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

21 December 2023

Interim information sources for British Library manuscripts

We are extremely grateful to everyone for their kind words since the recent cyber-attack. We've now expanded our temporary website where you can find more information about our available services. On 15 January we released a searchable online version of our main catalogue, which contains the majority of our printed collections as well as some freely available online resources — please note that not everything is included.

We are now able to provide our Readers with access to the majority of the Library's special collections, including most of our manuscripts and archives. For the time being you’ll need to come on-site to consult offline versions of the specialist catalogues, and our reference teams will be on hand to help you with searching for and requesting items. Our blogpost Restoring our services an update (10 January) provides more information on what is available and how to access our collections.

We understand your frustration about the impact of this incident on your study and research, and we're continuing to work hard to develop hybrid services and workarounds that can restore some level of access to more of our collections. You can read more about our work in this blogpost by our Chief Executive.

In the meantime, we would like to share with you a list of freely available printed and online resources that provide information about our ancient, medieval and early modern manuscripts. We recognise that this list is not definitive, and that many of our catalogue records will have been updated in recent years. But we will endeavour to update the list whenever possible, and we offer it to you as a means of continuing your research while the Library's physical and online collections remain temporarily unavailable.

The list comprises references to some of the published catalogues for our principal collections of manuscripts, including Cotton, Harley, Sloane, Royal, and those designated as Additionals and Egertons.

We have also provided references for other categories of material, such as our Irish, Welsh and Greek manuscripts, our maps and drawings, and our seals. In many cases, hard copies of these catalogues may be available in other institutional libraries, and we have supplied links to the online versions. 

We recommend that you also consult JISC’s Library Hub Discover (https://discover.libraryhub.jisc.ac.uk/) to find United Kingdom holdings of these resources. 

We thank you again for your patience and we hope that you find this information useful.

 

Collection/Subject Publication Reference Online Link
Additional/Egerton Catalogue of Additions to the Manuscripts in the Years 1836-1840 (London: British Museum, 1843) https://archive.org/details/catalogueofadd1836brituoft
Additional/Egerton Catalogue of Additions to the Manuscripts in the British Museum in the Years 1841-1845 (London: British Museum, 1850) https://archive.org/details/CatalogueOfAdditionsToTheMSS184145
Additional/Egerton Catalogue of Additions to the Manuscripts in the British Museum in the Years 1846-1847 (London: British Museum, 1864) https://archive.org/details/CatalogueOfAdditionsToTheMSS184647
Additional/Egerton Catalogue of Additions to the Manuscripts in the British Museum in the Years 1848-1853 (London: British Museum, 1868) https://archive.org/details/CatalogueOfAdditionsToTheMSS184853
Additional/Egerton Catalogue of Additions to the Manuscripts in the British Museum in the Years 1854-1860 (London: British Museum, 1875) https://archive.org/details/CatalogueOfAdditionsToTheMSS185460
Additional/Egerton Catalogue of Additions to the Manuscripts in the British Museum in the Years 1861-1875 (London: British Museum, 1877)  
Additional/Egerton Catalogue of Additions to the Manuscripts in the British Museum in the Years 1876-1881 (London: British Museum, 1882) https://archive.org/details/CatalogueOfAdditionsToTheMSS187681
Additional/Egerton Catalogue of Additions to the Manuscripts in the British Museum in the Years 1882-1887 (London: British Museum, 1889) https://archive.org/details/CatalogueOfAdditionsToTheMSS188287
Additional/Egerton Catalogue of Additions to the Manuscripts in the British Museum in the Years 1888-1893 (London: British Museum, 1894) https://archive.org/details/CatalogueOfAdditionsToTheMSS188893
Additional/Egerton Catalogue of Additions to the Manuscripts in the British Museum in the Years 1894-1899 (London: British Museum, 1894) https://archive.org/details/CatalogueOfAdditionsToTheMSS18949
Additional/Egerton Catalogue of Additions to the Manuscripts in the British Museum in the Years 1900-1905 (London: British Museum, 1907) https://archive.org/details/CatalogueOfAdditionsToTheMSS19005
Additional/Egerton Catalogue of Additions to the Manuscripts in the British Museum in the Years 1906-1910 (London: British Museum, 1912) https://archive.org/details/CatalogueOfAdditionsToTheMSS190610
Additional/Egerton Catalogue of Additions to the Manuscripts in the British Museum in the Years 1911-1915 (London: British Museum, 1925) https://archive.org/details/catalogueadditions1915
Additional/Egerton Catalogue of Additions to the Manuscripts in the British Museum in the Years 1916-1920 (London: British Museum, 1933)  
Additional/Egerton British Museum Catalogue of Additions to the Manuscripts 1921-1925 (London: British Museum, 1950) https://archive.org/details/catalogueofadditionstothemss192125
Additional/Egerton British Museum Catalogue of Additions to the Manuscripts 1926-1930 (London: British Museum, 1959)  
Additional/Egerton The British Museum Catalogue of Additions to the Manuscripts 1931-1935 (London: British Museum, 1967)  
Additional/Egerton     The British Museum Catalogue of Additions to the Manuscripts 1936-1945, 2 parts (London: British Museum, 1970)  
Additional/Egerton     The British Library Catalogue of Additions to the Manuscripts 1946-1950, 3 parts (London: British Library, 1979)  
Additional/Egerton The British Library Catalogue of Additions to the Manuscripts 1951-1955, 2 parts (London: British Library, 1982)  
Additional/Egerton The British Library Catalogue of Additions to the Manuscripts 1956-1965, 3 parts (London: British Library, 2000)  
Additional/Egerton The British Library Catalogue of Additions to the Manuscripts 1966-1970, 2 parts (London: British Library, 1998)  
Additional/Egerton     The British Library Catalogue of Additions to the Manuscripts 1971-1975, 3 parts (London: British Library, 2001)  
Additional/Egerton The British Library Catalogue of Additions to the Manuscripts 1976-1980, 2 parts (London: British Library, 1995)  
Additional/Egerton     The British Library Catalogue of Additions to the Manuscripts 1981-1985, 2 parts (London: British Library, 1994)  
Additional/Egerton The British Library Catalogue of Additions to the Manuscripts 1986-1990, 3 parts in 4 (London: British Library, 1993)  
Arundel Catalogue of Manuscripts in the British Museum, New Series, vol. I, part 1, The Arundel Manuscripts (London, 1834) https://archive.org/details/b30455881_0001
Burney Catalogue of Manuscripts in the British Museum, New Series, vol. I, part 2, The Burney Manuscripts (London, 1840) https://archive.org/details/b30455881_0001
Cotton Smith, Thomas, Catalogus librorum manuscriptorum bibliothecæ Cottonianæ (Oxford: Sheldonian Theatre, 1696) https://archive.org/details/bub_gb_uUAv2HzUGxgC
Cotton Planta, Joseph, ed., A Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Cottonian Library Deposited in the British Museum (London: Hansard, 1802) https://archive.org/details/ACatalogueOfTheManuscripts1802
Greek MSS Richard, Marcel, Inventaire des manuscrits grecs du British Museum, I: Fonds Sloane, Additional, Egerton, Cottonian et Stowe (Paris, 1952) https://www.persee.fr/doc/dirht_1636-869x_1952_cat_3_1
Greek MSS The British Library Summary Catalogue of Greek Manuscripts, I (London, 1999) https://archive.org/details/summarycatalogue0000brit
Harley A Catalogue of the Harleian Manuscripts in the British Museum, 4 vols (London: Eyre and Strahan, 1808-12), Vol I https://archive.org/details/gri_33125008529493
Harley A Catalogue of the Harleian Manuscripts in the British Museum, 4 vols (London: Eyre and Strahan, 1808-12), Vol II https://archive.org/details/gri_33125008529436
Harley A Catalogue of the Harleian Manuscripts in the British Museum, 4 vols (London: Eyre and Strahan, 1808-12), Vol III https://archive.org/details/gri_33125008529311
Harley A Catalogue of the Harleian Manuscripts in the British Museum, 4 vols (London: Eyre and Strahan, 1808-12), Vol IV https://archive.org/details/gri_33125008529378
Irish MSS O'Grady, Standish Hayes, & Robin Flower, Catalogue of Irish Manuscripts in the British Museum, 3 vols (London: Printed for the Trustees, 1926) https://archive.org/details/catalogueofirish0000brit
Lansdowne Ellis, Henry, and Francis Douce, eds., A Catalogue of the Lansdowne Manuscripts in the British Museum (London: Taylor, 1820), Vol I https://archive.org/details/gri_33125012275638
Lansdowne Ellis, Henry, and Francis Douce, eds., A Catalogue of the Lansdowne Manuscripts in the British Museum (London: Taylor, 1820), Vol II https://archive.org/details/gri_33125012275521
Maps and Drawings Catalogue of the Manuscript Maps, Charts, and Plans, and of the Topographical Drawings in the British Museum, 3 vols (London: British Museum, 1844-1861), Vol I https://archive.org/details/cataloguemanusc01musegoog
Maps and Drawings Catalogue of the Manuscript Maps, Charts, and Plans, and of the Topographical Drawings in the British Museum, 3 vols (London: British Museum, 1844-1861), Vol II https://archive.org/details/cataloguemanusc02musegoog
Maps and Drawings Catalogue of the Manuscript Maps, Charts, and Plans, and of the Topographical Drawings in the British Museum, 3 vols (London: British Museum, 1844-1861), Vol III https://archive.org/details/bub_gb_OQEVAAAAQAAJ
Music Hughes-Hughes, Augustus, Catalogue of Manuscript Music in the British Museum, 3 vols (London: British Museum, 1906-1909), Vol I https://archive.org/details/catalogueofmanus01brit
Music Hughes-Hughes, Augustus, Catalogue of Manuscript Music in the British Museum, 3 vols (London: British Museum, 1906-1909), Vol II https://archive.org/details/catalogueofmanus02brit
Music     Hughes-Hughes, Augustus, Catalogue of Manuscript Music in the British Museum, 3 vols (London: British Museum, 1906-1909), Vol III https://archive.org/details/catalogueofmanus03brit
Papyri and Ostraca Trismegistos Papyri Database (requires subscription) https://www.trismegistos.org/collection/192
Ostraca Wilcken, Ulrich, Griechische Ostraka aus Aegypten und Nubien, 2 vols (Leipzig and Berlin, 1899), Vol I https://archive.org/details/griechischeostra01wilc
Ostraca Wilcken, Ulrich, Griechische Ostraka aus Aegypten und Nubien, 2 vols (Leipzig and Berlin, 1899), Vol II https://archive.org/details/griechischeostra02wilc
Romances Ward, H. L. D., & J. A. Herbert, Catalogue of Romances in the Department of Manuscripts in the British Museum, 3 vols (London, 1883-1910), Vol I https://archive.org/details/catalogueofroman01brituoft
Romances Ward, H. L. D., & J. A. Herbert, Catalogue of Romances in the Department of Manuscripts in the British Museum, 3 vols (London, 1883-1910), Vol II https://archive.org/details/b29001079_0002
Romances Ward, H. L. D., & J. A. Herbert, Catalogue of Romances in the Department of Manuscripts in the British Museum, 3 vols (London, 1883-1910), Vol III https://archive.org/details/catalogueofroman03brit
Royal & Kings Warner, G. F., & J. P. Gilson, Catalogue of Western Manuscripts in the Old Royal and King's Collections, 4 vols (London, 1921), Vol I https://archive.org/details/BMCatalogueOfWesternMssRoyal1
Royal & Kings Warner, G. F., & J. P. Gilson, Catalogue of Western Manuscripts in the Old Royal and King's Collections, 4 vols (London, 1921), Vol II https://archive.org/details/BMCatalogueOfWesternMssRoyal2
Seals Birch, Walter de Gray, Catalogue of seals in the Department of Manuscripts in the British Museum, 6 vols (1887-1900), Vol I https://archive.org/details/catalogueofseals01brit
Seals Birch, Walter de Gray, Catalogue of seals in the Department of Manuscripts in the British Museum, 6 vols (1887-1900), Vol II https://archive.org/details/catalogueofseals02brit
Seals Birch, Walter de Gray, Catalogue of seals in the Department of Manuscripts in the British Museum, 6 vols (1887-1900), Vol I https://archive.org/details/catalogueofseals03brit
Seals Birch, Walter de Gray, Catalogue of seals in the Department of Manuscripts in the British Museum, 6 vols (1887-1900), Vol III https://archive.org/details/catalogueofseals04brit
Seals Birch, Walter de Gray, Catalogue of seals in the Department of Manuscripts in the British Museum, 6 vols (1887-1900), Vol IV https://archive.org/details/catalogueofseals05brit
Seals Birch, Walter de Gray, Catalogue of seals in the Department of Manuscripts in the British Museum, 6 vols (1887-1900), Vol V https://archive.org/details/catalogueofseals06brit
Sloane Ayscough, S., A Catalogue of the Manuscripts Preserved in the British Museum, 2 vols (London: John Rivington, 1782), Vol VI https://archive.org/details/catalogueofmanus01aysc
Sloane Ayscough, S., A Catalogue of the Manuscripts Preserved in the British Museum, 2 vols (London: John Rivington, 1782), Vol II https://archive.org/details/catalogueofmanus02aysc
Sloane Scott, E. J. L., Index to the Sloane manuscripts in the British Museum (London: British Museum, 1904) https://archive.org/details/indextosloanema00ayscgoog
Spanish De Gayangos, Don Pascual, Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Spanish Language in the British Museum, 4 vols (London: Printed by order of the Trustees, 1875-1893), Vol I https://archive.org/details/b29001468_0001
Spanish De Gayangos, Don Pascual, Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Spanish Language in the British Museum, 4 vols (London: Printed by order of the Trustees, 1875-1893), Vol II https://archive.org/details/catalogueofmanu02brit
Spanish De Gayangos, Don Pascual, Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Spanish Language in the British Museum, 4 vols (London: Printed by order of the Trustees, 1875-1893), Vol III https://archive.org/details/gri_33125013201435
Spanish De Gayangos, Don Pascual, Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Spanish Language in the British Museum, 4 vols (London: Printed by order of the Trustees, 1875-1893), Vol IV https://archive.org/details/manuscriptsinspa04brit
Stowe O'Conor, Charles, Bibliotheca Ms. Stowensis: A Descriptive Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Stowe Library, 2 vols (Buckingham: Seeley, 1818-1819), Vol I https://archive.org/details/bibliothecamsst00ashbgoog
Stowe O'Conor, Charles, Bibliotheca Ms. Stowensis: A Descriptive Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Stowe Library, 2 vols (Buckingham: Seeley, 1818-1819), Vol II https://archive.org/details/bibliothecamsst01ashbgoog
Stowe Scott, Edward J.L., ed., Catalogue of the Stowe Manuscripts in the British Museum, 2 vols (London: British Museum, 1895), Vol 1 https://archive.org/details/b29002618_0001
Stowe Scott, Edward J.L., ed., Catalogue of the Stowe Manuscripts in the British Museum, 2 vols (London: British Museum, 1895), Vol 2 https://archive.org/details/b29002618_0002
Welsh Owen, Edward, A Catalogue of the Manuscripts Relating to Wales in the British Museum, 4 parts, Cymmrodorion Record Series, 4 (London: The Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, 1900-1903), Parts 1-2 https://archive.org/details/p1catalogueofman04brituoft
Welsh     Owen, Edward, A Catalogue of the Manuscripts Relating to Wales in the British Museum, 4 parts, Cymmrodorion Record Series, 4 (London: The Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, 1908-1922), Parts 3-4 https://archive.org/details/p3catalogueofman04brituoft
Welsh Huws, Daniel, A Repertory of Welsh Manuscripts and Scribes c. 800-c. 1800, 3 vols (The National Library of Wales and University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies, 2022)  
Yates Thompson James, M. R., A Descriptive Catalogue of Fifty Manuscripts from the Collection of Henry Yates Thompson (Cambridge, 1898) https://archive.org/details/descriptivecatal00jame_1
Yates Thompson A Descriptive Catalogue of Twenty Illuminated Manuscripts, Nos. LXXV to XVIV (Replacing Twenty Discarded from the Original Hundred) in the Collection of Henry Yates Thompson (3rd series, Cambridge, 1907) https://archive.org/details/adescriptivecatalogueoftwe
Yates Thompson A Descriptive Catalogue of Fourteen Illuminated Manuscripts (Nos.XCV to CVII and 79A) Completing the Hundred in the Library of Henry Yates Thompson (Cambridge, 1912) https://archive.org/details/adescriptivecatalogueoffou
Yates Thompson Illustrations from one hundred manuscripts in the library of Henry Yates Thompson (London, 1916) https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=coo.31924008668554
Yates Thompson Wormald, Francis, 'The Yates Thompson Manuscripts', British Museum Quarterly, 16 (1951), pp.4-5 https://doi.org/10.2307/4422290
Yelverton The British Library Catalogue of Additions to the Manuscripts: The Yelverton Manuscripts, 2 vols (London: British Library, 1994), Vol 1 https://archive.org/details/britishlibraryca0001brit
Yelverton     The British Library Catalogue of Additions to the Manuscripts: The Yelverton Manuscripts, 2 vols (London: British Library, 1994), Vol 2 https://archive.org/details/britishlibraryca0002brit

 

27 October 2023

Garendon cartulary acquired by the British Library

We are pleased to announce that the British Library has acquired a 15th-century cartulary from Garendon Abbey in Leicestershire. 

The cartulary of Garendon Abbey

The cartulary of Garendon Abbey, made around 1450, and purchased by the British Library in September 2023

Garendon was founded for Cistercian monks in 1133, and was dissolved by the commissioners of King Henry VIII in 1536. The cartulary was described first by J.G. Nichols, in The History of the County and Antiquities of Leicester (1804), when it was in the hands of the antiquary Craven Ord (d. 1832). It passed eventually into the collection of the bookseller W.A. Foyle (d. 1963), and was sold at the recent auction of the library of his grandson, Christopher Foyle (d. 2022), held at Dominic Winter Auctioneers on 27 September.

The opening page of the Garendon cartulary

The opening page of the Garendon cartulary

The next step is for this cartulary to be assessed and treated by our conservation team, since it has been exposed to damp over the years. As you will see from these photos, many of its pages are creased, and there is some loss of leaves at the very end of the volume. The cartulary will then be digitised before it can be made available in the Library's Manuscripts Reading Room at St Pancras. We will make a separate announcement when it can be consulted by readers in person.

The Garendon cartulary

The cartulary of Garendon Abbey

The British Library already holds an earlier cartulary from Garendon Abbey (Lansdowne MS 415), compiled at various stages from the late 1100s onwards. The Garendon cartulary also complements other monastic records acquired by the Library in recent years, including the cartulary of Otterton Priory (Add MS 81278), the rental of Worcester Cathedral Priory (Add MS 89137), the Burton cartulary (Add MS 89169), and two cartularies from Lacock Abbey (Add MS 88973. Add MS 88974).

 

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25 October 2023

Chaucer’s works go online

Geoffrey Chaucer (b. c. 1340s, d. 1400): poet, courtier, diplomat, Member of Parliament and royal administrator, and often called the ‘father of English poetry’. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is one of the greatest works of medieval literature. This Middle English poem has transfixed generations of readers, who have delighted in its poetic beauty, its larger-than-life characters, and its combination of poignant tragedy and tongue-in-cheek humour. But Chaucer was a prolific writer who composed many other works, which continue to be read long after his death. Among them are his Trojan epic Troilus and Criseyde, the dream vision The Legend of Good Women, his translations of the Roman de la Rose and The Consolation of Philosophy, his instructional manual on the astrolabe, and a whole host of minor poems.

The British Library holds the world’s largest surviving collection of Chaucer manuscripts, and this year we have reached a major milestone. Thanks to generous funding provided by The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, the Peck Stacpoole Foundation, and the American Trust for the British Library, we have completed the digitisation of all of our pre-1600 manuscripts containing Chaucer’s works, over 60 collection items in total. We have digitised not only complete copies of Chaucer’s poems, but also unique survivals, including fragmentary texts found in Middle English anthologies or inscribed in printed editions and incunabula.

A 16th-century portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer, holding a stylus and rosary.

A 16th-century portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer, holding a rosary and stylus: Add MS 5141, f. 1r

You can download the full list of pre-1600 manuscripts containing Chaucer’s works here, together with accompanying links to the digitised versions on our Universal Viewer. There you can view the manuscripts in full, study them in detail, and download the images for your own use. Thanks to the IIIF-compatible viewer, you can also view these manuscripts side-by-side in digital form, allowing close comparison between the volumes, their texts, and scribal hands:

PDF: Download Chaucer_digitised_vols_Oct_2023

Excel: Download Chaucer_digitised_vols_Oct_2023 (this format cannot be downloaded on all browsers).

Here are some of the works you can find in our digitised collection of Chaucer manuscripts:

The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales comprises a collection of stories presented in the form of a storytelling contest by a group of memorable characters on a pilgrimage from London to Canterbury, among their number the Knight, the Miller, the Reeve, the Wife of Bath and the Prioress.

We hold 23 manuscripts of Chaucer’s most famous poem at the British Library, the earliest of which (Lansdowne MS 851) was written only a few years after the author’s death. This particular copy opens with his portrait, showing Chaucer writing with an open book in hand, framed within the initial ‘W’ at the start of the General Prologue.

The opening of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, showing a portrait of Chaucer.

The opening of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, with a portrait of the author: Lansdowne MS 851, f. 2r

In addition to the surviving manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales, the British Library also houses some of the earliest printed versions of Chaucer’s poem. These include rare copies of the 1476 and 1483 editions of the text made by William Caxton (d. c. 1491), the 1491/1492 edition by Richard Pynson (d. c. 1529), and the 1498 edition printed by Wynkyn de Worde (d. c. 1534).

A page from Caxton's 1483 printed edition of the Canterbury Tales, showing a woodcut of the pilgrims around a table.

A woodcut of the pilgrims from William Caxton’s 1483 edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: G.11586, f. 20 c4

Almost a century after these editions of The Canterbury Tales were published, the English schoolmaster and editor Thomas Speght (d. 1621) produced his own collection of all of Chaucer’s works (1598), together with a glossary and biography of the author. One surviving copy of Speght’s printed edition (Add MS 42518) notably features handwritten notes by the scholar and writer Gabriel Harvey (d. 1631), infamous for his feud with the Elizabethan playwright Thomas Nashe (b. c. 1601). Harvey’s notes in the manuscript include one of the earliest known references to Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet (on f. 422v).

A page from Thomas Speght's Collected Works of Chaucer, showing a woodcut of the Knight.

 The opening of ‘The Knight’s Tale’, from Thomas Speght’s 1598 edition of the collected works of Geoffrey Chaucer: Add MS 42518, f. 29r

A page from Speght's Collected Works of Chaucer, showing autograph notes by Gabriel Harvey.

Gabriel Harvey’s autograph notes, including one of the earliest references to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, added to Speght’s collected works of Chaucer: Add MS 42518, f. 422v

Troilus and Criseyde

Alongside The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer wrote another significant Middle English epic called Troilus and Criseyde. Set during the Trojan War, it tells the tragic love story of Troilus, a Trojan prince, and Criseyde, the daughter of the seer Calchas, who is separated from her love when her father defects to the Greek army. Like Chaucer’s other major works, Troilus continued to be read after the poet’s lifetime and would go on to influence other English authors, most notably the poet Thomas Hoccleve (d. 1426) for his Testament of Cresseid and William Shakespeare (d. 1616) for his play Troilus and Cressida.

The opening of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, showing a decorated foliate initial.

The opening of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde: Harley MS 1239, f. 1r

The Legend of Good Women

The Legend of Good Women is one of Chaucer’s four poetic dream visions (the others are The House of Fame, The Parlement of Foules and The Book of the Duchess). In the prologue to this poem, the dreaming narrator is scolded by Queen Alceste, the goddess of love, for the depiction of women in his writing and is commanded by her to author a poem about the virtues and good deeds of women instead.

Chaucer then recounts the often-tragic stories of ten female figures, derived from Classical history, legend and mythology. They include the Egyptian queen Cleopatra; the Babylonian lover Thisbe of Ovid’s Metamorphoses; the sorceress Medea; Queen Phyllis, abandoned by her lover Demophon; Hypsipyle, Queen of Lemnos; Ariadne, saviour of the Greek hero Theseus in Minos’ Labyrinth; the Roman noblewoman Lucretia; Philomela, who suffers terribly at the hands of Tereus; Hypermenestra, daughter of Egiste; and Dido, Queen of Carthage. The British Library is home to three manuscripts of the poem, including one copy that is interspersed with printed leaves of the same text (Add MS 9832).

The opening of Chaucer's Legend of Good Women, showing a printed leaf and the handwritten text.

The opening of Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women, showing printed and handwritten versions of the text side-by-side: Add MS 9832, ff. 3v-4r

Boece

In addition to writing his own original compositions, Chaucer was also a translator. His Boece is a Middle English prose translation of The Consolation of Philosophy by the Roman philosopher Boethius (d. 524). Boethius’ text, itself an example of a dream vision, was hugely popular during the medieval period and had a great influence on Chaucer’s own writing. The British Library holds one of the earliest copies of Chaucer’s translation of the work (Add MS 10340), written in the 1st quarter of the 15th century, only a decade or so after Chaucer’s death.

The opening of Chaucer's Boece, showing a decorative puzzle initial.

The opening of Chaucer’s Boece, a translation of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy: Add MS 10340, f. 3v

Anelida and Arcite

Anelida and Arcite is one of Chaucer’s shorter and lesser-known poetic works, telling the story of Anelida, Queen of Armenia, and her courtship by Arcite, a man from the city of Thebes in Greece. One of the British Library’s copies of the poem is found in an anthology of Middle English poetry written by Chaucer and his contemporary John Lydgate (d. c. 1451). The volume is one of the earliest compilations of John Shirley (d. 1439), a prolific scribe and translator who served as a secretary to Richard Beauchamp (d. 1439), 13th Earl of Warwick, and who was responsible for writing many surviving manuscripts of Chaucer and Lydgate’s works.

The text of Chaucer's Anelida and Arcite, from a Middle English anthology.

A copy of Chaucer’s Anelida and Arcite, in a volume written by the scribe John Shirley: Add MS 16165, f. 243r

Minor Works

Like Shirley’s poetic compilation, other surviving anthologies at the British Library also feature copies of Chaucer’s shorter poems. One such collection (Add MS 34360) was written by a professional London-based scribe, named the ‘Hammond Scribe’ after the Chaucerian scholar Eleanor Hammond (d. 1933), who first identified his hand. Chaucer’s ‘Complaynt to his Empty Purse’ is a notable example of one of these minor works, a witty plea for money from his employer, disguised as a love poem:

To yow, my purse, and to noon other wight
Complaine I, for ye be my lady dere.
I am so sory now that ye be light,
For certes but if ye make me hevy chere,
Me were as leef be leyd upon my bere,
For which unto your mercy thus I crye
Beth hevy ageyn or ells mot I dye.

The text of Chaucer's Complaynt to his Empty Purse, from a Middle English anthology.

Chaucer’s ‘Complaynt to his Empty Purse’ from an anthology of Middle English poetry: Add MS 34360, f. 19r

Other minor works by Chaucer also now digitised include his ‘Gentilesse’, ‘Lak of Steadfastnesse’, ‘Truth’, ‘The Complaynt unto Pity’ and the ‘Balade of Good Fortune’.

The Treatise on the Astrolabe

While Chaucer is now known principally as a poet, he was also responsible for an important medieval instructional manual, called ‘A Treatise on the Astrolabe’, which like his poetry, was written in Middle English rather than Latin. Astrolabes had been in use for hundreds of years by Chaucer’s lifetime and had a wide variety of functions, but their principal purpose was as astronomical and navigational instruments, helping to determine different latitudes by day and night.

An astronomical instrument in brass called an astrolabe.

An example of one of the earliest known European astrolabes, made in 1326: British Museum, 1909,0617.1

In one of the British Library’s medieval copies of the text (Egerton MS 2622), preserved in its original binding, Chaucer’s work appears as part of a collection of treatises on arithmetic, geometry, horticulture and astronomy. 

A collection of scientific treatises with a medieval clasped leather binding.

A copy of Chaucer’s ‘Treatise on the Astrolabe’ in a collection of scientific treatises with its own original medieval clasped binding: Egerton MS 2622

Chaucer’s treatise continued to be read during the Early Modern period. A notable 16th-century manuscript contains a revised edition of the ‘Astrolabe’, undertaken by an otherwise unknown editor called Walter Stevins. Stevins made his own corrections throughout Chaucer’s text, and prefaced it with his own address to the reader and a dedication to Edward Courtenay (d. 1556), 1st Earl of Devon. His manuscript features numerous detailed drawings that accompany the text, illustrating the workings and uses of the astrolabe itself.

The title page of an edited version of Chaucer's 'Astrolabe', with a diagram of the instrument.

The opening of Walter Stevins’ revised edition of Chaucer’s ‘Treatise on the Astrolabe’: Sloane MS 261, f. 1*r

Whether you are experienced scholars of Chaucer’s life and poetry, who know his words off by heart, or only just learning of his collected works for the first time, we hope you enjoy exploring the pages of these digitised manuscripts and engaging with the writing of one of the foundational figures in the history of English literature. We are grateful to The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, the Peck Stacpoole Foundation, and the American Trust for the British Library for their support of the project.

 

Calum Cockburn

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