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49 posts categorized "Palaeography"

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).

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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.

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The ‘animal 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)

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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:

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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.)

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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.)

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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.

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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.)

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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) 

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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 ·) 

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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.

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Letter: Egypt, 2nd century BC, Papyrus 43

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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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11 October 2016

Changing the Script

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The scripts found in Greek manuscripts can be seriously daunting for a newcomer. Not only do they have the usual barriers found in manuscripts of all languages — their divergence from printed fonts, their variation over the centuries and across geographical areas, and scribal inconsistencies and peculiarities such as abbreviations — they also tend towards a far greater regularity than we find in, for example, Latin manuscripts over the same historical time period. Only close study and careful guidance from handbooks and experts enable students of Greek manuscripts to identify the subtle variations that distinguish Greek manuscripts of the high Byzantine era.

We can’t hope to provide anything approaching this sort of guidance in a short blogpost, but we hope here to give a very general overview of the history of Greek script and to point towards the many resources available on our Greek Manuscripts Project Website that can help put the changes in Greek bookhands into a wider context.

Ancient and late antique Greek texts written on papyrus tend to be divided into ‘bookhands’ and ‘documentary hands’. The latter vary far more noticeably over time and can be dated with much greater ease — not least because documentary texts are far more likely than ancient literary texts to have dates attached to them. We can see the contrast clearly in two papyri included on the Greek Manuscripts Project website: the Bankes Homer and the Constitution of the Athenians papyrus.

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Example of a Greek bookhand in a papyrus containing Book 24 of Homer’s Iliad (Papyrus 114). Egypt, 2nd century CE.

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Farm accounts from Hermopolis, on the recto of the papyrus containing the Constitution of the Athenians (Papyrus 131, f. 1ar). Egypt, 78 CE.

However, it is worth remembering that the lines between these two bookhands can be blurred. Scribes who usually wrote documentary texts could occasionally be called upon to copy out literary texts. The text of the Constitution of the Athenians itself appears to be the result of this sort of copying, as it is written in a fairly cursive-style bookhand. For much more about ancient books and their production contexts, several articles are available on the Greek Manuscripts Project website: Ancient Books, Ancient Libraries, and Greek Bibles in Antiquity.

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The Constitution of the Athenians papyrus (Papyrus 131, f. 1av). Egypt, c. 100 CE.

In Late Antiquity and the early Byzantine period, manuscripts tended to be copied in majuscule or uncial script — in other words, letters corresponding to our upper-case Greek letters. This is a continuation of the ancient ‘bookhands’ and can be seen in many biblical manuscripts including Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Alexandrinus. On occasion, late versions of this hand can be seen to have developed particular characteristics, such as the Sinai-style majuscule to be seen in Additional MS 26113, an important volume containing fragments of hymns from the 8th and 9th centuries.

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Fragments of hymns in the Sinai-style majuscule (Add MS 26113, f. 3r). Eastern Mediterranean (Mount Sinai), 8th-9th century.

While majuscule hands continued to be used for religious books and for decoration well into the 11th century, the minuscule bookhand came to prominence in the 9th century and became the standard hand used in Greek manuscripts. Because it was a cursive script, it could be written more quickly than majuscule, and since the letters tended to be smaller, more text could be accommodated on a single page. Variety in minuscule scripts can be found across the Byzantine Empire: for instance, certain forms, such as those found in the Harley Trilingual Psalter, are characteristic of southern Italy, while other forms indicate a manuscript was copied in Cyprus or the Levant. For more information about Byzantine scribes and books, please see the articles on Byzantine scribes and scholars and Byzantine libraries.

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Example of a south Italian script in the Harley Trilingual Psalter. Harley MS 5786, f. 158r. Italy, S. (Palermo), c. 1130-1150.

The Renaissance copyists based in Italy and France developed their own characteristic style of writing Greek, which both influenced and was later influenced by early Greek typography. The story of these writers can be found in articles on Greek manuscripts at the dawn of print and Greek manuscripts in the 16th century.

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Manuscript of Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistae written by Zacharias Kalliergis of the Kalliergis press. Royal MS 16 C XXIV, f. 31r. Italy, N. (Venice?), 1st half of the 16th century.

This is only a very brief and incomplete outline of the history of Greek handwriting. You can find many more examples in the hundreds of manuscripts available on Digitised Manuscripts and the many articles and collection items available on the Greek Manuscripts Project Website.

Cillian O'Hogan

@BLMedieval/@CillianOHogan

14 September 2016

Palimpsests: The Art of Medieval Recycling

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The art of recycling — re-using waste materials to reduce consumption of fresh raw materials — may seem alien in a medieval context. Yet when it comes to writing, past peoples were often much more sparing than many of us today.

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Miniature of the Evangelist Luke writing, in a 12th-century Gospel-book,
Add MS 5112, f. 3r

Producing papyrus sheets or parchment volumes was not an easy or cheap endeavour. In order to produce a complete Bible on parchment, the skins of approximately 200 sheep may have been needed. One way to save parchment was to write the words and sentences continuously with no punctuation at all. This might have made reading more difficult and open to misunderstanding, but it definitely saved space.

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Detail of continuous script in the columns of the Codex Sinaiticus, Eastern Mediterranean (Palestine?), 4th century,  Add MS 43725, f. 252r

Another way to save parchment and papyrus was to reuse it. Papyrus scrolls were usually written on one side only, where the fibres were horizontal and more suitable for writing, while the other side with vertical threads was usually left blank. In times of need, however, scribes reused the more inconvenient side of scrolls that they found unimportant or superfluous. The practice of writing tax receipts and payment reminders on the reverse of classical dramas and poems has sometimes saved classical literature which would otherwise have been lost. Examples at the British Library include Papyrus 787 preserving Demosthenes’s works, Papyrus 1182 with Epicurus’s treatise and Papyrus 1191 containing Homer.

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Columns from a speech by Demosthenes, Egypt, 2nd century CE, Papyrus 744 recto with later accounts from the other side of the same papyrus, Egypt, 2nd-3rd century CE, Papyrus 744, verso

Reusing parchment pages was more complicated, since books often had writing on both sides. By taking pages of books that were unused, incomprehensible or perhaps banned, it was possible to scrape or wash off the old writing to achieve a new blank page. It is the outcome of this recycling process that we call a palimpsest (the “re-scratched” page).

Many manuscripts with recycled pages are preserved and it is always intriguing to discover what the old writing contained and why it was destroyed. Deciphering undertexts is not always easy. Sometimes the recyclers did not make a very thorough job and the old writing is so transparent that modern viewers can easily read and identify the recycled pages: examples include the epics of Homer and the geometrical works of the mathematician Euclid of Megara.

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The capital letters of Euclid’s Elements recycled in a 9th-century manuscript containing a Syriac translation of a Greek theological text, Add MS 17211, f. 49v

If the recycling was done meticulously, special techniques are necessary to recover the text. Thanks to the British Library’s multispectral imaging technology, many of the seemingly unreadable undertexts can now be recovered. Recently we managed to discover remnants of at least three manuscripts in one 15th-century Greek liturgical book, including parts of a 9th-century gospelbook, some leaves from a 10th-century service book and two scraps from a 12th-century copy of a Greek commentary on Plato by the 5th-century Proclus.

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Multispectral images of a 15th-century service book showing the capital letters of a 9th-century gospel behind the script, Add MS 36823, f. 17r

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These brownish columns are what remains of a 12th-century copy of Proclus’s Commentary on Plato’s Timaeus recycled in this 15th-century liturgical manuscript:
Add MS 36823, f. 123r

Perhaps the most thrilling find yet is a double-palimpsest from Egypt, a 10th-century manuscript written in Syriac (a Semitic language of the Christian East) on pages that contain a twofold layer of Latin texts. One is a commentary on Donatus’s Latin grammar attributed to Sergius from the 7th century, written above another 5th-century Latin text preserving fragments of the otherwise lost historical work of the 2nd-century Granius Licinianus, whose writing is known only from these recycled pages.

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Cursive Latin handwriting of a 7th-century grammatical treatise under the Syriac translation of John Chrysostom’s homilies, Egypt, 10th century, Add. MS 17212, f. 7v

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Capital letters of the Latin text of the Annals of Granius Licinianus under the 7th-century cursive Latin grammatical text in the pages of the 10th-century Syriac manuscript of John Chrysostom’s homilies, Add MS 17212, f. 5r

How these precious fragments ended up in Egypt and why were they recycled to accommodate Syriac translations of Greek religious texts are questions that are very hard to answer. Sebastian Brock, one of the foremost experts on Syriac manuscripts and literature, will try to crack the puzzle in his upcoming lecture at the British Library’s conference on Greek manuscripts. You can book your place to hear the end of the story here.

Peter Toth

@BLMedieval