Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

12 posts from May 2015

27 May 2015

The Document That (Almost) Changed the Course of History

You may be aware that some of the most famous documents in the world are currently on display at the British Library. One of those is Magna Carta (for good measure, we have no fewer than 6 of the medieval copies in our exhibition); others are the Petition of Right and English Bill of Rights (both kindly loaned to us by the Parliamentary Archives) and the US Bill of Rights (on loan from the US National Archives). The last-named is visiting the United Kingdom for the very first time, and is a particular favourite of ours. It bears the signature of John Adams, Vice President (and later 2nd President) of the USA (d. 1826), and it was sealed by Delaware in January 1790 before being returned to the federal government. It's a truly impressive item, supplying the first 12 proposed amendments to the US constitution.


The signature of John Adams and seal of the General Assembly of Delaware, at the foot of the Delaware copy of the US Bill of Rights (courtesy of the US National Archives, Washington, DC)

And if all that is not enough, the British Library also has on show, again for the first time in the United Kingdom, a manuscript of the United States Declaration of Independence, loaned by New York Public Library! Like the other documents we've mentioned, we're absolutely thrilled to have the Declaration of Independence in our Magna Carta exhibition. But there's a curious story behind this particular document, and we thought we'd share it with you.

The manuscript in question was written by Thomas Jefferson himself, who drafted the Declaration of Independence and later went on to become 3rd President of the USA (1801–1809; d. 1826). Jefferson had been profoundly influenced by Magna Carta in his legal thinking, and while he did not mention the Great Charter by name in the Declaration, many of its concepts derived ultimately from Magna Carta. Among the charges levelled against King George III were, 'For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world; For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent; For depriving us of the benefits of Trial by Jury.'

What is particularly important about the manuscript on display at the British Library this summer is that it preserves Jefferson's original text of the Declaration of Independence, before it had been amended and ratified by his fellow delegates of the Second Continental Congress at Philadelphia in July 1776. Jefferson made his copy in the days immediately following the ratification of that document, and he underlined those words and phrases which had been removed.


One of the pages of Thomas Jefferson's manuscript copy of the United States Declaration of Independence (courtesy of New York Public Library)

Certain of the passages in the draft Declaration of Independence deleted by the Second Continental Congress are worthy of special attention. At the bottom of the third page, Jefferson had originally written, '[George III] is unfit to be the ruler of a people who mean to be free. Future ages will scarce believe that the hardiness of one man adventured within the short compass of twelve years only, to build a foundation, so broad and undisguised, for tyranny over a people fostered and fixed in principles of freedom.' Students of American history will search in vain in the published text of the Declaration for the words underlined above. They were struck out in Philadelphia before that document was ratified, with the sentence in question instead ending, 'is unfit to be the ruler of a free people'.


An underlined passage in the Declaration of Independence, representing words that did not make it into the final, published version (courtesy of New York Public Library)

There are many other such words and phrases in Jefferson's manuscript of the Declaration, and you really have to see it in person at the British Library this summer in order to get a true impression of how much it had been revised. But a second passage in this, one of the most famous documents in the world, has inspired the title of this blog-post. The phrase in question is found on the same page as the previous passage cited, and one of the words is written in block capitals for further emphasis:

Psnypl_mss_1231u  slavery

Thomas Jefferson's denunciation of the slave trade, later removed from the final version of the United States Declaration of Independence (courtesy of New York Public Library)

'He has waged cruel war against <...> itself, violating it's most sacr<ed ...> of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people, who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain, determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce.'

Now, we're not going to enter here into the debate about Thomas Jefferson's attitude to slavery. He expressed opposition to the slave trade throughout his career and in 1807 he signed a bill that prohibited slave importation into the United States; that said, Jefferson was also the owner of hundreds of slaves. However, it does strike us that this passage, with its forthright language ('this piratical warfare', 'this execrable commerce'), could easily have changed the course of history if adopted in America as early as 1776. You'll have to come to the British Library to see this awe-inspiring document with your own eyes ...

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy is on display at the British Library until 1 September 2015. Entrance costs £12 for adults, under 18s go free, and other concessions are available.



23 May 2015

When the French Invaded England

By King John’s death in October 1216, England was in the midst of civil war, the eastern half of the kingdom controlled by those opposing the king. Following the papal annulment of Magna Carta, the rebel barons had invited Louis, the king of France’s eldest son (the future Louis VIII, r. 1223–1226), to invade England, offering him the English throne. Louis’s supporters pointed out that John had illegally surrendered his kingdom to the Pope without the consent of his barons. Louis also had something of a claim to the English throne through his marriage to Blanche of Castile, one of John’s nieces.

An initial contingent of knights were sent to protect London in November 1215, before Louis landed along the Kentish coast in May 1216 and first made his way towards London. There he was welcomed by the rebel barons and citizens of London with a great procession at St Paul’s Cathedral. Sermons preached in the churchyard at St Paul’s Cross urged Londoners to support the French prince.

St Paul’s Cathedral at the centre of London from the itinerary from London to Apulia preceding Matthew Paris’ History of the English, Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 2r

According to calculations, by October 1216 a large majority of the barons were in revolt: only the holders of one quarter of the baronies and just under one third of the greatest barons remained loyal to the king. Ultimately, however, Louis’ campaigns in England proved unsuccessful. John’s death and the coronation of his young son Henry III (r. 1216–1272) on 28 October 1216 meant that the target of many of the barons’ personal complaints was no longer in the picture, paving the way towards an eventual conclusion to the barons’ revolt.

While King John had quickly sought Magna Carta’s annulment, Henry III’s regency government revised the charter and on 12 November 1216 issued the first of what would be several new versions throughout the 13th century. It was issued in the 9-year-old king’s name but sealed by the papal legate, Guala, and the regent, William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke (d. 1219).

Magna Carta 1216_Archives Nationales
A single-sheet copy of Magna Carta, 12 November 1216, Archives nationales, Paris, MS J655 Angleterre sans date no.11

This new version omitted the security clause and other controversial features of the 1215 charter, making it a much shorter text, 2106 medieval Latin words compared with 3541. Thanks to a loan from the Archives nationales in Paris we’re able to include this contemporary copy of the charter in our major exhibition Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy. This copy most likely ended up in Paris after coming into Louis’ possession before his final departure from England in 1217.

By reissuing Magna Carta, Henry III’s supporters hoped to tempt away Louis’s supporters or at least tempt them into negotiations. Unfortunately, though, there were limited immediate effects and conflict continued into the following year, until a decisive confrontation on 20 May 1217 at Lincoln Castle finally broke a long siege of the city by Louis’ forces. The final blow to Louis and his supporters came two months later when Hubert de Burgh, castellan of Dover, destroyed a fleet bringing reinforcements from France in a sea battle off the coast at Sandwich.

The chronicler of St Albans, Matthew Paris (d. 1259), illustrated both events on two facing pages of his Chronica maiora, where he also included detailed accounts of the reigns of John and Henry III. This fantastic manuscript has been loaned to the British Library from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

49. MS 16, f. 55v detail

49. MS 16, f. 56r (detail)
The siege of Lincoln and the Battle of Sandwich in Matthew Paris’ Chronica maiora, St Albans Abbey, 13th century, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, MS 16, ff. 55v–56r

On the left page, Lincoln Castle has already been taken by the king’s forces – the royal standard flies from the castle turret while a hand emerges from the base killing Thomas, count of Perche and commander of the French troops. The facing page is in the midst of the Battle of Sandwich where an English soldier boards a French vessel while Frenchmen jump overboard to escape capture. Immediately to the left one of the bishops, via a scroll-shaped speech bubble, absolves ‘those who died for the liberation of England’.

A peace treaty drawn up between the two sides on 11 September 1217 saw Louis relinquish his claim to the English throne, his English lands, and agree to return to France. A further condition of the peace treaty was the confirmation of Magna Carta. Like in 1216, the 1217 charter was also authenticated with the seals of Guala and William Marshal since Henry III still had no Great Seal of his own. You can see an engrossment of the 1217 charter in our exhibition, alongside the other reissues of Magna Carta, thanks to the Bodleian Library loaning to us the charter preserved at Oseney Abbey, just outside Oxford.

51. Magna_Carta
Magna Carta with the seal of Cardinal Guala, November 1217, Bodleian Library, Oxford, Ch. Oxon. Oseney 142c and Ch. Oxon. Oseney 142c*

This reissue included an important new clause on the running of county and hundred courts and the stipulation that all unauthorised castles built during the war were to be destroyed. Also, for the first time there was a separate charter for the royal forests, which included relevant clauses once in Magna Carta. It was to differentiate the two charters that Magna Carta was first referred to as ‘Magna Carta’ (the Great Charter).

We are very grateful to the Archives Nationales in Paris, the Bodleian Library in Oxford and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge for loaning these fascinating documents for our Magna Carta exhibition, open now until 1 September. 

Katherine Har

21 May 2015

Something for Everyone

Additional MS 36684 is a Book of Hours, about the size of a small paperback, made in Northern France in the area of Saint-Omer, near where our large set of Arthurian volumes (recently immortalised in cake) were made and decorated, also in the 2nd decade of the 14th century. Though this is a completely different type of book, it was probably aimed at a similar audience. Delightfully idiosyncratic and amusing images once again decorate the text, in seeming contrast to its serious purpose as a devotional aid. The medieval imagination is allowed to run riot, with every aspect of human and animal physiognomy, and everything in between, on display.

The twelve opening pages contain the calendar with activities for the months of the year. Here is the page for January. Rather than attempting it ourselves, we would like to ask you our readers to write a caption for the image in the lower margin. This will be the first in a series of ‘Invent a caption’ competitions on our blog, so over to you, dear readers!

Calendar page, northern France (Saint-Omer or Therouanne), c. 1320, Add MS 36684, f. 1v

Go on, provide us with a caption to f. 1v, the wittier the better. You can enter via Twitter @BLMedieval or in the comments section below this post.


Some of the pages of this manuscript are almost unbeatable for sheer weirdness:

Page from the Hours of the Virgin with border and margins containing hybrid creatures,  Add MS 36684, f.17r

Others are jewel-like, a perfect ensemble of colour and design to delight the eyes of the reader (is that the legs of a pair of bell-bottomed trousers emerging from a cauldron?):

Page from the Hours of the Virgin with border and margins including butterfly, Add MS 36684, f.50v

Birds and fish are favourite subjects, but not always as we know them:

Page from the Hours of the Virgin with border and margins decorated with birds,  Add MS 36684, f.31v

Large historiated initials have scenes from the life of Christ, including the Nativity: here the angel appears to the shepherds, one of whom is playing a bagpipe-like instrument.

Historiated initial with the angel appearing to the shepherds and decorated border,  Add MS 36684, f.43v

This Book of Hours was owned by none other than John Ruskin in the 19th century. It was in his library at Brantwood and contains his bookplate. Unfortunately there is no record of what he must have made of some of the marginalia!

The images here are just a small selection, evey page is filled with delights. Feast your eyes on our Digitised Manuscripts site, Add MS 36684. You may also like to know that the second half of this amazing book is now New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, MS M.754 (you can see images of it here).

Chantry Westwell

19 May 2015

Magna Carta, Super Charter!

What do the following people (and 200 others) have in common?

Alan Rusbridger, Antony Gormley, Brian Eno, Caitlin Moran, Caroline Lucas, Clive Stafford Smith, Doreen Lawrence, Edward Snowden, Eliza Manningham-Buller, Gareth Peirce, Germaine Greer, Helena Kennedy, Igor Judge, Jarvis Cocker, Jeanette Winterson, Jimmy Wales, Jon Snow, Julian Assange, Kenneth Clarke, Mariella Frostrup, Mary Beard, Michael Mansfield, Moazzam Begg, Paddy Hill, Peter Tatchell, Philip Pullman, Baroness Warsi, Shami Chakribarti, Shirley Williams, Tessa Blackstone and Tom Watson


Jarvis Cocker, who stitched 'Common People' on Cornelia Parker's Magna Carta (An Embroidery) (photography by Joseph Turp)

They all contributed to Cornelia Parker's major new artwork, Magna Carta (An Embroidery), which was unveiled last week and is on show at the British Library in London until 24 July 2015. We have been delighted both by the critical response to this embroidery -- which reproduces the Magna Carta Wikipedia page on 15 June 2014 (Magna Carta's 799th birthday) -- and by the number of visitors the artwork has already attracted. You may have read curator Claire Breay's account of how the embroidery was commissioned and how she stitched her own contribution to it.

Detail from 'Magna Carta (An Embroidery)' by Cornelia Parker being hand stitched by Embroiderers' Guild member Anthea Godfrey (photograph by Joseph Turp)

Of course, also at the British Library until 1 September 2015 is our own major exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy. For the first time in history, you'll be able to see the Library's two original manuscripts of the 1215 Magna Carta alongside the Articles of the Barons, the papal bull that annulled the Great Charter, King John's teeth, the Petition of Right, the English Bill of Rights, Thomas Jefferson's own manuscript of the United States Declaration of Independence, the Delaware copy of the US Bill of Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, an account of Nelson Mandela's 1964 trial, plus countless paintings, drawings, costumes and other artefacts. Phew! It is, quite simply, the largest and most significant exhibition ever devoted to Magna Carta.

Magna Carta Exhibition DSC00595 (credit Tony Antoniou)

Last, but not least, we also have an extensive programme of events that accompany our exhibition. Forthcoming highlights include Professor A E Dick Howard talking on Magna Carta's American Adventure (1 June), Revelations of the Magna Carta Project (5 June) and a special lunchtime concert on 15 June.


Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy is on at the British Library until 1 September. Entry costs £12 with many concessions available; under 18s enter free. Most of the exhibits and other educational resources can be seen on our dedicated Magna Carta website. Follow us on Twitter, @BLMedieval.

And if you're wondering where the line "Magna Carta, Super Charter" comes from ... then you'll have to visit our exhibition!

16 May 2015

The Harley Trilingual Psalter

Harley MS 5786, f 106v. Coloured initials at the beginning of Psalm 80, and marginal annotation in Arabic noting that this is the reading for Fridays.

Sicily in the twelfth century was an island of many languages. The Harley Trilingual Psalter (Harley MS 5786) bears eloquent witness to this multilingual culture. Written in three parallel columns, it presents the text of the Psalms in the Greek of the Septuagint, the Latin of the Vulgate, and the the 11th-century Arabic translation of Abu'l-Fath 'Abdallāh ibn al-Fadl ibn 'Abdallāh al-Mutrān al-Antaki. On the basis of the script and a faded inscription on the verso of the last folio, the manuscript can be dated to between 1130 and 1153, and was almost certainly written in Palermo, at the court of Roger II of Sicily.

Harley 5786 f174v_PSC
Harley MS 5786, f 173v: faded inscription dated 8 January 1153.

The inscription which helps to date the manuscript marks the date 8 January 1153. This is now very faded, as can be seen from the image above, though it was transcribed in the mid-18th century by Thomas Birch and William Watson. Multi-spectral imaging can make the inscription more legible and confirms the reading of Birch and Watson.

Harley5786 f174v_Composite-14pca
Harley MS 5786, f 173v, multi-spectral image of the inscription.

The inscription is written in Latin, but the hand does not match any of the scribal hands that contributed to writing the Latin text of the Psalms, so 1153 is best taken as a date before which the manuscript was written. As for the localisation of the manuscript in Palermo, the script of all three columns helps us here: The Greek script is that known as "Reggio-style", which is characteristic not merely of Reggio but of the Sicilian and Calabrian region more generally. Similarly, the Latin script (written by at least six hands) is typical Italian protogothic. The Arabic script is very similar to that of the diwani script introduced into Sicily in c. 1130.

Harley_ms-5786_f087r detail
Beginning of Psalm 68, Harley MS 5786 f 87r.

The Psalms are all numbered in each column, according to the numbering system of each language. Thus Greek numerals (not visible in this image) are used in the Greek column, Roman numerals in the Latin, and Arabic numerals in the Arabic column. The only marginalia to be found in the manuscript (aside from occasional later corrections) are notes in Arabic written in the margins, all of which refer to the Latin liturgy. In the image above, for instance, the Arabic marginal note says “Reading for Thursday night”. These marginal notes have led some to believe that this manuscript was used by Arabic-speaking Christians to follow along with Latin services in Palermo. Yet its status as a trilingual psalter surely also helps to serve the political purposes of Roger II himself, who took pains to present himself as a king of all the people of Sicily: speakers of Greek, of Latin, and of Arabic. In this regard, the Trilingual Psalter is a parallel to architectural works such as the Cappella Palatina, which fused Byzantine, Arab, and Norman forms. Whatever its purpose, the Harley Trilingual Psalter reminds us of the multilingual nature of twelfth-century Sicily, and of the different social groups living in Palermo at that time.

- Cillian O'Hogan

14 May 2015

Magna Carta (An Embroidery)

Today Cornelia Parker’s new artwork, Magna Carta (An Embroidery), is being unveiled at the British Library. Commissioned by the Ruskin School of Art at the University of Oxford in partnership with the British Library, the artwork is a 13 metre-long embroidery of the Wikipedia page on Magna Carta, as it stood on 15 June 2014, Magna Carta’s 799th birthday. The embroidery, which is the work of over 200 stitchers, is the result of more than two years of planning.

Cornelia-parker-with-a-fragment-of-magna-carta-an-embroidery-at-the-british-library-1 (1)

Cornelia Parker with a fragment of Magna Carta (An Embroidery) in the British Library (photograph by Tony Antoniou)

Paul Bonaventura of the Ruskin School of Art first contacted me in March 2013 to discuss the idea of fundraising to commission a new work of art that would take Magna Carta as its point of departure and be premiered in the Library during our exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, which runs until 1 September. This proposal became a reality thanks to funding from the National Lottery through Arts Council England and from the John Fell OUP Research Fund.

Cornelia Parker’s proposal was chosen from ideas presented by the shortlisted artists in February 2014, setting in train the enormous logistical task of organising the work of all the many stitchers. The majority of the words have been sewn by almost forty prisoners, with the remainder being added by a wide range of public figures, politicians, campaigners, academics and lawyers. These include Mary Beard, Kenneth Clarke MP, Jarvis Cocker, Germaine Greer, Baroness Doreen Lawrence, Caroline Lucas MP, Lord Judge, Eliza Manningham-Buller, Jon Snow, Edward Snowden, Peter Tatchell and Baroness Warsi. There are also contributions from some very skilled embroiderers from the Embroiderers’ Guild, the Royal School of Needlework and the company Hand & Lock, and from some rather less skilled stitchers from the staff of the British Library.


King John signs Magna Carta (1902) stitched by Janet Payne, Embroiderers’ Guild (Eastern Region)

I took a break from an intense period in the preparation for the opening of our Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy exhibition to sew a few words, including ‘British Library’, late one night in January this year. It was quite a challenge to keep my sewing up to the standard of the surrounding words sewn by prisoners already trained in stitching by Fine Cell Work, a social enterprise that trains prisoners in paid, skilled, creative needlework. Sewing my words was a chance to reflect not only on the many hands that had contributed to the embroidery, but also the many different people over the centuries who have reused, reinterpreted and reworked Magna Carta itself.


Claire Breay, Head of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts, embroidering the words ‘British Library’ (photograph by Noah Timlin)

Cornelia said, ‘I wanted the embroidery to raise questions about where we are now with the principles laid down in the Magna Carta, and about the challenges to all kinds of freedoms that we face in the digital age. Like a Wikipedia article, this embroidery is multi-authored and full of many different voices.’


Detail of one of 1215 Magna Carta documents, held by the British Library. Stitched by Pam Keeling, Embroiderers’ Guild (East Midlands Region).

Magna Carta (An Embroidery) is on free display in the front hall of the British Library from 15 May to 24 July. The exhibition is accompanied by a film, a publication and even mirrors so that you can see parts of the back of the embroidery.

Claire Breay

13 May 2015

The First Edition and Translation of Magna Carta

Our latest Magna Carta blogpost focuses on the first printed edition and translation of Magna Carta, from the reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII. All the items described here can be viewed in our major exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, which is on at the British Library until 1 September 2015.

The first time that the Latin text of Magna Carta was printed in its entirety was in 1508, when the king’s printer (regius impressor) Richard Pynson (c. 1449–1529/30), published it alongside other statutes, in Magna Carta Carta cum aliis Antiquis Statutis. Pynson's edition reproduced in 37 clauses King Henry III’s Magna Carta of 1225, as confirmed and enrolled on the Statute Book in 1297 by Edward I.

First printed Magna Carta
The first printed edition of Magna Carta, 1508 (British Library C.112.a.2)

Richard Pynson was born in Normandy in the mid-15th century (around the same time that Johannes Gutenberg was developing movable type printing technology), but by 1482 he had moved to London to work as a glover. By 1496 he had set up as a ‘pouchemaker’ and ‘bokeprynter’, eventually setting up business in Fleet Street in 1502, close to the legal trade associated with the London Inns of Court. Although Pynson’s first publications were religious, the printing of legal texts dominated his trade, and by 1506 he was made printer to the king with exclusive rights to print all parliamentary statutes and royal proclamations.    

Magna Carta Carta cum aliis Antiquis Statutis was one of the titles he produced for this legal trade centred around the Inns of Court. As well as containing Magna Carta in full, the edition also reproduced the complete text of the Charter of the Forest and a further 63 statutes drafted in both Latin and law French. Conceived as a practical handbook for practising lawyers, the edition drew on a long-standing tradition of bespoke manuscript compilations of laws used for legal training since the Middle Ages. Such manuscript collections underpinned the common law traditions of Tudor legal culture, and with the growth in the printing trade it was a culture that was gradually transforming from one based on irregular manuscript compilations to standardised printed texts. This was important. As a result of the standardisation of these legal textbooks, beginning with Magna Carta, the Great Charter became literally the first statute that every trained lawyer in the Inns of Court encountered in print and it was soon considered to be the foundational statute of the realm.

The first published English translation of Magna Carta, 1534 (British Library C 112.a.6)

Following the publication of the first Latin edition of Magna Carta in 1508 it was not long until the first English translation of the full text of Magna Carta was published, in 1534. The translation was made by the Tudor courtier and poet, George Ferrers (c. 1510–1579), who was associated with Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to King Henry VIII. The book itself was printed by Robert Redman (d. 1540), an early rival of Richard Pynson’s who would later take over his premises in Fleet Street. Like Pynson, Redman largely produced legal texts for the legal market generated by the Inns of Court, and he developed the business by producing English translations of previously untranslated statutes with the useful inclusion of alphabetised indexes. Ferrers’ translation, however, was not a good one. It contained many errors that were further compounded by printer’s mistakes. Subsequent editions would announce the ‘great deal of care’ taken to correct the text and these corrected versions ran into many editions throughout the 16th and 17th centuries.

The Life of Sir Thomas More (British Library G.1580)

The appearance of these books by Pynson and Ferrers had a significant impact on the dissemination, use and popular awareness of Magna Carta in the 16th century. In the years following their publication the range of legal invocations of Magna Carta proliferated. From 1508 onwards it was often invoked in the law courts to protect due process from royal interference in, particular the summoning of men without charge under the king’s privy seal. Furthermore, within two years of the publication of the first English translation in 1534, Magna Carta was widely called upon by those opposing of Henry VIII’s religious reforms. It was used by Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) at his trial in 1535 and by participants in the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536 who looked to the Charter’s first clause confirming the liberties of the English Church. That these invocations coincided with the publications of these books on Magna Carta is no coincidence. Awareness of the Great Charter and the political uses to which it could be applied was clearly growing. Its invocation was no mere rhetorical flourish, but evidence of a vibrant legal discourse that was growing as a result of these early publications.

For details about our exhibition, see our dedicated website, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy.

Alexander Lock