose manuscripts, dated to the first half of the 14th century, while the one below is from the second half of that century.

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Narcissus and his reflection in the water, Roman de la Rose, France (Paris), c. 1380, Egerton MS 881, f. 11r 
                                     

Finally in a late 15th-century representation the Lover sees the rose bush reflected in the fountain:

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Narcissus and the fountain, Roman de la Rose, France (Paris), 1475-1500, Egerton MS 2022, f. 22v

The Lover is wounded by the arrows of Amour, falling hopelessly in love with the Rose and embarks on a quest to win her love, but she is guarded by Danger, Fear and Jealousy, who erects a castle around the Rose bush (see the image above from Harley MS 4425), and imprisons Bel Acueil, his sweet accomplice. Here the section by Guillaume de Lorris ends abruptly. 

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Bel Acueil imprisoned in the castle, Roman de la Rose, France (Paris) 1320-1340, Royal MS 19 B XIII, f. 31v

Jean de Meun’s continuation, consisting of some 17,700 lines, takes up the Lover’s quest, but adds long digressions on morality and a variety of topics of contemporary interest such as free will, the influence of heavenly bodies and the increasing power of the friars in medieval society. Examples from history and legend are invoked to instruct the Lover and to illustrate the topics covered. The story of Pygmalion and the statue is included, recalling de Lorris’ reference to the legend of Narcissus.

Paulin Paris, the 19th-century manuscript scholar and French academician, dated de Meun’s composition to before 1285, as in it he refers to Charles of Anjou, who died in that year, as King of Sicily.

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Pygmalion and the statue, from Roman de la Rose, France (Paris), c. 1380, Yates Thompson MS 21, f. 136r

The romance ends with the Lover achieving his goal of attaining the Rose, as depicted in this 15th-century manuscript.

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The Lover and the Rose, Roman de la Rose, France, 15th century, Additional MS 12042, f. 166r

The contents are summed up in the final couplet:

Explicit le Romaunt de la Rose / Ou lart d’amor est tout enclose.

Here ends the Romance of the Rose, where everything about the art of love is included.

 

16 March 2016

Justifying Women Writers: A Medieval Poet Speaks Out

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Today we are beginning a series of posts about medieval women. Our first post shines a spotlight on a highly educated, shadowy female poet. Contrary to popular belief, there were quite a number of famous medieval women writers and readers, and the British Library is lucky enough to look after a range of texts made for, written by, and even copied by women writers, from ninth-century Mercian prayer books (such as Harley MS 7653) to the Book of Margery Kempe (Add MS 61823, perhaps the earliest surviving autobiography of an English person) to the works of Christine de Pizan in the lavishly illustrated Book of the Queen  (Harley MS 4431) to a collection of Latin, French, and Italian prayers translated and copied by the twelve-year-old future Elizabeth I as a New Year’s present for her father, Henry VIII (Royal MS 7 D X). Elizabeth really went the extra mile when it came to presents: not only did she translate and copy the text herself, she even embroidered the manuscript’s cover with Tudor roses and her father’s and stepmother’s initials.

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Embroidered front cover from the ‘Prayerbook of Princess Elizabeth’, England, 1545, Royal MS 7 D X

However, medieval women writers did not always have an easy time, according to a poem written by a medieval woman about women writers in the newly digitised manuscript Add MS 21499, ff. 77v-78r.

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Detail of a line with a female pronoun from the poem ‘Laudis honor’, England (Bury St Edmunds?), 12th century, Add MS 24199, f. 78r

The author of the poem appears to be female, because she uses the female pronoun ‘grata’ in the penultimate line. In her learned poem, which is full of classical allusions, she claims that she has been exiled by ignorant rulers who disapprove of her writing, and asks the muse Clio to leave her as she won’t need her help any more. ‘Art is my crime, and my genius’, she laments. (The poem is edited and translated in The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard, by Constant J. Mews, translated by Mews and Neville Chiavaroli (2nd edn, 2008), pp. 164-66).

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Detail of the poem ‘Laudis honor’,  Add MS 24199, f. 78r 

 The poet also suggests that the (male) leaders who have banned her writing might just be jealous of her talent, since she could see no theological reason for banning women from writing:

‘Now if only I knew what wickedness our writing might be....

Much writing will not stop me from being good,

Writing allows me, not forbids me to know God.

We believe and know rationally that God exists

And also that what we do God does not forbid...

Your mind desired to condemn what it could not do...

Compose verses, you slanderer of verse, so that I may think

That you of course can create but do not want to.

I would be acceptable to you if my writing were acceptable:

Equal genius usually reconciles two people!’

The identity of this brave and outspoken poet is unknown, although it has been suggested that the writer might be Heloise, the noted female writer from early 12th-century France.

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Detail of a later medieval miniature depicting Heloise teaching, from the poems of Pseudo-Heloise, Low Countries (Bruges), c. 1450-1483, Royal MS 16 F II, f. 137

In 1129, Suger, the powerful abbot of Saint-Denis, sanctioned the expulsion of Heloise and her nuns from their convent in Argenteuil on charges of misconduct, which might have inspired a poem about exile such as the one in Add MS 24199. The classical allusions echo the language of some of Heloise’s letters to her former lover, Abelard; but the writer may equally have been an anonymous female scholar who refused to be silenced.         

This woman's poetry did find more appreciative audiences. The copy of this poem which has been digitised has been associated with Bury St Edmunds, an all-male house in East Anglia. The poem is an enigmatic testament to an extraordinary woman whose identity remains uncertain and a reminder of how often women’s voices have been muted through history.

Alison Hudson

Related content:

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The Books of Remarkable Women

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Christine de Pizan and the Book of the Queen