Medieval manuscripts blog

11 posts from April 2013

30 April 2013

How the Camel Got the Hump

Some of you may be familiar with the Just So Stories of Rudyard Kipling (1902), which include "How the Leopard Got His Spots", "How the Elephant Got His Trunk", and "How the Camel Got His Hump". We like to think that Kipling, a man of letters, might have been able to draw inspiration from the British Library's collections when concocting these tales, not least when it came to his famous story of the camel.

Two camels in the Marvels of the East (London, British Library, MS Cotton Vitellius A XV, f. 101v).

Have you ever asked yourself what a camel looked like in medieval times? Marvellously, we have some idea, thanks to drawings found in three of the greatest Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, all at the British Library: the Beowulf-manuscript (Cotton Vitellius A XV); the Old English Hexateuch (Cotton Claudius B IV); and an illustrated miscellany from 11th-century Canterbury (Cotton Tiberius B V).

Ants and camels in the Marvels of the East (London, British Library, MS Cotton Vitellius A XV, f. 101v).

In the text known as the Marvels of the East is a passage describing ants the size of dogs, which live beyond the river Gorgoneus, and dig up gold from the earth. Men seeking gold are described crossing the river with their camels, leaving the young tied on their own side; the she-camels are laden with gold and return to their young, but the male camels are left behind, for the ants to devour, enabling the thieves to escape. In the Beowulf-manuscript, this scene is depicted by a large miniature (sadly damaged by fire), in which three dog-like ants attack a tethered camel on the right, while a man holds another camel bearing a saddle, and a young camel (or brontosaurus, take your pick) is tied to a tree at the bottom. In the copy of the same scene in the illustrated miscellany, a camel is attacked by ants while a man crosses the river to safety on the back of a she-camel.

The dog-sized ants and the camels (London, British Library, MS Cotton Tiberius B V, part 1, f. 80v).

If this wasn't enough to give the male camel the hump, what else was? Well, in the Beowulf-manuscript, the next scene, describing a place where many elephants are born, is illustrated with two slightly grumpy-looking camels (shown at the beginning of this post). Presumably the camels are saying to each other, "Doesn't the artist know what an elephant looks like?" The illustrated miscellany represents the same passage (in Latin, "in his locis nascitur multitudo magna elephantorum") with a pig-like elephant standing on an island.

The elephant in an Anglo-Saxon illustrated miscellany (London, British Library, MS Cotton Tiberius B V, part 1, f. 81r).

Of course, it's highly likely that few Anglo-Saxons had ever seen a camel in real life, and so we should not be surprised that their pictures of them are quirky, to say the least. But is this a world-first, a chorus line of dancing camels? Riverdance, anyone?

A line of camels in the Old English Hexateuch: part of Genesis, chapter 24 (London, British Library, MS Cotton Claudius B IV, f. 39r).

You can read more about the manuscripts of the Marvels of the East in the facsimile of the same name by Montague Rhodes James (Oxford: The Roxburghe Club, 1929). For the Hexateuch, see Benjamin C. Withers, The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch: The Frontiers of Seeing and Reading in Anglo-Saxon England (London: The British Library, 2007). And don't forget to look at our Digitised Manuscripts site, to see both the Beowulf-manuscript and the Hexateuch in their entirety.

25 April 2013

Popular History for an English Audience: The English Prose Brut Chronicle

Harley MS 2256 f. 1 c13099-12

Decorated initial at the beginning of the English Prose Brut Chronicle: 'I n the nobul lande of Surre (Syria) ther was a worthi Kyng…', from The Prose Brut Chronicle of England (common version to 1430), England, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 2256, f. 1r


In our recent post on the French Prose Brut, we promised a follow-up on the manuscripts of the English version.  There are 38 in the British Library, out of a total of 181 surviving manuscripts listed by the Middle English scholar, Lister M. Matheson of the University of Michigan.  A digital version of Matheson’s comprehensive study, The Prose ‘Brut’, The Development of a Middle English Chronicle is available online on the OpenLibrary website here.

It is not surprising that so many manuscripts survive, as the Brut chronicle was one of the most popular accounts of English history among the lay audience in the Middle Ages and in the early modern period. From the fifteenth century, it has been used as the standard account of English history and was the first chronicle of England to be printed by William Caxton (the Chronicles of England, 1480). In addition to the manuscript copies, there were 13 early printed editions.


Harley MS 24 f. 1 c13158-11

Decorated initial and border at the beginning of the Brut, with the title 'Here begynnyth the kalendare of Brute in Englysshe tunge', and the introduction: 'Here begynnyth a Booke in Englyssh tung that is called Brute of England which Declarith and tretith of the furste beginning of the lande of Englande. How hit was furst wildernesse and noo thing ther in but wormes and wylde bestes and a cuntre desolate. And afterward how hit was inhabite and by whom and in what manere.' From The Prose Brut (Chronicle of England), England, 2nd or 2rd quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 24, f. 1r


The original Middle English version of the chronicle is based on the Anglo Norman French text, (see French Prose Brut Chronicles in the British Library and How to Find Them) and is believed to have been produced between 1380 and 1400.  Harley MS 3945 contains the earliest version to 1333, known as the common text.  It is a 15th century manuscript and is described in the British Library Search our Catalogue: Archives and Manuscripts.

The Common Text begins with the mythical origins of the English and ending with the Battle of Halidon Hill in 1333, where the Scots were defeated by the army of Edward III.


Harley MS 1568 f. 1 c12040-09

Historiated initial of Diocletian and his daughters, with the chronicle beginning: 'In the noble land of Syrie th[er] was a noble kyng and mighty and a man of grett reno[u]n that men called Dioclitian'.  The story continues with the 33 daughters of Diocletian, the eldest named Albyne (Albina), who murdered their husbands and were set adrift at sea before they landed on an island, which they named Albion. From the Prose Brut Chronicle of England, England, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 1568, f. 1


The chronicle was amended and updated during the 14th and 15th centuries, with the first continuation taking it up to the death of Edward III in 1377, an addition associated with the chroniclers of Westminster. One of the British Library manuscripts containing this text to 1377 is Stowe MS 68, which is described with images in the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts here.


Stowe MS 68 f. 1 c11340-08

A champ initial and decorative border marking the familiar opening chapter of the chronicle, from The Brut Chronicle, England, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Stowe MS 68, f. 1


The chronicle to 1377 was then updated in some versions to 1419, taking events from the death of Edward III to the siege of Rouen, with the majority ending, 'and manfully countered with our English men'. One of the manuscripts of this version is Harley MS 1568, which contains the picture of Diocletian and his daughters above.  The catalogue entry can be viewed here

The continuation to 1419 is found in Harley MS 7333, which is believed to have been copied in the mid-15th century by the amateur scribe John Shirley of Leicester, and which also contains Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, part of Gower’s Confessio Amantis and Lydgate's Life of Saints Edmund and Fremund.


Harley MS 7333 f. 37 E120812

A passage from The Canterbury Tales, which follows the Brut Chronicle, England (Leicester), 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 7333, f. 37r


The final extension is to 1461, the accession of Edward IV, found in British Library Additional MS 10099, a paper manuscript of the late 15th century, under the title 'A breve tretise compiled for to bringe the people oute of doute, that han not herd of the Cronycles and of the lineal descensse unto the crownes of Englande, of Fraunce, of Castel Legiouns, and unto the Duchie of Normandie, sith it was first conquest and made'. It also contains Higden's Polychronicon and a text entitled Doctrina Sana (Rules for healthy living). See the catalogue entry online here.

The relationships of the texts and continuations are extremely complicated, and Matheson classified them into  four groups, the Common text, the Extended Version, the Abbreviated version and a looser grouping which he called the Peculiar Version, which includes a translation from the French Brut by John Mandeville (British Library MS Harley 4690 contains this translation).  Records show that they were owned by religious houses, aristocratic families, and merchants, from London to Yorkshire to Wales. 

In the second half of the fifteenth century, the chronicles were spread to an even wider audience as they were used by Jean de Wavrin as the basis of his Recueil des Croniques d’Engleterre  which he composed for the Burgundian court, allies of the English.



Miniature of the Siege of Troyes, 1419, from Wavrin's Croniques, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1470 - c. 1480, Royal MS 14 E IV, f. 57r


23 April 2013

Happy St George's Day

Happy St George's Day, everyone! Here are some images from the British Library's collections, to celebrate the feast day of the patron saint of England, Portugal, Georgia, Russia and Palestine, among others. You can find many more images of St George on our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

Miniature of George fighting the dragon, with a full border with George passing the king's daughter, at the beginning of a prayer to George, in a Book of Hours: Bruges, c. 1500 (London, British Library, MS Egerton 1147, f. 259r).

Detail of a miniature of George fighting the dragon, in a Book of Hours: France, c. 1430-1440 (London, British Library, MS Harley 2900, f. 55r).

Miniature of George and full scatter border, in a Book of Hours: Bruges, c. 1500 (London, British Library, MS King's 9, f. 41r).

Detail of a miniature of George killing the dragon, with the princess kneeling, in the Legenda Aurea: Paris, 1382 (London, British Library, MS Royal 19 B XVII, f. 109r).

19 April 2013

Guess the Manuscript!

Guess the manuscript

It's Friday, so let's have some fun. This is one of the British Library's collection items -- can you guess which one? A clue: it can be found on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

And here is the answer: it's the binding of a 15th-century physician's folding almanac, Harley MS 937, which was recently digitised as part of our Harley Science Project.

London, British Library, MS Harley 937, f. 1r.

Thank you to everyone who attempted to identify this item, and especially to @ainoa_castro, @yorkherald and Jen Kubeck for being the first to name it correctly. Doubtless we'll play this game again -- watch this space.

Don't forget to follow us on Twitter, @blmedieval.


17 April 2013

What's in the Beowulf Manuscript?

We're often asked what the Beowulf manuscript contains. Here's a helpful run-down, which explains how the epic poem we know as Beowulf is part of a wider collection, and how that codex was itself bound in the 17th century with an entirely separate medieval volume.

Essentially, all the components of the "Beowulf manuscript" were put together by the Parliamentarian and antiquarian scholar Sir Robert Cotton (d. 1631). Cotton had at his disposal two independent medieval codices: one dating from the very end of the 10th century or beginning of the 11th, and containing the poem Beowulf and other texts; the second dating from the 12th century, and containing Old English versions of Augustine's Soliloquies and the Gospel of Nicodemus. Cotton had these bound together as part of a single volume, christened Cotton MS Vitellius A XV (once the 15th item on shelf A of a press named after the emperor Vitellius). At the front of that volume were added a leaf removed from a 14th century Psalter, a list of contents, and a medieval endleaf (presumably taken from one of the two medieval compilations).


You can see the whole Beowulf manuscript on our Digitised Manuscripts site. But, for ease of reference, here is a full list of the contents, plus images from selected pages.

Psalter leaf (f. 1: now removed to form Royal MS 13 D I*, f. 37, the remains of the Psalter to which it originally belonged)

England, c. 1350-1360


Early modern endleaf (f. 2)

England, 1st half of the 17th century

Contains a list of contents in the hand of Richard James (d. 1638)


Medieval endleaf (f. 3)

England, 1st half of the 15th century (f. 3r), 2nd half of the 16th century (f. 3v)

Medieval endleaf, containing historical memoranda


"The Southwick Codex" (ff. 4-93)

England (provenance Southwick Priory, Hampshire), 2nd half of the 12th century

Augustine of Hippo, Soliloquia (ff. 4r–59v: imperfect)

Gospel of Nicodemus (ff. 60r–86v: imperfect)

Debate of Saturn and Solomon (ff. 86v–93v)

Homily on St Quintin (f. 93v: imperfect)

Augustine of Hippo, Soliloquia (London, British Library, MS Cotton Vitellius A XV, f. 4r)

Gospel of Nicodemus (London, British Library, MS Cotton Vitellius A XV, f. 60r)

Debate of Saturn and Solomon (London, British Library, MS Cotton Vitellius A XV, f. 86v)

Homily on St Quintin (London, British Library, MS Cotton Vitellius A XV, f. 93v)


"The Nowell Codex" (ff. 94-209, named after its former owner, Laurence Nowell, d. c. 1570)

England, last quarter of the 10th century or 1st quarter of the 11th century

Homily on St Christopher (ff. 94r–98r: imperfect)

Marvels of the East (ff. 98v–106v)

Letter of Alexander to Aristotle (ff. 107r–131v)

Beowulf (ff. 132r–201v)

Judith (ff. 202r–209v: imperfect)

Homily on St Christopher (London, British Library, MS Cotton Vitellius A XV, f. 94r)

Marvels of the East (London, British Library, MS Cotton Vitellius A XV, f. 98v)

Letter of Alexander to Aristotle (London, British Library, MS Cotton Vitellius A XV, f. 107r)

Beowulf (London, British Library, MS Cotton Vitellius A XV, f. 132r)

Judith (London, British Library, MS Cotton Vitellius A XV, f. 202r)

15 April 2013

French Prose Brut Chronicles in the British Library (And How to Find Them)

Royal MS 20 A III f. 160r K90048-25

Diagram of a square table with 'C'est la fourme de la Table Rounde del Roy Arthur' written above, from a French Prose Brut, France, second half of the 14th century, Royal MS 20 A III, f. 160r


The Prose Brut chronicles, a collection of 13th and 14th century texts, tell the history of Britain from its legendary origins through to the Plantagenet period when they were composed. They were first written down in Anglo-Norman, the French dialect of England, later adapted into Latin and Middle English, and eventually became one of the most popular accounts of English history in the medieval and early modern period. The Anglo-Norman prose version survives in at least 49 manuscripts, but there are almost 200 surviving copies in Latin and English.  In the British Library we have reputedly 15 Prose Brut manuscripts in French, 7 in Latin and 38 in English; it is therefore one of the most widely-represented non-religious texts in our manuscript collections.

The original version of the French Prose Brut opens with the founding of Britain by Brutus, nephew of Aeneas of Troy, beginning: 'En la noble cite de graunt Troie il i avoit un noble chivaler fort et puissaunt de cors qe avoit a noun Eneasa'. ('In the noble city of great Troy there was a noble knight, strong and powerful in body who had the name Aeneas').  In the long version of the text, this is often preceded by a short 'prequel' known as Des Grantz Geanz, which tells the story of the first discovery of the island by Albina and her sisters, which is why the new land came to be known as Albion. 


Royal MS 19 C IX f. 8r detail c1810-06a

Detail of a miniature of Albina and her sisters, daughters of King Diodicias of Persia, the monstrous women who murdered their husbands and founded the kingdom of Albion in Britain, from a French Prose Brut, France of the Netherlands, 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Royal MS 19 C IX, f. 8r


The  early legends are filled with fantastical events, including those in the stories of King Arthur. The narrative gradually becomes more realistic, though, as it it moves through the history of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and the more contemporary events of the Norman and Plantagenet period, representing an early attempt at factual historical narrative.

Manuscripts of the Prose Brut in Anglo-Norman French

Here is a list of British Library manuscripts containing this text, with links to our online catalogues where images and further information are available.

I. The 'Common Text'

The British Library has two of the 5 surviving manuscripts of the earliest version of the chronicles to 1272, known as the 'common' version as it forms the basis for most of the later accounts. Our Archives and Manuscripts Catalogue contains short descriptions (links provided) and they are accessible to scholars in our Manuscripts Reading Room.

Additional MS 35092, ff. 5-144 (mid 14th-century)

Cotton MS Tiberius A VI (14th century)


Royal MS 20 A XVIII f. 150v K90048-17

A genealogical diagram illustrating the lineage of William the Conqueror, after which he is introduced in the text: 'Cesty William Bastard Duc de Normandy fust vailliant chevalier' ('This William the Bastard Duke of Normandy was a valliant knight…'), from a Chronicle of England ( the 'Anonimalle Chronicle'), England, 14th century, Royal MS 20 A XVIII, f. 150v

II. The Later Versions and Continuations in Anglo Norman French

Of the 13 remaining manuscripts, 4 are in our online Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts with descriptions and images.

Royal MS 20 A XVIII (14th century)

Royal MS 19 C IX (15th century)

Royal MS 20 A III (second half of the 14th century; the manuscript also contains Gautier of Metz' L'image du Monde)

Harley MS 200 (2nd-3rd quarter of the 15th century)


Harley MS 200 f. 2r c12050-03

Miniature of the king of France being presented with the attributes of his throne (the crown, the helm, the cloak, the sword, the fleur de lis, etc.) by bishops and dignitaries.  This miniature was painted in Paris, c. 1500, and was bound together, probably in the 17th century, with the manuscript containing the Brut and other chronicles, which was copied about 50 years earlier. Harley MS 200, f. 2r


The Prose Brut manuscripts in the Cotton collection are in the Archives and Manuscripts catalogue.

An outline entry for each manuscript can be found by searching under the manuscript name:

Cotton MS Cleopatra D III, ff. 74r-182v

Cotton MS Cleopatra D VII, ff. 76r-79v (hand 2), 80-139v (hand 1), 140-182v (hand 2)

Cotton MS Domitian A X, ff. 14r-87v

Cotton MS Julius A I, ff. 51r-53v (fragment, damaged by fire)


More to follow on the Brut.  Our collection of English Prose Brut manuscripts is even more comprehensive, and there are some beautifully illuminated manuscripts from the fifteenth century.  Watch this space for details.

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- Chantry Westwell

12 April 2013

Not Always Bad News Birds: The Caladrius

With apologies for the tortured reference to our previous post on medieval owls!  Regular readers will know that this blog has an ongoing series about animals in medieval manuscripts; our menagerie so far has included dogscats, beavers, hedgehogselephants, and more.  To shake things up in time for the weekend, let us turn our attention to an animal that you might not recognise as readily as you would a Lolcat or Mrs Tiggy-Winkle -- the caladrius bird.


Harley 4751 f. 40 detail

Detail of a miniature of a caladrius perched on the bed of a king, from a bestiary, with extracts from Giraldus Cambrensis on Irish birds, England (Salisbury?), 2nd quarter of the 13th century, Harley MS 4751, f. 40r


Although they are little-known today, caladrius birds were common features in medieval bestiaries.  The caladrius, we are told in the bestiary text, makes its home in the courts of kings, and is pure white 'like the swan'. The dung of the caladrius was believed to cure blindness, but this remedy was rather a mixed blessing since it required the direct application of guano in the eyes of the afflicted.  But the real value of the caladrius was in its infallible prognostic abilities.  If it was brought into a sickroom and turned away from the man or woman within, that person would surely die.  If, however, the caladrius kept his gaze on the ill person and 'directed itself towards his face' (sometimes this is depicted quite literally; see below), it was a different story.  After staring down the sick man or woman, the caladrius would fly into the air, taking the illness with it, and the patient was destined to make a full recovery. 


Sloane 3544 f. 24 detail

Detail of a miniature of a rather alarming caladrius on the sickbed of a man who will be cured, from a bestiary, England, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 13th century, Sloane MS 3544, f. 24r


Outside of manuscripts, only two medieval depictions of the caladrius survive: on a much-worn piece of 12th century sculpture adorning the village church of St Mary's at Alne, near York in England, and in a panel of a 13th century stained-glass window on the cathedral of Saint-Jean-Baptiste in Lyon, France. But knowledge of the caladrius bird's amazing abilities must have been fairly widespread, as they can be found depicted in a number of manuscript miniatures without any explanatory text.  A black version of the caladrius, for example, is shown in a French Bible miniature in the act of curing the prophet Tobias. 


Harley 616 f. 259r

Detail of a miniature of Tobias in bed, stretching out his hands towards a flying black caladrius bird, at the beginning of Tobit, from a Bible (imperfect), France (Paris), last quarter of the 13th century, Harley MS 616, f. 259r


And an interesting double act can be found in the bas-de-pages of facing folios in the Queen Mary Psalter.


Royal 2 B. vii f. 89v detail

Royal 2 B. vii f. 90r detail

First the good news, then the bad… detail of a bas-de-page miniature of a caladrius bird indicating that a sick man will get well, and a detail of relations mourning at the bed of a man who will die, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England (London or East Anglia?), between 1310 and 1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, ff. 89v-90r


Caladrius birds also make an appearance in the medieval histories of Alexander the Great, where they are included amongst the marvels Alexander encounters during his travels in the east. Unlike the pure white bestiary-caladrius, those in Alexander manuscripts are often depicted with tan or yellowish feathers (see below).


Royal 20 B. xx f. 83r detail

Detail of a miniature of Alexander the Great enthroned, being presented with caladrius birds, from Historia de proelis in a French translation (Le Livre et le vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre), France (Paris), c. 1420, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 83r


It is possible that this tawny version of the caladrius might be a reference to much older sources.  The Roman scholar Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) names it as the 'icterus' because of its colour.  Probably not coincidentally, he also mentions its particular skill at curing those afflicted with jaundice ('ictericus'); one of the unpleasant symptoms of that disease is, of course, yellowing of the skin.  Classical scholars often referred to jaundice as the 'morbus regius' ('royal disease') because it was believed that the touch of a king could cure it, and this early association might explain why caladrius birds are so often shown with royalty and inside regal settings.



Detail of a miniature of Alexander with caladrius birds and ill people, from the Talbot Shrewsbury book, France (Rouen), 1444-1445, Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 21v


It is difficult to find many references to the caladrius after the 15th century, but this amazing avian has experienced a very minor renaissance in recent decades.  The obvious associations with diagnosis and healing make it an ideal symbol for medicine, and the caladrius has been included in coats of arms recently granted to the Medical University of South Africa, the South African Medical and Dental Council, and the Isle of Wight Health Authority.  Perhaps most charmingly, a caladrius bird featured in a 1978 'Theodoric of York, Medieval Barber' sketch on the programme Saturday Night Live, during which the barber/doctor Theodoric (played by the incomparable Steve Martin) tries to use the bird (played by an uncooperative live dove) to diagnose an ultimately-doomed patient.

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- Sarah J Biggs

09 April 2013

What Can We Learn from a Scribal Colophon?


Astronomical table of John Killingworth, from a compilation of astrology and prophecy, England (London?), 1490, Arundel MS 66, f. 29v

Arundel MS 66 is a massive manuscript containing a highly sophisticated collection of astronomical and astrological works.  It combines texts on judicial astrology and geomancy with astronomical tables, which were necessary tools to calculate the movements of the planets and stars. As a comprehensive guide to techniques of forecasting the future, it also contains an interesting selection of English political prophecies.

Although its early provenance is untraceable, it has long been suggested that Henry VII was the original patron or recipient of the codex, based largely on the royal portrait and arms included in a miniature on f. 201r (see below), as well as several heraldic badges incorporated in borders, initials and miniatures throughout the text.



Detail of a miniature of Henry VII, surrounded by his courtiers, overseeing an astrologer making a prediction for the forthcoming year, at the beginning of a treatise on the Revolution of the year of the world, from a compilation of astrology and prophecy, England (London?), 1490, Arundel MS 66, f. 201r


Amongst the elements that can be tied to Henry VII and his family is the friendly Red Dragon of Cadwaladr, painted against the Tudor livery colours of white and green; you may remember this miniature from the opening displayed during the Royal Exhibition. This stand-out Red Dragon was used in Arundel MS 66 in the place of the more usual image of the constellation Draco, in a section containing Ptolemy's 'Catalogue of Stars'.



Detail of the constellation Draco, at the beginning of Ptolemy's Catalogue of Stars, from a compilation of astrology and prophecy, England (London?), 1490, Arundel MS 66, f. 33r


The main text in this manuscript is the Decem tractatus astronomiae (or Liber Astronomiae), a popular handbook of astrology composed by the famous Italian astrologer Guido Bonatti of Forli (1207-1296). An otherwise blank leaf at the end of this text bears a note by the scribe, John Wellys, which may give some insight into the production of the book.



Detail of John Wellys' note at the end of Guido Bonatti's Decem tractatus astronomiae, from a compilation of astrology and prophecy, England (London?), 1490, Arundel MS 66, f. 249r


The note reads:

'Finitur hic liber Guydonis Bonacti de Forlivio anno Christi 1490 30 die junij hora 12 minuta 24a per me Johannem Wellys compositus et renovatus et anno H. r. 7. 4to pontificatus sanctissimi in Christo patris nostri Innocenti pape 4to [sic for 8to] 5to'.

Which translates to:

This book by Guido Bonacti of Forlì was finished in the year of Christ 1490, on the 30th day of June, 12 hours and 24 minutes, compiled and brought up-to-date by me John Wellys in the 4th year of K[ing] H[enry] vii and in the 5th year of the holy pontificate in Christ of our father pope Innocent IV [sic for VIII].

Whether John Wellys was a trained astrologer or not, he dated the terminus of his work with an extraordinary precision which reminds one of the language often used in astrological charts. Another good example can be found in Egerton MS 889, which describes the birth date of Henry VI in a similarly detailed way:  'Nativitas Henrici sexti anno Christi imperfecto 1421°, 5a die Decembris post meridiem, 3 horam 20m 56s, die Veneris, hora Saturni (Nativity of Henry VI in the imperfect year of Christ 1421, 5th day of December, in the afternoon, at 3 hours 20 minutes and 56 seconds, on the day of Venus, in the hour of Saturn).


Egerton 889 f. 5 detail

Diagram of the horoscope for the birth of Henry VI, from an astronomical and astrological compendium (the 'Codex Holbrookensis'), England (Cambridge), between c. 1420 and 1437, Egerton MS 889, f. 5r


In his note in Arundel MS 66, Wellys also scrupulously calculated the regnal years of Henry VII and Innocent VIII. Both the king and the pope came into power in August, in 1485 (22 August) and 1484 (29 August), respectively. Arundel MS 66 was completed in June of 1490, therefore in the fourth year of Henry's reign and the fifth year of Innocent's pontificate.

John Wellys's inscription, jotted down on a blank leaf, appears to be more an informal note than an polished colophon. What, then, was its purpose, and what does this note tell us about the scribe's work? The way Wellys used verbs is somewhat striking. He preferred to describe his activity as 'componere' (to put together or arrange) rather than the more commonly used 'scribere' (to write), implying that his task involved a work of compilation. He also stressed the fact that he brought the text up to date ('renovatus'). Indeed, a closer look at Wellys's rendering of Bonatti's Liber astronomiae shows a great deal of editorial work. The scribe introduced his own division of the text into not six but seven parts and therefore had to alter Bonatti's preface. In the Tractatus de Electionibus, one of the tracts forming the Liber astronimiae, his ingenuity went even further. Wellys was clearly transcribing his text from an imperfect model. The Tractatus in question contains several gaps and an imperfect beginning.



Detail of the imperfect beginning of Tractatus de Electionibus, with a miniature of Henry VII’s badge of a crowned tree, from a compilation of astrology and prophecy, England (London?), 1490, Arundel MS 66, f. 129r


Wellys did not bother with the two chapters missing at the beginning of the tract, instead simply electing to open with chapter 3. However, a large portion missing at the end seems to have caught his attention. By this point in his labours he was working on royal commission, which may have had something to do with his diligence! Not having another copy of Bonatti's book at hand, Wellys decided to find the missing text elsewhere. On ff. 143v-147v, he seamlessly replaced Bonatti's text on elections with an extract from a similar work, De iudiciis astrorum (On the judgements of the stars) by the Arabic author Haly ibn Ragel. Did King Henry ever notice the difference?



Detail of the incipit of Haly ibn Ragel's De iudiciis astrorum interpolated into Guido Bonatti's Tractatus de Electionibus, with the change of ink colour marking the beginning of the interpolation, from a compilation of astrology and prophecy, England (London?), 1490, Arundel MS 66, f. 143v


To cover up his textual replacement, Wellys provided an inaccurate rubric at the end of the interpolated passage, which reads, 'expliciunt electiones libri Guidonis' (here ends the elections of Guido's book).



Detail of the explicit of Haly ibn Ragel's De iudiciis astrorum interpolated into Guido Bonatti's Tractatus de Electionibus, from a compilation of astrology and prophecy, England (London?), 1490, Arundel MS 66, f. 147v


Wellys copied part of the replacement text in an added quire, in a different colour of ink from the rest of the manuscript. He used the same light brown ink to supply the last two rubrics of the Tractatus de ymbribus et aeris, the last tract of Bonatti's book (f. 248r), possibly during the same campaign of revisions.  If not for his unusually worded colophon-note, I would have never discovered John Wellys's trick!

- Joanna Fronska

This post is based on my forthcoming article 'The Royal Image and Diplomacy: Henry VII’s Book of Astrology (British Library, Arundel MS 66)' in the Electronic British Library Journal.   

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