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12 posts from February 2017

09 February 2017

Dying to Archive: John Lakenheath at Bury St Edmunds Abbey

On 21 June 1381, during the Peasants’ Revolt, a mob in Bury St Edmunds was out to kill. Among their chosen targets was John Lakenheath, a monk at the abbey as well as keeper of the barony (custos baronie), making him responsible for collecting dues and fines for the abbey’s manors. His crime: putting the abbey’s archives in order after they had been sacked by the townspeople as long ago as 1327. With all the relevant documentation at hand, the abbey had been asserting its claims stridently.

Index in Harley MS 743, f. 4r.

Index in Harley MS 743, f. 4r.

The book that made John so hated survives in the British Library as Harley MS 743, the ‘Lakenheath Register’. It is a calendar or directory of the documentary evidence held at the abbey in John’s time, showing its claim to properties, fees it was owed by tenants, and other legal privileges. It is not highly decorated, but it is full of energy, as reflected in the opening to John’s preface (translated from Harley MS 743, f. 3v):

After our monastery was destroyed by robbers and fire, and the registers of the abbots and other muniments were stolen stealthily without return, the thin ears of corn behind the backs of the reapers had hardly remained from such an abundant harvest of evidence for the church. Because of this, I, brother John Lakenheath, have arranged from various registers a kind of calendar, whatever the circumstances. In it, I have laid out in alphabetical order the names of certain manors about which I learnt any documentary evidence. By this, the evidence may more openly be accessible to future generations, that within and outside their liberty, the abbot and convent may have the power to proclaim their royal rights and other liberties more confidently. I ask the reader to mark this work in kindness rather than presumption.

John’s preface in Harley MS 743, f. 3v.

John’s preface in Harley MS 743, f. 3v.

John goes on to lay out his organisational scheme. Writing in 1379, tensions were already growing, and he may have already realised the danger he was in as he was compiling his register. He ends on an ominous note: ‘If for certain reasons I am unable to complete something noted above, may the reader accept the will for the deed, and may he ask the omnipotent to have mercy on the soul of the compiler.’ The book allows the reader to look up a particular estate, and find all the documents associated with it, going back to the day of William the Conqueror. In a society that was placing an ever-increasing value on written over oral evidence, one can easily imagine the power this conveyed.

The story of John Lakenheath’s death: Cotton MS Claudius A XII, f. 135v.

The story of John Lakenheath’s death: Cotton MS Claudius A XII, f. 135v.

John’s work led to personal disaster. The story of his death is told by another Bury monk, John Gosford, in his Election of John Timworth (Electio domini Iohannis Tymwrith in abbatem, Cotton MS Claudius A XII, ff. 135v–136r):

Hanging the prior’s head on a pillory, that whole cursing band came into the monastery, naming certain brothers, of whom they sought one before all the others, namely Walter Toddington; but when they could not find him, they sought another, namely the keeper of the barony. Although he could have fled from their hands, he refused to do so, declaring that he could not fall to a better cause than for the rights of his church, which he was always defending to the best of his ability, and therefore he wished to await the atonement of death for its sake, if it would drive their murderous hands from it. Some people from the village who hated him very much, pretending that they would be clean by his blood, arranged for the wicked people from the region to capture, hold, and kill him. When they came into his cloister where he had been stationed, they shouted, ‘Where is that betrayer?’ He answered them, ‘I am not a betrayer; but if you wish to have me, here I am.’ They shouted, ‘We have found the betrayer!’ They carried him away from the cloister, and led him into the middle of the marketplace: leading him through the road, they dragged him along. They not only attacked him with blows, but inflicted many mortal wounds on him, so that he was nearly dead by the time he reached that place. There, the killer struck him seven times before he was able to cut off his head. They set it up on the pillory with the other heads.

Depending on one’s point of view, the Lakenheath Register can mean something quite different: the townspeople must have thought it an instrument of tyranny, while the abbey depicted John’s work as that of a martyr. The truth, as always, is somewhere in between.

Andrew Dunning

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06 February 2017

A New Opening for the Lindisfarne Gospels

If in the next few months you visit the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery here at the British Library, you can feast your eyes on a new part of the famous Lindisfarne Gospels (Cotton MS Nero D IV), which we have changed from displaying the letter of Eusebius at the beginning of the manuscript to a page from the Gospel of John at the end:

 A text page from the Gospel of St John in the Lindisfarne Gospels (Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 239v)

While the new leaves don’t contain the Gospels’ more famous illustrations, such as the Carpet Pages, they are a good example of what the majority of the Lindisfarne Gospels looks like: simple text on a page, highlighted by the use of colours on the initial letters marking the start of many of the Gospel verses.

The pages currently on display are taken from Chapter 12, verses 7-25. The text is divided into two columns, with Aldred’s Old English translation visible above each Latin word in small brown ink. The scribe has decorated some (but not all) of the initials at the beginning of the verses; the lowest decoration is simple colouring in of an initial (i.e. the yellow ‘h’ for ‘Haec non cognoverunt…’), while more effort has been placed into other initials, such as the more elaborate colours and use of decorative points on the ‘In’ of ‘In crastinum autem…’. The Roman numerals in the margins are references to both the number of verse and to the corresponding verses in the three other Gospels.


Another text page from the Lindisfarne Gospels (Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 240r)

Stop by and see the pages for yourself! The Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery is free to enter and open to all members of the public, seven days a week. More information, including current opening hours, can be found here.

And remember, you can view the whole of the Lindisfarne Gospels on our Digitised Manuscripts site. For conservation reasons, we change the pages on display on a regular basis; so be sure to check back in three months’ time to read about the new pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels on view.

Taylor McCall

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03 February 2017

A Medieval Wikipedia: Bartholomew the Englishman’s On the Properties of Things

The British Library has recently digitised a copy of one of the most popular medieval reference works: Bartholomew the Englishman’s On the Properties of Things (De proprietatibus rerum), an encyclopaedia meant to serve as a reference guide for all of the ‘things’ — a Wikipedia equivalent of the Middle Ages.

The copy just digitised is Additional MS 8785, a vernacular translation produced around the year 1308 in Mantua, Italy, and is full of unique illustrations. The author of the Latin original, Bartholomew the Englishman (d. 1272), was a Franciscan monk living in Paris, and On the Properties of Things (completed around 1240) became a medieval bestseller; there are over 200 manuscript copies of the text surviving today.


Bartholomew the Englishman inspired by Christ to write On the Properties of Things, and next to him a depiction of Christ, marked by the golden halo (Add MS 8785, f. 14r).

Bartholomew divided his encyclopaedia into 19 books on different topics, including natural philosophy and theology, anatomy and medicine, astronomy and astrology, the elements, zoology, botany, geography, geology and mineralogy, among others.


Book 15: On Geography: an image of an ‘Earthly paradise’, featuring two men debating in a rocky landscape before a burning city, surrounded by angels, plants and streams (Add MS 8785, f. 191v).

Additional MS 8785 is notable for being one of the earliest vernacular translations of the encyclopaedia, put into the Italian dialect local to Mantua by a man called Vivaldo del Belcalzer. Nothing is known about Vivaldo except what he writes in the beginning of the manuscript, which is that he presented it — complete with over one hundred illustrations — to the signore of Mantua sometime around 1308.


End of book 19 (section entitled ‘mapa del mond’): a small map of the world with buildings in place of cities, Jerusalem at the centre, divided by the seas; the globe is held by Christ, whose head is at the top, hands at each side, and feet at the bottom (Add MS 8785, f. 315r).

This copy includes more illustrations than most, many of which are situated inside small initials beginning the different sections of the text, known as historiated initials. The most popular book is probably number 18, ‘On Animals’, which was often illustrated and associated with the bestiary tradition (for more on bestiaries, see our recent blogpost on Fantastic Beasts). In addition to depictions of familiar animals — dogs, cats, lions etc — there are also descriptions of a few fantastic beasts, including this page devoted to the so-called ‘monstrous’ races of hybrid humans:


Book 18: On Animals: Fauns and satyrs and monstrous races (Add MS 8785, f. 285r).

It was rare for all chapters of On the Properties of Things to be illustrated, and this is particularly the case for Books 5–7, which dealt with the anatomy of the human body, the four humours and diseases. In these books, the historiated initials beginning each section include small images of organs and other body parts; on the page below, the initial in the left column includes a foot and at top right, a heel. The larger initial ‘S’ towards the bottom right of the page features a robed man holding a book, likely a depiction of one of the medical authors that Bartholomew consulted when compiling the encyclopaedia, whose names are credited in red ink in the margins.


End of Book 5: On the Parts of the Body, and beginning of Book 6: On the 'Simple Members' of the Body (Add MS 8785, f. 57r).

And finally, one of our favourite images is from Book 17 (On Herbs and Plants): a depiction of a vineyard, in which the lady in the centre has perhaps overindulged in the large carafes of wine being offered to her!


Book 17: On Herbs and Plants: A vineyard scene (Add MS 8785, f. 257r).

As Bartholomew wrote in his epilogue, this encyclopaedia was meant to be read by ‘the simple and the young, who on account of the infinite number of books cannot look into the properties of each single thing about which Scripture deals, can readily find their meaning herein — at least superficially’. You can see the entire manuscript on our Digitised Manuscripts site – let us know what meanings you find!

Taylor McCall

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01 February 2017

A Calendar Page for February 2017

To find out more about Additional MS 36684, see last month’s entry (January 2017), and for more on medieval calendars, check out our original calendar post.

Add_ms_36684_f002v Add_ms_36684_f003r
Calendar page for February, from a Book of Hours, St Omer or Théouranne, c. 1320, Add MS 36684, ff. 2v–3r

The February calendar entry in Additional MS 36684 shows ever-more creative animal and human hybrid figures in the margins, including an undoubtedly chilly lady who is missing her clothes while perusing a book. Much warmer is our labour of the month, a grinning man sitting very close to a roaring fire, heating his socks. Wonder what is cooking in his pot!

Fig 3_add_ms_36684_f002v labour detail
Labour of the month, calendar page for February, Add MS 36684, f. 2v

On the opposite folio, the zodiac figure of Pisces, two fishes swimming in opposite directions connected by a single thread, are happily installed in a miniature Gothic cathedral. They are flanked by two curious, vaguely mammalian creatures trumpeting their importance with golden horns.

Fig 4_add_ms_36684_f003r Pisces
Pisces, calendar page for February, Add MS 36684, f. 3r

You might have noticed a significant entry on the fourteenth day of February: the feast of ‘Valentini martyris’, or Valentine the Martyr. It was only in the later Middle Ages that St Valentine first came to be associated with romantic love.

The borders of the first page include several realistic birds alongside the fantastic decorative hybrid figures. This is perhaps because mid-February was thought to be the time in which birds paired off — another reason why St Valentine became the patron saint of lovers.

Fig 5_add_ms_36684_f002v birds
Birds (and a butterfly), calendar page for February, Add MS 36684, f. 2v

As a reminder, you can see all of Additional MS 36684 online on Digitised Manuscripts. We hope your feet are as toasty as our labourer’s!

Taylor McCall
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