THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

17 posts from April 2015

30 April 2015

The 1934 Runnymede Pageant

P1306A

In June 1934 a major historical pageant was held on the water-meadow at Runnymede, to raise money for local hospitals and charities. Advertised as a celebration of English democracy, the pageant engaged some 5000 actors, 200 horses and 4 elephants, who over eight days performed eight historical scenes, the centrepiece being a recreation of the sealing of Magna Carta. (Apparently the elephants were withdrawn at the last minute.)

P1168-8

Photograph of the crowds watching the 1934 Runnymede Pageant (Egham Museum P1168-8)

Directed by the noted theatre producer Gwen Lally (d. 1963), the spectacle was patronised by the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VIII) and was attended by dignitaries including the Lord Mayor of London, Lord Athlone (the former Governor-General of South Africa) and the Duke and Duchess of York (the future King George VI and Queen Elizabeth). The organisers produced a colourful booklet which described each scene and raised money for the Pageant's beneficiaries.

B869

The front cover of the Pageant booklet (Egham Museum B869)

The local community of Egham played a major part in the production, volunteering as actors, support staff and costume designers. The outfits, some of which belong to Egham Museum and are on display in the British Library’s Magna Carta exhibition, were handmade and worn by local pageanteers, performing the part of medieval barons. The yellow and blue outfit, shown here, was worn by a Mr S. Smith playing the role of the Earl of Surrey, while the maroon tunic, representing Hubert de Burgh, Earl of Kent, was worn by his wife, Mrs Smith!

COS129 v1   COS128 v1

The pageant was photographed and filmed for posterity, and the surviving images juxtapose the medieval with the modern: men in trilby hats accidentally walk across the camera on some of the crucial scenes reimagining King John sealing the Charter, while still shots from backstage brilliantly show medieval female courtiers exiting from the caravan of Lady Carden, Mistress of the Robes, while boy scouts look on in the background. 

P1311
Behind the scenes at the Pageant (note the young girls dressed as butterflies!) (Egham Museum P1311)

Such historical pageants were not uncommon on Runnymede plain. This was one of the largest, but they were very much part of a historical movement that flourished in the early 20th century, teaching history through re-enactment. The purpose of these popular performances was to invent and reinforce a sense of national heritage and identity. However, as the photographs suggest, they were not necessarily accurate recreations of the historical events they purported to represent!

P80A

 Magna Carta is presented to King John, in 1934! (Egham Museum P80A)

We are extremely grateful to the Trustees of Egham Museum for so kindly lending their items to the British Library for the exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, where they will be on display until 1 September 2015.

Photo

Alexander Lock

   

28 April 2015

An 'Additional' Round Table Celebration

The illuminated manuscripts staff held a small celebration on Thursday – our unique set of three volumes of the entire Lancelot-Grail, Additional MSS 10292, 10293 and 10294 have been digitised – that’s a total of 695 folios with 742 images! We had a special cake made to mark the occasion, and here it is, with one of the gorgeous images from Additional MS 10293 (f. 199r)  of Lancelot and Guinevere reproduced in icing!

DSC_9450 -1
(Cake courtesy of Cakeology, Wimbledon)

Digitisation of these manuscripts has been a long and torturous process, begun in 2013: the volumes are very large and not easy to photograph and in 1860, when they were rebound, the decision was made to separate the first folios of two of the volumes, Additional MSS 10293 and 10294, into a separate volume, now Additional MS 10294/1. Both folios have gorgeous miniatures and full borders, and they were bound separately ‘for better preservation’ (according to a note on one of the flyleaves) as, being opening folios, they have been well-used so the illumination is worn and the parchment is deteriorating at the edges.  But this has made the process of cataloguing and digitisation more complex, as the separate volume needs to be correctly labelled, recorded and entered in the cataloguing system so that users in our Reading Room and online, are able to access it easily.  

But it has all been worth it – these manuscripts are a treasure-trove of incredible images of knights, kings, battles, devils, hermits, sea voyages, dragons and everything in between. Here are some of our favourites, including the opening page of the Histoire de Merlin from the first volume. The image shows God opening the gates of hell with the devils meeting inside; one of the devils later fathers Merlin (see the following image on f. 77v).  We are not too sure what is happening in the lower margin of f. 76r – perhaps our readers have some suggestions!

Add_ms_10292_f076r
God, the gates of Hell and devils meeting¸ with full border,
 northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai), c. 1316, Add MS 10292, f. 76r

Below is the first folio of Additional MS 10293, the part known as the Lancelot-propre, or Lancelot du Lac, that tells the story of Lancelot, his chivalric exploits and his love for Guinevere.  The image shows the aged King Ban, Lancelot’s father with his brother, King Bohors of Gaunes, before he was killed and dispossessed by the treacherous knight, Claudas. The text begins ‘En la marche de Gaule et de la petite bertaigne avoit ii rois’ (in the border of Gaul and little Brittany there once lived two kings….). The border is decorated with hybrid creatures, animals and human figures, one side consisting of a 3-storey chapel, each storey containing a courtly character. There are marvellous details to zoom in on, including a nun feeding a beggar on the lower right and a fire-breathing devil above the main image. 

Add_ms_10294!1_f001ar
King Ban of Benoith and King Bohort of Gaunes, with full border,
northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai), c. 1316, Add MS 10294/1, f. 1a recto

In this poignant image from the end of the Mort d’Artu, the hand emerges from the lake to take back Excalibur, King Arthur’s sword, and Arthur is shown, lying wounded in the foreground, while the young squire, Giflet or Griflet, looks on.

Add_ms_10294_f094r
The death of King Arthur: his sword is returned to the hand in the lake,
northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai), c. 1316, Add MS 10294, f. 94r

Ending on a happier note, with another party, the opening folio of Queste del Saint Graal  from the third volume, shows King Arthur’s court seated at the table at Camelot on the eve of Pentecost, against a sumptuous gold backdrop. The border once again, is a plethora of knights, hybrid creatures and scenes from medieval life, including a man carrying a child in an early version of a baby backpack, but some scenes are best not described in this blog!

Add_ms_10294!1_f001dr
Arthur’s court at Camelot, with full border,
northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai), c. 1316, Add MS 10294/1, f. 1d recto

26 April 2015

The Paston Letters Go Live

The collection known as the Paston Letters is one of the largest archives of 15th-century English private correspondence, comprising about 1000 letters and documents including petitions, leases, wills and even shopping lists. They offer a unique glimpse into the personal lives of three generations of the Paston family from Norfolk over a period of 70 years -- the family name comes from a Norfolk village about 20 miles north of Norwich. The Pastons rose from peasantry to aristocracy in just a few generations: the first member of the family about whom anything is known was Clement Paston (d. 1419), a peasant, who gave an excellent education to his son William (d. 1444), enabling him to study law. William’s sons and grandsons, two of whom were knighted, continued his relentless quest for wealth, status and land, and their story was acted out against the backdrop of the Wars of the Roses. 

A 19th-century engraving of the ruins of Caistor Castle in Norfolk.
 A 19th-century view of the ruins of Caistor Castle in Norfolk. This 15th-century 'castle' was built for a prominent aristocratic family, the Fastolfs. It passed to the Paston family who occupied it for the next century (British Library KTop XXXI.47)

For the first time, part of the British Library’s large collection of Paston family correspondence and documents has been digitised and is available to view in full. Five volumes containing some of the most studied items have now been published on our Digitised Manuscripts website: four volumes from 1440-1489 (Add MS 43488, Add MS 43489Add MS 43490Add MS 43491) and a volume that contains further material from the second half of the 15th century, together with later correspondence from of the later 16th century (Add MS 33597). One of the most famous items in the Paston collection is the oldest Valentine letter (London, British Library, Additional MS 43490, f. 24), featured on this blog in 2011 when it was displayed in the British Library's Evolving English exhibition.

One of the earliest of the surviving letters, dated 20 April, ?1440, is from Agnes Paston to her husband, William, the patriarch of the family, in which she tells him that their son, John, seems to like the ‘gentilwomman’ that his father has chosen to be his bride, and asks him to buy her a wedding gown in ‘a godely blew or ellys a bryghte sanggueyn [red]’. Her mother has promised to supply the fur to go with it. She ends the letter, ‘Wretyn at Paston in hast … for defaute of a good secretarye’, so it would appear that this letter was written by Agnes herself. Unfortunately we do not know if the bride, Margaret Mautby, liked her gown, but she did marry John later in 1440!

A 15th-century letter from Agnes Paston to her husband, William Paston.
Letter from Agnes Paston to her husband, William Paston, Norfolk, 20 April 1440 (Add MS 43488, f. 4r)

The titles in modern handwriting show that this is the first letter in volume I of five volumes of Original letters, written during the Reigns of Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III…, edited and bound by their owner, John Fenn, the Norfolk antiquary in 1787-89 . The first two volumes were presented by him to King George III (1760-1820) at St James’s Palace in 1787, but then disappeared from view until they were found  in the library of Colonel George Tomline at Orwell Park, Suffolk, around 1890. Tomline was a descendant of the private secretary to William Pitt the Younger, so they may have been in Pitt’s library in the late 18th century, but there is no record of how he obtained them from the Royal library. They were bought by the British Museum in 1933 after the Pretyman-Tomline family put them up for sale at Sotheby’s.

Each letter has the address and remains of a wax seal on the rear.

The reverse of a letter from Agnes Paston to her husband, William Paston.
Verso of the above letter: ‘To my worshepefulle housbond W. Paston be this letter takyn’, Norfolk,  20 April 1440 (Add MS 43488, f. 4v)

Official family business is the major topic of the correspondence. Margaret Paston, nee Mautby, wife of John Paston I (d. 1466), a London solicitor, was left to manage the estates in Norfolk while he pursued land claims against the estate of Sir John Fastolf, a career soldier (d. 1459) and one of the major correspondents of the family. Topics of a more personal nature include family fall-outs, parental nagging, clashes with the aristocracy and parties thrown while parents were away from home. In December 1441 Margaret writes to John to ask him for a new girdle as she has grown ‘so fetys’ (fat): she is 6 months pregnant with their first child, who is born in April 1442.  The letters provide a colourful portrait of medieval provincial society: feckless sons and aging daughters are married advantageously and a manor house is besieged in a land-dispute. Dinner parties are planned and the topics discussed range from local gossip, the problems of cash-flow and the wool trade to the shortage of good servants.

Among the letters and documents is an inventory of ‘Englysshe bokis’ owned by John Paston II (b. 1442, d.1479); unfortunately, the paper has decayed on the right-hand side so the titles are incomplete. Paston’s library included copies of romances that were popular at the time, for example ‘a boke of Troylus’, ‘þe Dethe off Arthur’ and a printed book listed as ‘a boke in preente off þe Pleye of þe… ‘, which has been identified as a copy of Caxton’s printed edition of ‘The Game and Playe of the Chess’, published in 1475. Unsurprisingly there are several books of heraldry, religious and classical texts.

A 15th-century inventory of books belonging to John Paston II.
Inventory of books belonging to John Paston II, Norfolk, between 1475 and 1479 (Add MS 43491, f. 26r)

Sometimes the events described in the letters are remarkably familiar. While studying at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, probably in his late teens, John Paston I loses his wallet somewhere between Cambridge and Newmarket! Here is an edition of the letter written by a certain John Gyne, known to the family, who found it on the ‘high weye’. The letter is from a collection that is soon to be digitised, and is transcribed in James Gairdner’s 1904 edition of the letters.

 

JOHN GYNE TO JOHN PASTON

To the worthy and worshipful sir and my good maister, John Paston of Trynyte hall in Cambrigge

1435–6

Right worthy and worshipfull sir, and my good maister, I comaund me to yow. Like it yow to witte that on the Soneday next after the Ascencion of oure Lord, in the high weye betwex Cambrigge and the Bekyntre toward Newmarket, I fonde a purs with money ther inne. Th’entent of this my symple lettre is this, that it please to your good Maistership by weye of charite, and of your gentilnesse, to witte if ony of youre knowleche or ony other, swich as yow semeth best in your discrecion, have lost swich a purs, and, the toknes ther of told, he shal have it ageyn, what that ever he be, by the grace of oure Lord, Who ever have yow in his blissed kepyng. Wretyn at Sneylewell the Moneday next after the seid Soneday. By youre pover servaunt, John Gyn.

 

As most of the letters are dated or datable, they are invaluable primary sources for historians and are, in addition, of outstanding interest to linguists as evidence of the English language at a crucial period in its development.  There are 2185 entries from the Paston letters in the Oxford English Dictionary and in Visser’s monumental work,  An Historical Syntax of the English Language (Leiden: Brill, 1972), they are a major source of examples of Middle English usage. One example is found in a letter from John Paston III (John Paston I has two sons called John Paston, just to confuse historians!) to his mother, Margaret Paston, where he informs her that my lord of Oxynforth … sent to my lady of Norffolk by John Bernard only for my mater and for non othyr cawse, myn onwetyng … (‘Lord Oxford sent a message to Lady Norfolk just to raise my business with her and for no other reason, without me knowing’). This construction, myn onweting (literally ‘mine unknowing’), is unfamiliar to us now. In modern English we would use the preposition ‘without’ to introduce an adverbial phrase with a present participle but we would be more likely to replace it with a noun, e.g., ‘without my knowledge’. The vocabulary, too, is interesting. ‘Onweting’ is a form of the Old English verb, ‘witen’, an alternative to ‘cnawan’ (to know), which survives in noun form in Modern English, in the word, ‘wit’ or ‘witless’ but is no longer used as a verb.     

This letter was written in the midst of the confusion surrounding the restoration of Henry VI, who was recrowned the day after it was written, on 13 October 1470. John Paston tells his mother ‘tydyngys’ of the imminent death of the Earl of Worcester, who was to be executed a week later.

A 15th-century letter from John Paston III to Margaret Paston.
Letter from John Paston III to Margaret Paston, London, 12 October 1470 (Add MS 43489, f. 40r)

These 5 volumes are just a part of the large collection of Paston letters in the British Library. Further volumes of the family’s letters and documents are scheduled for digitisation in the future, so watch this space!

Chantry Westwell

25 April 2015

King John's Last Will and Testament

Did you know that the oldest surviving original English royal will is on display in our Magna Carta exhibition? And that it was written on behalf of King John in October 1216? Here, Katie Har -- who was part of the team which worked on the exhibition -- examines its context.

Will B1693
The will of King John (Worcester Cathedral Muniments B1693), on display at the British Library until 1 September 2015

In the autumn of 1216, with the kingdom still embroiled in civil war, King John fell ill, probably of dysentery, while in the prosperous -- and, more importantly, friendly to the Crown -- port and town of Lynn. His illness steadily worsened as he made his way back through Lincolnshire, making it as far as the bishop of Lincoln’s castle at Newark just over the border in Nottinghamshire. Then, on the 18th or 19th of October (depending on which sources are to be believed) John eventually succumbed to his illness.

Newark_Castle,_2008
Newark Castle, Nottinghamshire by the River Trent

In the last days before his death John had his will drawn up. In it he specifically stated that the gravity of his illness prevented him from drawing up an itemized will, so instead he named 13 men to oversee the fulfilment of his wishes. Here is the text of his will, in English translation (taken from S. Church, English Historical Review, 125 (2010)):

I, John, by the grace of God king of England, lord of Ireland, duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, count of Anjou, hindered by grave infirmity and not being able at this time of my infirmity to itemize all my things so that I may make a testament, commit the arbitration and administration of my testament to the trust and to the legitimate administration of my faithful men whose names are written below, without whose counsel, even in good health, I would have by no means arranged my testament in their presence, so that what they will faithfully arrange and determine concerning my things as much as in making satisfaction to God and to holy Church for damages and injuries done to them as in sending succour to the land of Jerusalem and in providing support to my sons towards obtaining and defending their inheritance and in making reward to those who have served us faithfully and in making distribution to the poor and to religious houses for the salvation of my soul, be right and sure. I ask, furthermore, that whoever shall give them counsel and assistance in the arranging of my testament shall receive the grace and favour of God. Whoever shall infringe their arrangement and disposition, may he incur the curse and indignation of almighty God and the blessed Mary and all the saints.

In the first place, therefore, I desire that my body be buried in the church of St Mary and St Wulfstan at Worcester. I appoint, moreover, the following arbiters and administrators: the lord Guala, by the grace of God, cardinal-priest of the title of St Martin and legate of the apostolic see; the lord Peter bishop of Winchester; the lord Richard bishop of Chichester; the lord Silvester bishop of Worcester; Brother Aimery de St-Maur; William Marshal earl of Pembroke; Ranulf earl of Chester; William earl Ferrers; William Brewer; Walter de Lacy and John of Monmouth; Savaric de Mauléon; Falkes de Bréauté.

If concessions are made for the practice of sealing rather than signing documents, this is a valid will as we would know it today. It fulfils all the criteria: that the person writing the will must be 18 or over; that they make it voluntarily; be of sound mind; make it in writing; sign it in the presence of two witnesses who are both over 18; and have it signed by their two witnesses, in their presence. Perhaps, following the use of the Latin word ‘testamentum’ in this document, we should refer to it as a ‘testament’ rather than a ‘will’. Our modern use of the word ‘will’ links back to the Old English phrase ‘ic wille’ (I desire), used in the Anglo-Saxon period in documents directing the disposal of one’s property after one’s death.

014621
The alleged poisoning of King John by a monk of Swineshead Abbey (London, British Library, Cotton MS Vitellius A XIII, f. 5v)

While there is an entire corpus of these sorts of documents going back to the Anglo-Saxon period, King John’s will is the earliest English royal will to survive in its original form. We have later copies of wills of two Anglo-Saxon kings, Alfred (d. 899) and Eadred (d. 955), as well as multiple copies of the will of John’s father, Henry II (d. 1189). There are references to, but no texts for, those of his brother Richard (d. 1199) or his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine (d. 1204). There was no regular practice of enrolling or necessarily carefully preserving royal wills in the governmental records, either before John's reign or subsequently under his son Henry III, so it’s perhaps a fluke that this document has managed to survive to this day.  

The document itself is small, around the size of a postcard. From the fold at the bottom and the slits found there, the royal seal clearly once hung from the bottom of the will, likely accompanied by the seals of the 8 appointed executors present at the drawing up of the will. With only half of the kingdom under royal control at his death, one of the responsibilities of the men chosen to execute John’s last will lay ‘in providing support to [his] sons towards obtaining and defending their inheritance’. Among the 13 overseers we find named Guala (d. 1227), the papal legate, and the future regent, William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke (d. 1219). Both men played a major part in securing the throne for Henry III, including being instrumental in the 1216 reissue of Magna Carta.

King John's will has been very generously loaned by Worcester Cathedral to the British Library's major exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy. John was buried at Worcester in accordance with the terms of his will. Next year Worcester Cathedral will be commemorating the 800th anniversary of King John's death, and in 2015-16 they are also hosting a series of special events relating to King John and Magna Carta.

 

Katherine Har

Magna Carta: Law Liberty, Legacy is on at the British Library until 1 September 2015. There is also a comprehensive events programme and a website dedicated to Magna Carta.

23 April 2015

John Wilkes and Magna Carta

As curators of the British Library's major Magna Carta exhibition, we're often asked how we've managed to bring to life the story of what one British government official, writing in March 1941, described as 'a bit of parchment, of no intrinsic value whatever, rather the worse for wear'. The simple answer is that we've presented numerous stories of how Magna Carta has been used (and abused) across the centuries, to show how the text has evolved and what it means to us today. Among the men and women featured in our exhibition are: Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell, Edward Coke and King Charles I, William Penn, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, William Blackstone and John Wilkes, Rudyard Kipling, Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, and Helena Normanton and Eleanor Roosevelt. Here, to mark the 252nd anniversary of the publication of the infamous issue number 45 of The North Briton, our researcher Alex Lock tells the story of John Wilkes and Magna Carta.

Portrait-john-wilkes-parliament-2935-1-ha[1]
A portrait of John Wilkes by Robert Edge Pine (d. 1788), kindly loaned to our Magna Carta exhibition by the Palace of Westminster, London 

Since the lapse of pre-publication censorship in England in 1697 newspapers could be published relatively freely throughout Great Britain – a liberty vaunted by many Britons, especially when they compared themselves with the ancien regimes of Europe. For successive British governments, frredom of the press created major problems. Uncensored and scurrilous, newspapers could be used to cultivate public opinion and to question the government’s activities. In order to suppress some of the more radical publications, the Secretary of State could therefore issue General Warrants, authorising the arrest without charge of anyone suspected of involvement in the publication of a ‘seditious libel’ (that is, anything that was deemed to insult a ‘public person’, the government or monarchy regardless of the truth of the claims). Given this broad definition of what constituted a seditious libel, and the fact that the names of the suspects did not need to be recorded, General Warrants presented a continual threat to authors, editors and publishers in the 18th century.  

Wedgewood-teapot-thomas-billinge-john-wilkes-41411091885[1]
This Wedgwood teapot (c. 1774) shows John Wilkes associated with emblems of English liberty, among which is Magna Carta, kindly loaned to the British Library by the Victoria & Albert Museum

The constitutionality of General Warrants had long been debated, but the scandal that surrounded them following the arrest of the newspaper editor and politician John Wilkes (d. 1797) marked a step change in the growth of popular opposition to them. In 1763 Wilkes was arrested under a General Warrant for publishing a seditious libel against King George III in the infamous no. 45 issue of his newspaper The North Briton. As an MP, Wilkes was quickly released on the grounds of parliamentary privilege, and he soon launched a campaign against the legality of his arrest and the constitutionality of General Warrants. Wilkes and his supporters invoked Magna Carta extensively as a symbol of the ancient rights and liberties that were under threat from the government. Indeed, Wilkes was a master propagandist and his use of Magna Carta in his defence, in print, portraits and caricatures, became closely associated with the ideals of ‘English liberty’. In the 1760s mobs calling out ‘Wilkes and Liberty’ became a common phenomenon on the streets of London.

B20162-18
The Appendix to issue no. 45 of The North Briton, in which John Wilkes set out the circumstances of his defence, beginning by citing Magna Carta

The association of Wilkes with Magna Carta was further enhanced by enterprising businessmen seeking to profit from Wilkes’ growing popularity. A range of items flooded the market, from teapots to jugs and porcelain figurines, all displaying Wilkes with the Great Charter in his hand. Caricaturists also capitalised on his renown, and made numerous prints of Wilkes with Magna Carta in order to lambast his political enemies.

Eventually, however, the law caught up with Wilkes. The House of Commons soon resolved that parliamentary privilege did not cover seditious libel. Having been expelled from Parliament, the prosecution of Wilkes was begun. The day after the Commons debate, Wilkes was seriously injured in a duel (against a fellow MP who had impugned Wilkes’ character in the preceding debate!); unable to appear before court to answer any charges, he was outlawed and forced into exile in Paris. Although resident in Paris, the propaganda celebrating Wilkes and liberty did not diminish, and there continued to be a steady stream of effective propaganda which connected Wilkes with the symbols of ‘English liberty’, most frequently Magna Carta, such as had raised his profile in the first place.

Porcelain-figure-BM-John-Wilkes[1]
This porcelain figure vies with the Wilkes teapot to be one of our favourite items in the exhibition (kindly loaned by the Trustees of the British Museum): 'Magna Carta' is inscribed on the scroll just above the Bill of Rights

After 4 years in exile on the Continent, Wilkes returned to England in 1768, having run out of money, and handed himself over to the authorities. As popular with the public as ever, and although he had voluntarily delivered himself into custody, Wilkes was freed by a mob and was ultimately forced to re-enter prison in disguise. Indeed, so popular was he that he managed on several occasions to secure re-election to Parliament from his prison cell, even though the result was declared void each time by the government!

John Wilkes's successful use of Magna Carta in the 18th century was a landmark in changing interpretations of that document. What had originated in the 13th century as a peace treaty between the king and the barons was now being used to challenge the very authority of Parliament and the government, on the path to securing greater liberties for the population at large.

Alexander Lock

 

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, the largest and most significant exhibition ever devoted to the Great Charter, is on at the British Library until 1 September 2015. Most of the items on display can also be seen on our dedicated Magna Carta website. Please follow us on Twitter (@BLMedieval, using the hashtag #MagnaCarta).

22 April 2015

Ointments and Potions

We have recently published to Digitised Manuscripts a Dutch scientific manuscript of the early 16th century containing a cornucopia of scientific texts (Sloane MS 345), from prescriptions for ointments and suppositories, to a treatise on varnishes for the conservation of paintings, to a recipe for brandy or aqua vitae. Some of the texts are in Latin and others in Middle Dutch.

The format is of a plain, workaday text, a collection that was probably compiled for a physician and was in fact in the collection of Francis Bernard (d. 1698), apothecary and physician to King James II of England in the seventeenth century.

A page from a Dutch scientific compendum, showing a number of recipes.

Page of recipes with the rubrics ‘Gebrande wyn te maken’ and ‘de aq[ua] viva’ in the margin, from a Dutch scientific compendium, the Netherlands, c. 1500, Sloane MS 345, f. 50v

One of the key texts is the ‘Regimen sanitatis Salernitanum’, a collection of didactic verse on health, diet and medicine, put together for oral transmission by doctors at the School of Salerno, Italy, and assembled in written form in the 13th century by Arnoldus de Villa Nova (b. c. 1240, d. 1311), professor of medicine. He is credited with coining the label ‘aqua vitae’, which he described as ‘a water of immortality….that clears away ill-humours, revives the heart and maintains youth’. It is interesting to note that in this manuscript, ‘aqua vitae’ or ‘gebrande wyn’ in Middle Dutch, is found in a collection of culinary recipes rather than among the medicinal waters, suggesting that it was starting to be seen as more of a lifestyle choice than a medicine in the early 16th century.

A page from a Dutch scientific compendium, showing the text of a letter.

Arnoldus de Villa Nova, 'T[ra]ctat[us] de laudibus virtutib[us] querci', a letter to Richard, Bishop of Canterbury, from a Dutch scientific compendium, Netherlands, c. 1500, Sloane MS 345, f 15r

A further contribution by Arnoldus de Villa Nova is a letter to Richard, Bishop of Canterbury, on the medicinal properties of the oak tree. Oak bark was used to treat infections, burns and cuts.

There are several collections of recipes for medicinal waters and herbal remedies. Here is an image from another manuscripts showing the apparatus used for alchemical processes and to prepare alcohol for medicinal uses and for the infusion of herbs, from Sloane MS 3548, a 15th-century English manuscript.

A page from a 15th-century medical miscellany, showing drawings of scientific apparatus.

Scientific apparatus from John Arderne, Medical Miscellany, England, 15th century, Sloane MS 3548, f. 25r

A work on the treatment of wounds is attributed in Sloane MS 345 to the young Lanfranc of Milan and a treatise, ‘De signis mortis’, gives examples of skin conditions and pustules indicating impending death. This treatise includes the Hippocratic facies, the description of a countenance often present at the verge of death, still used in medical prognosis today.

This image is from Sloane MS 6, another manuscript of John Arderne’s medical works. It shows Hippocrates (or Galen) holding up what is perhaps a urine glass to the sun on the lower left page.

An opening from a 15th-century copy of a treatise by John Arderne, showing drawings of medical practitioners and diagrams.

Drawings of medical practitioners at work and medical diagrams from John Arderne, Medical treatise, England, 2nd quarter of the 15th century, Sloane MS 6, ff. 175v-176r

Sloane MS 345 also contains medical works such as Chirurgia Parva (ff 118r-127v) and Liber de matrice mulieris et impugnatione (ff 128r-130r),attributed to Johannes de Ketham, a German physician living in Italy at the end of the 15th century. His Fasciculus medicinae, published in Venice in 1491, was the first printed book to contain anatomical illustrations.

De Ketham’s treatise on the conservation of easel paintings, De diversis coloribus picturis et tincturis contains recipes for pigments, oils, painting and guilding, provides insights into the techniques or materials used by Dutch artists in the early 16th century.

A page from a copy of the Gospels of St Luke and St John, showing a portrait of St Luke painting at an easel.

St Luke at his easel painting the Virgin, Gospels of Luke and John, England, S.E. , 1st quarter of the 16th century, Royal MS 1 E V, f. 3r

Sloane 345 is a treasure trove of information on medical practices and remedies, but so as not to disappoint our readers who would like to see more graphic representations of medieval medical practices, here are two examples from other medical manuscripts in our collections.

Harley MS 1585 is another Dutch manuscript, this time from the southern Netherlands in the 12th century, a medical miscellany with a pharmacopeial compilation, including a herbal and bestiary. The full online version is available on Digitised Manuscripts.

A page from a medieval manuscript, showing an illustration of medical and surgical procedures.

Miniature of medical and surgical procedures, inscribed 'a podagric is incised and burned thus', Netherlands, S. (Mosan region), or England? Harley MS 1585, f. 9r

Sloane MS 1977 is a collection of medical texts including Roger of Parma’s Chirurgia , translated into French, with full-page illustrations. It was in the Royal library in the 16th century, but later became part of the scientific collection of Sir Hans Sloane. It is partially digitised in our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

A detail from a medieval surgical handbook, showing an illustration of a doctor performing an operation on a patient's skull.

An operation to repair a compound fracture of the skull, France, N. (Amiens), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Sloane MS 1977, f. 2r

Chantry Westwell

18 April 2015

The Devil is in the Detail: A Thirteenth-Century Bible Moralisée

 

Harley_ms_1526_f021r
Detail of a medallion with souls being taken by demons and placed in a cauldron, from a Bible moralisée, France (Paris), 2nd quarter of the 13th century, Harley MS 1526, f. 21r

Bibles moralisées (‘Moralised Bibles’) were a source of instruction and status for the royalty of thirteenth-century France. In these intensely illustrated Bibles, the images play a more fundamental role than the text. Each page features eight medallions accompanied by a thin column of text, which together represent extracts from the Bible followed by moralisations. These incredible picture books are precursors of the Bible pauperum, which you might remember from one of our previous blog posts.

Harley_ms_1527_f018v
The temptation of Jesus in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-10), and John beholds Jesus (John 1:35-36), from a Bible moralisée, France (Paris), 2nd quarter of the 13th century, Harley MS 1527, f. 18v

Harley MS 1526 and Harley MS 1527 form the final part of a Bible moralisée now divided between three cities: Paris (Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS latin 11560), Oxford (MS Bodley 270b) and London. Together the Paris-Oxford-London volumes cover material from almost all of the books of the Bible and feature close to 5,000 illustrations!

Harley_ms_1527_f136v
Medallions depicting the Apocalypse, Harley MS 1527, f. 136v

Monks Behaving Badly

In order to edify the book’s royal owners, there are many depictions of moral transgressions to avoid, such as greed and lustfulness. In most of these images, however, the figures succumbing to sin are not members of the laic aristocracy, but misbehaving members of the clergy!

Harley_ms_1527_f049v
Detail of a medallion with a queen holding a chalice, a cleric with a demon on his back embracing a woman, and another sipping wine, Harley MS 1527, f. 49v

 

Harley_ms_1527_f095r
Detail of a medallion with a couple kissing whilst others listen to a sermon, Harley MS 1527, f. 95r

 

Harley_ms_1527_f096v
Detail of a medallion with monks being seduced, Harley MS 1527, f. 96v

 

Harley_ms_1527_f115r
Detail of a medallion with two monks embracing a woman, Harley MS 1527, f. 115r

 

Harley_ms_1527_f110v
Detail of a medallion with a monk kissing a woman, Harley MS 1527, f. 110v


You can now explore both Harley MS 1526 and Harley MS 1527 in full on our Digitised Manuscripts website!

- Hannah Morcos

16 April 2015

Murder in the Cathedral

One of the most notorious episodes in medieval English history took place at Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December 1170. During evening vespers, Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury and erstwhile friend of King Henry II, was murdered by four of the king’s knights, William de Tracy, Reginald Fitzurse, Hugh de Morville and Richard Brito. They are said to have been incited to action by Henry’s exasperated words, ‘What miserable drones and traitors have I nurtured and promoted in my household who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born clerk!’

C05749-04
The earliest known miniature of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket (London, British Library, MS Cotton Claudius B II, f. 341r)

Becket's martyrdom was the subject of T. S. Eliot’s verse drama Murder in the Cathedral, first performed on 15 June 1935 in the Chapter House of Canterbury Cathedral before it moved to a run at the Mercury Theatre in London. Eliot’s play drew on the work of an eyewitness to the event, a clerk named Edward Grim who had attempted to defend Becket from William de Tracy’s blow. Henry had actually hoped that the appointment of his chancellor, Thomas Becket, as Archbishop of Canterbury, would help him to reassert royal authority over the Church. But the king had not anticipated that Becket would resign as chancellor shortly after he was elevated to the see of Canterbury. The conflict between Henry II and Becket centred on the perennial issue of the balance between royal and papal authority and the rights of the church in England.

Becket’s murder sent shockwaves across Western Christendom. The four knights were excommunicated by Pope Alexander III, who ordered them to serve in the Holy Land for 14 years while they sought his forgiveness. Becket himself was canonised in February 1173, less than 3 years after his death, and Canterbury Cathedral became a major site of pilgrimage – Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, from the late 14th century, are testament to the continued popularity of pilgrimage to the shrine of St Thomas. Henry II, meanwhile, undertook a public act of penance on 12 July 1174. Confessing to indirect responsibility for the murder, he entered Canterbury in sackcloth, both barefoot and mute, and made a pilgrimage to the crypt of St Thomas where he was whipped by the monks while he lay prostrate and naked by the tomb.

Our new exhibition, Magna Carta: Law Liberty, Legacy, includes three items that relate to the legacy of Becket’s martyrdom. One is a 12th-century English manuscript of the Letters of Thomas Becket, collected by Alan of Tewkesbury, which contains the earliest known manuscript miniature of Becket’s martyrdom, shown above. The second is a beautiful enamelled Champlevé reliquary from Limoges, on loan from the British Museum. On one compartment is an image of Becket being struck with a sword; above, he rises from his tomb to ascend to heaven. Reliquaries such as this would have been used to store relics of the saint.

BM-Beckett Casket

A reliquary depicting the martyrdom of Thomas Becket (British Museum 1854,0411.2) 

The third item relating to Becket's martyrdom is the seal of his successor, Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury (1207-28). Langton's seal shows the murder of Thomas Becket on its reverse, as a permanent reminder of the suffering endured by the Church. It should occasion no surprise, therefore, that the first clause of Magna Carta, perhaps inserted at Langton's insistence (and still valid in English law today), confirms the liberties of the church in England.

Harley Charter 75.a.14-B20152-33
The seal of Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, depicting Thomas Becket's martyrdom (London, British Library, Harley Charter 75 A 14)

Magna Carta: Law Liberty, Legacy is on at the British Library until 1 September 2015 (#MagnaCarta)

Katherine Har