THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

22 posts categorized "Literature"

02 December 2017

Germaine Greer on Sappho

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This year's Panizzi lectures at the British Library will be delivered by Germaine Greer, on the subject of Sappho, one of the first known female poets, and the first woman known to have written poems in Greek. We have a special affection for Sappho in the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern manuscripts section of the Library. Earlier this year we wrote on this blog about The Mystery of Sappho, exploring why only a fraction of her poetry survives.

Professor Greer will be giving three lectures on Sappho and her poetry, on Monday 4 December (The Witnesses); Thursday 7 December (The Glory); and Monday 11 December (The Shame). Each lecture begins at 19.00 and is free to attend, with places allocated on a first come, first served basis. We're delighted that Sappho is the subject of this year's lectures, and hope that many of you are able to come along to the British Library to witness them. As we noted earlier this year, only a few fragments of Sappho's poems survive, and scholars continue to debate why this might be the case.

Sappho

Fragment of a poem by Sappho concerning her brother Charaxus, 3rd century CE: Papyrus 739

The 2017 Panizzi Lectures take place at the British Library's Knowledge Centre Theatre on 4 December, 7 December and 11 December.

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22 October 2017

Prepare to be spellbound

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As a general rule, we don't like to start our blogposts with the words, 'We are delighted to announce'. But there's always an exception, and this is it! We are delighted to announce that the British Library's amazing new exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic is now officially open to the public.

Our exhibition celebrates the 20th anniversary of the first publication in the United Kingdom of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, originally released in 1997. But, in a new departure, the exhibition also examines the history, mythology and folklore that lie at the heart of the Harry Potter stories. As well as original drafts and drawings loaned by J.K. Rowling herself, alongside artwork by Jim Kay (who is illustrating the Harry Potter books for Bloomsbury), you'll find on display a range of glorious items from the British Library's own collections, including Chinese oracle bones, papyri and a host of medieval manuscripts.

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The Ripley Scroll, dating from around 1600, and explaining how to make your very own Philosopher's Stone. The entire manuscript, all 5.9 metres of it, is on display in the exhibition.

Tickets are selling fast â€” this Potter thing might just catch on one day â€” but we'd love you to visit London to see the show in person between now and its final day, 28 February. In the meantime, here is a sneak preview of some of the manuscripts you'll be able to see.

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Harvesting a mandrake, medieval style (so that's how you do it!)

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A phoenix plucking twigs to make its own funeral pyre, before rising from the flames (please don't try this at home)

Harry-potter-abracadabra

How to protect yourself against malaria? Write out the word 'abracadabra' repeatedly on a piece of parchment (it's obvious when you think about it).

Harry Potter: A History of Magic is on at the British Library from 20 October 2017 to 28 February 2018. Tickets can be purchased here. The exhibition has been staged by the British Library in partnership with The Blair Partnership (representing J.K. Rowling) and Bloomsbury Publishing, with the kind assistance of Pottermore and Google Arts and Culture, and the generosity of numerous lenders.

The exhibition books Harry Potter: A History of Magic and a version designed especially for younger people, Harry Potter: A Journey Through the History of Magic, are available to buy through the British Library's online shop. (They're quite good, really: note to reader, I helped to write them.)

HPHOM HPFAMMAGIC

You may also like to join our online conversation about the exhibition, using the hashtag #BLHarryPotter, with tweets by @britishlibrary, @BLMedieval and the exhibition curators. Even J.K. Rowling has joined in! Hope to see you in London soon.

 

Julian Harrison (Lead Curator, Medieval Historical Manuscripts and

Harry Potter: A History of Magic)

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

Harry Potter: A History of Magic

The British Library, London

20 October 2017–28 February 2018

 

 

28 September 2017

Feats in well-fashioned lines: Heaneywulf

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Today, to celebrate National Poetry Day, we have a post about one of the oldest poems in the English language and its translation by the Nobel prize-winner, Seamus Heaney.

In 1999, the Ulster poet Seamus Heaney (1939–2013) published a translation of the great Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, to critical acclaim. ‘Heaney-wulf’, as the translation is sometimes affectionately known, is regarded as a masterpiece in its own right. Heaney had been at work on the text for some time — the British Library possesses nine pages of his early manuscript draft dating from 1980 (he subsequently put the work aside before returning to it in 1995). In it, we see the poet feeling his way through his rendering of Beowulf.

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A draft of Seamus Heaney's award-winning version of Beowulf (London, British Library, Additional MS 78917).

Beowulf is a complex work. The only surviving manuscript of the poem was copied c. 1000, but parts of the work seem to be much older, having been composed orally years before. The text describes a mythic, pagan past in 6th-century Scandinavia, yet the events were recorded by Christian scribes, probably in a monastic context. So, what we have in the manuscript is layers of text — a work which was probably added to and adapted over time, by different figures, in different contexts. Reading Beowulf is a bit like being a textual archaeologist — we encounter layers of composition, like layers of soil. I like to think that Heaney might have thought about the poem in the same way, too. His other verse shows an abiding interest in archaeology, in the secrets beneath the earth (as in poems like ‘The Grauballe Man’ from the collection North).  

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The opening part of the description of the scop recounting the tale of Sigemund from Beowulf, England, 4th quarter of the 10th century or 1st quarter of the 11th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 151v

Within the original poem of Beowulf itself there are two poems-within-the-poem at lines 883–914 and at lines 1070–1158. The first of these is the tale of Sigemund the dragon-slayer. This story is told by a minstrel (Old English: ‘scop’) to a group of men on horse-back. The description of the episode gives us an insight into how Anglo-Saxon poetry was composed. Today we value novelty in works of art, but in Anglo-Saxon society a poet’s skill lay in his ability to use well-known formulas and to refashion them in a new context:

Hwilum cyninges þegn, 

guma gilphlæden, gidda gemyndig, 

se ðe ealfela ealdgesegena 

worn gemunde, word oþer fand 

soðe gebunden; secg eft ongan 

sið Beowulfes snyttrum styrian 

ond on sped wrecan spel gerade, 

wordum wrixlan. 

Heaney translates this episode as:

Meanwhile, a thane

Of the king’s household, a carrier of tales,

A traditional singer deeply schooled

In the lore of the past, linked a new theme

To a strict metre. The man started

To recite with skill, rehearsing Beowulf’s

Triumphs and feats in well-fashioned lines,

Entwining his words. (ll. 866–73)

Heaney’s poem here gets at the very magic of his own work, his ability to link ‘a new theme/To a strict metre’, to rehearse ‘Beowulf’s/ Triumphs and feats in well-fashioned lines’. This is almost like a verse version of a Russian doll — this is a poem within a poem, translated by a modern poet and made into a new poem.

In the introduction to his translation, Heaney writes about how, despite the centuries separating his work from the Old English original, he was able to find a personal connection to the language of the poem. He describes coming across the Old English word ‘þolian’, transliterating the unfamiliar ‘þ’ into the modern ‘th’ and realising its similarity to an Ulster dialect word ‘thole’ which he had heard his aunt use in his youth. He says that the word was ‘a little bleeper to remind me that my aunt’s language was not just a self-enclosed family possession but an historical heritage’. This was an historical heritage into which Heaney breathed new life.

You'll be able to read more about Beowulf  and Heaney's translation of it on the medieval section of the British Library's Discovering Literature site, which will go live early next year. Happy National Poetry Day.

Mary Wellesley

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27 August 2017

The medieval cartulary behind a ghost story

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A medievalist's mind can be bizarre to behold. If you had been drudging through a cartulary — a collection of charters copied into a single volume — for the last month, what would you choose to publish:

(a) its complete text, as the last word on the matter;

(b) a simpler calendar, as a guide to its contents;

(c) a ghost story?

If your name is M.R. James, the correct answer is the last one!

Cartulary of Wormsley Priory: Harley MS 3586, f. 132r.

Cartulary of Wormsley Priory: Harley MS 3586, f. 132r

M.R. James (1862–1936) is esteemed for his many catalogues of medieval manuscripts (for collections at Cambridge, Lambeth Palace and elsewhere) and as a scholar on the history of libraries and apocryphal literature. In popular culture, he is far more famous for his ghost stories. A new hardback edition of his Collected Ghost Stories has just appeared, with a critical text and notes. The book’s editor, Darryl Jones, suggests that it was precisely James’ training that allowed him to write such brilliant stories. His detailed knowledge brings to life some of the most magical places that we see every day: churches, libraries, even trains.

The Department of Manuscripts Students’ Room in the British Museum (photo from the departmental archives).

The Department of Manuscripts Students’ Room in the British Museum (photo from the departmental archives)

The plot of James’ Casting the Runes, first published in 1911, turns on the consequences of the main character consulting a manuscript in the Students’ Room at the British Museum, opened in 1885 as a separate reading room for the Department of Manuscripts. He is stalked by a bitter academic whose paper he has just rejected for publication. The book is Harley MS 3586, which contains cartularies of Battle Abbey and Wormsley Priory, bound together after they entered the Harley collection along with some letters addressed to Edward Harley. One would usually think of this as the most innocuous of objects, and at first glance the pivotal scene has nothing sinister about it; but the main character’s life has just been put at stake:

It was in a somewhat pensive frame of mind that Mr Dunning passed on the following day into the Select Manuscript Room of the British Museum, and filled up tickets for Harley 3586, and some other volumes. After a few minutes they were brought to him, and he was settling the one he wanted first upon the desk, when he thought he heard his own name whispered behind him. He turned round hastily, and in doing so, brushed his little portfolio of loose papers on to the floor. He saw no one he recognized except one of the staff in charge of the room, who nodded to him, and he proceeded to pick up his papers. He thought he had them all, and was turning to begin work, when a stout gentleman at the table behind him, who was just rising to leave, and had collected his own belongings, touched him on the shoulder, saying, ‘May I give you this? I think it should be yours,’ and handed him a missing quire.

The choice of Harley MS 3586 does not seem to be random: in the manuscript of the work (Egerton MS 3141, f. 13r), he first started writing ‘30’ and changed his mind. A surprising amount of commentary has been written on why James used this particular manuscript. Jones suggests that it might have had something to do with the 1676 letter to Harley from Thomas Goad, whom James might have mixed up with the antiquary by the same name who died in 1638, an antiquarian who, like James, was based at Eton College and later King’s College Cambridge. The most plausible link appears in James’ edition of Walter Map’s De nugis curialium or Courtiers’ Trifles, which uses documents in the Wormsley cartulary relating to the author. Walter’s own work has been considered within the history of ghosts in culture. James is simply inserting himself into the story.

The manuscript of Casting the Runes: Egerton MS 3141, f. 13r.

The manuscript of Casting the Runes: Egerton MS 3141, f. 13r.

The British Museum's curators were so delighted by James’ story that, in November 1936, they purchased the autograph manuscript of the tale in his memory, now Egerton MS 3141. The story has since been adapted in film (Night of the Demon, 1957) and multiple times for television and radio.

M.R. James wasn’t the only writer to exploit the possibilities of the reading room as a setting for a thriller. John Rowland’s Murder in the Museum (1938), which the British Library republished last year, centres on the death of a scholar of Elizabethan drama. Dorothy Sayers, author of the Lord Peter Wimsey stories, expressed the contemporary appreciation for the Library in a letter to her mother dated 8 November 1921: ‘I spend all my time reading or writing crimes in the Museum. Nice life, isn’t it?’

Andrew Dunning

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18 August 2017

Discovering Literature: Beowulf to Chaucer

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What should you do when your Christmas is rudely interrupted by a Green Man, wielding an axe? How should you respond when a monster nightly terrorises your home? And what is the best way to entertain 29 travellers on the road to Canterbury? 

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Chaucer's pilgrims on the road to Canterbury, from 'The Siege of Thebes', by John Lydgate, England, 1457–60, Royal MS 18 D II, f. 148r


These are just some of the questions we’re going to be exploring in our latest on-site adult learning course, ‘Discovering Literature: Beowulf to Chaucer’, which offers students of any level the opportunity to learn more about the literature of medieval England. It contains Arthurian legends, dream-visions, dragons, chatty pilgrims and talking books. From the first great epic of English poetry, Beowulf, to the captivating tales of Geoffrey Chaucer, over six weeks participants will consider iconic works in Old English, Middle English and Anglo-Norman French, exploring the rich diversity of literary production in medieval England. We’ll be looking at works of comedy as well as of religious devotion, alongside haunting texts that explore the pain of adultery, loss and social exile.

Beowulf

Detail of the opening words of Beowulf, beginning 'Hwæt' ('Listen!), from Beowulf, England, 4th quarter of the 10th century or 1st quarter of the 11th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 132r.

The course uses original texts in translation but, with expert guidance, you’ll also be led through close-readings of selected passages in their original languages. The course runs over six weeks, on Tuesdays, from 24 October 2017, and the final session will feature a rare opportunity to work with original manuscripts from the British Library’s collections.

The course is available to 16 participants only, and places are limited, so book as soon as possible. The full course description and booking form is available here.

Mary Wellesley

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23 June 2017

The language of love (and poetry and history)

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Old Occitan or Langue d’oc, the language of Eleanor of Aquitaine and the troubadours, was claimed by Dante to be the perfect language for verse. It is still spoken in southern France and in pockets of Italy and northern Spain. Early genres and themes first developed by the troubadour poets of Provence and the surrounding regions were adopted by French trouveres and German minnesanger. Occitan literature of the 12th and 13th centuries is arguably ‘a primary reference for the medieval literatures of what we now call France, Spain, Italy and Germany’ (Burgwinkle, ‘The troubadours’ (2011)).

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The seven virtues and vices of lovers, from the Breviari d’Amor, mid-14th century; France, S. (Toulouse?), Harley MS 4940, f. 227r

As we mentioned in a previous blogpost, the British Library's earliest manuscript containing Old Occitan is Harley MS 2928, probably copied in the 12th century. Many of our Occitan manuscripts date from the 13th and 14th centuries. The Breviari d’Amor, the Vie de St Honorat and the Somme le Roi  are the most popular surviving texts, along with Chansonniers or collections of lyrics, many of which were copied in Italy and Catalunya. Three of our 14th-century manuscripts, all from southern France, have recently been digitised; two of them contain the Breviari d’Amors and a third is an Occitan version of an illustrated almanac.

The Breviari d’Amors

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The author, Matfre, holding a large book from which he is instructing four crowned figures with books or scrolls, from the Breviari d’Amor, early 14th century; France, S. (Toulouse?), Royal MS 19 C I, f. 7r

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The Devil incites people to the sins of robbery, lust, violence and avarice and brings disaster to a ship at sea, from the Breviari d’Amor, mid-14th century; France, S. (Toulouse?), Harley MS 4940, f. 27r

The Breviari d’Amors is a poetic work composed by Matfre Ermengaud in 1288–1292. Ermengaud described himself as a senher en leys e d’amor sers, in other words a master or doctor of law but also a poet who serves the ideal of love. His work contains a compendium of contemporary knowledge under the umbrella of faith, seen as a manifestation of God’s love.

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The hierarchy of angels adoring the Trinity from the Breviari d’Amor, Royal MS 19 C I, f. 30v

Both volumes in our collections are believed to have been copied in Toulouse in the 14th century. They are filled with remarkable illuminations showing God and Love at the centre of all creation. They are in a unique style associated with southern Europe in this period.

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The Tree of Love from the Breviari d’Amor, Royal MS 19 C I, f. 11v

Scientific topics focus on astronomy and meteorology, while spiritual matters such as theology, angelology, demonology, mystical anthropology, sacred and scriptural studies are treated at length, together with the art of living on earth, and the subject of human love. Love is the metaphysical link between the spiritual realm and the created universe.

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A circular diagram of the planets governing the days of the week, from the Breviari d’Amor, Royal MS 19 C I, f. 53v

For Ermengaud, angels are at the centre of many of the functions governing life on earth.

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The six ages of the world, with an angel in the centre, from the Breviari d’Amor, Royal MS 19 C I, f. 58v

There is a third copy of the Breviari  in our collections and also fully digitised (Yates Thompson MS 31) but it is in Catalan prose rather than Occitan, and was made in Catalunya (probably Girona) towards the end of the 14th century. The style of the illuminations is rather different. There are some rather elegant images of Hell-mouths (always a favourite subject on this blog) that almost look inviting!

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The Christ and the Harrowing of Hell, souls in Purgatory, unbaptised infants in Limbo and the Damned engulfed in flames, last quarter of the 14th century, Spain, E. (Catalonia, ?Gerona ), Yates Thompson MS 31, f. 250r

The Abreujamen de las Estorias

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Synchronic table of kings and emperors of the world with Alexander the Great and Ptolemy from the Abreujamen de las Estorias,  France, S. (Avignon); 2nd quarter of the 14th century (after 1323), Egerton MS 1500, f. 13v

Love, the universe and poetry were not the only topics of Occitan manuscripts. The Abreujamen de las Estorias (Egerton MS 1500) is a diagrammatic chronicle in Occitan, based on the Latin chronicle of Paolino (c. 1275–c. 1344), a Fransiscan friar and diplomat from Venice. It consists of genealogical diagrams with notes and synchronic tables of popes, emperors and kings, including English kings, and it marks the canonisation of Thomas Aquinas in 1323. Of special note is an account of the First Crusade, 'Passazia et auxilia Terre Sancte', inserted in the almanac, with miniatures and maps of Antioch and Jerusalem. This was featured in our recent blogpost on the Crusades.

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A synchronic table of kings including King John of England, Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, Roger of Sicily and Saladin, with scenes from the Crusades, from the Abreujamen de las Estorias,  Egerton MS 1500, f. 53v

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Map of Jerusalem from the Abreujamen de las Estorias, Egerton MS 1500, f. 49r

Brunel listed 11 manuscripts in Occitan then held at the British Museum (now in the British Library) and there are two more in our collections today. Of these 13 manuscripts, 4 have been digitised in full, as described above, and a selection of images of a further 5 are online on our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts:

Egerton MS 945: A liturgical collection in Norman French and Occitan 

Harley MS 3041: Eleucidarium with a page of lyrics in Occitan  

Harley MS 3183: A devotional manual from the Périgord 

Harley MS 4830: Laws of the city of Avignon 

Harley MS 7403: Religious texts, some in Occitan 

The remainder have descriptions in our Archives and Manuscripts catalogue:

Add MS 10323: La vie de St Honorat

Add MS 17920: A Collection of Historical works, formerly part of Egerton MS 1500 

Add MS 22636: Thesaurus Pauperum and a collection of medical texts in Latin, with a fragment of a poem in Occitan 

Chantry Westwell

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Bibliography

Clovis Brunel, Bibliographie des manuscrits littéraires en ancien provençal, Société de publications Romanes et Françaises, 13 (Paris: Librairie E. Droz, 1935).

William Burgwinkle, ‘The troubadours : the Occitan model’, in The Cambridge History of French Literature, ed. by William Burgwinkle, Nicholas Hammond and Emma Wilson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 20-27.

11 April 2017

Scandal, espionage, treason: discover Renaissance writers

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Which Renaissance playwright killed an actor in a duel? Which Tudor poet narrowly escaped the executioner's block for an alleged affair with Anne Boleyn? Which 17th-century writer was reputedly a 'great visitor of ladies'?

You can find answers to these and other questions on the new Renaissance module of the British Library’s Discovering Literature site. From espionage and imprisonment to a secret marriage and an untimely death, the site allows you to uncover the colourful lives and works of key poets and playwrights including John DonneBen JonsonChristopher Marlowe and John Webster.

On the site you can find out more about the scandalous life and ignoble death of Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593). Marlowe wrote seven plays and three poems in a brief period in his 20s, before he was killed in a brawl, on 30 May 1593, at the age of 29. Earlier that month, Marlowe had been arrested and charged with heresy. The case against him was supported by the testimony of the double agent and informer, Richard Baines. You can see the document in which Baines makes damning accusations that Marlowe was an ‘Atheist’ with too much love for ‘Tobacco & Boies [boys]’. (Those words are visible in the 4th line of the image below.)

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Richard Baines' accusations against Marlowe, Harley MS 6848, f. 185v

Also on the site, you can read about a manuscript notebook compiled by Sir Walter Ralegh (1554–1618) during his imprisonment for treason in the Tower of London. In July 1603 Ralegh was arrested for his alleged involvement in a plot against the new king, James I (r. 1603–1625). He would spend 13 years in incarceration, during which time he wrote several prose works, including the History of the World (1614), and this notebook  contains his research for that work. On the final page is one of Ralegh's poems, written in his own hand, which has been identified as one of the ‘Cynthia poems’, in praise of Queen Elizabeth I. His fortunes had taken a turn for the worse since the accession of James I, so the poem of praise addressed to the now-dead queen is an intriguing addition to the notebook's final pages.

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The last page of Raleigh’s notebook, containing one of the Cynthia poems, ‘Now we have present made’ which he addressed to Queen Elizabeth I, Add. MS 57555, f. 172v

Another writer whose life and work you can discover more about is Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503–1542). Wyatt was a diplomat, courtier, poet and possibly a murderer. The opening lines of one of his poems reads, 'What wourde is that that chaungeth not/Though it be tourned and made in twain?'. The lines mean, ‘what word is there that does not change, even when it is turned and cut in half?’ Wyatt’s point is about how words can be turned and changed easily. He knew this better than many. In May 1534 he was imprisoned after a fight he was involved in resulted in the death of one of the sergeants of London. The circumstances of the fight are unclear and we can only speculate on what words were said — or turned — to lead to the death of a man.

Wyatt spent his adult life in the court of Henry VIII. This was an environment of intrigue and danger, where words could turn, and turn against you. On 5 May 1536, he was arrested and sent to the Tower of London on charges of treason. There were rumours that he had had an affair with Anne Boleyn. On the 17th of that month, Anne’s supposed lovers were executed at the Tower. Wyatt may have seen their deaths from his cell window. In the end, he escaped their fate and was released from the Tower.

 There are several manuscripts containing Wyatt's poems which survive, but the British Library holds arguably the most important one, Egerton MS 2711, which contains around 100 of his poems. This is the key manuscript because some of the poems are written in Wyatt’s own hand and he has gone through the manuscript, marking the poems which are his and making changes. In one poem he makes reference to 'her that did set our country in a rore', which some scholars have interpreted as a reference to Anne Boleyn. Intriguingly, however, the line has been revised in Wyatt's hand so that the lines seem to refer to a generic brunette. The altered line reads, 'Brunet that set my welth in such a rore'.  

 

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Wyatt’s translation of one of the poems which intersperses the sonnets in Petrarch’s ‘Canzionere’,  Egerton MS 2711, f. 67

Another writer who was also imprisoned more than once in his lifetime was the poet and playwright Ben Jonson (1572–1637), who was a contemporary of Shakespeare. In September 1598 Jonson killed the actor Gabriel Spencer in a duel. He only escaped being hanged by reciting Psalm 51 (colloquially known as ‘neck verse’), a loophole in the law available to anyone who could read. In 1605 he was imprisoned again, this time for contributing to the comedy Eastward Ho, which was deemed offensively anti-Scottish by the new king, James I (James VI of Scotland). Jonson wrote that he feared execution yet again and recounts a story of his mother preparing poison for him to make his death less painful.

Jonson was released and returned to royal favour, writing entertainments for the monarch, including the Masque of Queenes, written in 1609 and performed at Whitehall Palace in honour of Henry Stuart, Prince of Wales (1594–1612), the king's eldest son.

 

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Page from the autograph manuscript of Ben Jonson’s ‘Masque of Queenes’, executed in a stylish Italian cursive hand, Royal MS 18 A XLV, f. 3v

Manuscripts like these are a window into the literary culture of Renaissance England. This was an environment in which poems often circulated in manuscript form rather than being printed. On the Discovering Literature site you can find out more about the enigmatic Devonshire Manuscript, compiled by various noblemen and ladies in the Court circle of Henry VIII and the richest surviving record of early Tudor poetry and the literary activities of 16th-century women.

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The first two stanzas of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey’s poem ‘O, happy dames’ inscribed by his sister Mary, Duchess of Richmond, Add. MS 17492, f. 55

Another poet whose poetry was circulated in manuscript form was John Donne (1572–1631). Donne was famous in his own day for his sermons, which are rhetorical masterpieces largely written when he was Dean of Saint Paul's in London. Today he is more famous as a poet who wrote complex, cryptic and often erotic verse. In his youth, Donne had a reputation as a womaniser. One of his contemporaries wrote that he was 'a great visitor of Ladies, a great frequenter of Plays, a great writer of conceited Verses'. When he did marry at the age of 29, it was in secret. In 1601 he wed the niece of his employer, Sir Thomas Egerton. Egerton was horrified that one of his juniors had presumed to marry into his own family. Donne was sacked and briefly imprisoned, before he was barred from public office altogether.

On the site you can find articles about Donne and his work, including material about The Newcastle Manuscript, an anthology of verse and prose made for Sir William Cavendish (1592–1676), the first Duke of Newcastle. It includes 98 poems by John Donne and masques and poems by Ben Jonson.  

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Copy of John Donne’s poem ‘Elegy: To his Mistress Going to Bed’, Harley MS 4955, f. 95v

While these manuscripts tell us about the kind of literature that people were reading and copying, we also have links to the only known copy of William Scott’s (c. 1570–1612) The Modell of Poesye. Written in the summer of 1599, it is one of the earliest examples of English literary criticism. It has much to tell us about what people thought about literature itself in this period.  

 

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Scott's dedicatory letter to Sir Henry Lee, introducing his treatise on the art of poetry, Add. MS 81083, f. 2

The Renaissance module is the latest phase to be added to Discovering Literature, which will continue to expand in the near future to cover the whole of English literature from Beowulf to the present day.

Mary Wellesley & Andrea Clarke

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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’.

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'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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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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