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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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30 June 2017

Making a good impression

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The British Library does not only contain books — it holds items from ancient Chinese oracle bones to Jane Austen's spectacles. Recently, I've been working with some of the British Library's collection of seals (the wax kind, not the animal kind), and have been particularly intrigued by the seal of St Edith (b. 961x964, d. 984x987), daughter of King Edgar, used by Wilton Abbey throughout the Middle Ages. The text and images on Edith's seal, which was seemingly designed during her lifetime, give a rare contemporary insight into the priorities, identities and possibly even the jewellery of a young princess in late 10th-century England. 

Edith was a member of the royal family and was declared a saint relatively soon after her death, but there are few contemporary references to her. She is not mentioned by name in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and the most detailed accounts of her life were written almost a century after her lifetime.

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Detail of the seal of Edith attached to Harley Charter 45 A 36

Edith was the daughter of King Edgar (r. 958/9-975) and a woman called Wulfthryth. Wulfthryth and Edith both ended up in the nunnery of Wilton; Edgar subsequently married Ælfthryth, the mother of the future Æthelred the Unready. According to her later hagiographer, Goscelin (d. c. 1107), King Edgar arranged for Edith to be educated by two foreign chaplains, Radbod of Rheims and Benno of Trier.

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Detail of a witness list describing Edith's stepmother, 
Ælfthryth, as Edgar’s ‘legitimate spouse’, from the New Minster Refoundation Charter, England (Winchester), c. 966: Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII, ff. 30v–31r

While there are few contemporary references to Edith, one of her possessions may literally have left its mark. A charter for Wilton Abbey dated 1372 bears a seal in Edith’s name. The seal impression features 10th-century artistic styles and it may be an imprint of Edith’s own seal matrix. Here, ‘seals’ refer to wax impressions made with engraved metal or ivory objects, called seal matrice. They conveyed authority, assuring the recipient that they could trust a particular document or messenger. By the late 10th and early 11th century, many elite Anglo-Saxons may have had their own seals, including kings, nobles and churches. However, very few Anglo-Saxon seals survive; only 7 existing seal matrices can be dated before 1066. This impression of Edith's seal gives a rare glimpse into the sorts of seals that may have existed in the 10th century and how this particular woman may have wished to be characterised. 

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Harley Charter 45 A 36

The seal's inscription emphasises Edith's royal status: ‘Sigil Eadgyðe Re[ga]l[is] [Ad]elphe’ (‘The seal of Edith, the royal sister’). Edith’s half-brothers, Edward the Martyr and Æthelred the Unready, reigned from  975 to 978 and 978 to 1016 respectively. The term ‘royal sister’ may also be an oblique reference to Edith’s status as a nun, devoted to Christ the Heavenly king.

The use of the Greek term adelphi or adelpha instead of soror, the more common Latin term for 'sister', also tells us something about the way Edith may have wished to be portrayed. Edith lived in a time when learning and book production were being promoted by wealthy monastic reformers. Obscure, Greek-influenced vocabulary was particularly popular in reformed monasteries. Female houses are now beginning to be acknowledged in the history of the revival of learning with monastic reform, and Edith’s seal shows that she or whoever made it aspired to the standards of the learned elite and their expansive vocabularies.   

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Greek letters transliterating the phrase 'Explicit Liber Psychomachian', from a copy of Prudentius's Psychomachia, England, late 10th or early 11th century, Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII, f. 37r

The seal also depicts a woman, presumably Edith, as its central image. This veiled woman is probably an idealized figure, rather than a specific portrait. Catherine Karkov has noted that her pose, attire and accessories strongly resemble the miniatures of women in the Benedictional made for the monastic reformer St Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester (d. 984), which was probably made around the same time as the seal.

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Miniature of St
Æthelthryth, from the Benedictional of St Æthelwold made by Godeman, England, c. 963–984, Add MS 49598, f. 90v

It's a pity if the seal does not give a clear idea of Edith's appearance, because her fashion sense was legendary for centuries after her death. One of the most memorable anecdotes in Goscelin of Saint-Bertin’s Life of St Edith, written around the 1080s, describes Edith fighting with St Æthelwold over her elaborate attire:

‘Blessed bishop Æthelwold once warned [Edith], with her rather ornate habit… ‘O daughter, not in these garments does one approach the marriage chamber of Christ, nor is the heavenly bridegroom pleased with exterior elegance.’ [Edith replied…] ‘Believe, reverend father, a mind by no means poorer in aspiring to God will live beneath this covering than beneath a goatskin. I possess my Lord, who pays attention to the mind, not to the clothing...’ (Goscelin, Vita S Edithae, chapters 12 and 13, trans. by Stephanie Hollis, Writing the Wilton Women (Turnhout: Brepols, 2004), pp. 42–43)

At this stage, according to Goscelin, Æthelwold conceded defeat. A fire at the monastery vindicated Edith’s dress sense: most of the nuns’ possessions were destroyed but Edith’s fine leather and purple attire was miraculously spared:

‘When they unfolded the garments, made of skin or of purple, and of the everlasting guardian, all the things were found to be as they had been before the fire, unharmed by all the burning… although, from the nature of their material, they ought to have been more inflammable.’

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Copy of the seal of Edith from Harley Charter 45 A 36, Doubleday Cast C. 3

Goscelin may have made this story up: it provided a convenient opportunity for him to compare the unburnt clothes to Edith’s intact virginity. However, he may have learned this story from the community at Wilton, to whom he was the chaplain. If so, the community may have wanted to remember a young princess who dressed exactly as she liked, regardless of a bishop’s disapproval. And the seal matrix itself may itself have been part Edith’s flashy attire: the later impressions show that Edith’s seal matrix had a large handle made to look like acanthus leaves, which could have been attached to a belt or a necklace.

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Detail of the imprint of a handle from Edith’s seal, Harley Charter 45 A 36

The nuns of Wilton remembered Edith for centuries after her death. Her seal was used throughout the abbey’s history, right up until the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The final document showing the last abbess of Wilton using Edith’s seal dates from 1536, about 550 years after Edith died.

Alison Hudson

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10 June 2017

Battles and Dynasties at Lincoln

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The second Battle of Lincoln, 20 May 1217, is one of the greatest English conflicts that almost nobody has ever heard of. The British Library is a partner in a new exhibition at The Collection Museum in Lincoln from 27 May to 3 September 2017 which hopes to change this: Battles and Dynasties. This exhibition brings together an enormous range of artefacts from the medieval to modern periods, celebrating the role of Lincoln in the development of modern Britain.

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The First Battle of Lincoln, 1141, in Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum: Arundel MS 48, f. 168v.

Given the relative stability of the monarchy in the kingdom of England during the Middle Ages, it is easy to forget the many contests to the position of its kings and queens. We all know the bloody story of the Wars of the Roses, but conflict boiled over far earlier than this. Lincoln was a centre for this, as one of the prominent fortified settlements in the eastern part of England. The first Battle of Lincoln of 1141 saw the forces of the Empress Matilda capture King Stephen. At the second Battle of Lincoln, the future of the country was at stake as forces loyal to Prince Louis of France challenged the authority of King Henry III, still a child. Henry’s forces won the day, and he went on to rule for more than fifty years – but English history would have been different if the battle had gone otherwise.

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Peraldus, Summa de uirtutibus et uitiis: Harley MS 3244, ff. 27v–28r.

Lincoln was also a major intellectual centre of medieval England. Its cathedral school became one of the most prominent English centres of education in the late 12th century under the beloved teacher William de Montibus. His student, Richard of Wetheringsett, went on to become the first known chancellor of the University of Cambridge. As bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grosseteste became one of the most influential writers of the 13th century. All these figures’ works feature in Harley MS 3244, which is displayed at Lincoln with its splendid illustrated version of a treatise on the virtues and vices, as applied to the armour of a knight.

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Great Bible of Henry IV: Royal MS 1 E IX, f. 163v.

Also on display are some of the splendours of courtly culture made in the midst of conflict. King Henry IV is generally known for his ruthlessness, thanks to his deposition of Richard II, but he was also a lover of books: the enormous Great Bible, measuring 630 × 430 mm, is thought to have been in his collection. England’s interdependencies on Europe did not slow even in the face of the wars at this time: the volume of Jehan de Wavrin’s Anciennes et nouvelles chroniques d’Angleterre (Old and New Chronicles of England) in the exhibition, Royal MS 14 E IV, was produced in Lille and Bruges in the 1470s for King Edward IV, while conflicts over who should be the monarch continued to brew.

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Jehan de Wavrin, Anciennes et nouvelles chroniques d’Angleterre: Royal MS 14 E IV, f. 10r.

There are far more treasures to see in the exhibition. Also on display from the British Library are the Rochester Chronicle (Cotton MS Nero D II) and the chronicle of Ralph of Coggeshall (Cotton MS Vespasian D X). The collections gathered at Lincoln are a reminder that events maintaining the status quo are just as important as those that overturn it, and that culture can continue to flourish even in the midst of conflict. We hope that many of you get the chance to view our manuscripts in person.

Andrew Dunning

23 May 2017

Frying pans, forks and fever: Medieval book curses

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Have you ever lost, forgotten to return or accidentally damaged a library book? If so, you may have been asked to pay a fee to replace or repair the book — but you still got away easy! During the Middle Ages, the fate of both your body and soul could have been at serious risk. Medieval librarians often added curses to their books upon those who did not return or damaged borrowed books, or stole them from their libraries. These curses usually invoked God, suggesting that these punishments would be made effective with divine authority.

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The sort of fate medieval librarians wished on book thieves: detail of a miniature illustrating Gregory's Homily 40, of a man with two demons in Hell, from Les Omelies Saint Grégoire pape, Low Countries (Bruges), 2nd half of the 15th century, Royal MS 15 D V, f. 107v

Some book curses guaranteed an immediate, physical punishment. The British Library has recently digitised a Middle Dutch natural encyclopaedia and bestiary (Add MS 11390) that contains a ‘dear oath’ (‘dieren eet’) below an image of a cross, with which the borrower had to swear that he or she would return the book or die. At least one borrower, a woman who identified herself as a midwife (‘Abstetrix heifmoeder’), dared to subscribe to this oath.

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The ‘animal oath’ in Jacob van Maerlant’s The Flower of Nature (Der Nature Bloeme), Western Netherlands, 1st quarter of the 14th century, Add MS 11390, f. 94v 

A similar curse is found in a manuscript with a commentary on the Harmony of the Gospels (Royal MS 4 E II) from Evesham Abbey. A colophon that praises the scribe’s work — and requests high-quality wine (‘vini nobilis haustum’) for him as a reward — ends with a curse in which the book’s thief is wished a ‘death from evil things: may the thief of this book die’ (Morteque malorum: raptor libri moriatur).

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A colophon in which the scribe curses a book’s thief to death, from William of Nottingham’s Commentary on the Harmony of the Gospels, Evesham, c. 1381, Royal MS 4 E II, f. 471r 

Other curses give us an insight into how some librarians imagined that the book thieves should die. A quickly scribbled curse in a liturgical manuscript (Add MS 30506) from the church of St Aldate in Gloucester states, ‘This book is of St Aldate: he that takes this book shall be hauled by the neck’ (f. 170r: ‘Thys boke ys sancht audatys; he þat stelys þe boke shall be haulynth by þe neck’). An even more harmful curse was issued by the Premonstratensian abbey of St Mary and St Nicholas in Arnstein. The so-called Arnstein Bible (Harley MS 2798), as noted by Marc Drogin (Anathema! Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses), damned a book thief to a bloody death by torture, sickness and execution:

A book of [the Abbey of] SS Mary and Nicholas of Arnstein: If anyone steals it: may he die [the death], may he be roasted in a frying pan, may the falling sickness [i.e. epilepsy] and fever attack him, and may he be rotated [on the breaking wheel] and hanged. Amen.

(Liber sancte Marie sancti que Nycolai in Arrinstein Quem si quis abstulerit Morte moriatur in sartagine coquatur caducus morbus instet eum et febres · et rotatur et suspendatur Amen)

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One of the most harmful book curses written in the Middle Ages? From the Arnstein Bible, W. Germany (Arnstein), c. 1172 Harley MS 2798, f. 235v 

Other physical punishments were given explicit religious overtones, such as those that the Benedictine monastery of St Albans wished upon anyone who damaged one manuscript (Royal MS 8 G X) they loaned to monks studying at Gloucester College in Oxford:

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A curse that identifies a book thief with Judas Iscariot, from ‘Doctrinale Antiquitatum Ecclesie Ihesu Christi contra blasfemios Wycleuistas’, mid-15th century, Royal MS 8 G X, f. 1v 

This book is given in use to the brothers of Oxford by John Wethamstede, father of the flock of the proto-martyr of the English [St Alban]; if anyone secretly tears this inscription or removes it, may he feel Judas’s noose [around his neck] or forks [presumably handled by demons!].

(Fratribus Oxonie datur in munus liber iste Per \Johannem Whethamstede/patrem pecorum prothomartiris Angligenarum. Quem si quis raptat · raptim titulum ue[l] retractet uel Iude laqueum · uel furcas sensiat Amen.)

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Devils wielding implements which may include a fork, from Breviari d'Amor, Southern France (Toulouse?), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Royal MS 19 C I, f. 185v

Gruesome as these punishments seem, to most medieval readers the worst curses were those that put the eternal fate of their souls at risk rather than their bodily health. A spiritual condemnation was often expressed with the Greek ‘Anathema’, sometimes followed by the Aramaic formula ‘Maranatha’ (‘Come, Lord!’). Both terms were used in a curse that was added to a manuscript with spiritual letters and sermons (Royal MS 8 F XVII) from Lesnes Abbey:

This book belongs to the church of Thomas the Martyr of Lesnes. Anyone who removes it or does damage to it: if the same person does not repay the church sufficiently, may he be cursed [Anathema Maranatha]. Let it be done. Let it be done. Amen

(Hic liber est ecclessiae beati Thome martyris de Liesnes. Quem qui ei abstulerit . aut illi super eo fraudem fecerit . nisi eidem ecclesie plene satisfecerit ; anathema sit maranatha. fiat. fiat. Amen.)

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A book curse with the Anathema-Maranatha formula, from a collection of Latin sermons and letters, 13th century, Royal MS 8 F XVII, f. 1r

A monk from Rochester Abbey emphasised the severity of the ‘Anathema’ by claiming that his book’s thief would be condemned by the entire religious community at Rochester Cathedral:

A volume of Aristotle’s Physics from the monastery of Rochester by John, prior of Rochester: whosoever steals this book from the monastery, conceals it, or erases this inscription, he incurs the curse of ‘Anathema’ for one long year from the Priory and the entire community of the Chapter of Rochester. 

Volumen de naturalibus · aristotelis · de Claustro Roffensis · Per Johannem Priorem Roffensis Hunc librum quicumque alienauerit ab hoc cla[u]stro · alienatum celauerit · uel hunc titulum in fraudem deleuerit ; dampnacionem incurrit Anathematis lati singulis annis a Priore et totu cetu capituli Roffensis.

British Library  Royal MS 12 G II  f. 1v
A year-long curse from the monastery of Rochester: Royal MS 12 G II, f. 1v 

Other scribes gave weight to their curses by attributing them directly to God-Christ. The aforementioned liturgical manuscript from the church of St Aldate, for example, contains another book curse, written in Middle English, purportedly originating from Christ himself:  

This book belongs to the church of St Aldate

This book is one and Christ’s curse is another

He that takes the one takes the other Amen.

(ISTE LIBER PERTINET AD SANCTUM ALDATUM

Thys boke ys one and chryst curse ys Anoþer

he þat take þe one take þe oþer Amen.)

British Library  Add MS 30506  f. 169r
Christ’s book curse: Add MS 30506, f. 169r 

Just like physical punishments, scribes could also specify the particular spiritual punishments they had in mind for their books’ thieves. One example comes from a manuscript from St Albans Abbey whereby the thief was excommunicated. The latter could have learned about what this entailed simply by consulting the stolen book, since the topic of excommunication was discussed in its contents, the Decretals of Pope Gregory IX.

This book belongs to the monastery of St Albans, anyone who steals it from the said monastery should know that he will incur the punishment of excommunication.

(Hic est liber monasteri sancti Albani quem qui a dicto monasterio alienauerit sentenciam excommunicacionis se nouerit incursurum) 

British Library  Royal MS 10 C XIII  f. 1r
A book curse excommunicating a book thief, from a copy of Gregory’s Decretals, St Albans, mid-13th century, Royal MS 10 C XIII, f. 1r 

Another monk from Rochester specified that the thief’s name would be deleted from the ‘Book of Life’. According to biblical sources, this records the names of those to be saved at the Last Judgement; stealing the manuscript would be turned into a one-way ticket to hell:

This book of the Distinctiones belongs to the monastery of Rochester: anyone who takes it from there, hides or keeps it, or damages or erases this inscription, or makes or causes it to be deleted, may his name be deleted from the Book of Life.

(Liber distinccionum de claustro Roffensis quem qui inde alienauerit · alienatum celauerit aut retinuerit · uel hunc titulum in fraudem deleueritur · deleri ue[l] fecerit aut procurauerit · deleatur nomen eius de libro uite · Amen ·) 

British Library  Royal MS 10 A XVI  f. 2r
A book curse for deleting a book thief’s name from the Book of Life, from the Distinctiones, 13th century, Royal MS 10 A XVI, f. 2r
 

The use of these book curses seemingly sits at odds with the monastic lifestyle. Medieval monks dedicated their lives to imitating Christ, including his virtues of patience, forgiveness and love for mankind. The fact that monks used these curses testifies to the immense material and spiritual value that they attributed to their libraries: their books had not only been extremely costly and labour-intensive to produce, but often they also contained the only copies of a particular work to which their communities had access. The loss of a book did not only mean a material loss, but it could have permanently deprived a religious community of a work of knowledge that was essential for preserving or developing its religious identity. This may explain why some religious communities went to great lengths to protect their books. Book curses were a radical but effective way of preserving their book collections. 

Clarck Drieshen

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17 May 2017

Digging for the past at Norton Priory

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Despite the trail of desolation left by the dissolution of the monasteries in England and Wales beginning in 1536, former monastic sites remain among the most beautiful places to visit in Britain. The Norton Priory Museum and Gardens, thought to be the most extensively excavated monastic site in Europe, has long been known for its spectacular grounds. In August 2016, the museum opened an entirely new building, adding a fascinating interpretation of the site that shows just how much we can understand about the past, even when it appears that little is left on the surface.

Plan of Norton Priory by Randle Holme: Harley MS 2073, f. 107r.

Plan of Norton Priory, probably by Randle Holme: Harley MS 2073, f. 107r.

The dissolution of the monasteries in England and Wales was one of the most significant upheavals of British society — it is estimated that one in fifty adult males were in religious orders at the outset of the 16th century, and within a generation these people, their functions, and their lands had to be absorbed elsewhere. Nonetheless, the process of the dissolution is still little understood. Although it has often been thought to have been a decisive blow, executed purely out of the greed of King Henry VIII, the reality is somewhat more complicated and was the result of years of agitation. This is exemplified in a letter of Piers Dutton to Thomas Cromwell, on loan from the British Library and now on temporary display at Norton Priory.

Sir Piers Dutton claimed descent from the same Dutton family that had been a supporter of the priory (and later abbey) since the 12th century, but sought to take control of Norton for his own purposes. The first Act for the Suppression of the Monasteries applied only to houses worth £200 or less, under which Norton fell. It seems unlikely that this could have occurred without falsification of documentary evidence, which Sir Piers could have accomplished as a royal commissioner for Cheshire.

Letter from Piers Dutton to Thomas Cromwell, 3 August 1536: Harley MS 604, f. 60r.

Letter from Piers Dutton to Thomas Cromwell, 3 August [1535?]: Harley MS 604, f. 60r.

The chronology of the letter has been debated, as Dutton only gives the date as 3 August: it was first published as being from 1534, but has been proposed to be from 1535 or even 1536. Certainly, when it was written, the closure of Norton was not yet finalized. It has recently been emphasized that the initial Act of 1536 should be read as aiming at the reform of the monastic system, and not its total destruction.

Sir Piers writes to Cromwell that he has arrested the abbot of Norton, Thomas Birkenhead, and other canons, though he does not explain why. It may relate to his attempt in 1535 to accuse the abbot of counterfeiting money. Meddling with Norton is not enough: he also seeks to put forward Dom ‘Rondull Wilmyslow’ (or Randulph Wilmeslowe) as abbot of Vale Royal, a Cistercian monastery, after the death of its abbot in 1534 or 1535:

Please it \your/ gud mastership my duetie remember this to aduertise you that I haue taken the bodies of thabbot of Norton Robert Jannyns and the straunger a connyng Smythe two of the seid abbottes seruantes also Randull brereton baron of the kynges excheker of chestre and John hale of chestre merchuant and haue theym in my custody and kepyng⸝ And the rest I entende to haue as spedely as I can and to be with you with theym god wylling in all convenyent spede as I possiblie may. Moreouer I haue causet dan Rondull wilmyslow the moncke of the Valle royall to cum vp to you⸝ for whom I spake vnto your gud mastership whiche is a gud religious man dyscrete and wel groundet in lernyng and hathe many gud qualites most apte to be a master of a religious howse then any other moncke of that howse Wherfore it may \please/ your gud mastership to be his gud master toward his preferrement that he may be admitted master of the same And that I did promyse your mastership this seid Moncke will accomplishe accordyngly. Wherfore I beseche your mastership that this berer and the seid moncke may resorte vnto you from tyme to tyme to knowe youre pleasure therin ensuryng you what ye do for me or my frende all is your owne as knowithe our lord god who mercifully preserue you At dutton the iiide day of auguste By youres assured

                                                         Perus
                                                         Dutton K.

He did not achieve his aims: the abbot was cleared of charges, and John Harware (or Harwood) instead became the new abbot of Vale Royal. Sir Piers attempted to have Abbot Thomas executed at the dissolution of the priory, but eventually he became a secular priest, and like other monastics was paid off with a state pension. This letter is a glimpse into the complexity of the often undocumented machinations that surrounded abbeys leading up to their closure.

Norton Priory itself had a tumultuous few centuries ahead of it, but today makes a delightful visit. It is still graced by a splendid 14th-century statue of St Christopher, and the grounds cover nearly fifty acres. The gardens from the monastery and later residents are now kept in top condition. Its new museum is truly innovative, combining cutting-edge archaeological, historical, and even medical research, and presenting it in accessible terms to both young and advanced audiences. We very much hope that you are able to visit Norton Priory, and to see our wonderful document while it is on display until 1 August 2017.

Updated 30 May 2017 to reflect debates surrounding the dating of the letter; thanks to Dr Andrew Abram of Manchester Metropolitan University for pointing out references earlier omitted.

Andrew Dunning

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22 April 2017

How our ancient trees connect us to the past

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Some of the most stunning creations of the Middle Ages are still alive. Britain is dotted with trees planted hundreds of years ago, with over 120,000 listed in the Woodland Trust’s Ancient Tree Inventory. Some of them are over a thousand years old. This year, organisations across the United Kingdom have created a Tree Charter, which seeks to recognise the importance of trees to our national life. This charter harks back to a very important medieval document, the Forest Charter, which was originally issued in the name of King Henry III of England (1216–1272) on 6 November 1217. 

Add Ch 24712

The Forest Charter, in the version reissued in 1225, with the great seal of King Henry III: Add Ch 24712.

The Forest Charter can be thought of as the younger sibling of Magna Carta. One of its primary aims was to regulate royal forests, which had been created by William the Conqueror and covered around a quarter of England during the 12th and 13th centuries. Today, we think of forests as lands covered with trees, but in the 13th century royal forests also included pastures and even villages – indeed, almost the entire county of Essex was declared a royal forest. From our perspective, this move to make huge swathes of land into royal forests seems remarkably forward-thinking. We might think that in doing this William was seeking to preserve England's trees, but he had a specific purpose for his conservation effort: he wanted lands for the crown to hunt wild animals and game, particularly deer. 

Royal_ms_13_b_viii_f010v

Animals romping in the margin of a manuscript of the works of Gerald of Wales: Royal MS 13 B VIII, f. 10v.

To regulate these vast tracts of land, a special ‘forest law’ was created to promote their use as royal game preserves, enforced by a small army of foresters. In theory, they could impose enormous punishments on offenders, up to capital punishment. In practice, they normally issued fines, making the forest an important source of income for the crown.

The barons living under this rule took issue with the 'forest law'. They drafted the Forest Charter, which sought to scale back this law (translation from The National Archives):

Henceforth, no man shall lose his life or suffer the amputation of any of his limbs for killing our deer. If any man is convicted of killing our deer, he shall pay a grievous fine, but if he is poor and has nothing to lose, he shall be imprisoned for a year and a day. After the year and a day expired, if he can find people to vouch for him, he shall be released; if not, he shall be banished from the realm of England.

The charter further rolled back the area of the forests to their boundaries at the beginning of the rule of King Henry II in 1154, where the lands could be shown to have been taken wrongfully. (Henry II had vigorously expanded the forest borders, to the point of creating hardship.) Crucially, the charter also sought to expand common access to the forests. In this period, people relied on areas of woodland to provide fuel for heating and cooking, as well as pasture in which to graze livestock. The Forest Charter, therefore, had important implications for common people. 

The charter was repeatedly confirmed as part of English law. It was in association with the Forest Charter that the name ‘Magna Carta’ was first used, to distinguish it as the large charter as opposed to its littler (and later) sibling. The British Library’s copy of the charter is a reissue from 1225, and appears to have narrowly escaped destruction.

The Forest Charter represents a pragmatic approach to define the value of forests and ensure that they can be accessed as a resource crucial to the everyday functioning of society. Aspects of this approach are still valuable, such as in attempts to calculate the natural capital of forests in economic terms. The story of the royal forests are also the subject of a new book to be published next month by the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, entitled Ancient Oaks in the English Landscape.

Andrew Dunning

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