THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

10 posts from November 2018

21 November 2018

Launch of The Polonsky Foundation Pre-1200 Project

Today we are celebrating with our esteemed colleagues from the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Together we have digitised and re-catalogued 800 medieval manuscripts from England and France. We have also created two bilingual web resources making these manuscripts available freely and interpreting their significance.

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The Adoration of the Magi from an illuminated Psalter, London, 1220s: British Library Lansdowne MS 420, f. 8v.

In the summer of 2016 we began the The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200. The project was funded by The Polonsky Foundation, which is committed to promoting access to and dissemination of cultural heritage.  

This project brings together riches of these great institutions and makes them available to researchers and the wider public in innovative and attractive ways, benefiting from the extraordinary opportunities opened up by the technological advances of digitisation.

Our Foundation promotes the preservation and transmission of cultural heritage, and is proud to support this collaboration, which continues the cultural exchange and profound mutual influence that have characterised the history of these two nations over many centuries.”

Dr Leonard S. Polonsky CBE, Founding Chairman, The Polonsky Foundation

 

The collections of medieval manuscripts in the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France rank amongst the finest and most important in the world. Together we have particularly strong holdings of manuscripts made in France and England before 1200. From these we chose 400 manuscripts from each Library in order to transform the availability of these primary sources. The manuscripts comprise a wide range of texts, including biblical, liturgical and theological works, reflecting the interest of monks, abbots and clerics, who were responsible for much of book production in the period before 1200. Other topics include science, music and medicine, Classical and contemporary literature and works on history and law.

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Themes in the curated website Medieval England and France, 700-1200, made in The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200.

 

Two web resources

All 800 manuscripts are now available on an innovative website hosted by the BnF: France et Angleterre : manuscrits médiévaux entre 700 et 1200 / France and England: medieval manuscripts between 700 and 1200. The website allows users to search manuscripts in English, French and Italian, and to view and compare manuscripts side-by-side using International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) technology. Images may also be annotated or shared on social media, and may be downloaded either as an individual image or as a PDF of an entire manuscript. Searches by author, date and place of origin may also be made.

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New website developed by the BnF to present the 800 manuscripts digitised in The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200.

The British Library-hosted website presents a curated selection of these manuscripts highlighting various topics and manuscripts. Readers may explore themes, such as history, illumination, science and manuscript making. There are over twenty articles written by experts presenting and interpreting these manuscripts, in both English and French, together with individual descriptions and images of over 100 manuscripts. The website also features several videos exploring the context for these manuscripts and describing in detail how they were made. The site is an online exhibition to some of the amazing legacy that survives in hand-written medieval books.

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New curated website developed by the British Library to explore the illuminated manuscripts digitised in The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700–1200.

Professor Julia Crick from King’s College London remarks that, “Yet again, we are indebted to The Polonsky Foundation for an act of generosity which allows scholars, students and the general public at large to encounter new aspects of the world of medieval manuscripts. This project spans crucial centuries of cultural contact and political rivalry between England and the European continent. The manuscripts in this collection display the aspirations of the elite, the glitter of and competition for the classical past and, most excitingly, the material remains of a burgeoning culture of books and learning which was multilingual, culturally variegated and which is still open to exploration and discovery. The two new websites significantly widen and enhance access to these manuscripts and will inspire future research and learning.

We have also produced a short film highlighting the background for the project and its achievements.

 

Cataloguing, Exhibition and a Book

All of the manuscripts have been re-catalogued to include up-to-date bibliography, identification of texts and descriptions of the artwork. These descriptions can be viewed on Explore our Archives and Manuscripts for British Library manuscripts; and on Archives et manuscrits for Bibliothèque nationale de France manuscripts.

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The opening of Psalm 51 from the Bosworth Psalter, Canterbury or Westminster, Southern England, 3rd quarter of the 10th century: British Library Add MS 37517, f. 33r.

If online access to this amazing selection does not satisfy a desire for stunning images, there are also other ways in which to get guided access to the highlights. Several of the project manuscripts can be seen in person in the British Library’s exhibition Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War (until 19 February 2019).

We have also brought together some of the project highlights in a book by Kathleen Doyle and Charlotte Denoël, Medieval Illumination: Manuscript Art in England and France 700-1200 (London: British Library, 2018), also published in French as Enluminures Médiévales: Chefs-d'oeuvre de la Bibliothèque nationale de France et de la British Library, 700-1200 (Paris: BnF Éditions, 2018).

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Medieval Illumination: Manuscript Art in England and France 700-1200, Kathleen Doyle and Charlotte Denoël (Front Cover).

We hope that the easy and convenient availability of this material will inspire researchers, teachers, students, artists and others to explore our shared history and heritage. We invite all our readers to immerse themselves in the stories these manuscripts tell and browse through the online articles and collection items. We are delighted to have opened digitally 800 medieval books for you to discover, research and enjoy.

 

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17 November 2018

Fantastic books and where to see them

This weekend is a special moment for Harry Potter fans in the United Kingdom. The latest instalment of the Fantastic Beasts film franchise is released in cinemas nationwide, starring Johnny Depp, Eddie Redmayne and Ezra Miller (all of whom have visited the British Library). Many of us in the Library's Medieval Manuscripts team are huge fans of the world of Harry Potter, but it has to be said that our day-to-day activities are more concerned with the care of fantastic manuscripts rather than fantastic beasts!

So where can you find some absolutely jaw-dropping manuscripts? Look no further than our sensational Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, which has been drawing in the crowds (and is open until 19 February 2019).

Here is a selection of some of the outstanding books on display in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, in the order that you will find them in the gallery. Which are your favourites?

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The St Augustine Gospels (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 286, f. 129v): made in late 6th century Italy, this gospel-book may have been brought to Anglo-Saxon England by some of the Christian missionaries who arrived from Rome in 597.

 

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The Moore Bede (Cambridge, University Library, MS Kk.5.16, f. 94r): Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People is a critical source for the conversion of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to Christianity. The Moore Bede is probably the oldest surviving copy, made around the year 737.

 

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The Book of Durrow (Dublin, Trinity College Library, MS 57, f. 85v): the earliest of the fully decorated insular gospel books, drawing on sources and inspiration from Ireland, Anglo-Saxon England, Pictland and the Mediterranean.

 

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The Lindisfarne Gospels (British Library Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 27r): the work of a single scribe and artist, and often acclaimed as one of the most spectacular manuscripts to survive from Anglo-Saxon England.

 

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The St Cuthbert Gospel (British Library Additional MS 89000): discovered in St Cuthbert’s tomb in 1104, this small copy of the Gospel of St John is the earliest surviving European book with an intact binding.

 

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Codex Amiatinus (Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Amiatino 1): this colossal manuscript is one of three single-volume copies of the Bible made at Wearmouth-Jarrow in the early 8th century. It was taken to Rome in 716, and has returned temporarily to England (for our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition) for the first time in 1302 years.

 

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The Book of Nunnaminster (British Library Harley MS 2965, f. 16v): one of a group of 9th-century prayer books whose contents, script and decoration are all linked to Mercia. It may have been used by Mercian noblewomen, as two of its prayers include words written in the feminine form.

 

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King Alfred’s translation of the Pastoral Care (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Hatton 20, f. 1r): this translation of Gregory the Great’s Dialogues is attributed to King Alfred of Wessex (871–899), who is known to have encouraged the translation of Latin texts into English to aid learning and education in his kingdom.

 

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The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: Manuscript B (British Library Cotton MS Tiberius A VI, f. 30v): this version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle preserves an account of the campaigns of Æthelred, ealdorman of Mercia, and his wife Æthelflæd, ‘Lady of the Mercians’ (d. 918), against the Viking invaders.

 

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Bede's Lives of St Cuthbert (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 183, f. 1v): this famous image of King Æthelstan (924–939) presenting a book to the Community of St Cuthbert is the earliest surviving manuscript ‘portrait’ of an Anglo-Saxon king.

 

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The Coronation Gospels (British Library Cotton MS Tiberius A II, f. 74v): a gospel-book presented to the monks of Christ Church, Canterbury, by Æthelstan, the first king of the English (924–939).

 

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Beowulf (British Library Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 169r): the only medieval copy of what is widely regarded as the greatest surviving piece of Anglo-Saxon literature.

 

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The Old English Hexateuch (British Library Cotton MS Claudius B IV, f. 19r): the earliest example of an Old English translation of the Hexateuch, the first six books of the Old Testament.

 

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The Marvels of the East (British Library Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 81v): fantastic illustrations accompany these descriptions of 37 ‘marvels’. This manuscript also contains lists of popes, Anglo-Saxon kings and Roman emperors, and a map of the world.

 

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Dunstan’s Classbook (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Auct. F.4.32, f. 1r): Dunstan was archbishop of Canterbury (959–988) and leader of the Benedictine reform movement, and the ‘Classbook’ contains annotations in his own hand.

 

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The Trinity Gospels (Cambridge, Trinity College, MS B.10.4, ff. 59v–60r): one of the most sumptuous of all 11th-century gospel books, featuring extensive use of gold and beautifully painted images.

 

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The Judith of Flanders Gospels (New York, Morgan Library, MS M 708, upper cover): a splendidly decorated gospel-book which is associated with Judith of Flanders, wife of Tostig, earl of Northumbria (d. 1066). Many Anglo-Saxon gospel-books are known to have had treasure bindings such as this, but very few of them survive.

 

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Encomium of Queen Emma (British Library Additional MS 33241, f. 1v): a fascinating text in praise of Queen Emma, wife successively of two kings of England, Æthelred the Unready (978–1016) and Cnut (1016–1035).

 

161_E31-2-2 f304v Great Domesday Book Yorkshire

Great Domesday (The National Archives, E 31/2/2, f. 304v): one of the most significant manuscripts in English history, preserving a major portion of the survey commissioned by William the Conqueror at Christmas 1085.

 

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The Utrecht Psalter (Utrecht, Universiteitsbibliothek, MS 32, f. 8r): made in northern France during the reign of Louis the Pious (814–840), this revolutionary manuscript was in Canterbury by the 11th century, when it was used as the model for another fantastic manuscript on display in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, the Harley Psalter (British Library Harley MS 603).

 

All of these books are testament to the creativity and skill of their Anglo-Saxon scribes, artists and makers and to the care of their subsequent owners. We are particularly grateful to all our lenders credited here (from Cambridge, Dublin, Florence, London, New York, Oxford and Utrecht), without whom our exhibition would not have been so FANTASTIC.

You can book your tickets to see the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War at the British Library (19 October 2018–19 February 2019) here.

 

Rebecca Lawton

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14 November 2018

Medieval hipsters

This month many people are celebrating Movember, yet few imagine that one of the most detailed works on beards comes from the medieval period. The Church Fathers had thought about facial hair in moral and theological terms, while medieval theologians and clergymen debated whether communities of priests, monks and other clerics could grow beards at all. By the 12th century, canon law forbade Western clerics to grow beards, as beardlessness came to be associated with the purity and humility of angels. Laymen could grow beards if they wished, but that would mark them out even further from the clergy.

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A group of clean-shaven clerics offering St Benedict a copy of his Rule (England, 11th century): Arundel MS 155, f. 133r

It is therefore surprising that a monastic author should have left us the only known apologetic treatise on beards. Burchard was abbot of the French Cistercian abbey of Bellevaux near Besançon, and in the 1160s he wrote to the community at Rosières, a neighbouring house of the same Order, to make amends for an offensive letter condemning the lay brothers for growing their beards. Cistercian lay brothers did not take the monastic habit, but they helped the monks run the abbey. They lived in separate quarters and led different lifestyles, which extended in turn to their facial hair.

Entitled ‘In defence of beards’ (Apologia de barbis), Burchard’s letter is actually a treatise in three chapters encouraging the lay brothers not to cut their beards. The author remarkably referred to his subject as barbilogia (‘barbilogy’) and to himself as barbilogus (‘barbilogist’). He could not have been more hip and modern.

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The opening of Abbot Burchard’s Apologia de barbis with an intricate anthropomorphic initial including bearded faces (France, 12th century): Add MS 41997, f. 1r

Burchard’s ‘barbilogy’ survives in only one manuscript (Add MS 41997). It starts with what it means to grow a beard, then goes on to describe different types of beards, styles and treatments, and to give beard-related advice. Burchard mentioned more than 10 styles of beard, including one ‘urban’ (urbana figuratio) and one military, which, he added, does not go well with long hair. There was the beard that covers the chin (barba mentanea), that from under the chin (submentanea), and the side beard (barba maxillaris). We are told that long sideburns and the beard under the chin make the face resemble a goat, while moustaches reaching to the ears resemble a wild boar. There is inequality between men according to their beards: there are those with precocious beards (citiberbes), those with late-developed beards (tardiberbes), those whose beards are thin and whispy (rariberbes), and those with even, bushy beards (pleniberbes).

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Woden as a bushy-bearded god, the ancestor of the Anglo-Saxon kings (England, 12th century), currently on display in Anglo-Saxon KingdomsCotton MS Caligula A VIII, f. 29r

According to the barbilogist, there was a close link between a man’s beard and his spiritual life. A beard could save a man’s life, or it could drag him straight to Hell, where there would be weeping, gnashing of teeth and, as Burchard noted, the burning of beards.

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A drawing of nine bearded figures from the late-medieval period added at the end of Burchard’s ‘Defence’ and inspired by it (France, 12th century): Add MS 41997, f. 95r

Burchard warned furthermore that a long beard might become a hindrance and an object of contempt in the eyes of the beardless. This is mirrored by an image in another manuscript (Arundel MS 155), which depicts Goliath with a long, pointy beard, before a clean-shaven David cuts off his head. 

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A clean-shaven David holding Goliath by the beard before cutting off his head (England, 11th century): Arundel MS 155, f. 93r

According to Abbot Burchard, a suitable, well-trimmed beard was a symbol of strength, maturity, wisdom and religion. For instance, we are told that a half-beard, meaning a lonely moustache, was a 'monstrous sign'. The connection between beards and medieval notions of masculinity is suggested by an entry in an 11th-century dreambook (concerning the interpretation of dreams) — dreaming of having one’s own beard cut meant that something terrible would happen to you.

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Dream prognostics in Latin with an Old English interlinear translation (England, 11th century): Cotton MS Tiberius A III, f. 28r

The manuscript containing Burchard's treatise is part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project, which is launching in one week! Stay tuned for more information on 21 November. The conference website is here.

 

Cristian Ispir

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13 November 2018

Lichfield: the third archbishopric

For the majority of the Anglo-Saxon period, the English Church had two archbishoprics, one at Canterbury and the other at York, just as it does today. So it might surprise some of you to hear that from 787 to 803 the English Church had a third archbishopric, at Lichfield in Staffordshire!

What's the difference between a bishop and an archbishop? The answer lies partly in an ecclesiastical vestment known as a pallium. This was a woollen band, which had lain for a time on St Peter’s tomb in Rome, before being granted to a bishop by the pope. The possession of a pallium signified the special relationship between bishop and pope, and eventually came to signify the status of an archbishop. In 787 the bishop of Lichfield received such a pallium and rose to the rank of archbishop.

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Evangelist portrait of Luke in the St Chad Gospels: Lichfield Cathedral MS 1, p. 218

At the turn of the 9th century, Lichfield was located in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia, whose heartlands flanked the River Trent. Chad, the first known bishop of Lichfield, was appointed by King Wulfhere of Mercia (d. 675). Earlier in his career, Chad is known to have spent time at the monasteries of Rath Melsigi in Ireland and at Lindisfarne, which had strong Irish connections.

This Irish relationship influenced the community established at Lichfield. It can be detected, for instance, in the St Chad Gospels, which has been kindly loaned to the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition by Lichfield Cathedral. Scholars have noted that the artistic style of this gospel-book resembles the Lindisfarne Gospels, and that its text aligns with a group of mostly Irish manuscripts such as the Book of Kells, Book of Armagh and the MacRegol Gospels. The St Chad Gospels was produced around the middle of the 8th century, and at some stage it even travelled to Wales: some of its marginal notes are among the earliest examples of written Welsh.

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The four evangelist symbols in the St Chad Gospels: Lichfield Cathedral MS 1, p. 219

King Offa of Mercia (d. 796) was an extremely powerful Anglo-Saxon king, who had a friendly rivalry with his continental contemporary, Charlemagne (d. 814). In 781, Charlemagne’s sons were anointed as kings in Rome; in response, Offa also desired that his son, Ecgfrith, be crowned as king. This was not a simple request, as it was relatively unusual for the sons of kings to be anointed while their father was still alive. 

Anointing a king was a task for an archbishop. When the archbishop of Canterbury refused to anoint Ecgfrith, Offa decided to create a new archbishopric in his own kingdom of Mercia. He wrote to Pope Hadrian to request that Hygeberht, bishop of Lichfield, be made an archbishop. The request was granted, and by 787 Hygeberht was signing charters as an archbishop.

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Hygeberht signing as an archbishop, in the third line from the top: British Library, Cotton MS Augustus II 97

Lichfield seems to have prospered during its brief time as an archbishopric. In 2003, excavations at Lichfield Cathedral uncovered a limestone fragment carved in the resemblance of an angel. Although the angel has since faded to white, analysis suggests that it had once been splendidly painted. The angel’s wings in particular were painted in red and yellow, to replicate a ‘red-gold’ appearance that was highly prized among the Anglo-Saxons.

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The Lichfield Angel, courtesy of Lichfield Cathedral

The wings of the Lichfield Angel may have had a similar appearance to gold and silver items produced elsewhere in Anglo-Saxon England. Examples of this style of decoration are found in the Staffordshire Hoard, discovered very near to Lichfield in 2009.

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Items from the Staffordshire Hoard, courtesy of Birmingham Museums Trust and the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent, on behalf of Birmingham City Council and Stoke-on-Trent City Council

Lichfield’s time as an archbishopric was short-lived. Its new-found status created organisational problems in the English Church, leading King Coenwulf of Mercia (796–821) to write to Pope Leo III (795–816), requesting that Lichfield be restored to a bishopric.

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Decree of the church council at Clofesho abolishing the archbishopric of Lichfield: Cotton MS Augustus II 61

Pope Leo granted Coenwulf’s request, and in 803 the English Church met at Clofesho to confirm the downgrading of the archbishopric of Lichfield. The official decree, issued as a result of the meeting, is also on display in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. The list of witnesses begins with two names: Æthelheard of Canterbury, who signed as archbishop, while Ealdwulf, the former archbishop of Lichfield, attested this decree as bishop once more.

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Æthelheard signs as archbishop with Bishop Ealdwulf's name immediately below: Cotton MS Augustus II 61

As a consequence, Mercia once again fell under Canterbury's authority, and the balance of ecclesiastical power in England reverted to Canterbury and York, just as it remains today.

Visitors to Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War will be able to see the Lichfield Angel and the St Chad Gospels, kindly loaned by Lichfield Cathedral, as well as items from the Staffordshire Hoard and the British Library manuscripts discussed in this blogpost. Tickets for the exhibition, which runs until 19 February 2019, are available here.

11 November 2018

The cloak of St Martin of Tours

Today is the feast of St Martin of Tours (c. 317–397). According to medieval accounts about his life, Martin was a Roman soldier who converted to Christianity after an encounter with a half-naked beggar at the gate of the city of Amiens in northern France. Martin cut his cloak in half in order to share it with the beggar, who that night appeared to him in a dream-vision and revealed himself to be Christ.

This experience encouraged Martin to renounce the army and become a ‘soldier’ of Christ. He founded a hermitage in Ligugé that would become the first monastery in Gaul, was appointed bishop of Tours in 371, and then founded and became abbot of the abbey of Marmoutier, located outside the city of Tours. After his death, St Martin was associated with many miracles and he became the patron saint of France.

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A collection of miracles of St Martin of Tours, 4th quarter of the 11th century: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, ms lat. 9734, f. 22v

Central to St Martin’s cult was the relic of the remaining half of his cloak. It was deemed to be so important that the kings of France used it as a royal banner in war, and they swore sacred oaths upon it. The structure in which the half-cloak was preserved was referred to as cappella (‘little cloak’), a term that came to be used widely for buildings that served to keep relics and from which the modern word ‘chapel’ is derived.

The legend of St Martin’s cloak was first recorded in the Vita sancti Martini (Life of St Martin) of Sulpicius Severus (363–c. 425). This work survives in a number of medieval copies, such as the 12th-century manuscripts Cotton MS Tiberius D IV/1 and Harley MS 4984, both possibly originating from England.

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Sulpicius Severus, Vita sancti Martini, 1st quarter of the 12th century: Cotton MS Tiberius D IV/1, f. 88r

As a symbol of the Christian virtue of Charity, St Martin’s act of dividing the cloak became the most often-cited episode from his life, and was made the subject of many medieval works of art and literature. One example is the full-page miniature shown below, in a 12th-century manuscript (Add MS 15219) from the Benedictine abbey at Tournai (now in Belgium) that was dedicated to St Martin.

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St Martin of Tours cutting his cloak for a beggar, 2nd half of the 12th century: Add MS 15219, f. 12r

The cult of St Martin appears to have gained much support in England following the Norman Conquest. After William the Conqueror (reigned 1066–1087) invaded England, many new English churches were dedicated to St Martin, most likely because he was popular among the Normans. Around 1071, William himself founded the Benedictine abbey of Battle, also known as Sancto Martino de Bello, at the site where the decisive Battle of Hastings had taken place.

Further testament to the longevity of the popularity of St Martin’s conversion miracle is a Middle English poem, which cites the Vita sancti Martini of Sulpicius Severus. This poem was added in the 16th century at the end of a manuscript containing a chronicle from Peterborough Abbey (Cotton MS Claudius A V):

The nyght Aftyr the day yt sude

Martyn yn hys bed / he nappyd

Cryst with Aungels a multytude

Aperyd yn Martyn mantyle wappyd

Yn crystyn faythe he wase belappyd

Crystynd and baptyst be the new lawe

To servise god he so wele happyd

Jhesu to hym he sayd thys sawe

Martinus adhuc catechumenus hac me veste contexit

(The night after the day it ensued,

[when] Martin was sleeping in his bed,

[that] Christ appeared with a multitude of angels,

wrapped in Martin’s mantle:

he [i.e. Martin] was ‘enfolded’ into Christian faith,

Christianised and baptised according to the new law,

to serve God [who] he clothed so well.

Jesus made this announcement to him:

‘Martin, still a catechumen, has clothed me with this mantle’.)

Image 4 - English poem

A Middle English poem of St Martin’s conversion miracle, added in the 16th century to Cotton MS Claudius A V, f. 45v

The manuscripts featured in this blogpost are part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project, which is launching soon. Stay tuned for more information on 21 November. The conference website is here.

Clarck Drieshen

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10 November 2018

What you won't see in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

There are riches aplenty in the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. On display are several famous early English manuscripts, including BeowulfDomesday Book and Codex Amiatinus. But there isn't any mention of certain stories that you might expect, such as Alfred and the cakes, Cnut and the sea, Lady Godiva's ride and ‘the Dark Ages’. These aren't featured in the exhibition because there is no evidence that they actually happened. 

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Drawing showing the real King Cnut and his wife Emma donating a cross to the New Minster Liber Vitae, from the New Minster Liber Vitae, Winchester, c. 1031: Stowe MS 944, f. 6r.

 

Alfred and the Cakes

Take, for example, King Alfred (d. 899). Alfred is best known today for a story that claims he was an incompetent kitchen assistant. He was taking refuge in the marshes in South-West England, avoiding an approaching Viking army, when he supposedly hid in the home of a humble peasant. She asked him to watch some cakes she had placed in the oven, but Alfred was ruminating about his dire straits and let the cakes burn, and so the woman upbraided him for his carelessness.

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The story of Alfred and the cakes, from the first Vita sancti Neoti: Add MS 38130, f. 1r

This story seems to have originated in the first Life of St Neot, composed centuries after Alfred’s death. The story also made its way into a 12th-century English sermon (Cotton MS Vespasian C XIV, ff. 145v–151r) and the annals of St Neots, and it was there that it was read in the 16th century by Matthew Parker, archbishop of Canterbury. Parker added this story to the Life of King Alfred written by Asser, bishop of Sherborne (d. 909). The rest, as they say, is history …

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Opening of a copy of Asser’s Life of Alfred made by Stephen Batman, one of Parker’s chaplains: Cotton MS Otho A XII/1, f. 1r

This story may have some vague links to pre-Conquest sources. For example, the earliest versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (which are on show in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition) record that Alfred retreated into the marshes after he was defeated by the Vikings in 878. But there is no mention of any cakes.

‘878: In this year in the midwinter after twelfth night the enemy army came stealthily to Chippenham, and occupied the land of the West Saxons and settled there, and drove a great part of the people across the sea, and conquered most of the others; and the people submitted to them, except King Alfred. He journeyed in difficulties through the woods and fen-fastness with a small force’ (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, trans. by Dorothy Whitelock, p. 49)

 

King Cnut and the Sea

Alfred is not the only king who inspired later legends. If you ask a Briton or Dane what they know about King Cnut (d. 1035) — who ruled both countries in the early 11th century — they will probably tell you the story about King Cnut and the sea. According to this story, King Cnut sat on the seashore and tried to command the tide not to touch his feet, but the sea ignored him.

There are variations in emphasis in different re-tellings of this story and this image is still used by modern political commentators to mock politicians who vainly fight against real or figurative tides of change. Either way, if you come to our exhibition, you will see the only known manuscript portrait of Cnut made during his lifetime but you won't find any references to Cnut turning back the tide.

The story of Cnut trying to turn back the tide is a later invention, often attributed to the chronicler Henry of Huntingdon (d. c. 1157), writing more than a century after Cnut's death. There is no earlier evidence that Cnut ever tried to command the waves.

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Account of Cnut and the sea in Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum, England, late 12th or early 13th century: Arundel MS 48, f. 91r

Henry of Huntingdon’s account does point towards an important and verifiable aspect of Cnut’s career: his extravagant piety. According to Henry, after that day on the seashore Cnut never wore his crown again, but instead placed it over a crucifix. Documents and manuscripts from Cnut’s own reign confirm that he went to great lengths to portray himself as a good Christian king. The only manuscript portrait of Cnut shows him and Queen Emma donating a jewelled cross to the altar of the New Minster. In the New Minster Liber Vitae, Cnut is not giving up his crown along with the crucifix: rather, angels descend to affix the crown to his head.

 

Lady Godiva

One famous Anglo-Saxon lady does not make an appearance in the exhibition: Lady Godiva, or Godgifu, who allegedly rode naked through Coventry to protest against the taxes demanded by her husband, Earl Leofric of Mercia. This story first appears in the much later chronicle of Roger of Wendover (d. 1236). As late as the 18th century, the story was still being embroidered: Peeping Tom, the figure who was struck blind when he sneaked a peek at Godiva, was first recorded in 1773.

Godiva was a real historical figure: she is mentioned in charters and is recorded in Domesday Book as a major landowner in 1066. But she was only one of a number of fascinating early medieval English women who owned land, were pious and influenced politics.

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A 12th-century charter purporting to be a writ from Edward the Confessor confirming gifts made by Leofric and Godgifu: Add Ch 28657

 

The Dark Ages

Above all, you won’t find any reference to the Dark Ages in this exhibition. The ‘Dark Ages’ are a derogatory term applied to the early Middle Ages, to suggest a time of chaos and a poverty of evidence. To judge by the objects on display, the Anglo-Saxon period was instead highly sophisticated, with the Anglo-Saxons themselves forging long-distance relationships with Scandinavia, Rome, Byzantium and the Carolingian empire. Our blogpost Golden oldies provides perfect proof that this was not a Dark Age.

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Remarkable artwork in the Vespasian Psalter, made in Kent in the 8th century: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 30v

So there are no burnt cakes, disobedient waves or naked noblewomen on display at the British Library. We would recommend instead that you visit the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition before it closes on 19 February 2019, in order to discover the real hard evidence for yourselves.

 

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

08 November 2018

Through many hands: the Vespasian Psalter

The British Library's current major exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, is a treasure-trove of marvellous manuscripts and astonishing artefacts. One of those many treasures is an 8th-century manuscript known as the Vespasian Psalter (Cotton MS Vespasian A I). Here we piece together its fascinating history. 

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The opening of Psalm 68 (‘Salvum me fac’) from the Vespasian Psalter, ?Canterbury, 2nd quarter of the 8th century: 
Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 64v 

The Vespasian Psalter is a wonderful witness to the ongoing processes of creation, addition and loss in a medieval manuscript. Its story begins in the second quarter of the 8th century, around the time Bede was completing his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (731).  

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Detail of the opening of the hymn ‘Splendor Paternae Gloriae’ by Ambrose of Milan: 
Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 152r 

It was designed from the outset as a song-book. The core part of the manuscript contains not just the Psalms but also a selection of canticles and hymns, including two written by Ambrose of Milan. These were all copied out in an elegant Insular uncial script, with headings in rustic capitals. 

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The opening of Basil of Caesarea’s ‘Homily on the First Psalm’, translated by Rufinus: 
Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 2v 

In the 9th century, several leaves were added to accommodate supplementary material. The manuscript henceforth was prefaced by Basil of Caesarea’s Homily on Psalm 1, epistles between Jerome (the Psalms’ translator) and Pope Damasus I, and various texts relating to the origin, division, performance, interpretation and ordering of the Psalms. These were all designed to expand upon the core of the manuscript and facilitate its use and study. 

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Psalm 151 (‘Pusillus eram’): 
Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 141r 

Jerome translated the Psalms not from the Masoretic (Hebrew) text of the Bible, but from the Septuagint (Greek) version. Itself a translation from the Hebrew into Greek, the Septuagint remains the preferred text in the Eastern Orthodox Church. The numbering adopted by the two versions is slightly different, primarily as a consequence of differing interpretations of how certain psalms should be divided. The Septuagint also includes an additional Psalm, numbered 151, not found in the Hebrew text. In the Vespasian Psalter, a single leaf was inserted between the end of Psalm 150 and the beginning of the first canticle to make space for its inclusion. 

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Detail of Anglo-Saxon neumes added to the end of Psalm 150 (‘Laudate dominum in sanctis eius’), with an additional noted line and explicit: 
Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 140v 

Cadences were added to selected verses of Psalms 148–150, to provide a guide for their chanting, with Anglo-Saxon neumes added at the end of verses and half-verses. 

It is not known who was responsible for instigating or executing each of these additions to the manuscript. However, the hands of two scribes who were intimately connected with Canterbury have been identified in the Vespasian Psalter, shedding light not only on its continued augmentation but also on a curious blip in its provenance. 

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Detail of the opening of Psalm 94 (‘Deus ultionum’) with interlinear Old English gloss: 
Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 90r 

The first scribe is known as the Royal Bible Master Scribe, after his role in Royal MS 1 E VI, and his hand is known in other manuscripts from St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury. Around the second quarter of the 9th century — amidst the other supplementary activities in the manuscript — he added an interlinear Old English gloss to the Psalms. It has the distinction of being the oldest extant translation into English of any biblical text. 

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Hymn and Athanasian Creed, copied by Eadwig Basan, with a later Old English gloss: 
Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 155r 

The second scribe is known by name: Eadwig Basan. He added several texts to the manuscript two centuries later: another hymn (for matins on Sunday), the Athanasian Creed, an Oratio by Eugenius of Toledo, and a confession prayer by Alcuin. These in turn were given an Old English gloss shortly afterwards, bringing them into line with the rest of the volume. 

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Full-page miniature of St Benedict and the monks of Christ Church, Canterbury, from the Eadui Psalter, Canterbury, 1012x1023: Arundel MS 155, f. 133r
 

Knowledgeable readers will have spotted that Eadwig’s name is usually associated not with St Augustine’s Abbey, but its neighbour Christ Church, Cathedral. His hand has been identified in several Christ Church books: most notably his eponymous Psalter (Arundel MS 155), in which he may be the figure prostrate at the feet of St Benedict in a full-page miniature; the Harley Psalter (with two other scribes, Harley MS 603) and the Cnut Gospels (an addition on f. 44v; Royal MS 1 D IX). He is famously memorialised with a full-page portrait of him at work in another Psalter that bears his name (Cambridge, Trinity College, MS R.17.1). 

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Full-page miniature of David and the musicians (described by Thomas of Elmham in his history): 
Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 30v 

The circumstances in which Eadwig made his additions to the Vespasian Psalter are not known. Whether he went to St Augustine’s or the book to Christ Church, it is clear that the Vespasian Psalter was at St Augustine’s for several further centuries. Thomas of Elmham’s history of St Augustine’s, written in the mid- to late 1410s and preserved in Cambridge, Trinity Hall, MS 1, described a Psalter that was kept on the high altar of the abbey church — a Psalter whose description exactly matches the present manuscript. 

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Two canticles, with the off-print from a missing carpet page: 
Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 142r 

Following the dissolution of St Augustine’s in 1538, the Psalter found its way into the hands of William Cecil, Elizabeth I’s chief minister. The manuscript had suffered losses in the interim. The opening few leaves of the Psalms were gone; Elmham’s description indicates that they contained a depiction of Samuel, perhaps in the form of a full-page miniature at the opening of the text. A carpet-page also once adorned the manuscript: all that remains is a shadowy, cruciform off-print on f. 142r. 

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Detail of a letter written by Matthew Parker to William Cecil, 24 January 1565/66: 
Lansdowne MS 8, f. 190r (formerly item 73) 

Cecil lent the book to Matthew Parker, archbishop of Canterbury. Although Parker dutifully returned it in 1566, his desire to keep it is obvious: in the accompanying letter, he dropped a hint to that effect, writing to Cecil that the Psalter is ‘remitted again to your library: in the riches whereof, videlicet of such treasures, I rejoice as much as they were in my own’. Parker lamented the losses at the opening of the Psalms and described to Cecil how he would have had them made good, had the manuscript been his: moving the miniature of David (f. 30v) to the beginning and having the missing text ‘counterfeited in antiquity’ (i.e. copied to resemble the Insular uncial used for the Psalms). 

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Charter of King Æthelbald of Mercia, England, 736: Cotton MS Augustus II 3

It was Robert Cotton — who acquired the manuscript in 1599, a year after Cecil’s death — who addressed these deficiencies in his own unique way. He first inserted a charter of King Æthelbald of Mercia, and trimmed its edges so that it would fit. Cotton’s rationale (it seems) was that the charter provided a further example of Insular uncial. He may also have suspected, but cannot have known, that the charter was closely contemporary to the Vespasian Psalter’s production, being dated to 736. 

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Full-page foliate initial ‘B’ inhabited by men and animals, from Psalm 1 (‘Beatus vir’), from a psalter, England (East Anglia or London), Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 1v 

At some juncture this charter was removed (it is now Cotton MS Augustus II 3) and in its place was put a leaf from the beginning of an English Psalter of c. 1220. Containing a large decorated initial B and the opening words of the first Psalm, it is a better fit with the content, if not the decorative style, of the rest of the manuscript. 

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Detail of a cutting containing the coat of arms of Margaret of York impaled with those of her husband Charles the Bold, with her motto (‘Bien en aviegne’) and their initials ('CM'), by the Master of Mary of Burgundy illuminator, from the Breviary of Margaret of York: 
Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 160v 

Cotton made a further incongruous addition at the end of the manuscript: he pasted in a cutting from the Breviary of Margaret of York. Other excisions from this late 15th-century devotional book are present in other Cotton manuscripts – Cotton MS Tiberius A II, ff. 1r–1v, Cotton MS Galba A XVIII, f. 2r, and Cotton MS Titus C XV, f. 1r – and the much-mutilated remnant survives as Cambridge, St John’s College, MS H.13

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Fragment of Psalm 2 and opening of Psalm 3 (‘Domine, quid multiplicati sunt’), and the inscription of Robert Cotton: 
Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 12r 

The Vespasian Psalter escaped the Ashburnham House fire of 1731 completely unscathed — but by that time, as we have seen, it was in far from its original state. It is remarkably well-preserved for a book that is close to 1300 years old, but its life was demonstrably one of use and re-use: its developing role in the liturgy, its reading and translation, its decoration, and its mutilation and repair. It is the involvement of so many hands in the manuscript over so many centuries that has given it such a textured and fascinating history.

You can see the Vespasian Psalter with your own eyes in the once-in-a-generation Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, on display at the British Library in London until 19 February 2019.

James Freeman

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06 November 2018

Coins, swords and urns: British Museum loans in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

Our landmark exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, presents an unrivalled chance to see Anglo-Saxon manuscripts alongside some of the most stunning objects from this period. Many of these artefacts have been generously loaned to the exhibition by the British Museum, to whom we are extremely grateful for their support. Their objects help to illuminate the origins of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, the period of Mercian supremacy, and the period of conquest in the 10th and 11th centuries.

Loveden Hill urn

The Loveden Hill Urn: British Museum, BEP 1963, 1001.14

The Loveden Hill Urn, dating from the second half of the 5th century, is one of more than 1,800 urns excavated at this cremation cemetery in Lincolnshire. Uniquely, it bears a runic inscription, which includes what could be a female personal name, SïÞæbæd. This constitutes one of the very earliest pieces of evidence for the English language. You can explore a 3D model of this urn on the Sketchfab website.

Sutton hoo buckle

The Sutton Hoo gold belt buckle: British Museum, BEP 1939, 1010.1

This exquisite gold belt buckle, excavated in the Sutton Hoo ship burial in the 1930s, is one of the most recognisable objects in our exhibition. The ship-burial included a wealth of other items including armour and weaponry, as well as a collection of silver bowls and two silver spoons which possibly came from Byzantium. This ship-burial commemorated someone of outstanding wealth and political significance in the early 7th century.

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Kentish disc brooch: British Museum, BEP 1884,1221.4

Another stunning gold item loaned by the British Museum is this 7th century disc brooch discovered at Faversham, Kent, in 1859. It was found in a woman’s grave, and its gold and garnet style bears many similarities to other elaborate brooches discovered in southern England.

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Gold dinar of Offa of Mercia: British Museum, CM 1913,1213.1

The British Museum has also loaned three outstanding coins to the exhibition, which together illustrate the height of Mercian power in the late 8th and early 9th centuries. The coin shown above is the gold dinar of King Offa of Mercia (d. 796). This unique coin carries the inscription OFFA REX on one side; on the other is a design based on an Arabic inscription on a coin of the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur (d. 775). The Arabic inscription translates as ‘there is no God but Allah alone’; the minting of this coin in Offa's name perhaps reflects his wide political reach and the value he placed on international trade.

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Silver penny of Cynethryth of Mercia: British Museum, CM TYS (BMC 60)

This coin was issued in the name of Offa’s wife, Queen Cynethryth (d. 798). It is the only surviving example of a coin issued in the name of an Anglo-Saxon queen.

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Gold mancus of Coenwulf of Mercia: British Museum, CM 2006, 0204.1

This gold coin was issued in the name of Offa’s successor, Coenwulf of Mercia (d. 821). Its design closely mirrors other gold and silver coins from the same period. It may be the earliest gold coin intended to form part of a regular, uniform currency.

Fuller brooch

The Fuller Brooch: British Museum, BEP 1951, 0404.1

The Fuller Brooch has been dated to the late 9th century on account of its unique design, which reflects the centrality of man’s place in the order of creation. The outer circle features four quadrants, each filled with four smaller circles which alternate between depictions of mankind, animals, birds and plants. In the centre are five figures, which are believed to represent each of the five senses. The central figure holds two floriated stems and stares out with prominent eyes, representing sight, and is surrounded by four figures which represent smell, hearing, touch and taste.

AEdwen brooch

The Ædwen Brooch: British Museum, BEP 1951, 1011.1

Another British Museum object in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition is the Ædwen Brooch, which has been dated to the early 11th century. An inscription in Old English was etched into the outer rim of the reverse: ÆDVǷEN ME AG AGE HYO DRIHTEN / DRIHTEN HINE AǷERIE ÐE ME HIRE ÆTFERIE / BVTON HYO ME SELLE HIRE AGENES ǷILLES ('Ædwen owns me, may the Lord own her. May the Lord curse him who takes me from her, unless she gives me of her own free will').

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Silver-gilt fitting with runic inscriptions: British Museum, BEP 1869, 0610.1

A runic inscription is found on this silver-gilt fitting, the shape of which suggests that it may have once been part of a scabbard.

Seax

Seax with runic lettering: British Museum BEP 1857, 0623.1

This large iron knife or seax also has a runic inscription. This includes a runic alphabet and the name Beagnoth, who may have been the original owner or the craftsman who produced the blade.

Sword

Sword with decorated fittings: British Museum, BEP 1887,0209.1

Another fearsome blade loaned to the exhibition by the British Museum is this magnificent sword, complete with decorated fittings. Although it is extremely rare to find this type of sword in England, they are more common across northern and eastern Europe, suggesting that this sword may have belonged to a Scandinavian warrior.

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Seal-matrix of Ælfric: British Museum, BEP 1832, 0512.2

Seal-matrices were used to make an impression in a wax seal to authenticate a document or to close it. This matrix is made of copper alloy and is inscribed + SIGILLUM ÆLFRIC (‘+ Seal of Ælfric').

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Seal-matrix of Godwine and Godgytha: British Museum, BEP 1881, 0404.1

A second seal-matrix is made from walrus ivory, and is inscribed + SIGILLUM GODWINI MINISTRI (‘+ Seal of Godwine the Thegn’). The matrix was later re-used by a nun, who had her own inscription added on the reverse, reading + SIGILLUM GODGYĐE MONACHE DEO DATE ('+ Seal of Godytha, nun given to God’). Godytha may have been Godwine's wife or daughter. Both of these seal-matrices were high status objects, perhaps issued in connection with the performance of official duties on behalf of the king.

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Blythburgh writing tablet: British Museum, BEP, 1902, 0315.1

Another extraordinary object loaned to the exhibition by the British Museum is this 8th-century writing tablet, discovered at Blythburgh in Suffolk. Since parchment was relatively expensive to produce, tablets such as these were used when scribes were learning to write, making drafts or taking notes. This tablet is one half of a pair, and the other side would have originally been attached with leather thongs threaded through the two holes in the ling side.

We are extremely grateful to the British Museum for lending these fascinating objects to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. They can be viewed at the British Libraryuntil 19 February 2019.

 

Rebecca Lawton

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