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

29 October 2020

Byland Abbey ghost stories: a guide to medieval ghosts

On an overcast day in October, the ruins of Byland Abbey in North Yorkshire seem just the place to meet a medieval ghost. Nestled beneath the towering crags of Sutton Bank, the crumbled walls are pensive with memories and secrets. The dramatic outline of a rose window gapes into the sky as though crying out from a past long distant but not wholly dead. Fittingly enough, it was here that a monk wrote down one of the most important collections of ghost stories to survive from medieval Europe.

A photograph of the ruins of Byland Abbey
The ruins of Byland Abbey, North Yorkshire, photo by Eleanor Jackson

The stories, twelve in total, were written in the early 15th century on the blank pages of a manuscript containing a collection of rhetorical and theological works, now British Library Royal MS 15 A XX (ff. 140v-143 and ff. 163v-164v). Despite being written in Latin, the language of the Church, the stories are mostly set among the rural communities of North Yorkshire. They are full of references to real local places, names of people and everyday details. Their clear local roots and lack of narrative structure gives them the feeling of folktales and hearsay.

A Latin edition of the stories was published by the great manuscript scholar and horror writer M.R. James in 1922, and English translations are available by A.J. Grant (1924), and Saint Anselm College (2014). But for anyone who hasn’t time to read the stories in full (or doesn’t dare), we’ve condensed the key points into this helpful guide to medieval ghosts. Perhaps it will come in handy this Halloween...

Medieval manuscript page written with ghost stories from Byland Abbey
A page from the Byland Abbey ghost stories, early 15th century: Royal MS 15 A XX, f. 141r

What are medieval ghosts?

The ghosts in the Byland stories are not the evil forces which seek to harm humanity in many modern horror tales. They are mostly people from the community who have died without confessing sins, righting wrongs or otherwise preparing for a ‘good death’. The ghosts cannot get to heaven until these issues have been resolved, so they rise from their graves to seek help from the living.

An illustration in a medieval manuscript of a man, lying in bed, being speared by the figure of Death, accompanied by a monk and Christ
An illustration of a medieval ‘good death’. A man in bed is struck by the figure of death, while a monk at his side urges him to ‘pray Christ thy soule to save’, and Christ promises ‘mercie thou shall have’. The Carthusian Miscellany, England (Yorkshire or Lincolnshire), 1460-1500: Add MS 37049, f. 38v

The sins in question tend to be relatively mundane. Story IX tells of a ghost whose crime is ‘a matter of a sixpence’. In Story VI, the ghost of a canon of Newburgh Priory is tormented for stealing silver spoons. In Story VII, a hired hand is punished for overindulging his oxen, feeding them on his master’s corn and letting them plough the land too shallowly.

The ghosts try a variety of tactics for persuading people to help. Story I tells of an enterprising ghost in the area of Rievaulx who helps carry a sack of beans in return for absolution. In Story III, the rather forlorn ghost of Robert of Kilburn wanders around the village at night, standing at windows and doors, waiting to see if anyone would come out and help. Eventually the priest hears his confession and he is able to rest in peace.

What do ghosts look like?

The Byland ghost stories include some wonderfully gruesome descriptions of the ghosts' appearances. They are clearly envisioned as decaying corpses, rather like modern zombies. In Story III, the ghost speaks not with his tongue but from the inside of his bowels, which are hollow and echoing like an empty cask. The shortest tale, Story V, tells of a man who witnesses a woman carrying a ghost on her back, when ‘he saw the hands of the woman sink deeply into the flesh of the ghost as though the flesh were rotten and not solid but phantom flesh’.

The appearance of these ghosts was clearly influenced by the art of the period. In Story II, the ghost appears ‘in the likeness of a man of great stature, horrible and thin, like one of the dead kings in pictures’—a reference to the popular imagery of the Three Living and the Three Dead Kings.

Medieval miniature of three living kings confronted by three dead kings
A miniature of the Three Living and the Three Dead Kings, from the De Lisle Psalter, England (East Anglia), c. 1308–c. 1340: Arundel MS 83, f. 127v (detail)

However, the Byland ghosts are also able to shape-shift and they appear in such assorted forms as: a horse, a revolving hay-cock with a light in the middle, a raven with sparks of fire shooting from its sides, a dog, a she-goat, a bullock without a mouth or eyes or ears, and a revolving piece of canvas (perhaps a precursor to the classic white sheet?).

What should you do if you meet a ghost?

The best thing to do in this situation is to talk to the ghost and find out what it wants. Ghosts aren’t able to speak to living people unless someone conjures them, which involves calling them to speak in the name of God. But if you are planning on meeting with ghosts, you may wish to bring protection. In Story II, when Snowball the tailor goes to keep an appointment with a ghost, he draws a magic circle around himself and uses an array of amulets.

A medieval picture of a necromancer in a magic circle
A picture of a necromancer in a magic circle, from John Lydgate’s The Pilgrimage of the Life of Man, England, 2nd quarter of the 15th century: Cotton MS Tiberius A VII/1, f. 44r (detail)

The worst thing you can do if you meet a ghost is to try to resist it. Snowball the tailor finds that his attempts to repel the ghost with his sword are completely ineffectual: it just feels like he’s striking a peat-stack. In Story IX, a ghost follows a man for 80 miles, throws him over a hedge and catches him on the other side. When the man finally speaks to the ghost, it tells him ‘If you’d conjured me in the first place, I wouldn’t have hurt you’.

How do you get rid of a ghost?

The best way to get rid of a ghost is to help it out. In most of the stories, the ghosts will quietly rest in peace once their unfinished business has been resolved. However, some ghosts are more troublesome. Story IV tells of the particularly malevolent ghost of James Tankerlay, rector of Cold Kirby, who walks from his grave at night and blows out the eye of his former mistress. The monks of Byland Abbey take action by having his corpse exhumed and cast into the present-day popular wild swimming spot, Lake Gormire.

Several other stories also hint that ghosts are averse to water: in Story I, the ghost will not cross the river, and in Story II, the ghost screams at the suggestion of meeting by Hodge Beck. This trope of supernatural creatures being unable to cross water has persisted into modern literature such as Dracula and Lord of the Rings.

A medieval miniature of a lady encountering the figure of death in a graveyard
A miniature of Death and the lady, from a Book of Hours, France, c. 1480-90: Harley MS 2865, f. 86r

The Byland ghost stories give us a glimpse of the kinds of tales that were probably once widespread but were rarely written down. They reveal medieval people’s very real fear of death and the uncertainties of what lay beyond, but also a surprising compassion for the undead.

So next time you hear something go bump in the night, don’t be afraid. Chances are the ghost won’t try to throw you over a hedge or do anything more sinister—it just needs a willing ear and a helping hand.

Eleanor Jackson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval


Further reading

For the Latin text, see:

M.R. James, 'Twelve Medieval Ghost-Stories', The English Historical Review, 37 (1922), pp. 413-22.

For English translations, see:

A.J. Grant, 'Twelve Medieval Ghost Stories', The Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, 27 (1924), pp. 363-79.

Byland Abbey ghost stories project, Saint Anselm College.

21 October 2020

Angels in Manuscripts

Angels pop up all over the place in medieval manuscripts, from Books of Hours to handbooks on magic. They are key players in Old and New Testament stories and feature in decorative borders. Join us for a tour of some of the wonderful images of angels in British Library manuscripts and the many varied contexts in which they appear.

Angelology

An illustrated treatise by Francesc Eiximenis discusses the properties of angels, for instance ‘How an angelic spirit has no body and yet it can take on corporeal form by entering a body’ and the characteristics of good and bad angels. Each man and woman must choose between the angels’ path of goodness and the evil ways of the devil, as shown in this miniature below.

Illuminated manuscript with an picture of a guardian angel guiding a man away from the devil
A guardian angel guides a man away from the devil, in the Livre des anges, a French translation of Francesc Eiximenis, Llibre dels Àngels: Sloane MS 3049, f. 27r

The Breviari d’Amour, an encyclopaedic work in the Catalan language with the emphasis on theological and courtly traditions, contains a section on the offices or tasks of angels, which include seeing off the devil, interceding with Christ for humanity and carrying souls to Heaven. 

An angel brings food and a jug of wine to Ezekiel (above), and two angels carry the soul of a dying man to heaven while a devil retreats (below)
An angel brings food and a jug of wine to Ezekiel (above), and two angels carry the soul of a dying man to heaven while a devil retreats (below), Matfré Ermengau of Béziers's Breviari d'Amour: Yates Thompson MS 31, f. 40r

Angels in the Old Testament

Angels play a leading role in some of the best-known stories in both the Old and New Testaments. In Genesis, when Adam and Eve are banished from Paradise for eating the forbidden fruit, an angel with a flaming sword bars the gate to the garden and they are forced out into the world where they have to work hard for their livelihood.

The expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden
Adam and Eve banished from Eden; an Angel stands, sword in hand, barring the gate; Adam digs and Eve spins, The Holkham Picture Bible: Add MS 47682, f. 4v

In the Old Testament story of Jacob, grandson of Abraham, he has a vision of a ladder reaching to heaven with angels climbing up and down, and he hears God’s voice blessing him from above. In his old age, returning home to the land of Canaan after a long exile, he wrestles with an angel all night, remaining unbeaten, and receives a blessing, being given the name ‘Israel’. These two episodes are illustrated as part of a prefatory set of images from the Bible in the Omne Bonum, an alphabetical encyclopedia of general knowledge written by James le Palmer, Clerk of the Exchequer in c. 1360.

Jacob's dream (above), and Jacob wrestling the angel (below)
Jacob's dream (above), and Jacob wrestling the angel (below), Omne Bonum: Royal MS 6 E VI/1, f. 3v

Angels and the Birth of Christ

The Feast of the Annunciation is one of the most important in the medieval church calendar. Pictures of the Angel Gabriel appearing to the Virgin Mary to announce that she will give birth to Christ are found in Books of Hours, Missals, Psalters and Bibles. A search using the term ‘Annunciation’ in the ‘Image description’ field of our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts produces 166 results, one of the earliest being the Echternach Gospels from the mid-11th century, where a full-page illumination of this scene precedes the Gospel of Matthew.

The Annunciation
The Angel Gabriel appears to Mary at the Annunciation, the Echternach Gospels: Egerton MS 608, f. 20r

Angels sometimes appear in scenes of the Nativity, including this charming depiction of a helpful angel preparing a bath for the newborn Christ in the stable, while the baby plays with the donkey, Mary rests, and Joseph looks on with his arms crossed. This is just one example of how useful angels can be to have around.

A Nativity scene in a Book of Hours
The Nativity, at the beginning of the prayers for the hour of Prime in the Hours of the Virgin: Sloane MS 2468, f. 51r

Angels in Revelation

Angels play a key role as the agents of God’s plan for the end of the world in Revelation, the last book of the New Testament. They guide John in his vision and bring about disasters on earth: seven angels are given seven trumpets to blow, causing a series of cataclysmic events, and later, seven angels use seven censers to pour out plagues on earth.

Two tiered manuscript illumination: Christ enthroned and the seven angels with trumpets (above); an angel with a censer (below)
Christ enthroned and the seven angels with trumpets (above); an angel with a censer (below) (Revelation 8:2-5), the Silos Apocalypse: Add MS 11695, f. 126r

In Revelation, a war takes place in heaven between the forces of good, led by the archangel Michael and the evil followers of the dragon, or the devil. The Tiberius Psalter from mid-11th century Winchester contains a colour outline drawing of St Michael defeating the dragon, as part of a series of scenes from the Bible.

St Michael defeats the devil in the Tiberius Psalter
St Michael defeats the dragon (Revelation 12), the ‘Tiberius Psalter’: Cotton MS Tiberius C VI, f. 16r

Angels in saints lives

Two of the leading English saints, Cuthbert and Guthlac, were visited by angels, as shown in their illustrated hagiographies. According to the Venerable Bede’s account of his life, St Cuthbert, who became bishop of Lindisfarne, was visited in his youth by an angel disguised as a weary traveller. In this scene, Cuthbert has seated the traveller at his table and is washing his feet, showing Christ-like humility. Here the artist has cleverly dressed the figure in the hooded cloak of a traveller or pilgrim, but has included angels’ wings to show his true nature.

Cuthbert washes the feet of an angel in disguise
Cuthbert washes the feet of an angel in disguise, from Chapter 7 of Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert: Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 17v

The life of Guthlac, the Mercian hermit-saint, is told in a series of roundels on a parchment roll produced in Lincolnshire in c. 1200. He builds a cell on the island of Crowland, where he is visited by an angel and St Bartholemew.

An angel and St Bartholomew speaking to St Guthlac
An angel and St Bartholomew speaking to St Guthlac, The Guthlac Roll: Harley Roll Y 6

Good and Bad Angels

As Revelation shows, not all angels are benign. In the Divine Comedy, when Dante reaches paradise with Beatrice, they see the Archangels Michael and Raphael battling the bad angels (who fell from grace with Lucifer) and casting them into hell.

Beatrice, hovering above a kneeling Dante, gestures towards the Trinity, while the Archangels fight the fallen angels
Beatrice, hovering above a kneeling Dante, gestures towards the Trinity, while the Archangels fight the fallen angels, Divina Commedia: Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 181r

Beliefs about angels were not always sanctioned by the Church as they could sometimes cross over into the occult. A book of magic from the 16th century known as the Sworn Book of Honorius has a section on how to summon heavenly intermediaries so that they will impart knowledge of all things to the user. Both good and bad angels are pictured and named on this page. The images themselves were believed to have magical properties.

The red angels of Mars and the golden angels of the sun
The red angels of Mars, Samahel, Satyhel, Ylurahyhel and Amabyhel and the golden angels of the Sun, Raphael, Cashael, Daryhel and Haurathaphel, in The Sworn Book of Honorius: Royal MS 17 A XLII, f. 68v

Good and bad, useful and militant, it's clear that angels hold an important place in medieval illumination. Explore more amazing images on our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts and Digitised Manuscripts sites.

Chantry Westwell

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06 October 2020

Early medieval interlace – a distinctive or ubiquitous feature?

Regular readers of this blog are likely familiar with splendid examples of ‘Insular’ art — the art of the islands of Britain and Ireland from the 7th to 9th centuries. The iconic Lindisfarne Gospels is one of the most well-known, but you can also admire several examples on the webspace for the recent Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.

Manuscript page in two columns with large decorated initial A in black, red, and green ink.
Decorated initial ‘A’ at the beginning of Book 3 of Bede, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum; Southern England (Canterbury?), c. 800-850; Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 60v.

As is clear from this initial from the Tiberius Bede, one of the main decorative elements of Insular art is the incorporation of delicately drawn interlacing knotwork designs. The inside of the letter is decorated with interlacing ribbons on a black ink background. The tongue of the beast’s head at the top of the letter also interweaves with itself. Patterns like this are still closely associated with Irish, Scottish, and Welsh cultural identity, often called ‘Celtic knotwork’.

Intricate interlace designs are also an important element of the style of manuscript art known as ‘Franco-Saxon’. ‘Franco’ refers to Francia (the kingdom of the Franks), where this style originated. The ‘Saxon’ part of the term refers to the incorporation of Insular decorative motifs (when this term was coined in the late 19th century Insular art was often called ‘Hiberno-Saxon’). In general, the Franco-Saxon style is characterised by a fusion of motifs based on Insular models and features of layout, decoration, and script of the Carolingian manuscript tradition. The Carolingian dynasty seized control over the area roughly corresponding to modern-day France from 751, expanded the kingdom, and ruled (intermittently) until 987.

Interlace is usually described as one of the most defining Insular components of the Franco-Saxon style. Interlace decoration has also been seen as evidence of the spread of this style to the scriptorium of Saint-Martin of Tours during the second half of the 9th century. The Benedictine abbey of Saint-Martin of Tours was one of the most influential centres of manuscript production in the Carolingian empire in the early decades of the century. However, in 853 Tours was attacked by one of the Norse war bands who carried out raids along the rivers of France. To help restore the Abbey’s destroyed library, books from other Carolingian centres were sent to the monks of Tours. We know that at least one of those manuscripts was a Franco-Saxon manuscript from Saint-Amand, one of the main centres of the Franco-Saxon style.

Opening page of the Gospel of Matthew, with a large ligature LI in gold and colours and the rest of the text written in gold.
Decorated ligature ‘LI’, (Liber), beginning of the Gospel of Matthew; Tours, c. 850-900; Add MS 11849, f. 27r.

Consequently, the decoration in manuscripts made at Tours in the decades after the attack of 853 has been described as incorporating the Franco-Saxon style into the diverse and well-developed Tours style. This Gospel book from Tours, digitised as part of the Polonsky project (Add MS 11849), is one example of this. The golden ribbons that both form the outline of the ligature ‘LI’ (Liber) (book) as well as interlaced designs within the letter and at their terminals, have been compared to decorated initials in well-known Franco-Saxon manuscripts.

But there is a problem with using the presence of interlace as a distinguishing feature of an early medieval style. When you start to look at early medieval manuscripts from across northern Europe, you quickly notice that interlacing knotwork decoration is an omnipresent decorative element.

Detail of the top of a manuscript page with a initial D in red and brown ink.
Detail of decorated initial ’D’ (Dixit), Cassiodorus, Expositio psalmorum; Southern Netherlands, Stavelot (now in Belgium), c. 850-875; Add MS 16962, f. 55v.

For example, in the area that is now Belgium and the Southern Netherlands, interlace in a slightly different variant was also common during this period. Here it is incorporated within the stem of the initial ‘D’ as well as in a design within the letter, in red and brown ink.

Detail of the top of a manuscript page with a large initial D with interlace and beasts’ head decoration with details in green.
Detail of decorated initial ‘D’ (Disciplina), Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae; Western France, c. 800-900; Harley MS 2686, f. 5r.

Similarly, interlace is also present in contemporary manuscripts that were most likely made in Brittany, which was never incorporated fully into the Carolingian empire. Perhaps that is why manuscript art from this area often continued to resemble Frankish manuscripts created before the spread of Carolingian influence (i.e. before c. 750).

Detail of the top of a manuscript page with a large initial D in brown ink with some black or dark blue details.
Detail of decorated initial ‘D’ (Dominus) (Lord), at beginning of Liber Scintillarum (Book of Sparks) by the so-called Defensor of Ligugé; Northern Italy, c. 775-825; Cotton MS Nero A II, f. 45r.

Further south, in Northern Italy, early medieval manuscripts also feature interlace in their decorated initials. This is apparent in a late 8th-early 9th manuscript (now Cotton MS Nero A II), which has a large initial ‘D’, with its ascender swooping to the left. The letter incorporates knotwork patterns within its rounded bowl, while another interlace design of thicker ribbons continues and reaches inside the bowl.

Insular artists, responsible for creations like the Lindisfarne Gospels, undeniably mastered the basic principles of interlacing knotwork and created incredibly intricate and imaginative designs. As a type of pattern in itself, however, it was such a ubiquitous feature of early medieval European art that its presence in a manuscript does not necessarily indicate specifically Insular influence.

Emilia Henderson

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