THE BRITISH LIBRARY

European studies blog

3 posts categorized "Medieval history"

07 December 2017

Magic in the inventories

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The medieval archives of the Crown of Aragon are generally said to be richer than those of neighbouring Castile. They’re an invaluable source for scholars of all aspects of cultural history, including the history of the book.

And of weird stuff.

In the inventory of the goods of Martin I (1356-1410) we find the following treasures: the arm of St George (p. 461); ditto St Barbara (461); and he must have had over 100 pieces of church vestments.

He had the Cid’s sword:

item una spasa ab son pom de jaspi apellada ne tisona sens fouro bo (p. 524)
[Item a sword with a jasper pommel called The Tizona without a good scabbard]

He had a piece of cloth decorated with the magical sign or seal or knot of Solomon:

primo una tovallola de lens prim brodada de fil d aur e de sede de diverses colors ab .IIII. baboyns de fil d or e de sede en mig VII. senyals salamons squinsada (p. 507)
[first, a fine linen cloth embroidered with gold thread and silk in various colours with four baboons in gold thread in the middle of seven signs of Solomon, torn]

Seal of Solomon

A version of the seal of Solomon from Pertus de Abano, Claviculae Salomonis, seu Philosophia pneumatica … (Bifingen, 1974). X.529/17795

Even these apparently harmless references to items showing the Armed Man turn out, as explained by Joan Evans, in her study, Magical Jewels of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance particularly in England, to be amulets: “in many instances those [stones] that include figures of armed men confer courage and victory in battle” (p. 49), “for alectorias, for instance, the sigil of an armed knight and consecration by nine masses is prescribed” (p. 71):

item una bossa de vellut carmesi dins la qual ha Ia empremte o ymatge pocha de I. hom qui te una spasa en la ma e un cap tellat en l altre ab un cordo de seda vermeya (p. 491)
[item a bag of carmine velvet in which is a small impression or image of a man with a sword in one hand and a detached head in the other with a red cord]

Ebermayer Gems

 Carved gems for use as amulets, from, Johann Martin von Ebermayer, Capita Deorum et illustrium hominum ... nec non Hieroglyphica, Abraxea et Amuleta quædam, in gemmis antiqua partim, partim recenti manu, affabre incisa (Frankfurt, 1721). 139.g.11.

There are nine or so references to “serpents’ teeth”. These were actually prehistoric arrow heads or fossils, and were used to test food for poison. Martin had some mounted on a branching piece of coral, to form what in English we call by the French name of languier:

item diversos trosos de branchas d coral ab algunes lengues de serps encastades en argent (p. 528)
[item various pieces of coral branches with some serpent’s teeth set in silver]

Coral was used as a teething ring, because it too was thought to have protective powers:

item una brancha de coral ab una virolla d argent per a portar a infants (p. 490)
[item a coral branch with a golden ring for children to wear]

And how could he fail to have:

item .I. tros de unicorn encastat en .I.a virolla d aur ab son cordo vermey (p. 541)
[item a piece of unicorn set in a gold ring with its red cord]

As Roca tells us, citing a letter of 1379, unicorn horn too was proof against poison : “la qual val contra verí” (p. 54).

Unicorns Pomet

 Unicorns, from Pierre Pomet, Histoire générale des Drogues, traitant des plantes, des animaux et des mineraux (Paris, 1694) 37.h.7.

Martin wasn’t some dark-age wizard who crammed his palace with superstitious rubbish, although he might have been unduly afraid of poisoning. He was also a patron of medical schools in the modern sense, and it’s likely many of these gewgaws were family heirlooms, as they also appear in the inventory of James II (1267-1327), his great grandfather. And these old beliefs died hard and in the 1720s the existence of the unicorn was still a matter of debate.

Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Studies

References:

J. Massó Torrents, ‘Inventari del bens del rey Martí d’Aragó’, Revue Hispanique, 12 (1905), 413-590. PP.4331.aea

J. M. Roca, La medicina catalana en temps del Rey Martí (Barcelona, 1919) YA.1990.a 16394

Joan Evans, Magical Jewels of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance particularly in England (Oxford, 1922) W2/7263

You can discover many more magical artefacts in our current exhibition Harry Potter: a History of Magicwhich runs until 28 February 2018

13 November 2017

Magic swords just aren’t cricket

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Did you have to hand in your wand when you came to the British Library to see Harry Potter: A History of Magic? There’s a reason for that.

When Arnau de Cabrera entered judicial combat with Bernat de Centelles in Barcelona in 1274, both parties had to declare before King Jaume I “I swear I am carrying no magical weapons” [quod non deferebant aliquid quod haberet virtutem].

Swords combat Harley 4418 f56

Mediaeval knights in combat from Jean d'Arras, Roman de Mélusine, c. 1450. MS Harley 4418, f. 56.

Arnau de Cabrera however denounced his opponent for bearing the sword of Vilardell: no-one who bore it could be defeated or killed [“portavit ensem de Villardello, qui quidem ensis habet virtutem ut nullus subcumbere vel superari possit qui illum in bello detulerit”]. It also had the quality that if it was put point down it righted itself.

Apparently, Bernat’s father, like any good parent, had bought the sword for him for 500 maravedis. He had also asked the Prior of St Paul’s in Barcelona for a shirt which again prevented its owner from being vanquished in battle.

And what’s more Bernat was wearing an iron cap which contained a precious stone called diamas, supplied by his brother Gilabert: the bearer’s bones could not be broken.

The king found for Arnau.

The Sword of Vilardell acquired its powers because it was forged at a particularly propitious astrological conjunction.

Swords Villardel and Griffin
Relief from Barcelona Cathedral showing Vilardell fighting a griffin with his magical sword. (Photograph by Pere López from Wikimedia Commons.

The sword’s original owner, Vilardell, went out one day with an ordinary sword to cut wood. He did a kind deed for a poor man who replaced his old sword with a new one and then disappeared. Vilardell tested the new sword by splitting a rock with it (still to be seen) and then slayed a dragon. So in the early accounts it was a holy weapon not a magic one.

The sword eventually found its way to the Musée de l’Armée  in Paris, where you can see it.

Virtually nobody in the Middle Ages doubted the existence of magic, or its efficacy. What the Church for instance objected to was the use of magic for evil ends.

Modern-day surveillance equipment will (hopefully) pick up any concealed weapons, but magic ones (and I don’t want to alarm you) might be beyond its reach.

Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Studies

References/Further reading

Martí de Riquer, Llegendes històriques catalanes (Barcelona, 2000) YA.2001.a.38498

Robert Bartlett, Trial by Fire and Water: The Medieval Judicial Ordeal (Oxford, 1988) YC.1988.a.7138

Sword

 

18 July 2016

Three symbols of Franco’s Spain

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80 years ago today, on 18 July 1936, Spanish generals, later led by Francisco Franco, staged an uprising . By 1 April 1939 what became the Spanish Civil War was over and Franco made a triumphal entry into Madrid. Three years of war and 40 years of dictatorship (the Generalísimo finally died on 20 November 1975) turned Spain from what had been a progressive republic with a programme of mass literacy and the most liberal divorce laws in Europe to a pseudo-medieval dictatorship, priest-ridden, vindictive and subject to famine.

Regressive regimes often look back into history to legitimise themselves, and Franco’s was no exception. The regime’s appropriation of three historical symbols is described below:

1. Yugo y flechas

Francoism – motto [España] ‘Una, grande, libre’ – looked back with nostalgia to the time of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic Monarchs, who united Castile and Aragon by marriage in 1469 and won Granada from the Moors in 1492. What better emblem for the new-old Spain than the Yugo y flechas, Yoke and arrows?

Yugo y flechas 1504 Rationale

 Coat of arms with the yoke and arrows motif from a 16th-century Rationale divinorum officiorum (Granada, 1504) 1474.dd.9.

The Gordian knot, attached to a broken cord, signifying that the end justified the means, was juxtaposed with the arrows bound together, a version of the Roman fasces (unity is strength).

It also represented the initials Y (Yoke-Yugo-Ysabel) and F (Arrows-Flechas-Fernando).

9043ff30 inscribed page

Inscribed half-title page of Candido G.Ortiz de Villajos, De Sevilla a Madrid: ruta libertadora de la columna Castejón (Granada, 1937) 9043.ff.30, showing the yoke and arrows.

The appeal to the political strongman of the 20th century is obvious.

After the Civil War, and when I first saw Madrid in 1975, it was everywhere – banknotes, public buildings, etc. It was added to the flag.

Yugo y flechas postcard
Spanish postcard from the 1970s showing the arms of different cities surrounding the national arms with yoke and arrows

A law of 2007  called for the removal of Francoist insignia.

2. El Cid

There’s the Cid of history, the Cid of literature and the Cid of Franco.

The historical Cid, Rodrigo [Ruy] Díaz de Vivar (ca. 1043-1099),won Valencia from the Moors. He was probably neither more or less cruel than any other medieval knight.

His deeds are sung in the Cantar de Mio Cid (circa 1207). Here he’s praised for his moderation. His motivation is political rather than ideological: he’s no culture hero fighting for Spanish Christian values against the Moor: Moors and Christians are both his allies and his enemies.

Cid 1541

Title-page of Cronica del muy esforçado cauallero el Cid ruy diaz campeador ([Seville], 1541). C.39.g.5

The domestic element is strong in the Cantar: The Cid takes revenge on his son-in-law princes who batter his daughters, and this was extended by Guillén de Castro (and hence Corneille in Le Cid, who focus on his marriage.

Monumento_al_Cid_(Burgos)

 Statue of The Cid by Cristóbal González Quesada in Burgos, unveiled by Franco in 1955. (Picture by ElCaminodeSantiago09 2006 via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 2.0)

Quite a benevolent figure. But by 1939 he has regressed and has become as primitive as Franco himself, a symbol of a unified Christian Spain fighting the Crusade, which was what the Francoists called the Civil War.

Dos Claves tp 

  Dos Claves dedication
Title page, with the date 1939 designated ‘year of victory’ and dedication to Franco – ‘il Caudillo – in Darío Fernández Flórez, Dos claves históricas: Mío Cid y Roldán (Madrid, 1939) 11864.b.35.

3. Isabel the Catholic

She and Fernando of Aragon married in 1469: Castile and Aragon were united in person but were separate kingdoms with their own laws until 1715.

Theirs was a magnificent court, full of latter-day troubadours and Latin humanists and decorated with Flemish primitives. And obviously their reign founded various institutions of the modern state: they patronised the introduction of printing, exempting imported books from tax in 1477 ‘Because foreign and Spanish merchants have recently brought in many good books, which redound to universal benefit and the ennobling of our kingdom ...’.

And Nebrija dedicated the first Spanish grammar to Isabella.

Nebrija Grammar

 Dedication to Isabella on the first page of Antonio de Nebrija, Gramatica Castellana (Salamanca, 1492) IA.52814.

It’s only fair to point out that the Catholic Monarchs were not wholly benevolent or modern in outlook: they also ordered the expulsion of the Jews  in 1492.

By 1939 the Queen had regressed. Franco made her the model of the 20th-century Catholic wife and mother, ready to make every sacrifice for church and state: she was said to have sold or pawned her jewels to finance the voyages of Columbus, and swore not to change her chemise until Granada was delivered from the Moor. In 1958 he tried to have her canonised.

10635.3.16 tp
César Silió Cortés, Isabel la Católica, fundadora de España (Valladolid, 1938) 10635.e.16

This life of the Queen draws parallels between the contemporary situation in Spain and her reign. For César Silió Cortés, Isabel’s reign saw 

the transformation worked in Spain as an already decadent age was being replaced by a new one, with its roots in the past [...] made gay with plumes of youthful growth, swelling with plans of growth and expansion. [...]

His book had been begun with the intention of studying these great changes – a revolution from above – in tranquility, but

the fates have wished it to be written amid the clamour and horrors of another revolution undertaken by the canaille of the river beds, in which Spain continues to be bled dry as the author writes these lines and whose significance will be given to us by the future [...]

Barry Taylor, Curator Hispanic Studies