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Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

Introduction

What do Magna Carta, Beowulf and the world's oldest Bibles have in common? They are all cared for by the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section. This blog publicises our digitisation projects and other activities. Follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval. Read more

19 March 2017

A Tale as Old as Time

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Magic is in the air this weekend, as audiences worldwide have been going to see Disney’s live action remake of its classic animated tale, Beauty and the Beast. In Disney’s version of this classic tale, an enchantress places a curse on a vain prince which turns him into a hideous beast. If the prince does not learn to love another by the time the last petal falls on a magical rose, he will remain in his beastly state forever. Some years later, a young village girl, known for her love of reading and beauty, is taken prisoner in his castle. Naturally, romance ensues and Belle and her now-handsome prince live ‘happily ever after’.

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'Canon fuga in dyatessaron': from Magister Sampson’s Motets, Low Countries (Antwerp), c. 1516, Royal MS 11 E XI, f. 2v

Contrary to some reviewers, who describe the setting of Disney’s film as ‘medieval’, Disney’s adaptation was based on the fairytale by the French novelist, Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, written in 1741. However, like many fairy tales composed during the 17th and 18th centuries, these narratives have roots which reach back into antiquity and draw on aspects of medieval and early modern life, from the use of roses in heraldry to its portrayal of literate women to the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ story itself.

A particularly popular aspect of Disney’s adaptation of this tale is Belle's love of literature and enthusiasm for reading. There are numerous examples of women from the medieval period that wrote texts of their own, and clearly shared this same love of the written word.

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Her nose stuck in a book: detail of a miniature of Christine de Pizan in her study, from the Book of the Queen, France (Paris), c. 1410–1414, Harley MS 4431, f. 4r

In a recent post, we explored the work of female scribes in manuscripts dating back to the 2nd century BC. In these early texts, it is possible to deduce from the context, content and the pronouns used that it may have been written by a woman. Later in the Middle Ages, it is possible to identify specific women who wrote, read or owned a variety of books. A particularly well known female author is Christine de Pizan (1364–1430).  One of Christine’s most famous works, The Book of the City of the Ladies, was written for Isabel of Bavaria, Queen consort of Charles VI of France, and discussed the important contributions to society made by women in the past.

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Be our guest: detail of Christine de Pizan presenting her book to Queen Isabel of Bavaria, Harley MS 4431, f. 3r

Another medieval female writer from the medieval period was Marie de France (1160–1215). Although little is known about Marie’s personal life, it is clear that she had an interest in literature and a desire to share her passion with others. During her lifetime, she translated part of the collection of Aesop’s fables and wrote about the importance of proverbs to moral instruction within society.

Marie also composed 21 short lais poems. These lais were romantic narratives, which glorified the concept of courtly love through the adventures of the main characters. In one particular lai Marie combined the theme of love with the supernatural and fairytale motifs to create a story that will be familiar to fans of the Beauty and the Beast tale.

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The tale of Bisclavret: from the lais of Marie de France, c. 1250–75, England (Oxford?), Harley MS 978, f. 131v

This lai is called Bisclavret (or The Werewolf), and tells of a baron who shape-shifts weekly into a wolf. He disappears from his home for three days, and then reverts to his human form by putting his clothes back on. When his wife discovers his secret, she decides to get rid of him by sending a knight, her suitor, to steal his clothes after his next transformation. Bisclavret, unable to return to his human form, is forced to spend the rest of his life roaming the woods. His luck changes, however, when the king finds him and adopts him as a pet. But the story unravels when the king takes him on a visit to his former lands, now governed by his wife and her suitor. Seeing his wife, Bisclavret goes into a rage, attacks her and rips off her nose. She then confesses her deeds and returns the stolen clothes, enabling Bisclavret to change back to his human form and regain his lands. This is, of course, a much darker version than Disney’s joyful adapatation.

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Positively primeval! A woman demonstrates displeasure at a wodewose's advances, Smithfield Decretals, Southern France (?Toulouse), c. 1300–40,
Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 73r

Nor was Marie de France’s tale the only instance of a ‘Beauty and the Beast’ type story in medieval art and literature. Wodewoses, or hairy wild men from the forest, often appear in the margins of manuscripts attempting (usually unsuccessfully) to woo beautiful women. There were also stories about a handsome young knight forced to marry a much older woman, who became beautiful when he learned to respect her. This is the plot of the Wife of Bath’s tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

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The beginning of the Wife of Bath's Tale: England, mid-15th century, Harley MS
1758, f. 97v 

As a female who loves to read and marvels at the contents of a library, Belle continues to be an important role model for young girls who share this love of the written word. Christine de Pizan and Marie de France are just two examples of many women throughout history who were clearly passionate about reading and writing texts of their own. Marie de France’s story of physical transformation as a barrier of love is just one example of how fairytale narratives recur throughout history, and still delight audiences today. One could even say that this kind of narrative is a tale as old as time


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Beauty is found within: historiated initial with a rose, Royal MS 11 E XI, f. 13v

Becky Lawton and Clarck Drieshen

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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 BibliothĂšque 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 PrĂ©aux 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 NĂźmes, 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  Ă  la dĂ©couverte de 100 manuscrits antĂ©rieurs Ă  1200 grĂące au projet The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the BibliothĂšque nationale de France, 700-1200.

Nous sommes ravis de vous annoncer l’achĂšvement de cette premiĂšre Ă©tape, qui consiste en la publication des 100 premiers manuscrits entiĂšrement numĂ©risĂ©s, sĂ©lectionnĂ©s par la British Library. Ceux-ci seront disponibles en ligne, sur notre site internet Digitised Manuscripts. Une liste complĂšte de ces volumes pourvue d’un lien vers l’interface est fournie ici: 100 MSS Online.

Venez dĂ©couvrir l’extraordinaire richesse de ces manuscrits, couvrant une pĂ©riode de 5 siĂšcles (entre 700 et 1200). Ces derniers prĂ©sentent une importante variĂ©tĂ© d’Ɠuvres et d’enluminures. Voyagez dans diverses rĂ©gions et Ă©poques au travers de ces manuscrits. Vous apprĂ©cierez ainsi l’EvangĂ©liaire des PrĂ©aux (XIIe siĂšcle), somptueusement dĂ©corĂ©, ou la rĂšgle de saint BenoĂźt, provenant de l’abbaye de Saint-Gilles, prĂšs de NĂźmes (1129), et sa reprĂ©sentation magistrale de saint BenoĂźt et son disciple saint Maur. Les collections ayant trait  aux arts libĂ©raux ainsi que les manuels pĂ©dagogiques fournissent Ă©galement de prĂ©cieux tĂ©moins de l’enseignement et du renouveau de ces disciplines. Un  manuscrit du IXe siĂšcle originaire de Lotharingie est ainsi reprĂ©sentatif de l’instruction Ă  l’époque carolingienne. Nous espĂ©rons que vous apprĂ©cierez cette sĂ©lection et qu’elle vous mĂšnera Ă  de nombreuses dĂ©couvertes. Bonne visite !

Laure Miolo (French summary)

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14 March 2017

Insular Manuscripts AD 650-850: Networks of Knowledge

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The Medieval Manuscripts Section at the British Library is a partner in a new project, ‘Insular Manuscripts AD 650-850: Networks of Knowledge’, funded by the Leverhulme Trust. The project will establish an international research network to advance understanding of knowledge exchange and cultural networks in early medieval Europe through analysis of the surviving Insular manuscripts made in Ireland and Anglo-Saxon England, and in continental monasteries founded by English or Irish missionaries. There are about 500 of these manuscripts, 75% of which are held in libraries in continental Europe.

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Page from the Royal Prayerbook: Southern England (Mercia), late 8th or early 9th century, Royal MS 2 A XX, f. 17r

The research network will bring together academics, curators and digital specialists at a time when increasing numbers of these manuscripts are being digitised in full and made available online. The project will run three workshops which will contribute to the development of an open-access, online research resource and other published outputs. The first workshop, ‘Methods of making: palaeographical problems, codicological challenges’, will be held at the British Library on 24–25 April 2017. In 2018, a workshop will be held in Galway and Dublin on ‘Networks of knowledge then and now: digital potential’, and in 2019 the final workshop in Vienna will be on ‘Knowledge exchange: people, places, texts’.

Cotton Augustus II 61 close
Detail of a decree of the Council of Clofesho on the abolition of the archbishopric of Lichfield: Southern England (?Canterbury or London), c. 803, Cotton MS Augustus II 61 

The project is being led by Professor Joanna Story of the University of Leicester, and is a collaboration with the British Library, the BibliothĂšque nationale de France, Trinity College Dublin, the National University of Ireland, Galway, and the Institut fĂŒr Mittelalterforschung, Österreichishche Akademie der Wissenschaften, Vienna. To follow the progress of the project, see the website

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A late example of insular half uncial in a list of kings, including Charlemagne (Karlus) and his treasurer, MĂŠgenfrith. From the Durham Liber Vitae: Northumbria, 1st half of 9th century, Cotton MS Domitian A VII, f. 15v

 

Claire Breay, Head of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts, and Co-Investigator in the Networks of Knowledge Project

Leverhulme

10 March 2017

Magic in the British Library's Papyri

10 March 2017 marks the 20th anniversary of the first episode of the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Perhaps unsurprisingly, some members of the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts team of the British Library are big fans of the series, which is set in a library and whose characters routinely have to decipher manuscripts in ancient languages in order to defeat the forces of evil. Indeed, we are currently in the process of digitising several papyri  which mention some of the figures whom Buffy battles.

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A handbook of magic: Egypt (Thebes), 4th century, Papyrus 46, f. 2v

The British Library's collection of papyri includes different sorts of texts, from speeches to letters about vineyard management, from the constitution of Athens to fragments of plays, from wills to part of the Iliad. The papyri also include some magical texts: charms, recipes, curses and prayers. Love spells were discussed in our 2017 Valentine's Day post. There are also some demon-summoning spells that sound just like the sort of text that could kick off one of Buffy's, Xander's, Willow's and the librarian Mr Giles's adventures.

Papyrus 123, a fragment from the late 4th century, preserves a special charm to summon demons against others: 'I bring into subjection, put to silence, and enslave every race of people, both men and women, with their fits of wrath, and those who are under the earth, beneath my feet, but especially and now say their names.'

Papyrus 123

Looks familiar? Images of demons, from a magical incantation, Egypt, late 4th century, Papyrus 123

Papyrus 122, a sheet from the early 5th century, contains a spell to request a visit from the netherworld by the demon Besa. (Besa was  originally based on an ancient Egyptian god called Bes.) The text says:

'On your left hand draw Besa in the way shown here with an ink made of blood from a crow and a dove. Put around your hand a black cloth . Go to sleep on a rush mat, having an unbaked brick beside your head — and he’ll come to you in a vision to tell you what you are interested in.'

Below these instructions there is even a sinister image of the demon to be drawn “on your hand”.


Papyrus 122
Detail from a collection of magical spells, Papyrus 122, Egypt (Hermopolis), 5th century

So if you are interested in knowing the future, you could try drawing this image on your hand, but please note you will also need the accompanying spell. For further details, please see our Digitised Manuscripts site. However, if you do not have a vampire slayer to protect you, we don't recommend trying this at home!

Peter Toth and Alison Hudson

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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 Bibliothùque 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

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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04 March 2017

A Heavenly Recipe

Instructions about cooking and baking are not rare in medieval manuscripts. We have already posted on this blog some medieval instructions for 'cury' and making pancakes from cookbooks or practical culinary collections. Liturgical service books, however, are probably not the most obvious sources for such notes.

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The miracle of the koliva from a collection of liturgical readings (synaxaria) for Lent, Eastern Mediterranean, c. 1375–1400, Egerton MS 3157, f. 20r

One of our Byzantine Greek service books, a collection of lessons for the Saturdays and Sundays of Lent, contains a very special recipe: not only is it completely vegan, it is said to have been received directly from Heaven. The short note is preserved in a lection for the first Saturday of the Great Lent which records the miraculous revelation of the new recipe as follows.  

Add MS 19352, f. 200r
Punishment of the “godless and traitor Julian” from the Theodore Psalter, Constantinople, 1066, 
Add MS 19352, f. 200r

'When the Emperor Julian, who ruled the Roman Empire after Constantine the Great, returned to his old pagan habits, he decided to defile the Great Lent of the Christians, and ordered the mayor of Constantinople to pollute all the food in the markets of the city with animal blood. While imperial soldiers were spreading blood throughout the markets of Constantinople, God sent the martyr Theodore the Younger (who died about 50 years before Julian) to the archbishop of the city to reveal to him the Emperor’s plans.' 

Egerton_ms_3157_f019v
St Theodore comes to the archbishop in a dream and tells him about koliva, Egerton MS 3157, f. 20r

'Hearing about the pollution of the food in the markets, the Archbishop was terrified and asked the saint: “So what can we eat then?” “Koliva,” replied Theodore. “What an earth is that?” asked the surprised archbishop. “Koliva is wheat kernels boiled soft and sweetened with honey, sesame seeds, almonds, ground walnuts, cinnamon, pomegranate seeds, raisins and anise.' When the archbishop inquired who is the provider of the new recipe , his visitor simply answered, 'I am Theodore the Martyr of Christ whom he has now sent to you to reveal this and provide new food for his people.'

Add MS 40731, f. 128r
The miracle of the heavenly food (mannah) from the Bristol Psalter, Constantinople, 11th century, Add MS 40731, f. 128r

The archbishop immediately announced the new discovery to the inhabitants of Constaninople, who successfully overcame Julian's machinations. To this day, people remember the martyr and this miracle with cooking and eating koliva.

Admittedly, the heavenly origin of koliva is often doubted. In some versions of the story, Theodore simply shares an old recipe of his home country in Pontus with the archbishop. Some say the recipe derives from the ancient Greek cult of Dionysos. Wherever it comes from, the koliva is a very tasty and entirely vegan food. As this Saturday is the anniversary of the miraculous recipe, it might be the right time to give koliva a try (see a detailed recipe here) and remember its source, the martyr and the British Library’s 14th-century manuscript that preserved its story.

Peter Toth

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