Medieval manuscripts blog

13 posts from July 2013

08 July 2013

A Remarkable Tale of Manuscript Sleuthing: the Ely Farming Memoranda

In a slim box in the manuscripts secure storage at The British Library are three parchment fragments, mounted side-by-side between two pieces of glass in a wooden frame.  Two are about the length and width of a ruler, the other is almost the same length but twice as wide.  On both sides of the parchment are notes in Old English, some damaged and partially erased, written by several different scribes in a reasonably neat Anglo-Saxon script of the early 11th century.  Below the notes are a drawing of the head of a saint, or possibly Christ, in semi-profile, a number of pen-trials such as ‘omnium inimcorum suorum dominabit’ (a phrase copied by novice scribes to practise writing letters with minims like 'm', 'n', and 'u') and some jotted musical neums, very early examples of musical notation.

Verso of the three parchment strips, with a pen-drawing of a saint (or Christ), England (The Benedictine abbey of St Peter and St Etheldreda, Ely), c. 1007-1025, Add MS 61735, verso

The Old English notes are a detailed record of goods sent from the monastery at Ely in Cambridgeshire to Thorney Abbey.  These goods include ships and fishing nets, farming tools, wagons, 80 swine and a swineherd (valued at 1 ½ pounds and ½ pound respectively!) along with money to buy land at Thetford mill, oxen, a dairymaid and clothes.  In addition there are inventories of farms and livestock and records of rents payable in numbers of eels.  So what we have here is a very early example of farming records, probably jotted down on the flyleaf of a liturgical book belonging to Ely Abbey.  At a later stage the flyleaf was removed, possibly when the book was destroyed, and was torn into strips to be used in binding.  The two narrow strips were used as sewing guards in an early printed book:  Diophantus Arithmetica  (Basel, 1575), which was rebound in the early 17th century and was owned by James Betton, scientist and Fellow of  Queens’ College, Cambridge (1611-28).  Betton donated his scientific library to the college in 1626, and the book remains there to this day (shelfmark D. 2. 7).

In 1902, Professor Skeat, the distinguished Anglo-Saxon philologist of Christ’s College, Cambridge, discovered the two binding fragments and published an article about them in the Cambridge Philological Society journal of that year.  But it was not until twenty-three years later that a Professor Stenton, a historian of Reading University College, came across a third piece of the puzzle in the collection of a Lincolnshire gentleman, Captain W R Cragg of Threekingham.  Cragg had assembled various manuscript fragments in an album, some of which he had apparently bought from a junk shop at Sleaford.  A talented manuscript sleuth, Stenton noticed that one parchment strip ‘closely resembles certain old English fragments found in 1902 by the late Professor Skeat’.  Once the three strips of parchment were placed side by side (the Cragg portion was later acquired by Queens’ College), their importance as a unique record of farming in Anglo-Saxon England was clear.  In addition, the names of monks such as Aelfnoth of Thorney Abbey or that of Aethelflad, wife of King Edmund, are of interest to historians, and four words in Old English occur only in this document (for example, sige: ‘sow’ and baensaede: ‘beanseed’). 

Rectoof the three parchment strips, England (The Benedictine abbey of St Peter and St Etheldreda, Ely), c. 1007-1025, Add MS 61735, recto

The fragments were purchased by the British Library at auction in 1979, and are now part of the library’s important collection of Anglo-Saxon documents.  The question is: how many other medieval fragments still remain hidden in old books on dusty shelves, yet to be discovered?

- Chantry Westwell

06 July 2013

Call for Papers: A Conference on Blackburn Manuscript and Incunable Collections

Hart_cfp detail

R E Hart’s collection of about 800 items, including 400 incunabula and early printed books, as well as 22 medieval manuscripts, was donated to Blackburn Library in 1946, and has been part of Blackburn Museum’s collections since 1972.  An AHRC-funded project to display ten of the most impressive manuscripts and early printed books at the Senate House, London, throughout November 2013, will culminate in a colloquium on the past, present and future of the Blackburn collection, including a round table discussion on the role in general of collections such as Hart’s in local communities today.

We invite proposals for 20 minute papers on the past, present and future of such collections in their contexts.  Papers could explore late Victorian and early twentieth century collectors and their collections; they could also look at the items present in Hart’s collection, including important 13th century psalters (the Blackburn Psalter and the Peckover Psalter), 14th and 15th century English and Flemish Books of Hours, as well as Incunabula.  Finally, papers could address the future of small collections such as Hart’s, and their role in local communities in the digital era.
 Please email proposals of approximately 250 words to Courtnay Konshuh by August 15, 2013. We are offering Bibliographical Society Studentships for graduate students’ travel expenses– if you wish to apply for this, please indicate this in an email to us at hiddehartbooks [at] yahoo [dot] com.
For more information on this project, the exhibition and its contents, please see, and you can download the full CFP here: Download Hart_cfp

04 July 2013

Fancy a Giant List of Digitised Manuscript Hyperlinks?

One of the most common types of enquiry we in the Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts department receive is whether or not a particular manuscript has been uploaded to the Digitised Manuscripts site (second only in frequency to the question of how we have gotten to be so fabulous).  This latter mystery has no simple explanation, but hopefully in future it will be easier to answer the 'Is it digitised yet?' question.  We have put together a master list of all of the manuscripts that have been uploaded by our department, including hyperlinks to the digitised versions; you can download an Excel version of the file here:  Download BL Medieval and Earlier Digitised Manuscripts Master List 04.07.13

Miniature of Jacob’s dream of the ladder, before Psalm 80, with a curtain above, and a bas-de-page image of cannibalistic grotesques pointing to our spreadsheet, from the Rutland Psalter, Add MS 62925, f. 83v

A few notes - this list covers only material from the Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts collections, mostly items digitised as part of the Greek, Harley Science, Royal, and Medieval Manuscripts projects.  The spreadsheet is currently sorted by shelfmark, although of course you can do what you like with it.  We will be updating this list every three months, and the newest versions will be posted on this blog.


02 July 2013

A Calendar Page for July 2013

For more details on calendar pages or the Golf Book, please see the post for January 2013.

Calendar page for July with a miniature of a nobleman going hawking, with haymakers behind him, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Additional MS 24098, f. 24v

Our glimpse into the summer pursuits of aristocrats continues in this miniature from the month of July.  In the foreground, a nobleman is setting out on horseback to hunt with falcons; he is accompanied by two retainers carrying more birds of prey, along with two dogs who seem eager for the hunt.  Behind him, a group of haymakers are at work mowing a field.  In the bas-de-page, a group of men are trying, unsuccessfully it appears, to capture some outsized butterflies.  On the following folio can be found the saints' days for July and a rather fierce-looking lion for Leo.  Below we can see the conclusion of the haymakers' labours, as they head off into the distance with a horsecart laden with their harvest.

Calendar page for July with a bas-de-page scene of a haycart, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Additional MS 24098, f. 25r

01 July 2013

The Lindisfarne Gospels in Durham

The British Library is delighted to be a major lender to the exhibition The Lindisfarne Gospels in Durham, which runs from 1 July to 30 September 2013. No fewer than six of the Library's greatest Anglo-Saxon and medieval treasures are on display at Palace Green Library in Durham, among them the St Cuthbert Gospel, the Ceolfrith Bible and, of course, the magnificent Lindisfarne Gospels.

The Lindisfarne Gospels (London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero D IV, f. 11v).

The loan of these treasures marks the culmination of many years' planning and collaboration between the British Library, Durham University, Durham Cathedral and Durham County Council. It provides an outstanding opportunity for visitors to examine these books at close-hand, and in the context of other artefacts including objects from the Staffordshire Hoard and from the tomb of St Cuthbert.

The star object in this exhibition is undoubtedly the Lindisfarne Gospels, which (according to a colophon added on its final page) was made by Eadfrith, bishop of Lindisfarne (698-c. 721). The monastic community of Lindisfarne fled its home in response to Viking raids, carrying their books with them, settling temporarily at Chester-le-Street and finally at Durham. Every page of the Lindisfarne Gospels is witness to Anglo-Saxon artistic craftsmanship. Particularly noteworthy for art historians are its carpet pages, evangelist portraits and decorated initials; but the meticulous, half-uncial script is also of the highest calibre. The pages currently on display are from the canon tables which precede the four gospels (one of which is shown above). The Lindisfarne Gospels can be viewed in its entirety on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site, and can also normally be seen on display in our Treasures Gallery.

The St Cuthbert Gospel (London, British Library, MS Additional 89000, f. 28v).

Another manuscript to be seen in the Durham exhibition is the St Cuthbert Gospel, the oldest intact European book, still to be found it its original leather binding. This book was purchased for the nation in 2012 following the largest such fundraising campaign ever conducted by the British Library. Most scholars agree that it was made in around AD 698, at the time when Cuthbert's body was translated to a new tomb at Lindisfarne. The coffin was re-opened at Durham Cathedral in 1104, and the book (a copy of the Gospel of St John) found inside. Two of its text-pages can be seen at the Palace Green Library, one of which has a contemporary annotation, as also seen above. Once again, the entire manuscript can be viewed on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

The Ceolfrith Bible (London, British Library, MS Additional 45025, f. 15r).

An early Bible associated with Anglo-Saxon Northumbria has also been loaned by the British Library to Durham. The fragmentary Ceolfrith Bible (Additional MS 45025) was one of three great pandects (single-volume Bibles) commissioned by Abbot Ceolfrith of Wearmouth-Jarrow (690-716). This Bible seemingly left its home at a very early stage, perhaps as a gift to King Offa of Mercia (757-796), before arriving at Worcester Cathedral Library. After the Middle Ages it was broken up to be used as binding papers in a set of Nottinghamshire estate accounts, before a handful of leaves were subsequently rescued and purchased on behalf of the British Library. This manuscript was the subject of a recent blog-post, describing its fortuitous survival.

The Royal Athelstan Gospels (London, British Library, MS Royal 1 B VII, f. 15r).

As well as the Lindisfarne Gospels, a second Anglo-Saxon gospel-book has been loaned by the British Library to the Durham exhibition. This is the so-called "Royal Athelstan Gospels" (Royal MS 1 B VII), which was also shown at our own recent Royal Manuscripts exhibition, and is described in more detail in its accompanying catalogue. Made in Northumbria in the first half of the 8th century, this book contains an added manumission in Old English, stating that King Athelstan of Wessex (924-939) had freed a certain Eadhelm from slavery.

The Durham Liber Vitae (London, British Library, MS Cotton Domitian A VII, f. 7v).

The fifth British Library manuscript in the new exhibition is the Durham Liber Vitae or Book of Life (Cotton MS Domitian A VII). This book was made in the 9th century, written in gold and silver ink, and was continued by generations of monks until the Dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century. It contains the names of members of the monastic community, together with those of other religious and benefactors, including various Anglo-Saxon kings: you can read more about it in our post The Durham Book of Life Online.

Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert (London, British Library, MS Yates Thompson 26, f. 11r).

Last, but definitely not least, the British Library's famous illustrated Life of St Cuthbert (Yates Thompson MS 26) forms part of the Durham exhibition. This book contains the text of Bede's prose Life of Cuthbert, accompanied by a series of exquisite full-page miniatures. It has been featured regularly on our blog, most notably in the post entitled A Menagerie of Miracles (who can forget the image of the otters washing Cuthbert's feet?).

Lending these manuscripts to Durham underlines the British Library's commitment to increase access to its world-famous collections, and to promote new research into medieval manuscript culture. To find out more about them, have a look at Digitised Manuscripts, where all six books can be examined in great detail. Lindisfarne Gospels Durham: One Amazing Book, One Incredible Journey is on show at Palace Green Library until 30 September 2013.