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71 posts categorized "Medieval history"

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. In parallel with the show, part of Domesday Book is on display at Lincoln Castle, the first time it has been shown outside London since it became part of the Public Record Office and National Archives. 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.

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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.)

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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) 

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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 ·) 

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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. 

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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. 

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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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14 April 2017

A hunt for medieval Easter eggs

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Easter eggs are a popular symbol of the springtime holiday, but did you know that the association of eggs and Easter is much older than our modern chocolate varieties?

During the Middle Ages, the period of 40 days before Easter known as Lent was observed by Christian families as a time of fasting. Several foods were forbidden during this period, particularly meats, fats, milk and eggs. To overcome these restrictions, cooks became creative and a playful tradition emerged of imitation foods, that is, dishes made to look like other foods. Popular dishes included imitation meats, to indulge cravings guilt-free and also to allow cooks to show off their culinary skills. Another playful joke that proved popular in medieval Europe was imitation eggs. The British Library holds a 15th-century recipe for one imitation egg made from almond paste in an English cookery book (now Harley MS 279).

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Scrambled, not stirred: recipe for ‘Eyroun in lentyn’, imitation eggs of almond paste for Lent from a cookery book, England, c. 1430–1440, Harley MS 279, f. 32v

This recipe called for some technical skill, as one prepared an almond paste to put into a real egg shell. It also includes an ‘egg-yolk’, almond paste dyed with saffron, in the egg’s centre:

Eyroun in lentyn.

Take Eyroun & blow owt þat ys with-ynne ate oþer ende; þan waysshe þe schulle clene in warme Water; þan take gode mylke of Almaundys, & sette it on þe fyre; þan take a fayre canvas, & pore þe mylke þer-on, & lat renne owt þe water; þen take it owt on þe cloþe, & gader it to-gedere with a platere; þen putte sugre y-now þer-to; þan take þe halvyn- dele, & colour it with Safroun, a lytil, & do þer-to pouder Canelle; þan take & do of þe whyte in the neþer ende of þe schulle, & in þe myddel þe ȝolk, & fylle it vppe with þe whyte; but noȝt to fulle, for goyng ouer; þan setter it in þe fyre & roste it, & serue forth (transcription taken from Thomas Austin, ‘Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery-Books’, The Early English Text Society, London: 1888).

If you don’t find almonds appealing, imitation eggs were also known to have been made using pike roe, or fish eggs. Banned foods were allowed once more by Easter, and decorated eggs were possibly used to celebrate the ending of the Lent fast. The earliest documented mention in England of this features in the household accounts of King Edward I for 1290, where the decoration of 450 eggs in gold leaf or boiled and dyed is recorded for the cost of 18 pence; these eggs were presented to the royal household at Easter. 

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Medieval mystery play s influenced later Easter egg traditions: Shipwrights performing the building of Noah’s Ark from the York Mystery Plays,
Add MS 35290, f. 24v

The tradition of celebrating Easter with eggs continued into the modern era, but some of the traditions continued to be shaped by medieval Easter celebrations. From the 18th century, parts of Northern England such as Lancashire and West Yorkshire developed the tradition of Pace Eggs and Pace Egg plays, so-called because the Latin name for Easter is pascha. The Pace Egg plays were inspired by medieval mystery plays, retellings of religious or Biblical stories which were performed by trade guilds on holidays such as Easter or Corpus Christi. The British Library has recently digitised two of the four surviving sets of mystery plays, the York Mystery Plays (Add MS 35290) and the N-Town Plays (Cotton MS Vespasian D VIII). In later Pace Egg plays, local performers known as mummers performed the tale of St George and the Dragon, while also giving out Pace Eggs. These hen, duck or goose eggs were hard boiled and colourfully decorated and were often used in egg-rolling races!

However you like your eggs, enjoy your Easter sunny side up!

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Got to hatch them all! Detail of an ape carrying a basket of eggs and empty hood on a stick from the Maastricht Hours, Low Countries (Liège), c. 1300-1325, Stowe MS 17, f. 256v

Alison Ray

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10 April 2017

The Wonders of Rome

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Even after the fall of the Roman Empire, the city of Rome never lost its draw. Objects of Roman provenance, whether art, saints’ relics, or even copies of texts, often continued to be treated with reverence. They were integrated into new creations and imitated in new artistic endeavours. Rome’s reception is the subject of a new exhibition in Germany, at the Diözesanmuseum Paderborn, running from 31 March to 13 August 2017, to which the British Library is delighted to be a lender: the exhibition is called (in English) The Wonders of Rome from a Northern Perspective.

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A view of the exhibition at Paderborn

One medieval manuscript included in the Paderborn exhibition is Matthew Paris’s Liber additamentorum (British Library Cotton MS Nero D I). Matthew Paris (d. 1259) was a monk of St Albans Abbey in Hertfordshire, and is renowned as a historian, artist and cartographer. His Liber additamentorum ('Book of Additions') is a collection of documents relating to the history of his abbey, and includes, among other texts, Matthew's Lives of the Two Offas and his Deeds of the Abbots of St Albans Abbey. On display in the exhibition is Matthew Paris's description of the gems and rings that belonged to the church of St Albans in his day (De anulis et gemmis et pallis que sunt de thesauro huius ecclesie), with his own illustrations.

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Matthew Paris’s description of the gems of St Albans: Cotton MS Nero D I, f. 146v.

Among the gems depicted by Matthew Paris is one passed on from antiquity: a cameo now thought to have depicted an emperor, Jupiter, or Asclepius. Matthew describes it in extensive detail, noting that it was used in childbirth: ‘For an infant about to be born escapes the approaching stone’ (Infantulus enim nasciturus lapidem subterfugit appropinquantem, f. 147r). This seems to have come about through interpretation of the classical imagery, which he describes as showing a man with a spear in his right hand, with a serpent crawling up it, and a boy on his left hand.

Also on display at Paderborn is the British Library’s Additional MS 12154, containing a description of Rome written in Syriac by Pseudo-Zacharias in the 6th century. It outlines its splendours in detail, including what is believed to be the first mention of Christian buildings in the city.

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Installing the exhibition at Paderborn

The British Library is a regular lender to exhibitions in the United Kingdom and overseas. We are very pleased to have been able to lend two of our early manuscripts, one in Latin and the other in Syriac, to the Diözesanmuseum, and we hope that our German readers are able to view these books in person at Paderborn. You may like to know that Matthew Paris's Liber additamentorum is also available to view in full, online and in high definition, on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.

Andrew Dunning

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05 April 2017

An illustrated Old English Herbal

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Plant-based remedies were a major feature of Anglo-Saxon medicine. Thanks to our current digitisation project with the Bibliothèque nationale de France, funded by The Polonsky Foundation, one of the British Library’s earliest illustrated collections of such remedies has just been digitised.

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Entries for chamomile and ‘hart clover’, from an illustrated Old English Herbal, England (? Christ Church Canterbury or Winchester), c. 1000–1025, Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 29v

This manuscript (Cotton MS Vitellius C III) is the only surviving illustrated Old English herbal, or book describing plants and their uses. (There are other, non-illustrated manuscripts of the same text, for example in Harley MS 585.) The text is an Old English translation of a text which used to be attributed to a 4th-century writer known as Pseudo-Apuleius, now recognised as  several different Late Antique authors whose texts were subsequently combined. The manuscript also includes Old English translations of Late Antique texts on the medicinal properties of badgers (framed as a fictional letter between Octavian and a king of Egypt) and another on medicines derived from parts of four-legged animals. Together, the herbal and the text on four-legged animals are now known as part of the so-called 'Pseudo-Apuleius Complex' of texts.

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A man and a centaur presenting a book to a figure in a blue veil or hood, captioned 'Escolapius Plato Centaurus', from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 19r

Each entry features an illustration of a plant or animal; its name in various languages; descriptions of ailments it can be used to treat; and instructions for finding and preparing it. Remedies for poisonous bites were marked out with drawings of snakes and scorpions. For instance, a snake appears near the entry for sweet basil, called ‘snake plant’ (naedderwyrt), because it was reported to grow where snakes were found and to be useful against injuries caused by snakes. 

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‘Snakeplant’, from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 57r

Although it might seem like a practical guide to finding plants and preparing remedies, this manuscript's uses are debated. First, the illustrations are not always very useful for identifying plants and animals in the wild: take, for example, these depictions of strawberries and elephants.

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‘Streawberian’, from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 33v

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A monkey and elephant, from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 82r

Secondly, the texts include plants and animals from Mediterranean regions and beyond which are not known to be native to the British Isles, such as cumin and licorice. Scholars debate whether the Anglo-Saxons knew these plants through trade or whether the early medieval climate could have permitted such plants to grow in England. Alternatively, the scribes and artists could simply have copied them from their Mediterranean source. The text sometimes explicitly acknowledges that plants are best found in distant regions. For example, ‘dragonswort… is said that it should be grown in dragon’s blood. It grows at the tops of mountains where there are groves of trees, chiefly in holy places and in the country that is called Apulia’ (translated by Anne Van Arsdall, in Medieval Herbal Remedies: The Old English Herbarium and Anglo-Saxon Medicine (New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 154). The Herbal also includes mythical lore about some plants, such as the mandrake, said to shine at night and to flee from impure persons. To pick it, the text claimed you needed an iron tool (to dig around it), an ivory staff (to dig the plant itself up), a dog (to help you pull it out), and quick reflexes.

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A mandrake, from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 57v

However, while this manuscript’s exact uses are debatable, it continued to be used into the 16th century: later users added numbers to the table of contents, some recipes and variants of plants' names in Latin, Anglo-Norman French, and English. Eventually, a later copy of Peter of Poitiers’ Chronicle and a 9th-century copy of Macrobius’s Saturnalia were bound with the herbal. The volume may once have belonged to William Harvey (b. 1578, d. 1657), who discovered the circulation of blood. Some of his own recipes — featuring ‘licoris’, ‘cinemon’ and opium — are found at the end of the volume.

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Recipe for ‘A Diet Drinke’ in the hand of William Harvey, 1624, Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 140v

__________

Le printemps s'annonce et en Angleterre les jardins commencent à renaître. La British Library vient de numériser un manuscrit rempli d’images de plantes (et d’animaux). Ce manuscrit (Cotton MS Vitellius C III) contient des textes médicaux attribués à Pseudo-Apulée: un herbier, qui précise les usages médicaux des plantes, et aussi un texte qui concèrne les usages médicaux des animaux. Tous ces textes sont traduits en vieil anglais.

Ce manuscrit est le seul exemple d’un herbier anglo-saxon illustré. Les images dépeignent les plantes et les animaux décrits dans le texte.  Cependant, les images des fraises et de l’éléphant révèlent un certain manque de vraisemblance de la part de l’artiste.

Malgré cela, plusieurs lecteurs ont utilisé ce manuscrit: il y a des additions dans des mains datant de l'onzième jusqu’au seizième siècle. Il est possible que William Harvey, le médecin qui a découvert les lois de la circulation du sang, l’ait possédé : des recettes médicales, dans sa propre main, se trouvent maintenant à la fin du manuscrit. Aujourd’hui, ce volume contient aussi une copie du Compendium historiae de Pierre de Poitiers.

 

Alison Hudson

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29 March 2017

Medieval depictions of the Crusades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chantry Westwell

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