THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

16 posts from June 2015

27 June 2015

Art in the margins: the Theodore Psalter

The psalter, a copy of the Psalms designed for personal or liturgical uses, was an important text in Byzantinum, particularly in monastic life. Among the many copies of this text surviving down to the present day are marginal psalters, which contain illuminations in the margins of the folios. Several important marginal psalters survive, such as the Barberini, Paris, and Bristol Psalters, all of which can be appreciated for their impressive decoration.

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Add MS 19532, f 1v. Chrysography (writing in gold).

Add MS 19352, the Theodore Psalter, is perhaps the most richly decorated psalter to survive, with 440 marginal illustrations, and we have just updated the catalogue to include a description of every miniature in the manuscript. Nearly every folio contains illustration, and the title and first initial of every verse are in gold.

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Add MS 19352, f 96r. An elaborate orchard scene takes up nearly a third of the page.

These illustrations range widely in their content, as each tries to imagine the most important elements of the Psalm. Specific lines referred to are often linked to the images by means of red or blue lines. The manuscript includes some graphic depictions of God’s wrath:

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Add MS 19532, f 11v. Angel pulling out the boastful tongue (Ps 11(12):4).
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Add MS 19352, f 21v. Burning of Sodom and the five cities.

It also contains scenes of some of the Bible’s most exciting stories:

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Add MS 19532, f 182r. David and Goliath.
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Add MS 19352, f 141v. Plagues visited upon Egypt.
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Add MS 19352, f 201r. Jonah cast into the sea.

Particularly prominent is King David, reputedly the author of a number of the Psalms, who can be seen praying in various ways. Many of these images underscore the prophetic qualities of the Psalms, and include New Testament figures, particularly Jesus and Mary, along with a passage in which they are prophesied.

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Add MS 19352, f 84r. Daniel prophesies on the mount (pink) with the Mother of God at the top and David at the foot.

Other images are used in a liturgical context, and what they depict is not necessarily connected with the Psalm, but connected to a feast or Saint to which that Psalm is significant:

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Add MS 19352, f 81v. The Martyrdom of the Forty Martyrs. Psalm 65 (66) is read on their feast day.

In addition to the Psalms, the Theodore Psalter contains the Odes, and a twelve-syllable poem on David’s early life. Also among the additional material are a colophon and a prayer for the Psalter's recipient. These make it clear that the manuscript was copied in 1066 by Theodoros of Caesarea, presbyter of the Studios Monastery in Constantinople, for the Abbot Michael.

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Add MS 19352, f 208r. Colophon, written in gold.

On Digitised Manuscripts you can see full coverage of this richly decorated manuscript and many others like it.

-          Andrew St. Thomas

25 June 2015

Getting Under the Covers of the St Cuthbert Gospel

This week has seen the launch at the British Library on Monday and at Trinity College, Dublin on Wednesday of a new book, The St Cuthbert Gospel: Studies on the Insular Manuscript of the Gospel of John, edited by Claire Breay, Head of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts at the British Library, and Bernard Meehan, Head of Research Collections and Keeper of Manuscripts at Trinity College, Dublin. 

New book cover

 

The St Cuthbert Gospel is the earliest intact European book and a landmark in the cultural history of western Europe. Now dated to the early eighth century by Richard Gameson and Leslie Webster, the manuscript contains a beautifully written copy of the Gospel of John in Latin and is famous for the craftsmanship and outstanding condition of its contemporary decorated leather binding. Found in Cuthbert's coffin when it was opened in Durham Cathedral in 1104, the Gospel was acquired for the national collection following a major fundraising campaign in 2011-12.

One of the most exciting aspects of the long preparation for the new book on the Gospel was the day that we took the manuscript to the Natural History Museum for a CT scan. The videos produced from this scan have allowed us to look inside the book as never before, to appreciate the many remarkable features of this manuscript. We were able to examine the extraordinary refinement and careful shaping of the wooden boards, establishing that at their maximum the left (front) board measures only 2.4mm thick and the right (back) board only 1.5mm. We could see the cords beneath the raised frames in the decoration and we could examine for the first time the much-debated foundation material lying beneath the raised plant-motif decoration in the centre of the left cover. Roger Powell had suggested that the foundation material might be cord or leather, while Jim Bloxam and Kristine Rose found more recently (in making a facsimile of the binding which they generously made available to the project) that gesso could be used to produce comparable results. It was immediately apparent from the CT scan that neither cord nor leather had been used for the foundation of the central motif, as it is a clay-like material which completely fills the space between the leather and the board.

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Cross-section of left board from CT scan, showing clay-like material between the leather and the wooden board.

In the CT scan and in an X-ray image this clay-like material shows as a dull grey, completely different from the gesso used in the most accurate modern facsimile by Rose and Bloxam, which shows as black in the X-ray image.

X-ray of left board (facsimile on left and original on right)
X-ray of left board (facsimile on left and original on right).

Christina Duffy, Imaging Scientist at the British Library, has produced videos of the St Cuthbert Gospel from the CT scan which show the manuscript, its wooden boards, the cords which lie under the raised frames in the decoration and a cross-section through the whole manuscript showing the structure of the book and the raised decoration. You can watch the video (courtesy of Christina Duffy) here:

 

In his chapter in the new book launched this week, Nicholas Pickwoad explains in detail how the central motif on the binding appears to have been made using a matrix, carved with the plant design, to impress the wet leather over the clay-like material on to the wooden board.

This new collection of essays is the most substantial study of the book since the 1960s, and is the culmination of our work to promote new research on the Gospel since its acquisition by the British Library. As well as Nicholas Pickwoad's chapter on the structure and production of the binding, the book includes detailed commentary on: Cuthbert in his historical context by Clare Stancliffe; the codicology, text, script and medieval history of the manuscript by Richard Gameson; the decoration of the binding by Leslie Webster; the Irish pocket Gospels by Bernard Meehan, the other relics found in Cuthbert's coffin by Eric Cambridge; and the post-medieval ownership of the book by Arnold Hunt. The book, which significantly revises the existing scholarship on one of the British Library's most recent acquisitions, is now available through the Library's online shop.

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- Claire Breay

23 June 2015

Livy Among the Humanists

Harley MS 2493 contains a copy of Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita. Being over 800 years old, however, means this manuscript has more than one story to tell. A manuscript’s provenance, its journey to the present day through its various former owners, is often as interesting and edifying as the text itself. This manuscript, for instance, becomes a key source for Livy’s classical text only after passing though the hands of two immensely significant Renaissance figures: Francesco Petrarch and Lorenzo Valla.

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Harley MS 2493, f 145r: long comment in Valla’s hand at the bottom of the folio.

The manuscript came to the Library in 1753 as part of the collection acquired by Robert and Edward Harley in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Prior to this, it was in the custody of the Jesuit College in Agen, which was in operation between 1591 and 1762. It is unknown how the manuscript made its way to the college, but the manuscript itself indicates that it was in the hands of Lorenzo Valla before that. Valla was an influential Italian humanist in the early 15th century, apostolic secretary to Pope Nicholas V and professor of rhetoric in Rome, and this manuscript was likely his own copy: he makes a great number of annotations, jotted down in the manner of personal notes, and even signs several of the pages.

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Harley MS 2493, f 167v: Valla’s signature, LAV VAL, in the inner margin.

While the editing of classical texts was by no means new in Valla’s time, the humanists, driven for learning and motivated in particular by classical literature, proved themselves remarkable as Greek and Latin editors – though not always free of error. There was a strong desire in the Renaissance to produce a trustworthy text, as true as possible to the original. Valla was at the forefront of Latin scholarship, and his own desire for an accurate text led him to many great successes.

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Harley MS 2493, f 93r. Portion of the manuscript copied in the 12th century.
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Harley MS 2493, f 92r. Portion of the manuscript copied by Petrarch in the 14th century.

But Valla was not the first (or last) to handle this manuscript. Although much of the codex dates from the 12th century, it was completed in the 14th-century by Francesco Petrarch himself, the famed Italian scholar and poet. Petrarch personally copied some thirty folios of the manuscript, comprising the final sections of Decades I and III, and added copious notes to the text. These notes were used by Valla, and influenced his Emendationes in T. Livium. There are many pages where this cooperation can be seen quite clearly.

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Harley MS 2493, f 105v. Emendations by Petrarch (between the lines) and marginalia by Valla.

Livy’s history of Rome remains a work of incredible literary value, and the text we read today is in part the result of the efforts of humanist scholars. On Digitised Manuscripts, you can explore Petrarch and Valla’s own copy!

-          Andrew St. Thomas

20 June 2015

Ex(odus)-Men: Adventures in a Medieval Bible Picture Book

In a couple of previous blog posts (Superheroes, True Romance, Blood and Gore and Comic Mania), we demonstrated how medieval picture books easily compete with the action, intrigue and visual appeal of the modern comic book (who could forget the dancing camels of The Old English Hexateuch?!). One of the newest additions to our website of Digitised Manuscripts, Additional MS 15277, offers yet another reason to put down your latest graphic novel.

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Moses (with horns) returns from Mount Sinai for the second time, from the 'Paduan Bible Picture Book', Northern Italy (Padua?), c. 1400, Add MS 15277, f. 15r

This Italian manuscript is loaded with tension, violence and transgressive behaviour, bringing to life the Books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy and Joshua. The manuscript is imperfect at both the beginning and the end (the Books of Genesis and Ruth are now at Rovigo (Biblioteca dell'Accademia dei Concordi, MS 212, a facsimile of which can be ordered in our Reading Room as MS Facsimile 605)). Nonetheless, what remains is an exciting and rich example of a late medieval Bible picture book. From the plagues of Egypt to the conquest of the Promised Land, the Books of the Old Testament are vibrantly animated.

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Detail of a miniature of the plague of hail (Exodus 9:22-25), Add MS 15277, f. 7r
 
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Bezalel and Aholiab are selected to build the Tabernacle (Exodus 31:1-11), Add MS 15277 f. 15v
 
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Detail of a miniature of a fight between an Israelite and a man with an Israelite mother and an Egyptian father who blasphemes (Leviticus 24:10), Add MS 15277, f. 23r
 
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Detail of a miniature of the blasphemer being stoned (Leviticus 24:23), Add MS 15277, f. 23v
 
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God tells Moses to punish those who have been transgressing with Moabite women and worshipping their gods; Phinehas thrusts a spear through an Israelite man and Midianite woman in the midst of copulation (Numbers 25:1-9), Add MS 15277, f. 51v
 
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War against the Midianites (Numbers 31:1-12), Add MS 15277, f. 53r
 
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Detail of two miniatures of Joshua killing the King of Makkedah (Joshua 10:28), Add MS 15277, f. 72r

Visit our website of Digitised Manuscripts to explore more incredible images from the Paduan Bible Picture Book.

- Hannah Morcos

 

17 June 2015

Project Curator, Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts

The British Library is recruiting for a Project Curator, Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts. This is a full time, fixed term position, from 1 September 2015 to 31 December 2018. Full details of the post and how to apply can be found here.

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A page from the Vespasian Psalter, in the British Library's collections (Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 12r)

The post will provide curatorial support for a major exhibition on the Anglo-Saxons, to be held at the British Library in 2018–19. The successful candidate will be part of a small team within the Library’s Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts Section. Key responsibilities of the post-holder will include: researching manuscripts and drafting text for the exhibition catalogue; contributing to the Library’s online manuscripts catalogue; assisting in the preparation of learning materials; promoting the exhibition on social media; and supporting the organisation of the conference associated with the exhibition.

You will have a post-graduate degree, or its equivalent, in Anglo-Saxon studies or a related discipline. You must have specialist experience of researching Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, a good knowledge of Latin and knowledge of Old English, and have expertise in early medieval palaeography and codicology. Excellent organisation skills are essential, as is the ability to communicate effectively to a wide range of audiences and to meet strict deadlines. Candidates must be able to work independently and as part of a team.

The deadline for aplications is 28 June 2015, and interviews will take place in the week beginning 20 July 2015.

16 June 2015

Exit, Pursued by a Bear

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Papyrus 3053, scene from the arena. Found at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, among documents dating from the third century.

A recent addition to Digitised Manuscripts is one of our true hidden treasures: possibly the oldest illuminated manuscript in the British Library’s collections. Papyrus 3053, also known as P. Oxy. 2470, was found along with a range of third-century documents at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt. Blank on the verso, the recto contains a vivid fragment of a scene from the arena. The papyrus depicts a bear, caught just on the moment of rising up, or perhaps about to leap, to try to catch the figure whose legs are visible in the top left. The hoop in the top right is perhaps a ring through which the figure is aiming to jump. The red swoosh to the right of the fragment is harder to make any sense of, but it seems to serve the purpose of marking off the acrobatic scene from something else. Perhaps it is supposed to designate the curve of the seating at the amphitheatre? Just above the legs of the acrobat are the feet of some letters, reconstructed as ερσωις, though what exactly that might mean (a name, perhaps?) is unclear.

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Papyrus 3053, detail of feet of letters, possibly ερσωις

Such feats of acrobatic dexterity, with the goal of escaping wild beasts, were hugely popular in antiquity, and the papyrus calls to mind the words of the late Latin poet Prudentius (348-c. 405), who notes in his poem the Hamartigenia that “rash figures spring with flying leap over wild beasts and sport amid the risks of death” (inde feras uolucri temeraria corpora saltu | transiliunt mortisque inter discrimina ludunt, Ham. 369-70, trans. Thomson). The prevalence of scenes drawn from the world of Roman spectacle in mosaics and in the few illuminated papyri now extant give further attestation of the popularity of these shows (see, for instance, the famous Antinoopolis Charioteers papyrus , or this fine hunting-scene (perhaps a uenatio?) in a Berlin papyrus. Bears were particularly prized: see, for instance, the many references to the difficulties involved in getting good bears for the games in the letters of the fourth-century senator Symmachus, or the splendid scene depicted by Apuleius in the fourth book of his novel the Metamorphoses.

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Papyrus 3053, sewing repairs

What was the original context of this fragment? Clearly visible are the remains of some sewing along two vertical folds, similar to the sort of sewing we often find in papyrus codices. However, the fact that these two folds are so close to each other makes it clear that the image was not spread across two facing pages of a codex. It has been suggested that the sewing was intended to repair tears that resulted from the folds. Did this image form part of a bookroll, then, or was it perhaps inserted into a codex? In the absence of further information, it’s impossible to say.

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Royal MS 1 D VIII (Codex Alexandrinus) f 41r, detail. Decorated tailpiece at the end of the Gospel of Luke, containing a pomegranate plant and two vines. 5th century.

I mentioned at the beginning that this is possibly the oldest illuminated manuscript in the British Library. We can perhaps exclude papyri that have simple decorative ink coronides on the grounds that these are not illuminations as we would commonly think of them today. But there remains the fact that establishing a clear date for Papyrus 3053 is tricky: while it was found among documents from the third century, there is no hard evidence for dating it exclusively to that century, and we should allow for the possibility that it is from a later period, possibly even the sixth century. Such a dating would make it a near-contemporary of the Cotton Genesis, generally dated to the fifth or sixth century, and later than Codex Alexandrinus (fifth century), which contains tiny miniatures in the tailpiece (such as the one above). Whatever its date, however, Papyrus 3053 is a rare example of a coloured illustration on papyrus, and a precious glimpse into the world of book decoration in the ancient world.

-          Cillian O’Hogan

15 June 2015

Magna Carta Celebrates Its 800th Birthday!

The big day has finally arrived! Magna Carta, one of the most famous documents in the world is celebrating its 800th birthday. Granted by King John of England at Runnymede, a water meadow on the River Thames, on 15 June 1215, Magna Carta ('The Great Charter') established for the first time that everybody was subject to the law and nobody, not even our rulers, was above the law.

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The only surviving photograph of King John signing Magna Carta at Runnymede in June 1215

So here are some Magna Carta facts and figures with which to impress your friends:

  • there are 4 surviving copies of the 1215 Magna Carta, 1 of which belongs to Lincoln Cathedral, 1 to Salisbury Cathedral and the other 2 to the British Library
  • the documents are written on sheepskin parchment (note: Magna Carta was not written on moleskin as some people claim, you would have needed a pretty huge mole to have written 3,500 words of medieval Latin on it!)
  • 1 of the British Library's 1215 Magna Carta manuscripts was damaged in a fire in the 18th century, the other was found in a London tailor's shop in the 17th century (where it may have been about to be chopped up in order to line gentlemen's collars)
  • Magna Carta was originally a peace treaty between King John of England (1199-1215) and his rebellious barons; it was never intended as a blueprint for human rights
  • Magna Carta was annulled by the Pope just 10 weeks after it had been issued, being described as "shameful, demeaning, illegal and unjust" and declared "null and void of all validity for ever"
  • after Magna Carta was annulled, the barons rebelled for a 2nd time and offered the English crown to Prince Louis, son of the king of France; the French invaded England in late 1215
  • King John died in October 1216 and was succeeded by his 9-year-old son, Henry III; a new, revised version of Magna Carta was issued, securing the support of the barons and leading to the expulsion of the French
  • revised versions of Magna Carta were granted in 1216, 1217 and 1225, and the 1225 version was confirmed by King Edward I and entered onto the statute roll in 1297
  • Magna Carta was printed for the first time in 1508 (an English translation of the Latin text was published in 1534)
  • Sir Edward Coke (d. 1634) used Magna Carta in the 17th century to challenge the autocratic rule of the Stuart kings; Magna Carta was used at the trial of King Charles I in 1649, stating that nobody could have justice denied or delayed unto themselves
  • over the centuries Magna Carta has influenced and been cited by, among others, Sir Thomas More, William Penn, John Wilkes, Thomas Jefferson, Mahatma Gandhi, Helena Normanton, Nelson Mandela and Eleanor Roosevelt
  • between 1828 and 1969 most of Magna Carta's clauses were repealed by Parliament, on the grounds that they were obsolete (since they referred to feudal customs) or had been superseded by other laws
  • just 3 clauses of Magna Carta remain valid in English law, namely the clause confirming the liberties of the English Church, that confirming the liberties of the city of London and all other cities, towns, ports and boroughs, and this, the most famous clause of all: "No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice."

Here are some of the highlights of Magna Carta's year so far.

In February 2015, for the first time in history, the 4 surviving manuscripts of the 1215 Magna Carta were brought together for a unification event at the British Library, before being taken to Parliament for one day.

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Parliament

In March HRH The Prince of Wales opened our major British Library exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy.

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To date, the Magna Carta exhibition has been the most successful ever mounted by the British Library, and it remains open until 1 September 2015.

Magna Carta Exhibition DSC00567 (credit Tony Antoniou)

Magna Carta Exhibition DSC00590 (credit Tony Antoniou)

Magna Carta Exhibition DSC00595 (credit Tony Antoniou)

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And in May we unveiled Cornelia Parker's new artwork Magna Carta (An Embroidery) at the British Library:

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And here he is, King John, reputedly the worst king in English history!

Terry Jones

 

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, featuring 2 of the original manuscripts of the 1215 Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence and US Bill of Rights and even 2 of King John's own teeth, is at the British Library until 1 September 2015.

14 June 2015

How The Forest Charter Was Saved From Destruction

A short while ago we blogged about Magna Carta's smaller cousin, known as the Charter of the Forest. In 1217, Magna Carta's clauses relating to forest law were removed to a separate document, the Forest Charter. In our current exhibition we have on display a manuscript of the 1225 version of the Forest Charter, with the seal of King Henry III and its original medieval seal bag still attached. (You can also see it on our website and in the catalogue that accompanies our exhibition.) The Forest Charter is a beautifully preserved manuscript, but how has it managed to survive until the present day?

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The British Library's 1225 Forest Charter (Add Ch 24712)

A few days ago I was searching through our departmental archives, in quest of information about how the British Museum acquired our manuscript of the Forest Charter (Additional Charter 24712). I'd been prompted to do my search by Professor Nicholas Vincent (University of East Anglia), Principal Investigator of the Magna Carta Project, who is trying to determine the provenance of all the Magna Carta documents. I knew that the British Museum (the ancestor of the British Library) had acquired this item from a certain Mr Cain on 16 August 1875. But what I hadn't realised was the circumstances whereby Cain had acquired it, until I came across the following letter, bound in a volume of departmental correspondence ...

The letter itself is addressed to Edward Bond (d. 1898), Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum (1866–78), and it is signed by R. E. Cain. What it reveals about the Forest Charter, and its potential fate, is rather interesting.

1 Forest Charter Letter

 

41 Rathbone Place

August 10th 1875

Dear Sir,

I hasten to give you all the information I can in respect of "King Henry MSS" left with you last Saturday. In 1865, Cutten & Davis of Bassinghall Street sold the stock of a lithographer. Edwin Joseph Pennell of 4, Wood Street, Lambeth bought several lots, he bought Presses, stones & waste Paper. I helped him clear the lots and in the waste paper we found the MSS. left with you, insted [sic] of receiving 4/- for helping I chose rather to have the MSS. which he let me have, of cause [sic] you can write to Mr Pennell at Wood St if you like, I would rather you did not, for if he should find out I have sold the MSS. for £16-0-0 he will want £8-0-0 out of it but of cause [sic] I must leave this to you. I have tried to get the Catalogue from him but he says he cannot find it any where but I am as sure that it came from the sale at Cutten as I am sure of my own existance [sic]. I send you MSS book I bought at a book stall I believe it to be worth something, it's the best book on birds I have ever seen, if you can give me say £5-0-0 or anything less I should be pleased to part with it, I am known to Mr Butler, Francis Harray Esqr. St James's Street, Mr Waller Fleet Street, as always being on the look out for Autographs, MSS and old books.

Yours Faithfully

R. E. Cain

To Bond Esqr.

British Museum

P.S. I did think I should have got more than £16. I thought it would be worth about £40, but of cause [sic] you know the worth and I only think it's worth  R.E.C.

 

2 Forest Charter Letter

So piecing all this together, what can we deduce (apart from the fact that I'm beginning to sound a lot like Sherlock)? According to Mr Cain, the British Library's precious manuscript of the Forest Charter had been found among the waste paper of an unnamed lithographer, bought by one Edwin Joseph Pennell in 1865. Cain had asked to keep the document rather than receiving the 4 shillings he was owed for helping Pennell, and 10 years later he sold it to the British Museum for the more princely sum of £16. Note, however, Cain's rather defective negotiating skills — he believed the Forest Charter ("King Henry MSS") to be worth as much as £40, but he later offered a separate book of birds to the British Museum for around £5 "or anything less"! (The book of birds is now Additional MS 29892, and it dates from the 18th century.) Cain vouched for the fact the original sale had taken place at Cutten & Davis of Basinghall Street (near the Guildhall in the City of London), but he could not procure a copy of the catalogue from Mr Pennell, and nor was he minded that the British Museum should approach Pennell, because otherwise he might demand a share of the loot!

All in all this is a pretty rum tale, and Professor Vincent has observed to me that the report of the alleged discovery of this manuscript reminds him of the British television series Steptoe and Son (set in a rag-and-bone shop). But, if we do take Mr Cain at his word, it does suggest that our magnificent Forest Charter had been thrown away in 1865, only to be rescued quite by chance among some "Presses, stones & waste Paper".

And this manuscript is not the only fortuitous survival among the British Library's collections. Also in our Magna Carta exhibition are two manuscripts of the original Magna Carta, issued by King John in 1215. One of these two precious manuscripts was damaged in a fire in 1731 (and by a subsequent, failed attempt at restoration in the 19th century); the other was reputedly found in a London tailor's shop in the 17th century, where presumably it had been consigned as waste (I often tell our visitors that it would have been chopped up and used to line gentleman's collars). So our Forest Charter joins this lists of some of the greatest documents in history which nearly, but very nearly, didn't make it to the present day.

Julian Harrison

 

PS  We'd love to hear from our readers if they know anything further about the elusive Mr Cain, or Mr Pennell or the sale at Cutten & Davis in 1865. Get in touch with us via Twitter, @BLMedieval

PPS  Our exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, if you haven't heard, is the largest and most significant ever devoted to Magna Carta, and is on at the British Library until 1 September 2015