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170 posts categorized "Manuscripts"

29 March 2017

Medieval depictions of the Crusades

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The Levantine Crusades, military campaigns with the avowed purpose of capturing Jerusalem and the Christian holy sites in the Near East, took place between 1095 and 1272 or 1291. Long after the Crusader states fell, however, they loomed large in the imaginations of medieval writers and artists, who widely copied and illustrated accounts of the Crusades.

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Crusaders at the walls of Antioch, from the Histoire d’Outremer, Bruges, c. 1479–c.1480, Royal MS 15 E I, f. 101v

The British Library holds a series of manuscripts created in areas controlled by the Crusaders. The Crusaders established four kingdoms in the Holy Land, one of which, the Kingdom of Jerusalem, was ruled over by a series of descendants of the first ruler, the Frankish knight, Godfrey of Bouillon. From 1131–1143 the Kingdom was ruled jointly by Fulk and Melisende, for whom the gorgeous Melisende Psalter was probably made.

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The Wedding of Fulk and Melisende, from the Histoire d’Outremer, Bruges, c. 1479–c.1480, Royal MS 15 E I, f. 224v

The Library also possesses a missal, a sacramentary and a copy of the Histoire universelle, all of which may have been made in Acre, the Crusaders' last stronghold in the Levant. It is worth focusing on depictions of the Levantine Crusades in later manuscripts. Two later manuscripts with vernacular accounts of the Crusades have recently been digitised: Royal MS 15 E I and Egerton MS 1500. These show how the Crusades continued to capture the imagination of western writers and artists. 

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Heraclius brings back the true Cross to Jerusalem, with full borders incorporating the royal arms of England surmounted by a crowned helm and encircled by the Garter; a banner with the royal arms of England and a badge of the rose-en-soleil with the Yorkist motto 'Dieu et mon droit', from the Histoire d’Outremer, Bruges, c. 1479–c.1480, Royal MS 15 E I, f. 16r

Royal 15 E I, from which the preceding images are taken, contains over 50 miniatures, illustrating the Histoire d’Outremer. Outremer was the name given to the Holy Land and the Crusader states established there. It is a French version of the 12th-century Latin chronicle of William of Tyre (c. 1130–1186), who was born into a Crusader family in Jerusalem, educated in Europe and later became Archbishop of Tyre, in what is now Lebanon.

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A monk, perhaps Peter Bartholemew, handing over the spear used to pierce Christ's side, from the Histoire d’Outremer, Bruges, c. 1479–c.1480, Royal MS 15 E I, f. 98v

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The Loss of the True Cross, from the Histoire d’Outremer, Bruges, c. 1479–c.1480, Royal MS 15 E I, f. 433v

This manuscript is believed to have been made for King Edward IV of England in Bruges in 1479–80. It illustrates key events in the narrative. These include Pope Urban II preaching in 1095, which was credited with inspiring the First Crusade; the discovery of the relic of the Holy Lance; and even the fictional depiction of the loss of the True Cross in a battle against Saladin’s armies.

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Almanac page for the 2nd half of the 11th century, from the Abreviamen de las Estorias, Avignon, 1321–1324, Egerton MS 1500, f. 44v

While William of Tyre's text and its translations exist in various copies, Egerton MS 1500 is unique in the British Library collections. It contains the Abreviamen de las Estorias in old Occitan or Provençal (the medieval dialect of southern France), and was copied in Avignon between 1321 and 1324. Each page consists of synchronic tables with images of emperors, kings, dukes and popes. The page above, covering the period of the First Crusade, includes the Emperors Michael Bringas and Isaac Comnenos who ruled from 1056 to 1059, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV (r. 1057–1084), King Philip I of France (r. 1052–1108) and Duke Vitale Faliero of Venice. The King of England is ‘Hernold Nepos’ (King Harold, killed at the Battle of Hastings in 1066), followed by ‘Guillelmus I’ (William the Conqueror), and his sons William II and Henry I (r. 1100–1135). On the right under the rubric Pasazia et auxilia terre sancta is an image of Peter the Hermit, who was credited with leading thousands of mostly paupers on the ‘Peoples’ Crusade’ at the end of the 11th century.

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'Passazia et auxilia Terre Sancte', from the Abreviamen de las Estorias, Avignon, 1321–1324, Egerton MS 1500, f. 46r

Folios 45v–53v contain an account of the First Crusade, 'Passazia et auxilia Terre Sancte', inserted between the tables. Each paragraph of the text is accompanied by an image of Crusader knights on horseback, mostly led by churchmen. There is a plan of the walled city of Antioch, with the royal line of the Crusader King Baldwin beside it.

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Map of Antioch from the Abreviamen de las Estorias, Avignon, 1321–1324, Egerton MS 1500, f. 47v

The account of the Crusades ends with a description of the reigns of Godfrey, who was styled protector of the Holy Sepulchre, and Baldwin, King of Jerusalem, and a map of the Holy City. On the following page the almanac continues, including the rulers of the Crusader states, Roger and Tancred.

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‘Explicato[n]es de Regib[us] Jer[usa]l[e]m’  and a plan of Jerusalem, from the Abreviamen de las Estorias, Avignon, 1321–1324, Egerton MS 1500, ff. 48v, 49r

Later depictions of the Crusades are already online on our Digitised Manuscripts website. These include a copy of Jean de Vignay's Merveilles de la terre d'outremer, made in Paris between 1333 and c. 1340 (Royal MS 19 D I), and a copy of Chroniques abrégées des Anciens Rois et Ducs de Bourgogne, made in Bruges around 1485–1490 (Yates Thompson MS 32).

Chantry Westwell

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26 March 2017

The medieval origins of Mothering Sunday

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Mothering Sunday falls every year on the 4th Sunday in Lent, also called Mid-Lent Sunday or Refreshment Sunday, referring to its sense of respite halfway through this season of fasting and penitence. The modern recognition of this day came about through the efforts of Constance Adelaide Smith (1878–1938), who worked as a dispenser of medicine in Nottingham, and drew directly on pre-modern traditions. She soon found that the medieval conception of motherhood and the celebration of it was both rugged and diverse.

The Virgin Mary hands off baby Jesus and tackles the devil (in the Taymouth Hours, c.1325–40)

The Virgin Mary hands off baby Jesus and tackles the devil, in the ‘Taymouth Hours’, c.1325–40: Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 155v.

Smith had taken note of the Mother’s Day movement in the United States, promoted by Anna Jarvis and first proclaimed nationally in 1914, ‘as a public expression of our love and reverence for the mothers of our country’, to be held on the 2nd Sunday in May. She was inspired by these efforts, but was not herself a mother, and argued for a deeper, more inclusive definition of mothers and mothering.

Tellus and Ecclesia, the personifications of Mother Earth and the Church (c.1075): Add MS 30337, f. 3r.

Tellus and Ecclesia, the personifications of Mother Earth and the Church, c. 1075: Add MS 30337, f. 3r.

A short book appeared under the pseudonym ‘C. Penswick Smith’, The Revival of Mothering Sunday, in 1921 (revised 1932), as well as a sequel in 1928, with chapters exploring various facets of mothering: ‘The Church – Our Mother’; ‘Mothers of Earthly Homes’; ‘The Mother of Jesus’; and ‘Gifts of Mother Earth’. With these she collected a body of evidence for the traditions surrounding Mid-Lent Sunday, which ranged from the practice of daughters visiting their mothers – especially important for those engaged as domestic servants away from home – to the gifts of simnel cakes or wafer cakes. Smith aimed to show that there was already an international tradition of honouring mothers of all types on the 4th Sunday in Lent, and this only needed to be strengthened through official recognition.

The Virgin Mary punches the devil in the face (c.1240): Add MS 49999, f. 40v.

The Virgin Mary punches the devil in the face, c. 1240: Add MS 49999, f. 40v.

These various customs came from the medieval recognition of this day as ‘Laetare Sunday’. In the Middle Ages, many Sundays were referred to by their introit, or the first words of the Mass. On Mid-Lent Sunday, it also had a reference to mothering:

Rejoice, Jerusalem, and come together, all you that love her; rejoice with joy, you that have been in sorrow, that you may exult and be satisfied from the breasts of your consolation.

Laetare Hierusalem et conuentum facite omnes qui diligitis eam; gaudete cum laetitia, qui in tristitia fuistis, ut exsultetis et satiemini ab uberibus consolationis uestrae.

The readings for the day in the Sarum rite included Galatians 4.21–31, including the line ‘Jerusalem … is our mother’. The association of food with the day seems to be linked to John 6.1-14, the story of the feeding of the five thousand. On this Sunday, there was a relaxation of the rule against playing the organ. Simnel cake has been associated with the day for centuries, though its exact origins are foggy: ‘simnel’ is derived from Anglo-Norman simenel, ‘fine wheat flour’, itself apparently derived from the Classical Latin simila, a wheat flour. (The word was borrowed again from Anglo-Norman into medieval Latin as simenellus.)

Multitasking mum in the Cité des Dames of Christine de Pizan (1475): Add MS 20698, f. 63r.

Fredegund addressing her troops in a Dutch translation of Christine de Pisan, The Book of the City of Ladies, 1475: Add MS 20698, f. 63r.

A custom developed during the Middle Ages of making a procession to one’s ‘mother church’ on this day, usually the local cathedral. This could sometimes get out of hand, as Robert Grosseteste (c.1170–1253), the bishop of Lincoln, warned against in his Letter 22.7: ‘In each and every church you should strictly prohibit one parish from fighting with another over whose banners should come first in processions at the time of the annual visitation and veneration of the mother church. […] Those who dishonour their spiritual mother should not at all escape punishment, when those who dishonour their fleshly mothers are, in accordance with God’s law, cursed and punished with death’ (Letters of Robert Grosseteste, trans. by Manello and Goering, p. 107).

Mothers were honoured in many other different ways. Abbots’ mothers are included in the list of queens and abbesses in the New Minster Liber uitae (Stowe MS 944, f. 26v). One Wulfwyn was the mother of the monk Ælfwine, who became abbot in 1031 or 1032; he also noted her death in his prayer book (Cotton MS Titus D XXVI and Cotton MS Titus D XXVII). Margaret of Antioch was often considered the patron saint of pregnant women, escaping unscathed from no less than the bowels of a dragon, according to legend.

Margaret of Antioch with a dragon, often considered the patron saint of pregnant women (1440s): Yates Thompson MS 3, f. 282v.

Margaret of Antioch with a dragon (1440s): Yates Thompson MS 3, f. 282v.

Mothering in the Middle Ages was multifaceted, complex and difficult — rather like today. Intellectuals compared it to the very work of God. Around 1395, Julian of Norwich famously compared God to a mother. Robert of Cricklade could uncontroversially write around 1238, ‘Do you seek the presence of a mother? Just as a mother comforts her children, so will I comfort you, says the Lord [Is. 66:13]’ (On the Marriage of the Prophet Jacob 1.20: Royal MS 8 E II, f. 22v). We can all agree: mothering is pretty awesome, and deserves to be celebrated.

Andrew Dunning

24 March 2017

Digitising our manuscripts from Anglo-Saxon England

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Strong is he who tastes the power of books;
he who has possession of them is always the wiser.

Bald bið se ðe onbyregeð boca cræftes;
symle bið ðe wisra ðe hira geweald hafað.

— Solomon and Saturn II, lines 238–246 (translated in J. Neville, Representations of the Natural World in Old English Poetry (Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 198).

The British Library holds the world’s largest collections of books made or owned in England between the end of Roman Britain and the Norman Conquest of 1066. These books trace the development of writing, society, economy, government and religion from the 7th to the 11th centuries. We are delighted to announce that 175 of these manuscripts can now be viewed in full online on our Digitised Manuscripts website. We’ve produced a complete list of the Anglo-Saxon manuscripts available as of March 2017.

Many of these manuscripts have been digitised in the last year in memory of Melvin R. Seiden. Others have been digitised thanks to the generosity of a variety of other funders.

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Detail of canon tables, from the Royal Bible: England (Canterbury?), early 9th century, Royal MS 1 E VI, f. 4r

The manuscripts available on Digitised Manuscripts certainly corroborate the Old English poet’s claim that ‘books are glorious’. They range from mesmerising illuminated Insular Gospel-books to four of the manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to fragments of scribbled farming memoranda. The list includes not only books that were made in England, but works whose annotations show they were owned in England before 1066. For example, the oldest book known to have been owned in England in this period was made in Africa

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End of Gospel excerpts and beginning of a prayer of Gregory the Great, with an illuminated initial, from the Book of Nunnaminster: Mercia, late 8th or early 9th century, Harley MS 2965, f. 16v

Don’t panic if your favourite manuscript is not yet on the list. More are being digitised all the time, including under The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200.

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Depiction of Mambres with a book: from a miscellany, England, mid-11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1,  f. 87v

You can stay in touch with our progress by reading this blog or by checking our regular Twitter updates.

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

21 March 2017

Omne Bonum (All Good Things)

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‘Virtually all good things [are] contained herein.’ That's how the author of the text known as Omne Bonum described his work. Omne Bonum is a huge encyclopedia, whose compiler (and scribe), James le Palmer, sought to compile all the knowledge of his time, arranged alphabetically for the use of ‘simple individuals who wish to seek out the precious pearls of learning’. There are 1350 entries arranged under the 23 letters of the medieval Latin alphabet, with each letter comprising a book. Over 750 of these entries are accompanied by historiated initials. The 1094 pages are divided into two volumes, held at the British Library and each surviving in two parts: Royal MS 6 E VI/1, Royal 6 E VI/2, Royal 6 E VII/1, Royal 6 E VII/2, all now fully digitised.  The illustrations, a gold mine of visual information about the medieval world, were already highlighted on our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. The whole manuscript can also be viewed on Digitised Manuscripts, not just the illustrations but the entire text, with all its complex components.

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Page with entries from Domesticus (servant) to Dominus bonus (good master), from James le Palmer's Omne Bonum, England (London), c. 1360-c. 1375, Royal MS 6 E VI/2, f. 546r

Contents of the Omne Bonum

At the beginning of the first volume is a cycle of 109 tinted drawings, 4 to a page, illustrating all the important Bible stories from Creation to the Ascension of Christ, followed by a short series of visions, including the Vision of Saints Benedict and Paul (see below). The text includes excerpts from Gregory the Great’s Dialogues and Augustine’s De Genesi ad litteram.

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Christ’s miracles: the loaves and fishes, the widow’s son, healing the blind, and walking on water, from Omne Bonum, England (London), c. 1360-c. 1375, Royal MS 6 E VI/1, f. 10r

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Vision of St Benedict and St Paul: f. 15v: Saint Benedict pointing to the soul of Bishop Germanus being carried up to Heaven (above), the conversion of Saint Paul (below); f. 16r: the face of God in radiance (above), St Benedict and St Paul kneeling (centre), a man and a woman kneeling before a circular diagram of the universe with the Garden of Eden at the centre, from Omne Bonum, England (London); c. 1360-c. 1375, Royal MS 6 E VI/1, ff. 15v-16r

This biblical section is followed by the alphabetical entries, which cover a wide range of subjects:

Theology

The first entry, ‘Absolucio’ is typical of many in that the subject is theological and a creative solution has been found to illustrate an abstract concept. The Church hierarchy is portrayed in that the Pope is shown absolving bishops and a priest absolving a layman. In the accompanying text, priests are warned against demanding excessive penance when absolving members of their flock.

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Absolucio (Absolution), from Omne Bonum, England (London), c. 1360-c. 1375, Royal MS 6 E VI/1, f.19r

Though there is a focus on theology, church history and hagiography, reflecting the main concerns of the 14th-century author, a wide range of subjects is covered, including:

Law

This example of a legal argument taken from Hostiensis or Henry of Segusio’s Summa is of ‘accidental mishap’, whereby a monk who carries a sword to defend himself against pagans cannot help it if he happens to kill a pagan who he encounters when going about his daily business. The image shows a monk looking extremely pleased with himself, having plunged what appears to be a gargantuan metal object right through the body of an innocent-looking and rather well-dressed young man.  Could this really be termed ‘accidental’ or is ‘fortuitous’ a better description?


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Casus fortuitus (Accidental mishap), from Omne Bonum, England (London), c. 1360-c. 1375, Royal MS 6 E VI/1, f. 228v

Morality and the human condition

Some images bring a wry smile to the modern reader, though the intention of the medieval illuminator was almost certainly not to amuse. Below, a prospective bride who is being given a ring looks extremely dissatisfied with her gift, while the young man seems very pleased with himself.

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Donacio propter nupcias (Bridal Gift), from Omne Bonum, England (London), c. 1360-c. 1375, Royal MS 6 E VI/2, f. 553r

Science and natural history

Science and natural history were also discussed. Some of these entries also had moral purposes, as the devil in the image below stands for the use of astrology for magical or superstitious practices which are condemned, whereas study of the stars is recommended for physicians and farmers, who will put it to good use. The accompanying text is based on the writings of Gratian, one of the many sources included in this compendium of knowledge.

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Constellacio (Constellation), from Omne Bonum, England (London), c. 1360-c. 1375, Royal MS 6 E VI/2, f. 396v

The author also described different animals. In the image below, the puppies are rather cute, with Dalmatian-like spots, but the beaver is a weird hybrid creature with the head and paws of a dog and tail of a fish, reflecting the description in the text of ‘fins and tail like a fish’.

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Catuli (puppies) and castor (beaver), from Omne Bonum, England (London), c. 1360-c. 1375, Royal MS 6 E VI/1, f. 244r

Volume 2 of the set begins inauspiciously, the first entry being Ebrietas (Drunkenness). The image shows six drunken louts misbehaving, one of them being sick on the ground.

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Ebrietas (Drunkenness), from Omne Bonum, England, S. E. (London); c. 1360-c. 1375, Royal MS 6 E VII/1, f. 1r

The remarkable compiler and scribe of the Omne Bonum was James le Palmer (b. 1327). He was king’s clerk in the Exchequer from 1359 and was granted a pension by Edward III in 1375.  He did not have time to finish his ambitious work, perhaps as he was trying to compile it in his spare time, and although some illustrations were added by a later owner, the text was never completed. The second volume begins at ‘E’ and there are relatively few entries for letters after ‘M’.

The final entry is Zacharias, with three entries representing three individuals, Pope Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist and the Old Testament prophet, each with a historiated initial. Instructions to the illuminator can be seen in a faint cursive in the margins, but they are not in the hand of le Palmer, and the artist, who was a later contributor, does not follow them closely; for example, in the upper left margin the note reads ‘Sit h[ic] papa & p[ro]ph[et]a’ (Here to be a pope and prophet) but the artist has drawn a pope and a king, illustrating the adjoining text, which tells of Pope Zacharias deposing a French king who was ‘inutilis’.

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Page with entries for Zacharias, from Omne Bonum, England (London), c. 1360-c. 1375, Royal MS 6 E VII/2, f. 532r

We would like to thank Lucy Freeman Sandler, whose remarkable study and scholarly edition of these unique manuscripts has provided the major source of information for our catalogue entry and this blogpost. For any further information on the author, illuminators, contents and context of this work, we refer our readers to:

Lucy Freeman Sandler, Omne Bonum: A Fourteenth-Century Encyclopedia of Universal Knowledge, 2 vols (London: Harvey Miller, 1996).     

Chantry Westwell

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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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17 March 2017

St Patrick's Confessio: A Medieval Autobiography

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17 March is St Patrick’s Day, when the people of Ireland and those of Irish descent around the world celebrate the feast day of this famous saint. Patrick is one of the patron saints of Ireland and certainly the most celebrated! As a young man in the 5th century, he was kidnapped from his home in Roman Britain and spent years enslaved as a shepherd in Ireland. He eventually managed to escape back to Britain, and then returned as a missionary to convert the Irish to Christianity. Patrick describes his remarkable story himself in his Confessio, a form of autobiography. The Confessio survives in only 8 manuscripts, one of which is held by the British Library (now Cotton MS Nero E I/1). This fascinating text has been fully translated from Latin into English by the Royal Irish Academy and can be found online here.

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'My name is Patrick, I am a sinner': Opening lines of the Confessio, Cotton MS Nero E I/1, f.169v

The British Library's copy of the Confessio and Epistola is part of the Cotton-Corpus Legendary, the earliest substantial legendary from England. This text originally formed two volumes, covering the whole liturgical year: they are now divided between Cotton MS Nero E I/2, Cotton MS Nero E I/2 and Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 9. The majority of the text was copied in the second half of the 11th century at Worcester Cathedral.

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Careful now! Depiction of St Patrick standing on a snake in Purgatory, from St Patrick's Purgatory: England, 1451, Royal MS 17 B XLIII, f. 132v

What may surprise many people about the Confessio is that it contains no mention of shamrocks, snakes being driven out or the naming of the mountain where Patrick tended animals as a slave, although these popular traditions have later grown up around his story. Patrick wrote the text when he was an older man, reflecting on his faith in God and referring to his life as a spiritual journey. Although he calls himself as ‘a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers’, Patrick’s faith gave him inner strength and helped him through many experiences, including: temptation by Satan as he lay sleeping one night; his escape from slavery through the wilderness; and his later call to return again to the Irish (‘I never had any reason for returning to that nation…except the gospel and God’s promises’). We also see a more human side to Patrick as he describes the homesickness he felt while in Ireland (‘I could wish to leave them to go to Britain…to visit my home country and my parents’), and the joy upon seeing his family in Britain once more (‘They welcomed me as a son, and they pleaded with me…I should never leave them again.’)

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Detailed map of Ireland from the Nowell-Burghley Atlas, 1559–1570, Add MS 62540, f. 3v

The Confessio is accompanied by Patrick’s letter to the soldiers of Coroticus, commonly known as the Epistola. Likely composed before the Confessio, Patrick uses his position as Bishop of Ireland to condemn and excommunicate Coroticus and his soldiers for attacking a number of Patrick’s newly baptised converts and carrying them off into slavery. With personal experience of this practice, Patrick expresses his sadness and grief at losing his ‘fairest and most loving brothers and sisters’ to ‘villainous rebels against Christ...who divide out defenceless baptised women as prizes, all for the sake of a miserable temporal kingdom’. The Epistola also reveals Patrick’s love of his Irish flock and belief in his mission: ‘And yet I rejoice within myself: I have not worked for nothing…thanks to God you who are baptised believers have moved on from this world to paradise. [You] leap for joy, like calves set free from chains, and you tread down the wicked, and they will be like ashes under your feet.’ We toast today to Paddy’s health and to your own, sláinte!

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A medieval shamrock? Miniature of an alleluia or wood sorrel plant, from an Italian herbal, c. 1280–1310, Egerton MS 747, f. 12r

Alison Ray

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16 March 2017

Our First 100 Polonsky Pre-1200 Manuscripts Are Now Online

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuija Ainonen

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

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

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

Laure Miolo (French summary)

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14 March 2017

Insular Manuscripts AD 650-850: Networks of Knowledge

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The Medieval Manuscripts Section at the British Library is a partner in a new project, ‘Insular Manuscripts AD 650-850: Networks of Knowledge’, funded by the Leverhulme Trust. The project will establish an international research network to advance understanding of knowledge exchange and cultural networks in early medieval Europe through analysis of the surviving Insular manuscripts made in Ireland and Anglo-Saxon England, and in continental monasteries founded by English or Irish missionaries. There are about 500 of these manuscripts, 75% of which are held in libraries in continental Europe.

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Page from the Royal Prayerbook: Southern England (Mercia), late 8th or early 9th century, Royal MS 2 A XX, f. 17r

The research network will bring together academics, curators and digital specialists at a time when increasing numbers of these manuscripts are being digitised in full and made available online. The project will run three workshops which will contribute to the development of an open-access, online research resource and other published outputs. The first workshop, ‘Methods of making: palaeographical problems, codicological challenges’, will be held at the British Library on 24–25 April 2017. In 2018, a workshop will be held in Galway and Dublin on ‘Networks of knowledge then and now: digital potential’, and in 2019 the final workshop in Vienna will be on ‘Knowledge exchange: people, places, texts’.

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Detail of a decree of the Council of Clofesho on the abolition of the archbishopric of Lichfield: Southern England (?Canterbury or London), c. 803, Cotton MS Augustus II 61 

The project is being led by Professor Joanna Story of the University of Leicester, and is a collaboration with the British Library, the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Trinity College Dublin, the National University of Ireland, Galway, and the Institut für Mittelalterforschung, Österreichishche Akademie der Wissenschaften, Vienna. To follow the progress of the project, see the website

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A late example of insular half uncial in a list of kings, including Charlemagne (Karlus) and his treasurer, Mægenfrith. From the Durham Liber Vitae: Northumbria, 1st half of 9th century, Cotton MS Domitian A VII, f. 15v

 

Claire Breay, Head of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts, and Co-Investigator in the Networks of Knowledge Project

Leverhulme