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11 October 2017

A spiritual guide for a female recluse

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The British Library houses a rich collection of medieval texts relating to the lives of religious female recluses, known as female anchorites or anchoresses. Inspired by the desert fathers of the 4th century, many holy women including Julian of Norwich withdrew from the world to live a life of solitude and prayer. As part of the ongoing England and France 700-1200 joint project with the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the Library has digitised one of the earliest known spiritual guides for anchoresses, entitled the Liber Confortatorius, which today survives in a single manuscript (now known as Sloane MS 3103).

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Letters and long laments: a text page from the Liber Confortatorius: Sloane MS 3103, f. 3v

An instructional guide to spiritual meditation and prayer, the Liber Confortatorius (‘Book of Encouragement and Consolation’) is a 12th-century copy of an earlier text. The original work was composed circa 1082 by Goscelin of Saint-Bertin, a Flemish monk who lived in England and acted for a period of time as the chaplain of the convent of Wilton. While there, he tutored and mentored a young girl named Eve. Goscelin witnessed Eve taking her formal vows to become a nun, and saw himself as a mother-figure to her, ‘the mother soul who gave birth to you with heaving womb … who did so much and bore so much in the hope of our mutual presence’ (Book I).

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The lady enters a convent and has her hair cut short by the abbess, in Lancelot-Grail (The Prose Vulgate Cycle): Add MS 10293, f. 261r

Around 1080, Eve left Wilton without consulting anyone to become an anchoress in Angers, France, where she joined a small community of female recluses. Goscelin was devastated by Eve’s departure, and in response wrote the Liber Confortatorius addressed to her in the form of a letter. Divided into four books, the lengthy text compiles quotations from the Psalms and includes advisory tales inspired by the works of St Augustine and St Jerome.

Although intended to be a spiritual guide, Goscelin could not hide his personal grief: ‘hear me, speaking to you … from the sickbed of my sorrow’ (Book I). It may be read as Goscelin’s letter of spiritual and personal love for his former pupil: ‘since your soulmate cannot and does not deserve to visit you in the flesh, he now seeks you out with anxious letters and long laments … with the languishing desire of a wounded love infusing your breast with Christ’ (Book I).

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Goscelin valued his spiritual relationship with Eve: miniature detail of a nun confessing to a monk: Yates Thompson MS 11, f. 29r

There is no evidence to suggest that Eve ever received or read the work, leaving Goscelin’s lament one-sided. However, Eve’s decision to leave England appears to have been a happy one. A commemorative poem about her by Hilary of Orléans informs us that, after leaving Angers, she lived as a respected religious figure in Vendôme, in seclusion under the guidance of a male recluse named Hervé. One could say that the consolation of the book is entirely the writer’s own: ‘Take pity on your bereaved Goscelin … whom you have shaken to the foundations with your departure ... may I be so happy one day to see you in the blessed light, full of joy’ (Book IV).

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Eve embraced the life of a female recluse: bas-de-page scene of woman embracing a hermit, from the Smithfield Decretals: Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 127r

The English translations of Liber Confortatorius are taken from Monika Otter, Goscelin of St Bertin: The Book of Encouragement and Consolation (Cambridge: Boydell, 2004).

Alison Ray

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09 October 2017

Either a borrower or a lender be

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You may have noticed the recent trend to commemorate things with their own day or week. Perhaps you missed International Bagpipe Day (10 March — put a note in your diaries for 2018) but some people may have remembered to celebrate National Badger Day last Friday. Certain of these dates have less resonance with us at the British Library, but one that has caught our eye, and is definitely the occasion to blow our own trumpet, is Libraries Week, starting on 9 October. To celebrate, we are looking at evidence for lending and borrowing in medieval libraries.

‘Not to lend books is a type of homicide’, according to Stephen Langton's commentary on Deuteronomy. (One of Langton's principal claims to fame is that he was archbishop of Canterbury at the time that Magna Carta was issued in 1215.) There is a popular perception that medieval libraries comprised rows of chained books, which were never allowed out of sight. Such chained libraries did exist (an example is that at Hereford, and many British Library manuscripts were clearly once chained), but people have always exchanged, borrowed and shared their books. Here are some of our favourite examples drawn from the British Library’s collections.

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Richard de Bury, bishop of Durham and noted book-borrower, with a stack of three books, St Albans, c. 1380, Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 87r

Borrowing books was crucial for the formation of medieval libraries. Scribes often borrowed manuscripts to make copies. For example, the letters of Lupus, abbot of Ferrières (fl. c. 805–862), are full of requests to borrow books, which he copied to augment his own libraries.

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Lupus of Ferrières’s manuscript of Cicero’s De oratore, copied from a book he borrowed from the library at Fulda in 836, Harley MS 2736, f. 1r

After the monastery of Peterborough burnt down in 1116, its library was restocked in part by borrowing and copying texts from other houses. Some of the diagrams in one computistical handbook may have been left unfinished when the scribes had to return their exemplar.

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Possibly unfinished pages from Byrhtferth of Ramsey’s computus, England (Peterborough), 2nd quarter of the 12th century, Harley MS 3667, ff. 5v–6r

Outside of monasteries, professional scribes and illuminators also borrowed books. A note in a 14th-century copy of the Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César records that one of its quires was lent to the Parisian illuminator, Perrin Remiet (fl. 1368, or c. 1396–1420), to copy.

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Detail of a bas de page illustration of Jason's adventures, Naples, c. 1330–1340, Royal MS 20 D I, f. 33v

Medieval authors also needed to borrow books. The huge number of sources cited by Bede (d. 735) suggests that he may have borrowed books from other libraries. 

On occasion we have clear evidence that surviving books had been loaned. For example, one 13th-century theological compilation from Reading Abbey has an inscription indicating it was exchanged with Cirencester Abbey for another book.

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Flyleaf with drawings, book curse and note of an exchange, Harley MS 979, f. 1v

Individual monks also borrowed books from their monastic library. The ‘Constitutions’ of Lanfranc, archbishop of Canterbury, stated that Benedictine monks should borrow a book every year, starting on the first Monday of Lent. They also needed to beg forgiveness if they hadn’t managed to read last year’s book.

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Passage on lending books, from Lanfranc's Constitutions, England (Christ Church, Canterbury), 2nd quarter of the 12th century, Cotton MS Claudius C VI, f.  178r

Borrowing and lending books was not limited to the clergy. In the mid-15th century, John Paston, a member of the gentry from Norfolk, wrote to his brother to ask that he contact a mutual friend in London who ‘has a book of my sister Ann, of the Siege of Thebes. When he is done with it, he promised to deliver it to you.’ One medieval bestiary may also have been lent to laypeople. The last page includes an oath that its borrowers would have to return the manuscript or die. The oath is signed by an 'abstetrix heifmoeder' (midwife) in a 14th- or 15th-century hand.

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Detail of an oath, from Der Nature Bloeme, Western Netherlands, 1st quarter of the 14th century, Add MS 11390, f. 94v

Not everyone was happy about lending books or trusted their borrowers. ‘Overdue’ or stolen books were a major concern. Some books include curses threatening supernatural punishments on anyone who stole them. Other lenders utilised contracts or letters to ensure that their books were returned. An indenture dated 1 June 1390 (Cotton MS Faustina C V, f. 50r) records that William Bottlesham, bishop of Rochester, agreed to lend John Mory/Amory, rector of Southfleet, 13 books and some vestments for one month. If they were not returned, the borrower would have to pay 100 marks sterling.

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One of the books borrowed by John Mory/Amory, Antony of Padua's Concordantia maior and Concordantiae morales bibliorum, England, 1st quarter of the 14th century, Royal MS 4 E V, f. 4r

Letters written in an effort to recover books provide further evidence of borrowing. In the 970s or 980s, a monk from Fleury wrote to Archbishop Dunstan of Canterbury (d. 988) and mentioned that Abbot Osgar of Abingdon (d. 984)  and the monks of Winchester had still not returned his books.

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Copy of a letter from ‘L’ (Lantfred) of Fleury to Archbishop Dunstan, Canterbury, 1st quarter of the 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius A XV, f. 168v

This is only a very partial survey of the medieval evidence for lending and borrowing books. We hope it shows at the very least that medieval libraries should not be stereotyped as containing rows of chained tomes, jealously guarded by ferocious librarians. Next time you borrow a book from your local library, remember you are participating in an ancient tradition.

Alison Hudson

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20 September 2017

Where's Walter?

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There was once a scribe named Walter, a canon and deacon who lived at Cirencester Abbey in the latter part of the 12th century. And that is practically all we know of him. With little biographical information, is it possible to make personalities of the past feel closer? Studying Walter’s handwriting can actually take us a little bit further. He is known to us from his meticulous scribal work and the marginal notes that he made in surviving manuscripts.

Walter’s hand appears throughout an exceptionally early copy of the letters of Thomas Becket (Cotton MS Claudius B II), dating to the 1180s, both in the main text and in the margins. (We have recently digitised this manuscript as part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project, and it can be viewed in full on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.) Walter’s notes compare the manuscript’s text to that of another rescension, which he calls his exemplar or the alius liber, the ‘other book’. His heightened editorial interest in this text suggests he was keenly aware of the political importance of Becket’s letters, assembled only a few years earlier by Alan of Tewkesbury, and which laid out the murdered archbishop’s dispute with King Henry II (1154–1189). According to Michael Gullick, Walter probably worked on the manuscript over several years, in a self-directed campaign (‘A twelfth-century manuscript of the letters of Thomas Becket’, in English Manuscript Studies 1100–1700, 2 (1990), pp. 1-31).

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Margaret or Matilda? Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 49r

Walter's notes highlight disparities between the two books. For instance, on one page a Latin note appears in the margin beside a rubric stating that the following letter is from ‘Thomas the Archbishop of Canterbury to Margaret Queen of the Sicilians’. It tells us that in his other book, in alio libro, the text names her as Matilda, Matildi. As a Queen of Sicily named Margaret actually lived between 1135 and 1183, we can conclude that, in this instance, the version we are looking at here is more accurate than the ‘other book’. Walter placed a line and a dot above the ‘in’ of his note (which is abbreviated). The same symbol appears above the word ‘Margerete’ in the rubric, to help match them up.

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A decorative ‘S’: Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 233v

The notes are not mere musings. This is demonstrated both by their meticulously composed content and their decorative treatment. For example, now and again Walter added a coloured initial to the manuscript. Again, we can tell what part of the text this note relates to from matching symbols in the margin and in the text proper (look to the left of the green ‘T’). In some cases, Walter even arranged his notes in an elaborate shape.

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Diamonds are forever: Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 80r

For instance, this diamond with stepped sides and ornate finials shows particular commitment to the decorative cause. But there is one delightful glimpse in this manuscript of fallibility. Finding a mistake can sometimes feel like meeting the person behind the script for the first time. So let’s ‘find’ Walter.

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Mistakes may be rare, but they can allow us to glimpse the personality behind the pen: Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 177r

In column two of one page about half-way through the book, Walter carefully outlined and ruled a triangle, filling it with neat lines of script. When proof-reading the text, however, he must have kicked himself. Drawing a line from the top of the triangle to the space beneath the first column, he directed the reader to a confession in chastened cursive script: ‘I should have written this note here.’

Hello, Walter.

 

Cotton MS Claudius B II est une compilation des lettres de Thomas Becket. Cet article présente des notes marginale de Walter de l’abbaye de Cirencestre et l'erreur qui l’a poussé à ajouter, ‘Je devais écrire cette note ici’.

 

Amy Jeffs

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19 September 2017

Richard the Lionheart in Speyer

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A major new exhibition devoted to Richard the Lionheart has recently opened in Speyer, to which the British Library is pleased to have loaned three of our magnificent medieval manuscripts. The books in question can be viewed in Richard Löwenherz: König-Ritter-Gefangener (Richard the Lionheart: King, Knight, Prisoner) at the Historisches Museum der Pfalz until 14 January 2018. Alongside precious artefacts such as the Cross of Henry the Lion, the exhibition features the Psalter of Henry the Lion, Matthew Paris's Chronicles of England and pages from an illustrated, verse chronicle. Here we tell you a little more about the stunning Psalter on loan to the Speyer exhibition.

In February 1168, Henry the Lion, Duke of Bavaria and Saxony (b. 1129, d. 1195), married the 12-year-old Princess Matilda of England in Minden Cathedral. Matilda provided an important political connection for Henry: she was the third child and eldest daughter of King Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and she had four surviving brothers, including Richard the Lionheart. The ducal couple had five children, the last of whom was William of Winchester, who was born while Matilda was in England, as his epithet suggests. Matilda died a few days before her father, in the summer of 1189, so she did not live to see her brothers, Richard the Lionheart and John, become kings of England. Nevertheless, her descendants also became kings: the current English royal family is descended from William of Winchester through the ducal house of Brunswick-Lüneburg and the royal house of Windsor.

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Representation of the Crucifixion with a portrait of Henry and Matilda (below), from Lansdowne MS 381/1, f. 10v 

A portrait of Henry and Matilda is preserved in an image that originally formed part of a luxury copy of a Psalter (British Library Lansdowne MS 381/1). The ducal pair appear below a representation of the Crucifixion, and opposite the Resurrection. They are identified with their names and titles ‘Henricu[s] dux’ (Duke Henry) and ‘Mathilt[a] ducissa’ (Duchess Mathilda) just above them, and each holds a scroll with a text appropriate to the scene above, from the Feast of the Inventio Crucis (the Finding of the Cross). Henry’s scroll reads ‘Adoram[us] te xre [Christe] et benedicim[us] tibi’ (We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you), while Matilda’s declares ‘Salva nos xre [Christe] salvator p[er] virtute[m] crucis’ (Save us, O Saviour Christ, by the virtue of the Cross).

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Calendar page for the month of September portraying the zodiac symbol of Libra and the month’s labour of wine-making, from Lansdowne MS 381/1, f. 5v

Only eleven leaves from this small Latin Psalter are preserved, but they give an indication of just how splendid the book must have been originally. Psalters include the book of the Psalms, but also other texts that add to the book’s devotional character, such as a calendar, which provided its user with information about saints’ days and other holidays. In the Psalter of Henry the Lion, six months of the calendar survive, showing the saints’ days for June to December. In most Psalters the Canticles and personalized prayers and litanies follow the Psalms, but these are not among the surviving leaves of the Henry the Lion Psalter.

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Representation of the Resurrection, from Lansdowne MS 381/1, f. 11r

Particularly opulent Psalters, like this one, also featured full-page devotional images, usually placed before the Psalms. Two such paintings survive in the Henry of Lion Psalter (the Annunciation and the Presentation), but, more unusually, full-page scenes also appear at important divisions of the Psalms itself. For example, the Duke and Duchess were placed right before the beginning of Psalm 101, as is clear from the text on the other sides of the Crucifixion and Resurrection scenes. This is an important position in the book, at a division of one of the so-called ‘three fifties’, dividing the Psalms into three groups, and at a point where a donor portrait sometimes appears.

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Opening of Psalm 1 with foliated initial of ‘B’(eatus vir), from Lansdowne MS 381/1, f. 8v

The decoration and painting in the Psalter is of high quality, and includes precious materials. Moreover, the beginning of Psalms 1 and 101 and the calendar pages are written on a stained or painted purple background, and written in liquid gold ink. Purple is replete with both imperial and spiritual references; certain Roman emperors famously reserved the use of purple clothing for themselves, and books, too, written on purple were high-status objects. In a Christian context, the purple also may refer to the blood of Christ’s sacrifice, while the gold and silver reflected the preciousness of the sacred text itself. The richness of the illumination is appropriate as well to the status of the book’s princely owners.

The Psalter of Henry the Lion together with the Chronicles of England (Cotton MS Claudius D VI) and the illustrated verse chronicle (Cotton MS Vitellius A XIII/1) can be viewed in person at the Historisches Museum der Pfalz in Speyer until 15 April 2018. We would be delighted if you were able to visit the exhibition; but if you can’t get to Germany, you can also see all three manuscripts online in full on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts website.

Kathleen Doyle

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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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21 August 2017

Total eclipse of the Sun

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On 21 August 2017, American readers of our Blog have the exciting opportunity to witness a full solar eclipse (some of them may even be able to hear Bonnie Tyler singing 'Total Eclipse of the Heart' at the very same time: what more could you want?). Of course, solar and lunar eclipses have been a source of wonder across the centuries, with or without Bonnie Tyler. Since Antiquity, astronomers and astrologers have had a clear understanding of how and why eclipses occur, and they were able to predict their arrival using diagrams and tables. Eclipses were also described by medieval chroniclers, who often interpreted them as an omen.

Our first historical example of an eclipse is found in this 15th-century French manuscript of the History of Alexander the Great. The scene it depicts is not a contemporary one, rather it shows the lunar eclipse which occurred during the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC, when Alexander the Great’s army met the Persian army of Darius III. Alexander is shown consulting his astrologers about the eclipse's meaning: the soldiers perhaps interpreted it as a bad omen.

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Miniature of Alexander the Great consulting his astrologers about an eclipse of the sun after the battle of Arbela: British Library Burney MS 169, f. 69r

Early medieval scholars knew that a solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the Sun and Earth. One of our favourite medieval writers, the Anglo-Saxon scholar Bede (d. 735), explained this phenomenon in his scientific texts entitled De natura rerum (On the Nature of Things), composed around 703. In the chapter headed 'On the eclipse of the sun and the moon', Bede described how a solar eclipse occurs when the Sun is hidden by the intervention of the Moon, and a lunar eclipse when the Sun, Earth and moon are aligned with Earth in the centre.

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Extract from an 11th-century copy of Bede’s De natura rerum: British Library Royal MS 13 A XI, f. 18r

In some medieval manuscripts, astrological texts are accompanied by diagrams illustrating an eclipse. For example, this diagram, found in  a 14th-century compilation of mathematical and astronomical texts, illustrates the Sun's position in relation to the Earth and Moon.

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Diagram of a solar eclipse: British Library Royal MS 12 C XVII, f. 32r

Elsewhere, we sometimes find diagrams showing the different stages of the Sun's visibility during an eclipse.

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Series of diagrams of solar eclipses: British Library Additional MS 10628, f. 28r

Diagrams of lunar and solar eclipses could also be included in almanacs, alongside calendars and other astrological material. Almanacs were used to predict the movement of the stars and the tides, often during medical consultations. A special kind of folding almanac, favoured by medical practitioners, could be hung from its owner's belt. This folding almanac, produced in the 15th century, contains a series of diagrams of the solar eclipse, based on the Kalendarium of John Somer.

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Diagrams of solar and lunar eclipses: British Library Harley MS 937, f. 8r

For those with no astronomical knowledge, the darkening of the sky during a solar eclipse may have been particularly ominous. People would have heard or read about such events from the Old Testament story of the Plagues of Egypt, describing a darkness that lasted for three days. According to the Gospel of St Matthew, a period of darkness lasting for three hours, accompanied by earthquakes and the raising of the dead, followed the Crucifixion of Christ. These apocalyptic associations were supported by other medieval accounts. For instance, the Middle English copy of The Fifteen Signs before Doomsday found in British Library Harley MS 913, explained that the first sign of the approaching Apocalypse is that the ‘Sun will give no light and will be cast down to Earth – while you now see it [the Sun] as pleasing and bright, it will become as black as coal.'

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The Fifteen Signs before Doomsday: British Library Harley MS 913, f. 20v

You may wish to muse on this as you observe or read about this August's solar eclipse (with or without Bonnie Tyler on your headphones, obviously!). 

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God creating the Sun and the Moon: British Library Additional MS 18856, f. 5v

Becky Lawton and Clarck Drieshen

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17 August 2017

Snakes or scrolls? 11th-century wall paintings in Norfolk

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Our manuscripts contain so many hidden gems of medieval art, and one of this Blog's aims is to bring them to light. It is worth remembering, though, that many wonderful medieval paintings survive on the walls of country churches in forgotten corners of Britain. The styles and subjects are familiar, and they also have amazing stories to tell.

This image of a series of saints or apostles in roundels, holding scrolls, is from the wall of the tiny church of St Mary, Houghton-on-the-Hill, in Norfolk. which contains perhaps the most complete set of early medieval wall paintings in England; they date from the 11th century, shortly after the Norman Conquest of England. The figure on the right may be Jesus and on his left, not shown here, are demons, also holding scrolls (or are they snakes?).

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Nave east wall: detail of the border with the saints (and Christ) holding scrolls, St Mary’s, Houghton-on-the-Hill (courtesy of the Friends of St Marys website)

The shape of the scrolls and the way the figures hold them up recalls this image of King Edgar, with Bishops Dunstan and Æthelwold, in a copy of the Regularis Concordia, made at Christ Church, Canterbury. in the first half of the 11th century.

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King Edgar, with Bishops Dunstan and Æthelwold, Regularis concordia, England (? Christ Church Canterbury), first half of the 11th century: British Library Cotton MS Tiberius A III, f. 2v

The way the wavy scroll is held up by the three figures above and its undulating shape, shaded in brown, green, mauve and ochre, repeated in the image of the monk holding the scroll below, is reminiscent of the wall painting. It has the same clear ochre outlines, though there is predominant use of yellow, and traces of white, red and green have been found on the plaster. However, the image in the Regularis concordia is clearly one long scroll held by all three people whereas the three in the St Mary’s church border are detached from each other.

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The east wall with the Last Judgement including the ‘Throne of God’ Trinity, St Mary’s Church, Houghton-on-the-Hill

The roundels are part of a scene of the Last Judgement that covered the east wall of the church, over the chancel arch. At the centre in a triple mandorla, now rather damaged, is a representation of the Trinity known as the ‘Throne of Grace’, where God the father, seated, holds the cross with Christ on it and a dove with wings outstretched represents the Holy Spirit. On God’s knee is a quatrefoil (not visible in the photographs), an Anglo-Saxon motif that indicates a very early date of before 1090 for these paintings; it is found in a number of 11th-century manuscripts.

In this image in the 'Eadui Psalter', the seated St Benedict has quatrefoil shapes on each knee, and one above and below. We have published a detailed analysis of those quatrefoils (with astonishing results) here.

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A group of monks presenting a copy of the Rule of Benedict to St Benedict who sits enthroned while another monk prostrates himself at Benedict's feet, the 'Eadui Psalter', England, S.E. (Christ Church, Canterbury), 1st half 11th century, British Library Arundel MS 155, f. 133r

If the dating is correct, this remote church may contain the earliest known example of the ‘Throne of Grace’ Trinity. Two French works of the early 12th century are the earliest manuscript witnesses (Cambrai, Bibliotheque Municipale, ms. 0234 and Perpignan, Bibliotheque Municipale, 1: see Park and Heywood, ‘Romanesque Wall Paintings’). Representing the difficult concept of the Trinity in art was first undertaken in this period; the ‘Throne of Grace’, an early attempt to depict the relationship between the three figures, became the most popular form throughout Europe from the 12th century onwards. Here is a later example from the Egerton Psalter, originating in East Anglia in the late 13th century.

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Historiated initial 'D'(ixit) with a Throne of Grace Trinity, the 'Egerton Psalter’, England (East Anglia), c. 1270–c. 1290: British Library Egerton MS 1066, f. 83r

A manuscript from the early 11th century (before 1029), containing a liturgical and computistical collection known as ‘Ælfwine’s Prayerbook’, has this image of the Trinity, with the Father and Son seated together and the dove on Mary’s head, as she holds the infant Christ.

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The Trinity with Mary and a hell mouth below, Ælfwine’s Prayerbook’, England (New Minster, Winchester), 3rd decade of the 11th century: British Library Cotton MS Titus D XXVII, f. 75v

On the north wall of the church are scenes from the Old Testament, including a well-preserved image of God creating Eve from Adam’s rib, and a trace of what is believed to be Noah’s Ark. On the south wall is a fragment of a Wheel of Fortune (or perhaps a Wheel of Life), once again an early representation of this subject that was popular with later manuscript illuminators. The Friends of St Mary’s are currently raising funds to complete the uncovering of the medieval paintings on this wall.

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Historiated initial 'D'(ixit) of the Wheel of Fortune, at the beginning of book 4. Quadripartitum of Ptolemy, England, 1st quarter of the 14th century: British Library Royal MS 12 F VII, f. 182v  

Although the subjects may be familiar, their innovative iconography and style for the Romanesque period, and the fact that they were created in a small church in a remote corner of Norfolk, makes these paintings exceptional. But even more exceptional is the story of their survival and restoration in the late 20th century.

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Photographs of the tower of St Mary’s church, Houghton-on-the Hill, before and after restoration

St Mary’s church is at the end of a bridleway, west of the village of North Pickenham in Norfolk, close to an old Roman road known as Peddars Way. The original village of Houghton-on-the-Hill was mentioned in Domesday Book, but earlier Saxon artefacts from the 5th to 7th centuries have been found in the fields nearby. Sir Robert Knolles, an infamous commander in the Hundred Years War, who ravaged large parts of Normandy, was Lord of the Manor from 1376 until his death in 1407. The church is believed to have been built in 1090 and was extensively altered in the 14th century, perhaps by Knolles. The congregation gradually dwindled as the village shrank in size and, following damage by a First World War Zeppelin in 1916, it was finally abandoned in 1937.

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The interior of St Mary’s, Houghton-on-the-Hill, before restoration (courtesy of the Friends of St Marys website)

The crumbling, desecrated ruins, covered in ivy were discovered in 1992 by a remarkable local resident, Bob Davey, who, with his wife Gloria, worked tirelessly to restore this beautiful little church. Bob started and even paid for some of the restoration work himself, although once the wall paintings were discovered, experts were called in to continue the renovations.

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Bob Davey MBE, with the wall paintings in the background (courtesy of the Friends of St Marys website)

Bob Davey is usually found at the church in the afternoon, accompanied by one of the Friends of St Mary's, and he talks movingly about the building he loves so much, its history and decoration. He has his own theories on the wall paintings. For him, the figures in the roundels are holding not scrolls but snakes: the ones on the right held by Satan and his companions (not shown), drooping down at the ends, signify the Fall; whereas those on the left held by the saints have upturned ends.   

With thanks to the Trustees of the Friends of St Mary’s for the information in this blogpost, for the use of their images and for their dedication to preserving this gem of medieval art, now a working church. Their website contains further information and opening hours.

 

Bibliography

Clive Rouse, Medieval Wall Paintings (Princes Risborough: Shire Publications, 4th edn., 1991).

David Park and Stephen Heywood, ‘Romanesque Wall Paintings Discovered in Norfolk’, Minerva, 8.2 (March/April 1997), 8–9.

‘Parish history booklet: Church of St Mary, Houghton-on-the Hill’ (Friends of St Marys, 2007), online here.

Nick Mayhew-Smith, Britain's Holiest Places (Bristol: Lifestyle Press Ltd, 2011), pp. 131–33.

Florence Close, ‘Imaginer l’indicible: à propos de la mise en mouvement des images dans les récits de visions de la Trinite des hagiographes et des mystiques médiévaux (vii-xiie siècles)’, MethIS (2016), 49–76 (pp. 50, n. 5), online here.

 

Chantry Westwell

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15 August 2017

Call for papers: Manuscripts in Anglo-Saxon England

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Manuscripts in Anglo-Saxon England

A postgraduate and early career symposium on the book culture of early medieval England before 1100

On Saturday 15 December 2018 the British Library will be holding a postgraduate and early career symposium on Manuscripts in Anglo-Saxon England. The symposium follows an international conference taking place on 13 and 14 December 2018. Both events are being held during a major exhibition on Anglo-Saxon England which will open at the British Library in October 2018. We expect that there will be a reduced joint registration fee for the conference and symposium for students and unwaged early career researchers.

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The Vespasian Psalter, 8th century: British Library Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 31r

Proposals for papers are invited from advanced postgraduate students and early career researchers. We wish to encourage paper proposals from a wide variety of institutions. This symposium is intended to foster discussion about books, documents, the uses of writing, the transmission of ideas, the survival of evidence, and intellectual contact within and beyond Anglo-Saxon England. Manuscripts that were made or used in Anglo-Saxon England should be central to all proposals.

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Liber Wigorniensis, early 11th century: British Library Cotton MS Tiberius A XIII, f. 77v

If you would like to submit a proposal, please complete the attached form (Download 2018 Anglo-Saxon Symposium CFP) and send it to Claire Breay (claire.breay@bl.uk) by 1 December 2017. Decisions will be announced by 2 February 2018.

Claire Breay

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