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10 posts from May 2018

03 May 2018

Troy ahoy

Classical legends have an enduring quality that means they have been adapted, translated, read and performed almost continuously from antiquity up to the present day. Such stories certainly captured the medieval imagination, judging by the number of massive, gloriously illuminated copies that were made for those who could afford them — mostly royalty and the nobility — in the 14th and 15th centuries. Medieval aristocrats loved history, particularly when mingled with romance, and the legend of Troy held an extraordinary fascination for them, especially after the crusaders brought back accounts of the exotic lands of the Middle East.

Two British Library manuscripts containing the Troy legend in French have recently been fully digitised and are now available to view on Digitised Manuscripts.

Stowe MS 54

This is a copy of the Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César or Histoire Universelle, a universal history from the time of Thebes to the reign of Pompey in ancient Rome 60 BC, and combining legend and historical fact. The artist is thought to have been from the Netherlands, but was working in Paris in the mid-to-late 15th century. Following on from the legends of Oedipus, Thebes and Hercules, this dreamlike view of the legendary city of Troy introduces the famous story, and is followed by a series of smaller images depicting the major characters and events, as well as a double-page spread showing the Greek navy attacking from the sea.

A page from a 15th-century manuscript of the Histoire universelle, showing an illustration of the city of Troy.

The city of Troy with a ship, from the Histoire Universelle, Paris, 1st quarter of the 15th century: Stowe MS 54, f. 30v

A page from a 15th-century manuscript of the Histoire universelle, showing an illustration of the celebrations in Troy upon Paris' return to the city with Helen.

The celebrations in Troy on the return of Paris with Helen: Stowe MS 54, f. 64r

A page from a 15th-century manuscript of the Histoire universelle, showing an illustration of Ulysses and Diomedes under the golden pine tree arranging a truce with King Priam.

Ulysses and Diomedes under the golden pine, arranging a truce with Priam: Stowe MS 54, f. 76r

A page from a 15th-century manuscript of the Histoire universelle, showing an illustration of the Greek forces attacking Troy by sea.

A page from a 15th-century manuscript of the Histoire universelle, showing an illustration of the Greek army attacking the city of Troy.

The Greeks attack Troy from the sea: Stowe MS 54, ff. 82v–83r

A page from a 15th-century manuscript of the Histoire universelle, showing an illustration of the deaths of Achilles and Antilogus.

The Death of Achilles and Antilogus: Stowe MS 54, f. 178r

A page from a 15th-century manuscript of the Histoire universelle, showing an illustration of Trojan Horse discovered in the abandoned Greek camp.

The Trojan Horse: Stowe MS 54, f. 201v

A page from a 15th-century manuscript of the Histoire universelle, showing an illustration of the destruction of Troy.

The destruction of Troy: Stowe MS 54, f. 206v

Harley MS 4376

The history of Greece and Troy is given special emphasis in the Chronique de la Bouquechardière, a chronicle that covers the period from Creation to the reign of Caesar. It was compiled by the Norman knight, De Courcy, soon after the Battle of Agincourt (1415), and is named after his estate or fief, Bourg-Achard. His aim was to entertain and instruct his audience, while emphasising the moral lessons to be gained from history, at a time when Normandy was being conquered by the English under Henry V. This image illustrates events leading to the Trojan War, as related in Book II. Here, Paris has abducted Helen from Sparta and they meet his father, Priam, at the gates of Troy. Helen and Paris are dressed in elaborate 15th-century court dress and Priam wears a sumptuous jewelled cloak.

A page from a 15th-century manuscript of Chronique de la Bouquechardière, showing an illustration of the meeting of Paris and Helena with King Priam.

Paris and Helena meeting Priam outside Troy, at the beginning of book II, Rouen, 3rd quarter of the 15th century: Harley MS 4376, f. 90r

Included in both works is the legend of Alexander the Great, based on the exploits of the great military leader who reigned from 356 to 323 BC, but greatly embroidered with miraculous events from his life and campaigns in the East. This chronicle is divided into 6 books, and this illustration occurs at the beginning of Book 5, relating the history of Macedonia and Alexander's conquests. Here he is seen with Lady Fortune and her wheel, a device often used by medieval artists to show the rise and fall of famous heroes.

A page from a 15th-century manuscript of Chronique de la Bouquechardière, showing an illustration of Alexander and the Wheel of Fortune, and the murder of Alexander II of Macedonia.

Alexander and the Wheel of Fortune, and the murder of Alexander II of Macedonia before the throne of Eurydice, at the beginning of book V: Harley MS 4376, f. 271r

On the right is shown the murder of Alexander II, short-lived king of Macedon from 371 to 369 BC. Alexander was murdered during a festival, probably in a plot involving his own mother, Eurydice, wife of Amyntas III.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Chantry Westwell

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01 May 2018

A calendar page for May 2018

Today is 1 May, which means summer is almost here. Well, it is according to the calendar we are exploring this year, which was made in southern England about 1000 years ago.

A page from an Anglo-Saxon calendar, showing the calendar for May, with an illustration of shepherds with their flock.
Calendar page for May, from Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 5r

Each day in this calendar has a verse of poetry that describes a notable event associated with that date. These are often saints’ days, but astronomical and other events are mentioned as well. The verse for 9 May, shown below, reads: ‘Here begins the summery heat for 7 multiplied by 13 [days].’ Just to make sure no one missed it, the red text in the margin clarifies: ‘The beginning of summer. It has 91 days.’ That might be a bit much to hope for this year.

A detail from an Anglo-Saxon calendar, showing verses of poetry associated with different dates in the month of May.

Indeed, in case the weather isn’t feeling quite like summer in 9 days’ time, the poem offers a second possible start date for warm weather: ‘Burning summer is born on the ninth day before 1 June’, namely 24 May (in the first line below).

A detail from an Anglo-Saxon calendar, showing verses of poetry associated with different dates in the month of May.

Other special days in May were marked out with gold crosses in the margin of this calendar. These include 1 May, the feast of St Philip and James, although the verse for that day is either incomplete or has been erased. 3 May is also marked out: it was the feast of St Helena’s rediscovery of the Cross. There is also a gold cross by 26 May, which commemorates ‘Augustine, who crossed over the curve of this world [died] seven days before 1 June.’  This was a reference to St Augustine, the first archbishop of Canterbury, not St Augustine of Hippo. Early medieval people understood that the world was round, so in art and literature part of the world and its atmosphere were sometimes represented in abbreviated form as a curved shape or arch.

A detail from the Cnut Gospels, showing a historiated initial with a representation of Christ sitting on the arc of the world.
Detail of an historiated initial showing Christ sitting on the arc of the world, from the Cnut Gospels, England, pre-1019, Royal MS 1 D IX, f. 66r

In addition to containing a poem for each day of the year, this calendar is also one of only two illustrated calendars to survive from 11th-century England. (The other is Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1.) Each page includes depictions of zodiac symbols and agricultural and social activities. For May, those are Taurus the bull and shepherding respectively. Interestingly, one shepherd is portrayed dressed as a layman, with a beard and short tunic, and two others are portrayed wearing long robes. It is unclear if their attire reflects the exemplar of this manuscript or if their long robes allude to the dress of monks and churchmen at this period. Christian leaders were often compared to shepherds. Today, some clergy are still called ‘pastors’, the Latin word for shepherd.

A detail from an Anglo-Saxon calendar, showing an illustration of shepherds with their flock.
Detail of shepherds, from Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 5r

This calendar also includes a wealth of other information from the movements of the moon to the days of the week, as our post from January explains. Thanks to the The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200, you can explore this manuscript in full on the Digitised Manuscripts website.

Alison Hudson

 @BLMedieval

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

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