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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

14 November 2018

In defence of medieval beards

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This month many people are celebrating Movember, yet few imagine that one of the most detailed works on beards comes from the medieval period. The Church Fathers had thought about facial hair in moral and theological terms, while medieval theologians and clergymen debated whether communities of priests, monks and other clerics could grow beards at all. By the 12th century, canon law forbade Western clerics to grow beards, as beardlessness came to be associated with the purity and humility of angels. Laymen could grow beards if they wished, but that would mark them out even further from the clergy.

Image1

A group of clean-shaven clerics offering St Benedict a copy of his Rule (England, 11th century): Arundel MS 155, f. 133r

It is therefore surprising that a monastic author should have left us the only known apologetic treatise on beards. Burchard was abbot of the French Cistercian abbey of Bellevaux near Besançon, and in the 1160s he wrote to the community at Rosières, a neighbouring house of the same Order, to make amends for an offensive letter condemning the lay brothers for growing their beards. Cistercian lay brothers did not take the monastic habit, but they helped the monks run the abbey. They lived in separate quarters and led different lifestyles, which extended in turn to their facial hair.

Entitled ‘In defence of beards’ (Apologia de barbis), Burchard’s letter is actually a treatise in three chapters encouraging the lay brothers not to cut their beards. The author remarkably referred to his subject as barbilogia (‘barbilogy’) and to himself as barbilogus (‘barbilogist’). He could not have been more hip and modern.

Image2

The opening of Abbot Burchard’s Apologia de barbis with an intricate anthropomorphic initial including bearded faces (France, 12th century): Add MS 41997, f. 1r

Burchard’s ‘barbilogy’ survives in only one manuscript (Add MS 41997). It starts with what it means to grow a beard, then goes on to describe different types of beards, styles and treatments, and to give beard-related advice. Burchard mentioned more than 10 styles of beard, including one ‘urban’ (urbana figuratio) and one military, which, he added, does not go well with long hair. There was the beard that covers the chin (barba mentanea), that from under the chin (submentanea), and the side beard (barba maxillaris). We are told that long sideburns and the beard under the chin make the face resemble a goat, while moustaches reaching to the ears resemble a wild boar. There is inequality between men according to their beards: there are those with precocious beards (citiberbes), those with late-developed beards (tardiberbes), those whose beards are thin and whispy (rariberbes), and those with even, bushy beards (pleniberbes).

Image3

Woden as a bushy-bearded god, the ancestor of the Anglo-Saxon kings (England, 12th century), currently on display in Anglo-Saxon KingdomsCotton MS Caligula A VIII, f. 29r

According to the barbilogist, there was a close link between a man’s beard and his spiritual life. A beard could save a man’s life, or it could drag him straight to Hell, where there would be weeping, gnashing of teeth and, as Burchard noted, the burning of beards.

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A drawing of nine bearded figures from the late-medieval period added at the end of Burchard’s ‘Defence’ and inspired by it (France, 12th century): Add MS 41997, f. 95r

Burchard warned furthermore that a long beard might become a hindrance and an object of contempt in the eyes of the beardless. This is mirrored by an image in another manuscript (Arundel MS 155), which depicts Goliath with a long, pointy beard, before a clean-shaven David cuts off his head. 

Image5

A clean-shaven David holding Goliath by the beard before cutting off his head (England, 11th century): Arundel MS 155, f. 93r

According to Abbot Burchard, a suitable, well-trimmed beard was a symbol of strength, maturity, wisdom and religion. For instance, we are told that a half-beard, meaning a lonely moustache, was a 'monstrous sign'. The connection between beards and medieval notions of masculinity is suggested by an entry in an 11th-century dreambook (concerning the interpretation of dreams) â€” dreaming of having one’s own beard cut meant that something terrible would happen to you.

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Dream prognostics in Latin with an Old English interlinear translation (England, 11th century): Cotton MS Tiberius A III, f. 28r

The manuscript containing Burchard's treatise is part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project, which is launching in one week! Stay tuned for more information on 21 November. The conference website is here.

 

Cristian Ispir

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13 November 2018

Lichfield: the third archbishopric

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For the majority of the Anglo-Saxon period, the English Church had two archbishoprics, one at Canterbury and the other at York, just as it does today. So it might surprise some of you to hear that from 787 to 803 the English Church had a third archbishopric, at Lichfield in Staffordshire!

What's the difference between a bishop and an archbishop? The answer lies partly in an ecclesiastical vestment known as a pallium. This was a woollen band, which had lain for a time on St Peter’s tomb in Rome, before being granted to a bishop by the pope. The possession of a pallium signified the special relationship between bishop and pope, and eventually came to signify the status of an archbishop. In 787 the bishop of Lichfield received such a pallium and rose to the rank of archbishop.

Lichfield Cathedral MS 1  p. 218

Evangelist portrait of Luke in the St Chad Gospels: Lichfield Cathedral MS 1, p. 218

At the turn of the 9th century, Lichfield was located in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia, whose heartlands flanked the River Trent. Chad, the first known bishop of Lichfield, was appointed by King Wulfhere of Mercia (d. 675). Earlier in his career, Chad is known to have spent time at the monasteries of Rath Melsigi in Ireland and at Lindisfarne, which had strong Irish connections.

This Irish relationship influenced the community established at Lichfield. It can be detected, for instance, in the St Chad Gospels, which has been kindly loaned to the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition by Lichfield Cathedral. Scholars have noted that the artistic style of this gospel-book resembles the Lindisfarne Gospels, and that its text aligns with a group of mostly Irish manuscripts such as the Book of Kells, Book of Armagh and the MacRegol Gospels. The St Chad Gospels was produced around the middle of the 8th century, and at some stage it even travelled to Wales: some of its marginal notes are among the earliest examples of written Welsh.

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The four evangelist symbols in the St Chad Gospels: Lichfield Cathedral MS 1, p. 219

King Offa of Mercia (d. 796) was an extremely powerful Anglo-Saxon king, who had a friendly rivalry with his continental contemporary, Charlemagne (d. 814). In 781, Charlemagne’s sons were anointed as kings in Rome; in response, Offa also desired that his son, Ecgfrith, be crowned as king. This was not a simple request, as it was relatively unusual for the sons of kings to be anointed while their father was still alive. 

Anointing a king was a task for an archbishop. When the archbishop of Canterbury refused to anoint Ecgfrith, Offa decided to create a new archbishopric in his own kingdom of Mercia. He wrote to Pope Hadrian to request that Hygeberht, bishop of Lichfield, be made an archbishop. The request was granted, and by 787 Hygeberht was signing charters as an archbishop.

Cotton Augustus II 97 witness list

Hygeberht signing as an archbishop, in the third line from the top: British Library, Cotton MS Augustus II 97

Lichfield seems to have prospered during its brief time as an archbishopric. In 2003, excavations at Lichfield Cathedral uncovered a limestone fragment carved in the resemblance of an angel. Although the angel has since faded to white, analysis suggests that it had once been splendidly painted. The angel’s wings in particular were painted in red and yellow, to replicate a ‘red-gold’ appearance that was highly prized among the Anglo-Saxons.

Lichfieldangel_20060125_068_panel_rl

The Lichfield Angel, courtesy of Lichfield Cathedral

The wings of the Lichfield Angel may have had a similar appearance to gold and silver items produced elsewhere in Anglo-Saxon England. Examples of this style of decoration are found in the Staffordshire Hoard, discovered very near to Lichfield in 2009.

Staffordshire_hoard_annotated

Items from the Staffordshire Hoard, courtesy of Birmingham Museums Trust and the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent, on behalf of Birmingham City Council and Stoke-on-Trent City Council

Lichfield’s time as an archbishopric was short-lived. Its new-found status created organisational problems in the English Church, leading King Coenwulf of Mercia (796–821) to write to Pope Leo III (795–816), requesting that Lichfield be restored to a bishopric.

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Decree of the church council at Clofesho abolishing the archbishopric of Lichfield: Cotton MS Augustus II 61

Pope Leo granted Coenwulf’s request, and in 803 the English Church met at Clofesho to confirm the downgrading of the archbishopric of Lichfield. The official decree, issued as a result of the meeting, is also on display in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. The list of witnesses begins with two names: Æthelheard of Canterbury, who signed as archbishop, while Ealdwulf, the former archbishop of Lichfield, attested this decree as bishop once more.

44_cotton_ms_augustus_ii_61_f001r - Copy

Æthelheard signs as archbishop with Bishop Ealdwulf's name immediately below: Cotton MS Augustus II 61

As a consequence, Mercia once again fell under Canterbury's authority, and the balance of ecclesiastical power in England reverted to Canterbury and York, just as it remains today.

Visitors to Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War will be able to see the Lichfield Angel and the St Chad Gospels, kindly loaned by Lichfield Cathedral, as well as items from the Staffordshire Hoard and the British Library manuscripts discussed in this blogpost. Tickets for the exhibition, which runs until 19 February 2019, are available here.

11 November 2018

The cloak of St Martin of Tours

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Today is the feast of St Martin of Tours (c. 317–397). According to medieval accounts about his life, Martin was a Roman soldier who converted to Christianity after an encounter with a half-naked beggar at the gate of the city of Amiens in northern France. Martin cut his cloak in half in order to share it with the beggar, who that night appeared to him in a dream-vision and revealed himself to be Christ.

This experience encouraged Martin to renounce the army and become a ‘soldier’ of Christ. He founded a hermitage in Ligugé that would become the first monastery in Gaul, was appointed bishop of Tours in 371, and then founded and became abbot of the abbey of Marmoutier, located outside the city of Tours. After his death, St Martin was associated with many miracles and he became the patron saint of France.

Image 1 - Miracles St Martin of Tours

A collection of miracles of St Martin of Tours, 4th quarter of the 11th century: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, ms lat. 9734, f. 22v

Central to St Martin’s cult was the relic of the remaining half of his cloak. It was deemed to be so important that the kings of France used it as a royal banner in war, and they swore sacred oaths upon it. The structure in which the half-cloak was preserved was referred to as cappella (‘little cloak’), a term that came to be used widely for buildings that served to keep relics and from which the modern word ‘chapel’ is derived.

The legend of St Martin’s cloak was first recorded in the Vita sancti Martini (Life of St Martin) of Sulpicius Severus (363–c. 425). This work survives in a number of medieval copies, such as the 12th-century manuscripts Cotton MS Tiberius D IV/1 and Harley MS 4984, both possibly originating from England.

Image 2 - Vita Sancti Martini

Sulpicius Severus, Vita sancti Martini, 1st quarter of the 12th century: Cotton MS Tiberius D IV/1, f. 88r

As a symbol of the Christian virtue of Charity, St Martin’s act of dividing the cloak became the most often-cited episode from his life, and was made the subject of many medieval works of art and literature. One example is the full-page miniature shown below, in a 12th-century manuscript (Add MS 15219) from the Benedictine abbey at Tournai (now in Belgium) that was dedicated to St Martin.

Image 3 - St Martin and the beggar

St Martin of Tours cutting his cloak for a beggar, 2nd half of the 12th century: Add MS 15219, f. 12r

The cult of St Martin appears to have gained much support in England following the Norman Conquest. After William the Conqueror (reigned 1066–1087) invaded England, many new English churches were dedicated to St Martin, most likely because he was popular among the Normans. Around 1071, William himself founded the Benedictine abbey of Battle, also known as Sancto Martino de Bello, at the site where the decisive Battle of Hastings had taken place.

Further testament to the longevity of the popularity of St Martin’s conversion miracle is a Middle English poem, which cites the Vita sancti Martini of Sulpicius Severus. This poem was added in the 16th century at the end of a manuscript containing a chronicle from Peterborough Abbey (Cotton MS Claudius A V):

The nyght Aftyr the day yt sude

Martyn yn hys bed / he nappyd

Cryst with Aungels a multytude

Aperyd yn Martyn mantyle wappyd

Yn crystyn faythe he wase belappyd

Crystynd and baptyst be the new lawe

To servise god he so wele happyd

Jhesu to hym he sayd thys sawe

Martinus adhuc catechumenus hac me veste contexit

(The night after the day it ensued,

[when] Martin was sleeping in his bed,

[that] Christ appeared with a multitude of angels,

wrapped in Martin’s mantle:

he [i.e. Martin] was ‘enfolded’ into Christian faith,

Christianised and baptised according to the new law,

to serve God [who] he clothed so well.

Jesus made this announcement to him:

‘Martin, still a catechumen, has clothed me with this mantle’.)

Image 4 - English poem

A Middle English poem of St Martin’s conversion miracle, added in the 16th century to Cotton MS Claudius A V, f. 45v

The manuscripts featured in this blogpost are part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project, which is launching soon. Stay tuned for more information on 21 November. The conference website is here.

Clarck Drieshen

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