THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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

19 February 2019

Reconstructing the Otho-Corpus Gospels

As our stunning Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition comes to an end, it's time to reflect on recent discoveries that illuminate this fascinating period of early medieval history, and on the new opportunities for learning more about the past. Archaeological discoveries, such as the Staffordshire Hoard, help us to make a direct connection with 7th-century Mercia, even if we cannot be certain to whom these objects belonged or why they were buried. New advances in imaging science, such as that revealing erased manumissions of slaves in the Bodmin Gospels, as reported on this Blog, help us to uncover medieval people whose lives would otherwise be unknown to us.

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The lion of St Mark in the Otho-Corpus Gospels: British Library, Cotton MS Otho C V, f. 27r

One manuscript that has probably not given up all its secrets is the so-called Otho-Corpus Gospels. That name is modern in origin, being derived from the two collections in which its twin halves now reside: the Otho press in the Cotton collection at the British Library, and the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge. The two parts of this 8th-century Northumbrian gospel-book had been divided by the 16th century at the latest, with one coming into the hands of Matthew Parker, archbishop of Canterbury (died 1575), and the other being acquired a few decades later by Sir Robert Cotton (died 1631). The easiest way to compare them would be to bring them physically side-by-side, as demonstrated in our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, when the Corpus portion was generously loaned for a short period to the British Library. But the usual separation of the manuscript is only one barrier to properly understanding it, since the Otho part was damaged severely by the Cotton fire in October 1731, leaving its parchment pages shrivelled and charred. Not only is the gospel-book no longer together, but it is no longer intact.

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The first surviving page of the Otho portion: Cotton MS Otho C V, f. 1r

As part of the preparations for Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, Cotton MS Otho C V was digitised in full, thanks to funding provided by The Polonsky Foundation. This complements nicely the digitisation of Corpus Christi MS 197B by our colleagues in Cambridge. Users are now able to study both parts of this gospel-book from the comfort of their own offices or living rooms. But one further feature of this dual digitisation should be mentioned here, and it is that which perhaps offers the greatest potential for furthering our knowledge of this manuscript. The British Library manuscripts digitised for our recent project can now be viewed on a IIIF viewer, and the same is true for those at the Parker Library. This means that researchers can view the images of both portions of the gospel-book side-by-side, hopefully enabling us to make more connections between them.

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Even though the Otho portion is badly damaged, we can still tell that it was finely written and decorated: Cotton MS Otho C V, f. 21r

Why is this important? In the case of the Otho part of the manuscript, we have only 64 leaves remaining, representing the gospels of Matthew and Mark. In the 19th century, its pages were restored at the British Museum and inlaid in paper mounts, with pencil notes added in the margins to notify where the text had been identified. In the case of the Corpus Christi part, containing the gospels of Luke and John, the pages have been rearranged, as was Matthew Parker's frequent practice, which complicates investigation into them. Maybe in time their original organisation will be reconstructed, throwing new light on the manuscript's place of origin and its later use and ownership.

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The preface to the Gospel of Mark: Cotton MS Otho C V, f. 25v

Thanks to The Polonsky Foundation, Cotton MS Otho C V can be seen on the Universal Viewer or on our Digitised Manuscripts site. Thanks to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, their MS 197B can be seen on Parker on the Web, and you can read about it in this accompanying blogpost. We are delighted to be able to share this wonderful manuscript with you, and we hope that in time we will learn more of its secrets. 

 

Julian Harrison

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

18 February 2019

Explore our Anglo-Saxons webspace

Would you like to find out more about the Anglo-Saxons? Have you been mesmerised by our recent blockbuster exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, or are you doing research into some aspect of early medieval culture?

If so, you may be interested in the British Library's new webspace devoted to the Anglo-Saxons. Already published are a number of articles, on subjects as diverse as music, Anglo-Saxon women, and the Battle of Hastings, together with collection items and biographies. In the near future we intend to add more material, so (literally) please watch this space ...

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Many of the essays have been written by Alison Hudson, Project Curator for the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, and Becky Hudson, Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts Intern. Becky has written articles exploring the earliest English speakers and Learning and education in Anglo-Saxon England. In Anglo-Saxon England and Europe, she has drawn upon sources ranging from the St Augustine Gospels to the Utrecht Psalter and a gold dinar of King Offa, in order to demonstrate the close and long-standing relationship between England and its European neighbours. Alison has examined the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and Science and the natural world. In her article How was the kingdom of England formed?, she traces the background to the unification of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the 10th century.

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A gold dinar of King Offa, reproduced by permission of the British Museum

Among the collection items described and illustrated on the site are manuscripts from the British Library's own collections, alongside books and artefacts loaned by other institutions to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. Among the Library's manuscripts that are featured are the St Cuthbert Gospel, Bald's Leechbook and the Coronation Gospels; among the loans we might mention (to name a few) are the Binham Hoard, the Moore Bede and Codex Amiatinus.

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Codex Amiatinus, reproduced by permission of Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, was returned specially to England for the first time in 1,300 years to be displayed at the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition

The people featured on the Anglo-Saxons webspace include kings, queens, bishops, monks and hermits, from Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, to Alfred the Great. They have been selected in part because they are most prominent in the contemporary sources, such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Encomium Emmae Reginae, and in part because they represent several layers of early medieval society.

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Emma of Normandy as depicted in the work entitled ‘In Praise of Queen Emma’

We hope that you find our new webspace useful, and that it satisfies your curiosity or inspires you to learn more. The address is https://www.bl.uk/anglo-saxons.

 

Julian Harrison

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

17 February 2019

When love comes knockin’ at your door

To the joy and relief of some, the magic of Valentine’s Day has now vanished, taking heart-shaped chocolates and romantic cards with it. A different perspective of love is offered by a motif popular in the Classical world: the so-called paraclausithyron.

This term, used by Plutarch (Moralia 753B), refers to a song of lament and despair sung by an ‘excluded lover’ (amator exclusus) at the firmly shut door of their beloved. The lover usually carries a garland and has walked at night by torchlight to reach their beloved’s house, where they plead to be admitted without success.

In Greek literature, the motif occurs in different genres. An illustrious example is found in Theocritus’ Idyll 3, where the lover, a goatherd, begs his mistress Amaryllis to let him come into her cave. He laments in despair:

Just look: there’s such pain in my heart. If only I could turn into a buzzing bee and come into your cave through the ivy and fern that hide you! Now I know what love is: he’s a cruel god. Truly he was suckled by a lioness, and his mother gave birth to him in a thicket: he’s making me smoulder with love and torturing me deep in my bone. (translated by N. Hopkinson)

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The beginning of Theocritus, Idyll 3 (15th century): Add MS 11885, f. 12r

A number of surviving epigrams relate to the scene of the closed door. This one, by the poet Asclepiades of Samos from the 3rd century BC, emphasises the lover's sorrow at not being admitted into the house:

Abide here, my garlands, where I hang ye by this door, nor shake off your leaves in haste, for I have watered you with my tears — rainy are the eyes of lovers. But when the door opens and ye see him, shed my rain on his head, that at least his fair hair may drink my tears. (translated by W. R. Paton)

Another poem by Meleager of Gadara, written roughly 2,100 years ago, contains several elements typical of the motif:

O stars, and Moon, lighting well the way for those disposed to love, and Night, and you, my instrument that accompanies my revels — will I gaze upon my wanton one, still awake on her bed, singed often by her lamp? Or does someone share her bed? I will take off my suppliant garland, douse it with tears, and fix it on her porch, inscribing on it just this: “Cypris, to you Meleager, the initiate in your revels, hung up these spoils of love. (translated by Paton)

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Detail of a heart (15th century): King's MS 322, f. 1r

It is not only male lovers who might be excluded. The ‘Alexandrian Erotic Fragment’ (Papyrus 605 verso) relates the lament of an ‘excluded woman’.  The motif of the ‘abandoned woman’ is well-known in Classical mythology: one thinks immediately of poor Ariadne, deserted by Theseus, or Medea who, left by Jason for another woman, killed her own children to punish him.

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Medea killing her children (c. 1450–1460): Harley MS 1766, f. 33r

The text of this papyrus was copied by Dryton, a cavalry-man, after 10 October 174 BC. His family archive is now dispersed across the world. A small fragment in the Sackler Library, Oxford, supplies a few more words of the second column of the British Library papyrus.

The poem has a complex metrical scheme, although its language is simple. It starts abruptly, with the woman remembering the old promise of love, having Aphrodite as a security (all translations by P. Bing):

Our feelings were mutual, we bound ourselves together. (ll. 1–2)

The tender memories of the past torture her, because her lover has proven to be an ‘inventor of confusion’ (l. 7). An invocation to the stars and night begins her journey to the house:

O beloved starts and lady Night, companions in my desire, take me even now to him. (ll. 11–12)

The trip is lightened not by a torch, but by the fire that enkindles her soul:

My guide is the potent torch that’s ablaze in my soul. (ll. 15–16)

The woman pleads to be admitted in a vortex of feelings, being mad, jealous and ready to submit to her beloved. After all, ‘if you devote yourself to just one, you will just go crazy’ (l. 31), she explains. She has a ‘stubborn temper’ when she gets in a fight (ll. 33–34), yet she now seeks reconciliation. Unfortunately, the second column of the papyrus is fragmentary.

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The ‘Alexandrian Erotic Fragment’: Papyrus 605 verso

Ancient authors had different views on these lovers’ practices. Plato considered that imploring one's beloved and sleeping on doorsteps was a form of slavery (Symposium 183A), whereas Plutarch thought that serenading and decorating the beloved’s threshold with garlands might bring some ‘alleviation that is not without charm or grace’ (De cohibenda ira 455B–C).

We should add a word of warning. Should you plan to serenade your lover, make sure that the right person is listening. In Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazusae, two young lovers exchange love songs. One of them invokes his beloved to open the door, but the person who opens it is not exactly whom the young man was hoping for …

 

Federica Micucci

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval