Medieval manuscripts blog

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11 posts from May 2017

09 May 2017

Save a prayer for Ælfwine

Many people — even some historians of more recent periods — think that it is impossible to study small communities or individuals from early medieval history due to a lack of evidence. Certainly, the surviving sources limit what medieval historians can study; nevertheless, there are some manuscripts which illuminate the lives of particular individuals in surprising detail.

Image of St Peter with a monk at his feet, from
Ælfwine’s Prayerbook, England (New Minster, Winchester), 1020s, Cotton MS Titus D XXVI, f. 19v

For example, we know a relatively large amount of information about Ælfwine, an Anglo-Saxon monk who became abbot of the New Minster, Winchester around 1031 and died in 1057. We know the names of his mother and other relatives and the dates they died. We know which prayers he may have said. We know how he envisioned what God looked like. We know the code he and his friends used (about which more later). We know how he predicted the weather and treated ulcers by eating a dish made from 9 egg yolks, wine and fennel. All of this information is preserved in his tiny prayer book, which survives in two volumes (Cotton MS Titus D XXVI and Cotton MS Titus D XXVII) and has recently been uploaded to the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.  

Measuring a handy 130 × 90 mm, Ælfwine’s prayerbook contains prayers, calendars, extracts from texts on natural phenomena, diagrams, images of religious scenes, medical recipes, a charm for catching a thief, and the largest surviving collection of Anglo-Saxon prognostics (telling the future, or divination), in Latin and Old English.

Encoded inscription mentioning
Ælfwine and Ælfsige (Aelsinus), Cotton MS Titus D XXVII, f. 13v

We know that this book belonged to Ælfwine and was made in part by another monk called Ælfsige (Aelsinus in Latin) because they are commemorated in a note written in code, between the calendar and the Easter tables. This code approximately involved replacing some vowels with the letter that follows them in the alphabet. Decrypted, it reads, ‘The most humble brother and monk Ælfsige (Aelsinus in Latin) wrote me, may he have boundless health... Ælfwine, monk and also deacon, owns me.’ ('Frater humillimus et monachus Aelsinus me scripsit, sit illi longa salus. Amen... Ælfwinus monachus aeque decanus me possidet'). This inscription also indicates that Ælfsige (Aelsinus) made the book for Ælfwine before he became abbot.

Image of the Crucifixion with
Ælfwine’s name in a prayer, from Ælfwine’s Prayerbook, England (New Minster, Winchester), 1020s, Cotton MS Titus D XXVII, f. 65v

Although Ælfsige (Aelsinus) is the only scribe mentioned in the inscription, there was at least one other scribe, and possibly an additional illustrator, involved in the creation of Ælfwine’s prayerbook. Once the prayerbook was made, additions were made in further hands to the calendar and the Easter tables, noting the deaths of kings, other monks and Ælfwine’s relatives, and adding texts about the governance of the New Minster.

Although Ælfwine’s prayerbook contains many personal touches, such as the notices of the death of his biological and spiritual relatives, the book was also able to be reused by later readers — with a few alterations. In the late 11th or early 12th century, a female scribe — who may have been a nun of the Nunnaminster — added female pronouns to some of the prayers. We can be sure she was a she, because she left a note in another manuscript (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 451) asking that the scriptrix remain safe and sound forever.

The masculine peccator changed to feminine peccatrix, from Cotton MS Titus D XXVI, f. 68r

Ælfwine and Ælfsige (Aelsinus) worked together on other books beyond the prayerbook. When Ælfwine became abbot, he commissioned Ælfsige (Aelsinus) and the illustrator of his prayerbook to create the New Minster Liber Vitae, a collection of narrative texts, lists and images celebrating the New Minster’s history and connections. Although the Liber Vitae is a source for much more than Ælfwine’s personal interests, it also contributes to our understanding of Ælfwine as an individual. It suggests how he began his abbacy and the sorts of texts he was interested in preserving and the sorts of connections he and the illustrator wanted to emphasize that his house had. For example, the Liber Vitae begins with an image of King Cnut and Queen Emma making a gift of a cross to the altar of the New Minster. The New Minster Liber Vitae may also include some personal touches related to Ælfwine: a Wulfwynn, possibly his mother, appears in the list of queens, abbesses and abbots' mothers. It seems she was a queen in his eyes.

Stowe 944   f. 6v
Image of a saintly monk-bishop and a saintly abbot, from the New Minster Liber Vitae, England (New Minster, Winchester), c. 1031, Stowe MS 944, f. 6v

Although Ælfwine and Ælfsige (Aelsinus) were by no means the most prominent churchmen in mid-11th-century England, the manuscripts they left behind give us a valuable window into the lives and interests of this pair of friends and colleagues.  Granted, these manuscripts are not as revealing as diaries or other genres more associated with later periods. Nevertheless, today's readers can still glimpse on Digitised Manuscripts select individuals who lived 1000 years ago.


Le caractère disparate des sources historiques laisse penser, bien souvent à tort, qu’il est impossible d’étudier le quotidien, les mentalités ou les représentations de communautés ou d’individus. S’il demeure, en effet, difficile de saisir une réalité exhaustive, certaines sources permettent de mettre en lumière un personnage ou un groupe, et par ce fait, d’avoir une idée plus précise et détaillée de leur vie.C’est le cas du livre de prières d’Ælfwine aujourd’hui conservé en deux volumes (Cotton Titus D XXVI and Cotton Titus D XXVII), récemment numérisés et accessibles en ligne.

Ce volume de petit module qui appartint à celui qui fut abbé de New Minster de c. 1031 à sa mort en 1057, nous fournit de précieuses informations. Les noms de sa mère et d’autres membres de sa famille nous sont ainsi connus par ce manuscrit, de même que la date de leurs décès. Ce petit livre atteste évidemment des prières qu’avait coutume de prononcer Ælfwine, mais également de sa pratique de l’astrométéorologie, des pronostics et de ses recettes médicales pour soigner les ulcères.

Ce manuscrit est issu d’une collaboration entre l’abbé de New Minster, le commanditaire, et Ælfsige (Aelsinus), un moine de la même abbaye, qui copia une partie du volume. Celui-ci s’inscrit donc dans une double dimension : communautaire, certains textes étant directement associés au gouvernement du monastère de New Minster, et individuelle, puisque le contenu est étroitement lié aux intérêts et à la personnalité d’Ælfwine.

Ce n’est donc pas un hasard si les deux moines continuèrent leur association dans l’intérêt de leur monastère. Ælfwine commanda ainsi à Ælfsige le Liber Vitae de New Minster, une collection comportant des textes en prose, un cycle d’images et des listes de saints célébrant l’histoire de l’abbaye. Ce Liber Vitae comporte également plusieurs ajouts renvoyant directement à Ælfwine. Il semble donc que le destin personnel de cet abbé se soit confondu avec celui de son abbaye, pour le plus grand plaisir des lecteurs ultérieurs.

Alison Hudson and Laure Miolo

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04 May 2017

Ready are you? More medieval 'Yodas'

A long time ago (well, a couple of years ago), in a galaxy not so far away, Damien Kempf of the University of Liverpool noticed an image of Yoda hiding in one of the British Library's medieval manuscripts. The green-skinned, big-eared figure with tufty hair bears a surprising resemblance to the character designed by Stuart Freeborn for Lucasfilm almost 700 years later. Kempf's 'Yoda' was one of several fantastical creatures reproduced in the book Medieval Monsters.

This is not the only ‘Yoda’ to be found in a medieval manuscript. Since the 'Yoda' discovered by Damien Kempf was featured on this blog, other people have told us about more ‘Yodas’ they have noticed among the British Library's manuscripts. These include a collection of romances and stories complied for a middling member of the Yorkshire gentry to a deluxe, multi-volume book of hours once owned by Emperor Charles V. We'd like to share some of these images with you here. Ready are you?

A detail from the Smithfield Decretals, showing a marginal illustration of a grotesque.
Detail of a ‘Yoda’-like grotesque, from the Smithfield Decretals, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 30v

The first ‘Yoda’ we mentioned appears in the Smithfield Decretals, a 14th-century copy of canon law decrees compiled for Pope Gregory IX. The text of the decrees appears in the central part of each page, with a commentary written around the edges. ‘Yoda’ is perched above a series of decrees about ecclesiastical elections and the jurisdictions of people elected to particular offices. The Smithfield Decretals was copied in Toulouse (in southern France) around the year 1300, but some of the decoration, perhaps including the Yoda, was seemingly added in England around 1340. At the bottom of this page, a man and a woman gesture at someone peeking out from a building. This scene, along with similar illustrations on the neighbouring pages, may tell the story of the Biblical hero Samson. 

A page from the Smithfield Decretals, showing marginal illustrations and grotesques.
Page from the Smithfield Decretals, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 30v

The decoration of such manuscripts was not necessarily related to their contents. Unnatural creatures often frolic in the margins of medieval manuscripts. These images, more commonly known as marginalia and sometimes called ‘grotesques’, are often strange, hybrid man-beast figures, or animals dressed and acting as people, usually in a playful or vulgar manner. Often there is no direct link to the text appearing above them. Apes dress as friars and priests, in a not-so subtle dig at the clergy, rabbits hunt dogs, and knights fight snails, turning the natural order of things on its head. Scholars have long debated the function and meaning of these images, and there is no single answer to what their original purpose may have been. However, their placement, especially when juxtaposed with serious religious texts, demonstrates the fluidity in medieval art — and medieval society — between the sacred and the profane. These ‘Yoda’ figures potentially serve a variety of functions: they are strange and amusing, but they might also have helped the medieval readers to remember a particular piece of text.

A text-page from the London Thornton Manuscript, with a decorated initial including an illustration of a grotesque.
Page from the London Thornton Manuscript, England (Yorkshire), c. 1437–1450, Add MS 31042, f. 50r

Last year, another ‘Yoda’-like figure was spotted by Karol Pasciano in the London Thornton Manuscript (British Library Add MS 31042, f. 50r). This manuscript contains religious poetry and romances compiled by Robert Thornton, lord of a manor in East Newton, Yorkshire. The initial with a ‘Yoda’ and two other, human heads appears at the start of the alliterative Middle English poem, ‘The Siege of Jerusalem’.

A detail from the London Thornton Manuscript, showing a decorated initial with an illustration of grotesque.
Detail of an initial from the London Thornton Manuscript, England (Yorkshire), c. 1437–1450, Add MS 31042, f. 50r

It was traditionally thought that Thornton was himself responsible for decorating this manuscript and one other (Lincoln, Cathedral Library, MS 91 (A.5.2)). However, Joel Fredell has recently suggested that the initials in Thornton's manuscripts could have been the work of several artists, possibly professionals based in York. Instructions elsewhere in Add MS 31042 suggest that Thornton appreciated creativity and imagination in the text and perhaps in their decoration: on f. 32v, he instructs that the text on the following page proceed ‘according to the scribe’s imagination’ (‘secundum Fantasiam scriptoris’).

A detail of a decorated border from the Sforza Hours.
Detail of a border from the Sforza Hours, Add MS 34294, Italy (Milan), 1490–1494, f. 252v

‘Yodas’ are not solely found in the margins of manuscripts decorated in England. In contrast to Thornton’s uncoloured manuscript from Yorkshire, ‘Yodas’ can also be found  in lavish manuscripts produced during the Italian Renaissance. Another Twitter user has noticed two green heads with large ears in the margins of the Sforza Hours. This deluxe, multi-volume Book of Hours was originally made in the 1490s for Bona Sforza, duchess of Milan, by the Milanese court painter, Giovan Pietro Birago, and his assistants. Birago was Leonardo da Vinci’s better-paid contemporary; in Renaissance style he decorated the manuscript  with all'antica elements based on classical art. These elements included the paintings of gemstones, cameos, putti (like cherubs), and disembodied heads or masks in blue and green. The artists also depicted saints in lower margins. The page with the ‘Yodas’ also includes prayers relating to Anna the Prophetess. 

A page from the Sforza Hours, with a highly decorated border containing grotesques.
Page from the Sforza Hours, Add MS 34294, Italy (Milan), 1490-1494, f. 252v

Some pages of this manuscript were subsequently stolen. A later owner commissioned replacements from the Low Countries in the early 16th century, but the ‘Yoda’ page seems to come from the earlier part of the manuscript. This gorgeous Book of Hours belonged to several major figures, including Margaret of Austria and her nephew Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. One wonders what they thought about its decoration.

Decorated line justifications in a page from the Luttrell Psalter.
Detail from the Luttrell Psalter, England (Lincolnshire), c. 1325–1340, Add MS 42130, f. 24r

Recently, we have noticed yet another ‘Yoda’, marking the end of a line in the Luttrell Psalter. The Luttrell Psalter, made in the 14th century for Sir Geoffrey Luttrell, is a cornucopia of weird and wonderful marginalia, so it is perhaps no surprise that a ‘Yoda’ is amongst the hundreds of other creatures crowding around the text. Here, a ‘Yoda’ fills up the space at the end of a verse of Psalm 9: ‘God is not before [the sinner’s] eyes: his ways are filthy at all times.’ 

A marginal illustration of a grotesque from the Rutland Psalter.
A marginal illustration of a grotesque from the Rutland Psalter.
A marginal illustration of a grotesque from the Rutland Psalter.
A marginal illustration of a grotesque from the Rutland Psalter.
Yoda is that you?!? Details from the Rutland Psalter, England (London?), c. 1260, Add MS 62925, ff. 61r, 65r, 70r, 72r

It is, of course, unfair to group medieval marginalia with reference to later works of science fiction. The artists who drew these large-eared, green-skinned creatures may have had a better understanding of what those features meant, if they symbolised anything at all. For example, the Rutland Psalter (shown above) features very similar-looking, big-eared heads in orange and green gnawing on borders. It is not clear that that artist intended the difference between these two creatures to signify anything beyond a varied colour scheme. In the same way, the Sforza Hours’ green ‘Yodas’ are joined by similar-looking, blue heads or masks on other pages, while a 15th-century Apocalypse picture book from Central Europe includes a whole host of big-eared creatures of various hues.

An illustration of a large hell-mouth swallowing demons, from a 15th-century Apocalypse Picture Book.
Large-eared creatures, some with green skin, in and around the lake of fire and brimstone, from an Apocalypse Picture Book with a preface by St Jerome, Germany, 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Add MS 19896, f. 22r

It is fun, nevertheless, to notice the similarities in the decoration of manuscripts containing different types of text and made in different contexts, from a local lord’s story collection in the far north of England to height of the Italian Renaissance. As Damien Kempf noted, 'Nothing, it seems, is ever new in principle.' ‘Modern’ imaginations and fantasies are not so dissimilar from those of a 15th-century Yorkshireman or a Milanese duchess.

We'd love you to tell us about other 'Yodas' you may have noticed. You can comment on this post below or via our Twitter feed @BLMedieval.

Alison Hudson and Taylor McCall

01 May 2017

A Calendar Page for May 2017

Spring has well and truly sprung — let’s celebrate with a look at the calendar pages for May in everyone’s favourite Additional MS 36684! For more information on the manuscript, take a peek at January’s post, and for an excellent general guide to medieval calendars, please see our original calendar post from 2011.

Fig 1_add_ms_36684_f005v Fig 2_add_ms_36684_f006r

Calendar pages for May, from a Book of Hours, St Omer or Théouranne, c. 1320, Add MS 36684, ff. 5v–6r

While May doesn’t have quite as many frolicking nude figures as April, there is still plenty of fun going on. The labour of the month showcases the traditional aristocratic pastime of falconry (or hawking), with a gentleman astride his horse, a falcon perched on his right hand. A popular sport for the moneyed upper classes and royalty, falconry entailed using trained birds of prey to hunt small animals, and remained an elite status symbol for centuries.

Fig 3_add_ms_36684_f005v hawking
Falconry, Add MS 36684, f. 5v

The marginal figures next to the falconer are the usual mash-up of animal and human hybrids, save for the man labouring at the bottom of the margin. As the page has been cut down some point after the manuscript was made, we can only guess what activity he might be up to.

Fig 4_add_ms_36684_f005v marginalia
Detail of marginalia, Add MS 36684, f. 5v

The zodiac symbol for May is Gemini, represented by a pair of human twins. In Additional MS 36684, the twins are — as was typical — partially nude, their lower halves modestly covered by a large red shield marked by a white bird (perhaps a pelican?). They embrace congenially — everyone is in a good mood in May, when the weather is nice!

Fig 5_add_ms_36684_f006r gemini
Gemini, Add MS 36684, f. 6r

Don’t forget that you can digitally flip through all of Additional MS 36684 online on Digitised Manuscripts. See you back here on 1 June for more fun!

Taylor McCall
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