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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

14 February 2018

The Medieval Origins of Valentine's Day

At the bottom of folio 243r of the beautiful Queen Mary Psalter, there is an image of a kneeling man about to have his head cut off. Given that he is being threatened with imminent decapitation, his expression is calm. His hands are pressed together in prayer and he seems blithely unconcerned that the man standing in front of him with a raised sword has grabbed him by his tonsured head. There is little in this image that would make you think of romance. And nothing here seems loving, so it is perhaps surprising to the modern viewer that the inscription at the bottom of the image indicates that this is an image of Saint Valentine.

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The Queen Mary Psalter, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 243r

When the Queen Mary Psalter was made, in the early 14th century, there was probably little or no association between Saint Valentine and love. So why is 14th February considered a day for romance?

Who was Saint Valentine?

The Roman Martyrology (the official list of martyrs in the Catholic Church) lists two Saint Valentines for 14th February – one was a bishop from Terni, in Central Italy, who was martyred in Rome, while the other was a Roman priest martyred on the Flaminian Way. Some sources suggest there weren’t actually two and that these two were the same person: so far, so unromantic.

The association between Saint Valentine’s Day and lovers is the fault of one Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340–1400). In his late 14th-century comic dream-vision, the Parliament of Fowls, he describes a group of birds who gather together in the early spring – on ‘seynt valentynes day’ – to choose their mates for the year. Some scholars have suggested that the poem was written for King Richard II (1367–1400) during the negotiations over his marriage to Anne of Bohemia in 1380.

Either way, it seems that the poem sparked (or at least cemented) a tradition. In 1477, Margery Brews, a Norfolk woman, wrote a letter to her cousin John Paston, calling him ‘my right well beloved Valentine’. It is the earliest known letter of its kind. In the 15th century, the poet John Lydgate wrote a valentine’s poem addressed to the Virgin Mary. This is the inevitable consequence of letting a Benedictine monk get behind the wheel of a courtly love poem.

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The earliest valentine's note? The Paston Letters, February 1477, Add MS 43490, f.24r

Don’t like Valentine’s Day? Fear not – the poem ends with the birds singing a song, having failed to choose their mates and deciding to defer the decision until the next year.

You can read more about the Parliament of Fowls on our new learning website, Discovering Literature: Medieval, which contains a host of resources for finding out more about literature in England throughout the medieval period, from the 8th to 16th century.

Mary Wellesley

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13 February 2018

Gnome alone

We know that this blog is usually devoted to medieval manuscripts, but we couldn't help featuring this image of a garden gnome. The little chap in question (in actual fact, he's rather large) is currently standing proudly in the British Library's Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibition. We have borrowed him from our friends at the Garden Museum here in London, and as with our other lenders (among them the British Museum, the Science Museum and the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic) we are indebted to their generosity in allowing him to be part of our show.

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When we were researching our exhibits, I made an appointment to visit the Garden Museum to view their collection of historic gnomes. At that time, the Museum was closed for a major renovation programme, and so my first task on meeting Emma House, the curator, was to don a hard hat and a pair of sturdy boots before being allowed inside. I had originally been interested in a group of gnomes that had been hand-carved by German prisoners-of-war, but on closer inspection they turned out to be too small (although beautifully made) to have the impact we desired. Emma then showed me their Disney gnomes (too garish) and their Tony Blair gnome (not everyone's cup of tea); and it was then that we set eyes on this fishing gnome, sitting in one corner of the gallery. He dates from around the year 1900 and was made by Heissner of Germany, the world's foremost maker of garden gnomes. As Emma told me, he was the Garden Museum's oldest and most historically significant gnome. He fitted the bill in so many ways: fans of the Harry Potter novels may recall that Ron Weasley described the Muggle craze for garden gnomes, described as 'fat little Father Christmases with fishing rods' (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets).

And so the British Library submitted its loan request. Last October, after all the necessary arrangements had been made and the fishing gnome had been safely packed, he made the short journey across London to our own exhibition.

We don't have any pictures of medieval gnomes among our collections, but one of our Anglo-Saxon manuscripts does contain one of the earliest references to elves, and another (Bald's Leechbook) reports that elves could cause pain in domestic animals. You can read about both manuscripts in our blogpost Elves and Anglo-Saxon manuscripts; and you can also see Bald's Leechbook in the Potions section of Harry Potter: A History of Magic.

 

Julian Harrison

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10 February 2018

It's a kind of magic

Have you ever lost something and were searching for it desperately, wishing for an easy way to locate it? Have you ever been anxious, seeking for a way to avoid a particular thing happening? Have you ever hoped for a miracle to find true love? You are not alone: people in the ancient world had exactly the same problems, but they may have been less reluctant than us to make use of a special tool – magic.

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The Ibis spell from a handbook of magic, Egypt, 3rd century: Papyrus 121(2)r

The British Library’s blockbuster exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic, gives an excellent insight into how people in the past applied magic to solve their problems. Essentially, magic provided the practitioner with a chance to influence fate and the gods.

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St Anthony commanding demons from the Theodore Psalter, executed in Constantinople, 1066: Add MS 19352, f. 151r

Egyptian papyri written in the Greek and Coptic languages preserve unique survivals of ancient magical practices, long thought to have been destroyed or lost after the advent of Christianity. A number of these 3rd to 6th-century documents attest to a significant use of magic in the already Christianised province of Egypt.

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Image of the crucifixion from a 6th-century Coptic magical text: Or 6796 (4)

The British Library owns one of the finest collections in the world of these Greek magical papyri. Complete manuscripts, in book format and also on long scrolls of almost 2 metres in length, are preserved here. Some of these documents are handbooks probably used by professional magicians in the 3rd to 4th centuries. They collected charms and related instructions for a variety of purposes, such as to predict the future, locate lost or stolen property, or to catch thieves.

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A spell to catch a thief: 'As long as I strike this eye with this hammer, let the eye of the thief be struck and swell up until it betrays him', from a handbook of magic, Egypt, 4th century: Papyrus 46, f. 2v

Other, shorter papyrus manuscripts contain only one or two specific charms with a short guide on how to use them. These may have been sold to individual customers by the magicians.

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A charm to get your enemies destroyed by demons, Egypt, 4th century: Papyrus 123

A common feature of all these spells is that they are not supplications and prayers, but rather commands to spiritual, demonic entities to serve the users and complete their orders. Commanding otherworldly beings to obey a mortal man had two basic requirements: knowledge of the demon’s full and exact name, and a physical way to ensure that the demon would perform the request. The magical formulas on the papyri are always careful to include the long and complicated names of the demons being evoked.

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'The name of power of the great god KMEPHIS CHPHYKIS IAEO IAEOBAPHRENE', written inside a serpent biting its tail, from a handbook of magic, Egypt, 3rd century: Papyrus 121(2)r

The other important way to harness the demon's power was to  connect them physically with the victim. A 4th-century Greek magical handbook, Papyrus 46, currently on display in Harry Potter: A History of Magic, provides an excellent illustration of how this might be achieved. This handbook records detailed instructions on how to compel the demons to bind someone not to do something, by using an iron ring to establish a physical bond with the target of the magic. The curious recipe reads as follows:

'Take a papyrus and an iron ring, put the ring on the papyrus and draw the outlines of the ring with a pen, inside and outside. On the area outside the ring write the name and invocation of the demon, on the inside the following: “Let whatever I wish not take place OR let so-and-so not get married forever”. Then put the ring on its outline, wrap it up with the papyrus until it is completely covered. Bind the package with cords and throw it into an unused well or dig it into the grave of someone untimely dead and say the following, “Spirit of the dead …”'

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The magic ring, from a handbook of magic, Egypt, 4th century: Papyrus 46, f 5v

We don't know anyone who has ever tried this spell, and we can't guarantee its success. It's fascinating, nonetheless, to see this practical application of 4th-century magic. The papyrus itself is presently on view in London, and you can also read more about it in the book which accompanies the exhibition. You can also currently see the beautiful Theodore Psalter, featured above, in our free Treasures Gallery, besides reading more about the British Library's Greek manuscripts on our dedicated website.

Peter Toth

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07 February 2018

The Lindisfarne Gospels carpet pages

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The copying and decoration of the Lindisfarne Gospels represent a remarkable artistic achievement. The book’s importance lies in the evidence of its production, the beauty of its illustration and the late 10th-century added gloss of its text that is the earliest rendering of the Gospels in the English language. The Gospels were made on Lindisfarne island, in Northumbria, around 700. The manuscript has been fully digitised and can be viewed here in great detail, with the zoom function, on our Digitised Manuscripts site (Cotton MS Nero D IV).

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The Lindisfarne Gospels: Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 3r

The book includes five highly elaborate full-page carpet pages, so-called because of their resemblance to Oriental carpets (indeed, some scholars have argued for the direct influence of carpets on their design). Four of the carpet pages appear before the beginning of a Gospel; the fifth precedes the book’s prefatory material. This material includes the associated texts that typically form part of Gospel-books, such as letters of St Jerome (d. 420), chapter lists and the ten canon tables (for more on the canon tables, see our previous blogpost). The first carpet page is now on display in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery for three months, as part of the manuscript's regular conservation rotation schedule.

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The Lindisfarne Gospels: Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 2v

Each carpet page has a cross pattern embedded in its design. It seems likely that these pages were designed to serve as a sort of interior treasure binding to ornament each Gospel as a mirror of the ornate exterior one that once was ‘bedecked with gold and gems’, according to the colophon. Certainly the affinities with surviving contemporary precious metalwork such as the Sutton Hoo treasure are readily apparent in the carpet page panels, with their interlace patterns, intertwined sinuous and elongated twisted bodies and stylized birds’ and beasts’ heads. 

From April 2018, the Lindisfarne Gospels will be off display in compliance with the conservation rotation schedule, which requires that the manuscript be rested for six months once it has been on show for eighteen months. From 19 October, the Gospels will again be on display as part of the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.

 

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06 February 2018

Independent woman: Æthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians

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If you live in the United Kingdom, you may be aware that 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act, which for the first time gave some women in Britain the right to vote. The commemorations being held this year celebrate earlier efforts to enfranchise women, as well as examples of remarkable women from former times. In recent months, this blog has featured the Greek poet, Sappho, and Lady Jane Grey, England's forgotten Queen. 2018 also marks the 1,100th anniversary of the death of Æthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, who is the subject of today's blogpost.

Cotton_ms_tiberius_a_vi_f030r AEthelflaed
Æthelflaed’s name (spelled Æþelflæd), in the B-text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: Cotton MS Tiberius A VI, f. 30r

Æthelflaed was the eldest child of Alfred the Great, king of the West Saxons (reigned 871–899), and his wife Ealhswith. Ealhswith may have been related in turn to the royal house of the nearby kingdom of Mercia. Under pressure during the viking invasions at the end of the 9th century, King Alfred made an alliance with Æthelred, lord of the Mercians. Æthelflaed subsequently married Æthelred, strengthening this bond.

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This Mercian prayer-book probably belonged to Æthelflaed's mother, Ealhswith: Harley MS 2965, f. 4v

By the first years of the 10th century, Æthelred had become very ill. When he died in 911, Æthelflaed became the ruler of the Mercians in her own right. As lady of the Mercians ('Myrcna hlæfdige'), Æthelflaed expanded her territories to the north, east and west. She fortified settlements, or burhs, and led her armies into Wales and Northumbria. In the final year of her life, the people of York even pledged to obey her ‘direction’ ('rædenne'). It is possible that some of her military exploits were coordinated to help her brother, King Edward the Elder (reigned 899–924), but at other times Æthelflaed seems to have been acting independently.

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A page from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle showing the entries of the Mercian Register: Cotton MS Tiberius B I, f. 140v

You may wonder how we know so much about Æthelflaed. We are fortunate in Æthelflaed's case because a narrative of Mercian affairs, for the years 904–924, is found embedded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. This is known as the ‘Mercian Register’, and it provides a very different account of events from the main text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which focuses on Edward the Elder. For example, when discussing what happened during the same months in 916, one chronicle focuses on Edward building a burh; the other details the causes and results of Æthelflaed’s military campaign into Wales.

The Mercian Register was copied into three manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, all of which are held today at the British Library (Cotton MS Tiberius A VI, Cotton MS Tiberius B I and Cotton MS Tiberius B IV). A medieval library catalogue from Durham also refers to a copy of ‘Elfledes Boc’, now lost, which can possibly be identified as ‘Æthelflaed’s chronicle.’ Although Æthelflaed is mentioned in West Saxon and later Irish sources, our knowledge of her career would be greatly diminished if the Mercian Register did not survive.

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Æthelflaed was remembered long after her death. Here she is depicted in a roundel from a 13th-century geneaology of the kings of England: Royal MS 14 B V, membrane 2

Æthelflaed’s reign was unusual. Her successful political career did not necessarily reflect tolerant contemporary attitudes towards women, and (with one brief exception) she did not pave the way for future Anglo-Saxon female leaders. According to Asser, her father’s biographer, the West Saxon court where she grew up was particularly opposed to over-mighty queens: 'The West Saxons do not allow a queen to sit beside the king, nor to be called a queen, but only the king’s wife [because of] a certain obstinate and malevolent queen [from Mercia], who did everything she could against her lord and whole people' (Asser, Life of Alfred, chapter 13, translated by M. Lapidge and S. Keynes, Alfred the Great).

Æthelflaed was initially succeeded by her daughter, Ælfwynn, whose reign was significantly shorter. The Mercian Register claims that just one year later, in 919, 'the daughter of Æthelred, lord of the Mercians, was deprived of all authority in Mercia and taken into Wessex, three weeks before Christmas' (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Revised Translation, trans. by D. Whitelock and others (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1961), p. 67). England would have to wait several hundred years for another queen to rule unchallenged in her own right.

 

Alison Hudson

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01 February 2018

A calendar page for February 2018

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It’s February: time to light candles and clear away some vines, according to the ‘Julius Work Calendar', an 11th-century calendar made in southern England. 

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Labourers clearing away vines, from a calendar, England (Canterbury?), mid-11th century: 
Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 3v

The main illustration associated with February in both this and a related 11th-century calendar (Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1) involves workers clearing away vines. Above, their tools are depicted in detail and may reflect actual 11th-century agricultural practices. The men wield curved knives. Below, the man on the furthest left holds a bigger, curved blade attached to a longer handle.

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February, from a geographical collection, England (Canterbury? Glastonbury?), mid-11th century: 
Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 3v

The curling vines are reminiscent of the artistic flourishes that late 10th- and 11th-century English artists used to adorn their initials and borders.

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Detail of an initial with foliate decoration, from a copy of the Rule of St Benedict, England (St Augustine’s, Canterbury?), late 10th century: 
Harley MS 5431, f. 39v

It is not clear why the two calendars are so similar. Some people have suggested that they were made at the same scriptorium, and that one might be a copy of the other. However, the poem that accompanies the calendar is slightly different in the two manuscripts, so the text does not seem to have been copied directly from one manuscript into the other. For example, the Julius calendar does not mention the death of Alfred the Great (d. 26 October 899) and his wife Ealhswith (d. 5 December 902), unlike the Tiberius calendar. Alternatively, both calendars could have been based on related exemplars which are now lost.

The zodiac sign associated with this month is Aquarius, based on the constellation that is said to look like a water carrier. Below, Aquarius is depicted standing on one foot, supported by a staff. He pours out a jug of water. The artist has cleverly posed him so his arm curves around a flaw in the parchment. However, these details are a little difficult to discern, because this manuscript was damaged in the Cotton fire of 1731. In particular, the heat warped the image as the edges of the parchment shrunk.

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Detail of Aquarius: 
Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 3v

One early user of this calendar has put gold crosses next to two feast days in February. The first cross appears next to the feast for Candlemas on 2 February. This feast commemorated the Virgin Mary’s ritual purification after giving birth and Christ’s presentation in the temple. This manuscript was probably produced and owned at a reformed monastery or cathedral, where Candlemas was the subject of an elaborate liturgy. The ceremony involved a procession with candles that were blessed. This was followed by a service where monks continued to hold their candles, at least for the opening section (according to the Regularis Concordia: see Cotton MS Tiberius A III, f. 14r).

Cotton MS Julius A VI  f. 6r Candlemas

The second verse marked out with a gold cross is actually in incorrect Latin. The scribe has replaced the name of St Matthias (Mathiano) with the word for middle (mediano), or possibly ‘Methano’. He may have misread his exemplar. The red text next to the gold cross reads ‘sol in Pisces’. It is one of a series of notes about the sun’s position and other astronomical and astrological patterns that were noted in red in the margin of this calendar.

Cotton MS Julius A VI  f. 3v Valentine
Feast of St Va
lentine: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 3v

St Matthias’s feast day is not the only place where this scribe made a mistake. Another is above, in a verse about St Valentine, whose martyrdom is commemorated on 14 February. Instead of writing ‘Rite…’ (‘Solemnly/customarily…’), the scribe has written ‘Ride…’ (‘Laugh!’ ). It is tempting to wonder whether the scribe misheard or misremembered the verse, since ‘t’ and ‘d’ can sound similar, but ‘-te’ and ‘-de’ do not look similar in this script.

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February, from a calendar, England (Canterbury?), mid-11th century: 
Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 3v

For more on this manuscript (and details about when you will be able to see it in person), please see our calendar post for January 2018. For previous years’ calendar pages, and for explanations of medieval calendars, please see here.

Alison Hudson

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31 January 2018

Discovering our medieval literature

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Are you enchanted by Chaucer, bewitched by Beowulf or mesmerised by Malory? Did you know that the earliest autobiography in English was written by a woman, or that several different languages were spoken and written in medieval Britain? You now have the chance to learn more about our rich literary heritage, with the launch of the British Library's Discovering Literature: Medieval webspace, making nearly 1,000 years of our literary history freely available online.

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Christine presenting her book to Isabeau of Bavaria, 'The Book of the City of Ladies', Christine de Pizan, Harley MS 4431, f. 3r

Bringing together over 50 unique medieval manuscripts and early print editions from the 8th to 16th centuries, Discovering Literature: Medieval presents a new way to explore some of the earliest works and most influential figures of English literature. From the first complete translation of the Bible in the English language to the first work authored by a woman in English, the website showcases many rarities and ‘firsts’ in the history of English literature. Some of the highlights include:

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The mythical Cynocephalus, a man with a dog-like head, in the 'Marvels of the East', which appears in the 'Beowulf' manuscript, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 100r

The new website features medieval drama, epic poetry, dream visions and riddles, and includes works in Anglo-Latin, Anglo-Norman French, Old English, Middle English and Older Scots. We are especially pleased to be able to showcase the works of a number of female writers, such as Julian of Norwich, Marie de France, Margery Kempe and Christine de Pizan, and to include engaging human stories, such as that of the Tremulous Hand of Worcester. Users of the site will be able to encounter the first work of theatre criticism in English — the Tretise of Miraclis Pleyinge (a Lollard sermon against mystery plays) — and the story of Caedmon, a shy cowherd and the first named English poet (in an early manuscript of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History).

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The first work of theatre criticism in English, the Tretise of Miraclis Pleyinge, Add MS 24202, f. 14r

Discovering Literature: Medieval contains more than 20 articles exploring themes such as gender, faith and heroism, written by poets, academics and writers including Simon Armitage, BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinker, Hetta Howes, and David Crystal. We are equally thrilled to have worked with other institutions to host their own treasures on our site, giving a broader sense of the richness and diversity of medieval literary production.

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Henry VI praying at the shrine of Saint Edmund, 'The Lives of Saint Edmund and Saint Fremund', John Lydgate, Harley MS 2278, f. 4r

Discovering Literature is a free website aimed at A-Level students, teachers and lifelong learners, providing unprecedented access to the British Library’s literary and historical treasures. Also featured on the site are collections relating to Shakespeare and the Renaissance, the Romantic and Victorian periods, and 20th century literature. The project has been generously supported by Dr Naim Dangoor CBE The Exilarch’s Foundation, along with the British Library Trust and the British Library Patrons. Further development of the project is being supported by the Garfield Weston Foundation, Mark Pigott KBE KStJ, Evalyn Lee, Luci Baines Johnson and Ian Turpin, The American Trust for the British Library, The John S Cohen Foundation, The Andor Trust, and Allan and Nesta Ferguson Charitable Trust.

Mary Wellesley

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29 January 2018

Glossed Bibles, hypertexts and hyperlinks

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In many ways, glossed Bibles were amongst the hardest manuscripts to create in the 12th century. A glossed book is one where the main text of a work is explained by adding texts ('glosses') either between the lines or in the margins of the page, not unlike our modern notes and annotations. Rather than random notes, however, biblical glosses were compiled by various authors from authoritative sources, and added systematically. In the case of the Bible, the glosses were taken from the writings of the Church Fathers and those of more recent theologians.

A good example is a manuscript from Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire (now Add MS 63077) containing the Old Testament book of Genesis with an interlinear and two marginal glosses. The main text of the first chapter of Genesis is written in the centre, with glosses added on both sides. (You can read more about this manuscript, and its fur cover, here.)

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Glossed Genesis, with the main text squeezed into a single narrow column (Rievaulx, 12th century): Rievaulx, 12th century, Add MS 63077, f. 1r

Reading a glossed Bible is a bit like reading Shakespeare and a commentary at the same time. The glossed page contains various texts keyed to the main text of the Bible in a system of carefully-arranged references. This is the medieval equivalent of the hypertext: texts linked up to other texts that the reader can access immediately without even lifting their eyes from the page. There can be up to four texts running simultaneously: the main text, two flanking columns of glosses in continuous prose as well as a ‘discontinuous’ gloss of single words or explanatory passages written between the lines of the main text. Glosses often take up the upper and side margins and begin with a paragraph sign (similar to our ¶) to make them easy to locate. The glosses are placed alongside the passage they seek to explain.

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Glosses in the process of enclosing the main text: Add MS 18298, f. 30r

Making a glossed Bible posed a number of challenges for medieval scribes. One way to make the book more readable was to use different scripts for the main text and the glosses. In a manuscript from York Cathedral (now Harley MS 46), the scribe used three different scripts, not including the initial and the capitals for ‘Liber’ (book), the first word in the Gospel of Matthew.

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When texts are so close together, script size and style are essential: Harley MS 46, f. 7r

Another challenge was to make the texts fit and run together from one page to another. Designing the layout was not easy before the age of print, especially when it meant positioning three different closely related texts of unequal length. For this reason, the various books of the Old and New Testaments were always glossed separately.  

With time, biblical glosses became increasingly longer, to the point that they ran over the page. To control the ‘spillage’, scribes came up with the idea of using special signs to mark where the gloss stopped on one page and where it continued on the next. These ‘tie-marks’ work as hyperlinks that the reader can follow directly. In one English, late 12th-century manuscript, these two signs occur at the lower end of the page.

  Tie-mark1 Tie-mark2


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‘Turn over the leaf and follow the signs’: Burney MS 29, f. 5r

The same signs on the verso explain where each of the interrupted texts resumes.

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Burney MS 29, f. 5v

Glossed Bibles had many advantages. They led to new, faster and more efficient ways of reading, of locating information quickly, and of accessing related texts which would otherwise require a small library.

 

Cristian Ispir
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