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125 posts categorized "Medieval history"

01 August 2018

Anglo-Saxon manuscripts postgraduate internship

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The British Library is pleased to be able to offer an internship for a postgraduate or recent post-doctoral student in history, art history or another relevant subject, to support work on the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. The internship is a six-month position based in the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section of the Western Heritage Collections department in London.

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The foundation charter of the New Minster, Winchester, c. 966: Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII, f. 2v

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms is a landmark exhibition on the history, art, literature and culture of Anglo-Saxon England (19 October 2018–19 February 2019. It will feature outstanding manuscripts from the Library’s own collections alongside a number of exceptional loans from other institutions.

The intern will use their specialist knowledge of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, history and culture to carry out a variety of duties, including: supporting delivery of the ‘Manuscripts in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms’ international conference and early career symposium linked to the exhibition, scheduled for 13–15 December 2018; blogging about the exhibition; supporting the promotion of the exhibition by the Library’s Press team; responding to visitor enquiries; giving talks and leading tours of the exhibition; and enhancing catalogue entries records. The successful candidate will enjoy privileged access to manuscripts at the British Library and will work alongside specialists with varied research interests.

This internship will provide an opportunity to develop writing and presentation skills, to engage with a variety of audiences, and to gain experience of curatorial duties. Previous interns have given feedback that they felt a valued member of the team, gained professional confidence and developed their career.

This position is only open to students who are engaged actively in research towards, or have recently completed, a PhD in a subject area relevant to the study of medieval manuscripts and who have a right to work in the UK full time.

The term of internship is full time (36 hours per week over 5 days) for 6 months. The salary is £10.20 per hour, which is the current London Living Wage. The internship will start on 1 October 2018 or as soon as relevant security checks have been completed.

To apply, please visit www.bl.uk/careers. Full details of this internship (reference 02102) can be found here.

Closing Date: 14 August 2018

Interviews will be held on 29 August 2018.

A calendar page for August 2018

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It’s August and time for the harvest. Don’t know what to do? Never fear! This 1000-year-old calendar provides step-by-step instructions for cutting and collecting grain in the form of an illustration at the bottom of the page for August. This calendar is one of only two surviving calendars from pre-Norman England to be illustrated with agricultural scenes. To learn more about it, please see our earlier blogpost.

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Page for August, from a calendar made in southern England in the 1st half of the 11th century: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 6v

Step 1: Cut the stalks with your sickle. We recommend an iron sickle, available in any good medieval emporium.

Cotton_ms_julius_a_vi_f006v sickle

Step 2: Pass the loose stalks to a friend who has rope to tie them together.

Cotton_ms_julius_a_vi_f006v bundling

Step 3: Carry the stalks to a nearby cart.

Step 4: Toss the stalks to the man with a pitchfork next to the cart.

Step 5: The man with the pitchfork will collect the harvest in the cart.

Cotton_ms_julius_a_vi_f006v tossing

 

In this image, the harvesting is being overseen by a figure with a spear and a dramatically billowing cape who blows a horn. The horn was written over by some of the Greek letters used in calendrical calculations that are listed in columns in this calendar. 

Cotton_ms_julius_a_vi_f006v horn

The original users of this calendar would have appreciated this image for more than its literal depiction of the harvest. This calendar was probably made for a monastic community, and many of the agricultural tasks coincided with metaphors used in the Bible. There were many Biblical stories about harvesting grain with sickles, particularly in the Old Testament and the Book of Revelation. The first users of this calendar may have seen a deeper meaning in this illustration, as well as a reflection of daily life.

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Detail of harvesting: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 6v

The month of August was not all work and no fun. The users of this calendar marked out four feast days with gold crosses. These were probably not the only feast days celebrated in August, as the verses next to each day in the calendar were composed at least a century before this calendar was made, and new feasts had been popularised by the time the calendar was being made in the 11th century. On 10 August, a gold cross singles out the day 'St Laurence caught fire'. Laurence was said to have been roasted on a gridiron by his tormentors. 

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The martyrdom of St Laurence, from the Caligula Troper, western England, 11th century: Cotton MS Caligula A XIV, f. 25r

The Assumption of the Virgin, when Mary was taken into Heaven, was commemorated on 15 August and marked in gold. 25 August is also marked out, but this may be a mistake for 24 August, the feast of St Bartholomew. St Bartholomew's feast is marked in other 11th-century English calendars, including the Tiberius Work Calendar (Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1), which includes the same poem as and similar illustrations to the Julius Work Calendar. St Bartholomew was martyred by being flayed, but the calendar says merely 'on 24 August, Bartholomew migrated to eternity'. The last feast singled out on this page was the beheading of St John the Baptist, commemorated on 29 August. The text notes that John's head was cut off 'with a sharp sword'. 

The whole calendar has been digitised thanks to the The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project. Happy harvesting! 

Alison Hudson

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29 July 2018

Pilgrimages: medieval summer holidays?

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In Chaucer’s famous opening line to the Canterbury Tales, ‘Aprille with his shoures soote’ (April with its sweet showers) was the time when people longed to set off on their travels. Of course, holidays as we know them were not enjoyed by medieval folk. The word itself comes from ‘Holy Days’ in the Church calendar, when a break from daily routine usually involved praying and fasting, not sunbathing and drinking cocktails on the beach. But people have always enjoyed visiting new places, and so pilgrimages were a popular way of taking a break at the same time as showing piety and atoning for one’s sins — a great all-inclusive package!  

One medieval pilgrim was St Roch, who tended plague victims. He is usually pictured in typical pilgrim’s garb, with the staff, scrip or bag and shell (the symbol of Santiago and all pilgrims) on his hat. When he caught the plague himself, he was healed by a hunting dog who licked his wounds and brought him bread.

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Miniature of Roch, showing a plague-spot on his thigh, with an angel and a dog holding a loaf, from the Prayer-book of Joanna of Ghistelles, Ghent, c. 1516: Egerton MS 2125, f. 209v

Instead of backpacking in Thailand, booking a package holiday to the Costa Brava or braving the traffic jams to the English seaside, medieval pilgrims headed for Palestine, northern Spain or Kent. Some of the leading destinations for English pilgrims were Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela and Canterbury.

 

Pilgrimage to the Holy Land

The holy places in Palestine were the ultimate destination for medieval Christian pilgrims, although the journey could be arduous. Margery Kempe, the famous English mystic, travelled from Norfolk to Jerusalem and Rome in 1413–15, as recounted in her autobiography. Even kings could be pilgrims, including Louis IX of France: when on crusade to the Holy Land in 1251, he went on a pilgrimage from Acre to Nazareth on the Feast of the Annunciation.

Travellers to distant places needed maps. This plan of Jerusalem is found in a book of maps and sea charts, produced in Venice. It shows the holy sites including David's Tower, the Holy Sepulchre, Calvary, Pilate's house, St Anne's house and the Temple of Solomon.

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Plan of Jerusalem in Pietro Vesconte’s book of charts, maps and plans, Venice, c. 1331: Add MS 27376*

 

Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela

This city in northern Spain is believed to be the resting place of St James, one of the twelve apostles. According to legend, James went to Spain to spread the Gospel before returning to Jerusalem, where he was beheaded. His friends placed his head and body in a boat, which miraculously carried them to the Galician coast. After suffering trials and persecutions at the hands of local pagans, they finally buried his remains on a hill (now the site of the famous cathedral of Santiago), where they lay forgotten for many centuries. The cult of St James was revived in the 7th and 8th centuries when Christianity in Spain was under threat from Muslim expansion. St James allegedly appeared in a dream to Charlemagne, urging him to liberate his tomb from the Moors and showing him the direction to follow by the Milky Way: the name Compostela is believed to derive from the Latin campus stellae (field of stars).

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Charlemagne pointing the way to Spain, from the Chroniques de France, Paris, 1st half of the 14th century: Royal MS 16 G VI, f. 166r

The first known pilgrim to Santiago de Compostela was Gotescalc, bishop of Puy in France, who visited the shrine in 950. The Empress Matilda, granddaughter of William the Conqueror, went on pilgrimage there in 1097. By the 12th century, half a million pilgrims were travelling from as far as Scandinavia, England and southern Italy, and hospitals, hostels, roads and bridges had been built to accommodate them. A pilgrims’ guide, the Liber Sancti Iacobi, was produced, listing the towns along the way, providing useful phrases in Basque to use when travelling through that region, and warning pilgrims against certain local foods and customs.

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St James, in the Liber Sancti Jacobi, Santiago?, 1st half of the 14th century: Add MS 12213, f. 3v 

The Camino de Santiago is now a very popular pilgrimage route, with many walking from St Jean Pied de Port in the Pyrenées, a journey of six weeks. Getting there and back is much easier than in the Middle Ages, when most people walked or rode on horseback. The ‘Camino Ingles’ (English Way) has starting points at the ports of La Coruña and Ferrol, where medieval pilgrims arrived by boat from Britain.

 

Pilgrimage to Canterbury

Pilgrims came from all corners of Europe to worship at Canterbury Cathedral, where Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered by four knights on the evening of 29 December 1170. In this compilation of Becket’s letters, accompanied by John of Salisbury's account of his life and death, is an image showing the martyrdom in four narrative scenes. The upper two depict Becket at table, being told of the knights' arrival. The lower sections show Becket’s martyrdom in the church and the later veneration of his shrine by four kneeling figures.

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The martyrdom of Thomas Becket, England, 4th quarter of the 12th century: Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 341r

Chaucer’s pilgrims travelled from Southwark in London to Becket’s shrine at Canterbury. The routes from London and Winchester remain popular with modern pilgrims, passing through the Sussex and Kent countryside.

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Pilgrims on the road to Canterbury, from John Lydgate’s Prologue of the Siege of Thebes, London, c. 1457–1460: Royal MS 18 D II, f. 148r

 

‘Couch’ pilgrimages

Many people like to watch travel programmes on television, seeing places we may never visit. Some people were unable to go on pilgrimage, but they could make a spiritual journey using guides or maps. Numerous medieval versions of the allegorical pilgrimage were written for this purpose, where the pilgrim had to overcome various obstacles to reach the final goal of spiritual fulfilment. In this French text, the pilgrim is guided by the lady Grace-Dieu.

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The pilgrim is given his bag by Grace-Dieu, from Guillaume Deguilleville, Les Trois Pèlerinages, France, c. 1400: Add MS 38120, f. 28r

Matthew Paris’s famous itinerary of the route to Jerusalem is considered to be a guide for a spiritual rather than a real journey from London to the Holy Land, as he does not provide distances or practical details. As far as we know, Matthew never made the journey himself, instead learning of the route from travellers who passed through St Albans Abbey in the 13th century. The first part of his plan shows the journey from London in the lower left-hand column to Dover and then, in the right-hand column, from Boulogne-sur-Mer on the French coast to Beauvais. Each place is one day’s journey from the preceding one.

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Section of an illustrated itinerary to Jerusalem, from London to Beauvais, St Albans, 1250s: Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 2r

 

Animal pilgrims

In the medieval world, animals also went on pilgrimage. Here is an example from the Smithfield Decretals.

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A rabbit shooting at a dog who is dressed as a pilgrim, from the glossed Decretals of Gregory IX  (the 'Smithfield Decretals'), Toulouse?, late 13th or early 14th century: Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 57v

In this collection of animal tales in German, a fox, having grown old and setting off on a pilgrimage, refuses the companionship of the watch-dog, wild ass, bear, lion, peacock, wolf, pig and mule. Instead, he chooses to travel with the panther, ape, lamb, hare, hedgehog, ox, the young hound and the ant (let’s hope someone offers the ant a ride!).

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A fox choosing its companions for a pilgrimage, from Ulrich von Pottenstein, Spiegel der Weisheit, Salzburg, c. 1430: Egerton MS 1121, f. 36r

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Chantry Westwell

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12 July 2018

Anglo-Saxon charters online

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In anticipation of the British Library's major Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, which opens on 19 October, we are delighted to have added the vast majority of our Anglo-Saxon single-sheet charters to our Digitised Manuscripts site. A full list of the 203 charters currently available can be downloaded here; we plan to add the remaining 8 charters in due course.

Cotton MS Augustus II 3 Face

King Æthelbald of the Mercians and of the South Angli grants ten hides at Ismere by the river Stour and land at Brochyl in Morfe forest, Worcestershire, to Cyneberht, comes, for the construction of a minster, dated 736: Cotton MS Augustus II 3

The British Library holds the world's largest collection of Anglo-Saxon charters. They are issued in the names of kings, bishops and laypeople, and include a considerable number of writs, wills, records of disputes and decrees of synods. The charters supply significant testimony to the evolution of English handwriting (the scripts deployed include uncial, pointed minuscule, square minuscule and English Caroline minuscule). They are composed primarily in Latin but with a considerable number in Old English (or with Old English bounds). Some of the documents are originals or were issued contemporaneously, while others are later copies or are deemed to be forgeries. Collectively, these charters provide us with substantial evidence for early English political, ecclesiastical, administrative and social history.

Add Ch 19795 face

Archbishop Wulfstan grants a lease, for three lives, of a half hide at Perry Wood in St Martin’s-without-Worcester, to Wulfgifu, with reversion to the church of Worcester, 1003 × 1016: Add Ch 19795

We recently learned the sad news of the death of Peter Sawyer, whose handlist of Anglo-Saxon charters (published in 1968) has proved invaluable to generations of scholars. Many of the charters now available online have also been edited in recent years on behalf of the British Academy/Royal Historical Society Joint Committee on Anglo-Saxon Charters, and we are indebted to scholars such as Susan Kelly, Simon Keynes and the late Nicholas Brooks for their editions and painstaking investigations into these documents.

Stowe Ch 15 face

Record of a dispute between Archbishop Wulfred of Canterbury, King Coenwulf of the Mercians, and Abbess Cwoenthryth, concerning the minsters of Reculver and Minster-in-Thanet, and of the dispute’s settlement by the transfer to Wulfred of a hundred hides at Harrow, Herefrethinglond, Wembley, and Yeading, all in Middlesex, and thirty hides at Combe, Kent, 825: Stowe Ch 15

 

Cotton MS Augustus II 31

King Æthelstan of England grants privileges to the bishopric of Crediton in return for 60 pounds of silver, 933: Cotton MS Augustus II 31

 

Cotton MS Augustus II 39 face 

King Edgar of England grants 22 hides at Ringwood, Hampshire, to Abingdon Abbey, 961: Cotton MS Augustus II 39

 

Cotton Ch VIII 18 face

King Edgar of England grants land at Bleadon, Somerset, to the Old Minster, Winchester, 975 (copied in the 15th century): Cotton Ch VIII 18

 

Cotton Roll ii 11 part 1

Bishop Eadnoth of Crediton mortgages a yardland by the river Creedy, Devon, to Beorhtnoth, probably 1018 (copied in the 13th century): Cotton Roll II 11

 

Stowe Ch 39 face

King Cnut of England grants his crown and the port of Sandwich to Christ Church, Canterbury, 1023 (copied in the 12th century): Stowe Ch 39

 

Cotton MS Augustus II 85 face

Will of Bishop Ælfric of Elmham (d. 1038): Cotton MS Augustus II 85

 

 Cotton Ch VIII 9 face

King Edward the Confessor of England grants seven hides at Millbrook, Hampshire, to Bishop Ælfwine of Winchester, 1045: Cotton Ch VIII 9

 

Over the coming months, and throughout the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, we will be blogging about some of the Anglo-Saxon charters in the British Library's collections, starting with this charter made 1,025 years ago (Cotton MS Augustus II 38). While charters may not be as beautiful as some of the magnificently illuminated manuscripts from the period, they are every bit as exciting. Many of the charters we have digitised are presumed to be originals: they may have been seen and touched by some of the historical figures mentioned in the text, at crucial moments in history.

Cotton MS Augustus II 38 face

King Æthelred of England confirms the privileges of Abingdon Abbey, including the right of free election of a new abbot, 993: Cotton MS Augustus II 38

In this charter, King Æthelred (‘the Unready’) confirmed the rights and property of Abingdon Abbey. The text mentions ‘frequent and numerous difficulties to me [Æthelred] and my nation’ in the past decade. This seems to be a reference to the Scandinavian forces that had begun attacking England again in the 980s, culminating with the disastrous defeat of English forces at the Battle of Maldon. Æthelred therefore repented of his youthful indiscretions and issued a series of ‘penitential’ charters, including this one, to try to protect some of the churches he had neglected and to set his kingdom right. 

We know at least some of the people mentioned in this text actually touched this piece of parchment because some of them left marks in the shape of a cross next to their names in the witness list. (Alas, the parchment is damaged next to Æthelred’s name).

In addition to revealing major governmental reshuffles and wars, charters can also reveal more personal details. For instance, one of Æthelred’s ‘youthful indiscretions’ involved kicking his mother out of his court when he was a teenager. In this charter, she appears in the witness list, suggesting that she had become a powerful force in the kingdom and was accepted at court again. She appears in the witness list next to Æthelred’s sons, whom she was helping to bring up. Removing your mother from the palace clearly did not preclude relying on her for childcare.

 

Julian Harrison & Alison Hudson

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05 July 2018

Three lions

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Football is an ancient sport. It is not clear when or where it was first played, but we do know that football was banned twice in England during the 14th century. On 13 April 1314, King Edward II forbade 'hustling over large balls' (‘rageries de grosses pelotes’) at the behest of some disgruntled London merchants (who clearly didn't realise the sport's potential for selling flags, alcohol and other merchandise). Then, in 1349, Edward III ordered that archery practice should supersede the playing of football ("Arrows coming home," anyone?). Later that century, the controversial churchman John Wyclif (d. 1384) cited in one of his sermons, suggesting it was a common sight: ‘Christian people have been kicked around, now by popes, now by bishops … as they would kick a football’ (‘Cristene men ben chullid, now wiþ popis, and now wiþ bishopis … as who shulde chulle a foot-balle’).

Medieval imagery continues to permeate ‘the beautiful game'. For example, the kit worn by the England team uses medieval symbolism, which is the subject of this blogpost.

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Image of Richard the Lionheart from Sir Thomas Holme's Book of Arms, made in England, c. 1445–1524, Harley MS 4205, f. 3v

The nickname of the England football team is the ‘Three Lions’. This refers to the team’s crest, which is in turn based on the royal arms of England. Originally, the kings’ coats of arms had a variable number of lions, usually one or two, in different poses. After Henry II married Eleanor of Acquitaine — whose coat of arms also involved a lion — three lions appeared on some English royal symbols. The three lions are particularly associated with Henry’s and Eleanor’s son, Richard the Lionheart. His Great Seal is the first seal of an English monarch in which the coat of arms, including the three lions, can clearly be seen.

Cotton Ch xvi 1
Detail of Richard the Lionheart’s second Great Seal, 1198, Cotton Ch XVI 1

Richard the Lionheart’s association with the three lions was remembered decades after his death. When Matthew Paris abbreviated his accounts of the reigns of the English kings in the middle of the 13th century, he depicted Richard holding a shield with a three lions as his defining feature.

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Image of Richard the Lionheart carrying a shield with three roughly drawn lions, from Matthew Paris's Abbreviated Chronicles of England, made in St Albans c. 1255–1259, Cotton MS Claudius D VI, f. 9v

Today, the three lions are joined by another royal heraldic symbol: ten Tudor roses, symbolising the different divisions of the English Football Association. These roses are red and white, combining symbols of the two opposing sides from the Wars of the Roses.

Cotton MS Titus D IV
The Tudor rose entwined with the pomegranate motif of Katherine of Aragon, from Thomas More's Coronation Suite, Cotton MS Titus D IV, f. 12v

Nor is England the only team in the World Cup with medieval or even older iconography emblazoned on their kits. The Japan side’s symbol is the three-legged crow Yatagarasu. The three-legged bird is a figure in many East Asian mythologies, stretching back perhaps thousands of years BCE. When Sweden play England on Saturday, their players will be wearing blue and yellow: these colours have been associated with Sweden perhaps since the late 13th century, when King Magnus III used them on his coat of arms.

Now, if only we could persuade the England football team to actually play like lions ...

 

Alison Hudson

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01 July 2018

A calendar page for July 2018

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Growing up in Pennsylvania, one of the sights and sounds I associated most strongly with summer was the sound of lawnmowers. Mowing was already a common sight a thousand summers ago, judging from the line drawings in this 11th-century calendar (Cotton MS Julius A VI). However, the sound of scythes depicted here would have been rather different from the noise their motorised descendants make.

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A calendar page for July, from a calendar made in southern England, mid-11th century: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 6r

Each page of this calendar contains an image of agricultural or social life, so it is sometimes known as the Julius Work Calendar. (For an introduction to this calendar, please see our posts for previous months.) The people mowing appear at the bottom of the page for July.

Cotton_ms_julius_a_vi_f006r mowers
Detail of mowers, from Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 6r

This group of six figures has given the artist a chance to show off his virtuosity. Detailed, vivid line-drawings were prized in 11th-century English art, and the artist of this calendar uses this technique at its height to create distinct characters for each of the six men.

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Detail of men with scythes and a pitchfork, Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 6r

Starting on the left, the artist has drawn a short-haired, balding man sharpening a scythe, possibly with a stone. Next to him, a dark-haired, bearded man collects material with a pitchfork, while a light-haired man, with his back to the viewer, bends down to make a cut with his scythe.

Cotton_ms_julius_a_vi_f006r right
Detail of mowers, from Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 6r

On the right side of the image, the artist has created another three characters. A dark-haired man with a short beard has hitched up his tunic to keep it out of the way while he mows, while the balding, clean-shaven man next to him wears his tunic loose. It swings as he steps forward. Fluttering hemlines were a recurring theme in 11th-century English drawings, and this artist made sure to include some frills even when depicting a worker's tunic. My favourite figure in the group, though, is the balding man with a forked beard on the right. He holds a whetstone in his left hand and taps or scratches his head with his right hand. Some days, we all know how he feels!

Cotton_ms_julius_a_vi_f006r cancer
Detail of the zodiac sign Cancer, from Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 6r

In addition to the mowers, this calendar page also features a depiction of the constellation Cancer, the crab. Cancer was one of those zodiac symbols that was subject to many different artistic interpretations throughout the medieval period, as we have discussed in previous calendar pages on this Blog. In the Julius Work Calendar, Cancer is portrayed as a very round creature with pincers, 8 legs and round eyes. Here's how other medieval artists represented Cancer.

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Detail of the zodiac sign Cancer, from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410–1430, Add MS 18850, f. 6r

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Detail of the zodiac sign Cancer, from a Book of Hours, St Omer or Thérouanne, c. 1320, Add MS 36684, f. 7r

Add_ms_24098_f024r Cancer
Detail of the zodiac sign Cancer, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), 
c. 1540, Add MS 24098, f. 24r

The rest of the page for July contains the usual calendrical information: guides for calculating lunar cycles and the days of the week, as well a poem with a verse for every day. Only one feast day is marked out in July: the feast of St James, ‘the brother of the Lord’, on 25 July.

Cotton_ms_julius_a_vi_f006r St James
Detail of the verses for 25 July and following, from the Metrical Calendar of Hampson, Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 6r

So, this July, if you are mowing your lawn, remember you part of an ancient July tradition. If you don't have a lawn, there’s always the Digitised Manuscripts site to brighten your day, where you can see this manuscript and over 300 other manuscripts digitised by the The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project.

Alison Hudson 

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25 June 2018

Live like an eleventh-century prince

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Have you ever wondered what it must have been like to have been a prince one thousand years ago? Would you have eaten off of silver plates? How many swords would you have had? Which horse would be your favourite, and which saint? Who would your friends be? Would you miss your grandmother? Which side would you be on in court intrigues? What kind of jewellery would you wear? We can answer some of these questions — at least in the case of one prince — from a document held in the British Library, dated 25 June 1014.

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Detail of worldly treasures which match the items mentioned in Æthelstan’s will, from a Psalter made in Winchester, mid-11th century: Cotton MS Tiberius C VI, f. 10v

That document is the will of Æthelstan, the eldest son of King Æthelred ‘the Unready’ of England (d. 1016). Inconveniently, Æthelstan died in 1014, in the middle of an invasion by Scandinavian forces (vikings). Nevertheless, shortly before he died, Æthelstan had time to divide his possessions, giving us a glimpse into elite English society.

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Will of Æthelstan, 25 June 1014: Stowe Ch 37

In Æthelstan’s will, he bequeathed some of his most precious possessions. These included extensive lands in 10 different shires, several horses, and various objects made out of precious metals. A full translation of the will is available here.

  • Swords/blades: 12
  • Horses: 7
  • Cups/bowls: 2
  • Shields: 2
  • Arm ring: 1
  • Drinking horn: 1
  • Trumpet: 1
  • Coat of mail: 1
  • Golden belt: 1
  • Cross: 1...

Stowe_ch_37_f001r detail
‘To my brother Edmund, the sword that King Offa had’: detail of Stowe Ch 37

The many swords described in Æthelstan’s will have attracted particular attention. Swords were some of the most expensive weapons available in early medieval Europe. Æthelstan’s will indicates how many and what kind of swords an early medieval war leader might have needed. Several of the swords are described as ‘ornamented’, ‘with a silver hilt’, or ‘damaged.’ There is a sword with ‘a silver hilt that Wulfric wrought’ and there is another 'on which a hand is marked.’ There was even one, Æthelstan claimed, that had belonged to Offa, the 8th-century king of Mercia. Ã†thelstan gave this sword and another with a ‘pitted hilt’, as well as many other things, to his brother Edmund, who became heir to the throne after he died.

Cotton_ms_tiberius_b_v!1_f004v feast detail
Detail of a feast, with a drinking horn being filled on the far left-hand side of the image, from a mid-11th -century calendar: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 4v

Beyond the swords, shield and chainmail, other items mentioned in the will give us insights into Æthelstan’s domestic life. His mealtimes could be glittering affairs, literally: the will mentions a ‘silver cauldron/basin worth five pounds’, and possibly a silver bowl, in addition to a costly drinking horn. On special occasions, Æthelstan perhaps wore his 'golden belt' and arm-ring. He may have dined with his brothers and his ‘dish-then’ (steward or seneschal) Ælfmaer, who received a roan stallion and a damaged sword in the will. Æthelstan might also have shared meals with his retainers and allies including Æthelweard the Stammerer, Godwine the Driveller and Ælfric of Barton. Other members of Æthelstan’s entourage mentioned in the will include a priest, a ‘staghuntsman’ and, perhaps unsurprisingly, a ‘sword-furbisher.’

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Drawing that might depict Queen Ælfthryth among a crowd, from the Benedictional of Ã†thelwold, made c. 971-984: Add MS 49598, f. 118v

The will even offers glimpses of the prince’s childhood, since Æthelstan mentions two women who were important in his upbringing. The first was his foster mother, Ælfswith, to whom he gave land worth 250 mancuses of gold ‘because she greatly deserved it’. Royal and noble children in early medieval England were frequently sent to other families to be brought up or were cared for by foster mothers. The second major influence on Æthelstan’s childhood was apparently his grandmother, Ælfthryth (d. 999 x 1001), wife of King Edgar (d. 975) and mother of Æthelred: she ‘brought me [Æthelstan] up’, according to the text of the will. Indeed, the first time Ã†thelstan appeared in the surviving written record, he was listed with his grandmother as witnesses of a charter for Abingdon Abbey. Ælfthryth must have been an important influence on Æthelstan throughout his life. Many of the churches to which he made donations in his will she had also patronised, such as Ely Abbey. Touchingly, Ælfthryth is the last person mentioned in the will: Æthelstan asserts that all his gifts to God and God’s church are done for the soul of his father, his own soul and that of Ælfthryth.

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Æthelstan (spelled Æþelstan) first appears in the historical record in this charter from 993: Cotton MS Augustus II 38

Æthelstan’s will also records charitable donations he made for the sake of his soul at the end of his life. These pious donations offer stark reminders of how difficult life could be for those outside the elite in 11th-century England: the will makes provisions for 100 paupers to be fed on the feast day of St Æthelthryth of Ely and begins by freeing all of the penal slaves owned by Æthelstan. Penal slaves were people who were made slaves because they had been convicted of a crime. The will does not mention the hereditary slaves who worked on Æthelstan’s extensive estates or ran his household.

At least two copies of this will were made, for safekeeping, and were sent to Winchester and Christ Church Canterbury. The copies were written on the same piece of parchment, and the word ‘CYROGRAPHUM’ was written along the middle. The parchment was then divided along that word, so that the copies could be verified by lining up the two halves and matching the letters. Æthelstan perhaps took these precautions because he was anxious that the provisions might not be respected. Several times, he emphasized that these bequests were made with his father’s permission.

One copy of the will, the upper portion of the cyrograph, can be viewed on our Digitised Manuscripts site. You can also learn more about Ã†thelstan, Ælfrthryth and Æthelred at the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, which will be on display at the British Library between 19 October 2018 and 19 February 2019. Don't forget the prince who died over 1000 years ago, who loved swords, horses and his grandmother.

Alison Hudson

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19 June 2018

The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander

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The reign of Ivan Alexander (r. 1331–71) was a high point in the cultural history of Bulgaria, and the Tsar’s personalised copy of the Gospels translated into the Slavonic language is the most celebrated surviving example of Bulgarian medieval art. In 2017, the book was added to the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. As part of the celebration of Bulgarian National Day of Culture on 24 May, the manuscript was also featured on Bulgarian television. The Gospel-book has been fully digitised, and is available on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site.

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Tsar Ivan Alexander, his wife and two sons, all blessed by God: Add MS 39627, f. 3r

The makers of this book, who probably worked at the Tsar’s capital, Turnovo, drew on the long tradition of Byzantine book production and more recent Slavonic practices. They also conceived it as part of the Tsar’s revival and championing of Christian culture in the Balkans as the power of the Byzantine emperor ebbed and that of the Ottoman Turks grew.

In the words of its scribe Simeon, the volume was created ‘not simply for the outward beauty of its decoration … but primarily to express the inner Divine Word, the revelation and the sacred vision’. It now retains an extraordinary 367 ‘life-giving images of the Lord and his glorious disciple Jesus’. Once also richly decorated on the outside, bound within silver-gilt boards, the manuscript was probably displayed during services on major feast days attended by the Tsar and his family and intended to commemorate them in perpetuity after their deaths.

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The Tsar’s three daughters and son-in-law: Add MS 39627, f. 2v

At the opening of the volume, an imposing double-page portrait contrived in the tradition of Byzantine imperial portraits reflects both the artistic heritage of its creator and the imperial ambitions of the Tsar. In this image Tsar Ivan Alexander and his family together receive God's blessing. The Tsar is depicted dressed in imperial regalia and accompanied by his second wife, Theodora, a converted Jew, and by their two sons Ivan Shisman (r. 1371–1395) and Ivan Asen (d. 1388?). On the left-hand page are the Tsar’s three daughters, the eldest of whom, Kera Thamara, stands beside her husband, Despot Konstantin.

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Christ ascends to Heaven above his disciples and Mary; Tsar Ivan Alexander receives the blessing of St Mark, all at the end of St Mark’s Gospel: Add MS 39627, f. 134v

Ivan Alexander is also shown in the company of each of the Evangelists at the end of their Gospels and between Abraham and the Virgin Mary in a large illustration of the Last Judgment prompted by St Mark’s account of Jesus’s prophecy to his disciples. These portraits promote the full integration of the secular and religious roles of the Tsar.

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Christ on the Cross before and after his death, mocked by the crowd (below) and bleeding from the lance wound, with the dead raised from their graves by the ensuing earthquake (above), in St Matthew’s Gospel: Add MS 39627, f. 84r

The biblical text of the volume is equally lavishly decorated. Within the text several hundred illuminated miniatures illustrate the life and teachings of Christ in the sequence narrated by each of the Evangelists, focusing on his infancy, miracles, parables and Passion. Given the fourfold narrative of the Gospels and the profuse illuminations in the volume, many episodes common to more than one of the Gospels are illustrated several times. Most of these scenes are contained within one relatively shallow, horizontal strip, but some are extended to two or three such strips stacked vertically up the page or restricted to a smaller box within the text block.

None of these choices were the original idea of the makers of the Tsar’s book. They were instead based on the illuminations of an equally extraordinary Byzantine manuscript (untraced). In their frieze format and choice of subjects the miniatures correspond most closely to a remarkable 11th-century manuscript of the Gospels now in Paris that was produced at the Studios Monastery in Constantinople and possibly made for the Emperor Isaac I Comnenus (r. 1057–1059) (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS grec 74). Only one other contemporary Byzantine Gospels, now in the Laurenziana Library at Florence, presents a similarly extended sequence of nearly three hundred frieze miniatures (Florence, Bibioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Plut. 6.23).

The individual portraits of the Tsar in his volume replace those of an abbot in the Studios Gospels; the opening family portrait may have been modelled on a now-lost imperial family portrait at the opening of the Byzantine manuscript from which it drew its other illustrations. Later Slavonic manuscripts of the Gospels that incorporate similar portraits and frieze miniatures reflect continued respect for this type of Gospels into the 17th century.

 

Further Reading

Bogdan D. Filov, Miniaturite na Londonskoto Evangelie na Tsar Ivan Aleksandra / Les miniatures de l'évangile du roi Jean Alexandre à Londres (Sofia, 1934).

Ekaterina Dimitrova, The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander (London, 1994).

Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557), ed. by Helen C. Evans (New York, 2004), no. 27.

Cynthia Vakareliyska, ed., The Curzon Gospel, 2 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Scot McKendrick and Kathleen Doyle, The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World (London: Thames & Hudson, 2016), no. 35.  

The manuscript has also been reproduced in a new facsimile edition.

 

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