Medieval manuscripts blog

14 posts from July 2016

30 July 2016

Caption Competition 6

It's time to get your thinking caps on again. Can you think of a witty caption for the image below, taken from one of the magnificent medieval manuscripts in the British Library's collections, the incomparable Gorleston Psalter?

Tweet us your suggestions to @BLMedieval, or add a comment at the foot of this post. There is no prize, but we will retweet and update this post with some of our favourite entries. Good luck!

Lovers of gastropods out there may want to check out our blogpost Knight v Snail. And you can also view the whole of the Gorleston Psalter, for free, on our Digitised Manuscripts site.




27 July 2016

Metaphors, Misogyny and Courtly Love

In the early 15th century, there was a major literary debate at the French court. Featuring crude language, naughty metaphors, courtly love, misogyny, poetry and early humanism, this debate was inspired by a text in some illuminated manuscripts which have just been loaded to the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site. The controversial text was the continuation of the medieval best-seller, the Roman de la rose by Jean de Meun, written 40 years after Guillaume de Lorris wrote the first part of the Roman (c. 1230). Some writers, like Christine de Pizan, saw Jean de Meun’s conclusion of the Roman de la Rose as highly provocative, crude and misogynistic. For others, such as Jean de Montreuil, the continuation’s themes and naughty metaphors were just stylistic devices and an improvement of the poetic genre.

The Lover and la Vieille, Le Roman de la Rose, c. 1490-1500, Harley MS 4425,  f. 129v

The debate took place between the king’s secretaries, clerks and Christine de Pizan between 1401 and 1405. It began with a short treatise composed in 1401 by Jean de Montreuil, the humanist and secretary of Charles VI and Provost of St Peter of Lille. In this text, now lost, Montreuil praised the Roman de la Rose and more particularly the part written by Jean de Meun. Jean de Montreuil was supported by his close friend Gontier Col, another secretary of Charles VI, and by Gontier’s brother, Pierre Col, canon of Notre-Dame.

Harley 4431   f. 4
Christine de Pizan writing in her study, from the Book of the Queen, France (Paris), c. 1410-1414, Harley MS 4431
, f. 4r 

By contrast, Christine de Pizan, a famous author at the court of Charles V and Charles VI, was a fierce opponent of the continuation of the Roman de la Rose by Jean de Meun, partly because of its misogynistic passages and lack of decency:

Mais en accordant a l’oppinion a laquelle contrediséz, sans faille a mon avis, trop traicte deshonnestment en aucunes pars – et mesmement ou personnage que il claime Raison, laquelle nommes les secréz membres plainement par nom.

'According to the viewpoint you oppose, in my opinion, he writes in several places in an indecent manner, even when he speaks as the character he calls Reason and names the secret parts explicitly.'

The monologue of Raison is one of the problematic passages Christine de Pizan underlined. She also objected to the story of the castration of Saturn and the explicit metaphor of the picking of the Rose. She also defended women, who were depicted by Jean de Meun ­­in passages involving allegorical figures like le Jaloux (the jealous one) and la Vieille (the old woman), as keepers of several sins:

Regardons oultre un petit : en quel maniere puet estre vallable et a bonne fin ce que tant et si excessivement, impettueusement et tres nonveritablement il accuse, blame et diffame femmes de pluseurs tres grans vices et leurs meurs temoingne estre plains de toute perversité.

'Furthermore, let us consider a little bit: what can be of value and of good quality when he excessively, impetuously and most untruthfully blames and accuses women of several serious vices and he claims their behaviour is full of perversion.'

According to her, this was not representative of the allegorical character of the Roman de la Rose but was rather the author’s opinion.

During the quarrel several letters were exchanged between Jean de Montreuil, Christine de Pizan, Pierre Col and Jean Gerson and others including a high-ranking prelate and a poet. Pizan was supported by Jean Gerson, chancellor of the University of Paris. The debate was an epistolary exercise within a changing literary movement: more than a simple quarrel, it was a literary controversy. On one side, there were the supporters of morality and of courtly love, including Christine de Pizan and Jean Gerson. On the other, there were the first French humanists such as Jean de Montreuil, promoting a new vernacular poetry. In the background, there was a literary movement for the codification of courtly literature initiated by the Burgundians under the patronage of Charles VI. Known as the Cour Amoureuse (1400), this movement took the form of a gathering of ecclesiastics, nobles and bourgeois at court, who advocated ‘joieuse recreacion et amoureuse conversation’ (‘happy recreation and lovely conversation’) with poetical plays and courtly songs.

Garden of pleasure, from the Roman de la Rose, Low Countries (Bruges), c. 1490-1500, Harley MS 4425, f. 12v

The participants took this literary debate very seriously. In 1402, Christine de Pizan gathered together all the letters involved in the debate and submitted them to Queen Isabeau of Bavaria and Guillaume de Tignonville (Provost of Paris) for arbitration under the title, Epistres sur le Roman de la Rose. In the same year, she wrote the Dit de la Rose, a poem of 650 lines dedicated to Charles VI’s brother, Louis d’Orléans, duke of Orléans. The allegorical character Loyauté, under the tutelage of Amour, founds the movement the Ordre de la Rose (which was based on the Cour Amoureuse of Charles VI). This Ordre de la Rose aims to defend women against slander. However, the Ordre de la Rose was designed as a circle where women played a central role, as opposed to the Cour Amoureuse which had the same purpose, to honour women, but was almost exclusively composed of men.

The quarrel finally came to an end with a new work by Christine de Pizan, La cité des Dames (1403-1404), which told the stories of virtuous women in the Bible and in French history. In addition to this, Jean Gerson produced several sermons on deadly sin and especially lust, which he used to condemn the Roman de la Rose.

Christine de Pizan presenting her book to Queen Isabeau of Bavaria, from
Harley MS 4431, f. 3r.

The quarrel was relatively short-lived, lasting only a few years; however, it had a major impact on literature and manuscript production. Not only did it inspire one of the most enduring works of medieval literature—the Cité des Dames – it also impacted manuscript production. Later, Christine de Pizan solicited the help of the Queen once again, this time for a highly illuminated book that Christine supervised (now Harley MS 4431) which is mainly a compilation of her own works. She presented this manuscript to Isabeau of Bavaria in 1414. Ironically, the above controversy drew attention to the second part of the Roman de la Rose, the part by Jean de Meun. It had been generally neglected by illuminators but from that period onwards it was illuminated more frequently.

Laure Miolo



25 July 2016

Star Item: An Early Medieval Sketch of the Planets

When people living over a 1000 years ago looked into the sky, how did they interpret what they saw? Helen Sharman and Tim Peake may be the first two Britons to actually go to outer space, but people living in the British Isles and Europe have been picturing the galaxy for a very long time. We have an idea of how some medieval people thought of the galaxy thanks to a recently digitised 10th-century manuscript that contains an early diagram of the solar system.

Diagram of the planets’ orbits, from Isidore of Seville’s De Natura Rerum, England (St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury?), Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 23v

The accompanying text explains that this diagram represents the ‘position of the seven wandering stars … called planets by the Greeks.’ These are the moon, which orbits closest to Earth; Mercury; Lucifer, ‘which is also called Venus’; the Sun; Vesper, which is also associated with Mars; Foeton, 'which they call Jupiter'; and ‘cold’ Saturn. 

Detail of a diagram of the planets' orbits, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 23r

The diagram and text come from a 10th-century copy of On the Nature of Things (De Natura Rerum) by Isidore of Seville (d. 636). De Natura Rerum is a natural history of the material world. Isidore was inspired by classical writers such as Lucretius (d. c. 55 BC), who sought to combat superstition by offering explanations for natural phenomena.

Phases of the moon, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 20r

Isidore updated his classical models by adding a Christian framework and a series of diagrams to illustrate his text. Manuscripts of De Natura Rerum such as Cotton MS Domitian A I contain so many of these diagrams, which are often circular, that Isidore’s work was often referred to as ‘The Book of Wheels’ (Liber Rotarum).

Diagram of the four elements: earth, air, water and fire, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 13r

Beyond the solar system, the copy of De Natura Rerum in Cotton MS Domitian A I includes diagrams to explain everything from rainbows to latitudes to the humours.

A circular diagram showing the winds linked to the months, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 31r

Many of these diagrams link various natural phenomena. One diagram connects different winds to different months. Another groups each of the four elements with a season, a temperature and one of the four humours: choler (yellow bile), melancholy (black bile), blood, and phlegm.

Diagram of the four humours, elements, and seasons, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f.14r

While concepts such as the humours now seem alien to us, other diagrams in Isidore’s work represent concepts that are still familiar. One wheel depicts five temperate zones by latitude, noting that the poles were colder, uninhabitable regions, and temperatures became warmer as one travelled towards the centre of the map. These diagrams even employ terms which we use today, including ‘Arctic’ and ‘Antarctic’.

Diagrams of the five temperature zones and of latitudes, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 12v

Isidore’s works were widely studied in early medieval Europe. This particular manuscript was made in 10th-century England, but Isidore’s works were known there much earlier. The 8th-century Northumbrian monk Bede even wrote his own version of De Natura Rerum

A diagram representing a rainbow, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 28v

This particular manuscript was probably owned, and possibly made for, a man called Æthelstan, whose collection of books is listed on f. 55v. ‘De Natura Rerum’ is the first book in the list. Æthelstan also owned several works by the 4th-century grammarian Donatus, various treatises on grammar and the art of poetry, and one ‘gerim’, which was possibly a calendar or a text on calculation, ‘which was the priest Ælfwold’s.’ Æthelstan's precise identity is unknown, since this was a common name in late 10th-century England, when this book and list were copied. He probably was not the early 10th-century king called Æthelstan, since the manuscript and its booklist were probably written after King Æthelstan's death in 939. Nevertheless, the Æthelstan of the book list was evidently a man of some wealth: all manuscripts were expensive, and this copy of De Natura Rerum has colour diagrams and a little gold, for highlighting the stars in the solar system. Judging from his booklist, he was also highly educated, with a particular interest in grammar and language.

Booklist, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 55v

As an educated Latinist, Æthelstan would have fitted into some of the most influential circles in 10th-century England. This was a time of great manuscript production and learning, thanks to the encouragement and book collecting of cosmopolitan rulers such as King Æthelstan (d. 939) and of monastic reformers, who sought to increase standards of learning in English religious houses. Æthelstan the Grammarian’s manuscript of De Natura Rerum seems to be related to those developments because it uses the Caroline minuscule script closely associated with the reformed monasteries. However, Æthelstan may not have been a monastic reformer himself: his book list shows he had private property, which was technically forbidden to monastic reformers. Admittedly, this need not disqualify him from having been a reformer: even the notably strict reforming bishop Æthelwold was personally associated with a particular service book.

In the late medieval period, the manuscript was kept in the library of St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury, where it may have been used by members of that institution.

Isidore’s T-O map of Asia, Africa, Europe, Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 37r

Once the deluxe possession of a well educated man, then part of an institutional library, this copy of De Natura Rerum is now available in full online on our Digitised Manuscripts site. Modern people may use it differently, but some of its topics and diagrams — particularly the striking diagram of the solar system — remind us that we are not so very different from early medieval people in the questions we ask about the world around us. 

Drawing of the sun, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 17r

Alison Hudson


Related Content:

Cicero’s Map to the Stars 


22 July 2016

Updated List of Digitised Manuscript Hyperlinks

Saints and monsters and centaurs, oh my! Continuing our tradition of releasing roughly every 3 months an updated list of hyperlinks of ancient, medieval and early modern manuscripts digitised by the British Library, we are pleased to present our most up-to-date list here:  Download List of Digitised Manuscripts Hyperlinks, July 2016 . For our long-term followers who are interested only in the manuscripts uploaded since the March hyperlist was made, they can be found at the end of this file:  Download July 2016 Updated Hyperlinks Masterlist. You can find all our digitised content on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.

The past few months have seen some major releases on Digitised Manuscripts. We are now close to digitising almost 1500 manuscripts. Highlights of the most recent upload include:

  • A copy of the Gospels translated into Old English, made nearly 1000 years ago.

Opening of St John’s Gospel, from an Old English translation of the Gospels, England (Wessex?), c. 1000–1050, Cotton MS Otho C I/1, f. 70r 

  • The earliest surviving world map which includes a depiction of the British Isles. This manuscript — a scientific miscellany made in England in the mid-11th century — also contains colourful depictions of the labours of the month, of constellations and of the Marvels of the East.

Sagittarius, from a scientific miscellany including Cicero’s Arator, England, 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 37r 

  • A copy of Usuard's Martyrology used at St Augustine's Canterbury and updated there in the 12th and 13th century. One addition commemorates the death of 'Harold, king of the English, and many of our brothers' at the battle of Hastings. 

Historiated initial at the beginning of entries for the month of September, from Usuard's Martyrology, England (St Augustine's, Canterbury), late 11th-early 12th century with later additions, Cotton MS Vitellius C XII/1, f. 139r

This is to name but a few of the recent uploads. And stay tuned: there are many more exciting uploads coming up in the next few months. We’ll publish an updated list in the autumn, but until then please check our Twitter account for announcements about the manuscripts which have most recently been added to Digitised Manuscripts. (Our Twitter account is also good for London Underground-inspired puns and pictures of woodwoses, among other things.)


20 July 2016

Off With His Head

As a manuscript curator, one often gets asked, what can we achieve by studying old handwriting? Surely every important document in the British Library's collections has already been published. Surely every manuscript has yielded every clue as to why it was written, and who may have consulted it. 

Sometimes when we do explain what our job entails, people still raise a quizzical eyebrow. Old handwriting is hard to read, isn't it? Am I a graphologist (or whatever it is you call them)? Is it ever possible to gain psychological insight into the people who wrote our documents?

Vesp F XIII, f 273

Certein pointes of weighty matters to be immediately concluded on by my counsell. 18 Januarii 1551 (Cotton MS Vespasian F XIII, f. 273)

The text I am highlighting here goes some way to answering some of those questions. I came across it when I was cataloguing the Cotton manuscripts, one of the foundation collections of the British Museum (and hence the British Library), and home to some of our finest literary and historical treasures: Magna Carta, Beowulf and the Lindisfarne Gospels, to name just three. The document in question is bound with other state papers, and I recognised the handwriting immediately: it is in the distinctive hand of the boy-king, Edward VI of England (reigned 1547–53), the son of Henry VIII. The title, written at the top in Edward's schoolboy hand, explains its purpose: 'Certain points of weighty matters to be immediately concluded on by my council'. The date given is 18 January 1551, that is, January 1552 according to the modern calendar.

What we have here is a memorandum for the meeting of the king's council. I guess it's not dissimilar to the agenda that would have been produced for the first Cabinet meeting of Britain's new Prime Minister, except that some of its items — one of them, in particular — are perhaps slightly more bloodthirsty than we are usually used to. In fact, many of the nine items listed by King Edward for discussion have a certain modern resonance. They deal, for example, with the national debt ('The conclusion for the payment of our debts in February next coming') and foreign trade ('The matter for the steel yard to be so considered that it may be to our profit, and wealth of our subjects.')

Below is a full transcription of this memorandum. It is the third item on the list that really made me raise my own eyebrows. It reads, in modern English:

'The matter for the duke of Somerset and his confederates to be considered as appertaineth to our surety and quietness of our realm, that by their punishment and execution according to the laws, example may be showed to others.'

Vesp F XIII, f 273 detail

Detail of item 3 of Edward VI's memorandum

Now, Somerset's fate remains highly controversial. Edward Seymour, duke of Somerset, was the brother of King Edward's mother, Queen Jane Seymour (the 3rd wife of Henry VIII), and he had been the lord protector at the start of Edward's reign. He fell from grace after rebellions had taken place against his governance of the kingdom, and he was stripped of the protectorship in January 1550. Then, in 1551 Somerset was accused of plotting against the life of the duke of Northumberland; he was arrested on a charge of committing high treason on 16 October 1551, shortly after dining with the king.

Somerset's trial took place on 1 December, at which he argued skilfully against the charges laid against him. He was acquitted of high treason, but convicted of bringing together men for a riot. It was widely expected that Somerset's life would be spared, but on 19 January 1552 (the day after Edward wrote his memorandum), the king and council decided to proceed with the execution. Edward Seymour was taken to Tower Hill on the morning of 22 January and beheaded. Certain of his fellow conspirators were executed on 26 February, but others survived with their lives.

Add MS 88991

A prayer book that once belonged to the duke of Somerset (Add MS 88991), featured in a previous blogpost

The eagle-eyed among you may have realised that, as originally written, King Edward's memorandum did not deal directly with Somerset. As first written, the third item read, 'The matter for the duke of Somerset's confederates to be considered as appertaineth to our surety and quietness of our realm, that by their punishment example may be showed to others.' Edward VI made three substantial changes to this passage. First, he changed the subject from the duke of Somerset's confederates alone to the duke of Somerset AND his confederates; next, he commanded that they be punished AND executed; and thirdly, lending his statement a little gravitas, he ordered that this be carried out according to the laws.

This brings us back to the handwriting of the document under scrutiny. Did Edward change his mind while he was drafting the agenda for his council? Was he really determined to proceed with the execution of his uncle, or was there somebody standing at his shoulder, persuading him to act 'according to the laws'? It's slightly unnerving to think that a 14-year-old boy wielded absolute power in England at this time, and at the royal whim one of his own relatives could be sent to the scaffold. You may sniff, of course, but this is just one of the ways that reading an original manuscript can transform our understanding of the past.

London, British Library, Cotton MS Vespasian F XIII, f. 273

Certein pointes of weighty matters to be immediately concluded on by my counsell. 18 Januarii 1551.

  1. The conclusion for the payment of our dettis in February next coming.
  2. The matter for the stiliard to be so considered that it may be to our profit, and wealth of our subiectis.
  3. The matter for the duke of Somerset and his confederates to be considered as aparteineth to our surety and quietnes of our realme, that by there punishement and execution according to the laws example may be shewed to others.
  4. The resolution for the bishops that be nominated.
  5. Many of our ambassadours diettes to be sent them forthwith.
  6. Dispaching our commissioners to Guisnes to see the state thereof.
  7. Taking some order to the Londoners that they that come to our parliament may not be holly discouraged, empourished or woried with their attendawnce, wich order can not be well taken (as me thinketh) without punishing th'offendours.
  8. The matter for thexchaung to be well wayed and considerid.
  9. The bishop of Durhams matters to be executid according to our laws.


Julian Harrison


19 July 2016

Alexander Neckam’s Collections of Prometheus

You shouldn’t have pressed that button. As the time machine sputters to life, your lab disappears, to be replaced with a forest and stone buildings. A group of monks take you in, and you regain a sense of calmness as you listen to them sing the daily office in the chapel. But what was that word that just came up? Zizania? You reach for your phone, only to remember that the Oxford English Dictionary and the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources won’t be online for centuries to come. You absolutely need to know what that word means. How will you find out?

Opening of Corrogationes Promethei in Royal MS 5 C V, f. 2r, late 13th to early 14th century.

Opening of Corrogationes Promethei in Royal MS 5 C V, f. 2r, late 13th to early 14th century.

You might turn to Alexander Neckam’s Collections of Prometheus (Corrogationes Promethei), a guide to reading difficult sections of the Bible written around the year 1200. Seven copies of Collections are in the British Library, and two of them can be browsed in full on Digitised Manuscripts: Harley MS 6 and Harley MS 1687. It is divided into two ‘books’. This does not mean that it was physically divided into two physically separate volumes: ancient writers used this term to divide a work into large sections, which in turn could be split into chapters (a tradition that continues to this day, as in The Lord of the Rings). The first section is a compilation of pointers from ancient grammarians such as Priscian, providing a refresher in Latin when you might have forgotten its subtleties. The second part works through the entire Bible in order, giving quotations of unusual passages with a running commentary on their correct interpretation, and notes on typical errors in the hand-copied Bibles of the day.

A fifteenth-century depiction of the fifth-century grammarian Priscian, Burney MS 235, f. 4r.

A 15th-century depiction of the 5th-century grammarian Priscian, Burney MS 235, f. 4r.

This might today seem a rather odd approach for a reference book. We often take the index for granted, but at this time it was still a nascent invention. Works such as Isidore of Sevile’s Etymologies were organized by subject, and required familiarity; readers did not expect to get answers from their books in a matter of seconds. It was not for almost a century that some copies of Alexander’s Collections were rewritten in alphabetical order.

The book was widely loved. There are 38 known manuscripts that survive, and records of another 46 – not quite a blockbuster in medieval terms, but very respectable. After the author’s death, the prior of Malmesbury, known only by the initial ‘S.’, wrote to Walter de Melida, formerly Alexander’s clerk at Cirencester Abbey. One of two copies of the unpublished letter is now in Royal MS 5 C V, f. 57r–v (the other is Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, Latin 11867, f. 240v). He goes into raptures about the book:

Hence, as though entering the porch of Solomon, while I admire the scholastic scenes once handed down – as if through the pleasant greens of my forgotten youth – I energetically admire the scents of flowers which I had thought to have withered in such a man. But the happy storeroom of the memory is to be praised that embraces so many and so great and so different treasures of storehouses, and succeeds in protecting them without decay. This householder should well be called good and rich, who brings forth from new and old things from his treasury, and he should doubtless be called the seat of wisdom; occurrence and fulfilment direct his soul with experience. This is the faithful spouse who keeps every new and old fruit for his beloved, so that he can say with restrained cheerfulness, as if on behalf of his family: ‘We have ripe apples, tender chestnuts, and plenty of pressed cheeses.’ [Virgil, Eclogues 1.80–81]

In spite of the enthusiasm for Alexander’s work, there was immediate confusion about the meaning of the title Corrogationes Promethei. What did Prometheus have to do with grammar? A letter survives with a 13th-century copy of the work glossing the title as ‘collections of a wise or prudent man’ (Évreux, Bibliothèque municipale, MS Latin 72, f. 1v). The most convincing theory is that the title refers to Rhetorica ad Herennium 4.9, the classic textbook on the art of rhetoric. In a quotation that Priscian popularized, it compares Prometheus to a ‘ridiculous master’. As was typical for Alexander Neckam, the title was meant to be self-deprecating and slightly humorous.

— Andrew Dunning (@anjdunning)

16 July 2016

Beowulf is Back!

If you are in London this summer and would like to see the unique manuscript of the most famous poem in Old English, you are in luck! The Beowulf manuscript is back on display at the British Library in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery. Don’t go looking for Beowulf in one of our literary show-cases, though: Beowulf is currently housed in an ‘Historical Documents’ case, with other manuscripts written in late 10th- or 11th-century England.

Detail of passage mentioning Grendel’s mother ('Grendeles modor'), from Beowulf, England, late 10th or early 11th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 180r 

You might wonder what Beowulf is doing in a case of historical documents, given that the poem is full of improbable creatures and events, including a swamp monster, a dragon and a swimming competition where the contestants wear chain mail. The pages on display describe how the mother of the monster Grendel, who was slain by the hero Beowulf earlier in the poem, sets out seeking revenge. Nevertheless, historians use this poem for insight both into the early history of Anglo-Saxon England, when the poem may have been first recited, and the late 10th or early 11th century, when the poem was copied down in the only surviving manuscript.

Detail of a man with glowing eyes, from The Wonders of the East, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 104v

Although the poem contains many fantastical elements, it may contain memories of the social structure, warrior culture and even architecture of earlier Anglo-Saxon societies. The pages on display also describe old warriors singing in a hall with a harp. The existence of such halls, and even such stringed instruments, has been corroborated by archaeological evidence. The way the poet praised Beowulf also shows which qualities the poet and the poet's audience may have valued above others.

Detail of the constellation Lyra, from Cicero’s Aratea, England (Canterbury or Winchester?), early 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 35r 

The context when the poem was copied down also interests historians. Although the precise date of the manuscript—like almost everything else about Beowulf—is highly debated, some scholars have suggested that Beowulf was copied in the late 10th or early 11th century, before or just after the conquest of England by the Dane Cnut. In this context, it is interesting that an Anglo-Saxon was writing down a poem celebrating Beowulf, who is described in the poem as a Geat or a Scandinavian. The pages of the poem which are on display in the Treasures Gallery may also contain evidence of erasure and rewriting, suggesting the poem's contents were still being tweaked at the end of the Anglo-Saxon period. 

Miniature of King Cnut and Emma donating a cross to the New Minster, from the New Minster Liber Vitae, England (New Minster, Winchester), c. 1031, Stowe MS 944, f. 6r

So if you are in London, do stop by the British Library to see the Beowulf manuscript and learn more about the context in which it was copied. It is on display alongside other manuscripts relating to Cnut’s conquest of 1016, including the D-text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a copy of Cnut’s 1020 lawcodes, a charter issued in Cnut’s name and what is possibly the only surviving manuscript portrait of Cnut. If you can’t make it to London, you can still see Beowulf and the other books on display on Digitised Manuscripts.

Alison Hudson

14 July 2016

Manuscript the Tube

Some time ago I was alone in the office on a Friday evening and was left in charge of the @BLMedieval Twitter account. This is sometimes dangerous. Among my sillier inventions is the hashtag #WodewoseWednesday, which created a low-velocity Twitter storm as people sent us images of endearing, furry Wildmen (or Wodewoses) from manuscripts across the world. By the end of that day, Twitter had reduced me to near hysterical giggles and I wondered if I might have to lie down under my desk. 

It all started quite innocently on the Friday in question, when Johan Oosterman @JohanOosterman posted an image of the British Library’s Egerton MS 1900, f. 100r, with the caption ‘Elephant and Castle’. Here is that image, taken from a late 15th-century German travelogue, which describes a journey from Venice to Egypt.

Elephant and castle

Amused by this tweet, I thought of other names of London Tube stations that could be represented by manuscript images. I retweeted the first suggestion and invited people to #manuscriptthetube. The results showed just how inventively people engage with manuscripts that have been made digitally available. It was also a reminder that medieval London is not far from the surface and you do not need to dig deep, not even as deep as a Tube platform, to find its traces. Here, in the most modern of media – digital images representing a modern transport network – was a reminder of the city’s past, of its rich lexicon of medieval place names and the imagination of its inhabitants and an online community further afield.

 Royal 16 F II f73
Earliest known topographically accurate view of London, with the Tower of London and Duke Charles d’Orléans writing in the Tower, from Charles d’Orléans, Poetry and Pseudo-Heloise, Epistles, 'Les demands d'amours', and  'Le livre dit grace entiere', Low Countries (Bruges), c. 1483 (this image) with later additions, c. 1492 – c. 1500, Royal MS 16 F II, f. 73r

Tower of London Underground Ralf Roletschek
A 21st-century view of the Tower of London, photographed by Ralf Roletschek, England (London), 13 October 2010. 

Like many Londoners, I have a great affection for the iconic London Tube map. It’s a masterpiece of design. The map was designed by Henry Beck (1902-1974) in 1932. His innovation was to take some liberties with geography and thereby make the stations appear evenly spaced, ordered and legible. In its broad palette and dovetailing lines it’s a visual representation of all of London’s colour and variety. In many ways, Beck's map is similar to a manuscript like Egerton MS 1900, itself a colourfully illustrated travelogue with some distortions of distance. 

Below is a run-down of some of our favourite tweets which #manuscriptthetube. Please continue to send us your suggestions via @BLMedieval. We've embedded the links to all the original tweets in everyone's Twitter handles. 


A Run-Down of Our Favourites

Some suggestions gestured to the medieval history embedded in London's place names, like this one from Buckland Abbey @BucklandAbbeyNT, for Blackfriars. Blackfriars is named after a community of Dominican monks or ‘black friars’, so called because of the black habit they wore. It was established in 1221 near Lincoln’s Inn. The image here is from @thegetty's MS 107, f. 224r


Some punned on the names of Tube stations, like Acton Town from Susannah Davis @aethelflaed with an image from the Bodleian Library @bodleianlibs MS Auct F 2 13

Acton Town

Harrow on the Hill  station proved to be a rich source of inspiration for Adam @pseudomonas, with an image from our 'Taymouth Hours', ?London, c. 1325-50, Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 68v

Harrow on the hill, YT

Harrow on the Hill got a second outing in my personal favourite of the punning suggestions from @SLevelt, Sjoerd Levelt, with an image from our Speculum humanae salvationis, England, c.1485-1509, Harley MS 2838, f. 33v

  Harrow on the hill

Geoff Griffiths @Cheoffors offered both Baker Street/Baker's Treat and also Pudding Lane with this image from the Getty Museum @theGetty from a mid 13th-century psalter, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 14, f. 8v


Baker's treat

@Cheoffors also suggested a wonderful image for Heat-throw/Heathrow (All Terminals) from Codex Skylitzes Matritensis, Biblioteca Nacional de Madrid, Vitr. 26-2, Bild-Nr. 77, f.  34 v


Richard Fitch @tudorcook was in playful mood with an image of Arsenal from @MorganLibrary's late 14th-century copy of Jacques de Longuyon's Vows of the Peacock, in MS G 24, f. 25v



And we also loved his suggestion for Hatch End from the Hague's MS MMW 10 B 25, f. 31r

Hatch end


 Commonplace Berk @stambuch was typically witty in his suggestion for Kilburn from the Bodleian Library's Douce MS 332. You can see his other suggestion here (caution advised). 


Others were more literal representations of the names of tube stations, like London Bridge (Mind the gap!) from @DollyJorgensen with an image from our Yates Thompson MS 47, a copy of John Lydgate's Life of Saint Edmund, made in ?Bury St Edmunds, c. 1461-75.

  London bridge


We are thrilled that the Getty Museum @thegetty took up our British challenge and suggested Seven Sisters from an image of Philosophy presenting the seven liberal arts to Boethius by the Coëtivy Master.

Seven sisters

 Geoff Griffiths @Cheoffors also used this image for High Barnet. For our non-British readers, 'barnet' is cockney rhyming slang for 'hair' (it comes from 'Barnet fair') and also means 'head'.

 High barnet

Rayners Lane, from Susannah Davis @aethelflaed was a very British suggestion, with a detail of Croesus from John Lydgate's Fall of Princes, ?Bury St Edmunds, c. 1450-60, Harley MS 1766, f. 133r

H 1766 f133r

And there was a bleak and brilliant humour to her suggestion for Amersham from Add MS 18851, the Breviary of Queen Isabella of Castile, made in Bruges in c. 1497. 


Elephant and Castle  got a second outing from @SophieVHarwood with a detail of the death of Codrus, from Speculum humanae salvationis, England (London), c. 1485-1509, Harley MS 2838

H 2838 f27

C R Stillman-Lowe @SICathy sent us this lovely angel for, um, Angel from the 'Taymouth Hours', our Yates Thompson MS 13


C R Stillman-Lowe @SICathy also tagged some bemused-looking barons for Barons Court, with a detail of Merlin standing before King Arthur, from the Lancelot-Grail (The Prose Vulgate Cycle), Northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai), 1316, Add MS 10292, f. 200v 

Tw Add 10292 f200v

@DollyJorgensen was on fine form, suggesting Hammersmith with detail of a blacksmith, from a fragmentary Book of Hours, England (London), c. 1320 - c. 1330, Harley MS 6563, f. 68   

H 6563 f68v

I loved some of the madder ones. Like this suggestion of Oval from Anthony Bale @RealMandeville. Yep, it's a wound. 


Our very own @julianpharrison gave us Fulham Broadway (or possibly Tott[ering]ham Court Road?). No we didn't get it either, but we thought we should put it up in any case to keep him happy. And it does depict a pig on stilts, from Jean Froissart's Chroniques (the 'Harley Froissart'), Low Countries (Bruges), c. 1470-1472, Harley MS 4379, f. 19v

H 4379 f19v

Finally, Erik Kwakkel @erik_kwakkel gave us a very witty suggestion which gestured to the history of our collection. He suggested Burnt Oak, with an image of some of the charred fragments of manuscripts destroyed in the Cotton Fire. You can read about the terrible fire which destroyed part of the library's Cotton collection here

Burnt oak

 Which are your favourite entries from #manuscriptthetube? We'd love to hear your suggestions: please tweet us @BLMedieval or leave a comment below this blogpost.





Susan Reed @sureed67 reminded us that Saint Pancras was 'Beheaded by the Emperor. So you could say the King was Cross with St Pancras'. Find out more about who this king, or rather emperor, was and why he was cross with St Pancras,  by checking out our St Pancras' Day blog post).

Detail Royal 2 B VII f. 249v

Detail of St Pancras and the Emperor Diocletian, from Queen Mary Psalter, England (Westminster or East Anglia?), c. 1310-1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 249v