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51 posts categorized "Palaeography"

12 July 2018

Anglo-Saxon charters online

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

Cotton MS Augustus II 3 Face

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

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

Add Ch 19795 face

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

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

Stowe Ch 15 face

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

 

Cotton MS Augustus II 31

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

 

Cotton MS Augustus II 39 face 

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

 

Cotton Ch VIII 18 face

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

 

Cotton Roll ii 11 part 1

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

 

Stowe Ch 39 face

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

 

Cotton MS Augustus II 85 face

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

 

 Cotton Ch VIII 9 face

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

 

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

Cotton MS Augustus II 38 face

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

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

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

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

 

Julian Harrison & Alison Hudson

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27 March 2018

If you’ve got it, flaw-nt it

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Nobody’s perfect, not even manuscripts. Since parchment is made from animal skins, the pages often have holes of varying sizes. Some of these may have been caused by an insect bite that expanded when the skin was stretched during parchment production. Other holes may have been created during other stages in the parchment-making process itself. Medieval scribes still often used this ‘flawed’ parchment. Sheets of parchment were time-consuming and expensive to produce, so some scribes embraced the flaws they found, with creative results.

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

The creativity of the late 9th- or early 10th-century scribe of the Tollemache Orosius (Add MS 47967) came to the fore whenever they came across a hole in the parchment. In one instance the flaw was turned into a creature, perhaps a badger, a sheep or a mole. 

Cotton MS Julius A VI  f. 3r
Verses about zodiac signs, where the ‘o’ in ‘capricornus’ is created by a flaw in the parchment, from a calendar, England, 1st half of the 11th century: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 3r 

Cotton MS Julius A VI  f. 3v
Detail of Aquarius drawn around a hole in parchment, from the other side of the page in the mid-11th century calendar, England (Canterbury?): Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 3v

The 11th-century scribe and artist of the 'Julius Work Calendar' demonstrated not one but two solutions to dealing with a flaw in parchment. On one side of a page, the scribe used a round hole as a substitute for the ‘o’ in capricOrnus.  On the other side, the scribe or artist used the same hole to represent the negative space under Aquarius’s arm as he pours a jug of water. Unfortunately, we cannot fully appreciate the artist’s and scribe’s ingenuity today, since this page was warped by the Cotton Fire. This means the proportions of the image and letters have shrunk, and the second ‘c’ in capricornus is barely visible.

Paris  Bibliothèque nationale de France  lat 9389  f. 17r
Detail of a page from the Echternach Gospels, early 8th century: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, lat 9389, f. 17r

Sometimes, scribes got so caught up in creatively decorating holes they forgot about the text they were supposed to be writing. Jo Story of the University of Leicester has pointed out that the scribe of the Echternach Gospels was so distracted by making the hole in the parchment into a bird that they missed out a whole clause! They had to go back and add it in the margin between the columns.

Add MS 15732  f. 26v
Not all flaws were decorated although depending on how you hold the page, they can provide sneak peeks of other decoration; detail of a flaw in a 12th-century copy of
Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Brittaniae: Add MS 15732, f. 26v (photo credit Jessica Pollard)

Not all holes in manuscripts were decorated. Nevertheless, it is tempting to wish that sometimes there were more flaws in the parchment, just to see what kind of creative solutions the scribes would have come up with.

Have a look through the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website and let us know if you have any other favourite examples of scribes or artists who made a virtue out of imperfection.

Alison Hudson

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06 December 2017

Chronicles and cartularies – fact and fiction

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Regular readers of this Blog will know that we are constantly adding more manuscripts to our Digitised Manuscripts site. Many of these medieval books have been digitised as part of a major project sponsored by The Polonsky Foundation, in collaboration with our friends at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Here are three examples of newly-digitised British Library manuscripts containing chronicles and cartularies. All three have a connection to France and/or contain texts written in French.

Chronicle of Saint-Martin-des-Champs

Additional MS 11662 contains an illustrated verse chronicle of the priory of Saint-Martin-des-Champs, produced in Paris between 1072 and 1079, shortly after the events described took place. The priory was founded by King Henry I in the mid-11th century, on or near the site of a Merovingian church just outside Paris, dedicated to St Martin, the Roman soldier who gave his cloak to a poor beggar.  

Narrative illustrations in chronicles are rare in the Romanesque period, and these are unique early examples of the scenes represented. The text includes a copy of the foundation charter by Henry I, dated 1059–1060, and Philip I's confirmation of the donation of Janville and Neuvy-en-Beauce to Saint-Martin-des-Champs (1065). A page is missing after f. 4, but a complete copy of the text with its illuminations was made in Paris c. 1245 (now BnF, nouv. acq. lat. 1359).

Add_ms_11662_f004r

Henry I of France on his throne, pointing to a drawing of the church of Saint-Martin-des-Champs, in the Chronicle of Saint-Martin-des-Champs. At the bottom of the page, he presents the foundation charter to the canons of the priory; on the charter is written 'Libertas aecclesia Sancti Martini': Add MS 11662, f. 4r.

Add_ms_11662_f005v

Philip I of France on his throne, surrounded by his court, giving the charter to the canons. Members of the court are named and the churches of Saint-Martin-des-Champs and Saint-Samson of Orléans are illustrated to his left: Add MS 11662, f. 5v

The chronicle is followed by a modern transcription of the text with one of the images (f. 13r) and an index added by an earlier owner. Baron de Joursanvault (1748–1792), whose arms are found on f. 10r.

Add_ms_11662_f013r

An 18th-century transcription of the chronicle: Add MS 11662, f. 13r

The next two manuscripts are associated with St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury, founded by Archbishop Augustine (r. 597–604) in the early 7th century. The church, originally known as SS Peter and Paul, was re-founded by King Æthelberht (r. 860–866) to house ‘the bodies of Augustine himself and all the bishops of Canterbury and the kings of Kent’ (Bede, Historia Anglorum, I.33). In the 11th century, the possessions of the convent of Minster-in-Thanet, founded by St Mildreth in the 690s, were acquired by the abbey along with her relics, allegedly donated by King Cnut (r. 1016–1035).

Lives of the Canterbury saints

Cotton_ms_vespasian_b_xx_f002r

The opening page with a charter granting privileges to St Augustine’s Abbey. The name of its former owner, Sir Robert Cotton’s, is inscribed at the bottom: Cotton MS Vespasian B XX, f. 2r

Much of this volume, copied in the 12th century, consists of hagiographical works by Goscelin, a monk of the abbey of Saint-Bertin in Saint-Omer, northern France, who came to England in the 11th century and who visited many monasteries, collecting material on English saints. The manuscript contains Goscelin's writings on the miracles and translation of St Augustine, as well as a Life of St Mildreth and other texts relating to the early archbishops of Canterbury. On f. 25r, an otherwise blank page, are notes in very faint pencil, written in Old French, probably dating to the 14th century.

Cotton_ms_vespasian_b_xx_f005v

Display initial at the beginning of Goscelin, Historia minor de adventu sancti Augustini: Cotton MS Vespasian B XX, f. 5v

Monastic institutions in the Middle Ages often manufactured documents granting themselves land and privileges. A series of spurious charters and papal privileges follows Goscelin's works in this collection, including a charter of King Edward the Confessor written in a 15th-century hand (ff. 276r–v) and two charters of King Æthelberht I of Kent in Anglo-Caroline script (ff. 277r–279r).

Cotton_ms_vespasian_b_xx_f277r

A full-page historiated initial 'I' depicting King Æthelberht I of Kent, holding a scroll in his right hand and a document in his left: Cotton MS Vespasian B XX, f. 277r

A cartulary of St  Augustine’s, Canterbury

A fragmentary 12th-century cartulary owned by St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury, is the first item in this composite manuscript, comprising five booklets bound together in the early modern period (Harley MS 337). The Canterbury cartulary contains various papal and imperial privileges, including the confirmation of a privilege granted by Pope Innocent III and correspondence between Calixtus II (r. 1119–1124) and Henry V (r. 1111–1125), the Holy Roman Emperor, relating to the investiture controversy.

Harley_ms_337_f001r

A decorated initial at the beginning of the cartulary: Harley MS 337, f. 1r

Also bound with these earlier works is ‘the Harleian Roll’, so-named because it contains a series of shields, painted around 1314, decorating a work in Anglo-Norman French by William of Waddington, the Manuel de Pechiez. A total of 126 armorial shields in colours are found in the upper margins and the outlines of unfinished shields are sketched in brown ink on the remaining pages.

Harley_ms_337_f015v

A fragment from the Manuel des Pechiez, with armorial shields including that of Sir Giles of Argentein, killed at Bannockburn in 1314: Harley MS 337, f. 15v

Chantry Westwell

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20 September 2017

Where's Walter?

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There was once a scribe named Walter, a canon and deacon who lived at Cirencester Abbey in the latter part of the 12th century. And that is practically all we know of him. With little biographical information, is it possible to make personalities of the past feel closer? Studying Walter’s handwriting can actually take us a little bit further. He is known to us from his meticulous scribal work and the marginal notes that he made in surviving manuscripts.

Walter’s hand appears throughout an exceptionally early copy of the letters of Thomas Becket (Cotton MS Claudius B II), dating to the 1180s, both in the main text and in the margins. (We have recently digitised this manuscript as part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project, and it can be viewed in full on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.) Walter’s notes compare the manuscript’s text to that of another rescension, which he calls his exemplar or the alius liber, the ‘other book’. His heightened editorial interest in this text suggests he was keenly aware of the political importance of Becket’s letters, assembled only a few years earlier by Alan of Tewkesbury, and which laid out the murdered archbishop’s dispute with King Henry II (1154–1189). According to Michael Gullick, Walter probably worked on the manuscript over several years, in a self-directed campaign (‘A twelfth-century manuscript of the letters of Thomas Becket’, in English Manuscript Studies 1100–1700, 2 (1990), pp. 1-31).

Cotton_ms_claudius_b_ii_f049r

Margaret or Matilda? Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 49r

Walter's notes highlight disparities between the two books. For instance, on one page a Latin note appears in the margin beside a rubric stating that the following letter is from ‘Thomas the Archbishop of Canterbury to Margaret Queen of the Sicilians’. It tells us that in his other book, in alio libro, the text names her as Matilda, Matildi. As a Queen of Sicily named Margaret actually lived between 1135 and 1183, we can conclude that, in this instance, the version we are looking at here is more accurate than the ‘other book’. Walter placed a line and a dot above the ‘in’ of his note (which is abbreviated). The same symbol appears above the word ‘Margerete’ in the rubric, to help match them up.

Cotton_ms_claudius_b_ii_f233v
A decorative ‘S’: Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 233v

The notes are not mere musings. This is demonstrated both by their meticulously composed content and their decorative treatment. For example, now and again Walter added a coloured initial to the manuscript. Again, we can tell what part of the text this note relates to from matching symbols in the margin and in the text proper (look to the left of the green ‘T’). In some cases, Walter even arranged his notes in an elaborate shape.

Cotton_ms_claudius_b_ii_f080r

Diamonds are forever: Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 80r

For instance, this diamond with stepped sides and ornate finials shows particular commitment to the decorative cause. But there is one delightful glimpse in this manuscript of fallibility. Finding a mistake can sometimes feel like meeting the person behind the script for the first time. So let’s ‘find’ Walter.

Cotton_ms_claudius_b_ii_f177r

Cotton_ms_claudius_b_ii_f177r

Mistakes may be rare, but they can allow us to glimpse the personality behind the pen: Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 177r

In column two of one page about half-way through the book, Walter carefully outlined and ruled a triangle, filling it with neat lines of script. When proof-reading the text, however, he must have kicked himself. Drawing a line from the top of the triangle to the space beneath the first column, he directed the reader to a confession in chastened cursive script: ‘I should have written this note here.’

Hello, Walter.

 

Cotton MS Claudius B II est une compilation des lettres de Thomas Becket. Cet article présente des notes marginale de Walter de l’abbaye de Cirencestre et l'erreur qui l’a poussé à ajouter, ‘Je devais écrire cette note ici’.

 

Amy Jeffs

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27 June 2017

Curator, Early Modern Collections

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The British Library is recruiting for a Curator of Early Modern Collections. This is a full time, fixed term position, for six months. Full details of the post and how to apply can be found here.

As Curator of Early Modern Collections, you will assist lead curators in the Department of Western Heritage Collections with preparations for an exhibition on 16th-century British History to be held at the British Library in 2020–21. You will also use your specialist knowledge to catalogue early modern manuscripts and will help to interpret and present the Library’s early modern collections through online resources and engagement with academic and general users.

DSCF1189

Detail from Elizabeth I’s autograph speech dissolving Parliament, in which she rebukes ministers for their unwelcome ‘lip-laboured orations’ on the matter of her marriage and succession, January 1567: British Library Cotton Charter IV. 38 (2)

With a post-graduate degree, or equivalent, in 16th-century British history, you will have research experience using early modern manuscripts and printed books and a personal area of expertise relevant to the British Library’s collection. Strong palaeographical skills, excellent written and oral communication skills in English and the ability to promote the collections to a wide range of audiences are essential.

The deadline for applications is 11 July 2017, and interviews will be held on 20 July  2017.

Curator, Early Modern Collections (reference COL1309)

DSCF1192

The first page of William Cecil’s paper on ‘Things to be considered upon the Scottish Queen coming into England’, May 1568: British Library Cotton MS Caligula C I, f. 97.

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23 May 2017

Frying pans, forks and fever: Medieval book curses

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Have you ever lost, forgotten to return or accidentally damaged a library book? If so, you may have been asked to pay a fee to replace or repair the book — but you still got away easy! During the Middle Ages, the fate of both your body and soul could have been at serious risk. Medieval librarians often added curses to their books upon those who did not return or damaged borrowed books, or stole them from their libraries. These curses usually invoked God, suggesting that these punishments would be made effective with divine authority.

Royal 15 D V   f. 107v
The sort of fate medieval librarians wished on book thieves: detail of a miniature illustrating Gregory's Homily 40, of a man with two demons in Hell, from Les Omelies Saint Grégoire pape, Low Countries (Bruges), 2nd half of the 15th century, Royal MS 15 D V, f. 107v

Some book curses guaranteed an immediate, physical punishment. The British Library has recently digitised a Middle Dutch natural encyclopaedia and bestiary (Add MS 11390) that contains a ‘dear oath’ (‘dieren eet’) below an image of a cross, with which the borrower had to swear that he or she would return the book or die. At least one borrower, a woman who identified herself as a midwife (‘Abstetrix heifmoeder’), dared to subscribe to this oath.

Add_ms_11390_f094v
The ‘dear (or dire) oath’ in Jacob van Maerlant’s The Flower of Nature (Der Nature Bloeme), Western Netherlands, 1st quarter of the 14th century, Add MS 11390, f. 94v 

A similar curse is found in a manuscript with a commentary on the Harmony of the Gospels (Royal MS 4 E II) from Evesham Abbey. A colophon that praises the scribe’s work — and requests high-quality wine (‘vini nobilis haustum’) for him as a reward — ends with a curse in which the book’s thief is wished a ‘death from evil things: may the thief of this book die’ (Morteque malorum: raptor libri moriatur).

  British Library  Royal MS 4 E II  f. 471r
A colophon in which the scribe curses a book’s thief to death, from William of Nottingham’s Commentary on the Harmony of the Gospels, Evesham, c. 1381, Royal MS 4 E II, f. 471r 

Other curses give us an insight into how some librarians imagined that the book thieves should die. A quickly scribbled curse in a liturgical manuscript (Add MS 30506) from the church of St Aldate in Gloucester states, ‘This book is of St Aldate: he that takes this book shall be hauled by the neck’ (f. 170r: ‘Thys boke ys sancht audatys; he þat stelys þe boke shall be haulynth by þe neck’). An even more harmful curse was issued by the Premonstratensian abbey of St Mary and St Nicholas in Arnstein. The so-called Arnstein Bible (Harley MS 2798), as noted by Marc Drogin (Anathema! Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses), damned a book thief to a bloody death by torture, sickness and execution:

A book of [the Abbey of] SS Mary and Nicholas of Arnstein: If anyone steals it: may he die [the death], may he be roasted in a frying pan, may the falling sickness [i.e. epilepsy] and fever attack him, and may he be rotated [on the breaking wheel] and hanged. Amen.

(Liber sancte Marie sancti que Nycolai in Arrinstein Quem si quis abstulerit Morte moriatur in sartagine coquatur caducus morbus instet eum et febres · et rotatur et suspendatur Amen)

Harley_ms_2798_f235v
One of the most harmful book curses written in the Middle Ages? From the Arnstein Bible, W. Germany (Arnstein), c. 1172 Harley MS 2798, f. 235v 

Other physical punishments were given explicit religious overtones, such as those that the Benedictine monastery of St Albans wished upon anyone who damaged one manuscript (Royal MS 8 G X) they loaned to monks studying at Gloucester College in Oxford:

British  Library  Royal MS 8 G X  f. 1v
A curse that identifies a book thief with Judas Iscariot, from ‘Doctrinale Antiquitatum Ecclesie Ihesu Christi contra blasfemios Wycleuistas’, mid-15th century, Royal MS 8 G X, f. 1v 

This book is given in use to the brothers of Oxford by John Wethamstede, father of the flock of the proto-martyr of the English [St Alban]; if anyone secretly tears this inscription or removes it, may he feel Judas’s noose [around his neck] or forks [presumably handled by demons!].

(Fratribus Oxonie datur in munus liber iste Per \Johannem Whethamstede/patrem pecorum prothomartiris Angligenarum. Quem si quis raptat · raptim titulum ue[l] retractet uel Iude laqueum · uel furcas sensiat Amen.)

Royal 19 C I   f. 185v
Devils wielding implements which may include a fork, from Breviari d'Amor, Southern France (Toulouse?), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Royal MS 19 C I, f. 185v

Gruesome as these punishments seem, to most medieval readers the worst curses were those that put the eternal fate of their souls at risk rather than their bodily health. A spiritual condemnation was often expressed with the Greek ‘Anathema’, sometimes followed by the Aramaic formula ‘Maranatha’ (‘Come, Lord!’). Both terms were used in a curse that was added to a manuscript with spiritual letters and sermons (Royal MS 8 F XVII) from Lesnes Abbey:

This book belongs to the church of Thomas the Martyr of Lesnes. Anyone who removes it or does damage to it: if the same person does not repay the church sufficiently, may he be cursed [Anathema Maranatha]. Let it be done. Let it be done. Amen

(Hic liber est ecclessiae beati Thome martyris de Liesnes. Quem qui ei abstulerit . aut illi super eo fraudem fecerit . nisi eidem ecclesie plene satisfecerit ; anathema sit maranatha. fiat. fiat. Amen.)

British Library  Royal MS 8 F XVII  f. 1r
A book curse with the Anathema-Maranatha formula, from a collection of Latin sermons and letters, 13th century, Royal MS 8 F XVII, f. 1r

A monk from Rochester Abbey emphasised the severity of the ‘Anathema’ by claiming that his book’s thief would be condemned by the entire religious community at Rochester Cathedral:

A volume of Aristotle’s Physics from the monastery of Rochester by John, prior of Rochester: whosoever steals this book from the monastery, conceals it, or erases this inscription, he incurs the curse of ‘Anathema’ for one long year from the Priory and the entire community of the Chapter of Rochester. 

Volumen de naturalibus · aristotelis · de Claustro Roffensis · Per Johannem Priorem Roffensis Hunc librum quicumque alienauerit ab hoc cla[u]stro · alienatum celauerit · uel hunc titulum in fraudem deleuerit ; dampnacionem incurrit Anathematis lati singulis annis a Priore et totu cetu capituli Roffensis.

British Library  Royal MS 12 G II  f. 1v
A year-long curse from the monastery of Rochester: Royal MS 12 G II, f. 1v 

Other scribes gave weight to their curses by attributing them directly to God-Christ. The aforementioned liturgical manuscript from the church of St Aldate, for example, contains another book curse, written in Middle English, purportedly originating from Christ himself:  

This book belongs to the church of St Aldate

This book is one and Christ’s curse is another

He that takes the one takes the other Amen.

(ISTE LIBER PERTINET AD SANCTUM ALDATUM

Thys boke ys one and chryst curse ys Anoþer

he þat take þe one take þe oþer Amen.)

British Library  Add MS 30506  f. 169r
Christ’s book curse: Add MS 30506, f. 169r 

Just like physical punishments, scribes could also specify the particular spiritual punishments they had in mind for their books’ thieves. One example comes from a manuscript from St Albans Abbey whereby the thief was excommunicated. The latter could have learned about what this entailed simply by consulting the stolen book, since the topic of excommunication was discussed in its contents, the Decretals of Pope Gregory IX.

This book belongs to the monastery of St Albans, anyone who steals it from the said monastery should know that he will incur the punishment of excommunication.

(Hic est liber monasteri sancti Albani quem qui a dicto monasterio alienauerit sentenciam excommunicacionis se nouerit incursurum) 

British Library  Royal MS 10 C XIII  f. 1r
A book curse excommunicating a book thief, from a copy of Gregory’s Decretals, St Albans, mid-13th century, Royal MS 10 C XIII, f. 1r 

Another monk from Rochester specified that the thief’s name would be deleted from the ‘Book of Life’. According to biblical sources, this records the names of those to be saved at the Last Judgement; stealing the manuscript would be turned into a one-way ticket to hell:

This book of the Distinctiones belongs to the monastery of Rochester: anyone who takes it from there, hides or keeps it, or damages or erases this inscription, or makes or causes it to be deleted, may his name be deleted from the Book of Life.

(Liber distinccionum de claustro Roffensis quem qui inde alienauerit · alienatum celauerit aut retinuerit · uel hunc titulum in fraudem deleueritur · deleri ue[l] fecerit aut procurauerit · deleatur nomen eius de libro uite · Amen ·) 

British Library  Royal MS 10 A XVI  f. 2r
A book curse for deleting a book thief’s name from the Book of Life, from the Distinctiones, 13th century, Royal MS 10 A XVI, f. 2r
 

The use of these book curses seemingly sits at odds with the monastic lifestyle. Medieval monks dedicated their lives to imitating Christ, including his virtues of patience, forgiveness and love for mankind. The fact that monks used these curses testifies to the immense material and spiritual value that they attributed to their libraries: their books had not only been extremely costly and labour-intensive to produce, but often they also contained the only copies of a particular work to which their communities had access. The loss of a book did not only mean a material loss, but it could have permanently deprived a religious community of a work of knowledge that was essential for preserving or developing its religious identity. This may explain why some religious communities went to great lengths to protect their books. Book curses were a radical but effective way of preserving their book collections. 

Clarck Drieshen

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08 March 2017

Female Scribes in Early Manuscripts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Papyrus 43
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

Alison Hudson

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25 February 2017

The Art and History of Calligraphy

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On Thursday, 2 March (19.00–20.30), professional calligrapher Patricia Lovett will be giving a talk at the British Library, entitled 'The Art and History of Calligraphy'. Patricia will be drawing from the Library’s rich collections of manuscripts to tell us about the art and history of calligraphy from her own practitioner’s perspective. Not only will her talk be accessible for a lay audience, but it will also offer insights that should interest experienced book historians. Patricia is able to identify in manuscripts aspects of the historical processes of writing that may not be obvious to academic audiences, such as when the quill was refilled, when it needed to be cut, how it was cut, and the relationship of the lettering to illumination.

Prudentia

Detail of a miniature of Prudence writing at her desk, with pupils before her, from Laurent d’Orleans, La somme le roi, France (Paris), 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Royal MS 19 C II, f. 48v

In her talk, Patricia Lovett will be showing some of the most extraordinary examples of historical scripts found in British Library manuscripts. She will illustrate how, from Roman times until the present day, different writing styles and materials have changed the ways in which letters were formed, and how this resulted in a range of scripts that men and women used to express their ideas and beliefs. (Her talk features the earliest example of a British woman’s handwriting!) Patricia will explain how the scribe of the Lindisfarne Gospels, writing around the year 700 at the monastery of Lindisfarne, created his beautifully decorated Insular script; how the approximately 20 scribes of the Moutier-Grandval Bible, working in 9th-century Tours, executed the then recently-developed Caroline minuscule; how scribes in subsequent centuries developed the much more narrow and angular Gothic script in some of the most sumptuous late medieval manuscripts (such as the Luttrell Psalter and the Bedford Hours); and how changes in writing style in Renaissance Italy resulted in the so-called humanistic script.

Lindisfarne   Bedford

The Evangelist Matthew writing his Gospel, England, c. 700, Cotton MS Nero D IV, the Lindisfarne Gospels, f. 25v (left). St Jerome writing the Vulgate, France, c. 1410 – 1430, Add MS 18850, the Bedford Hours, f. 24r (right).

You also get a chance to see Patricia at work: after her talk she will be signing copies of her new British Library book calligraphically!

 

Patricia Lovett, 'The Art and History of Calligraphy'

The British Library

Thursday, 2 March 2017, 19:00–20:30

 

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