Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life


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

14 September 2018

Wynflaed and the price of fashion

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Some of the most interesting texts in the British Library’s collections have deceptively unassuming appearances. For example, this fragile piece of parchment is the closest equivalent of the Vogue wardrobe for early medieval England. Written in Old English, it is one of the earliest wills which survive from England in the name of a woman only. It details bequests made by a noblewoman called Wynflæd sometime before the late 10th or early 11th century, and it describes her wardrobe as well as her estates, slaves, metalwork, livestock and familial relationships. 

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Will of Wynflæd, England, late 10th or early 11th century: Cotton Ch VIII 38

We can’t be sure as to Wynflæd's exact identity. One of King Edgar’s grandmothers was called Wynflæd, but this will could pertain to someone else with the same name. What we do know is that our Wynflaed was a widow, and that she had a daughter called Æthelflæd and a son called Eadmer. We also know that she was rich. Her will mentions several estates, bands of tamed and untamed horses, slaves, many coins, livestock, items in gold and silver, and even books (annoyingly for us, no further information is given). The compiler of her will described some of the other items, such as Wynflæd's ‘wooden cups decorated with dots’ and her ‘red tent’. Anglo-Saxon nobles often travelled around — Wynflæd may have had to travel to manage her estates — and they stayed in tents when doing so. The Durham Collectar, for instance (Durham Cathedral Library MS A.IV.19), mentions that some of its text was written before tierce (around 9 a.m.) on Wednesday, 10 August 10, ‘for Ælfsige the bishop [of the community of St Cuthbert] in his tent’ while he was travelling in Dorset.

Wynflæd's will also gives details about her attire, from her engraved bracelet to linen gowns to caps and headbands. Such detailed descriptions of clothes are relatively unusual in Old English texts. A particularly striking item among Wynflæd’s clothes is a ‘twilibrocenan cyrtel’. This garment has been alternatively interpreted as a ‘badger-skin dress’, an embroidered dress or even a dress that was only worn twice. Gale Owen-Crocker and Kate Thomas have already discussed Wynflæd’s clothes, if you’d like to learn more.

A badger? Detail of a decoration around a flaw in parchment, from the Tollemache Orosius, England (Winchester?), late 9th or early 10th century: Add MS 47967, f. 62v

Wynflæd may have taken religious vows towards the end of her life, but that does not seem to have impeded her fashion sense. Her will mentions a ‘holy veil’ and at the beginning it focuses on her donations to an unspecified church. This church seems to have housed women, since the first part of the will also specifies bequests to ‘slaves of God’ there with female names such as Ceolthryth, Othelbriht and Elsa. At least one of these names appears again towards the end of the will as the recipient of some of the finer pieces in Wynflæd's wardrobe: Ceolthryth was to receive ‘whichever she prefers of her black tunics and her best holy veil and best headband’ (translated by D. Whitelock, Anglo-Saxon Wills, Cambridge, 1930, p. 15). Nor were these the only fashionable religious women or nuns in late 10th-century England, if later stories about St Edith are to be believed.

Stowe_ms_944_f006r Emma
A holy veil? An angel presents Queen Emma with a veil, from the New Minster Liber Vitae: Stowe MS 944, f. 6r

Wynflæd’s will highlights another important aspect of fashion history: who made the clothes. Wynflæd not only bequeathed her clothes to her relatives, but she also bequeathed the people who made them. To Eadgifu (possibly her granddaughter), she gave ‘a woman-weaver and a seamstress, the one [also] called Eadgifu, the other called Æthelgifu’. One gets the impression that her granddaughter Eadgifu was a favourite: she also received the ‘best bed-curtain’, ‘best dun tunic’, best cloak and an ‘old filigree brooch’, among other objects.

Eadgifu the weaver and Æthelgifu the seamstress were not so lucky. While Wynflæd freed some of her slaves in her will, these two may have been condemned by their skill. They are two of only four slaves whose professions are specified in the will, the others being a wright and a cook called Ælfsige. Wynflæd was — and is — not alone in exploiting garment makers. To this day, the fashion industry has an uncomfortably close relationship with exploitation and poor labour conditions in many parts of the world.

Cotton Ch viii 38 names
Detail of the names of Eadgifu (Edgyfu) and Æthelgifu (Æþelyfu): Cotton Ch VIII 38

Although Cotton Ch VIII 38 is a copy of the original will, it shows signs of how such a document might have been used.  It is a single sheet, folded carefully in half, then lengthways, and then again into thirds, as if it has been used and been put away for safe keeping.  The interlinear additions to the text are also intriguing: as these are meaningful pieces of text, rather than occasional words, they are clearly not just the result of scribal error, but were intended as clarifications, or to add extra information.  For example, when Wynflaed bequeaths her cloak, an extra word is added to specify which one: it is 'hyre beteran mentel' (her better cloak).  Many of these additions are concerned with what would happen to Wynflaed's slaves.  The will specifies that 'at Faccombe Eadhelm and Man and Johanna and Sprow and his wife … and Gersand and Snel are to be freed,' with Sprow and his wife added between the lines; while elsewhere, where 'aelfferes dohtor' (Aelffere's daughter) is given to Aethelflaed, someone has added 'þa geonran' (the younger) between the lines, specifying which one of his daughters was to be Aethelflaed's slave.  Needless to say, these additions had serious consequences for the futures of Sprow, his wife, and of Aelffere's daughter.

Cotton Ch VIII 16 detail
Detail of folds and interlinear additions: Cotton Ch VIII 38

The British Library's major exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, opens on 19 October 2018: tickets and further details are available here.


Alison Hudson and Kate Thomas

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11 September 2018

Births, births and (more) births

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In 1490, the curate of St Theodor in Basel, Switzerland, began compiling a register of the baptisms he performed at the church. The handwritten portion of the manuscript begins with a note in his hand: it records the year, 1490; the purpose for which the register was kept (‘ad inscribendum pueros baptisatos’); and his name, Johann Ulrich Surgant. The first entry, underlined in red, is for a baptism performed on 13 July, the feast day of St Henry (also known as Henry II, Holy Roman Emperor): a boy named Henry Falkner – after his father, it seems, rather than his beatified namesake. 

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Detail of the opening entries in the baptismal register of the church of St Theodor, Basel: 
Egerton MS 1927, f. 8r 

This register was maintained at the church for a little short of 250 years, with the last entries being made in 1737. In 1620, when the volume begun by Johann Ulrich Surgant was full, a second one was acquired. These two manuscripts – Egerton MS 1927 and Egerton MS 1928 – are a valuable resource for anyone pursuing prosopographical or genealogical research for families in Basel across four centuries. You can also study them in detail on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.

Printed page from a Missale Basiliense, containing the ceremonies performed in preparation for the use of the baptismal font: 
Egerton MS 1927, f. 7r 

Surgant evidently sourced the blank volume locally. Inserted at the beginning are several printed pages from a Missale Basiliense printed by Michael Wenssler in 1488 (the British Library holds a complete copy at IB.37136; ISTC im00651500). These comprise a calendar, with the main religious feasts printed in red ink, and the ceremonies and prayers performed in preparation for the use of the baptismal font. These contents were of obvious utility in such a volume and illustrate that the book was designed and acquired with this specific purpose in mind.

Front binding showing exposed oak boards, blind-stamped pigskin and metal clasps: Egerton MS 1927

The cover is characteristic of late 15th-century Swiss bindings, with blind-stamped pigskin covering a third of the front and back oak boards. Using the Einbanddatenbank, it is sometimes possible to identify the craftsman responsible, but in this case, none of the tools used on the covers of Egerton MS 1927 are a match for known binders or workshops in that region.

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Detail of an entry recording the baptism of Christiana Foxe, 22 September 1555: 
Egerton MS 1927, f. 115r 

These registers are of particular interest to anyone studying the protestant religious communities in Switzerland during the 16th century. The martyrologist John Foxe (b. 1516/17, d. 1587), of Acts and Monuments fame, spent at least four years of his exile in Basel, before returning to England in October 1559. The earliest evidence of his arrival in the city is an entry in this very register, on 22 September 1555: ‘to John Foxe, the Englander, a child, called Christiana’. Along with other Marian exiles, Foxe rented rooms in the Clarakloster, a former convent. The first of his daughter’s godparents was a fellow resident: Thomas Bentham (b. 1513/14, d. 1579), who became Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield under Queen Elizabeth I.


James Freeman (Medieval Manuscripts Specialist, Cambridge University Library)

06 September 2018

One-day tickets for ‘Manuscripts in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms’ symposium

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As regular readers of this blog will be aware, we are hosting an international academic conference on manuscripts from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms on 13–14 December 2018. This conference is now sold out. However, tickets are still available for the one-day Early Career Symposium on Saturday 15 December (9.00–17.30) and you can register here.

Detail of the Harley Psalter, made in Canterbury in the 11th century: Harley MS 603, f. 16v

Speakers at the Symposium and their topics will be:

Colleen Curran (Junior Research Fellow, Corpus Christi College, Oxford)
‘960 and All That: An Earlier ‘Style’ of English Caroline Minuscule’

Robert Gallagher (Junior Research Fellow, St Cross College, Oxford)
‘Latin Verse and Book Culture in the Age of Æthelstan’

Louise Garner (doctoral candidate, Durham University)
‘Underneath the Arches: Pigments in the York Gospels and the Wider Canterbury Context’

Alison Hudson (Project Curator, Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts, The British Library)
‘Laymen, Churchmen and Literacy around the Turn of the First Millennium AD: Multispectral Imaging of Æthelweard’s Chronicle’

Eleanor Jackson (Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts, The British Library)
‘Consolation in the Labyrinth: A Picture Poem in Cambridge University Library, MS Kk.3.21’

Rebecca Lawton (doctoral candidate, University of Leicester)
‘Papyrus, Performance, Prestige: Examining the Physicality of Papal Letters in Early Anglo-Saxon England’

Esther Lemmerz (doctoral candidate, University of Göttingen)
‘Visualising Latin in the In Cena Domini Version in London, British Library, Cotton Faustina MS A IX’

Stephenie McGucken (University of Edinburgh)
‘The Psychomachia in Late Anglo-Saxon England: Transmission, Adaptation, and Manipulation’

Alexandra Reider (doctoral candidate, Yale University)
‘The Search for the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Codex’

Simon Thomson (Research Assistant, Ruhr Universität, Bochum)
‘Scribal Interactions: The Communal Making and Remaking of Manuscripts in Late Anglo-Saxon England’

Jiří Vnouček (doctoral candidate, University of York)
’The Parchment of Codex Amiatinus and Ceolfrith’s Bibles’

Christine Voth (Dorothea Schlözer Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Göttingen)
‘Intellectual Professionals in Anglo-Saxon England: A Case Study of the Medical Manuscript London, British Library, Royal 12 D XVII’

If you would like to be added to a waiting list to attend the first two days of the conference, please email The conference and symposium are being held in connection with the Library’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdom: Art, Word War exhibition, which opens on 19 October. More information about the exhibition and other associated events is available here.


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05 September 2018

A letter of a Scottish rebel

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In early January 1489, Alexander Gordon, master of Huntly, wrote from Edinburgh to the king of England, Henry VII (1485–1509), soliciting his support against the government of his own king, James IV of Scotland (1488–1513). Alexander's letter is preserved in the Cotton collection at the British Library, and is one of only a small number to survive from late medieval Scotland. The scribe wrote this letter in Scots, in a pre-secretary hand; the master of Huntly himself then ‘subscribit’, sealed and sent it to the English monarch.

The master of Huntly was the eldest surviving son of George Gordon, second earl of Huntly, and his second wife, Annabella Stewart, sixth daughter of James I, king of Scots (1406–1437). The earl of Huntly was the most powerful nobleman in North-East Scotland. He had opposed his nephew James III, king of Scots (1460–1488), during the late 1470s and early 1480s, culminating in his participation in the seizure of the king at Lauder in July 1482, when ‘ye lordis of Scotland … slew ane part of ye kingis housald and other part yai [they] banysyt [banished] … for he wrocht [valued] mair ye consaell of his housald yat war bot sympill na [that were but lowly than] he did of yame yat [them that] was lordis’ (Royal MS 17 D XX, f. 308r). Several other uncles of the king, including James Stewart, first earl of Buchan, played a leading part in imprisoning him and taking power, probably in support of James III’s exiled brother, Alexander Stewart, first duke of Albany, who invaded Scotland with the support of an English army. Huntly changed sides and helped the king to recover his authority and to send Albany and Buchan into exile.


James III, king of Scotland, accompanied by his son James Stewart, duke of Rothesay (future James IV), and St Andrew, the inside left panel of the Trinity Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes (c. 1478–82): The Royal Collection, RCIN 403260

From the mid-1480s opposition to James III focused on his eldest son, James Stewart, duke of Rothesay. He fled Stirling Castle in February 1488 to join rebels in the South-West led by the Hepburn and Hume families, and then demanded greater authority as heir to the throne. Rothesay’s mother, Margrete of Denmark, was said to have admonished him on her deathbed: ‘nothing achieved by violence, be certain, can endure’ (Giovanni Sabadino degli Arienti, Gynevera de le clare donne, 1489–90). Despite this, the 15-year-old Rothesay entered into open civil war with his father. Huntly and the master of Huntly sided with the king, as did Buchan, who was back in royal favour. King James III was defeated and killed at the battle of Sauchieburn on 11 June, carrying the sword of his illustrious ancestor Robert the Bruce in hope of victory. Huntly and the master of Huntly had been too late to help him on the field, while Buchan had been handed over to the rebels as a hostage during a negotiated truce the previous month. James III was buried beside his queen before the high altar at Cambuskenneth Abbey. Rothesay, now crowned James IV, was present and for the rest of his life he wore an iron belt as an act of penance for the death of his father.

The government of James IV proved to be as narrow-based as his father’s It was dominated by Patrick Hepburn, first earl of Bothwell, and his kinsmen, who attacked the former supporters of the late king, among them Buchan and the master of Huntly. The master thus wrote to Henry VII of England in January 1489, soliciting his aid against those who had ‘falsly slayne’ James III. He described how, he had ‘put me in [and] divours wicht [with] my said soueraine lord [James III’s] frendis and kynnysmen to causs the comittaris of the saide slauthir [murder] to be punyst acording to Iustice and the honor of our realme’, and he petitioned Henry ‘to put to zour [your] hande … in the punyssyng [punishing] of fals and tresonable trattouris’. The master ended by saying that Buchan, Henry’s kinsman, had the authority to negotiate further terms.

The rebellion broke out at Easter 1489, concentrated in the North-East and the West, with the master of Huntly prominent among its leaders, but also a number of others who had fought against James III at Sauchieburn but now felt that they too had been excluded by ‘parciall personis’ (Edinburgh, National Records of Scotland, GD220/2/1, no. 85) from the presence of the young James IV. The rebels demanded that the killing of James III should not go unpunished, that his treasure (which had been embezzled) should be restored to the crown, and that justice should be administered. They wanted parliament summoned to settle their differences. Bothwell responded by bringing a number of them in from the cold, including Buchan, by laying siege to the strongholds of others, and by forcing battle. Fortunately, Henry VII could not intervene because he had a rebellion of his own to deal with in Yorkshire; but Bothwell failed to take the main rebel stronghold, Dumbarton Castle on the Firth of Clyde, and he was constrained to give way to many rebel demands, including the summoning of parliament. Huntly and the master of Huntly were among those restored to favour; however, James III’s killer or killers were never found, never punished, nor was all his treasure recovered.


The letter of Alexander Gordon, master of Huntly, to Henry VII: Cotton MS Caligula B III, f. 20r



British Library, Cotton MS Caligula B III, f. 20r

8 January [1489].  Edinburgh.  Alexander Gordon, master of Huntly, to Henry VII.

Richt hee excellande ande mycthy prince I comende my seruice one to zour henez in ye maist hunble ande harty vyss I cane  Ande plessit ye sammyne ramembir of ye thresonable ande Cruel slauthir of my souerane lorde ande kyng falsly slayne be a part of his fals ande vntrew legis the quhilk stude in neyr tendirness of blude ande zour henez to giddir  And becauss of my lautay and allegeans I haif put me in divours wicht my said soueraine lordis frendis and kynnysmen to causs the comittaris of the saide slauthir to be punyst acording to Iustice and the honor of our realme  ffor the quhilk I ande the layf of my lordis and fallowis maist hunbli besekis zour grace to put to zour hande for the teyndirnes of blude yat bess betuix my souerane lorde quhom god assolve ande zour grace ande for the honor that euery anoynted prince and kyng soulde kepe tile vtheris in the punyssyng of fals and tresonable trattouris and with goddis grace and zour helpe the matter salbe reullit to zour gret honor ande our lautais  And forthir in a thir materis my lord of buchquhane is informyt at lentht of al our ententtis and quhat he promit tis in my Name I sal sykkirly abyde yerat to quhom zour grace wil gif ferme credens  The quhilk the trinite preserue ande kepe in honour and prosperite euerlasting  At Edinburtht the viii day off Ianuar subscribit wicht my hande

                                                Zouris at al pou

                                                ar master of



Right high excellent and mighty prince I commend my service unto your highness in the most humble and hearty way I can. And please it the same remember of the treasonable and cruel assassination of my sovereign lord and king falsely slain by a part of his false and untrue subjects the which stood in near tenderness of blood and your highness together. And because of my loyalty and allegiance I have put me and divers with my said sovereign lord’s friends and kinsmen to cause the committers of the said murder to be punished according to justice and the honour of our realm. For the which I and the rest of my lords and fellows most humbly beseech your grace to put to your hand for the tenderness of blood that be between my sovereign lord whom God absolve and your grace and for the honour that every anointed prince and king should keep to others in the punishing of false and treasonable traitors and with God’s grace and your help the matter shall be settled to your great honour and our loyalty. And further in all there matters my lord of Buchan is informed at length of all our intents and what he promise it is in my name I shall certainly abide thereat to whom your grace will give firm credence. The which the Trinity preserve and keep in honour and prosperity everlasting. At Edinburgh the 8 day of January. Subscribed with my hand

                                                Yours at all power

                                                master of




Alan Bryson

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01 September 2018

A calendar page for September 2018

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Spears to the ready! It’s time to go on a hunt. So says a calendar page for September, made over one thousand years ago. You can read more about this calendar in the first of our series of posts about it this year, and soon you can come to see it in person at our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.

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Detail of a scene with hunters and pigs: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 7r

This calendar is one of only two calendars from Anglo-Saxon England that are illustrated with scenes of daily life (the other is in Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1). For the preceding months these scenes have tended to focus on agriculture, but for September the artist has drawn a hunting scene. Two men with spears, a hunting horn and a dog follow a group of boars or possibly domestic pigs into a forest of sinuous trees. The oblivious pigs, meanwhile, munch on items hanging near the base of the trees. This scene nicely matches a description in an Old English riddle from the Exeter Book on Creation/the World/the Universe:

‘I am bigger and fatter than a fattened swine,
a swarthy boar, who lived joyfully
bellowing in a beech-wood, rooting away …’ (translated by Megan Cavell)

Calendar page for September: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 7r

This page is also notable for containing the only depiction of a woman to feature in this calendar. She represents the astrological sign Virgo and appears in a roundel at the top of the page. She is shown holding a plant. Her dress seems to be that of an 11th-century English woman: she wears a veil on her head and has flowing sleeves.

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Detail of a roundel depicting Virgo: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 7r

The absence of women elsewhere in the calendar is puzzling, since women would have participated in many agricultural activities. For example, notes on farming equipment, produce and workers from early 11th-century Ely mention dairymaids and other women working on farms. Women also attended feasts, such as the one depicted in the calendar page for April. Even the poem Beowulf — not noted for its gender representation — mentioned women attending a feast, including Queen Wealhtheow and her maidens.

Farm records mentioning female agricultural workers: Add MS 61735

The absence of women elsewhere in the calendar is perhaps puzzling. The only other surviving calendar from Anglo-Saxon England that is illustrated with agricultural and pastoral scenes (Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1) does not include women, either. Perhaps these artists were working from models that did not feature women. Additionally, it is tempting to speculate that these images conveyed a spiritual meaning as much as depicting contemporary activities: scenes of ploughing and harvesting were well-known Biblical metaphors. It is therefore possible that female figures were excluded not because women did not play a role in 11th-century agriculture, but because women’s participation in preaching and spiritual teaching was being curtailed in some circles by the 11th century.

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Detail of a verse on the feast of Michael the Archangel: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 7r

In addition to the artwork, this calendar features tables for calculating the day of the month, the day of the week, and lunar cycles, along with a poem with a verse for every day. Three major feast days have been marked out with gold crosses in the margin: the Virgin Mary’s birthday (8 September); the feast of St Matthew the Evangelist (21 September); and the feast of the Archangel Michael, or Michaelmas (29 September). Michaelmas continued to be an important feast throughout the Middle Ages, and its date still affects several institutions that originated in the medieval period. For example, law courts in England and Ireland and several universities in England, Wales and Scotland use Michaelmas as the start date for their terms.

Alison Hudson

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31 August 2018

Magical manuscripts in the Spellbound exhibition

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The exhibition Spellbound: Magic, Ritual & Witchcraft is now open at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Among the other exhibits, it features a selection of spellbinding manuscripts on loan from the British Library, revealing attitudes to magic in the Middle Ages.


Breviari d'Amor: Royal MS 19 C I, f. 50r

Medieval beliefs in magic were closely linked to people’s understanding of the order of the universe. Classical and medieval science envisioned the universe as a series of rotating concentric spheres, as pictured in this cosmological diagram in a 14th-century French manuscript. Earth was at the centre of this scheme, surrounded by the seven spheres of the ‘wandering stars’ — the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn — and finally Heaven, the sphere of the fixed stars. It was thought that the motions of these spheres and the actions of the spiritual beings residing there were instrumental in influencing events on Earth.

Secretum Secretorum: Add MS 47680, f. 31v

This idea is illustrated in Secretum Secretorum, a Latin translation of an Arabic treatise falsely attributed to Aristotle. The text is a ‘mirror of princes’, or guide to being a good ruler, presented as advice given by Aristotle to Alexander the Great. This manuscript was commissioned for Prince Edward (the future King Edward III, reigned 1327–1377), by the King's Clerk, Walter of Milemete. The image shown here is from a portion of the treatise discussing the importance of keeping good counsel, in which Aristotle’s character stresses the importance of astrological knowledge in selecting ministers.

Aristotle demonstrates his point with a story, illustrated in the miniature above. There was once a weaver’s son who was born under highly auspicious stars. When he grew older, the bookish boy would do nothing but study history and science. Eventually he became a government minister and managed the affairs of kings. Another boy was the son of an Indian king, but the stars at his birth foretold that he would become a smith. Although his father tried to give him a princely education, the boy was interested only in smithing, and he went on to produce the finest swords in all of India.

In the miniature, Alexander listens to the advice of two astrologers. Each points to the stars and to a birth scene, one royal and one humble. The gestures of the astrologers indicate that, regardless of their families’ social status, the children’s futures were written in the stars.


The Sworn Book of Honorius: Royal MS 17 A XLII, f. 68v

Medieval magic often attempted to harness the power of the stars more directly. This 15th-century manuscript is an English translation of the Sworn Book of Honorius, a Latin book of magic written in the early 14th century. The text explains how to summon heavenly intermediaries to do your bidding, with the page above discussing the service of the angels of the seven spheres. Accompanying this passage are illustrations of the red angels of Mars, Samahel, Satyhel, Ylurahyhel and Amabyhel, whose 'nature is to cause and stir up war, murder, destruction and mortality of people and of all earthly things'. Alongside them are the friendlier golden angels of the Sun, Raphael, Cashael, Daryhel and Haurathaphel, whose nature is to 'give love and favour and riches to a man and power also to keep him hail and to give dews, herbs, flowers and fruits in a moment'. The text emphasises that this magic is entirely Christian and virtuous, asserting that the spirits would never answer the requests of the wicked.


An amuletic roll: Harley Roll T 11 (detail)

Magical materials were widely adapted for different uses. The circular diagrams in this 15th-century English roll are closely related to those found in collections of incantations such as the Book of Honorius, but employed here as protective charms. The roll was designed to be worn as an amulet for personal protection. Of the four magical diagrams shown here, the first gave protection against enemies, the second against storms and thunder, the third claims that ‘by it all things were made’, and the fourth claims ‘this is the name of God, whoever carries it with him will be safe’. Underneath is an image of Christ’s side-wound, demonstrating the fluid relationship that could exist between magical and devotional beliefs.


The Pilgrimage of Man: Cotton MS Tiberius A VII, f. 70r

Magic was strongly criticised by many medieval commentators. The above image is a scathing representation of magic from a 15th-century copy of John Lydgate’s The Pilgrimage of Man, a verse translation of Guillaume de Deguileville's Pèlerinage de la vie humaine. In this moralising account of an allegorical journey, the pilgrim ‘everyman’ meets an old hag who, it turns out, is the personification of sorcery. This unpleasant character is peddling inscriptions, images, ointments, herbs and astrological readings, which she uses for malicious ends. The pilgrim asks her, “Tell on without more tarrying, where learnest thou all thy cunning?” “Soothly as I rehearse can, I learned my cunning off Satan”, she replies.

Specifically, she was a student at Satan's school, as depicted in this miniature. It appears that classes at Satan’s academy involved brewing green potions and abducting babies. The school fees were also notably high: when the pilgrim asks, “what gave thou him for thy cunning?”, the hag answers, “The truth, if I tell shall, my soul I gave him, whole and all”.

If you'd like to learn more about these manuscripts, we'd highly recommend that you visit the Spellbound exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, from 31 August 2018 until 9 January 2019. You can also view all the manuscripts described above on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.


Eleanor Jackson

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27 August 2018

Anglo-Saxon elephants

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My favourite Old English word — for the moment — is ‘ylp’. It means ‘elephant’. I was discussing this over lunch with my colleagues at the British Library, when someone asked a fair question: why was there a specific Old English word for elephant, when writers such as Ælfric (d. c. 1010) acknowledged, ‘Some people will think it wondrous to hear [about these animals], because elephants have never come to England’? The short answer is: elephants did not have to physically come to the British Isles to influence early medieval culture. They are a good example of the links that existed between Anglo-Saxon England and the wider world, through the exchange of books.

An elephant, from the Marvels of the East, in a mid-11th century scientific collection: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 81r

Some people in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had travelled long distances, and if they had visited the southern Mediterranean, they may have seen elephants there. One elephant had also reportedly been given to the Emperor Charlemagne (d. 814). However, many Anglo-Saxon people had never seen an elephant, as is evident from their attempts to illustrate them. But literate people who had never left England could still encounter elephants in their books. Elephants appear in several of the classical and Late Antique texts which were available in early medieval Britain. Church fathers such as Augustine used elephants as metaphors, since their large size and apparently calm demeanour suggested stability and chastity. Such beliefs led to the motif of the noble elephant fighting the demonic dragon in later medieval art.

An elephant and a monkey, from an illustrated Old English translation of medical remedies, England (? Christ Church Canterbury or Winchester), c. 1000–1025: Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 82r

Mediterranean medical texts that circulated in the British Isles also mentioned elephants. For example, an Old English translation of the group of remedies known as the Pseudo-Apuleius complex recommended that elephants be used as a beauty product: to remove ‘disfiguring marks’ on the body, ‘take elephant bone [possibly ivory] and point with honey and apply it. It removes the marks wonderfully.’ Don't try this at home!

Other classical and Late Antique texts described elephants being used in military campaigns. Some of these works were translated into Old English, including Orosius’s History Against the Pagans. The earliest surviving manuscript of this translation includes a passage which described how Hasdrubal, king of Carthage, set out with 30 elephants (‘mid xxx elpenda’). The scribe of a later copy of this text mistakenly changed the passage to 30 helpers ('helpenda'). 

Detail of a passage discussing elephants, from the Tollemache Orosius, England (Winchester?), late 9th or early 10th century: Add MS 47967, f. 55v

Based on these texts, many Old English writers understood elephants as war animals. In his sermon on the Book of Maccabees, Ælfric described how:

‘Five hundred mounted men went with every elephant, and a war-house (wighus) was built on each of the elephants, and in each war-house were thirty men … An elephant is an immense animal, larger than a house, completely surrounded with bones within its hide, except at the navel, and it never lies down. The mother carries the foal for 24 months, and they live for 300 years … and man can tame them wonderfully for battle’ (translated by Joe Allard & Richard North, Beowulf and Other Stories, 2nd ednLondon: Pearson, 2012).

As a sidenote, if for some reason you ever need to ask for directions to the Elephant and Castle Underground station in Old English, according to Ælfric you should ask for ‘Ylp ond Wighus’.

Start of a riddle about an elephant, from a copy of Aldhelm's riddles, England (Canterbury), c. 1000: Royal MS 12 C XXIII, f. 100v 

Elephants were also characterised by their military role in war in a Latin riddle composed by Aldhelm (d. 709/10), bishop of Sherborne:

‘As armoured troops and soldiers pack in tight

(Wretches who with vain lust incite a fight

While arms taint sacred civil loyalties),

A trumpet sucks in air with bursts of breeze

And raucous, clanging battle horns resound;

Fierce, bold, I’ve come to know their savage sound…’

(translated by A.M. Juster, St Aldhelm’s Riddles, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, p. 59).

Aldhelm’s riddle also shows that elephants were known for more than just their skills in battle. They were also prized for their ivory. The riddle continues:

‘Although God made me ugly at my start, I picked up gifts of life once I debuted ...

I can’t be beaten by fine sheets of gold,

Although the precious polished metal’s decked

With gleaming gems and stylish luxuries.

Nature won’t let me kneel when I feel old

Or rest my eyelids while on bended knees.

Indeed, I have to spend my life erect.’

Elephant ivory may have been known in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. It has been detected in some 6th-century bag frames, although walrus ivory is more common. 

Beyond copying texts that mentioned elephants as metaphors or resources, many Old English writers were fascinated by them out of a sense of wonder that such creatures could exist. Ælfric marvelled at their size, and both he and Aldhelm believed that elephants never sat down.

A text that exists in both Latin and Old English versions, known as the Marvels of the East, similarly presents elephants as a wonder. It claims that elephants stand 15 feet high with a ‘long nose’ covered in black hair. It also states that they are plentiful in India. The artists who illustrated two copies of this text did not pay much heed to this description. One artist portrayed a pink-skinned elephant with a long tongue and tusks, instead of a long nose, as shown at the start of this blogpost. Meanwhile, the artist of the Marvels of the East in the Nowell Codex (which also contains Beowulf) drew elephants in a way that is suspiciously reminiscent of the way they also illustrated camels.

Elephants, from the Marvels of the East, England, late 10th century or early 11th century: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 101v

Elephants probably did not arrive in England for several more centuries. The earliest recorded elephant in England is the gift that King Louis IX of France presented to King Henry III of England in 1255. The chronicler Matthew Paris was on hand to illustrate and to describe it, claiming that ‘we believe [it was] the only elephant ever seen in England …’ But even before that, elephants had already had a significant impact on English literature and culture.

Would you like to learn more about the earliest English literature and its connections to the wider world? You can find out more on our Discovering Literature: Medieval site. And don't miss our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, on show at the British Library from 19 October 2018 to 19 February 2019.


Alison Hudson

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25 August 2018

Throwing a medieval feast

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If you dished up cygnet, bittern, woodcock, plover or snipe (all protected UK species) at a modern dinner party, you would probably be arrested. However, if you had attended the wedding feast of King Henry IV in 1404, you would have been served all these once plentiful fowl. Accompanying them were meat dishes including suckling pigs, rabbit, brawn, venison and ‘great flesh’, while the fish course boasted salmon, plaice, lamprey, crayfish and ‘porpoise in furmenty’. Pastries, tarts and jellies also appeared in almost every course.

Wealthy medieval diners relished variety and novelty. They would have enjoyed two or three courses with seven to ten dishes served together. It was usual, at these great events, to mix sweet and savoury delicacies, and to serve spectacular ‘subtelties’ between courses. These were often made of sugar paste or jelly. For instance, the subtlety for the feast of the inauguration of the bishop of Salisbury in 1417 was an ‘Agnus Dei’ (a religious symbol denoting Christ, in the form of a lamb bearing a flag). That for the inauguration of the bishop of Bath and Wells in 1425 was, intriguingly, ‘A Doctor of Law’.

Guests await the food with bread rolls, trenchers, knives and salt already on the table, when John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, dined with the king of Portugal: Royal MS 14 E IV, f. 244v.

The feast of John of Gaunt is shown above. What details can be recognised? The pale brown shapes near the edges of the table are dome-topped, flat-sided bread rolls, while the attendants appear to be carrying a roast bird. We can infer yet more. Other morsels likely to feature at such an elite banquet may be guessed from late medieval menus — which survive from events like coronations, weddings and inaugurations — as well as recipe collections.

Smaller dishes could be enhanced with dyes, dressings and spices or by serving them in interesting ways. Examples can be found in a late 14th-century scroll called ‘The Forme of Cury’ (‘cury’ is Middle English for ‘cookery’). 


A recipe for ‘Salat’ in the Forme of Cury: Add MS 5016, f. 6r.

This manuscript includes a recipe for ‘Salat’, which combines fennel and herbs with a dressing of oil and vinegar. This would not be out of place in a modern restaurant. Another recipe is for ‘Mackerels in Sawse’. The cook was instructed to dye it green or yellow, which could be achieved using green herbs and saffron respectively: ‘Take the mackerels and cut them into pieces. Cast them in water and onions. Boil them with herbs. Colour it green or yellow and serve it forth.’


A colourful recipe for mackerel in sauce in the Forme of Cury: Add MS 5016, f. 7r.

The Liber Cure Cocorum (Sloane MS 1986) includes the instruction that long, skewer-like beaks of the woodcock, snipe and curlew should be pushed through the pieces of the birds’ roasted carcasses, like ready-made kebabs.

Preparations for a feast are shown, comic-strip style, in the lower margins of the 14th-century Luttrell Psalter. At the bottom of the first image, animals, perhaps rabbits and poultry, are being roasted on a spit. In the second image, cauldrons that may contain sauces or stews are attended by a cook. Beside him, a figure appears to be chopping green herbs. This could be the popular ‘Verde Sawse’ (green sauce). Above him, another figure appears to be grinding ingredients with a pestle and mortar.



Roasting, boiling, chopping and pulverising in the lower margins of the Luttrell Psalter: Add MS 42130, ff. 206v–207r.

The next marginal images show the food and drink being arranged in plates and bowls on tables and being carried to the guests. A figure at the first work-table is jointing and plating up roasted meat, the same creatures as were depicted on the spit. The second table is being used to serve drink, presumably wine, from earthenware jugs into shallow bowls, known as mazers. Attendants are then shown carrying the food through on silvery plates. All the work-tables are three-legged for extra stability. In contrast, the lavish dining table on the following page is on trestles and could have been easily dismantled.



Plating up, pouring the drinks and serving the diners in the Luttrell Psalter: Add MS 42130, ff. 207v–208r.

Here, the food is being served to a group of well-to-do diners, and a heraldic backdrop identifies them as the family of Geoffrey Luttrell. Geoffrey may be the figure sitting centrally. The woman to his right is cutting up a piece of meat on her trencher (originally a flat plate made of bread but sometimes wooden by this period). In front of the table, a servant is shown with a towel around his neck, ready for the hand-washing before and after the meal.

There is no denying that a magnificent medieval feast would have been a dazzling and highly crafted affair, even by today’s standards. Perhaps it would not have been so alien an experience after all … give or take the odd porpoise, sugar-paste martyrdom or self-skewered woodcock.


Amy Jeffs

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