THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

12 posts from February 2019

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.

The back of the Harford Farm Brooch revealing a runic inscription

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.

The runic alphabet in a medieval manuscript

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.

A medieval manuscript with the alphabet written in the top margin

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.

A knife with an ogham inscription

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. 

A medieval manuscript in Latin with an inscription in Greek letters

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 …

The decorated opening to the Gospel of Mark in the Echternach  Gospels

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.

The Calendar of Willibrord featuring Willibrord's handwriting in the margin

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’.

A collection of saints' Lives opening with decorated letters

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.

The Paris Psalter

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.

Frontispiece to Boethius, De Consolatione Philosophiae, showing the seated female figure of Philosophy, holding a snake, surrounded by birds and armed soldiers

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.

A list of Arthur's battles in Annales Cambriae

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.

Miniature of the building of Stonehenge in the Roman de Brut

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 AdomnĂĄn 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.

Description of the Loch Ness Monster in the Life of St Columba

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.’

Bas-de-page drawing of a monk working writing in a bookin the Topographia Hiberniae

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.

Text describing a miracle worked by St Maughold in the Chronicle of Mann and the Isles

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.

The Sutton Hoo belt buckle

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.

The scabbard slider and strap distributor from the Sutton Hoo sword-belt

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'.

Medieval manuscript of Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People

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.

Pendant from Winfarthing

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.

Carpet page in the Book of Durrow

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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