Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

Introduction

What do Magna Carta, Beowulf and the world's oldest Bibles have in common? They are all cared for by the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section. This blog publicises our digitisation projects and other activities. Follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval. Read more

07 December 2022

From Julian of Norwich to Eleanor Cobham: more magnificent manuscripts online

Readers of this Blog may know about out ambitious project to digitise a selection of manuscripts, rolls and charters connected with Medieval and Renaissance Women. Here we reveal another ten volumes that are now available online, including important literary manuscripts, a guide for female recluses, obituary calendars, and a volume with its own embroidered bookbinding.

The opening page of the obituary calendar of the abbey of St Quirinus

The obituary calendar of the abbey of St Quirinus: Add MS 15456, f. 2r

This selection notably includes two complete copies of the Long Text of The Revelations of Divine Love by the English mystic Julian of Norwich (d. after 1416). Julian's work is an account of her reflections on a sequence of visions of the Crucified Christ, experienced while lying on her sickbed with a near-fatal illness in 1373. It survives in both a short and long version and represents one of the earliest known works in English by a named woman. Very few copies of Julian’s work now remain, and the only complete copies of the Long Text date from after the end of the medieval period. This includes both of our manuscripts (Sloane MS 2499 and Sloane MS 3705), which were made by English recusant nuns living in France in the 17th and 18th centuries.

A page of the manuscript of the Revelations of Divine Love

The Revelations of Divine Love (Long Text) by Julian of Norwich: Sloane MS 3705, f. 2v

Julian of Norwich was an anchoress, one of a number of medieval women who for religious reasons withdrew from secular society. Another manuscript included in the project is a work known as the Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous monastic rule (or manual) written for anchoresses. This work was originally composed in Middle English in the early 13th century, apparently for three sisters who chose to enter the contemplative life, but the text was also copied and translated into many languages, including Anglo-Norman French. One of the earliest translations survives as Cotton MS Vitellius F VII, where it appears as part of a compendium of devotional works and prayers. An inscription at the back of the volume indicates that it was once owned by Eleanor Cobham (b. c. 1400, d. 1452), Duchess of Gloucester, who was infamously sentenced to life imprisonment after she was charged with necromancy.

The fire-damaged manuscript of Ancrene Wisse

The opening of the Anglo-Norman version of Ancrene Wisse, damaged in the Ashburnham House fire of 1731: Cotton MS Vitellius F VII, f. 2r

Another significant manuscript now online is the Felbrigge Psalter (Sloane MS 2400). This 13th-century Psalter is named after one of its later owners, Anne Felbrigge, a nun from the Franciscan abbey of the Annunciation of St Mary, Bruisyard (Suffolk), who signed her name in the book and added the obits (death-days) of her mother and father in the Psalter’s calendar. Anne may also have been responsible for the manuscript’s beautiful embroidered binding (dated c. 1300–1330), handstitched in coloured silks and silver gilt thread, with panels depicting scenes of the Annunciation and Crucifixion on the upper and lower covers. This binding is one of the earliest embroidered examples known to survive.

The upper cover of the Felbrigge Psalter

The upper cover of the ‘Felbrigge Psalter’, featuring an embroidered panel depicting the Annunciation: Sloane MS 2400

Many of the manuscripts in the project were made by female scribes. One is a copy of the Vitae Patrum et Verbis Seniorum (Lives and Sayings of the Fathers), an encyclopaedic work comprised of writings on the Desert Fathers and Desert Mothers of early Christianity. This manuscript (Add MS 22562) was written in 1449 by two scribes, Ava Trici and Gheeza Ysenoud, nuns of the convent of St Margaret at Gouda, who identify themselves in a closing note at the end of the text. In a delightful detail, the two sisters explain that they were given the parchment for the volume by a certain Nicolaus de Wyt, prior of the nearby Augustinian convent of St Michael in Schoonhaven.

The opening page of a manuscript written by two nuns at Gouda

The opening of the Vitae Patrum et Verbis Seniorum, written by Ava Trici and Gheeza Ysenoud: Add MS 22562, f. 2r

This volume was one of at least 70 housed at St Margaret’s by the end of the medieval period. Another manuscript digitised in our project is the convent’s chapter book (Harley MS 2939). The manuscript opens with a necrology, or obituary calendar, inscribed with the names of many of the community’s members, and to be consulted at the convent's daily chapter meetings.

The obituary calendar of the abbey of Gouda

A page from the obituary calendar of the chapter book of St Margaret’s, Gouda: Harley MS 2939, f. 5r

At the beginning of the project, we invited our readers to suggest manuscripts they were keen to be digitised. Among the requests were for us to include items relating to the economic management of female religious houses. Two such items are a census and a list of rents and payments (Add MS 21072 and Add MS 21177) owed to St Mary Magdalene’s Abbey in Cologne, a house of sisters of the Penitential Order of Mary Magdalene. This Order was established as a refuge for former sex-workers, an act that caused outrage at the time.

A page from the Cologne census

A page from the census of St Mary Magdalene’s Abbey in Cologne: Add MS 21072, f. 8r

Here is a list of the most recent items to have gone online:

Add MS 15456

Obituary calendar of the Abbey of St Quirinus, Neuss

Neuss (Germany), 1421–17th century

Add MS 21072

Census of St Mary Magdalene’s Abbey, Cologne

Cologne (Germany), 2nd half of the 14th century–1st half of the 15th century

Add MS 21177

Revenues and expenses of St Mary Magdalene’s Abbey, Cologne

Cologne (Germany), late 13th century

Add MS 22562

Vitae Patrum et Verbis Seniorum, written by Ava Trici and Gheeza Ysenoud

Gouda (Netherlands), 1449

Cotton MS Vitellius F VII

Ancrene Riwle and other texts

England, 1st quarter of the 14th century

Harley MS 2939

Chapter book of the convent of St Margaret in Gouda

Gouda (Netherlands), 3rd quarter of the 15th century

Royal MS 19 C VII

Geoffroy de la Tour-Landry, Le Livre du Chevalier de la Tour-Landry

Northern France, middle of the 15th century

Sloane MS 2400

'The Felbrigge Psalter'

Northern France, 2nd quarter of the 13th century–3rd quarter of the 13th century

Sloane MS 2499

Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love (Long Text)

Cambrai or Paris (France), c. 1650

Sloane MS 3705

Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love (Long Text)

Cambrai or Paris (France), 1st half of the 18th century

The opening page of Le Livre du Chevalier de la Tour Landry

The decorated opening of Le Livre du Chevalier de la Tour Landry: Royal MS 19 C VII, f. 1r

Stay tuned for more updates from our project as we continue to digitise more manuscripts. We are very grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for supporting Medieval and Renaissance Women.

 

Calum Cockburn

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

03 December 2022

The emperor and the Sun King

As the creator of one of the first and largest multicultural empires of the ancient world, Alexander the Great inspired generations of later rulers to follow his example. Soon after his death in 324 BC, his successors used his legacy to legitimise their own rule. Some of them put Alexander’s portrait on their coins, others fashioned their own portraits to look like him, hoping to be regarded as his heirs and descendants.

Face of Alexander the Great in profile. Rams horns are visible through his hair

Alexander’s face with the horns of the god Ammon, on the tetradrachm of Lysimachus, Alexander’s successor as King of Thrace (305 BC–281 BC): British Museum, 1841,B.506.

As legends about Alexander and his conquests spread in the ancient Mediterranean, new leaders were inspired by his legacy. In 62 BC, when serving as the young governor of Spain (Hispania Ulterior), Julius Caesar read Alexander’s histories in his free time. According to his biographer Plutarch, Caesar burst into tears, lamenting that, 'while Alexander, at my age was king of so many people, I have achieved no brilliant success'. Later, Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, was so deeply indebted to Alexander’s legacy that he made a pilgrimage to his tomb in Alexandria.

Augustus_at_the_Tomb_of_Alexander_-_Courtois_1878

Gustave Claude Étienne Courtois, Emperor Augustus at Alexander’s Tomb in Alexandria (1878): Vesoul, Musée Georges-Garret (Wikimedia Commons)

As the glory of Alexander gathered momentum in the Middle Ages, he was made one of the Nine Worthies, a group of half-mythical heroes associated with military success and just leadership. In the 16th century, as the more legendary aspects of Alexander’s legacy faded, he became regarded as a talented statesman and politician, being invoked in English royal propaganda as well as by the French monarchy.

In the 17th century, Louis XIV, one of the most powerful French monarchs (often called the 'Sun King'), loved to compare himself to Alexander the Great. At the peak of his rule in the 1660s, Louis's identification with Alexander strongly influenced his style of kingship.

Alexander the Great standing in a chariot drawn by two elephants as he makes his triumphant entry into the Persian capital of Babylon

Charles Le Brun, Entry of Alexander into Babylon (1665): Musée du Louvre (Wikimedia Commons

In 1661, Louis commissioned a series of enormous paintings from his court painter, Charles Le Brun (1619–1690). The five paintings executed by Le Brun were meant to be designs for Gobelin tapestries, to be woven in Paris and hung in the royal palace. Le Brun’s canvases represented Alexander’s greatest military successes: the defeat of Porus in India, the battle at Granicus and Arbela, and the clemency of Alexander to the family of Darius, the defeated Persian emperor. Le Brun emphatically identified Alexander with Louis: the ancient hero has the facial features of the French king in all of these paintings.

Open book image. Printed book. This opening shows Jean Racine’s dedication of his play Alexandre le Grand to Louis XIV

Jean Racine dedicated his play Alexandre le Grand to Louis XIV, comparing him to Alexander as the wisest king on Earth (Paris: Pierre Trabouillet, 1672): British Library, C.30.a.20.

Louis’s aspiration to become the new Alexander went beyond the figurative art he commissioned. In his 1665 tragedy Alexandre le Grand, Jean Racine, Louis’s court playwright, addressed the king as a monarch 'whose fame spreads just as far as Alexander’s'. In addition to his political and military achievements, Louis was a talented dancer who often performed in courtly celebrations. In the grand ballet La Naissance de Venus, authored by Isaac Benserad (1613–1691) with music by Jean Baptiste Lully (1632–1687), Louis danced the role of Alexander on the stage.

Page from a printed book

Louis XIV performing Alexander the Great in the Ballet Royal de la naissance de Vénus: dansé par sa Majesté (Paris: Robert Ballard, 1665): British Library 839.e.2.(8.), p. 54

Louis’s propaganda, portraying himself as the Alexander of his time, reached beyond his own court. The artwork, literature and music identifying him with the Greek hero spread to other European countries. Racine’s tragedy was followed by various Alexander plays in western Europe. Le Brun’s enormous paintings were also adapted for wider circulation. His Alexander compositions were woven in tapestries and purchased by European royalty, including George I of England, who placed them in the Queen’s Gallery at Hampton Court Palace.

Alexander’s Entry to Babylon, Alexander in a elephant drawn chariot

Alexander’s Entry to Babylon, woven silk and wool tapestry (early 18th century): Royal Collections Trust RCIN 1079 

The image of Louis as Alexander spread far and wide. A fan from late 17th-century Italy represents Alexander’s triumphal entry into Babylon based on Le Brun’s painting in the Louvre. The composition of the painting was adapted to the curved shape of the fan by shifting the trophy-bearers to the far right. The artist emphasised the identification of Louis and Alexander by replacing the yellow cloak that Alexander wore in Le Brun’s painting with a striking blue one, traditionally associated with the French monarchy.

Alexander’s entry into Babylon, Alexander is in an elephant drawn chariot

Alexander’s entry into Babylon, on a folding fan (Italy, 1690–1700): Victoria and Albert Museum, no. 2276-1876.

The fascination of Louis XIV with Alexander the Great, resulting in some of the finest art and literary works of his time, is one of the many entangled aspects of Alexander’s afterlife across two millennia. Join us to explore these incredible adventures in the British Library exhibition Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, until 19 February 2023, or explore more online at bl.uk/alexander-the-great.

 

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for supporting the exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors.

29 November 2022

The Lady of Las Huelgas

On 31 December 1313, infanta doña Blanca of Portugal (b. 1259, d. 1321), the first-born daughter of Alfonso III, King of Portugal (r. 1238–1248), and granddaughter of Alfonso X the Wise, King of Castile (r. 1252–1284), made charitable donations to various religious houses, churches and hospitals in Castile. Collectively, her donations amounted to over 20,000 maravedís (the currency of the Castilian Kingdom), a small fortune at the time. The details of Blanca’s grants are recorded in a document housed at the British Library (Add Ch 24806), written in Spanish and affixed with her personal seal. This is one of three original charters made at the time. The others are now in the Archivo de la Catedral de Burgos and the Archivo del Monasterio de Las Huelgas respectively. The charter held at the British Library has recently been digitised as part of our Medieval and Renaissance Women project and it can now be viewed online for the first time.

The charter of Blanca of Portugal

Grant of Doña Blanca of Portugal: Add Ch 24806

The principal beneficiary listed in the charter is the Cistercian abbey of Las Huelgas de Burgos, a royal foundation established by the Castilian king, Alfonso VIII (r. 1158–1214), and Leonor Plantagenet (b. 1160, d. 1214), his wife. From its foundation, Las Huelgas was known as a female convent with strong ties to royal women. Many members of the Castilian royal family professed there as nuns, and some of them performed the role of the Lady or señora of the Abbey.

The particularities of this role changed throughout the centuries, but fundamentally it allowed royal women to hold influence over the abbey and to ensure its preeminent position as a religious and economic centre in the kingdom. The responsibility for the abbey’s religious rule and day-to-day running remained with the abbess. Blanca became the Lady of Las Huelgas in 1295, after professing as a nun at the monastery at the request of her uncle, King Sancho IV (r. 1284–1295).

Blanca

A portrait of Blanca (her name is spelled 'BRANCA') in the ‘Portuguese Genealogies’ (16th century): Add MS 12531/3, f. 9r

Blanca gave generous sums of money to the women of Las Huelgas. Her charter includes detailed instructions of how much money each woman was to receive yearly:

A la abbadesa, dozientos maravedís; a cada una de las monjas, çient maravedís, a cada una de las que fueren para monjas, setenta marevedís; a cada una de las freyras, quarenta maravedís; a cada una de las que fueren para freyras, veynte e çinco marevedís. E mando que den cada anno a tres para ser monjas a cada una trezientos maravedís.

‘To the abbess, 200 maravedís; to each nun, 100 maravedís; to each novice, 70 maravedís; to each freyra [a type of nun], 40 maravedís; to each woman preparing to be a freyra, 25 maravedís. And I order that every year they give to three women who want to join the convent as nuns 300 maravedís’.

Photograph of the abbey of Las Huelgas de Burgos

The abbey of Santa María la Real de Las Huelgas, Burgos, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The other significant beneficiary of Blanca’s donations was the nearby Hospital del Rey. Like the abbey of Las Huelgas, the Hospital del Rey had been founded in the 12th century by King Alfonso VIII and Queen Leonor, and its connection with the royal family continued throughout the medieval period. The hospital received 6,000 maravedís in Blanca’s bequests, to be spent on the care and nursing of the poor, as well as to buy livestock to feed them. Many other religious institutions also benefited from Blanca's grant, including the church of Santa María in Burgos, the church of Santa María in Briviesca, the monastery of Santa Clara of Alcocer in Guadalajara, the monastery of Santo Domingo de Caleruega in Burgos, as well as the lepers of San Lázaro and the ‘emparedadas’ (anchorites) in Burgos.

A map of the beneficiaries of Blanca’s donations

A map of the beneficiaries of Blanca’s donations, courtesy of ArcGIS StoryMaps

Blanca’s donations were an attempt to guarantee her personal legacy and spiritual salvation. Alongside her grants, she provided specific instructions about how she wanted to be remembered by the religious community of Las Huelgas, where she was buried after her death in 1321. Most notably, she arranged for the sisters to commemorate the vigil and the anniversary of her death with 12 wax candles every year, which were to weigh exactly 10 pounds (‘cada çirio de diez libras de cera’). On the anniversary itself, the monastery had to distribute food-alms to the poor, made up of bread, wine and meat. During the year, eight chaplains had to give prayers for Blanca’s soul every day.

Tomb

The tomb of Blanca of Portugal at Las Huelgas, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Blanca’s grant functioned as a display of the piety and patronage expected from a royal infanta and the Lady of Las Huelgas. It also demonstrates how, through their donations, women were able to change the social and economic landscape of the territories over which they ruled.

The seal of Blanca of Portugal

Blanca of Portugal’s fragmentary seal: Add Ch 24806

We are extremely grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for their generous funding of Medieval and Renaissance Women. We will publish more updates about the project on this Blog over the coming months.

 

Paula Del Val Vales

@BLMedieval