THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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44 posts categorized "Palaeography"

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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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.

Papyrus_114_part8

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

Papyrus_131_f001ar

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.

Papyrus_131_f001av

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.

Add_ms_26113_f003r

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.

Harley_ms_5786_f158r

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.

Royal_ms_16_c_xxiv_f031r

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.

PALIMPSEST_1_add_ms_5112_f003r
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.

Add_ms_43725_f252r
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.

PALIMPSEST_2_Papyrus744

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.

PALIMPSEST_3_add_ms_17211_f04_9v

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.

PALIMPSEST_4_add_ms_36823_f017r
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

PALIMPSEST_5_add_ms_36823_f123r
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.

PALIMPSEST_6_ass_ms_17212_f007v

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

PALIMPSEST_7_add_ms_17212_f005r

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

14 July 2016

Manuscript the Tube

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Some time ago I was alone in the office on a Friday evening and was left in charge of the @BLMedieval Twitter account. This is sometimes dangerous. Among my sillier inventions is the hashtag #WodewoseWednesday, which created a low-velocity Twitter storm as people sent us images of endearing, furry Wildmen (or Wodewoses) from manuscripts across the world. By the end of that day, Twitter had reduced me to near hysterical giggles and I wondered if I might have to lie down under my desk. 

It all started quite innocently on the Friday in question, when Johan Oosterman @JohanOosterman posted an image of the British Library’s Egerton MS 1900, f. 100r, with the caption ‘Elephant and Castle’. Here is that image, taken from a late 15th-century German travelogue, which describes a journey from Venice to Egypt.

Elephant and castle

Amused by this tweet, I thought of other names of London Tube stations that could be represented by manuscript images. I retweeted the first suggestion and invited people to #manuscriptthetube. The results showed just how inventively people engage with manuscripts that have been made digitally available. It was also a reminder that medieval London is not far from the surface and you do not need to dig deep, not even as deep as a Tube platform, to find its traces. Here, in the most modern of media – digital images representing a modern transport network – was a reminder of the city’s past, of its rich lexicon of medieval place names and the imagination of its inhabitants and an online community further afield.

 Royal 16 F II f73
Earliest known topographically accurate view of London, with the Tower of London and Duke Charles d’Orléans writing in the Tower, from Charles d’Orléans, Poetry and Pseudo-Heloise, Epistles, 'Les demands d'amours', and  'Le livre dit grace entiere', Low Countries (Bruges), c. 1483 (this image) with later additions, c. 1492 – c. 1500, Royal MS 16 F II, f. 73r

Tower of London Underground Ralf Roletschek
A 21st-century view of the Tower of London, photographed by Ralf Roletschek, England (London), 13 October 2010. 

Like many Londoners, I have a great affection for the iconic London Tube map. It’s a masterpiece of design. The map was designed by Henry Beck (1902-1974) in 1932. His innovation was to take some liberties with geography and thereby make the stations appear evenly spaced, ordered and legible. In its broad palette and dovetailing lines it’s a visual representation of all of London’s colour and variety. In many ways, Beck's map is similar to a manuscript like Egerton MS 1900, itself a colourfully illustrated travelogue with some distortions of distance. 

Below is a run-down of some of our favourite tweets which #manuscriptthetube. Please continue to send us your suggestions via @BLMedieval. We've embedded the links to all the original tweets in everyone's Twitter handles. 

 

A Run-Down of Our Favourites

Some suggestions gestured to the medieval history embedded in London's place names, like this one from Buckland Abbey @BucklandAbbeyNT, for Blackfriars. Blackfriars is named after a community of Dominican monks or ‘black friars’, so called because of the black habit they wore. It was established in 1221 near Lincoln’s Inn. The image here is from @thegetty's MS 107, f. 224r

Blackfriars

Some punned on the names of Tube stations, like Acton Town from Susannah Davis @aethelflaed with an image from the Bodleian Library @bodleianlibs MS Auct F 2 13

Acton Town

Harrow on the Hill  station proved to be a rich source of inspiration for Adam @pseudomonas, with an image from our 'Taymouth Hours', ?London, c. 1325-50, Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 68v

Harrow on the hill, YT

Harrow on the Hill got a second outing in my personal favourite of the punning suggestions from @SLevelt, Sjoerd Levelt, with an image from our Speculum humanae salvationis, England, c.1485-1509, Harley MS 2838, f. 33v

  Harrow on the hill

Geoff Griffiths @Cheoffors offered both Baker Street/Baker's Treat and also Pudding Lane with this image from the Getty Museum @theGetty from a mid 13th-century psalter, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 14, f. 8v

 

Baker's treat

@Cheoffors also suggested a wonderful image for Heat-throw/Heathrow (All Terminals) from Codex Skylitzes Matritensis, Biblioteca Nacional de Madrid, Vitr. 26-2, Bild-Nr. 77, f.  34 v

  Heathrow

Richard Fitch @tudorcook was in playful mood with an image of Arsenal from @MorganLibrary's late 14th-century copy of Jacques de Longuyon's Vows of the Peacock, in MS G 24, f. 25v

 

Arsenal

And we also loved his suggestion for Hatch End from the Hague's MS MMW 10 B 25, f. 31r

Hatch end

 

 Commonplace Berk @stambuch was typically witty in his suggestion for Kilburn from the Bodleian Library's Douce MS 332. You can see his other suggestion here (caution advised). 

Kilburn

Others were more literal representations of the names of tube stations, like London Bridge (Mind the gap!) from @DollyJorgensen with an image from our Yates Thompson MS 47, a copy of John Lydgate's Life of Saint Edmund, made in ?Bury St Edmunds, c. 1461-75.

  London bridge

 

We are thrilled that the Getty Museum @thegetty took up our British challenge and suggested Seven Sisters from an image of Philosophy presenting the seven liberal arts to Boethius by the Coëtivy Master.

 
Seven sisters

 Geoff Griffiths @Cheoffors also used this image for High Barnet. For our non-British readers, 'barnet' is cockney rhyming slang for 'hair' (it comes from 'Barnet fair') and also means 'head'.

 High barnet

Rayners Lane, from Susannah Davis @aethelflaed was a very British suggestion, with a detail of Croesus from John Lydgate's Fall of Princes, ?Bury St Edmunds, c. 1450-60, Harley MS 1766, f. 133r

H 1766 f133r

And there was a bleak and brilliant humour to her suggestion for Amersham from Add MS 18851, the Breviary of Queen Isabella of Castile, made in Bruges in c. 1497. 

Amersham

Elephant and Castle  got a second outing from @SophieVHarwood with a detail of the death of Codrus, from Speculum humanae salvationis, England (London), c. 1485-1509, Harley MS 2838

H 2838 f27

C R Stillman-Lowe @SICathy sent us this lovely angel for, um, Angel from the 'Taymouth Hours', our Yates Thompson MS 13

  Angel

C R Stillman-Lowe @SICathy also tagged some bemused-looking barons for Barons Court, with a detail of Merlin standing before King Arthur, from the Lancelot-Grail (The Prose Vulgate Cycle), Northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai), 1316, Add MS 10292, f. 200v 

Tw Add 10292 f200v

@DollyJorgensen was on fine form, suggesting Hammersmith with detail of a blacksmith, from a fragmentary Book of Hours, England (London), c. 1320 - c. 1330, Harley MS 6563, f. 68   

H 6563 f68v

I loved some of the madder ones. Like this suggestion of Oval from Anthony Bale @RealMandeville. Yep, it's a wound. 

Oval

Our very own @julianpharrison gave us Fulham Broadway (or possibly Tott[ering]ham Court Road?). No we didn't get it either, but we thought we should put it up in any case to keep him happy. And it does depict a pig on stilts, from Jean Froissart's Chroniques (the 'Harley Froissart'), Low Countries (Bruges), c. 1470-1472, Harley MS 4379, f. 19v

H 4379 f19v

Finally, Erik Kwakkel @erik_kwakkel gave us a very witty suggestion which gestured to the history of our collection. He suggested Burnt Oak, with an image of some of the charred fragments of manuscripts destroyed in the Cotton Fire. You can read about the terrible fire which destroyed part of the library's Cotton collection here

Burnt oak

 Which are your favourite entries from #manuscriptthetube? We'd love to hear your suggestions: please tweet us @BLMedieval or leave a comment below this blogpost.

 ~@marywellesley

 

Related

 

Susan Reed @sureed67 reminded us that Saint Pancras was 'Beheaded by the Emperor. So you could say the King was Cross with St Pancras'. Find out more about who this king, or rather emperor, was and why he was cross with St Pancras,  by checking out our St Pancras' Day blog post).

Detail Royal 2 B VII f. 249v


Detail of St Pancras and the Emperor Diocletian, from Queen Mary Psalter, England (Westminster or East Anglia?), c. 1310-1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 249v

25 March 2016

Kassia: A Bold and Beautiful Byzantine Poet

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by Mary Wellesley & Peter Toth

It’s Women’s History Month and to celebrate we are running a series of posts about medieval women. Today’s focus is an enigmatic poet who lived in 9th-century Constantinople. Kassia (b. 805/810, d. 843x867) was courageous, highly educated and beautiful. She was so beautiful, in fact, that the Emperor of Constantinople - Emperor Theophilus (d. 842AD) - wanted her as his wife. Not taken with the idea of becoming Empress, Kassia rejected his advances and chose instead to become an abbess and poet.

Kassia came from a noble family and was well-educated. In a letter to her, Theodore the Studite (d. 826) - one of the most important theologians of the 9th century - wrote that he was ‘astonished’ by her erudition, especially in one so young. He went on, ‘the fair form of your discourse has far more beauty than a mere specious prettiness’.

Thoedore. PNG

Theodore the Studite (right) from the Theodore Pslater, Eastern Mediterranean, 1066, Add MS 19352, f. 27v

Yet it was her prettiness that caught the eye of the Emperor in the year 830 CE. In this year, according to a number of Byzantine chroniclers, Kassia appeared in a ‘Bride Show’. These were events in which commissioners were sent throughout the empire to find possible wives for the Emperor and would bring them back to Constantinople to be displayed (some historians dispute whether they actually happened). According to the chroniclers, at one such show, Theophilus saw Kassia and, struck by her beauty, remarked ‘Ach, what a flood of base things come through woman’. Kassia, surefooted, replied, ‘but also from woman better things spring’. Her response – both witty and candid – espouses the Christian idea that through the Virgin Mary, Jesus brought redemption to mankind.

After rejecting the hand of the Emperor, Kassia became a nun at a convent in Xerolophos, Constantinople’s seventh hill. There she became a prolific poet and composer. Of the hundreds of hymn composers from the Eastern Church, only four women can be positively identified and only one of these – Kassia -- had her works incorporated into official service books for use in church worship. She also wrote secular works. The British Library holds a collection of her epigrams. In it she displays her sharp mind and sharp wit. She speaks disparagingly of thoughtlessness, writing, ‘There is absolutely no cure for stupidity.’ She went on, ‘knowledge in a stupid person is a bell on a pig’s snout’.

Epigrams

Kassia's Epigrams from Works of Demetrius Cydones and others, Eastern Mediterranean, 16th Century, Add MS 10072, f.94r 

Kassia was also courageous. 9th-century Constantinople was rocked by fierce debate over the legitimacy of religious images, but just as she was unafraid to reject the advances of the Emperor, so too Kassia stood up to defend the veneration of the icons. In one of her verses she writes, ‘I hate silence when it is time to speak’. And her courage was not only demonstrated in her writing, but in her actions too. In another of his letters to her, Theodore thanks Kassia for helping one of his disciples who has been imprisoned by the authorities for his defence of icon-worship.

Iconoclasm

An image of the destruction of icons from the Theodore Psalter, Eastern Mediterranean, 1066, Add MS 19352, f. 88r 

Kassia’s best known and most popular work is a hymn for Holy Wednesday, in which she gives voice to a nameless woman from the gospels. The woman appears in an episode in the gospels, whereby Christ, dining in the house of a wealthy man, is anointed by a woman (Matthew 26: 6-13; Mark 14: 3-9), whom Luke describes as having led a sinful life (Luke 7: 36-50).

Annoint

The anointing of Christ's feet from Xanthopulus and Ephraem the Syrian, Eastern Mediterranean, 4th quarter of the 14th Century, Egerton MS 3157, f. 45v

A fine copy of Kassia’s poem survives in a 16th-century manuscript held by the British Library, where Kassia imagines the woman’s lament.

Kassia poem

Kassia's Hymn for Holy Wednesday, from a collection of Hymns and Canons, Eastern Mediterranean, 16th century, Add MS 39618, f. 8v

The text reads as follows:

"Woe is me, for the love of adultery surrounded me with darkness:

A lightless night of sin.

Accept the springs of my tears,

As you who disperse the waters of the sea From the clouds.

Bow down to the sighs of my heart,

As you bent the heavens, by your inapprehensible incarnation.

I kiss your purest feet and wipe them with my own tresses.

I kiss your feet whose tread Eve heard in Paradise

Where, frightened, she hid herself in fear.

Who can count the multitude of my sin and the depths of your judgment?

Wherefore, O my Saviour and the Redeemer of my soul

Do not turn away from your handmaiden, as your mercy is boundless."

(Translation modified and adapted from Anne M. Silvas, cited below.)

You can hear what Kassia’s poem probably sounded like here. Happy Women’s History Month!

@marywellesley

 

Further Reading:

Anna M. Silvas, ‘Kassia the Nun c.810-865: an Appreciation’, in Byzantine Women: Varieties of Experience 800-1200, ed. Lynda Garland (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), pp. 17-39.

Also In Our Series: 

Justifying Women Writers: A Medieval Poet Speaks Out

Heloise

Related:

The Books of Remarkable Women

Christine shrink

 

 

11 February 2016

The Earliest English Poet

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 Today is the feast day of Caedmon, the first known English poet. As well as being the first named poet in the English literary tradition, he is also a significant figure in the history of people who hate singing in public, people who develop new talents later in life, and of cowherds.

 Caedmon’s work and the story of his life are described in the Ecclesiastical History of English People written by the eighth-century monk, Bede. An eighth-century manuscript of this work-- which was possibly even copied at Bede’s own monastery of Monkwearmouth-Jarrow-- has recently been uploaded to our Digitised Manuscripts website as part of our Anglo-Saxon digitisation project. Sadly, it was damaged in the Ashburnham House fire in 1731, but it is still somewhat legible. In it, Bede gives us some biographical detail about Caedmon. Although we might imagine that English’s first poet would have been a highly educated individual, Caedmon was, in fact, a cowherd at the monastery of Whitby who did not take religious orders ‘until he was well advanced in years’. In this sense, Caedmon is a remarkable figure in Bede’s history, as he is one of the few non-elite figures to get a mention.


Cotton_ms_tiberius_a_xiv_f025r
Detail of initials from Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, England (Wearmouth-Jarrow?), mid-8th-early 9th century, Cotton Tiberius A XIV, ff. 25r

Little in Caedmon’s early life suggested that he might become one of the greatest poets of his age. Ever the retiring type, he was so shy about singing or speaking in public that, according to Bede, when people began singing at parties, he would leave ‘as soon as he saw the harp approaching him’ (Bede, Ecclesiastical History, iv.24).

Cotton_ms_tiberius_a_xiv_f144r
Page containing Bede’s account of Caedmon, from Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, England (Wearmouth-Jarrow?), mid-8th-early 9th century, Cotton Tiberius A XIV, ff. 144r

It was only later in life that he began to write verse and compose song. Bede recounts how one night, when he was sleeping in the cowshed, Caedmon had a vision. When he woke, he remembered the song he had sung in his dream, and astounded everyone at the abbey with his beautiful poetry. Later on, he would impress the monastery’s leaders, including the abbess St Hilda, with his capacity to compose verse on complex theological topics which the monks and nuns discussed with him. (Caedmon might make a suitable patron saint for interdisciplinary work.)

Unfortunately all but one of Caedmon’s poems are lost. The sole surviving example is known as Caedmon’s Hymn and survives in manuscripts of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. Some manuscripts provide a Latin translation, while others give a Latin translation and an Old English version. The different Old English versions use various regional dialects, including Northumbrian and West Saxon. One of the manuscripts containing the West Saxon version of this very precious literary fragment is British Library Cotton MS Otho B XI. The manuscript was unfortunately also damaged in the fire of 1731, but an early modern transcript of it survives (British Library Additional MS 43703). In Old and Middle English c. 890-c.1450, Elaine Treharne translates Caedmon's hymn into modern English as:

'Now we ought to praise the Guardian of the heavenly kingdom,

The might of the Creator and his conception,

The work of the glorious Father, as he of each of the wonders,

Eternal Lord, established the beginning.

He first created for the sons of men [children of earth in West Saxon version]

Heaven as a roof, holy Creator;

Then the middle-earth, the Guardian of mankind,

The eternal Lord, afterwards made

The earth for men, the Lord almighty.'

The hymn is a work in praise of God. It grabs the reader from its opening word ‘Nu’, meaning ‘Now’, making the poem feel immediate.  From there it proceeds to celebrate all of creation in a mere nine lines. Like all Old English verse, it uses musical alliteration. It closes, powerfully, with the word ‘allmectig’, ‘Almighty’, in praise of God.

Cotton_ms_tiberius_a_xiv_f079v


Detail of an initial from Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, England (Wearmouth-Jarrow?), mid-8th-early 9th century, Cotton Tiberius A XIV, ff. 79v

Bede’s point, in his story about Caedmon, is that poetry is transformational, mystical and god-given. For, according to Bede, ‘no other English poets could compare’ with Caedmon, the humble late-comer not trained by human teachers, whose poetry in turn transformed and inspired those who read it in the Anglo-Saxon period and beyond.

~ Mary Wellesley and Alison Hudson

 

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Monsters and Marvels in the Beowulf Manuscript

Read about one of the library's treasures, the Beowulf Manuscript, which contains the earliest epic poem in English literature as well as some monsters and marvels. 

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Anglo-Saxon Invasion

Read about important fragments of Old English which have been digitised by the library. 

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04 February 2016

Anglo-Saxon Chronicles Now Online

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We are pleased to announce that four of the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon Chronicle manuscripts have been digitised in full as part of our Anglo-Saxon manuscripts digitisation project and are now available on our Digitised Manuscripts website:

 

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'Always after that it grew much worse': end of the entry for 1066, from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D-text, England, mid-11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B IV, f. 80v 

The term ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ refers to a series of annalistic chronicles, arranged by year, which were written primarily in Old English between the 9th and 12th centuries. These annals record information on a huge variety of subjects from major battles and Viking invasions to famines and agricultural issues, from ecclesiastical restructurings to notes on the death of notable people from across Britain. Some annals even include poems about kings and battles. Although all the annals share some core text—the so-called ‘common stock’, which seems to have been compiled at some point during the reign of Alfred the Great— each text of the Chronicle has its own variations, omissions, and additions. It is therefore perhaps more correct to speak of ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicles’, as Simon Keynes has suggested.

The manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle are still known by the letters assigned to them in the 19th century. They are:

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle A: the earliest surviving copy, now Cambridge, Corpus Christ College, MS 173, contains entries written at different times between the 9th and early 11th centuries, with a 12th century continuation. It is sometimes known as the ‘Parker Chronicle’, after Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury, who gave large parts of his collection of manuscripts to the University of Cambridge and particularly to Corpus Christi College, whose Parker Library is named after him.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle B: Cotton MS Tiberius A VI, copied in the late 10th century. This chronicle covers the period between 60 BC and 977 AD. It is sometimes called the ‘Abingdon Chronicle’ or ‘Abingdon Chronicle I’ because one of its last entries refers to Abingdon. Along with the C- and D-texts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, it also contains a series of annals known as the ‘Mercian Register’, which recount the activities of Æthelflaed, lady of the Mercians, in the early 10th century. The Mercian Register provides an important contrast to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle itself, which focuses on the exploits of West Saxon kings, at the expense of other perspectives.

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Page with the start of the Mercian Register, from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle B-text , England, c.977-1000, Cotton MS Tiberius A VI, f. 30r

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle C: Cotton MS Tiberius B I, copied in the eleventh century and related to the B-text.

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Page from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle C-text, England, 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B I, f. 125r

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D: Cotton MS Tiberius B IV, copied in the mid-late eleventh century. The added information it contains about Worcester and York has led some scholars to suggest it was written in the North or based on a ‘Northern Recension.’

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Page with the start of the entry for 1016, from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D-text, England, mid-11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B IV, f. 66r

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle E: copied and compiled in the twelfth century at Peterborough Abbey, and sometimes known as the ‘Peterborough Chronicle’. It is currently in Oxford, Bodleian Library, Laud Misc 636.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle F: Cotton MS Domitian A VIII, written in the late 11th century at Christ Church, Canterbury. This is notable for being a bilingual version of the chronicle, with Latin versions of each annal following the Old English versions.

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Page from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle F-text, England (Canterbury), late 11th century, Cotton MS Domitian A VIII, f. 32r

Additionally, several fragments of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle survive, which are kept at the British Library. These include the G fragment (in Cotton MS Otho B IX and Cotton MS Otho B X), which seems to contain early entries but was burnt in the Ashburnham House fire of 1731. Additionally, H, also known as the Cottonian Fragments, is contained in Cotton MS Domitian A IX.

The British Library has also recently digitised a separate series of Easter table annals that were kept and compiled at Canterbury in the mid-and late-11th century. These annals notably did not mention the Norman Conquest, although a later hand added ‘Her co[m] Willelm’ to the annal for 1066.

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Detail from Easter Table Annals, England (Canterbury), late 11th century-12th century, Cotton MS Caligula A XV, f. 135r

All these manuscripts have had varied and colourful histories, which are reflected in the medieval additions and early modern annotations scattered throughout, and in the modern period some of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle manuscripts have been bound with other interesting texts which we have now digitised as well. These include the 11th-century copies of the Old English version of Orosius’s Historia adversus paganos and the poems Maxims II and the Menologium (in Cotton Tiberius B I); the earliest surviving fragments of the early twelfth-century Latin legal compilation Quadripartitus and a list of Welsh cantrefi (in Cotton Domitian A VIII); cartularies from Ely and Gloucester (in Cotton Tiberius A VI and Cotton Domitian A VIII, respectively); and a variety of anonymous late medieval and Anglo-Norman chronicles, all now available online.

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Scutum Dei Triangulum, England, mid-15th century, Cotton Domitian A VIII, f. 162r

~ Alison Hudson

21 July 2015

Codex Sinaiticus: New Perspectives on the Ancient Biblical Manuscript

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We are delighted to announce the publication of a new book, Codex Sinaiticus: New Perspectives on the Ancient Biblical Manuscript, edited by Scot McKendrick (Head of Western Heritage at the British Library), David Parker (Edward Cadbury Professor of Theology and Director of the Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing at the University of Birmingham), Amy Myshrall (Research Fellow at the Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing at the University of Birmingham) and Cillian O’Hogan (Curator of Classical and Byzantine Studies at the British Library).

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Codex Sinaiticus was produced in the middle of the fourth century, and is one of the two oldest Christian Bibles to survive largely intact from antiquity (the other being Codex Vaticanus in Rome). It is also the oldest complete copy of the New Testament in existence. Preserved for many centuries at St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai, it is now dispersed between four institutions: St Catherine’s Monastery, the British Library, Leipzig University Library, and the National Library of Russia.

The book consists of the proceedings of a conference held in 2009 to mark the launch of the Codex Sinaiticus website, and its publication marks the culmination of the Codex Sinaiticus Project. It contains twenty-two articles, dealing with all aspects of the manuscript and its history, divided into five sections: Historical Setting, the Septuagint, Early Christian Writings, Modern Histories of Codex Sinaiticus, and Codex Sinaiticus Today. Together with the extensive research to be found on the Codex Sinaiticus website, the book provides the most up-to-date information available about the manuscript. It includes a general index, an index of Biblical passages, a list of papyri and manuscripts, and numerous high-resolution images of Codex Sinaiticus.

Formally launched at an event at the British Library last night, the book is published by British Library Publishing in association with Hendrickson Publishers. It is available for purchase in the UK now from the British Library Shop, and will be available in the United States from Hendrickson this September.

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John 21:1-21:25. Codex Sinaiticus (Add MS 43725, f 260r), Eastern Mediterranean (?Palestine), mid-4th century.

- Cillian O’Hogan