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98 posts categorized "Medieval history"

21 February 2018

Harry Potter meets the Middle Ages

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Harry Potter: A History of Magic has been a rip-roaring success. Not only has every session of every day of our exhibition sold out (a first for the British Library), and not only did we sell more advance tickets than Tate's Hockney blockbuster, but the accompanying books have been bestsellers both in the United Kingdom and overseas. If you managed to get to London to see the show, you will have noticed that we had a wealth of extraordinary objects on show, from J.K. Rowling's autograph manuscripts and drawings to genuine witches' cauldrons and exploded cauldrons. The exhibition also provided an extraordinary opportunity for the Library to showcase its own collections relating to the history of magic, across the world and across the ages; and that forms the subject of this blogpost.

You may be aware that Harry Potter: A History of Magic was organised according to certain of the subjects studied at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Readers of J.K. Rowling's novels will obviously have been familiar with Potions, Herbology and Divination, but many of these themes are also rooted in real-life magic, tradition and folklore. This gave the exhibition curators the chance to call upon some of the British Library's world-class holdings of ancient, medieval and early modern manuscripts. There were so many to choose from. Today we are delighted to feature some of them here. We'd love you to tell us your favourites via the comments field or our Twitter feed (@BLMedieval).

Potions

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Potions against poisoning and snake bites, in Bald's Leechbook (England, 10th century): 

Royal MS 12 D XVII

ff. 41v–42r

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An apothecary’s shop, in a surgeon’s manuscript France, 14th century 

Sloane MS 1977

ff. 49v–50r

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Splendor Solis (Germany, 1582)

Harley MS 3469

ff. 3v–4r

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The Ripley Scroll

England, 16th century: Sloane MS 2523B

Herbology

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Digging for herbs, in Pietro Andrea Mattioli, Extracts from an edition of Dioscorides, De re medica, assembled and illustrated by Gherardo Cibo

Italy, 16th century 

Additional MS 22332

ff. 2v–3r

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A centaur with centaury (centaurea minor), in a herbal

England, 12th century 

Harley MS 5294

ff. 21v–22r

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Charms

Papyrus 46(5)

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Astronomy

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Divination

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Defence Against the Dark Arts

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Care of Magical Creatures

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Julian Harrison (Lead Curator, Harry Potter: A History of Magic)

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

06 February 2018

Independent woman: Æthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians

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If you live in the United Kingdom, you may be aware that 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act, which for the first time gave some women in Britain the right to vote. The commemorations being held this year celebrate earlier efforts to enfranchise women, as well as examples of remarkable women from former times. In recent months, this blog has featured the Greek poet, Sappho, and Lady Jane Grey, England's forgotten Queen. 2018 also marks the 1,100th anniversary of the death of Æthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, who is the subject of today's blogpost.

Cotton_ms_tiberius_a_vi_f030r AEthelflaed
Æthelflaed’s name (spelled Æþelflæd), in the B-text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: Cotton MS Tiberius A VI, f. 30r

Æthelflaed was the eldest child of Alfred the Great, king of the West Saxons (reigned 871–899), and his wife Ealhswith. Ealhswith may have been related in turn to the royal house of the nearby kingdom of Mercia. Under pressure during the viking invasions at the end of the 9th century, King Alfred made an alliance with Æthelred, lord of the Mercians. Æthelflaed subsequently married Æthelred, strengthening this bond.

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This Mercian prayer-book probably belonged to Æthelflaed's mother, Ealhswith: Harley MS 2965, f. 4v

By the first years of the 10th century, Æthelred had become very ill. When he died in 911, Æthelflaed became the ruler of the Mercians in her own right. As lady of the Mercians ('Myrcna hlæfdige'), Æthelflaed expanded her territories to the north, east and west. She fortified settlements, or burhs, and led her armies into Wales and Northumbria. In the final year of her life, the people of York even pledged to obey her ‘direction’ ('rædenne'). It is possible that some of her military exploits were coordinated to help her brother, King Edward the Elder (reigned 899–924), but at other times Æthelflaed seems to have been acting independently.

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A page from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle showing the entries of the Mercian Register: Cotton MS Tiberius B I, f. 140v

You may wonder how we know so much about Æthelflaed. We are fortunate in Æthelflaed's case because a narrative of Mercian affairs, for the years 904–924, is found embedded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. This is known as the ‘Mercian Register’, and it provides a very different account of events from the main text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which focuses on Edward the Elder. For example, when discussing what happened during the same months in 916, one chronicle focuses on Edward building a burh; the other details the causes and results of Æthelflaed’s military campaign into Wales.

The Mercian Register was copied into three manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, all of which are held today at the British Library (Cotton MS Tiberius A VI, Cotton MS Tiberius B I and Cotton MS Tiberius B IV). A medieval library catalogue from Durham also refers to a copy of ‘Elfledes Boc’, now lost, which can possibly be identified as ‘Æthelflaed’s chronicle.’ Although Æthelflaed is mentioned in West Saxon and later Irish sources, our knowledge of her career would be greatly diminished if the Mercian Register did not survive.

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Æthelflaed was remembered long after her death. Here she is depicted in a roundel from a 13th-century geneaology of the kings of England: Royal MS 14 B V, membrane 2

Æthelflaed’s reign was unusual. Her successful political career did not necessarily reflect tolerant contemporary attitudes towards women, and (with one brief exception) she did not pave the way for future Anglo-Saxon female leaders. According to Asser, her father’s biographer, the West Saxon court where she grew up was particularly opposed to over-mighty queens: 'The West Saxons do not allow a queen to sit beside the king, nor to be called a queen, but only the king’s wife [because of] a certain obstinate and malevolent queen [from Mercia], who did everything she could against her lord and whole people' (Asser, Life of Alfred, chapter 13, translated by M. Lapidge and S. Keynes, Alfred the Great).

Æthelflaed was initially succeeded by her daughter, Ælfwynn, whose reign was significantly shorter. The Mercian Register claims that just one year later, in 919, 'the daughter of Æthelred, lord of the Mercians, was deprived of all authority in Mercia and taken into Wessex, three weeks before Christmas' (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Revised Translation, trans. by D. Whitelock and others (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1961), p. 67). England would have to wait several hundred years for another queen to rule unchallenged in her own right.

 

Alison Hudson

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27 January 2018

A mammoth list of Digitised Manuscripts hyperlinks

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We have been hard at work here at the British Library and we are excited to share with you a brand new list of Digitised Manuscripts hyperlinks. You can currently view on Digitised Manuscripts no less than 1,943 manuscripts and documents made in Europe before 1600, with more being added all the time. For a full list of what is currently available, please see this PDF Download Digitised MSS January 2018. This is also available in the form of an Excel spreadsheet Download Digitised MSS January 2018 (this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers).

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Matthew Paris, Map of Britain, England (St Albans), 1255–1259: Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1, f. 12v

The list reflects the wide range of materials made available online through our recent on on-going digitisation projects, including Greek manuscripts and papyri, pre-1200 manuscripts from England and France thanks to funding from the Polonsky Foundation, and illuminated manuscripts in French and other European vernacular languages.

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Image depicting the Journey of the Magi and underneath the Magi before Herod, from a Psalter, England (London), 1220s: Lansdowne MS 420, f. 8r

To find out how to make the most of Digitised Manuscripts, check out this blogpost. Many images of our manuscripts are also available to download from our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts which is searchable by keywords, dates, scribes and languages. We also recommend taking a look at the British Library's Collection Items pages, featuring Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook of scientific drawings and the single surviving copy of the Old English poem Beowulf.

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The British Library’s largest papyrus is over 2 metres long and features a deed of sale, Ravenna, 3 June 572: Add MS 5412 (detail of opening)

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Depiction of Boccaccio talking to the Lady Fortune and a battle in a walled, moated city, from Boccaccio’s Des cas des nobles homes et femmes, 3rd quarter of the 15th century: Add MS 35321, f. 180r

Follow us on Twitter, @BLMedieval, to get the latest news about our digitisation projects, events and exhibitions.

22 January 2018

Doctoral Students Open Day – Pre-1600 Collections

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A reminder for PhD students with research interests relating to the ancient, medieval and early modern worlds: the British Library’s Doctoral Open Day for our pre-1600 collections will take place on 5 February 2018. The day is aimed at first-year doctoral students who would like to learn more about finding and using our collection material for their research. The approach is interdisciplinary and useful for students working on topics in classics, history, literature, history of art, religion, and the history of science and medicine. You can book your place on the Events page. A ticket to attend costs £10, including lunch and refreshments. The number of places is limited, so booking in advance is necessary. 

William

Beginning of genealogy of King William I (1066–1087), in the centre, from a genealogical roll of the kings of England from the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy to Edward I (1272–1307), England, c. 1300–1340: Royal MS 14 B VI, membrane 5r

On the Open Day you will be introduced to the wide range of manuscript and early printed collections at the British Library and the practicalities of finding and using them in your research. The sessions will help explain how to use and access the catalogues, databases and other relevant online resources relating to each collection area. There is also a session specifically on digital research. In the afternoon, there will be an opportunity to get a closer introduction to some of our collection items.

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The incipit page of the Gospel of St John, Gospel book, Northern France, c. 875–900: Harley MS 2797, f. 132r

 

Programme:

09.45–10.15  Registration & refreshments

10.15–10.30  Welcome, speed networking & EThOS (Allan Sudlow, Head of Research Development)

10.30–10.45  British Library Collections: Introduction & Overview (Scot McKendrick, Head of Western Heritage Collections)

10.45–11.00  Comfort break

11.00–11.40  Medieval Manuscripts (Claire Breay, Head of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts)

11.40–12.10  Early Printed Collections (Karen Limper-Herz, Lead Curator Incunabula & 16th Century Books)

12.10–12.30  Early Maps (Magdalena Pezko, Curator, Map Collections)

12.30–13.30  Lunch

13.30–14.15  Reading Room Session/Meet the Curators (Nicola Beech & Claire Wotherspoon, Maps & Manuscripts Reference Team)

14.15–15.00  Reading Room Session/Meet the Curators (Nicola Beech & Claire Wotherspoon, Maps & Manuscripts Reference Team)

15.00–15.30  Refreshments

15.30–16.00  Digital Research Session (Mia Ridge, Digital Curator)

16.00–16.20  The Art of History and the History of Art (Alixe Bovey, Head of Research, Courtauld Institute of Art)

16.20–16.30  Questions, Feedback forms and Close

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Miniature of Joanna of Castile (b. 1479, d. 1555) kneeling, flanked by St John the Baptist and her guardian angel with the arms of Joanna and those of her husband, Philip the Fair (b. 1478, d. 1506), Book of Hours of Joanna of Castile, Netherlands, 1486-1506: Add MS 18852, f. 26r

The Pre-1600 Collections Day on 5 February is part of the British Library’s 2017/18 series of Doctoral Open Days, which covers all the different collection areas. You can read more about the entire series here. To find out about how previous Doctoral Open Days have helped early-stage PhD students and what the most commonly mentioned benefits are, take a look at 5 reasons to attend a British Library Doctoral Open Day.

If you do not already have one, we also recommend that you register for a free Reader Pass in advance so that you can make the most of the Open Day. We look forward to welcoming many new postgraduate students to the Library on 5 February.

 

Emilia Henderson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

09 January 2018

The Carolingian quest for the correct text of the Bible

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The British Library was recently abuzz with the news that Codex Amiatinus — the oldest surviving copy of the complete text of the Latin Vulgate Bible — will be returning temporarily to Britain in 2018 for our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. Another important early medieval pandect Bible (containing the entire Bible in one volume) has now been digitised as part of the ongoing England and France 700–1200 joint project with the Bibliothèque nationale de France. This manuscript (Add MS 24142) is a fascinating example of the painstaking efforts to improve the biblical text by Carolingian scholars. It is one of the oldest of the six surviving Theodulf Bibles, so-called after the reviser of the text, Theodulf (b. 750–760, d. 821), the bishop of Orléans and Fleury. Two of the remaining five copies are now in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris (cod. lat. 9380 and cod. lat. 11937). The remaining three reside in the collections of Württembergische Landesbibliothek in Stuttgart (MS HB. II 16), Le Puy Cathedral, France (Trésor de la Cathédrale, unnumbered), and Det Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen (MS NKS 1).

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A marginal correction at the end of Ezekiel, c. 800–825: Add MS 24142, detail of f. 108r

In the 8th century there was an abundance of different versions of the text of the Bible — of varying quality — in use across Europe. During the same period, the realm of the Carolingian dynasty (who took over as kings of the Franks from the Merovingians in 751) gradually expanded. Under Charlemagne (r. 768–814) it reached its greatest size, as an empire covering most of western Continental Europe. Reform and unification of the Church was an important issue for the Carolingian rulers and other elite members of society, and concerns about this variation in Bible provision and its effect on the liturgy grew. Establishing throughout the entire realm a revised text of the Bible, the most essential Christian text, was central to these reform efforts. This is made explicit in the General Admonition of 789, a collection of legislation issued by Charlemagne:

‘Correct carefully the Psalms, the signs in writing …, the songs, the calendar, the grammar …, and the catholic books; because often some desire to pray to God properly, but they pray badly because of faulty books’ (translated by Paul Edward Dutton, Carolingian Civilization: A Reader, 2nd edn., Toronto, 2009).

Theodulf was one of the key figures in Charlemagne’s circle of intellectuals and Church reformers. It was also Theodulf who produced one of the most ambitious efforts to answer Charlemagne’s call to ‘correct carefully’ the Vulgate text. He compared the various versions, using the best exemplars he could acquire. Not content with the first drafts of his work, Theodulf continued to revise the resulting text as new exemplars became available. The six surviving copies of his biblical text all reveal different stages of this continuous revision process with corrections, and sometimes alternate readings, recorded in the margins. In other words, Theodulf’s method was similar to how critical editions of texts are prepared today.

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The beginning of the Gospel of St John, c. 800–825: Add MS 24142, f. 222r

The resulting manuscript copies were clearly meant for close scholarly reading and reference, rather than for use in the liturgy. This is immediately clear from the rather modest dimensions and plain presentation of Add MS 24142. The Theodulf Bibles were written in a tiny version of Caroline minuscule script (the clear and legible script promoted throughout the Empire by Charlemagne) that was usually only used for marginal glosses.

Follow the link to the digitised Add MS 24142 to see how the specific function of this rare copy of the biblical text affected its form. Instead of decorated initials or illustrations, the transition between books is made clear to the reader by headings in a slender uncial script (a script originating in the classical world and consisting entirely of capital letters). Only occasionally is a simple rectangular border decoration added to further mark the division. The beginning of St John’s Gospel in the second column, above, is one example of this pragmatic arrangement. The British Library’s copy also stands out since it is arranged in an unusual three-column layout — maximising the amount of text on each manuscript page even further — whereas the four later Theodulf Bibles have the more standard two columns. These features combine to make Add MS 24142 a practical and relatively lightweight pandect Bible in comparison to most surviving medieval pandects, and it can be comfortably handled by one person.

 

Emilia Henderson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

Supported by

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01 January 2018

A calendar page for January 2018

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2018 is going to be an exciting year at the British Library: as we recently announced, our major Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition opens on 19 October. In the coming months we will be exploring an item from the upcoming exhibition, an 11th-century calendar illustrated with text in gold and drawings depicting seasonal activities. We hope some of our readers will be able to come and see it in person in the exhibition at the end of the year. For an explanation of medieval calendars, please see the introduction to our first calendar of the year.

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Page for January, from a calendar, England, 1st half of the 11th century: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 3r

This calendar is one of only two to survive from early medieval England with detailed illustrations of farming, hunting and feasting. It forms part of a collection of material for calculating time and dates, such as tables for calculating lunar cycles and a tiny world map. It was probably owned by a monastic community who needed timekeeping materials to maintain the strict schedule of services demanded by the Rule of St Benedict. The calendar is now bound with a copy of poems, the Expositio hymnorum and canticles, copied at a slightly later date. They may have been together even in the medieval period. Both the hymnal and the calendar seem to have been made by talented scribes at a major scriptorium, such as that at Christ Church Cathedral, Canterbury.

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Diagram pertaining to lunar cycles, centring on a tiny world map: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 15r

Both the text and illustrations are closely related to the calendar in a collection of geographical and chronological material made in southern England in the mid-11th century (Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1). Both feature the Metrical Calendar of Hampson, a poem with 365 verses, one for each day of the year. The illustrations for the various labours of the month are very similar as well. Both show ploughing scenes, each having three figures, with a bearded man guiding the plough.

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Men ploughing: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 3r

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Men ploughing: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 3r

Some scholars have speculated that these images may be rare manuscript depictions of Anglo-Saxon slaves. In a dialogue written to help students practise Latin, the Anglo-Saxon writer Ælfric (fl. 980s-1000s) has the ploughman lament, ‘The work is hard, because I am not free.’

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Detail of the ploughman’s dialogue, from Ælfric’s Colloquy: Cotton MS Tiberius A III, f. 61r

Ploughing might seem like an odd choice to depict on a calendar page for January, when the weather is cold and the ground is hard. Some scholars argue that ploughing came first in the calendar because it was a fundamental part of the agricultural cycle and also because the imagery of ploughing was used in religious symbolism. In the Bible, teachers and religious leaders are compared to people scattering seeds (Matthew 13), like the man walking behind the plough. As the users of this calendar — possibly a community of monks — prepared for the year ahead, the image of a plough may have focused their minds on practical priorities.

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Capricorn: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 3r

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Capricorn: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 3r

Beyond the labours of the month, each page of the calendar includes a wealth of information about astronomy, time, astrology and history, packed into pages only 200 by 130 mm. Each page begins with a few lines about the zodiac signs associated with each month. Nearby, a roundel illustrates the zodiac sign for a given month. In the case of January, it is Capricorn. Medieval scribes depicted star signs including Capricorn in creative and diverse ways. In the Julius calendar, Capricorn has a fish-like tail, in contrast to the Tiberius calendar, where it is depicted with hooves.

Below, each day is represented by one row. Each row includes, among other things:

  1. Roman numerals representing 'Golden Numbers', which were used to determine lunar cycles in a given year.
  2. Greek letters, representing numbers used for calculations. Greek letters were used in calculations by early medieval scholars including Bede and Abbo of Fleury.
  3. The letters A–G in blue, representing different days of the week.
  4. Roman calendar days (kalends, nones and ides).
  5. A verse for the day, from the Metrical Calendar of Hampson.
  6. A gold cross, if the day coincided with a special feast day. The only feast day marked out on this page is 6 January. Judging from surviving descriptions of liturgy and hymnals from Thorney, Winchester and Exeter, services for Epiphany in tenth- and eleventh-century England were elaborate affairs, commemorating not only the Magi’s visit to Christ on that day, but also  his baptism and the miracle at the wedding at Cana, where Christ turned water into wine.

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Detail of calendar page: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 3r

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Detail of gold crosses marking special feast days: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 5r

 

Alison Hudson 

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

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29 December 2017

Thomas Becket's martyrdom

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29 December is the anniversary of one of the most controversial events in medieval Christendom: the murder at Canterbury Cathedral of Archbishop Thomas Becket, in 1170. Becket's assassination brought a bloody end to a long-standing political conflict between the archbishop and King Henry II, who was believed to have been implicit in the killing. In the following decades, an international cult grew up around Becket, with far-flung claims of miracle cures and the re-building of the cathedral to house the martyr's tomb.

Two of the earliest illustrations of Becket's murder, both made in the late 12th century, are found in manuscripts held at the British Library. One of these manuscripts, Cotton MS Claudius B II, has recently been digitised in full by The Polonsky Foundation England and France, 700-1200 project; the other, also available online, is found in Harley MS 5102.

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An early miniature showing Thomas Becket’s martyrdom: Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 341r

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A second early miniature showing Thomas Becket’s martyrdom. Becket kneels before the altar, and one of the four knights, perhaps William de Tracy, delivers the first blow, which cuts into the arm of Edward Grim, the cross-bearer; Reginald FitzUrse (identified by the muzzled bear on his shield) strikes the top of Becket's head: Harley MS 5102, f. 32r

The first of these manuscripts was made for Cirencester Abbey, and it contains a collection of Thomas Becket’s letters, assembled by Alan of Tewkesbury. It was made in the 1180s, within twenty years of Becket’s death, when his memory was fresh and his fame was expanding quickly. The makers of this book gave it the kind of luxury treatment associated with the holiest texts. An exquisitely decorated initial, shown below, marks the beginning of the preface, John of Salisbury's Life of Becket. John was a close associate of Becket, and the Life was composed within two years of the archbishop's death.

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The opening of John of Salisbury’s Life of Thomas Becket. Click on this link and hover over the image to reveal interactive annotations: Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 2r

The initial 'P' is extravagantly decorated with blue, pink and green vine scrolls inhabited by peering quadrupeds (which remind us of Dr Seuss). Two monstrous faces decorate the stem and bow of the initial. The top and bottom of the stem terminate in ribbon interlace. The whole initial, which looks in the flesh like coloured wire laid over liquid gold, is presented on a patterned background of dark pink quatrefoils with a gilded border. When crafted, the gilding would have been applied first and then the gaps meticulously filled with pigment. The de-luxe treatment is reminiscent of the treatment of the Lives of other, more established saints, and could perhaps have been understood as an expression of Becket's bona fide sanctity. You can read more about one of the scribes of this manuscript in our blogpost, Where's Wally?

The second manuscript comprises a series of five full-page miniatures inserted in an early 13th-century Psalter, perhaps made in the East Midlands of England. The burial of a cleric, perhaps Becket himself, forms the subject of one of the other miniatures.

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Miniature of the burial of a cleric, perhaps Thomas Becket. The upper right monk is holding a white object in his hand, perhaps a fragment of the saint's skull, which had been shattered when he was murdered: Harley MS 5102, f. 17r

Here we can see the two images of Becket's martyrdom side-by-side. There are several contemporary and near-contemporary accounts, some of them by eyewitnesses, of the events in Canterbury Cathedral on the evening of 29 December 1170. These two manuscripts reinforce certain elements of the story â€” the number of assailants, Becket kneeling before the altar, his companions watching from the wings — and they bring us as close as may ever be possible to visualise Thomas Becket's martyrdom, though medieval eyes.

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Two early witnesses to Becket's martyrdom: Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 341r and Harley MS 5102, f. 32r

 

Julian Harrison and Amy Jeffs

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

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28 December 2017

A poem for literally all seasons

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As followers of the @BLMedieval Twitter account know, some of us are fond of the hashtag #OTD. Short for ‘On this day’, it is used to recall which historical events took place on a given date. It’s a great excuse to highlight items from the British Library’s collections. In a way, it’s also rather medieval. When Benedictine monks assembled for their daily chapter meetings, they would have read an excerpt from a martyrology about which saints were commemorated that day and the next. Some medieval calendars included entries for every single day, and one of those is known as the Metrical Calendar of Hampson.

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The entries for December, from the oldest copy of the Metrical Calendar of Hampson, Winchester?, 1st quarter of the 10th century, Cotton MS Galba A XVIII, f. 14r

The metrical calendar of Hampson survives in four manuscripts, all made in England in the 10th or 11th century (and three of which are held at the British Library). It takes its name from R.T. Hampson, its 19th-century editor. The calendar comprises 365 verses, one for each day of the year. To take account of leap years, medieval calendars added a second 24 February, instead of adding an extra day at the end of the month, known as 29 February.

The oldest surviving copy was made in England in the first decades of the 10th century. It was added to a 9th-century Psalter from the region that is now France (Cotton Galba A XVIII). The poem mostly lists saints commemorated on each day, but it also includes information about the movement of the moon and planets and some versions note the deaths of King Alfred and his queen, Ealhswith. The poet(s) sometimes had to stretch to fill some days. For example, the entry for 28 February roughly translates as, ‘This is the last day of February.’ In other instances, however, the poet(s) used vivid, memorable imagery. The feast of the Assumption of the Virgin on 15 August was described as the day the Virgin Mary ‘crossed over to the stars.’ Meanwhile, 29 August was listed as the day John the Baptist’s ‘neck was truncated with a sharp sword’.

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The entries for September, from a calendar, 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 7r

There are two more versions from the first half of the 11th century, both associated with Canterbury or another major scriptorium: Cotton MS Julius A VI and Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1. Cotton MS Julius A VI contains a series of scientific diagrams and tables, now bound with a hymnal made a decade or two later. Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1 includes a range of texts on astronomy, geography and chronology, and includes an early world map. The fourth, abbreviated copy of the metrical calendar is found in an early 10th-century Psalter (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Junius 27).

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The entries for August, including the feasts of the Assumption and the Decollation of John the Baptist, from a calendar, Canterbury?, 11th century, Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 6v

The origin of this poem is debated. It includes many Irish and northern French or Flemish saints, leading some to claim that it was composed by an Irish or continental scholar working in England. There were certainly plenty of candidates: the inhabitants of several northern French churches fled to England following viking raids in the late 9th and early 10th century, while many Irish and continental scholars stayed at the West Saxon court. Alternatively, the surviving poem may have been based on calendars composed elsewhere but modified by someone working in England.

The date when the earliest surviving version of the poem was compiled is slightly easier to narrow down. The oldest copy was made after Alfred's wife, Ealhswith, died in 902, since it mentions her death in the verse for 5 December: ‘The fifth [day] has dear Ealhswith, true lady of the English’. 

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Ealhswith’s death mentioned in Cotton MS Galba A XVIII, f. 14r

However, there could have been earlier versions of the poem. The references to Ealhswith and Alfred could have been added later and, indeed, one of the later calendars (Cotton MS Julius A VI) omits them. Instead of Ealhswith, the entry for 5 December in that calendar commemorates ‘dear Candida, true lady of the Franks’.

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Verse about Candida, from Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 8v

The precise origins of the poem remains a mystery. However, the surviving copies show that the calendar continued to be read and copied for well over a century. It’s easy to see the appeal of a calendar with a verse for literally every occasion. Even to this day, we are fascinated by events which happened #OTD. At least we don’t have to write our tweets in verse!

Alison Hudson

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