THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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59 posts categorized "Medieval history"

21 February 2017

Medieval Shelfies

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Our colleagues in the British Library's publishing team (otherwise known as @bl_publishing) recently spent a day managing the Library's Twitter account. Throughout the day, they encouraged followers to send in their shelfies, i.e. selfies of their bookcases. Sharing shelfies has recently become a popular social media trend among bibliophiles and literature enthusiasts. However, the appreciation of the aesthetic value of books and bookcases is not just a modern day phenomenon. Medieval manuscripts contain many images which depict books being stored in various styles of bookcases and shelves. Certain physical features of manuscripts themselves can also suggest how books were stored to be both visually attractive and accessible for the reader. 

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Miniature of Cornificia (Corinse) in her study, from a Flemish translation of Christine de Pizan's Cité des dames ('De Lof der Vrouwen'), Bruges, 1475. British Library Add MS 20698, f.70r

Most depictions of bookcases in medieval manuscripts can be found in images of scribes writing in a scriptorium. Within these images it is rare to see books stored with their spines facing outwards as is common today. There is evidence that books were stored in a number of different ways, such as stacked on top of one another or placed side by side. In the image below, the Dominican friar and author Vincent of Beauvais is pictured writing at his desk, surrounded by books stored with their covers on display (or easily covered by a green curtain). This method of storage may have been used for luxury books with lavish, embellished bindings. A previous post on our blog, discussing detached bindings in our collections, provides an idea of how decorative book covers could be.

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Detail of a miniature of Vincent of Beauvais sitting at a desk and writing his book, from Le miroir historial (a French translation of his Speculum historiale, translated by Jean de Vignay), Bruges, 1479-1480. British Library, Royal 14 E I volume 1, f.3r

Alternatively, books could be placed flat or even stacked on top of each other, as in the famous image of the Old Testament scribe and priest, Ezra. Behind Ezra is a special kind of book-cupboard, in which the books were laid flat next to one another. This image is taken from the Codex Amiatinus, a complete copy of the Bible which dates to the early 8th century. This manuscript was written in the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow, on the north-eastern coast of modern-day England, and was intended as a gift for Pope Gregory II. Wearmouth-Jarrow was also home to the Venerable Bede, who would have been writing in the scriptorium at the same time as this manuscript was being produced. It is possible that the bookcase and writing desk in the image were inspired by those at the scriptorium at Wearmouth-Jarrow in the 8th century.

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The 'Ezra miniature’, from the Codex Amiatinus, Wearmouth-Jarrow, c, 716. Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Amiatino 1

These images do not show the titles of the books on display, unlike modern shelfies. For that sort of shelfie from the medieval period, there are booklists or inventories, which record the books held at a particular library or institution. These lists are extremely useful for scholars trying to reconstruct the contents of ancient and medieval libraries which have been separated or lost over time. By understanding the contents of medieval libraries, it is also possible to identify specific texts which influenced the work of medieval authors.

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List of books from the Augustinian priory of St Mary, Bridlington, Yorkshire. The list is headed ‘Books of the big book-cupboard’ ('Libri magni armarii'). Rubrics separate lists of books by Ambrose, Hugh of Saint-Victor and Anselm, while others are grouped as glossed books or small books (the latter perhaps on shallower shelves). From a glossed copy of St Mark's Gospel, Northern England, c. 1150-1200. British Library, Harley MS 50, f. 48v

Booklists also provide an insight into the interests of individual patrons of books and libraries. For example, the booklist below was copied into a 10th-century manuscript and records the collection of an otherwise unknown Æthelstan. The contents of this list suggest that he was interested in works of grammar and rhetoric.

Cotton MS Domitian A I f.55v
List of Æthelstan’s books, England, c. 940-980. British Library Cotton MS Domitian A I, f.55v.

The physical appearance of manuscripts can also suggest how they were stored, and what medieval bookcases might have looked like. In a previous post, we discussed an unusual 12th-century manuscript which still retains the fur of the animal skin used for its binding. The binding also features small metal roundels and some metal bosses which protrude from the cover. These metal roundels may have been added to protect the books and provide support when they were stored in bookcases.

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

Meanwhile, this 9th-century Gospel-book provides a clue that it may have been stored with its fore-edges facing out.  While the titles of modern books are written on books' spines, because we usually store books with spines facing out, the title of this book is written on the edges of the pages.

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Detail of the title added to the fore-edge of a Gospel-book containing the Gospels of St Luke and St John, Corvey?, c. 875-900. British Library Egerton MS 768

An item in the British Library's collection of papyri also helps our understanding of the appearance of ancient libraries. Below is a small papyrus label which dates to the 2nd century, and was attached to a papyrus containing the words of Baccylides, a Greek lyric poet. These labels would have been attached to papyrus scrolls in order to make specific texts easier to find within larger collections.

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A 2nd-century papyrus fragment of Bacchylides retains its parchment label, used to identify the volume on a bookshelf. British Library Papyrus 2056

The word 'shelfie' is a portmanteau combining the words shelf and selfie. A previous post on medieval selfies demonstrated that self-portraiture was popular long before the rise of front facing cameras and selfie sticks. Shelfies, too, clearly have a history that is older than the creation of the Twitter hashtag!

Becky Lawton

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

09 February 2017

Dying to Archive: John Lakenheath at Bury St Edmunds Abbey

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

Index in Harley MS 743, f. 4r.

Index in Harley MS 743, f. 4r.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew Dunning

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

06 February 2017

A New Opening for the Lindisfarne Gospels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taylor McCall

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29 January 2017

The Book with a Fur Cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alison Hudson

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24 December 2016

Christmas Coronations

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Throughout the Middle Ages, Christmas was a season of festivities and celebrations, just as it is today. 25 December was certainly a high point of this festive season, beginning the twelve days of Christmas which would last until Epiphany. On three occasions in the early medieval period, the Christmas Day celebrations may have been more extravagant than usual: on Christmas Day in 800, 855 and 1066, merrymakers also celebrated the coronations of the very first Holy Roman Emperor and two English kings with interesting legacies.

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Blessing for Christmas Day in the 'Anderson Pontifical': British Library Additional MS 57337, f. 104r.

On Christmas Day in the year 800, Charlemagne, King of the Franks, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in the city of Rome. This was a momentous occasion in the Christian West, where Imperial authority had ceased to be acknowledged after the fall of the last Emperor of the Western Roman Empire in AD 476. By the end of the 8th century, Charlemagne’s military success had left in him control of a large part of medieval Europe and he had acquired a special relationship with the Pope. By crowning Charlemagne as the first Holy Roman Emperor, Pope Leo III was acknowledging Charlemagne’s secular authority and his role as defender of the Christian faith throughout Western Christendom.

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Detail of a miniature of Charlemagne being crowned emperor, in the second book of Charlemagne's life in Les Grandes Chroniques de France: British Library Royal MS 16 G VI, f. 141v.

Another early medieval king to have supposedly been crowned on Christmas day is King Edmund of East Anglia, who reigned from 855 until his death in 869. Very little is known about Edmund'ss early life, as no contemporary written records survive from his reign. The first-known record focuses more on the circumstances of Edmund's death than his achievements in life. The ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ described how Edmund was killed by the Great Heathen Army of Danes which had recently attacked other parts of Anglo-Saxon England. This is the same Great Heathen Army which was fought off by Alfred the Great of Wessex over the next decade.

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Miniature of Edmund tied to a tree and being shot full of arrows by two Scandinavians: British Library Harley MS 4826, f. 4r.

According to tradition, Edmund died during battle with the Danes after he refused their demands to renounce his Christian faith. This refusal transformed Edmund into a martyr. Over the following two centuries, a popular cult developed around his memory and was centred on the church where his remains were buried. The town which grew around this church was so associated with the cult of St Edmund that it took on his name, becoming the modern-day  Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. In the 10th century, the monks of Ramsey Abbey commissioned Abbo of Fleury to write a Latin account of the saint’s life and early cult. This text was later translated into Old English by the Anglo-Saxon, Ælfric of Eynsham, a well-known writer of many old English saint’s Lives, homilies and biblical commentaries. Much of what is now known about Edmund's early life, including his coronation on Christmas Day, comes from these texts written up to 200 years after his death. It is therefore uncertain where Edmund was indeed crowned on Christmas Day, or whether his later hagiographers deemed this an appropriate date for the coronation of a king who would later be canonised.

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Beginning of the Life of Edmund the Martyr in Ælfric’s Lives of Saints: British Library Cotton MS Julius E VII, f. 203r.

The crowning glory in our series of early medieval Christmas coronations is that of William the Conqueror, who was crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day in 1066. William’s coronation marked the end of Anglo-Saxon rule in England, and the beginning of the Norman dynasty.

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Detail of a roundel of William the Conqueror ('William Bastard'), from a genealogical chronicle of the kings of England, England (East Anglia?), c. 1340–1342: British Library Royal MS 14 B VI, membrane 5.

After his coronation, William set about establishing his authority in his new kingdom. As part of this process, he commissioned an abbey to be built upon the site of the Battle of Hastings. According to 12th-century sources, before the battle, William had sworn to build the abbey in order to commemorate and pray for those who died in combat. A detailed account of this foundation story was written at Battle in the 12th century. The page below is the beginning of an account of the life of William the Conqueror, and depicts William enthroned.

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Historiated initial with William the Conqueror: British Library Cotton MS Domitian A II, f. 22v.

It is extremely likely that these kings, or the people who wrote their legends, consciously chose to the crowned on Christmas Day. Those who celebrated their coronations on 25 December would also be celebrating the birth of Christ, the saviour and King of Kings. This would have added a sense of Divine favour to their rule, and secured their claim to that particular title. The sacred significance of this would not have been lost on the audience of these ceremonies, those who recorded them, and those who read about them throughout history.

Becky Lawton

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

22 December 2016

A Reindeer Farmer at King Alfred's Court

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This is a story about a gift-giving man, who lived in the ‘north-most’ place and owned 600 reindeer. Sounds like anyone familiar? Well, he wasn't Santa, if that was what you were thinking. The man in question was Ohthere, an intrepid explorer from medieval Scandinavia, who visited the court of King Alfred the Great in the late 9th century and told the king about his travels. We know Ohthere's story from a 10th-century manuscript held at the British Library, recently added to our Digitised Manuscripts site (Add MS 47967).

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Detail of a deer from an Old English translation of Medicina de quadrupedibus (England, 11th century): Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 76r.

Ohthere was a wealthy explorer from the area that is now Norway. He travelled around Scandinavia, including areas that today comprise parts of Denmark and Finland, and he sailed ‘as far north as whale-hunters ever go’. He later visited the court of King Alfred of Wessex (871–899), where scholars were keen to learn about his travels. One of these scholars added an account of Ohthere's travels to the Old English translation of Orosius's Historia adversus paganos (History against the pagans). According to this account, Ohthere told Alfred about his travels, explaining that he was curious to see the extreme north, and that he wanted to hunt ‘horse-whales’, or walruses. Walrus ivory was a valuable trading commodity in this period, and Ohthere presented King Alfred with some walrus tusks when they met.   

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Detail of the North Sea from a world map, England, c. 1000-1050, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 56v 

Whoever preserved this story was also curious about Ohthere’s descriptions of where the Angles had lived ‘before they came into this land’ (England). Members of Alfred's court remembered that their ancestors came from mainland Europe, and they wanted to learn more about the lands which they identified as their own places of origin.

As well as describing Ohthere’s travels, the author of this account also described whale-hunting, uninhabited polar ‘deserts’ and different Scandinavian languages. For example, according to Ohthere, the Finnas and the Beormas both spoke basically the same language. The Old English account also described Ohthere’s economic resources, including a herd of 600 ‘tame deer’ called hranas, or reindeer. In particular, Ohthere owned 6 prized ‘decoy deer’, which the Finnas used to lure wild reindeer into captivity. The account also reported that Ohthere was ‘one of the first men on the land’ near his home, and that he received a tribute of animal products from the Finnas.

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Description of reindeer in the Old English translation of Orosius’s Historia adversus paganos (England, c. 1000–1050): Cotton MS Tiberius B I, f. 12v.

Our only written source about Ohthere is contained in an Old English translation of Orosius’s History, whose compiler edited and augmented his source-material. Orosius began with an account of the geography of the known world, which the Old English translator supplemented with extra information about Britain and Scandinavia, including reports by explorers including Ohthere and another seafarer, Wulfstan. This translation may have been composed in the late 9th century, and it survives in copies from the early 10th and 11th centuries.

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Beginning of the description of world geography, from the Tollemache Orosius (England (Winchester?), c. 900–950): Add MS 47967, f. 5v.

Although he may sound like a figure from modern folktales, Ohthere was, in many ways, a myth-buster. While King Alfred is remembered today for fighting Scandinavians (thanks to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Asser’s Life of Alfred, and other texts produced at his court), the story of Ohthere shows a different side of Anglo-Scandinavian relations in the late 9th century. At least one Scandinavian traded with the English and brought gifts to Alfred, and his knowledge was recorded and respected by scholars at Alfred’s court.

Alison Hudson

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21 December 2016

Fake Anglo-Saxon Charters

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The Oxford Dictionaries word of the year for 2016 is ‘post-truth’. But the problem of distributing information that portrays that world as one thinks it should be, rather than sticking to objective facts, is hardly a new one. Gaining and keeping privileges is based on having documentation appearing to be authentic and credible stories surrounding it. This was no less true in the Middle Ages, and it has always been a temptation to tweak it in one’s own favour.

Today, we keep a title deed to demonstrate right to a particular property, or a diploma from an educational institution to demonstrate a particular qualification. This stems from the medieval practice of creating ‘charters’, derived from the Latin word ‘carta’ or ‘charta’, originally meaning a sheet of writing material — ‘Magna Carta’ means ‘the big charter’. Over time, the word came to refer to a formal deed or other legal instrument, since charters were normally issued as a single sheet of parchment.

Cotton Charter XI 11

Writing Old English in the 15th century: Cotton Charter XI 11.

If a document supporting your claim to a piece of land had been destroyed, lost or mouldered away, this posed a liability. You could have a new charter issued to confirm one’s privileges in such instances, but this meant extra expenses and bureaucracy. The privileges of institutions were often based on events that had occurred far beyond the realm of living memory, and they risked lawsuits if it became apparent to outsiders that a claim was ambiguous. The obvious solution was to recreate the charter: to make a forgery.

The intent in such cases was not necessarily malicious; historians often refer to such charters as ‘spurious’ to avoid passing judgement on their creators. Some documents were obviously fraudulent, and known to be so even in the Middle Ages. The most famous example is the Donation of Constantine, which purported to be from the Roman emperor who reigned from 306 to 337, granting vast temporal rights to the papacy. Most charters, however, were based on originals, now usually lost, and they continue to be of value for understanding the past, even if they cannot be taken as authentic documentation.

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Still trying to be Anglo-Saxon in the 12th century: Add Charter 28657.

In England, some of the most fascinating spurious charters are those purporting to be Anglo-Saxon. Documentation from this period is scarce, and historians have analysed them to determine which details might be accurate. But whether their contents are true or false, they give a sense of how someone living after 1066 viewed the period before the Norman Conquest. Far from sitting unread, there continued to be interest in understanding the contents and composition of Anglo-Saxon charters, and this expertise was key to making a successful imitation.

Forgers attempted to imitate script; the form of the document, including the seal; and language and formulae. They did so with wildly varying levels of success. Some scribes had a clear sense that the document they were examining was quite different from something they might create in everyday business. Others made no attempt whatsoever to make a charter look like an earlier medieval document, and in some cases do not seem to have understood the function of every aspect of a charter.

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Gothic script taking on aspects of English vernacular minuscule: Harley Charter 43 C 9.

Handwriting is the most obvious indicator of a spurious charter. A document written in Gothic script cannot be an original from the year 900. The cleverest scribes wrote charters in a script after the manner of their own period, but attempting to use the letterforms of an older style, in this case English vernacular minuscule. This was a relatively widespread phenomenon, and can be used as a direct measure for historical literacy, as Julia Crick has shown. Some scribes’ imitations have proven good enough to fool palaeographers into thinking that a document was much older than it really is.

Add Charter 33658

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Anglo-Saxon for show: Add Ch 33658.

Some forgers were also aware of how an Anglo-Saxon charter should physically look. Most understood that it should be a single sheet of parchment, but many forgers failed to create a convincing imitation because they attempted to create the most impressive document they could imagine, rather than something that followed historical precedent. One example is Add Charter 33658, a 14th-century creation that purports to be a grant of King Edgar to Ramsey Abbey, dated 28 December 974. It is copied on a massive sheet of parchment, with far wider margins than any known Anglo-Saxon document, and is clearly designed for show. Someone seems to have had a vague idea that a real charter should be a chirograph. This was a medieval method of authentication: two or more copies of a charter would be written on a single sheet of parchment, a word such as CHIROGRAPHVS would be written along the boundaries between the copies, and they would be cut apart with a wavy line. In cases of doubt, the authenticity of a document could be determined by bringing the copies back together. In this case, the forgers do not seem to have known exactly how a chirograph was meant to work: wobbly semicircles have been cut out of one side, without any inscription. Update, 16 January 2017: We had thought that we had ruled out the possibility of this being a rodent’s work, but Susan Maddock kindly points out that the pattern on the left edge indicates that the charter was stored as a roll, not folded as it is now.

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An 11th-century test forgery of Edward the Confessor’s seal: Cotton Charter XVII 5.

The most impressive aspect of many charters is their seals. Like the texts of charters, some forged seals were based on originals. Westminster Abbey ran a particularly sophisticated forgery operation: they had some charters with the seal of King Edward the Confessor, and made a very close copy of it around the late 11th century, which survives on several surviving spurious charters. One can catch them in the act of perfecting their work with Cotton Charter XVII 5, which appears to be a practice copy, a seal attached to a small blank sheet of parchment. Centuries later, monks were still trying to produce forged charters of Edward the Confessor, but less successfully — Harley Charter 43 E 51, from the 15th century, has what almost looks like a massive Victorian fantasy version of Edward’s seal (113 mm in diameter), showing the king seated in an unapologetically Gothic structure.

Harley Charter 43 E 51

Harley Charter 43 E 51 Seal

Imagining Edward the Confessor in the 15th century: Harley Charter 43 E 51.

Some charters that are physically much newer than their text are, of course, mere copies of a degrading original, and can still be treated as conveying accurate historical details. Historians can tell the difference between these and deliberate forgeries by carefully analysing the language and formulae used, along with known historical details. Today, we are becoming much better at understanding what makes an authentic Anglo-Saxon charter.

Andrew Dunning

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

10 December 2016

Ocean Explorers at the Institut du Monde Arabe

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Seemingly every day, new evidence comes to light of the extent of international connections in the Middle Ages. For example, the British Museum recently published the discovery of Middle Eastern bitumen used at the Anglo-Saxon Sutton Hoo burial. How, then, did these movements occur, and what were their effects? The Institut du monde arabe in Paris is giving a unique opportunity to explore these questions with their exhibition entitled ‘Ocean Explorers from Sindbad to Marco Polo’ (‘Aventuriers des mers de Sindbad à Marco Polo’), running from 15 November 2016 until 26 February 2017. The British Library is delighted to have loaned two of our manuscripts for this exhibition.

Whale

Ship atop a whale: Harley MS 3244, f. 60v.

If there is anything that everyone understands about medieval sailing, it is that it was incredibly dangerous. The only means of navigation was the sky until the magnetic compass was imported from the Arabic world, which was first recorded in the West in the 1180s by Alexander Neckam, then a teacher in St Albans. Shipwrecks were inevitable. One of the popular methods of depicting of a whale, symbolizing the uncertainties of the sea, showed a ship that had accidentally landed on its back, with its crew lighting a fire. This story is most famously told in the Voyage of St Brendan. Every year over the course of their seven-year voyage, his crew moored on the back of a whale named Jasconius to celebrate Easter. The whale in Harley MS 3244, an English bestiary from the 13th century, is a particularly vivid example of this motif.

Also starring in the exhibit is Cotton MS Tiberius D IX, the Itinerary of the Red Sea (Roteiro do Mar Roxo) by João de Castro. It includes a beautiful series of coloured maps, notably showing ships with many different types of sails, underlining their varied origins. Our manuscripts are shown alongside many other artefacts showing the influence of travel on pre-modern culture, from both the Middle East and Europe. In case you need yet another excuse to travel to Paris, now you have it.

Ocean Explorers from Sindbad to Marco Polo is at the Institut du monde arabe from 15 November 2016 until 26 February 2017

Andrew Dunning

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval