Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

18 posts from August 2015

18 August 2015

Medieval Music Mash-Up

Every year there is always that one song (you either love or hate) that seems to take over the summer months. Friday night’s episode of The One Show featured the earliest known English song of the summer, which is found in one very special manuscript from the British Library’s collection. Harley MS 978 includes the only witness of Sumer Is Icumen In, the most famous piece of English secular medieval music. Copied in the 1260s, the manuscript is associated with Reading Abbey, and has been linked to one of its monks, William of Winchester.

BBC_The One Show_Harley MS 978

Close-up of Sumer Is Icumen In, Harley MS 978

Four main voices are intended to sing the round, plus two further parts are written at the bottom of the page.


The text inset to the right of the page gives instruction in Latin for the performance of the round, Sumer Is Icumen In, England, 3rd quarter of the 13th century, Harley MS 978, f. 11v

Featuring Dr Nicolas Bell, the British Library’s Curator of Musical Manuscripts, the episode brings this famous medieval song from the 13th century into the 21st century. Musician and TV presenter, Richard Mainwaring even performs a modernised version at Latitude Festival, with a backing track provided by 2013’s summer classic, Get Lucky by Daft Punk (featuring Pharrell Williams and Nile Rodgers).

BBC_The One Show_Harley MS 978_N.Bell and presenter

Dr Nicolas Bell, the British Library’s Curator of Musical Manuscripts, discusses Harley MS 978

For anyone who missed it, the episode is available on BBC’s iPlayer (UK only, approximately 12 minutes in).

This TV appearance also coincides with the return of Harley MS 978 to the Sir John Ritblat Treasures of the British Library Gallery. The lyrics of Sumer Is Icumen In and a translation into modern English can also be found on our blog.

- Hannah Morcos

16 August 2015

Two Weeks to See Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy


Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, the British Library's most successful exhibition ever, closes on Tuesday, 1 September. This week we were delighted to receive our 100,000th paying visitor, all the way from Portland, Oregon. Don't miss your final opportunity to see not only the British Library's two manuscripts of the 1215 Magna Carta, but also King John's teeth, thumb-bone and will, the vestments of Archbishop Hubert Walter, the Articles of the Barons and papal bull annulling Magna Carta, the Petition of Right and English Bill of Rights, the US Declaration of Independence and US Bill of Rights, paintings on loan from Parliament, the National Portrait Gallery and the V&A, the recording of Nelson Mandela's trial speech, and the Cabinet papers proposing to give the United States of America a manuscript of Magna Carta during World War II.


And that's not to mention the many other stories we feature, such as the murder of Prince Arthur, the trials of Thomas More, Charles I and William Penn, Shakespeare's play of King John, Olympe de Gouges and the French Revolution, the imprisonment of John Wilkes, the execution of the Cato Street Conspirators, the Treaty of Waitangi, Kipling and Gandhi, Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists, and Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If that's not enough, we also have films of Aung San Suu Kyi, Bill Clinton, William Hague and others putting Magna Carta into its international context, plus (for our younger visitors) a free children's audioguide. Quite simply, it's the biggest and best exhibition that's ever been mounted on what is one of the most famous and significant documents in the world.

Magna Carta Exhibition DSC00595 (credit Tony Antoniou)

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy closes at the British Library on 1 September. We'd love it to have lasted longer, but preparations are already under way for the opening of the Library's next blockbuster exhibition, West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song; and we do have to return our loan items to their many lenders! But you will be able to continue to see the exhibits after September in virtual form on our dedicated Magna Carta website, and to read about them in the exhibition catalogue.

Entry to the exhibition costs £12, and is free for under 18s.

13 August 2015

Magna Carta, The British Library and The National Archives

Putting together any major exhibition always calls upon the expertise and generosity of countless individuals. In the case of Magna Carta; Law, Liberty, Legacy -- which closes at the British Library on 1 September -- the curators (Claire Breay and Julian Harrison) and researcher (Alex Lock) were supported by a huge cast of specialists, who are name-checked in the exhibition catalogue.

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy also includes a number of key loans from other institutions, carefully selected to complement the British Library's own collection items. One of our principal lenders has been The National Archives of the United Kingdom, without whose generosity the content and scope of the exhibition would have been greatly diminished. An immensely fun part of the 4 year-process of putting the show together was meeting with the specialists and conservators at The National Archives in order to select and refine the documents and artefacts we were able to borrow. You can see these items in person at the British Library, in the catalogue and on our dedicated Magna Carta website. But we are also showcasing them in this blog-post, in order to emphasise the vast range of materials at The National Archives and to underline our gratitude for so kindly being able to borrow them for the Magna Carta exhibition.

E402-1 Tray1 (1 of 5) Sixteen tally sticks 13th century

Medieval tally sticks (The National Archives E 401/1, Tray 1)

Tally sticks were used by officials of the Exchequer as physical proof of payments to the king, functioning in the same way as a modern receipt. Made of hazel wood, the sticks contained notches denoting the amounts that had been paid; the notched sticks were split into two lengthwise, one half (the stock) being held by the payer and the other (the foil) being retained by the Exchequer. When the accounts were audited, the pieces were fitted together to check that they tallied (hence the name). A little-known fact: it was the burning of old tally sticks in the chamber of the House of Lords that led to the destruction by fire of Parliament in 1834!

E372-60 rot6 m1 Pipe Roll 1213-1214

The Pipe Roll for 1213-14 (The National Archives E 372/60, rot. 6, membr. 1)

Each year, the English Exchequer’s audit of the sheriffs’ accounts was recorded on long rolls of parchment, known as Pipe Rolls owing to their shape when rolled for storage. The Pipe Rolls supply details of payments made to and by the Crown, and of debts still owed. Shown here is part of the Pipe Roll entry for Cornwall, compiled at Michaelmas 1214. The relevant membrane is sub-divided by headings such as ‘De Placitis Foreste’ (Forest Payments) and ‘De Scutagio Pictavie’ (The Scutage for Poitou).

C66-14 (23d)

Distribution list of the copies of Magna Carta (The National Archives C 66/14)

It remains uncertain how many copies of Magna Carta were dispatched in 1215 and who were the intended recipients. A memorandum written by a clerk of the English Chancery on the reverse of the Patent Roll, more than a month after Magna Carta had been granted, notes that some 35 writs had been issued for the publication of Magna Carta in London, the Cinque Ports and various English counties. This memorandum also states that on 24 June 2 copies of Magna Carta were given to the Bishop of Lincoln, another to the Bishop of Worcester and 4 more to Master Elias of Dereham (steward of Archbishop Langton); Elias received a further 6 charters on 22 July, making a minimum of 13 Magna Carta manuscripts in total.

DL10-197 Duchy of Lancaster Royal Charter, Magna Carta 1297

1297 confirmation of Magna Carta (The National Archives DL 10/197, reproduced by kind permission of the Duchy of Lancaster)

The most famous medieval confirmation of Magna Carta was that of King Edward I (r. 1272–1307) in 1297, since it was this text that was copied on to the Statute Roll. The confirmation took the form of a letter patent in which the king declared that he had inspected his father’s Magna Carta: he then recited the whole of the 1225 charter, before ordering that its articles be observed in every respect. Since Edward himself was in Flanders at this time, the letter was the work of the government at home, acting in his name. It was witnessed by Edward’s son, the future Edward II (r. 1307–27), at Westminster on 10 October 1297. We are extremely grateful to the Duchy of Lancaster for so kindly agreeing to lend this item to the British Library's Magna Carta exhibition.

SP16-272 (125) Letter of King Charles I ordering that Coke's papers be confiscated 1634

Letter of King Charles I ordering the confiscation of Edward Coke's papers (The National Archives SP 16/272) 

Sir Edward Coke (d. 1634), author of The Institutes of the Lawes of England, used Magna Carta to challenge the autocratic rule of the Stuart kings. In retaliation, King Charles I (r. 1625–49) commanded in 1634 that Coke’s papers be seized, as set out in this letter to the Secretary of State, Sir Francis Windebank (d. 1646). Concerned that ‘there are sondry papers and Manuscripts of great consideration and weight yet remayning in the possession of Sir Edward Coke’, the King directed Windebank ‘to repaire to the house or place of abode of the said Sir Edward Coke, and there to seize and take into your charge, and bring away, all such papers and Manuscripts as you shall think fitt’.

EXT9-93 US Declaration of Independence 1776

Dunlap printing of the United States Declaration of Independence (The National Archives EXT 9/93)

The United States Declaration of Independence was printed in Philadelphia by John Dunlap (d. 1812) on or around 4 July 1776, by order of the Second Continental Congress. No fewer than 26 copies of the Dunlap printing survive today, including 3 in London. This copy was discovered in The National Archives in 2008.

HO40-41 (390) Poster for public meeting for the Peoples Charter, Carlisle 1839

Peace, Law and Order (The National Archives HO 40/41/390)

The Chartists used Magna Carta in their campaign to extend the franchise, as shown in this colourful poster, advertising a great public meeting to be held on the Sands at Carlisle on 21 May 1839. The poster promotes the speaker, Dr John Taylor, a leading Scottish Chartist and surgeon, and implores the crowd to come unarmed ‘so that their Enemies may not have an opportunity of persecuting them, and retarding the progress of Liberty’. The text continues in a menacing manner, ‘It is hoped that the Master Manufacturers will see the propriety of allowing their workpeople to attend the meeting, so that any unpleasant collision between them may be avoided.’

MFQ1-402 (1) Copy of Treaty of Waitangi 1840

Treaty of Waitangi (The National Archives MFQ 1/402/1)

British sailors, whalers and missionaries settled in New Zealand from the early 19th century, but the British government became formally involved in its colonisation only in the 1830s. On 6 February 1840, the British signed the Treaty of Waitangi with a group of Maori leaders from the North Island. The Treaty ceded New Zealand to Queen Victoria (r. 1837–1901), who promised the Maori her protection and the same rights as ‘the people of England’, and established William Hobson (d. 1842) as Governor. It also gave the Crown the exclusive right to buy any lands the Maori wished to sell, while recognising their full ownership of lands, forests, fisheries and other possessions. The Treaty was prepared in English, but the vast majority of the more than 500 chiefs who ultimately signed it put their name to this Maori translation, copies of which circulated through New Zealand’s North and South Islands. Henry Williams (d. 1867), the missionary who prepared the translation, referred to the Treaty as the ‘Magna Charta’ of the Maoris, which would secure for them ‘their Lands, Rights and Privileges’.

FO371-61073 (1 of 2) Response to proposal to celebrate Magna Carta Day, 1947

FO371-61073 (2 of 2) Response to proposal to celebrate Magna Carta Day, 1947

Magna Carta Day in the British Empire (The National Archives FO 371/61073)

In 1947, it was proposed to make 15 June a public holiday in the British Empire and United States, in order to emphasise Anglo-American co-operation and to champion the document as a symbol of Western liberty. However, some British civil servants opposed the scheme, fearing that the celebration of civil liberties might provoke opposition to British imperial rule. K. W. Blaxter, Assistant Secretary in the Colonial Office, dismissed the proposal in very strong terms: 'In some Colonies where ill-disposed politicians are ever on the lookout for opportunities to misrepresent our good intentions, its celebration might well cause embarrassment and in general there is a danger that the Colonial peoples might be led into an uncritical enthusiasm for a document which they had not read but which they presumed to contain guarantees of every so-called ‘right’ they might be interested at that moment in claiming.'

FO371-26169 (40) Proposal to offer Magna Carta as a gift to the USA 1941


The proposed gift of Magna Carta to the USA (The National Archives FO 371/26169)

In March 1941, the British War Cabinet, led by Winston Churchill (d. 1965), contemplated giving the USA what one paper described as 'an old piece of parchment, of no intrinsic value whatever, rather the worse for wear', in order to persuade young American men to lay down their lives for liberties and freedoms. One British government official wrote that, ‘The gift of Magna Carta would be at once the most precious of gifts and the most gracious of acts in American eyes; it would represent the only really adequate gesture which it is in our power to make in return for the means to preserve our country.’ However, it was soon realised that the document in question, the possession of the Dean and Chapter of Lincoln Cathedral, was not the property of the British government to give away; and so the plan was quietly shelved. This is possibly the only time in history that one nation has tried to persuade another to enter a war on its behalf in return for an old piece of parchment!

To view all these wonderful items so kindly loaned by The National Archives, come to Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy at the British Library until 1 September 2015.

Julian Harrison

11 August 2015

The Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César: A Flemish Chronicle Gone Viral

Written c. 1208 – 1213 for Roger, chastellan of Lille in Flanders, the Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César recounts world history from Creation up to Caesar’s conquest of France. Although its author initially intended to continue his story up to 13th century Flanders, the project was prematurely abandoned. Nonetheless, the Histoire ancienne is considered the first extant universal chronicle in French. Drawing on Latin and French sources, the chronicle offered an exciting digest of episodes from Genesis, the tragedies of Thebes, adventures of Greek heroes and the destruction of Troy. Additionally, the text tells the history of Rome, starting with Aeneas’ wanderings and the founding of the city, interrupted by a biography of Alexander the Great. Surviving manuscripts suggest that the Histoire gained markedly in popularity from the mid-thirteenth century, when manuscripts were produced in ateliers in Northern France (cf. below, Add MS 19669), in the Latin East (cf. below, Add MS 15268), and sometime later also in Italy. From this point onwards, the chronicle was ready to go viral. For a fuller picture see the article on the Medieval Francophone Literary Culture Outside France website.

Throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, ateliers in Paris, Flanders and the Mediterranean manufactured copies of the Histoire. In some cases, entire episodes were deleted, inserted, rearranged or replaced by different accounts. The most obvious reason for this was to produce a text that was more pleasing in its new surroundings, answering to local or more recent needs. A good example of this is Royal MS 20 D I, produced in Naples c. 1340. Firmly rooted in the Italian production of Histoire manuscripts, the Genesis and Alexander sections are cut, a much longer version of the Troy story is introduced, and the subject matter rearranged so as to provide a continuous history of Rome.

Full-page image of Troy, Rome, Constantinople, and Galatea from the Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César. Royal MS 20 D I, f. 26v, Italy, S. (Naples), 2nd quarter of the 14th century

Brought to Paris sometime before 1380, where it was copied several times, this deliberate adaptation generated a new, distinct version of the text. In the following I will focus on two earlier manuscripts, kept in the British Library, both of which are characterized by their own centre of production and each with its own history.

By c. 1260, manuscripts of the Histoire had reached Acre in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The decoration of locally manufactured copies (British Library Add MS 15268, Dijon, Bibliothèque municipale MS 562, Brussels Koninklijke Bibliotheek / Bibliothèque royale MS 10175, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale fonds français MS 20125) demonstrates the fruitful cohabitation of both Western and Islamic aesthetics with iconographic traditions from Byzantium. Elements of their illustration, for instance those images depicting Alexander’s army in the exotic Orient, may reflect the real-life experiences of the expat military elite in Acre for whom these copies were most probably produced.

Add_ms_15268_f210v detail
Alexander and the two-headed beast from the Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César. Add MS 15268, f. 210v, Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (Acre), 4th quarter of the 13th century, before 1291

Add MS 15268 is no doubt the most exquisite of this group. Consider the manuscript’s frontispiece, which depicts creation in a sequence of eight medallions, reminiscent of Byzantine icon painting. The banquet scene in the upper margin has distinct oriental characteristics.

Frontispiece depicting Genesis-Creation from the Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César. Add MS 15268, f. 1v, Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (Acre), 4th quarter of the 13th century, before 1291

Some have surmised that this manuscript was produced as a gift for Henry II of Lusignan (1270-1324) to mark his entry into Acre in 1286, but there is no real evidence to support this. Brussels, Koninklijke Bibliotheek / Bibliothèque royale, MS 10175 can, however, be associated with the Lusignan family: in the 1430s, the husband of Isabeau Babin (probably Guy of Lusignan, illegitimate son of King Janus of Cyprus) recorded information on their children’s birth and baptism on the flyleaves. These marks also provide evidence of how, after the fall of Acre, manuscripts of the Histoire ancienne like Add MS 15268 made their way to the West, which explains why some manuscripts produced in Italy in the early 14th century show the influence of sources brought from the Crusader Kingdom.

Another four surviving codices were produced at approximately the same time miles away in Flanders or Northern France. Three of these (British Library, Add MS 19669, The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek MS 74 D 47, Pommersfelden, Schloss Weissenstein - Schönbornsche Schlossbibliothek MS 295) share an illustrative programme, which demonstrates that they are intimately related. Nevertheless, none of the individual cycles is slavishly copied from another and there are variations in the scenes that were selected for illustration.

For instance, Add MS 19669 is the only manuscript to depict Achilles’ death. The miniature on folio 84r sets the Greek champion’s demise alongside Hector’s, thus intimately linking their deaths. Note that Paris’ arrows do not hit Achilles in the heel, as we might expect: the account of Achilles’ death in the Histoire differs from tradition. Here, Achilles is wounded in ‘many places’ and not, as legend has it, in the ankle, his only vulnerable spot after his mother Thetis had dipped him in the river Styx.

Add_ms_19669_f084 DETAILr
Four-part miniature showing the deaths of Hector and Achilles from the Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César. Additional MS, f. 84r, France, N., 2nd half of the 13th century

The design of the historiated initial letter at the beginning of the text is common to all four manuscripts and shows Creation in a series of seven medallions around a central mandorla.

Frontispiece depicting Genesis-Creation with added marginal decoration from the Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César. Additional MS 19669, f. 4r, France, N., 2nd half of the 13th century, second set of borders added in the 15th century

This page is also interesting because a second set of decorative borders was added in the 15th century, probably to restyle the page according to contemporary decorative trends. A later owner may have judged that some modern accents could give this vintage codex a new lease of life. This manuscript fashionista should probably be identified as Jean d’Averton, given the coats of arms that were inserted on several folios and the ex-libris: 

Add_ms_19669_f238r DETAIL
Coat of arms and ex-libris of Jean d’Averton in the Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César. Add MS 19669, f. 238r, France, N., 2nd half of the 13th century, arms and ex-libris added in the 15th century

The updating of Add MS 19669 for a more modern readership is by no means unique. In the late 15th or early 16th century, the Brussels manuscript was fitted with a modern table of contents and a new frontispiece. While the table is written in a modern littera hybrida, the text on the illustrated page is a more old-fashioned littera textualis, chosen no doubt to harmonise better with the script used in the following, 13th-century text. The added folios may have replaced damaged or lost ones, but this is not the only plausible explanation. They bring a touch of contemporary style and again added heraldry provides a means of identification. The coat of arms inserted in the lower margin of f. 20r is that of the Du Périer family, which suggests that by the end of the 15th century, the Brussels manuscript had travelled from Cyprus to the South of France.

These books demonstrate the mobile and agile nature of medieval vernacular texts and manuscripts. Not only do they break down the idea of one clear-cut and ‘fixed’ text, they show that each new manuscript, be it through its material realisation, through editorial interventions or a combination of both, had the potential to be a radical remake. Moreover, this potential did not necessarily end with the delivery of the finished manuscript: throughout its existence, new situations, readers and owners could endow a manuscript with renewed relevance. A full list of Histoire ancienne manuscripts may be accessed through the Medieval Francophone Literary Cultures Outside France database.

 - Dirk Schoenaers (University College London and the University of St Andrews)

07 August 2015

Magna Carta Catalogue On Special Offer

Our wonderful Magna Carta exhibition is coming to an end — it closes on 1 September 2015. But all the exhibits can also be viewed in the accompanying illustrated catalogue, edited by curators Claire Breay and Julian Harrison. The catalogue features essays by leading experts on the history of Magna Carta, together with descriptions and colour images of the exhibits, and a modern English translation of the 1215 Magna Carta. And we're delighted to say that the paperback version of the catalogue is now on special offer at the British Library and the Library's online shop, for only £15 (ISBN 9780712357630). If you're unable to come in person to the show, you want a memento of your visit, or you're simply interested in the story of Magna Carta, this is the book for you!


The exhibition catalogue contains the following essays, in addition to the descriptions of the exhibits:

  • 'Kingship and Crisis', by Nicholas Vincent (University of East Anglia and Principal Investigator of the Magna Carta Project)
  • 'Runnymede and the Granting of Magna Carta', by Nicholas Vincent
  • 'Revival and Survival' by David Carpenter (King's College, London)
  • 'English Liberties' by Justin Champion (Royal Holloway) and Alexander Lock (British Library)
  • 'Colonies and Revolutions' by Matthew Shaw (British Library)
  • 'Radicalism and Reform' by Alexander Lock and Justin Champion
  • 'Empire and After' by Zoë Laidlaw (Royal Holloway)
  • 'Magna Carta in the Modern Age' by Joshua Rozenberg (legal commentator and journalist)


An early 17th-century portrait of King John from the National Portrait Gallery, described and illustrated on pp. 118–19 of the Magna Carta catalogue

The reviews of this catalogue, as of the exhibition, have been overwhelmingly positive, with Tim Tatton-Brown in Current Archaeology (June 2015) describing it as a "splendid catalogue ... wonderful and very full".


The Old English Hexateuch, 11th century, from the British Library, described and illustrated on pp. 26–27 of the Magna Carta catalogue

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy is on at the British Library until 1 September 2015. Tickets cost £12 with many concessions available, and under 18s enter for free.

HO40-41 (390) Poster for public meeting for the Peoples Charter, Carlisle 1839

A Chartist poster, 1839, from The National Archives, described and illustrated on pp. 186–87 of the Magna Carta catalogue

06 August 2015

Greek and Latin papyri acquired since 1956

Papyrus 3053. Drawing of a bear in the arena. Found at Oxyrhynchus among documents dating from the third century.

Details of newly-acquired papyri were historically recorded in the Catalogue of Additions published at periodic intervals over the years. The existing Catalogue of Additions series only includes papyri acquired before 1956. It had been intended to detail the later acquisitions in a future volume of the Catalogue of Additions, but as these are no longer published, the papyri (Papyrus 2923-3136, and Egerton Papyrus 37) have not been as widely known as they perhaps might be. In an effort to bring them to greater attention, we have compiled a short Register of Papyri Acquired since 1956, which can be downloaded here as an Excel file. This gives details of British Library inventory number, details of publication where that is known, a Trismegistos number if extant, notes of any other papyri that originally formed part of the same document or book, source and date of acqusition, and a brief description of contents. All items are in Greek unless noted otherwise: this list does not include any papyri in other languages that may have been acquired by Asian and African Collections. Demotic and hieroglyphic papyri are cared for by the Department of Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum.

Only one item has been digitised, Papyrus 3053 (P. Oxy. 2470, pictured above), but all these papyri would be included in any future digitisation project.

The bulk of the acquisitions are known to scholars, forming a large portion of the Hibeh Papyri (Papyrus 2943-3035), Volume 27 of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri (Papyrus 3036-3063), and many of the Michaelides papyri (Papyrus 3100-3132), though not all of the latter have been edited. In addition, other acquisitions, or items incorporated from “limbo” or transferred from other departments in the British Museum or British Library, are mostly fragmentary, but would certainly benefit from further study.

We are not aware of any current research being carried out on the items in this list, but always welcome details of editions, and offprints, where possible, which can be sent in the first instance to the Manuscripts and Maps Reference Team.

- Cillian O’Hogan

05 August 2015

The Peasants Are Revolting: The Coronation Charter of Henry I

When the charter of liberties we now know as Magna Carta was drawn up at Runnymede in 1215, it tapped into a long tradition of English kings making promises to uphold good laws and repudiate past oppressions. One of the most significant early written examples of such promises can be found in the coronation charter issued by King Henry I (r. 1100–1135) on this day, 5 August, in 1100.

Henry was the third and youngest surviving son of William the Conqueror (r. 1066–1087). His brother William Rufus (r. 1087–1100), who had succeeded their father as king of England, died in suspicious circumstances — an arrow through the lung while hunting in the New Forest. Reportedly Rufus's body was abandoned where it fell and later discovered by a peasant.


King William Rufus in an early 14th-century English manuscript (British Library Royal MS 20 A II, f. 6r)

Henry moved rapidly to secure his own interests and prevent any possible rivals from seizing the crown, especially Robert Curthose, Duke of Normandy (d. 1134), the eldest of the three surviving brothers and a more likely claimant to the throne. Robert was in Apulia at the time on his way home from the First Crusade. Haste could also help avoid the disorder that regularly threatened when the throne lay vacant for long. Henry first made his way to Winchester where he secured the royal treasury and was ‘elected’ king by a group of barons, before proceeding swiftly to his coronation at Westminster Abbey only days after the death of William Rufus.

To secure his precarious hold on the throne, a charter announcing that Henry had been crowned and putting into writing his coronation promises was drawn up, sealed and circulated to every shire. The charter announced his intention to correct the wrongs of his brother, declaring:

‘I restore to you the law of King Edward together with the improvements by which my father improved it by the counsel of his barons.’


The coronation charter of Henry I, in a 13th-century copy made for Canterbury Cathedral Priory (London, Lambeth Palace, MS 1212, ff. 97v-98r)

This document enshrined in writing the traditional promises Henry had made at his coronation — to keep the peace, forbid all iniquities, and to maintain justice and mercy — alongside further concessions to his barons and pledges to redress specific complaints. It is the first surviving English coronation charter, thanks to its wide distribution and a contemporary interest in legal literature that saw scribes copying the text into law compilations. Later, it was even translated into French, as can be seen in a bilingual bifolium in our collections (Harley MS 458), made in the early 13th century, perhaps for the barons opposed to John.

Modern historians have noted that Henry’s charter was not necessarily the first of its kind. William Rufus issued written promises in 1088 and 1093, and some of the promises made by Henry I can be traced back to before the Norman Conquest, such as in concessions made by Æthelred II (r. 978–1016) and Cnut (r. 1016–1035), or to Edward the Confessor’s oath in 1041 to uphold the laws of Cnut and his sons. However, its detailed list of concessions made this document particularly important a century later when it was known to King John’s barons, and it served as a precedent for Magna Carta. In our exhibition, you can see the version of the coronation charter copied at Canterbury Cathedral Priory around the time that Magna Carta itself was first issued.

Henry’s reign was remembered particularly for the law and order that had prevailed. In the popular Prophecies of Merlin written at the end of Henry’s reign, Geoffrey of Monmouth gave Henry the epithet of ‘the Lion of Justice’ whose roar ‘the towers of Gaul shall shake and the island Dragons tremble’. Henry’s nephew, Stephen of Blois (r. 1135–1141), and his grandson, Henry II (r. 1154–1189), evoked this legacy in their own shorter coronation charters which promised to uphold the laws of Henry I and of Edward the Confessor.

However, the flip side to the rigorousness of Henry’s reign is that some of Henry’s contemporaries levied accusations of avarice, cruelty and severity against him. Seeing Henry as having failed to honour his oath to maintain good laws and to abolish all iniquities throughout his kingdom, the chronicler John of Worcester recounted a series of dreams Henry experienced in 1130. The three broad classes of society (peasants, knights and clerics) visited Henry successively. Each group in turn threatened Henry with weapons appropriate to their position, the peasants with their scythes and spades, the knights armed with their swords and shields, and the clerics with their croziers. Shortly after these terrifying nightmares, Henry was caught in a storm at sea which only abated once he made three promises: not to collect the Danish tax for 7 years, to go on pilgrimage to Bury St Edmunds, and always to preserve justice throughout England.



The Nightmares of Henry I (Oxford, Corpus Christi College, MS 157, pp. 382-83)

Henry’s sequence of nightmares and the subsequent stormy cross-Channel journey that inspired him to seek redemption for his sins are vividly illustrated as a series of miniatures in John of Worcester’s own manuscript of his Chronicle. It’s quite likely that this is also one of the earliest representations in western art of ‘revolting peasants’!

We're extremely grateful to the librarians of Lambeth Palace Library and Corpus Christi College, Oxford, for lending to our exhibition the coronation charter and nightmares of Henry I respectively. Both of these items can be seen in Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy at the British Library until 1 September 2015.

Katherine Har

04 August 2015

'The French Language Runs Throughout The World’

Today we feature a guest-post by members of the AHRC-sponsored project, Medieval Francophone Literary Culture Outside France, a partnership between King's College London, University College London and the University of Cambridge, working with the British Library. Several of the project's manuscripts are housed at the British Library, and we're pleased to say that they have been newly digitised and added to our Digitised Manuscripts site. We're delighted to be able to support research of this kind, and hope that it encourages further investigation into the origins, dissemination and uses of these fascinating texts.

‘Lengue franceise cort parmi le monde’ (‘the French language runs throughout the world’, wrote the 13th-century Venetian chronicler Martin da Canale (d. 1275) at the start of his history of Venice, which he chose to write in French. This echoes another 13th-century Italian writer, Brunetto Latini (d.1295-96), who wrote in his very popular encyclopedia, the Tresor, that French was ‘la parleure […] plus delitable et plus comune a touz languages’ (‘the most delightful and popular of all languages’). French language texts were composed and copied in many parts of Europe outside (and even a little beyond) present day France in the Middle Ages, most notably in the British Isles, Flanders and the Low Countries, the Rhineland, Italy, Catalonia, Cyprus, Greece and Palestine. Whereas traditionally this has been seen mainly as a sign of the prestige of French culture, recent research shows that the reasons for the use of French in such a diverse range of places were more complex, often pragmatic, and also that many parts of medieval Europe were profoundly multilingual. French was in fact a supralocal language in much of medieval Europe alongside Latin (and in some places where French was used alongside Greek, Hebrew and even Arabic).

This mobile use of French is nowhere more graphically illustrated than in Matthew Paris’s famous maps showing the route from England to the Holy Land, one copy of which is to be found in Royal MS 14 C VII (ff. 2r-5r). This manuscript was made in the 1250s, almost certainly at St Albans. The language used for the text of these maps is French (with just a bit of Latin). Thus on ff. 4v-5r we see a map of the Holy Land, focusing on the City of Acre (which was to fall in 1291) with explanations almost entirely in French (the flaps on f. 4v relate to Rome and Sicily, which are on f. 4r).

A section of Matthew Paris’s illustrated itinerary to Jerusalem, showing the cities of Damascus, Antioch and Acre. Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 4v, England, S. (St Albans), 1250-1259
A section of Matthew Paris’s illustrated itinerary to Jerusalem, showing the destination, Jerusalem. Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 5r, England, S. (St Albans), 1250-1259

As French is also used in the descriptions of Italy, France and England, French quite literally ‘runs throughout the world’ in this manuscript.

The project Medieval Francophone Literary Culture Outside France aimed to gauge the under-researched phenomenon of the production and circulation of French language manuscripts outside France, since traditional scholarship has often focused on manuscripts that were made in France: One immediate consequence of paying more attention to French language manuscripts that were made outside France is that a rather different view of the literary canon emerges. For example, the vast Arthurian prose cycle, Guiron le Courtois, little known today compared to the other two prose Arthurian cycles the Lancelot en prose and Tristan en prose, is remarkable for its European trajectory. The oldest parts of Guiron were probably written in northern France or francophone Flanders, c. 1230-1240. About 40 manuscripts of Guiron survive, dating from the end of the 13th to the beginning of the 16th century. Direct and indirect attestations are found from Sicily to Britain and from Catalonia to Venice. Unlike Lancelot and Tristan, which were translated and re-written in all the major European languages, as far as we know parts of Guiron were only translated or re-written in Italian. Indeed the cycle had special ties with Italy. Its first attestation is probably in a letter from Frederick II's chancery in Foligno, near Perugia. The letter is dated 1240, and makes reference to 54 quires sent, or about to be sent, to Frederick from Messina after the death of one 'Johannes Romanzor'.

Page from the Roman de Méliadus with the coat of arms of Louis de Tarente (1320-1362), incorporating emblems of the 'Ordre du Nœud', Add MS 12228, f. 4r, Naples, c.1352-1362

Some important Italian witnesses are held in the British Library collections. For example Add MS 12228 (Naples, c. 1352-1362), despite its relatively late date, goes back to an early source and transmits the Roman de Méliadus, the oldest part of the cycle, in a pre-cyclic form. It was commissioned in the context of the Ordre du Nœud, a chivalric order founded by Louis of Taranto, the Capetian and francophone King of Naples on his coronation in 1352 with a view to giving his somewhat discredited court some courtly and chivalric gloss. The hand and some of the illustration appear to be close to Paris BnF ms fr. 4274, which is a presentation copy of the Order's statutes.

Add_ms_12228_f004r DETAIL
Detail of the coat of arms of Louis de Tarente (1320-1362), showing emblems of the 'Ordre du Nœud', Add MS 12228, f. 4r, Naples, c.1352-1362

Guiron le Courtois was composed after Lancelot and Tristan as a sprawling prequel, telling the story of the older generation of knights: Méliadus de Leonois, Tristan's father; le Bon Chevalier sans Peur, father of Dinadan and Brunor le Noir; Lac, Erec's father; and so forth. It is a world without Merlin and without the Graal, muscular and misogynist, in which most of the strongest warriors belong to Guiron's family, the Bruns. They appear larger than life, incredibly strong, isolated – loners who spend their time wandering far from court. They periodically disappear below the surface of the plot, but resurface later in a complex web of intertwined stories. In Old French, Brun recalls the taboo name of the bear. The Bruns’ ancestor, Fébus le Brun, renounced the crown of France: though he was the legitimate heir, he preferred to go seek adventure in England.

In another remarkable Italian witness, Add MS 23930 (Bologna-Padua, before 1369), the beginning of the story of Fébus has a typical northern Italian frontispiece, with bright colours and large motifs, proof of the text’s status among Italian manuscript producers and readers. In several Italian copies, this episode circulated independently from the main narrative, was successful, and underwent many adaptations.

Frontispiece marking the beginning of the narrative sequence telling the adventures of Fébus le Brun in the Roman de Guiron, with the coat of arms of Guido Gonzaga (d. 1369). Add MS 23930, f. 27r, Italy, Bologna-Padua, before 1369

Add MS 23930 once belonged to the Gonzaga family: the coat of arms on f. 1r and f. 27r are identical for instance to those at f. 2r of Venice, Biblioteca Marciana, MS fr. Z. XVIII, another of our project manuscripts, transmitting the Roman de Troie. Both manuscripts are part of a rich group of medium sized manuscripts, copied in a southern Textualis, some of which are wonderfully illustrated in the bas de page, that circulated in northern Italian courts – where Guiron was appreciated well into the 16th century.

Frontispiece from the Roman de Guiron, with the coat of arms of Guido Gonzaga (d. 1369). Add MS 23930, f. 1r, Italy, Bologna-Padua, before 1369

- Simon Gaunt (King’s College London)

- Nicola Morato (University of Cambridge and Université de Liège)