Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

15 March 2011

Medieval Cartularies of Great Britain and Ireland

Cartularies are one of our best sources for life in the Middle Ages. Typically compiled by religious communities, secular corporations or wealthy families, the books in question contain copies of charters and related documents, supplying evidence of landholding, legal transactions and day-to-day business. Approximately 2,000 medieval cartularies have survived from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, dating from the eleventh to the sixteenth centuries. A full listing is provided in the recently-published Medieval Cartularies of Great Britain and Ireland, recording for each volume its current and previous ownership, editions, calendars and copies, and other bibliographical information.

A page from the Cartulary of Abingdon Abbey, showing two large decorated initials.

Cartulary of Abingdon Abbey, 12th century (Cotton MS Claudius C IX, f. 111r)

Some of these cartularies have been acquired in recent years by the British Library. The so-called “Liber de Hyda”, from Hyde Abbey, was purchased in 2007 (Add MS 82931), and includes copies of twenty-three Anglo-Saxon charters and seven wills. Among these are the only two known wills of Anglo-Saxon kings, namely Alfred the Great (871–899) and Eadred (946–955); that for King Eadred survives uniquely in this manuscript.

A page from the Liber de Hyda, with a large decorated initial and border.

The "Liber de Hyda", 15th century (Add MS 82931, f. 4v)

It’s often fascinating to learn how certain cartularies were preserved until the present-day. From the Augustinian priory of St Mary Overy, Southwark, we have four leaves (BL Add. MS. 6040) recovered from a group of children in the 18th century, who were using them to cover their drums. The cartulary of Buckfast Abbey, meanwhile, came into the possession of James Pearse, a waste-paper merchant from Exeter, who fortunately didn’t treat it as “waste”. One would also be intrigued to know more about Christopher Wells, who in 1559 wrote a note with his foot in a register from the abbey of Bury St Edmunds (BL Add. MS. 14850)!

The new edition of Medieval Cartularies can be purchased online from the British Library shop.

G. R. C. Davis, Medieval Cartularies of Great Britain and Ireland, revised by Claire Breay, Julian Harrison & David M. Smith (London: The British Library, 2010)

A page from the Cartulary of Furness Abbey, showing a portrait of the manuscript's scribe John Stell.

Cartulary of Furness Abbey, 1412, with a portrait of the scribe John Stell (Add MS 33244, f. 2r)


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