Medieval manuscripts blog

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14 posts from June 2014

12 June 2014

The Poetry of Fragments

In a previous blog post we talked about the Constitution of Athens, one of the most spectacular papyrus rolls preserved from antiquity. But the truth is that most papyrus fragments are much smaller, and often preserve only part of the text they originally contained. Even the Constitution of Athens papyrus is incomplete, after all!

Fragment of the Aristotelian Constitution of Athens (Ἀθηναίων Πολιτεία), Papyrus 131, roll 1 verso

While this can be frustrating, it also presents an exciting challenge to papyrologists. Sometimes fragmentary texts can be reconstructed based on attestations of the same work in other papyri or in the manuscript tradition. If it is a literary text, or a formulaic legal document, some educated guesswork can help figure out what the wider context might be. Particularly exciting are those instances where a scholar can reunite parts of the same original document, now scattered across the world. An excellent example of this is the recent article by Antonia Sarri in Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies, who shows that a papyrus in the British Library (Papyrus 2553) and one in Columbia University Library (P. Col. VIII 211) are two halves of the same letter.

A great deal of Greek poetry has only been preserved in papyrus fragments. In the case of some authors, such as Archilochus, Simonides, and Sappho, discoveries even in the last few decades have added greatly to what we know of their works, and in some cases have caused scholars to have to rethink some long-held beliefs about the nature of early Greek poetry. The British Library has only a single fragment of Sappho, a very early arrival from the great collection of papyri found at Oxyrhynchus (P. Oxy. I 7).

Fragment of a poem by Sappho concerning her brother Charaxus, Papyrus 739

But as fragments of Sappho go, it’s a pretty good one – we can be fairly sure of the text of two stanzas, and have a decent chunk of three more. In the poem, Sappho prays for the safe return for her brother and hopes that they can be reconciled. This is presumably Charaxos, whose falling-out with his sister is described by Herodotus (2.134-5), and who is named in the new Sappho poem published earlier this year.

While the text is exciting in itself, there is something very special about viewing the original papyrus, which helps to give a sense of just how serendipitous our knowledge of Sappho’s poetry is. Sappho joins Homer and Sophocles on our Digitised Manuscripts roster of poets on papyrus: we hope to add many more in the future.

- Cillian O'Hogan

10 June 2014

Beyond the Bling

It’s like putting a face to a well-known name for the first time.  Often mentioned in scholarship on late medieval English books, but rarely reproduced, the Simeon manuscript is online at last on Digitised Manuscripts.  So what are the first impressions now that Add MS 22283 is available for close-up digital scrutiny?  Bling.  Conspicuous, ostentatious display of gold-leaf on virtually all of its massive pages.  Think of exquisite books of hours such as British Library, Egerton MS 1151, and then imagine the complete opposite.  Although it too is comprised of texts for pious readers, Simeon is no personal devotional pocket book, intricately decorated to draw in the eye of the reader, but a huge tome measuring some 590 x 390 mm whose open pages would have glittered from afar across the medieval hall, chapel, or library.  Folio 90r is typical: illuminated initials mark the start of each verse stanza, and even paragraph marks are decorated with gold:

The beginning of ‘Of a true love clean and derne’, the Love Rune by Thomas of Hales, Add MS 22283, f. 90r

At the bottom of this page two full-length bar borders terminate in elaborate gold-leaf extensions that form the ground for huge, freeform sprays in the generous lower margin:

Sprays on gold-leaf grounds, Add MS 22283
, f. 90r

When one has ceased to be dazzled, however, closer inspection – so much more convenient with the digital format than when consulting the massive volume itself -- reveals many interesting and curious details.  At least one of the artists indulged in expressive exuberance in the interiors and extensions of initials.  A fine example occurs on folio 4v, where a naturalistic – though blue -- dog curls inside a T, the descending stroke of the letter curving up and round like a leash attached to the dog’s collar.  If one imagines the image turned through 90 degrees, the dog sniffs the letter like a hound following a scent:

I Add_ms_22283_f004v_detail
nitial T marking the beginning of the homily of the gospel for the second Sunday after Trinity in the Northern Homily Cycle, Add MS 22283
, f. 4v

Possibly there were originally more zoomorphic initials by this witty and observant artist in the 176 or so folios that have been lost at the beginning of the manuscript.  Initials later in the volume display animal forms of rather more whimsical, less fully-realised character, for example the reptilian creature that materialises from the foliage in the initial A on folio 149r:

Initial A marking the second part of The Form of Living by Richard Rolle, Add MS 22283
, f. 149r

On fol. 21r the serif of a T extends to suggest an elongated creature with an protruding snout:

Initial T marking the beginning of the homily on the gospel for the feast of St Thomas in the Northern Homily Cycle, Add MS 22283
, fol.  21r

On folio 33v two animal heads (dogs again?) spew out sprays at the base of a letter thorn (th): 

Initial thorn marking a new section in the Speculum Vitae, Add MS 22283
, f. 33v

But the extension at the top of this letter is even more interesting,  for here a human face looks pensively at the text:

Add_ms_22283_f033v_detail_2 copy
Human face protruding from an initial, Add MS 22283
, f. 33v

The face serves as a particularly effective nota bene, its expression of concern suggesting the appropriate response from the reader, or from even the artist himself, to the dreadful warning in the text it contemplates:

Passage from the Speculum Vitae, Add MS 22283
, f. 33v

The passage is from the Speculum Vitae, a Middle English commentary on the Pater Noster prayer; here the author comments on the phrase qui es (who art [in heaven]), stating that it should stir dread of punishment at the Last Judgement.  In the original Middle English the passage reads:

Ȝit þis word whon we hit rede

Qui es stureþ vs to haue drede.

For al þauh we god vr fader halde

And we ben here his children calde

He is rihtwis and soþfast

And wol ȝelde vs atte last

Aftur vre dedes and þat is skil

Be þei goode or be þei il.

And þat schal be at þe dom seene

Wel is hym þat þenne is clene

For þenne wol god rewarde sone

To vche mon as he haþ done.

Þerfore we schulde euer ha drede

To don vuel þorwh word or dede.

For we schul ȝelde acountes þat day

Of vche idel word þat we say.

(‘Yet when we read this phrase qui es, it stirs dread in us.  For although we consider God our father and are called his children, he is righteous and truthful and will pay us back for our deeds at the end, according to whether they are good or bad, as makes sense.  And that shall be seen at the Last Judgement; it will be well for anyone then who is clean of sin.  For then God will reward each person according to his deeds.  Therefore we should always dread doing evil by word or deed. For we shall be called to account that day for each idle word that we have said.’)

Other details discovered by close examination are the traces left by early readers of Simeon, readers that pre-date by a long way the only known owner, John Simeon, who sold the manuscript to the British Library in 1858.  One early reader updates the original Middle English  ‘ȝe [ye] may habbe /To ȝoure mest neode [to your most need]’, writing ‘haue yf [if] ye crave’ in a coarse hand.  A later reader remarks sardonically, ‘this read bettre before’ (folio 2v):

Add_ms_22283_f002v_detail copy
Early readers’ responses to the Northern Homily Cycle, Add MS 22283
, f. 2v

One gets a sense of a community of readers through the ages, engaging in different ways with the challenges of the Middle English and with each other.

Annotations in Latin suggest that some early readers of Simeon had received at least a grammar-school education (and were therefore probably male).  One Latin-writing annotator identifies the author of a text as the famous fourteenth-century mystic Walter Hilton in a side-note, ‘tractatus Magistri Walteri de Hilton’ (folio 151v).  This one-off identification suggests that Hilton was of particular interest to this reader.  Another annotator notes the subject of an exemplum, writing ‘of a kene swerd’ (of a keen sword) in a one-off rubric (folio 86v).   Another picks out the names and attributes of certain characters in the Prick of Conscience (folio 77r), for example ‘Absolon the fairest’ and ‘Sampson the strongest’:

A reader’s response to the Prick of Conscience, Add MS 22283
, f. 77r

A  note in the lower margin of folio 38r takes us from the world of readers of the manuscript to that of the scribes who produced books such as these, or used them as exemplars.  This note refers to a certain John Scryveyn and Thomas Heneley and their involvement in book copying:

Note concerning a copying commission by Thomas Heneley for John Scryveyn, Add MS 22283
, f. 38r

H. E. Allen noted long ago (Times Literary Supplement, 8 February 1936, p. 116) that this note relates to another note of similar wording in the famous Vernon manuscript (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Eng. poet. a. 1).  The link between the two notes is one of several pieces of evidence that Simeon was made in association with Vernon.  Another link between Simeon and Vernon is the fact that the main scribe of both books is the same.  The Vernon-Simeon scribe, as we might call him, uses spellings and forms associated with the dialects of the West Midlands and has a careful, unshowy round hand typified by the backwards curl at the bottom of the letter thorn and the relative heights of the ascenders in w (see þat and was in the second line of the image from folio 77r, above).  Evidence like this points intriguingly to the little-understood world of scribal activity and the making and decoration of books in England around 1400 of which the Simeon manuscript is a product.  It is to be hoped that the digitisation of Simeon will help to uncover more of this lost world and shed light on its mysteries.

The Simeon Manuscript Project team at the University of Birmingham, who have collaborated with the British Library  in the digitisation of the Simeon manuscript, is studying some of these problems.   We would be delighted to hear from anyone who thinks they have identified any of the Simeon scribal hands in another manuscript or document or has found comparable decoration.  For information about the research and related projects and to contact the team please visit the project website and of course please upload your comments to this blog.  We will be posting further guest entries about our work on the British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts blog as the project develops.

 -  Wendy Scase, University of Birmingham

07 June 2014

Guess the Manuscript XIII

Many thanks to all of you who have been playing along with our award-winning game Guess the Manuscript.  Our last installment was handily won by Hal Anderson, ARLIMA, Joyce Coleman, and quite a few of you on Twitter - congratulations to you all!

We've decided to take a turn from the textual to the graphic today (not that kind of graphic), and to issue a further challenge to you - we want to know if you can identify the image below, but also tell us a bit about its history.  By now you know the rules; this image can be found somewhere on our Digitised Manuscripts site, and is a part of our medieval collections.  Please leave your guesses in the comments below, or on Twitter @BLMedieval.  Good luck!



Update:  only one of you managed to crack this one - congratulations to Richard Wragg (@richdwragg) who guessed correctly (well, nearly, as you'll see)!  The answer is a carpet page from an 11th century Gospels from Germany, Harley MS 2821, and is very similar to folio 99v, which was Richard's guess, but this one has a bit of a twist.  It is the carpet page on f. 198v, which was removed from its probable location at the beginning of Luke's Gospel at some unknown time.  It was later rebound in its present location upside-down and reversed recto to verso (see the recto, f. 198r, to see just how upside-down it really is).  Thanks to everyone who played along!

- Sarah J Biggs

05 June 2014

Medieval Comics Continued (Not for the Squeamish!)

In our first post on medieval comic strips, we promised blood and gore and true romance, and so here it is – but beware!  Of course, Bibles and theological books can contain some really good material, but we have found great examples, too, in works of science, history and allegory. 

A 12th-century Medical Collection - Horrible Science

Perhaps this is stretching the analogy a little as there is no story-line, but here the comic-strip format is used for instruction in medical procedures.  The captions in Latin indicate the affliction that is being treated and the images are certainly gory – ouch!  There probably weren’t very long queues to see these GPs and not many would have made it to a second consultation!

A  full-page miniature in four compartments of a doctor instructing an assistant on how to prepare medicine; two doctors operating on the head of a patient whose hands are tied behind his back; and two images of a doctor with patients who have cautery points marked on their heads and bodies, 4th quarter of the 12th century, England, N.? or France, N.?, Sloane MS 1975,
f. 91v

 Valerius Maximus: Memorabilia: intrigue and murder in Ancient Rome

Roman history is given comic-book treatment in this Paris manuscript from the 15th century. Here the story of Lucretia, early heroine of the Roman republic, is told in a series of very lifelike images.

Harley MS 4374 f. 211r 25744_2
Sextus Tarquinius threatens Collatinus' wife, Lucretia, with death (left), Lucretia commits suicide before Collatinus, Lucretius, her father, Brutus and Publius Valerius; King Tarquinius Superbus expelled from Rome (left), Lucretius, Collatinus, Brutus and P. Valerius swear to avenge Lucretia (right); P. Valerius Publicola, as Consul, orders his troops to remove the axe symbols of Tarquinius' authority (left), and orders his imposing, fortress-like palace to be demolished (right), France (Paris); between 1473 and c. 1480, Harley MS 4374, f. 211

Roman de la Rose - the original ‘True Romance’

In these images from a Rose manuscript, a range of characters including ladies and monks  have speech banners, each with a courtly phrase or lover’s lament, words that they seem to be saying themselves, like , 'Lonc temps vivre ne pouray' (I cannot live long), 'Ay ay nus ne doit amer' (Ai, nobody must love),  'Ma dame ie vous aim' (My lady, I love you), 'Lasse iai failli a ioie' (Alas, I am without joy).

Full-page image with two compartments containing 8 figures including men, women, monks and a nun, all pierced by the arrows of love and holding scrolls, France (Paris); c. 1320 - c. 1340, Royal MS 19 B XIII, f. 4r

Taymouth  Hours  - Amoras, a medieval Andy Capp?

In medieval legend, Amoras the knight is the classic anti-hero and hapless husband in one of a series of miracles associated with the Virgin Mary. When in need of money he sells his wife to the Devil in return for a chest of gold, but on  their way to hand her over, they pass a chapel. The wife prays to the Virgin, who takes her place when the Devil appears and drives him away forever. The legend of Amoras is told in the Taymouth Hours in a series of bas-de page images with captions. It extends over the lower margins of 5 pages, with each image representing an episode in the story.

Amoras the knight conversing with the devil, with a caption reading, ‘Cy fist ameroys le che[va]l[e]r omage au deable et a celi p[ro]mist de fere venir a li sa fe[m]me cele iour en un an.’ (recto);  Amoras opening a chest of coins, with a caption reading, ‘Cy le deable dona tresor a ameroise ap[re]s sun omage fere.’ (verso), 2nd quarter of the 14th century, England (London?), Yates Thompson MS 13, ff. 162r-162v

Amoras taking his wife to the devil, with a caption reading, ‘Cy chevauche ameroyse et mene sa feme oue li ver le deable.’ (recto); the distraught wife of Amoras asleep before a large image of the Virgin and Child, with a caption reading, ‘Cy en g[ra]nt t[ri]stesce la fe[m]me ameroyse dort devaunt un ymage de n[ost]re dame.’(verso), 2nd quarter of the 14th century, England (London?), Yates Thompson MS 13, ff. 163r-163v

Here, in the final episode, the Virgin Mary sees that the devils get what they deserve and Amoras is left looking foolish:

Amoras and the Virgin Mary riding, while two devils flee, with a caption reading, ‘Cy n[ost]re dame chevauche o amerois vers le deable en semblaunce de sa fe[m]me li noun sachaunt.’ 2nd quarter of the 14th century, England (London?), Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 164r

We hope you’ve enjoyed our tour through medieval comics, and that you have a chance to experience Comics Unmasked.

- Chantry Westwell

03 June 2014

The Burden of Writing: Scribes in Medieval Manuscripts

When we speak to visitors or students about our medieval manuscripts, we frequently find ourselves spending a significant amount of time talking about how such books were created.  We discuss the ways that scribes worked and artists painted, and quite often we will then be asked just how it is that we can know such details.  There are, of course, medieval manuals for craftspeople that still exist, but often we can find clues in the manuscripts themselves.  Writing was a skill that was hard-won and greatly valued, and many authors and scribes were memorialised by their artisan brethren.  We’ll devote an upcoming post to an examination of these artists themselves, but today will concentrate on images of scribes at work. 

A portrait of St Dunstan writing at a desk.
Full-page miniature of St Dunstan at work, from Smaragdus of St Mihiel’s Expositio in Reglam S Benedicti, England (Canterbury), c. 1170 – c. 1180, Royal MS 10 A XIII, f. 2v

A spectacular leading example is that of St Dunstan, writing his commentary on the Rule of St Benedict.  Dunstan is shown in his bishop’s garb, seated in a spectacular if somewhat uncomfortable-looking chair.  On the stand before him is a manuscript, bound in a chemise fabric.  The opening lines of Dunstan’s text are already written in blue and red ink, and the saint is in the process of adding to them with ink from the pot before him.  In his right hand he holds a sharpened quill, while in the left he is wielding a knife.  This knife was a common tool, used to sharpen quills, scrape away scribal mistakes, and even hold the parchment in place while the author was writing.

A detail from a 14th-century manuscript, showing an illustration of a hermit writing.
Detail of a miniature of a hermit at work on a manuscript, from the Estoire del Saint Graal, France (Saint-Omer or Tournai?), c. 1315 – 1325, Royal MS 14 E III, f. 6v

A knife is almost ubiquitous in medieval scribal scenes.  It can be seen employed in the image above, in which a more modest scriptorium is on display.  This miniature, from a copy of the Estoire del Saint Graal that once belonged to Charles V of France, shows a habited hermit in the act of writing at his desk; his quill dipped into the black ink that rests at his side and his knife steadying the page.  This scribe is working on a not-yet bound folio, which has been ruled with lines and is being held in place by a set of red weights.  Interestingly, we can see that rather than writing an original work, he is copying an older text, which rests on a stand above him; he has so far nearly completed the opening word.

A detail from a manuscript of the Roman de la Rose, showing an illustration of one of the text's authors writing at a desk.
Detail of a miniature of Guillaume de Lorris or Jean de Meun at work writing the text, from the Roman de la Rose, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1490 – c. 1500, Harley MS 4425, f. 133r

One of our favourites (of course) is the miniature above, which you hopefully are all already familiar with.  In this scene, the author of the Roman de la Rose is seated at an elaborate workbench with his manuscript before him.  Interestingly, it appears to be a finished copy, bound with gilded edges, which is fairly unusual in these sorts of depictions.  Our author is holding a quill in his hand as he turns towards the viewer, and delightfully appears to have another quill tucked up into his cap.  On the shelf below him are other bound books, some scrolls, and a glass of water, while on his desk we can see two pots of ink, one black, and one red – he may be at work rubricating (marking in red lettering) with the latter ink.  Above the desk is what looks like a sheaf of papers hanging from a hook, although exactly what that is has been a subject of some debate – please do let us know your thoughts!

A page from a 12th-century manuscript, showing an illustration of Donatus at work.
Full-page miniature of Donatus writing his grammar, from Sedulius Scotus’ Expositio super primam edicionem Donati grammatici, Germany, 2nd half of the 12th century, Arundel MS 43, f. 80v

Scribes didn’t always labour on their own, however.  A 12th century copy of Donatus’ Grammar is prefaced with a miniature of the scholar himself, hard at work.  He is surrounded by later inscriptions (and was apparently gifted by this inscriber with an odd variety of full-head crown), but he is also possessed of a small-scale assistant.  This tonsured man, labelled ‘Heinre’(?) is holding an ink horn, which he offers to Donatus.

A detail from the Worms Bible, showing a portrait of St Mark writing his Gospel.
Historiated initial ‘I’(nitium) of Mark and his lion writing the Gospel, from the Worms Bible, Germany (Middle Rhineland), 3rd quarter of the 12th century, Harley MS 2804, f. 188v

Such scribal helpers weren’t always human.  This is particularly the case with images of the four Evangelists, who are often shown being assisted by their animal (or angelic) counterpart in the tasks of writing their Gospels.  One especially charming example comes from the Worms Bible.  On the folio above, St Mark is writing the opening words of his Gospel attended by his lion, who helpfully holds the Evangelist’s ink-horn in his teeth while simultaneously serving as a bookstand. 

A detail from a 15th-century manuscript, showing a scribe with a group of pupils.
Detail of a miniature of a scribe demonstrating to his pupils, from Jean Corbechon’s translation of Bartholomaeus Angelicus’ De proprietatibus rerum, France (Paris?), 1st quarter of the 15th century, Royal MS 17 E III, f. 209r

A detail from a 14th-century manuscript, showing an illustration of Prudence writing before her pupils.
Detail of a miniature of Prudence writing at her desk, with pupils before her,from Laurent d’Orleans’ La somme le roi, France (Paris) 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Royal MS 19 C II, f. 48v

Of course, writing well was a skill that took years to develop, and careful training was necessary.  Many manuscripts include images of masters inducting their pupils into the secrets of the craft.  Interestingly, it’s rare to find an example of a student actually practicing writing; instead the pedagogical technique seems to have required them to watch closely (and occasionally express admiration for the scribe’s labours).  That said, we found one such example of apprentices at work, from Christine de Pizan’s Book of the Queen.  In the scene at the bottom we can see a busy scriptorium; fittingly for this manuscript, the young men are working under the supervision of a woman, Io.

An illustration of a scriptorium, from a manuscript of Christine de Pizan's Book of the Queen.
Detail of a miniature of a scriptorium under the supervision of Io, from Christine de Pizan’s Book of the Queen, France (Paris), c. 1410 – c. 1414, Harley MS 4431, f. 109r

At the end of a long apprenticeship – and presumably, eventually some actual writing practice – a pupil could hope to one day become a master scribe, a profession that was highly respected.  So much so that the tools of the trade were proudly displayed by those who had earned them, through sometimes literally back-breaking labour.  As the 10th century scribe Florentius of Valeranica wrote: ‘Because one who does not know how to write thinks it no labour, I will describe it for you, if you want to know how great is the burden of writing: it mists the eyes, it curves the back, it breaks the belly and the ribs, it fills the kidneys with pain, and the body with all kinds of suffering. Therefore, turn the pages slowly, reader, and keep your fingers well away from the pages, for just as a hailstorm ruins the fecundity of the soil, so the sloppy reader destroys both the book and the writing. For as the last port is sweet to the sailor, so the last line to the scribe.’  

A 15th-century portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer.
Detail of a miniature of Geoffrey Chaucer holding a rosary and wearing a pen-case on a string around his neck, from Thomas Hoccleve’s Regiment of Princes, England (London or Westminster), c. 1411 – c. 1420, Harley MS 4866, f. 88r

A 15th-century illustration of a scribe holding a knife, shears, a pen-case, and an ink-pot.
Detail of a miniature of a scribe with a knife, shears, a pen-case, and an ink-pot, from Jean de Vignay and other texts, France (Paris?), 1st or 2nd quarter of the 15th century, Royal MS 19 C XI, f. 27v

And that will be our last line; stay tuned for our next instalment on the subject of artists in medieval manuscripts!  As always, please do let us know about your favourites in the comments below, or on Twitter @BLMedieval.

Sarah J Biggs

01 June 2014

A Calendar Page for June 2014

For more information about the Huth Hours, please see our post A Calendar Page for January 2014.

In these calendar pages for the month of June, the agricultural labours for the summer are beginning in earnest.  In the first roundel of our calendar pages, we see a peasant at work scything in grass in a field surrounded by a wattled fence (beautifully highlighted with gold paint).  Behind him a man and a woman are similarly employed, while in the background there is a gorgeous landscape characteristic of Bruges illumination of the period, with a peasant’s hut, spired buildings, a manor house, and even a windmill.   On the facing folio, below a lobster-like crab for the zodiac sign Cancer, there is a charming summer scene.  Four young boys have cast their clothes aside and are swimming and playing in a local river.

Calendar page for June, with a roundel miniature of people working in the fields, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 6v

Calendar page for June, with a roundel miniature of boys swimming in a river, with the zodiac sign Cancer, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 7r

- Sarah J Biggs