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17 March 2017

St Patrick's Confessio: A Medieval Autobiography

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17 March is St Patrick’s Day, when the people of Ireland and those of Irish descent around the world celebrate the feast day of this famous saint. Patrick is one of the patron saints of Ireland and certainly the most celebrated! As a young man in the 5th century, he was kidnapped from his home in Roman Britain and spent years enslaved as a shepherd in Ireland. He eventually managed to escape back to Britain, and then returned as a missionary to convert the Irish to Christianity. Patrick describes his remarkable story himself in his Confessio, a form of autobiography. The Confessio survives in only 8 manuscripts, one of which is held by the British Library (now Cotton MS Nero E I/1). This fascinating text has been fully translated from Latin into English by the Royal Irish Academy and can be found online here.

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'My name is Patrick, I am a sinner': Opening lines of the Confessio, Cotton MS Nero E I/1, f.169v

The British Library's copy of the Confessio and Epistola is part of the Cotton-Corpus Legendary, the earliest substantial legendary from England. This text originally formed two volumes, covering the whole liturgical year: they are now divided between Cotton MS Nero E I/2, Cotton MS Nero E I/2 and Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 9. The majority of the text was copied in the second half of the 11th century at Worcester Cathedral.

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Careful now! Depiction of St Patrick standing on a snake in Purgatory, from St Patrick's Purgatory: England, 1451, Royal MS 17 B XLIII, f. 132v

What may surprise many people about the Confessio is that it contains no mention of shamrocks, snakes being driven out or the naming of the mountain where Patrick tended animals as a slave, although these popular traditions have later grown up around his story. Patrick wrote the text when he was an older man, reflecting on his faith in God and referring to his life as a spiritual journey. Although he calls himself as ‘a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers’, Patrick’s faith gave him inner strength and helped him through many experiences, including: temptation by Satan as he lay sleeping one night; his escape from slavery through the wilderness; and his later call to return again to the Irish (‘I never had any reason for returning to that nation…except the gospel and God’s promises’). We also see a more human side to Patrick as he describes the homesickness he felt while in Ireland (‘I could wish to leave them to go to Britain…to visit my home country and my parents’), and the joy upon seeing his family in Britain once more (‘They welcomed me as a son, and they pleaded with me…I should never leave them again.’)

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Detailed map of Ireland from the Nowell-Burghley Atlas, 1559–1570, Add MS 62540, f. 3v

The Confessio is accompanied by Patrick’s letter to the soldiers of Coroticus, commonly known as the Epistola. Likely composed before the Confessio, Patrick uses his position as Bishop of Ireland to condemn and excommunicate Coroticus and his soldiers for attacking a number of Patrick’s newly baptised converts and carrying them off into slavery. With personal experience of this practice, Patrick expresses his sadness and grief at losing his ‘fairest and most loving brothers and sisters’ to ‘villainous rebels against Christ...who divide out defenceless baptised women as prizes, all for the sake of a miserable temporal kingdom’. The Epistola also reveals Patrick’s love of his Irish flock and belief in his mission: ‘And yet I rejoice within myself: I have not worked for nothing…thanks to God you who are baptised believers have moved on from this world to paradise. [You] leap for joy, like calves set free from chains, and you tread down the wicked, and they will be like ashes under your feet.’ We toast today to Paddy’s health and to your own, sláinte!

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A medieval shamrock? Miniature of an alleluia or wood sorrel plant, from an Italian herbal, c. 1280–1310, Egerton MS 747, f. 12r

Alison Ray

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16 March 2017

Our First 100 Polonsky Pre-1200 Manuscripts Are Now Online

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The first 100 manuscripts are up! The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700–1200 is celebrating its first digitisation milestone. 100 manuscripts from the British Library have now been added to our Digitised Manuscripts site for you to explore!  A full list of the 100 digitised manuscripts with links to the viewer can be found here:  100 MSS Online.

These manuscripts cover a wide variety of topics and images from the Project’s focus of AD 700–1200 (you can read more about the Project or listen to the French interview of Matthieu Bonicel, Head of Innovation at the BnF). Some of the highlights include lavishly illuminated Gospels, like the Préaux Gospels from early 12th-century Normandy, with its amazing miniatures of the Evangelists and luxurious canon tables.

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Canon table with Evangelist surrounded by dragons and overgrown vines. The Préaux Gospels, Add MS 11850 f. 10v

A Rule of St Benedict datable to 1129 from the Benedictine abbey of St Gilles, in the diocese of Nîmes, opens with a gilded image of four tonsured men. The marginal letters in gold leave no doubt that this is St Benedict presenting a book (undoubtedly the Rule) to his disciple St Maurus. According to the account in the Life of St Maurus, St Maurus was responsible for establishing the Benedictine order in Francia (modern-day France).

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The opening folio of the Rule of St Benedict, Add MS 16979, f. 21v

The manuscripts now fully digitised also include plenty of material that requires a certain level of specialist knowledge to interpret. For example, a table similar to a graph sheet from a turn of the 12th century manuscript from Canterbury provides information for calculating the correct date of Easter and other movable feasts, in addition to scientific observations related to calendars, meteorology, astronomy and the keeping of time. Added material shows that the tables were still in use in the 15th century!

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Table for calculating the date of Easter, from Egerton MS 3314, f. 31v

Another fascinating manuscript is a 9th-century text on the liberal arts: grammar, rhetoric, music and astronomy from Lotharingia (covering modern day Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, some eastern areas of France and western areas of Germany). How many students has this Lady Rhetoric seen with her wide eyes; how many readers have been intimidated (or amused) by her unimpressed expression?

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A diagram of rhetorical argument, Harley MS 2637, f. 12r

We hope you enjoy exploring these exciting manuscripts. Happy discoveries!

Tuija Ainonen

Partez  à la découverte de 100 manuscrits antérieurs à 1200 grâce au projet The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200.

Nous sommes ravis de vous annoncer l’achèvement de cette première étape, qui consiste en la publication des 100 premiers manuscrits entièrement numérisés, sélectionnés par la British Library. Ceux-ci seront disponibles en ligne, sur notre site internet Digitised Manuscripts. Une liste complète de ces volumes pourvue d’un lien vers l’interface est fournie ici: 100 MSS Online.

Venez découvrir l’extraordinaire richesse de ces manuscrits, couvrant une période de 5 siècles (entre 700 et 1200). Ces derniers présentent une importante variété d’œuvres et d’enluminures. Voyagez dans diverses régions et époques au travers de ces manuscrits. Vous apprécierez ainsi l’Evangéliaire des Préaux (XIIe siècle), somptueusement décoré, ou la règle de saint Benoît, provenant de l’abbaye de Saint-Gilles, près de Nîmes (1129), et sa représentation magistrale de saint Benoît et son disciple saint Maur. Les collections ayant trait  aux arts libéraux ainsi que les manuels pédagogiques fournissent également de précieux témoins de l’enseignement et du renouveau de ces disciplines. Un  manuscrit du IXe siècle originaire de Lotharingie est ainsi représentatif de l’instruction à l’époque carolingienne. Nous espérons que vous apprécierez cette sélection et qu’elle vous mènera à de nombreuses découvertes. Bonne visite !

Laure Miolo (French summary)

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09 March 2017

England and France 700-1200: Franco-Saxon Manuscripts in the Ninth Century

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The British Library and the University of Leicester invite applications for an AHRC-funded PhD studentship on ‘Franco-Saxon manuscripts in the ninth century’. The project is offered under the AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnership programme, and will be co-supervised by Joanna Story, Professor of Early Medieval History at Leicester, and by Dr Kathleen Doyle, Lead Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts at the British Library. This full-time studentship, which is funded for three years at standard AHRC rates, will begin on 1 October 2017, and will be based at the British Library in London.

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A decorated initial in a Franco-Saxon gospelbook, Tours, 2nd half of the 9th century (British Library Add MS 11849, f. 27r)

The studentship

The successful candidate will undertake a PhD thesis on Franco-Saxon Manuscripts in the Ninth Century that centres on analysis of illuminated manuscripts produced in northern Francia. Manuscripts held at the British Library will be central to this project.

In the later 9th century monasteries in the Pas de Calais, at Saint-Amand, Saint-Bertin (Saint-Omer), Corbie and Saint-Riquier, produced manuscripts that are characterised by the use of a highly distinctive style of ‘Franco-Saxon’ illumination. These monasteries were places of great power, wealth and patronage in the 9th century, and were ruled by abbots who had close links to the Carolingian court. Proximity to the Channel coast, and to the trading emporium of Quentovic (Étaples) — which lay not more than a day’s ride from both Saint-Riquier and Saint-Bertin — meant that there were also longstanding political, cultural, economic and religious connections with Anglo-Saxon England. These links to places and people of power are made manifest in the deluxe manuscripts that were produced in these monasteries in the later 9th century, which combined the measured aesthetic of Carolingian epigraphic display scripts with an idiomatic use of Insular decoration.

The project offers the opportunity both for detailed historical research and direct engagement with early medieval manuscripts that may also reveal connections between England and France through their texts, decoration, script and methods of manufacture. The project will focus on books in the British Library, and on those codices that exemplify the Franco-Saxon style housed in London and elsewhere. The successful student will work with the supervisors to develop the project in ways that complement and extend the student’s existing skills-set and interests.

This AHRC collaborative studentship arises from a new international digitisation initiative, funded by The Polonsky Foundation, to digitise 800 illuminated manuscripts relating to ‘England and France, 700–1200’ that are held at the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) in Paris. That digitisation project creates unique opportunities for the successful candidate to this studentship competition, via training and outreach opportunities (e.g. writing catalogue entries, manuscript descriptions, blog-posts), and by examining aspects of the art history, codicology, palaeography and historical context of production and patronage of relevant manuscripts held at the British Library, and potentially also in Paris.

We are seeking to recruit a highly promising student who will relish the opportunity of combining academic research with the experience of working as part of a professional team of curators and researchers. This studentship is likely to appeal to individuals with a background in early medieval history, book history, literature and language, classics, or in applying interdisciplinary methods for understanding early medieval material culture. Prior experience of research using early medieval manuscripts will be an advantage, and the successful applicant will be able to demonstrate skills commensurate with career stage in relevant medieval and modern languages and palaeography. A commitment to communicating the results of research to a wider public audience is a key asset in the context of the British Library’s digitisation and exhibition programmes.

Subject to AHRC eligibility criteria, the scholarship covers tuition fees and a grant (stipend) towards living expenses. The national minimum doctoral stipend for 2017/18 has been set by Research Councils UK at £14,553. In addition the student has access to up to £1,000 per annum from the British Library for research-related costs, and to Student Development Funding (equivalent to an additional 6 months of funding per studentship) to allow time for the student to take up further training and skills development opportunities that are agreed as part of the PhD programme. The student also will benefit from staff-level access to the British Library’s collections, expertise and facilities, as well as from the dedicated programme of professional development events delivered by the British Library in tandem with the other museums, galleries and heritage organisations affiliated with the Collaborative Doctoral Partnership scheme.

How to apply

Further information about this collaborative research project (including academic and eligibility criteria), and full details on how to apply can be found in the further particulars, here: http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/history/postgraduate/collaborative-doctoral-award-opportunities.

Informal Enquiries

Informal enquiries about this collaborative project can be sent to Professor Joanna Story: js73@le.ac.uk 

 

Closing Date:              Monday 10 April 2017, 12:00 (midday, London time)

Interview Date:          5 May 2017, at The British Library, London

08 March 2017

Female Scribes in Early Manuscripts

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Recently, we received a query asking, 'Which is the earliest European manuscript in the British Library’s collections that was created by a female scribe?' The short answer is: we can’t tell! Female scribes worked on many of the same sorts of texts as male scribes and used the same sorts of scripts. Therefore, unless they signed their work or left other clues, there is no way of telling whether a given text was copied by a man or a woman. Luckily, however, there are clues in several relatively early Greek and Latin manuscripts at the British Library, including a letter from the 2nd century BC and an illustrated copy of scientific works from the 12th century. 

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Diagram of the four seasons and four cardinal directions,  from a copy of Isidore's De natura rerum: copied by 8 female scribes at Munsterblisen, c. 1130–1174, Harley MS 3099, f. 156r

The easiest way to tell if a manuscript was created by a female scribe or scribes is if they left in the book a note which recorded their names or details about themselves. Admittedly, these sorts of notes should be treated with caution: sometimes, later scribes could copy a note left by the scribe of their exemplar along with the rest of the text. Still, there seem to be plausible examples which record female scribes. For example, a note in one copy of Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae and De natura rerum (Harley 3099) claimed it was copied by no less than 8 female scribes from the Benedictine nunnery of Munsterblisen, near Maastricht:

These are the names of those women who wrote [scripserunt] this book: Gerdrut, Sibilia, Vierwic, Walderat, Hadewic, Lugart, Derta, Cunigunt. Indeed, they wrote for those in charge of the monastery [monasteriensibus dominis], that  they might ask God for them to free them from punishment and establish them in Paradise. May whoever steals [this book] from them be cursed! [The date 1134 has been added by a later hand.]

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All the signing ladies: note naming female scribes, Harley MS 3099, f. 166r

This is not even the earliest example of a manuscript possibly signed by a woman. Notes in a commentary on the Psalms from around the year 800 attributed it to a group of female scribes from Chelles (now Cologne, Dombibliothek Codex 63, 65 and 67). Some have argued that an invitation to a birthday party found at Vindolanda, on Hadrian’s Wall, is one of the earliest known documents in Latin copied out by a woman, if birthday girl Claudia did indeed write part of the invitation.

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Letter: Egypt, 2nd century BC, Papyrus 43

In other cases, context or contents are used to deduce whether a scribe might have been female. For example, Papyrus 43, copied in the 2nd century BC, contains a letter possibly from a woman to her husband, and seems to have been penned by the woman herself. It lacks the formal prologue (and some of the calligraphic style) usually associated with professional scribes. In the text of the letter, the woman tells the man how happy she is that he has started to learn 'Egyptian letters', which he can then teach to slaves: 'Discovering that you are learning Egyptian letters, I was delighted for you and for myself.'

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Decorated initial from the Book of Nunnaminster: Mercia, late 8th or early 9th century, Harley MS 2965, f. 4v

In other cases, female pronouns used in prayers may indicate a female context for the use or even production of a manuscript. For example, female pronouns appear in a series of prayer books made in the kingdom of Mercia in the late 8th century or early 9th century, leading some scholars to suggest that they were made for, or possibly even by, female scribes. At least one of these books may have had a later female owner: the Book of Nunnaminster includes a note about the land which King Alfred’s wife, Ealhswith, gave to the Nunnaminster in Winchester, suggesting it could have been owned by Ealhswith and/or the nuns of the Nunnaminster. It is tempting to think that women could have written these books, even if there is no way of knowing. 

Similarly, although the main text of this 11th-century prayerbook was made by a man — the monk Ælsinus of the New Minster, Winchester — notes added between the lines use female pronouns. This might suggest that notes were made by or for women.

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The sisters are doing it for themselves: addition changing the masculine form 'peccator' to the feminine form 'peccatrix', Cotton MS Titus D XXVI, f. 68r

This is just a sample of some of the earlier manuscripts in the British Library’s collection which have been associated with female scribes. Later periods provide even more examples of female scribes, from the author Christine de Pizan to Elizabeth I. Who are your favourite female scribes? 

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The beginning of the sixth book of Isidore's Etymologies with decorated initial, Harley MS 3099, f. 42v

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21 February 2017

Medieval Shelfies

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Our colleagues in the British Library's publishing team (otherwise known as @bl_publishing) recently spent a day managing the Library's Twitter account. Throughout the day, they encouraged followers to send in their shelfies, i.e. selfies of their bookcases. Sharing shelfies has recently become a popular social media trend among bibliophiles and literature enthusiasts. However, the appreciation of the aesthetic value of books and bookcases is not just a modern day phenomenon. Medieval manuscripts contain many images which depict books being stored in various styles of bookcases and shelves. Certain physical features of manuscripts themselves can also suggest how books were stored to be both visually attractive and accessible for the reader. 

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Miniature of Cornificia (Corinse) in her study, from a Flemish translation of Christine de Pizan's Cité des dames ('De Lof der Vrouwen'), Bruges, 1475. British Library Add MS 20698, f.70r

Most depictions of bookcases in medieval manuscripts can be found in images of scribes writing in a scriptorium. Within these images it is rare to see books stored with their spines facing outwards as is common today. There is evidence that books were stored in a number of different ways, such as stacked on top of one another or placed side by side. In the image below, the Dominican friar and author Vincent of Beauvais is pictured writing at his desk, surrounded by books stored with their covers on display (or easily covered by a green curtain). This method of storage may have been used for luxury books with lavish, embellished bindings. A previous post on our blog, discussing detached bindings in our collections, provides an idea of how decorative book covers could be.

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Detail of a miniature of Vincent of Beauvais sitting at a desk and writing his book, from Le miroir historial (a French translation of his Speculum historiale, translated by Jean de Vignay), Bruges, 1479-1480. British Library, Royal 14 E I volume 1, f.3r

Alternatively, books could be placed flat or even stacked on top of each other, as in the famous image of the Old Testament scribe and priest, Ezra. Behind Ezra is a special kind of book-cupboard, in which the books were laid flat next to one another. This image is taken from the Codex Amiatinus, a complete copy of the Bible which dates to the early 8th century. This manuscript was written in the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow, on the north-eastern coast of modern-day England, and was intended as a gift for Pope Gregory II. Wearmouth-Jarrow was also home to the Venerable Bede, who would have been writing in the scriptorium at the same time as this manuscript was being produced. It is possible that the bookcase and writing desk in the image were inspired by those at the scriptorium at Wearmouth-Jarrow in the 8th century.

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The 'Ezra miniature’, from the Codex Amiatinus, Wearmouth-Jarrow, c, 716. Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Amiatino 1

These images do not show the titles of the books on display, unlike modern shelfies. For that sort of shelfie from the medieval period, there are booklists or inventories, which record the books held at a particular library or institution. These lists are extremely useful for scholars trying to reconstruct the contents of ancient and medieval libraries which have been separated or lost over time. By understanding the contents of medieval libraries, it is also possible to identify specific texts which influenced the work of medieval authors.

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List of books from the Augustinian priory of St Mary, Bridlington, Yorkshire. The list is headed ‘Books of the big book-cupboard’ ('Libri magni armarii'). Rubrics separate lists of books by Ambrose, Hugh of Saint-Victor and Anselm, while others are grouped as glossed books or small books (the latter perhaps on shallower shelves). From a glossed copy of St Mark's Gospel, Northern England, c. 1150-1200. British Library, Harley MS 50, f. 48v

Booklists also provide an insight into the interests of individual patrons of books and libraries. For example, the booklist below was copied into a 10th-century manuscript and records the collection of an otherwise unknown Æthelstan. The contents of this list suggest that he was interested in works of grammar and rhetoric.

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List of Æthelstan’s books, England, c. 940-980. British Library Cotton MS Domitian A I, f.55v.

The physical appearance of manuscripts can also suggest how they were stored, and what medieval bookcases might have looked like. In a previous post, we discussed an unusual 12th-century manuscript which still retains the fur of the animal skin used for its binding. The binding also features small metal roundels and some metal bosses which protrude from the cover. These metal roundels may have been added to protect the books and provide support when they were stored in bookcases.

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Detail of the cover of a glossed copy of Genesis, England (Rievaulx Abbey), 12th century, Add MS 63077

Meanwhile, this 9th-century Gospel-book provides a clue that it may have been stored with its fore-edges facing out.  While the titles of modern books are written on books' spines, because we usually store books with spines facing out, the title of this book is written on the edges of the pages.

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Detail of the title added to the fore-edge of a Gospel-book containing the Gospels of St Luke and St John, Corvey?, c. 875-900. British Library Egerton MS 768

An item in the British Library's collection of papyri also helps our understanding of the appearance of ancient libraries. Below is a small papyrus label which dates to the 2nd century, and was attached to a papyrus containing the words of Baccylides, a Greek lyric poet. These labels would have been attached to papyrus scrolls in order to make specific texts easier to find within larger collections.

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A 2nd-century papyrus fragment of Bacchylides retains its parchment label, used to identify the volume on a bookshelf. British Library Papyrus 2056

The word 'shelfie' is a portmanteau combining the words shelf and selfie. A previous post on medieval selfies demonstrated that self-portraiture was popular long before the rise of front facing cameras and selfie sticks. Shelfies, too, clearly have a history that is older than the creation of the Twitter hashtag!

Becky Lawton

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09 February 2017

Dying to Archive: John Lakenheath at Bury St Edmunds Abbey

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On 21 June 1381, during the Peasants’ Revolt, a mob in Bury St Edmunds was out to kill. Among their chosen targets was John Lakenheath, a monk at the abbey as well as keeper of the barony (custos baronie), making him responsible for collecting dues and fines for the abbey’s manors. His crime: putting the abbey’s archives in order after they had been sacked by the townspeople as long ago as 1327. With all the relevant documentation at hand, the abbey had been asserting its claims stridently.

Index in Harley MS 743, f. 4r.

Index in Harley MS 743, f. 4r.

The book that made John so hated survives in the British Library as Harley MS 743, the ‘Lakenheath Register’. It is a calendar or directory of the documentary evidence held at the abbey in John’s time, showing its claim to properties, fees it was owed by tenants, and other legal privileges. It is not highly decorated, but it is full of energy, as reflected in the opening to John’s preface (translated from Harley MS 743, f. 3v):

After our monastery was destroyed by robbers and fire, and the registers of the abbots and other muniments were stolen stealthily without return, the thin ears of corn behind the backs of the reapers had hardly remained from such an abundant harvest of evidence for the church. Because of this, I, brother John Lakenheath, have arranged from various registers a kind of calendar, whatever the circumstances. In it, I have laid out in alphabetical order the names of certain manors about which I learnt any documentary evidence. By this, the evidence may more openly be accessible to future generations, that within and outside their liberty, the abbot and convent may have the power to proclaim their royal rights and other liberties more confidently. I ask the reader to mark this work in kindness rather than presumption.

John’s preface in Harley MS 743, f. 3v.

John’s preface in Harley MS 743, f. 3v.

John goes on to lay out his organisational scheme. Writing in 1379, tensions were already growing, and he may have already realised the danger he was in as he was compiling his register. He ends on an ominous note: ‘If for certain reasons I am unable to complete something noted above, may the reader accept the will for the deed, and may he ask the omnipotent to have mercy on the soul of the compiler.’ The book allows the reader to look up a particular estate, and find all the documents associated with it, going back to the day of William the Conqueror. In a society that was placing an ever-increasing value on written over oral evidence, one can easily imagine the power this conveyed.

The story of John Lakenheath’s death: Cotton MS Claudius A XII, f. 135v.

The story of John Lakenheath’s death: Cotton MS Claudius A XII, f. 135v.

John’s work led to personal disaster. The story of his death is told by another Bury monk, John Gosford, in his Election of John Timworth (Electio domini Iohannis Tymwrith in abbatem, Cotton MS Claudius A XII, ff. 135v–136r):

Hanging the prior’s head on a pillory, that whole cursing band came into the monastery, naming certain brothers, of whom they sought one before all the others, namely Walter Toddington; but when they could not find him, they sought another, namely the keeper of the barony. Although he could have fled from their hands, he refused to do so, declaring that he could not fall to a better cause than for the rights of his church, which he was always defending to the best of his ability, and therefore he wished to await the atonement of death for its sake, if it would drive their murderous hands from it. Some people from the village who hated him very much, pretending that they would be clean by his blood, arranged for the wicked people from the region to capture, hold, and kill him. When they came into his cloister where he had been stationed, they shouted, ‘Where is that betrayer?’ He answered them, ‘I am not a betrayer; but if you wish to have me, here I am.’ They shouted, ‘We have found the betrayer!’ They carried him away from the cloister, and led him into the middle of the marketplace: leading him through the road, they dragged him along. They not only attacked him with blows, but inflicted many mortal wounds on him, so that he was nearly dead by the time he reached that place. There, the killer struck him seven times before he was able to cut off his head. They set it up on the pillory with the other heads.

Depending on one’s point of view, the Lakenheath Register can mean something quite different: the townspeople must have thought it an instrument of tyranny, while the abbey depicted John’s work as that of a martyr. The truth, as always, is somewhere in between.

Andrew Dunning

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06 February 2017

A New Opening for the Lindisfarne Gospels

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If in the next few months you visit the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery here at the British Library, you can feast your eyes on a new part of the famous Lindisfarne Gospels (Cotton MS Nero D IV), which we have changed from displaying the letter of Eusebius at the beginning of the manuscript to a page from the Gospel of John at the end:

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 A text page from the Gospel of St John in the Lindisfarne Gospels (Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 239v)

While the new leaves don’t contain the Gospels’ more famous illustrations, such as the Carpet Pages, they are a good example of what the majority of the Lindisfarne Gospels looks like: simple text on a page, highlighted by the use of colours on the initial letters marking the start of many of the Gospel verses.

The pages currently on display are taken from Chapter 12, verses 7-25. The text is divided into two columns, with Aldred’s Old English translation visible above each Latin word in small brown ink. The scribe has decorated some (but not all) of the initials at the beginning of the verses; the lowest decoration is simple colouring in of an initial (i.e. the yellow ‘h’ for ‘Haec non cognoverunt…’), while more effort has been placed into other initials, such as the more elaborate colours and use of decorative points on the ‘In’ of ‘In crastinum autem…’. The Roman numerals in the margins are references to both the number of verse and to the corresponding verses in the three other Gospels.

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Another text page from the Lindisfarne Gospels (Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 240r)

Stop by and see the pages for yourself! The Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery is free to enter and open to all members of the public, seven days a week. More information, including current opening hours, can be found here.

And remember, you can view the whole of the Lindisfarne Gospels on our Digitised Manuscripts site. For conservation reasons, we change the pages on display on a regular basis; so be sure to check back in three months’ time to read about the new pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels on view.

Taylor McCall

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29 January 2017

The Book with a Fur Cover

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People who visit the British Library would be well advised to take heed of the adage, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover.’ Today, most medieval manuscripts have lost their original covers. As a result, some of the British Library’s finest treasures are hiding behind some rather unassuming-looking brown or blue bindings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Nevertheless, the British Library is lucky enough to possess a few examples of medieval bookbinding and covers. These range from wooden boards or pieces of leather to more elaborate examples of tooled leather, ivory and even jewelled metal bindings.

Bindings
Left:
Front cover from the St Cuthbert Gospel, England (Wearmouth Jarrow), early 8th century, Add MS 89000 Right: Ivory and turquoise upper cover of the Melisende Psalter, Kingdom of Jerusalem, c. 1131-43, Egerton MS 1139/1

One binding, however, has recently caught our eyes. It contains a glossed copy of Genesis from Rievaulx Abbey (Add MS 63077), made in the 2nd half of the 12th century. And it stands out because it is covered in… fur.

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Detail of fur on the cover of a glossed copy of Genesis, England (Rievaulx Abbey), 12th century, Add MS 63077

Dark brown hairs stand out from the worn cover. Originally the binding was probably completely covered in fur, and preliminary analysis suggests Add MS 63077's cover may have been made from sealskin. 

Leather was a common material for binding many different types of books in the Middle Ages, from the St Cuthbert Gospel’s carefully tooled leather cover to the less elaborate, rather loose leather that drapes over the thick wooden boards holding together the Sherborne Cartulary (Add MS 46487). In those cases, however, the animal skin would have been treated to remove the fur or hair before the material was added to the binding. Add MS 63077 is not unique in possessing a fur cover (or even a sealskin cover), but it is not clear why its cover was treated in this way (or why the fur survives in this case). 

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In addition to fur, the binding features a small metal roundel describing the manuscript’s contents: a glossed study-copy of the book of Genesis. The roundel is decorated with a zig-zag pattern and is written in capitals.

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The binding also features metal bosses sticking out on that cover. These were perhaps more functional than decorative: there is evidence that books would have been stacked horizontally in western libraries, rather than placed upright along shelves.

ADD 63077 f1r
Opening of the book of Genesis, Add MS 63077, f. 1r

Inside the binding, the contents of the manuscript were carefully laid out, with modest decoration. The central column of text contains the book of Genesis. Various notes and commentaries by medieval authors have been added around the side, showing that this volume was carefully planned before the text was written.

ADD 63077 f72r
Page from Genesis with commentary from the writing of Bede and Jerome, Add MS 63077, f. 72r 

This manuscript was probably made and owned in the 12th century at Rievaulx Abbey, a house of Cistercians, a relatively new monastic Order which had been founded around 1098. These monks criticised Benedictine monks for what they felt was too opulent a lifestyle. The Cistercians emphasized hard labour as well as study and worship in their day-to-day routines. Some of their surviving manuscripts, such as this glossed Genesis, provide an insight into their scholarly pursuits and priorities. Interestingly, another manuscript with a furry sealskin covering is also associated with a Cistercian house in the late 12th century: from Fountains Abbey, there survives a manuscript containing works of Augustine, the consuetudines (customs) of the Cistercian monks and the passion and miracles of St Olaf protected by a 'sealskin chemise' (now Oxford, Corpus Christi College, MS 209).

Still, this manuscript with its furry cover remains a bit mysterious. Have any of our readers seen similar manuscripts or know any reasons why the hair may have been left on this cover?

Alison Hudson

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