Medieval manuscripts blog

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13 posts from April 2017

10 April 2017

The Wonders of Rome

Even after the fall of the Roman Empire, the city of Rome never lost its draw. Objects of Roman provenance, whether art, saints’ relics, or even copies of texts, often continued to be treated with reverence. They were integrated into new creations and imitated in new artistic endeavours. Rome’s reception is the subject of a new exhibition in Germany, at the Diözesanmuseum Paderborn, running from 31 March to 13 August 2017, to which the British Library is delighted to be a lender: the exhibition is called (in English) The Wonders of Rome from a Northern Perspective.

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A view of the exhibition at Paderborn

One medieval manuscript included in the Paderborn exhibition is Matthew Paris’s Liber additamentorum (British Library Cotton MS Nero D I). Matthew Paris (d. 1259) was a monk of St Albans Abbey in Hertfordshire, and is renowned as a historian, artist and cartographer. His Liber additamentorum ('Book of Additions') is a collection of documents relating to the history of his abbey, and includes, among other texts, Matthew's Lives of the Two Offas and his Deeds of the Abbots of St Albans Abbey. On display in the exhibition is Matthew Paris's description of the gems and rings that belonged to the church of St Albans in his day (De anulis et gemmis et pallis que sunt de thesauro huius ecclesie), with his own illustrations.

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Matthew Paris’s description of the gems of St Albans: Cotton MS Nero D I, f. 146v.

Among the gems depicted by Matthew Paris is one passed on from antiquity: a cameo now thought to have depicted an emperor, Jupiter, or Asclepius. Matthew describes it in extensive detail, noting that it was used in childbirth: ‘For an infant about to be born escapes the approaching stone’ (Infantulus enim nasciturus lapidem subterfugit appropinquantem, f. 147r). This seems to have come about through interpretation of the classical imagery, which he describes as showing a man with a spear in his right hand, with a serpent crawling up it, and a boy on his left hand.

Also on display at Paderborn is the British Library’s Additional MS 12154, containing a description of Rome written in Syriac by Pseudo-Zacharias in the 6th century. It outlines its splendours in detail, including what is believed to be the first mention of Christian buildings in the city.

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Installing the exhibition at Paderborn

The British Library is a regular lender to exhibitions in the United Kingdom and overseas. We are very pleased to have been able to lend two of our early manuscripts, one in Latin and the other in Syriac, to the Diözesanmuseum, and we hope that our German readers are able to view these books in person at Paderborn. You may like to know that Matthew Paris's Liber additamentorum is also available to view in full, online and in high definition, on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.

Andrew Dunning

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07 April 2017

Hairy Mary

Recently I was going through the British Library's Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery with a friend, who asked how we know which saint is which. This is a fair question; medieval manuscripts do not always supply captions with their images. But luckily for future curators, medieval artists often identified saints and other figures by means of special attributes associated with them. St Peter often holds a set of keys. St Catherine frequently rests on a wheel, since she was said to have broken the wheel on which she was supposed to be martyred. And if you see a woman completely covered in long hair and holding three loaves, chances are it's a depiction of Mary of Egypt.

A detail from the Queen Mary Psalter, showing an illustration of Mary Magdalene, Mary of Egypt, St Margaret and a martyr.
Mary Magdalene (holding an unguent pot), Mary of Egypt, Margaret piercing a dragon, and a martyr holding a palm, from the Queen Mary Psalter, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 308v

According to a saint’s life written by Sophronius, patriarch of Jerusalem, Mary of Egypt was born somewhere in Egypt in the middle of the 4th century. At the age of 12, she ran away from her parents to Alexandria, where she appears to have lived a Late Antique version of ‘Sex and the City’. Sophronius particularly condemns her enjoyment of her numerous amorous liaisons.

A page from the Cotton-Corpus Legendary, showing the opening of a Latin translation of the Life of Mary of Egypt.
Opening of Paul the Deacon's Latin translation of the Sophronius's Life of Mary of Egypt, from the Cotton-Corpus Legendary, Cotton MS Nero E I/1, f. 179r

According to Sophronius, Mary eventually went to Jerusalem for the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. She was not interested in the religious festival, but was rather looking for more sexual partners. However, she found she could not enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre until she repented of her lifestyle and promised to become a hermit. Stricken with remorse, she travelled into the wilderness, taking only three loaves of bread as sustenance.

A detail from the Taymouth Hours, showing a marginal illustration of Mary of Egypt holding her loaves.
Mary and her loaves, from the Taymouth Hours, Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 188v

While in the wilderness, Mary was spotted by St Zosimas, who tossed her his mantle and persuaded her to tell him her story. Zosimas went looking for her again a year later, but found her dead, and buried her with the aid of a helpful lion (as you do).

A detail from the Dunois Hours, showing an illustration of Zosimas handing his cloak to Mary of Egypt.
Zosimas hands Mary his cloak, from the Dunois Hours, Yates Thompson MS 3, f. 287r

Mary became a popular figure in medieval art and literature. This is perhaps not surprising, given her memorable life, openness about her previous lifestyle, and her distinctive appearance. A whole series of bas-de-page scenes in the Smithfield Decretals (Royal MS 10 E IV) were devoted to her, and she appears in countless devotional texts.

A detail from the Smithfield Decretals, showing a marginal illustration of Mary of Egypt heading into the wilderness.
Detail of Mary heading into the wilderness with her three loaves, from the Smithfield Decretals, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 271v

A detail from the Smithfield Decretals, showing a marginal illustration of Mary of Egypt in the wilderness.
Detail of Mary of Egypt and some monkeys, from the Smithfield Decretals, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 275r

Nevertheless, different artists interpreted her story slightly differently. 

A detail from the Theodore Psalter, showing a marginal illustration of Zosimas handing Mary a cloak.
Don't look now! St Zosimas decorously looks away as he hands St Mary a cloak, from the Theodore Psalter, Add MS 19352, f. 68r 

Be warned, however: not all hairy ladies are Mary of Egypt. Mary Magdalene, who was also construed as an ex-prostitute in some medieval accounts of her life, was sometimes depicted with long hair, as seen in the Sforza Hours.

A page from the Sforza Hours, showing an illustration of Mary Magdalene, represented with long hair.
Miniature accompanying prayers relating to Mary Magdalene, from the Sforza Hours, Add MS 34294, f. 211v

In some of the Alexander romances, Alexander is said to have come across women with hair down to their feet who lived in the forest—sort of female versions of wodewoses.

A detail from a medieval manuscript, showing an illustration of Alexander the Great and his army encountering long-haired women in a forest.
Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 58v

And, of course, there’s always the bearded lady of Limerick, as noted by Gerald of Wales.

A detail from a medieval manuscript, showing a marginal illustration of the bearded lady of Limerick and the ox man of Wicklow.
Detail of the bearded lady of Limerick and the ox man of Wicklow, from a copy of Gerald of Wales' Topographia Hiberniae, Royal MS 13 B VIII, f. 19r

Medieval artists—and modern curators—certainly loved ladies who knew how to let their hair down.

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05 April 2017

An illustrated Old English Herbal

Plant-based remedies were a major feature of Anglo-Saxon medicine. Thanks to our current digitisation project with the Bibliothèque nationale de France, funded by The Polonsky Foundation, one of the British Library’s earliest illustrated collections of such remedies has just been digitised.

A page from the Old English Herbal, showing illustrations of two plants and a snake.
Entries for chamomile and ‘hart clover’, from an illustrated Old English Herbal, England (? Christ Church Canterbury or Winchester), c. 1000–1025, Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 29v

This manuscript (Cotton MS Vitellius C III) is the only surviving illustrated Old English herbal, or book describing plants and their uses. (There are other, non-illustrated manuscripts of the same text, for example in Harley MS 585.) The text is an Old English translation of a text which used to be attributed to a 4th-century writer known as Pseudo-Apuleius, now recognised as  several different Late Antique authors whose texts were subsequently combined. The manuscript also includes Old English translations of Late Antique texts on the medicinal properties of badgers (framed as a fictional letter between Octavian and a king of Egypt) and another on medicines derived from parts of four-legged animals. Together, the herbal and the text on four-legged animals are now known as part of the so-called 'Pseudo-Apuleius Complex' of texts.

A page from the Old English Herbal, showing an illustration of a centaur presenting a book to two figures.
A man and a centaur presenting a book to a figure in a blue veil or hood, captioned 'Escolapius Plato Centaurus', from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 19r

Each entry features an illustration of a plant or animal; its name in various languages; descriptions of ailments it can be used to treat; and instructions for finding and preparing it. Remedies for poisonous bites were marked out with drawings of snakes and scorpions. For instance, a snake appears near the entry for sweet basil, called ‘snake plant’ (naedderwyrt), because it was reported to grow where snakes were found and to be useful against injuries caused by snakes. 

A page from the Old English Herbal, showing an illustration of a 'Snakeplant'.
‘Snakeplant’, from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 57r

Although it might seem like a practical guide to finding plants and preparing remedies, this manuscript's uses are debated. First, the illustrations are not always very useful for identifying plants and animals in the wild: take, for example, these depictions of strawberries and elephants.

A detail from the Old English Herbal, showing an illustration of a 'Streawberian' plant.
‘Streawberian’, from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 33v

A detail from the Old English Herbal, showing an illustration of a monkey and an elephant.
A monkey and elephant, from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 82r

Secondly, the texts include plants and animals from Mediterranean regions and beyond which are not known to be native to the British Isles, such as cumin and licorice. Scholars debate whether the Anglo-Saxons knew these plants through trade or whether the early medieval climate could have permitted such plants to grow in England. Alternatively, the scribes and artists could simply have copied them from their Mediterranean source. The text sometimes explicitly acknowledges that plants are best found in distant regions. For example, ‘dragonswort… is said that it should be grown in dragon’s blood. It grows at the tops of mountains where there are groves of trees, chiefly in holy places and in the country that is called Apulia’ (translated by Anne Van Arsdall, in Medieval Herbal Remedies: The Old English Herbarium and Anglo-Saxon Medicine (New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 154). The Herbal also includes mythical lore about some plants, such as the mandrake, said to shine at night and to flee from impure persons. To pick it, the text claimed you needed an iron tool (to dig around it), an ivory staff (to dig the plant itself up), a dog (to help you pull it out), and quick reflexes.

An illustration of a mandrake and a dog, from the Old English Herbal.
A mandrake, from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 57v

However, while this manuscript’s exact uses are debatable, it continued to be used into the 16th century: later users added numbers to the table of contents, some recipes and variants of plants' names in Latin, Anglo-Norman French, and English. Eventually, a later copy of Peter of Poitiers’ Chronicle and a 9th-century copy of Macrobius’s Saturnalia were bound with the herbal. The volume may once have belonged to William Harvey (b. 1578, d. 1657), who discovered the circulation of blood. Some of his own recipes — featuring ‘licoris’, ‘cinemon’ and opium — are found at the end of the volume.

A 17th-century recipe for 'A Diet Drinke' by Peter Harvey, added to the Old English Herbal.
Recipe for ‘A Diet Drinke’ in the hand of William Harvey, 1624, Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 140v

__________

Le printemps s'annonce et en Angleterre les jardins commencent à renaître. La British Library vient de numériser un manuscrit rempli d’images de plantes (et d’animaux). Ce manuscrit (Cotton MS Vitellius C III) contient des textes médicaux attribués à Pseudo-Apulée: un herbier, qui précise les usages médicaux des plantes, et aussi un texte qui concèrne les usages médicaux des animaux. Tous ces textes sont traduits en vieil anglais.

Ce manuscrit est le seul exemple d’un herbier anglo-saxon illustré. Les images dépeignent les plantes et les animaux décrits dans le texte.  Cependant, les images des fraises et de l’éléphant révèlent un certain manque de vraisemblance de la part de l’artiste.

Malgré cela, plusieurs lecteurs ont utilisé ce manuscrit: il y a des additions dans des mains datant de l'onzième jusqu’au seizième siècle. Il est possible que William Harvey, le médecin qui a découvert les lois de la circulation du sang, l’ait possédé : des recettes médicales, dans sa propre main, se trouvent maintenant à la fin du manuscrit. Aujourd’hui, ce volume contient aussi une copie du Compendium historiae de Pierre de Poitiers.

 

Alison Hudson

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02 April 2017

A Calendar Page for April 2017

Happy April — it's time to have more fun with the calendar pages of Additional MS 36684! If you’ve missed it, find out more information on the manuscript in January’s post, and for more on medieval calendars, check out our original calendar post from 2011.

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Calendar pages for April, from a Book of Hours, St Omer or Théouranne, c. 1320, Add MS 36684, ff. 4v–5r

April is a fruitful month of rebirth, according to Chaucer’s famous opening to his Canterbury Tales (which he wrote about 80 years after this calendar was produced). Fittingly, our labour of the month can be seen merrily pruning a healthy, green plant at the bottom of the page. We especially like the small hybrid figure sporting a full set of stag antlers next to him, and the figures with dinosaur bodies in the margin below.

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Detail of the labour of the month for April, Add MS 36684, f. 4v

Equally fittingly, the artist underscores the idea of April as a fertile month at the start of the calendar with the appearance of two nude frolickers. On the far right of the page, we have a lady reaching up to touch a branch above her, and on the left, another figure, modesty protected by the border, who has unfortunately been decapitated by a later owner when they had the pages trimmed. 

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Detail of a nude woman, Add MS 36684, f. 4v

On the facing page, our zodiac figure for April is the bull Taurus, merrily contemplating the trumpeting dogs outside his miniature Gothic niche.

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Detail of Taurus, Add MS 36684, f. 5r

The calendar pages include the usual notes of specific saints’ feast days, and we can also take a guess as to the date of Easter, arguably the most significant Christian feast day, during at least part of the time the manuscript was in use. There is a colophon dated to 1318 on f. 78r of the manuscript, and we can compute that Easter Sunday fell on 23 April in 1318.

As a reminder, you can see all of Additional MS 36684 online on Digitised Manuscripts. We hope you are all frolicking as happily as our marginal figures!  

Taylor McCall
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01 April 2017

The Chipping Sodbury Bestiary

In 1932, one of the most sensational discoveries of modern times took place in a country house just outside Chipping Sodbury, Gloucestershire. A local antique dealer, Marmaduke Snodgrass, had been taking afternoon tea with the owner, known to posterity as 'the Barking Baronet', when he spotted an old parchment book wrapped in a pair of flannel pyjamas. Realising this book's huge significance, Snodgrass took it to the British Museum Library in London, where experts identified the manuscript as containing the only surviving copy of the semi-legendary De bestiis ridiculosis.

This manuscript remains in private hands, having been inherited by the Barking Baronet's descendants. The British Library is delighted to be able to issue today the first images of what is now known as the Chipping Sodbury Bestiary. De bestiis ridiculosis is a remarkable text, describing a range of mythical beasts that are rarely found in other medieval bestiaries.

The Gibbous

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An ape-like creature related to the Yeti and native to jungle regions of the Indian sub-continent. The 14th-century writer Jordanus of Moronicus noted that this creature only emerged from its hidden den on nights of the gibbous moon, in order to gather carambola, also known as starfruit. This line drawing shows a female Gibbous carrying her young.

The Horned Groundsnoort

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Commonly used by farmers in southern France and Tuscany to snuffle out truffles, the Horned Groundsnoort is a beast with a vicious temper when provoked. The anonymous author of this bestiary prescribes that the farmer should always maintain a safe distance from the Groundsnoort, using a 'snoort-rod' if one is at hand.

The Golden Ass

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Most asses are a dull grey or brown in colour, but occasionally a golden mutant is born. The Golden Ass has an exaggerated sense of its own self-worth, and refuses to be steered or ridden unless bribed with the famed golden turnip.

The BoJangle

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A musical bird native to Timbuktu. During the summer months, the male BoJangle performs popular show tunes on musical instruments as part of an intricate mating ritual to attract females. Here is depicted the male BoJangle holding what seems to be a tambourine.

The Legend of Holyfield

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The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle relates that, in the year 873, King Alfred the Great of Wessex defended his kingdom from attack by a 'fire-spewing dragon' (OE: fyrdraca), using only his bare fists. The encounter took place near the village of Holyfield, and is commemorated to this day by the drinking of prodigious amounts of 'fire-water' every Friday night. Despite losing his left ear in this battle, Alfred left the field victorious.

The Quonk

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When startled by a hunter, the quonk will lay a pair of eggs, which hatch around the full moon. Quonks are described in De bestiis ridiculosis as among the most noble of beasts, and impossible (and undesirable) to tame.

The Dweezil

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Half-dog, half-weasel, dweezils have an almost unique ability to smell with their tongues, a feat they share today with the wombat and the spiny echidna. Older readers of this Blog may be familiar with the arcane proverb, 'A dweezil in the hand gathers no moss'.

The Tree Hedgehog

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Now extinct over most of its former range, the tree hedgehog was much prized as a delicacy in Roman times. Pliny the Elder was reputedly dining on tree hedgehogs and egret tongues, washed down with bull's milk, when he watched Mount Vesuvius erupting in AD 79.

The Dancing Crane

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Not to be confused with its more common cousin, the Skating Crane, the Dancing Crane is notorious for breaking out into intricate stepping routines whenever it gets excited. Some ornithologists have compared its dance technique to the Macarena.

The Giant Bee

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One of the most unpredictable beasts is the Giant Bee of South America. Bee keepers in the foothills of the Andes tell terrible tales of their encounters with these winged creatures, which have the ability to lift a man from the ground before depositing him in a dunghill.

The Hebridean Half-Whit

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Sightings of the Half-Whit are becoming increasingly rare, no doubt due to global warming and tighter regulation of the local licensing laws. The Half-Whit is distinguished by having two heads (one in the usual place, the other at the end of its tail), and by its unorthodox mating call, likened by experts to the sound of bagpipes crossed with the scratching of nails on a chalkboard. 

All images of the Chipping Sodbury Bestiary are courtesy of the descendants of the Barking Baronet. We are extremely grateful to them for kindly giving permission for us to feature this beautiful bestiary on the Medieval Manuscripts Blog. Don't forget to follow us on Twitter (@BLMedieval) for more manuscript discoveries.