THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

7 posts from February 2019

15 February 2019

New records of slavery from Anglo-Saxon Cornwall

In the past twenty years, there have been some fantastic archaeological discoveries that date to the Anglo-Saxon period. Gold treasure, such as the Staffordshire Hoard and the Winfarthing Pendant, and stone sculpture, such as the Lichfield Angel, have all been unearthed since the year 2000. At the same time, recent scientific developments have enabled new discoveries to be made on the pages of certain medieval manuscripts. One such technique, known as multispectral imaging, has revealed previously erased additions to a 9th-century gospel-book, known as the Bodmin Gospels. These additions, known as manumissions, record the freeing of medieval slaves.

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The beginning of the Gospel of St Mark, in the Bodmin Gospels: Add MS 9381, f. 50r

The Bodmin Gospels was made in Brittany, but by the end of the 10th century we know that it had reached the priory of St Petroc at Bodmin, in Cornwall. Between the years 950 and 1025, records of public manumissions at the high altar of the church of St Petroc were added to its pages, and these mention at least three bishops of Cornwall (Comoere, Wulfsige and Burhwold). Some of these records remain visible, as we reported in a previous blogpost, but others have been erased, making them either invisible or difficult to read.

As part of the preparations for the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, and in order to facilitate research being conducted by Dr David Pelteret, the British Library's Imaging Scientist, Dr Christina Duffy, photographed a page from the Bodmin Gospels using multispectral imaging. This is a non-invasive, non-destructive form of computational photography which can enhance difficult-to-read text using an extended light spectrum. Christina then processed the data stack using an iterative statistical method known as Principal Component Analysis, which isolates patterns in the data. The results were hugely impressive.

The page shown below (f. 49v) was originally a list of capitula (chapter headings) of the gospel-book. Its text was later erased and five manumission records were added. These were also later erased so that only ‘h’ and a cross are just about visible with the naked eye.

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The now-erased manumissions, before and after multispectral imaging and data processing: Add MS 9381, f. 49v

The results of the multispectral imaging reveal some of the text from these previously-erased Latin manumissions. The second text can be translated as follows:

+This is the name of that woman, Guenenguith, and her son whose name is Morcefres, who[m] Bishop Comoere freed on the altar of St Petroc for the redemption of his soul in the presence of these witnesses: Beorhtsige priest, Mermen priest, Athelces priest, Saithred cleric, Cenmen cleric, Heden deacon, Ryt deacon.

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Canon tables with records of manumissions added in a later hand: Add MS 9381, f. 13r

Another manumission in the Bodmin Gospels, still visible, was copied in Latin into the arches of a canon table:

This is the name of a woman, Medguistyl, with her offspring, Bleiduid, Ylcerthon and Byrchtylym, who were freed by the clerics of St Petroc on the altar of St Petroc for the souls of King Eadred and for their souls, before these witnesses, Comuyre the priest etc …

Another manumission in the Bodmin Gospels, written in Old English, describes how a man named Aelsig bought a woman named Ongynedhel and her son and then freed them straight away. He bought them specifically so that he could free them.

Fleeting references to slaves in Anglo-Saxon documents suggest that they were an integral part of Anglo-Saxon society. People could enter slavery through several different routes. For example, Bede's Ecclesiastical History (IV.22) records how an Anglo-Saxon nobleman, Imma, was captured after a battle and was sold to a Frisian at a slave market in London.

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A drawing illustrating Psalm 122, showing a female slave and her mistress (centre) and a master holding up a sword to two male slaves (left), in the Harley Psalter: Harley MS 603, f. 65r

References to slaves are also found in the law-codes of King Æthelberht of Kent (d. 616). These laws are preserved in a compilation made at Rochester in the 12th century, known as Textus Roffensis. They mention women who were ‘grinding slaves’, and state that the fine for ‘highway robbery of a slave is to be three shillings’.

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The law-code of King Æthelberht of Kent: Rochester, Cathedral Library, MS A.3.5, f. 1r

When the Anglo-Saxon noblewoman, Wynflæd, wrote her will in the 10th century, she included instructions regarding the fate of her slaves. The will specified that, 'at Faccombe, Eadhelm and Man and Johanna and Sprow and his wife … and Gersand and Snel are to be freed'. However, Wynflæd did not free two of her seamstresses, Eadgifu (Edgyfu) and Æthelgifu (Æþelyfu), instead bequeathing them to another woman called Eadgifu.

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Detail of the names of Eadgifu (Edgyfu) and Æthelgifu (Æþelyfu) in the will of Wynflæd: Cotton Ch VIII 38

The new manumissions in the Bodmin Gospels, uncovered with the aid of multispectral imaging, are incredibly exciting. They are important sources of information for slavery in early medieval Britain and for daily life in early medieval Cornwall. This manuscript has been in the national collection since 1833, but only know are some of its many secrets being revealed. Hopefully, as new technologies develop, we may be able to make even more discoveries on the pages of our age-old manuscripts.

 

Becky Lawton

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14 February 2019

My ‘right well-beloved Valentine’

In 1477, a gentlewoman named Margery Brews was soon to be married to a member of the Norfolk aristocracy, John Paston. Margaret and John were rather smitten with each other, and in the year leading up to their marriage they exchanged a series of love letters. In one particular letter, sent in February, Margery described John as her ‘right well-beloved Valentine’ and signed off the letter as ‘your Valentine, Margery Brews’. This intimate letter between these two lovebirds is thought to be the earliest surviving Valentine’s love letter.  

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Letter of Margery Brews to John Paston, February 1477: London, British Library, Add MS 43490, f. 24r

Despite their passion, there was trouble ahead for Margery and John. Their relatives initially opposed the marriage. Margery’s father felt that his daughter could make a more financially advantageous match and John’s elder brother was insulted that his permission had not been asked before seeking Margery’s hand in marriage. Thankfully, Margery’s mother, Elizabeth, was a skilled negotiator. Elizabeth wrote a letter to John, and took advantage of the Valentine’s season to sort out these problems. She wrote:

'On Friday it is Saint Valentine’s Day, and every bird chooses itself a mate. And if you would like to come on Thursday night ... I trust God that you will speak to my husband, and I will pray that we will bring the matter to a conclusion.'

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Margery addresses John as 'right well-beloved Valentine': Add MS 43490, f. 24r

John’s family were also unwilling to support the match on the grounds that Margery’s dowry was too low. In the letter where Margery calls John her ‘right well-beloved Valentine’, she states:

'I want you to understand clearly that my father refuses to part with any more money than a £100 and 50 marks in this business, which is very far from fulfilling your wishes.'

Margery informed John that if he was not satisfied with the £100 or felt that he could get more money, he was 'not to take the trouble to visit any more on this business'.

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Annotation on the back of the letter notes that Margery calls herself John’s “Valentine”: Add MS 43490, f. 24v

As Virgil said, “Love conquers all”. Margery and John were married a few months later. These letters are part of a large archive known as the Paston Letters, comprising 1,000 letters and documents including petitions, leases and wills. These documents provide a fascinating insight into the private lives of the Paston family of Norfolk over a period of 70 years.

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The martyrdom of St Valentine in the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 243r

Margery and John’s love letters also provide valuable insight into the connection between romance and the feast of St Valentine on 14 February. The two have not always been associated. We know that St Valentine was a Christian martyr who lived and died in Rome during the 3rd century. Over 1,000 years later, Geoffrey Chaucer (d. 1400) wrote a poem called Parliament of Fowls, in which he described a group of birds who gather together in the early spring — on ‘seynt valentynes day’ — to choose their mates for the year.

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Margery signs the letter as 'Be your Voluntyne / Mergery Brews': Add MS 43490, f. 24r

During their courtship, Margery wrote another letter to John in which she referred to him as her ‘dearly beloved valentine’. Margery ended this letter by saying, 'I beg you that you will not let anyone on Earth see this letter, except yourself'. If only Margery knew that over 500 years later, her love letters would be discussed in the news and be fully available to view online!

Quotations from the letters in this blogpost have been taken from D. Watt (ed.), The Paston Women: Selected Letters (Woodbridge, 2004).

 

Becky Lawton

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12 February 2019

Picture this: portraits of Anglo-Saxon rulers

Only five contemporary manuscript portraits of identifiable Anglo-Saxon rulers survive. Recent visitors to the British Library or to this Blog are probably already familiar with one of them. This is the illuminated miniature featuring King Edgar (959–975) which forms the frontispiece of the New Minster Charter (Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII), confirming the rights of the reformed church at Winchester. It is the 'frontispiece' of our sold-out exhibition Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, adorning the posters as well as the entrance to the Library.

In this blogpost, we look at some of these Anglo-Saxon ruler portraits, alongside contemporary European examples.

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King Edgar with the Virgin Mary, St Peter, Christ in Majesty and angels (New Minster, Winchester, c. 966): Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII, f. 2v

In the New Minster Charter, made in around 966, King Edgar, facing towards the heavens, presents a golden copy of the document to Christ. The Virgin Mary and St Peter look on approvingly. The fact that he is surrounded by saints and handing the charter straight to Christ reminds the viewer of his status as a pious, Christian king, ruling with divine blessing. These themes were all central to the idealised representations of the royal office in the early medieval Christian West.

Depicting the king holding a politically important document, in the shape of a book, is more remarkable in the context of early medieval ruler portraits. This emphasised Edgar as a learned king, to whom the written word was significant, but also visually confirmed his politically motivated patronage of the New Minster. It exemplified the key motifs of the specifically Anglo-Saxon image of kingship and queenship, in which the ruler was shown to be actively involved with learning, patronage of the Church, and the production or use of texts and books. These motifs set the Anglo-Saxon ruler portraits apart from those of their early medieval contemporaries.

The Continental approach to portraying rulers makes this contrast clear. Throughout their mutual history the Anglo-Saxons and their neighbours across the Channel, the Carolingians, were in close contact. The most famous and influential ruler of the Carolingian dynasty (c. 714–877), whose empire covered most of western Continental Europe, was Charlemagne (768–814).

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Emperor Lothar I enthroned (the court of the Emperor Lothar, ?Aachen, c. 840–855): Add MS 37768, f. 4r

No contemporary illustrations of Charlemagne have survived, but there is a striking depiction of his oldest legitimate grandson, Lothar I (817–855), in the manuscript known as the Lothar Psalter (Add MS 37768).

Roman imperial portraits were the main source for early medieval ruler portraits. This link became even more important to the Carolingians when Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope in 800. The resulting emphasis on imperial majestic splendour and military authority is clearly seen in Lothar’s portrait. His golden and jewel-encrusted crown is matched by an extravagant cloak of gold, covered in gems. The entire backdrop is a deep purple — the colour associated specifically with emperors since Antiquity because of the exceedingly high value of the pigment. In his hands he holds a long sceptre, recalling the sceptrum Augusti (sceptre of imperial majesty) of the Roman emperors, and the hilt of a sword, drawing visual comparisons to the military status of the imperial role.

The Anglo-Saxon ruler portrait closest in time to that of Lothar is also the earliest surviving. In a manuscript containing Bede's Lives of St Cuthbert, King Æthelstan is depicted presenting the book itself to St Cuthbert (d. 687). Cuthbert was a monk and bishop of Lindisfarne, whose cult became increasingly popular across northern England. The image commemorates Æthelstan’s gift of the manuscript to St Cuthbert’s community, while also associating the king with the patronage of a politically significant religious centre, and the production of a book containing works by an eminent Anglo-Saxon author.

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King Æthelstan presenting St Cuthbert with the book (South England, c. 934–939): Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 183, f. 1v

Despite Æthelstan’s many diplomatic connections with Continental rulers (not least exemplified by his gifts of books), the Continental focus on the extravagant stateliness and military might of the monarch has not influenced this portrait. He humbly bows his head to the saint; only his crown betrays his grand status.

The surviving Anglo-Saxon ruler portraits also stand apart when it comes to the depiction of queens. Hardly any portraits of Carolingian queens survive, but during the Ottonian dynasty (c. 919–1024) double-ruler portraits of the queens alongside their husbands or sons became popular.

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Christ in Majesty crowning Henry II and his wife Kunigunde, with St Peter on the left and St Paul on the right. Below is the female personification of Rome, with female personifications of Gallia and Germania on either side (Reichenau, c. 1007–1012): Munich, Bayerisches Staatsbibliothek, Clm 4452, f. 2r

For instance, the Evangelistary of Henry II (Munich, Bayerisches Staatsbibliothek, Clm 4452) contains an extravagant image of the future coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry II (1014–1024), and his wife, Empress Kunigunde of Luxembourg (d. 1040). Christ crowns both Henry and Kunigunde, while St Peter supports Henry on the left, and St Paul supports Kunigunde on the right. Kunigunde is depicted as equal in size to her husband, but it is Henry who stands on the right of Christ, symbolically the place of honour.

In the lower register stands the female personification of Rome, holding a sceptre. Beside her are female personifications of the territories of Gallia and Germania (the primary territories of the king and queen, respectively). Undoubtedly, this represents the joining together of Henry and Kunigunde’s territories into one Holy Roman Empire, underlining the political importance of their union.

Queen Emma, one of the most important political figures in 11th-century England, is depicted in two of the five surviving Anglo-Saxon portraits. In one, the New Minster Liber Vitae, she is depicted next to her second husband, King Cnut, in a manner similar to the double-coronation portrait of Henry and Kunigunde. But in a slightly later manuscript (Add MS 33241) there is a decidedly different portrait of her.

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Queen Emma enthroned, with two of her sons in the background, receiving the Encomium Emmae reginae (northern France or England, mid-11th century): Add MS 33241, f. 1v

Emma alone is enthroned and centrally placed in this image, whereas her two sons (both of whom became king) peer slightly awkwardly from behind a pillar. Moreover, she is shown receiving a copy of the manuscript, which contains the Encomium Emmae reginae ('In Praise of Queen Emma'). This is a highly political work, commissioned to portray Emma's past actions in a more favourable light, while smoothing over the current, turbulent political situation. It is entirely appropriate for her to be portrayed as the central character and as a queen in her own right and with her own independent agency.

You can read more about some of the manuscripts featured in this blogpost on the British Library's Anglo-Saxons webspace. Due to incredible demand, all tickets to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition have now been sold.

 

                                                                                     Emilia Henderson

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09 February 2019

Easy as ABC?

Do you know your ABC? How about your ᚠ ᚢ ᚦ ᚱ ᚳ ? Or your ᚁ ᚂ ᚃ ?

The inhabitants of the British Isles in the first millennium spoke many different languages and wrote in several alphabets. Variant writing systems identified from early Anglo-Saxon England — some of which can be viewed in our stellar Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition — include runes, ogham and Greek, and even attempts at replicating Hebrew and Arabic letters.

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The back of the Harford Farm Brooch includes a runic inscription which says ‘Luda repaired [or makes reparations by] this brooch’ (England, c. 610–650): Norwich Castle Museum 1994.5.78

Runes were used to represent the earliest Germanic languages, including early forms of Old English and the Scandinavian languages. The earliest surviving examples of these angular letters were incised into metal, stone, wood or ceramics. We know that each of these runes had a name, taken from a noun that started with that rune: for example, (n) was called nyd (need), while (th) was called thorn (thorn), perhaps because the symbol itself looks slightly like a branch with thorn. In the 10th century, someone added the names to a runic alphabet on the back of a copy of the Old English version of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

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Runes copied in the 10th century, with their names added in the 11th century: Cotton MS Domitian A IX, f. 11v

Even though the Latin alphabet was eventually adapted to write English, runes did not cease to be used in Anglo-Saxon England. Several objects from the 7th to the 11th centuries feature runic inscriptions. Some surviving blades and scabbards feature the names of their early owners in runes or cryptic, talismanic inscriptions.

The Ruthwell Cross features the ‘Dream of the Rood’ poem inscribed in runes around its sides. Even when writing in Latin letters, the Anglo-Saxons used runes to represent sounds in their language which were not present in the Roman alphabet, such as æ, th (represented by þ or the adapted Latin letters Ð, ð), and w (Ƿ). Some of these letters are still used in Icelandic and Faroese spelling to this day.

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A scribe from 10th-century England practised his alphabet in the margins of this 9th-century copy of Alcuin’s letters: Harley MS 208, f. 117v 

Another non-Latin alphabet known in England in the first millennium was ogham. This writing system is formed of lines carved at different angles around a central line. Examples of ogham inscriptions have been found in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and beyond. On display in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition is a knife inscribed with ogham that was found in South-West Norfolk.

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A knife with an ogham inscription, from Norwich Castle Museum

Ogham script was certainly known to Byrhtferth of Ramsey in the late 10th or early 11th century, and by the scribes who copied his work in the 12th century. Ogham occurs in a 12th-century copy of his diagram (in Oxford, St John’s College, MS 17), although not in the version in Harley MS 3667. Perhaps the scribe of the Harley manuscript omitted the symbols because he did not understand them.

Alphabets from other parts of the world were known to certain Anglo-Saxons. Greek letters appear in some early medieval English manuscripts. Knowledge of Greek in Anglo-Saxon England may be associated with the school run by Archbishop Theodore and Abbot Hadrian in Canterbury in the late 7th and early 8th century. Theodore was from the Greek-speaking part of the Mediterranean and became archbishop of Canterbury in 668. Bede used the Greek alphabet in mathematical calculations and recommended it for creating codes. Some early medieval scribes also tried to imitate Hebrew letters, with somewhat less success. 

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Greek letters, in red, spelling the Latin phrase ‘Deo Gratias’: Harley MS 5431, f. 106v

One incredible survival featured in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms is a coin of King Offa (d. 796) that imitates the Arabic script on a dinar of Abbasid caliph al-Mansur (AH 136–58/ AD 754–75). The Mercian moneyer who made the coin did not copy the letters correctly and clearly could not read Arabic.

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

You can see many of these alphabets for yourself in the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, which is open until 19 February. We recommend that you check availability before you travel as many time-slots are already full.

 

Alison Hudson

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08 February 2019

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms and the BnF

One of the many wonderful things about our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition is that roughly half of the manuscripts and objects on display are on loan from other institutions. Six fascinating manuscripts in the show have kindly been loaned by the Bibliothèque nationale de France. This varied group includes a 7th-century calendar, an unusually shaped psalter, and a pontifical that features musical notation …

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The Echternach  Gospels: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS lat. 9389, f. 76r

One of these six manuscripts is a beautifully decorated insular gospel book, known as the Echternach Gospels. We know that this gospel book was in Echternach, modern-day Luxembourg, by the first half of the 8th century, but scholars have debated whether the manuscript was produced in Echternach, in Ireland or in Northumbria. Some people have compared its script to the Durham Gospels, which are thought to have been produced in Northumbria. On the other hand, some think the Echternach Gospels were produced in Ireland because the text is close to the 9th-century MacDurnan Gospels from Armagh. The founder of Echternach, a Northumbrian monk Willibrord, is known to have had connections to Ireland. His mission set out from Rath Melsigi, Co. Carlow, in the 690s, and Irish books and scribes likely played an important role in the early development of Echternach.

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The Calendar of Willibrord: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS lat. 10837, f. 39v

The founder of Echternach, Willibrord, was one of many Anglo-Saxon missionaries who travelled to the Continent to convert the pagans to Christianity. Manuscripts would have travelled to the Continent along with these missionaries. A manuscript that reflects this movement is the Calendar of Willibrord, also on loan from the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Entries in this calendar reflect Willibrord’s Northumbrian origins and Irish training, as well as additions made during his time on the Continent. This page, for the month of November, has notes in the margin referring to Willibrord’s life, including his journey in 690 ‘across the sea to Francia’.

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A collection of saints' Lives: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS lat. 10861, f. 2r

Another manuscript on loan from the Bibliothèque nationale de France is a 9th-century collection of saints' Lives, which contains accounts of the lives of two saints and narrative descriptions of the lives of sixteen early Christian martyrs. The enlarged, decorated ‘P’ on this folio begins Philippus apostolus, which introduces the account of the life of the Apostle Philip. Although the script of this manuscript suggests that it was copied in Canterbury, the parchment appears to have been prepared and arranged in a Continental style. This testifies to the close connections between Canterbury and Continental scriptoria in the early 9th century.

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The Paris Psalter: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS lat. 8824, ff. 3v–4r

The Bibliothèque nationale de France has also loaned the Paris Psalter to Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. The psalms had a central role in liturgy and personal devotion, and were widely known and studied in Anglo-Saxon England. However, the Paris Psalter is unusually tall and thin compared to other, contemporary psalters.

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Boethius, De Consolatione Philosophiae: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS lat. 6401, f. 13v

Also on loan is a copy of works by Boethius that illustrates the close links between England the monastery of Fleury (near Orléans, France). The style of script suggests that work began on the manuscript in England in the late 10th century, but the manuscript had reached Fleury by the early 11th century. One text in this manuscript is Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. The full-page painting above is of French workmanship, and shows the seated female figure of Philosophy, holding a snake, surrounded by birds and armed soldiers. The style of armour of these soldiers bears strong similarities to that of the Bayeux Tapestry.

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The Sherborne Pontifical: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS lat. 943, f. 10r

Another manuscript loaned by the Bibliothèque nationale de France provides an important insight into the performance of music in Anglo-Saxon England. This manuscript was likely made at Canterbury, but had come to Sherborne by the 990s and is now known as the Sherborne Pontifical. A bishop would read from a pontifical during ceremonies such as the consecration of kings, bishops, churches or relics. Instructions regarding the movement for the ceremony are written in larger black letters, whereas the chants are written in smaller black text, with musical notation added above. 

We are delighted to have been able to partner with the Bibliothèque nationale de France in The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700–1200In turn, we are extremely grateful to the Bibliothèque nationale de France for lending these fascinating manuscripts to our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, where they will be on display until 19 February 2019. Tickets to the exhibition are selling fast, buy them here.

 

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06 February 2019

Medieval myths and legends

What do King Arthur, Stonehenge and the Loch Ness Monster have in common? You can currently find them all in the British Library's Treasures Gallery, in a display devoted to medieval myths and legends.

King Arthur is literally the stuff of legend. We have no contemporary historical sources that provide clear-cut evidence for his existence, so we are forced instead to rely on snippets of information. One of these is provided in the chronicle known as Annales Cambriae (‘the Annals of Wales’), the oldest version of which survives in a post-Conquest manuscript.

According to Annales Cambriae, in the year 572 ‘the Battle of Badon [took place], in which Arthur carried the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders for three days and three nights; and the Britons were victors.’ At the bottom of the column is recorded a battle at Camlann, in which both Arthur and Mordred (‘Medraut’) fell. But the historical value of these annals is open to question, since the manuscript was made several hundred years after the events it describes.

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Arthur's battles in Annales Cambriae (England or France, 12th century): Harley MS 3859, f. 190r

This manuscript was recently digitised as part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700–1200.

The building of Stonehenge is equally open to question. This 14th-century manuscript of the Roman de Brut contains an early drawing of the famous monument. The text states that the stones came from Africa, from where they were taken by giants to Mount Killaraus in Ireland. The giants poured water over them, which they then used to cure their sick. When Merlin wished to create a memorial to 460 Britons killed by the Saxons, he used magic to transport the monument to England. Merlin is shown here, either taking down the stones in Ireland or reassembling them at Stonehenge.

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Stonehenge in the Roman de Brut (England, 14th century): Egerton MS 3028, f. 30r

So what of the Loch Ness Monster? The earliest record of its existence is in the Life of St Columba (died 597), founder of the monastery of Iona in the Inner Hebrides, who played a key role in the conversion of Scotland to Christianity. Written by Adomnán of Iona (died 704), this account describes the saint’s miraculous powers.

On one famous occasion, Columba witnessed the burial of a man who had been killed by a water beast. When the monster attacked another swimmer, Columba made the sign of the cross and it fled in terror. According to the text, this encounter took place in the River Ness, which flows from the loch, rather than in Loch Ness itself.

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The Loch Ness Monster in the Life of St Columba (England, 12th century): Add MS 35110, f. 122r

Another fabulous tale was related by Gerald of Wales (died 1223), who visited Ireland on three separate occasions and wrote this account of its customs and legends. At Kildare he saw a magnificent gospel-book, which had supposedly been dictated to its scribe (shown in the lower margin) by an angel. Gerald wrote, ‘if you look closely, you will not hesitate to declare that this book must have been the work not of men but of angels.’

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A gospel-book said to be the work of angels in the Topographia Hiberniae (England, 13th century): Royal MS 13 B VIII, f. 22r

Finally, we come to a morbid miracle, preserved in the Chronicle of Mann and the Isles. This is the only medieval manuscript to survive from the Isle of Man, describing the history of the Irish Sea region, as well as stories of local miracles. Here the chronicle tells how St Maughold punished a warrior named Gilla-Coluim, who had planned to steal some cattle grazing near his church. Summoned by a crowd of wailing women, Maughold promptly appeared to the thief in a dream and struck him a mortal blow with his staff. Gilla-Coluim died early the next morning, tormented by a swarm of flies.

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A miracle worked by St Maughold in the Chronicle of Mann and the Isles (Rushen Abbey, 13th century): Cotton MS Julius A VII, f. 38r

All five manuscripts, containing all five myths, can be viewed in the Sir John Ritblat: Treasures of the British Library Gallery, open seven days a week. Which is your favourite?

 

Julian Harrison

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05 February 2019

Sutton Hoo and Anglo-Saxon East Anglia

The British Library’s landmark exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, is open until 19 February 2019. Alongside some of the most significant manuscripts from our own collections, and important loans from other institutions, are a number of outstanding archaeological finds. Among them are artefacts from Sutton Hoo.

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

Sutton Hoo is one of the most famous excavations in British archaeological history. In 1939, the owner of the site, Edith Pretty, asked her gardener to investigate the curious mounds on her land. After some initial digging, it was thought prudent to involve the experts at the British Museum, and over the coming weeks they revealed a ship burial and many precious objects. We are delighted that a selection of these treasures are on display in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms.

The Sutton Hoo treasures included weapons, such as a sword, a set of spears and a famous helmet, and items associated with Anglo-Saxon dress, such as the great buckle and two shoulder-clasps. In our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition are displayed the sword-belt, complete with scabbard slider and strap distributor, and the gold belt buckle. These stunning objects have been generously loaned to the British Library by the British Museum.

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The scabbard slider and strap distributor from the Sutton Hoo sword-belt: British Museum BEP 1939,1010.10

The Sutton Hoo burial site lies within the territory of the former Anglo-Saxon kingdom of East Anglia. Some people have argued that the man in the main ship-burial was the 7th-century King Rædwald, who is described in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. According to Bede, Rædwald was a pagan when he came to the throne, before converting to Christianity later in his reign. Rædwald does not appear to have entirely given up his pagan ways. In Bede's words, 'he seemed to be serving both Christ and the gods who he had previously served; in the same temple he had one altar for the Christian sacrifice and another altar on which to offer victims of the devils'.

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Bede describes Rædwald’s pagan practices in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People: Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 54v

In our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, these treasures from the Sutton Hoo ship-burial are displayed alongside other archaeological discoveries found in the kingdom of East Anglia or the neighbouring kingdom of Kent. Many of these items are on loan from Norwich Castle Museum.

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Pendant from Winfarthing, Norfolk: Norwich Castle Museum 2017,519.6

On display in the exhibition is a gold and garnet pendant, found in the grave of a woman at Winfarthing, south Norfolk. This elaborately decorated pendant rivals the jewellery from Sutton Hoo. The woman who was buried with it seems to have been a Christian, as she was also buried with another gold pendant that features a cruciform design.

The decoration on the Sutton Hoo gold buckle features an intricate web of thirteen snakes, predatory birds and long-limbed beasts, delineated by alternating gold and niello backgrounds that give their bodies contrasting texture. The exhibition provides an unrivalled opportunity to compare their design with the decoration of contemporary manuscripts. For example, very similar insular interlace can be found on the pages of late 7th-century gospel books, such as the Book of Durrow, on loan to the exhibition from Trinity College Dublin.

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The Book of Durrow: Dublin, Trinity College, MS 57, f. 85v

The sources and inspiration for the artwork in the Book of Durrow stretch from Ireland to Anglo-Saxon England and from Pictland to the Mediterranean. The items found at Sutton Hoo in turn show connections between East Anglia and other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, Francia and Byzantium. These treasures bear witness not only to Anglo-Saxon ambition and workmanship, but they also demonstrate their relationships with the wider world.

The spectacular treasures from Sutton Hoo are on show in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the British Library until 19 February. Many session have already sold out, so to avoid disappointment we suggest that you book your tickets in advance

Becky Lawton

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