THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

11 posts from March 2019

29 March 2019

Saints, kings and a bonnacon at Longthorpe Tower

In a previous blogpost, Snakes and Scrolls, we compared iconography in British Library manuscripts to medieval wall paintings in a little church in Houghton-on-the-Hill, Norfolk. There are churches all over Britain containing hidden gems of medieval art, sometimes fragmentary, sometimes astonishingly fresh, and these treasure troves are lovingly cared for and nearly always kept open for visitors by the local communities. Many images recall the manuscript miniatures in our collections.

Not long ago, guidebooks in hand, I made an astonishing discovery down a suburban road in the outskirts of Peterborough: Longthorpe Tower. This is not a church building but a fortified ‘solar tower’ adjoining a manor house, containing the ‘finest collection of domestic wall-paintings’ in Britain, according to Rosewell.

View-from-north-east

Longthorpe Tower, English Heritage

The Tower was part of a larger manor house built by the Thorpe family, peasants who purchased their freedom during the reign of King John (1199–1216) and increased their power and fortune by education and strategic marriages. Robert Thorpe, who rose to become lay steward of the powerful abbey of Peterborough and a knight of the realm, was able to add this prestigious status symbol to his manor house; he commissioned the wall paintings between 1320 and 1340.

Entering the painted room on the first floor is like walking into the Queen Mary Psalter or along the margins of the Taymouth Hours. The images are an eclectic mix of religious, allegorical, fantastical and heraldic imagery on a scale that is startling in comparison to the tiny, exquisite miniatures in manuscripts. The colours are faded, but many of the details and even some facial expressions are still visible.

One of the most recognizable images is a brooding representation of the Three Living and the Three Dead (for more on this popular medieval allegory, see our previous blog post). In this version of the scene, a crowned king is shown admonishing the three corpses (traces of a second king can be seen behind).

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Wall painting of the Three Living and the Three Dead: Longthorpe Tower, English Heritage (Image copyright Philip Halling and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License).

The wall painting is similar to this image from the Taymouth Hours, in which a younger-looking man holds out his hand and the three dead wave back jauntily.

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Miniatures of the Three Living and the Three Dead, detail from the Taymouth Hours:
Yates Thompson MS 13, ff. 179v–180r

Other familiar scenes are the labours of the months, depicted around an archway on one side of Longthorpe Tower. The clearest of these is on the lower left, a figure seated by the fire warming his hands (January).

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Wall paintings of the labours of the months and a scene from the life of St Anthony: Longthorpe Tower, English Heritage

This calendar image for January is found in many Psalters, including the Bohun Psalter and Hours, made not long after Longthorpe was built, for the de Bohun family of Essex.

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A figure warming his hands from the Calendar page for January, detail from the Bohun Psalter and Hours: Egerton MS 3277, f. 1r

In the upper part of the recess, below the labours of the months, is a scene from the life of St Anthony, the desert hermit. The saint is addressing a seated figure who is weaving, with birds and animals. Beneath are two standing figures, perhaps a pupil and teacher. The weaver probably represents the fact that Anthony was tempted by the devil with boredom, laziness and visions of women, which he overcame by the power of prayer. The weaver can be compared with this scene from the Luttrell Psalter, which shows women spinning and weaving.

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A spinner and a weaver, detail from the Luttrell Psalter: Add MS 42130, f. 193r

The vault of the roof is covered with paintings that represent heaven along with musicians, including this very clear image of David playing his harp.

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Wall painting of King David: Longthorpe Tower, English Heritage

Beatus initials at the beginning of Psalter manuscripts often contain similar images. In this one from the Queen Mary Psalter, David’s facial expression and hands are very finely drawn, as they are in Longthorpe Tower.

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David playing his harp, detail from the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 85r

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Wall painting of enthroned figures and a bonnacon: Longthorpe Tower, English Heritage

The south wall, next to the entrance, is painted with a trompe l’oeil cloth hanging that includes the Thorpe arms. Above it are two figures seated on thrones, identified by their arms as probably Edward III (left) and Edmund of Woodstock, Earl of Kent, executed in 1330 (right). Beneath is perhaps the only surviving wall painting of the mythical beast, the bonnacon (just the rear survives), at which an archer is aiming an arrow (only his bow is now visible). This image from a 13th-century bestiary contains a better-preserved image of the bonnacon.

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Hunting a bonnacon, detail from a bestiary: Harley MS 4751, f. 11r

For those who have not seen previous blogposts on this popular subject, a bonnacon is a mythological beast that protected itself by emitting flaming excrement. It also features in our article, ‘Beastly tales from the medieval bestiary’, on The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project website.

There are many more wonderful scenes in Longthorpe Tower including the ages of man, a wheel of the senses, a spider's web, an ostrich, a monkey and many more. All of these subjects are illustrated in manuscripts in the British Library, and can be found by searching our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts and Digitised Manuscripts website.  

These three books are my guides to medieval wall paintings and where to find them:

E Clive Rouse, Medieval Wall Paintings (Princes Risborough: Shire, 2010).

Roger Rosewell, Medieval Wall Paintings (Botley: Shire Publications, 2014).

Nick Mayhew Smith, Britain’s Holiest Places (Britain: Lifestyle Press Limited, 2011).

 

Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

27 March 2019

Initial impressions: the Noyon Sacramentary

Digitisation can lead to new discoveries, and allow us to make previously unnoticed connections. Recently, a manuscript digitised as part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project, known as the Noyon Sacramentary (Add MS 82956), caught my attention. More precisely, the specific style of its two large unfinished initials made me do a double take.

Thanks to my AHRC-funded PhD studentship, which the England and France Project inspired, I was ideally placed to make an art-historical connection that does not appear to have been made before. I noticed that the line-drawn initials of the Noyon Sacramentary are remarkably similar to the initials of some of the most famous manuscripts decorated in the so-called Franco-Saxon style.

FIG. 1 - add_ms_82956_f006v

An unfinished initial V (for the Vere dignum opening) at the beginning of the Canon of the Mass (Noyon, 4th quarter of the 10th century): Add MS 82956, f. 6v. Add MS 86956 was allocated to the British Library by HM Government in lieu of Inheritance Tax under the Acceptance in Lieu (AIL) Scheme, 2007.

Despite developing on the Continent, this style integrates typically Anglo-Saxon or Insular decorative motifs (such as abstract animal decorations and interlace) with Carolingian elements. It was usually reserved for high-grade liturgical or biblical manuscripts and it flourished in mid-to-late 9th-century Francia (roughly modern-day France and parts of western Germany).

FIG. 2 - add_ms_82956_f007v

Unfinished initial ligature TE (for the Te igitur opening) at the beginning of the Canon of the Mass: Add MS 82956, f. 7v

A sacramentary contains the prayers that the celebrant, usually a bishop, needed to perform Mass and other liturgical ceremonies. The Noyon Sacramentary was made in the late 10th century for the use of Noyon Cathedral. It has mainly been studied for its liturgical content and its unusual dimensions. Its leaves are two and a half times as tall as they are wide: this unusual format perhaps made it a highly portable 'saddle-book', making it easier for the bishop to travel to and consecrate churches far away from the seat of his bishopric.

FIG. 3 - IRHT_Cambrai  BM  MS 162  ff. 1v-2r

Illuminated initial V for the Vere dignum opening (Saint-Vaast, 3rd quarter of the 9th century): Cambrai, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 162, ff. 1v–2r

Another sacramentary with similar 'saddle-book' dimensions, but at least a century older, is now Cambrai, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 162. It was made at the Benedictine abbey of Saint-Vaast, one of the three centres in north-eastern France that excelled at the Franco-Saxon style. This manuscript has clear similarities with the Noyon Sacramentary, both in their unusual dimensions and their respective initial ‘V’ of the page with the words Vere dignum ('It is truly fitting'), a page that is marked with a large initial because it introduces the preface to the Canon of the Mass. Apart from the overall shape, this is seen in the stylised animal heads at the top of the two diagonal strokes of the ‘V’, and the roundels halfway down those strokes.

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Illuminated initial V in the Noyon Sacramentary: Add MS 82956, f. 6v (detail)

Can we speculate how this style came to inspire the makers of the Noyon Sacramentary in the 10th century? A possible model is another surviving sacramentary, now known as Reims, Bibliothèque Municipale, MS 213. This manuscript was also made for the use of Noyon Cathedral in the last quarter of the 9th century. However, it was made not at Noyon itself but as an export or commission at the Benedictine monastery of Saint-Amand, also in north-eastern France, another important centre associated with the Franco-Saxon style.

FIG. 5 - Gallica  Reims  BM  213  f. 13v

Initial ligature TE (for the Te igitur opening) (Saint-Amand, 4th quarter of the 9th century): Reims, Bibliothèque Municipale, MS 213, f. 13v

The words ‘Te igitur’ ('You, therefore') are the first words of the Canon of the Mass. The overall shape of the word ‘TE’ in the Noyon Sacramentary and in the Reims manuscript are very similar. This is shown, for example, by the intricate composition of overlapping interlace that unites the outer ribbons of the ‘T’ and the ‘E’. But there are differences in the details, if not in the overall style. The arm of the ‘T’ in the Noyon Sacramentary ends in small, dog-like animal heads, whereas the top of the ‘T’ in the Reims manuscript is dominated by the heads of birds with long beaks. It seems highly likely that the Reims sacramentary was still in the cathedral library in the 10th century and inspired the makers of the Noyon Sacramentary, even if it was not the direct model for it.

Why did the 10th-century makers of this manuscript adopt a style of decoration associated with a century-old manuscript? The Noyon Sacramentary was made during a period when the bishops of Noyon were closely affiliated with the first kings of the Capetian dynasty of the kingdom of Francia. The first Capetian ruler, Hugh Capet (reigned 987–996), was crowned at Noyon in 987, succeeding the last Carolingian king of West Francia, Louis V (reigned 986–987).

FIG. 6 - add_ms_82956_f007v detail

A TE ligature in the Noyon Sacramentatry: Add MS 82956, f. 7v

Noyon was probably chosen as the site of Hugh’s coronation to emphasise the connection to his distant ancestor, Charlemagne (reigned 768–814), whose first coronation was held there in 768. The older sacramentary (Reims, Bibliothèque Municipale, MS 213) was made around the reign of Charlemagne’s grandson, Charles the Bald (843–877). Charles the Bald was keen to promote favourable comparisons to his illustrious grandfather, for instance as a patron of manuscript art.

These political circumstances suggest that the use of Franco-Saxon style initials in the Noyon Sacramentary may have been part of a deliberate attempt to evoke continuity with the previous Carolingian period, in the history of both the cathedral and the kingdom.

You can discover more about 800 illuminated manuscripts from the collections of the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, all newly digitised, on our dedicated webspace: Medieval England and France: 700-1200.

 

Emilia Henderson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

#PolonskyPre1200

 

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20 March 2019

What's the language?

Bonjour à tous!

International Francophonie Day highlights the global spread of French language and culture. It is the perfect day to celebrate our great collaboration with our French colleagues in The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700–1200.  

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An animation inspired by the Sirius constellation (Canis major) in British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius C I, f. 28r

As part of our ambitious collaborative project, we’ve digitised 800 medieval manuscripts from the two national libraries. In November 2018 we launched not one but two new project websites. One allows users to search and view all 800 project manuscripts through an innovative new viewer. We applied the International Image Interoperabitility Framework (or IIIF, as it is commonly known) standards to our images and descriptions. As a result, it is now possible to share, annotate, manipulate and download images from our 800 project manuscripts. You can also compare manuscripts side-by-side (up to four at a time!).

SideBySideView

Two manuscripts from each institution, presented side-by-side

We are happy to offer our readers this massive list of manuscript identifiers, or shelfmarks, titles and URL links to the IIIF images on the new website. All of these manuscripts can be viewed in their full glory on the project website hosted by the BnF.

Excel spreadsheet of the 800 project manuscripts

PDF of the 800 project manuscripts

 

What is new with the project and the curated website?

On a website hosted by the British Library, we are offering our readers articles, descriptions, films and more interpreting these manuscripts: Medieval England and France, 700–1200. Everything is available in two languages, English and French – just choose your preferred language at any point of the visit.

LandingPageEnglish

LandingPageFrench

There are six broad themes covering art, history, science, religion, making manuscripts and the medieval manuscript collections today. We chose a selection of manuscripts to explore through various articles in each theme. Since the initial launch in November 2018 with 24 articles, we have added six new articles, 33 new collection items, and created new pages with biographies and maps. Did we mention the animation of the crane, inspired by a tale in an illustrated bestiary? Medieval manuscripts offer us the greatest collection of surviving medieval artwork in any media. Often, the colours are still as vibrant and the gold as glittering as at the time they were made, over 800 years ago. These books offer us wonderful glimpses of medieval culture, ideas and even individual people.

There are famous thinkers and authors, like Alcuin or Anselm, who exemplify the movement of people, texts and ideas across Europe in the early Middle Ages. For example, Queen Emma’s achievements are celebrated in a work that is the earliest surviving account dedicated to a female political figure from England (excluding saints’ Lives).

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A seal of Anselm of Canterbury, containing one of the earliest surviving representations of the archbishop, attached to the charter British Library, LFC Ch VII 5

For anyone interested in medieval manuscript culture in the Middle Ages, this site is a treasure-trove. It is easy to spend hours wondering around, or you can dip in for 5 minutes at a time. With 30 articles on various aspects on manuscript culture, over 140 highlighted collection items, 10 people pages and 10 short videos, you will be sure to find something intriguing.

 

French language, modern and medieval

It was clear from the start of the project that whatever we were to do, it would all be available in both English and French.  The medieval world was multilingual. Latin was the main written language, but it was by no means the only one. Old English and different variants of written French, like Anglo-Norman or Old Occitan, were also written down.  

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The beginning of St John’s Gospel, Chapter 13 in Old Occitan, preceded by a Latin rubric: British Library, Harley MS 2928, f. 187v

To mark today’s theme, International Francophonie Day, we took a closer look at a copy of a poem by the earliest known French poet, Philippe de Thaon (active during the first half of the 12th century). One of his works called Comput is a verse explanation of the metrics of the medieval calendar and gives instructions about how to calculate the date of Easter. In the poem’s opening lines, Philippe tells the reader he has decided to compose his text in Anglo-Norman French: Ne nest griu ne latins (it isn't Greek or Latin), but the language De la nostre cuntree (of our country), so that the users Ben poënt retenir (are able to remember well).

… Në est pas juglerie,

Ne nest griu ne latins,

Ne ne nest angevins,

Ainz est raisun mustree

De la nostre cuntree:

Ben poënt retenir

Çoe dum ges voil garner

Së il volent entendre

E bone garde prendre.

 

('… [It] is not entertainment,

nor is it Greek, Latin,

or the Angevin dialect.

Rather [it] is the spoken discourse of our country:

[in it they] are able to remember well

what I want to teach them,

if they want to listen

and pay good attention.')

 

(translation by Dr Hannah Morcos, King’s College London)

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Philippe de Thaon explains why he has chosen Anglo-Norman French to write his poem Comput: British Library, Cotton MS Nero A V, f. 2r

 

To find out more about languages present in medieval manuscripts, visit the History and Learning section of Medieval England and France, 700-1200.

 

Tuija Ainonen and Calum Cockburn

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval, #PolonskyPre1200

 

 

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19 March 2019

Let sleeping cranes lie

The RSPB has reported that the crane is coming back to Britain, with a record number of new birds reported in recent years. We have similarly found many cranes hidden in the British Library’s medieval bestiaries, manuscripts full of fantastic stories about all manner of birds and beasts.

A bird with great wings and long thin legs, the crane’s Latin name — grus — was thought to derive from the hoarse cry of her voice. The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project has created an animation that tells the story of the life of the bird and her flock, based on an account in an illustrated bestiary (Harley MS 4751). You can watch it here.

Cranes are not solitary creatures. They fly together as a flock, arranging themselves with military discipline high up in the air. According to this medieval bestiary, the birds swallow sand before they take off. Watch the animation to find out why.

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A crane guards the rest of her flock, holding a rock in her claws, in a bestiary with additions from Gerald of Wales’ Topographia Hibernica (Salisbury, late 12th century–early 13th century): Harley MS 4751, f. 39r

At night, the cranes are known for keeping a careful watch, guarding their camp and looking over the rest of the flock as they sleep. Other birds act as sentries, looking out for any enemies who might attack them. When there is cause for alarm, the cranes call out, to wake the rest and make sure they are safe.

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A pair of cranes alongside a Latin description of the bird in an early illustrated bestiary (England, 4th quarter of the 12th century): Add MS 11283, f. 17r

On duty, the crane has a particularly surprising way of keeping awake: she holds a stone in her claws. If she falls asleep, the stone will fall to the ground, make a noise and wake her up. Representations of this behaviour were common in early medieval bestiaries, and the crane’s vigilance and loyalty to her flock were regarded as particularly admirable traits.

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Sleeping cranes in an illustrated bestiary (England, c. 1200–c. 1210): Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 40r

We would love you to explore more stories of birds and beasts from the bestiary. Check out this brilliant discussion on our website, entitled Beastly tales from the medieval bestiary.

 

Calum Cockburn

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17 March 2019

Why we love the Harley Irish Gospels

How better to celebrate St Patrick’s Day than to announce the digitisation of two important Irish manuscripts from the British Library's collections? Harley MS 1023 and Harley MS 1802 were both made in the 12th century in Armagh, St Patrick’s foundation and medieval cult centre. Here are 5 reasons why we love these manuscripts:

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The lion symbol of St Mark: Harley MS 1802, f. 60v

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The lion symbol of St Mark: Harley MS 1023, f. 10v

1) Because Irish Gospel-books are stunning. Irish scribes and artists played an important role in the development of Gospel-book design, and their manuscripts are renowned for their beauty and brilliance. In the Harley Gospel-books, each Gospel text begins with a lively picture of an animal, the ‘evangelist symbol’ for that particular Gospel-writer. Harley 1802 contains a brightly coloured lion of St Mark and equally vivid ox of St Luke. The lion is especially endearing, with its tongue lolling and its hind legs entangled in its tail. Harley 1023 contains a particularly springy lion of St Mark and a rather plump eagle of St John, this time depicted in bold line drawing. Decorated initials open each Gospel text, made up of sinuous beasts playfully contorted into marvellous shapes. Harley 1802 also includes an equally serpentine Chi-rho initial, the Greek monogram of Christ that appears at Matthew 1:18 in Irish and Irish-influenced Gospel books.

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The ox symbol of St Luke: Harley MS 1802, f. 86v

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The eagle symbol of St John: Harley MS 1023, f. 64v

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Chi-rho initial: Harley MS 1802, f. 10r

2) Because 12th-century Irish manuscripts are underrated. People often think of the period from the 7th to 8th centuries as the high point of Irish book art, exemplified by masterpieces such as the Book of Kells (c. 800). Far fewer people realise that the 12th century was also a period of artistic renewal and vibrancy in Ireland. Around 100 manuscripts survive from this period containing a wide variety of works. The two Harleys are among the most richly illuminated, as well as a third surviving Gospel-book (Oxford, Corpus Christi College, MS 122) and the stunning Psalter of Cormac (Add MS 36929). These 12th-century manuscripts are especially poignant because they represent a last flowering for the tradition of Irish illumination. Evangelist symbol pages and Chi-rho pages disappear from book art after the Anglo-Norman invasion beginning in 1167, meaning that these examples are the last of their kind.   

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Beatus page in the Psalter of Cormac: Add MS 36929, f. 2r

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Decorated initial ‘Q’ at the opening of the Gospel of St Luke: Harley MS 1802, f. 87r

3) Because no one can resist Viking style. At the time these manuscripts were made, Ireland was home to both a native Irish and a Scandinavian-Irish population. The Vikings first settled in Ireland in the 9th century and remained a culturally distinct group, based in large trading cities such as Dublin. Art from the 12th century often reveals Viking and Irish styles fusing together. This is especially clear in the interlaced beasts that make up the decorated initials of Harley 1802 (see the Luke initial, f. 87v, and the Chi-rho initial, f. 10r). Beasts and interlace were important features of both Irish and Viking art, but the styles were noticeably different. With their large round eyes and snub-noses, the beasts of Harley 1802 resemble those that had prowled the pages of Irish manuscripts since the 7th century. But the interlace that entangles them has a distinctively Viking feel. A strand of interlace sometimes swells in width and then bursts into several new strands. At ends or sharp bends, the interlace sometimes forms a rather leafy-looking lobe shape tapering into a curl. These vegetal features don’t appear in Irish interlace from earlier periods, but they do appear in Viking artworks such as the Runestone of Harald Bluetooth.

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The Runestone of Harald Bluetooth, Jelling, Denmark, 10th century

4) Because Mael Brigte Ua Maeluanaig, the scribe of Harley 1802, was such a chatterbox. We don’t know who made most medieval manuscripts. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, the scribe will record their name, and occasionally other morsels of information. In contrast, Mael Brigte wrote a colophon (a closing inscription) for each of the Gospel texts, telling us not only his name but also that he was 28 years old, working in Armagh in 1138. He refers twice to the murder of king-bishop Cormac Mac Carthaig by Toirdelbach Ua Briain in 1138, describing it as a ‘great crime’. He mentions a terrible storm that happened two years earlier. He tells us that Donnchad Ua Cerbaill was High King and gives a list of the many petty kings of his time. Such an insight into the life and personality of a non-famous 12th-century individual, including even their disgruntled commentary on contemporary politics, is rare. It’s hard not to take a liking to this chatty, opinionated, scholarly scribe.

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The end of the Gospel of St John and Mael Brigte’s longest colophon: Harley MS 1802, f. 156v

5) Because they can teach you a thing or two. Besides the Gospels, these manuscripts are fascinating for the wide variety of other texts that share their pages. The detailed glosses that crowd the margins of Harley 1802 reveal Irish scholars’ meticulous study of the Gospels, drawing on a Hiberno-Latin commentary tradition dating back to at least the 8th century. Other texts suggest an interest in gathering obscure knowledge. For example, Harley 1023 contains a list of Pharaohs of Egypt, and a list of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus (a group of Christians who slept in a cave for 300 years while hiding from persecution). Harley 1802 contains poems describing the personal appearances of the Three Magi and the Apostles, paying special attention to the colour and style of their hair and beards. These texts reveal the breadth of Irish learning and give an insight into how information was carefully collected and treasured by enquiring scholars.

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The end of the Gospel of St Luke, with added biblical questions and answers and a list of Pharaohs of Egypt: Harley MS 1023, f. 63v

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Irish poem on Christ and the Apostles: Harley MS 1802, f. 9v

Have we convinced you? Happy St Patrick’s Day everyone!

 

Eleanor Jackson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

12 March 2019

A useful companion for a scholar: cats in the Middle Ages

Who am I?

'I am a most faithful watchwoman, ever-vigilant in guarding the halls; in the dark nights I make my rounds of the shadowy corners — my eyes’ light is not lost even in black caverns. For unseen thieves, who ravage the heaped-up grain, I silently lay snares as fatal obstacles. Though I am a roving huntress and will pry open the dens of beasts, I refuse to pursue the fleeing herds with dogs, who, yapping at me, instigate cruel battles. I take my name from a race that is hateful to me.'

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A decorated initial featuring a cock, a dog biting a cat, and a cat carrying mice, at the beginning of book 16 of Gregory the Great's Moralia in Job (Arnstein, Germany, 12th century): Harley MS 3053, f. 56v

The answer is, of course, a cat. This riddle was posed by Aldhelm, abbot of Malmesbury, in 7th-century England. It is a striking portrait of an animal that was, it seems, especially important to those in religious life during the Middle Ages. In the Ancrene Riwle, a guide for anchoresses written in the early 13th century these religious women, who were shutting themselves away from the world, were only allowed to have one animal companion … and that was a cat. Medieval monks and nuns, leading sometimes solitary but often studious lives, immortalised their beloved feline companions in texts that have captivated their readers ever since.

Perhaps the most famous tribute to a scholar’s cat is the 9th-century poem known as Pangur Bán, named after the cat that inspired it (the cat’s name indicates his soft, white coat). Written in Old Irish, by an Irish monk in exile in Continental Europe, it playfully and fondly compares the monk’s arduous tasks to those of his cat.

I and Pangur Bán my cat,
‘Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.

Better far than praise of men
‘Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill-will,
He too plies his simple skill.

‘Tis a merry task to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.

Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur’s way;
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.

‘Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
‘Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.

When a mouse darts from its den,
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!

So in peace our task we ply,
Pangur Bán, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.

Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.

(translated by Robin Flower)

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A miniature of a cat and mouse, from a herbal (Italy, 15th century): Sloane MS 4016, f. 40r

The nameless monk who was so fond of his cat came from a society (early medieval Ireland) in which there was an entire section of the law-code devoted to cats, so his love of his snow-white companion is perhaps not so surprising. The central tract on cats in medieval Irish law was called Catslechta — ‘Cat-sections’ — and detailed not only the types of cat (herders, mousers, guard cats, but also kittens as playmates for children and simple pet cats) but also what was due to an owner for the loss of such cats, as well as certain exemptions available to cats in the pursuit of their duties. For example, a cat was not held to be liable if it injured someone who had no business being there while it was chasing a mouse. There is a respect for and a tolerance of cats in domestic settings within the medieval Irish law codes, which indicate a high importance and affection attached to these domestic creatures. Little wonder then that one of the most famous of medieval poems about a cat evolved from such a society. 

Cats were appreciated as both companions and skilled mousers during the Middle Ages. There is no doubt that many cats were a valuable and beloved part of people’s domestic life whether in the cloister or the wider world. Cats were not only useful animals to have around but also loving companions whose loyalty alleviated loneliness and whose antics amused their owners no end — some of which have become immortalised in literature — from the Middle Ages and beyond.

These authors’ fascination with and love for their cats continues to shine through the centuries as can be seen in the Cats on the Page exhibition currently running at the British Library.

For more feline capers, you may be interested in our blogposts Lolcats of the Middle Ages, Cats, get off the page! and Cat and mouse, and hairy elephants.

The British Library’s Cats on the Page exhibition explores cats and their capers in rhymes and stories familiar to us from childhood. Whether raising a smile, solving a crime, wreaking magical havoc or even performing in theatre, cats take centre stage in this free exhibition. Cats come to life in books manuscripts and artwork to captivate and inspire audiences. 

Cats on the Page is supported by Animal Friends Pet Insurance Experts and is open until 17 March 2019. Visit now to avoid missing this fantastic exhibition.

 

Dr Gillian Kenny

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09 March 2019

Celebrating the spiritual life

International Women’s Day has inspired us to examine how medieval women used literature for shaping their daily lives. The hundreds of prayer books that are extant from late medieval female religious communities, for example, reveal how religious women used miraculous narratives to bolster their commitment to a life of prayer. One 15th-century German prayer book (Harley MS 2841) is a good case in point.

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A prayer to the Virgin Mary in the 15th-century German prayer book: Harley MS 2841, f. 16r

Harley MS 2841 contains prayers for personal devotion that are phrased for a woman. One of them identifies her as a certain ‘Amelia’, and although her identity is unknown, she was almost certainly a nun. An added list of female names in the same manuscript includes another, later Amelia — namely ‘Amelia Zandt von Merl’, Abbess of Marienberg in Boppard in Rhineland-Palatinate (1581–1624) — as well as her successor, ‘Maria Margarethe Zandt von Merl’ (1624–1654).

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A 17th-century list of nuns at Boppard: Harley MS 2841, f. 195r

The contents of Harley MS 2841 would have been especially well-suited for a novice or newly-professed nun. It features a miracle that tells of a woman whose ‘friends’ steal her inheritance when they learn that she has entered a convent. The nun is deeply distressed, but consoled when the Archangel Gabriel appears to her and teaches her a prayer that invokes the Joys of the Virgin Mary. The reader of the prayer book is promised similar consolation if she recites the prayer together with 100 Hail Maries in front of an image of the Virgin Mary.

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An angel inhabiting the margins of the Archangel Gabriel’s consoling prayer: Harley MS 2841, f. 27r

This miracle survives in many prayer books from female religious communities in the Low Countries and Germany. Middle Dutch examples are extant in a 15th-century prayer book owned by an unidentified female religious community (Egerton MS 2904), and in an early 16th-century prayer book produced for a community of religious women dedicated to St Francis (Add MS 14042).

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The Archangel Gabriel’s consoling prayer with a pasted-in woodcut of the Virgin with Child, c. 1517-1523: Add MS 14042, f. 161v

A number of female religious communities seem to have shared the miracle of the Archangel Gabriel within a literary culture they designed in support of their spiritual lives. This may have suggested to religious women that a life of prayer in an enclosed convent would provide them with divine protection and support in all their needs. But it may also have been a means for them to empower themselves against the various slings and arrows that continued to afflict them, despite being cloistered and metaphorically dead to the world. In a popular variant of the miracle, it is not the nun’s friends who distress her, but her parents, angered over her decision to enter a convent. In this sense, devotional literature could be an important means for religious women to become detached from disturbances from the outside world, and to reaffirm and celebrate their commitment to a spiritual life.

 

Clarck Drieshen

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08 March 2019

Tales of ancient women

For International Women’s Day, we have decided to celebrate women across the world in our own distinctive way. Greek papyri recount many stories of the past, shedding light on everyday life in Ptolemaic, Roman and Byzantine Egypt, told through the voices of the ancient people themselves. Here we have selected a few texts on papyrus from the British Library collections, where women are the protagonists. These mini-stories offer a varied picture of the ancient woman: from the independent to the weak, from the one seeking justice to another asking for compassion, from the bride to the divorced.

 

Independent woman

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Papyrus 2458 (P.Oxy. XII 1467), 3rd century

In this 3rd-century papyrus from Oxyrhynchus, Aurelia Thaisous, also called Lolliane, states that she qualifies for the right to act independently in her legal transactions, without any male guardians, on the grounds of her having three children (ius trium liberorum). She seems proud of being able to write with a high degree of ease. This is the petition she presented to the prefect, which was to be kept in his office.

 

A wedding poem

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Papyrus 1728 (P.Aphrod.Lit. IV 35), 6th century

Patricia must have been extremely flattered when she read this acrostic poem (an epithalamion or wedding poem), composed by Dioscorus of Aphrodito on the occasion of her marriage to Paul. According to Disocorus, Patricia was more skilled than the Graces themselves, and her numerous virtues proved her relation to the gods. Paul was a very lucky man …

 

Managing a beer-shop

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Papyrus 2660 (P.Lond. VII 1976), 3rd century BCE

It was hard for Haynchis to manage a beer-shop all by herself, and at her age. Her daughter was the only help she had. A vine-dresser, Demetrius, had carried her daughter away, promising her the Moon. But guess what? He already had a family! He took her without Haynchis’ s consent, leaving her on her own and without life's necessities of life. In this petition, Haynchis made appeal to Zenon, manager of the estate of Apollonius, trusting that justice would be served and that her daughter would return.

 

A lonely widow

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Papyrus 755 col.ii (P.Oxy. I 71 col.ii), 4th century

A wealthy widowed landowner, whose sons were serving in the army, hired two managers, Secundus and Tyrannus, to manage her estates. She trusted in their good faith but they turned out to be crooked, and they even robbed her of some of her possessions. Seeking justice, she appealed to Clodius Culcianus, prefect of Egypt, noting that women in particular should be helped because of their ‘natural weakness’. This is her petition, found at Oxyrhynchus.

 

A daughter’s marriage

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Papyrus 2217 (SB IV 7449), 5th century

This papyrus tells an incredible story. It must have been difficult for Aurelia Nonna to rid her mind of these memories: the blows she had received, her dress being torn … Her nephew, Alypius, a monk, had wanted her little daughter to marry a relative, Apaion, whom she did not want to marry. When Nonna refused, he grew angry and started to beat her. But Nonna did not keep silent; she wrote to the bishop of Oxyrhynchus, as preserved in this petitition, denouncing these outrages and asking for the bishop's compassion. She was happy to accept whatever decision he made.

 

Divorce by mutual agreement

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Papyrus 716 (P.Nekr. 34), 4th century

Senpsais and Aurelius Soulis would have promised to share a common life in mutual affection and respect, and it was neither’s fault that their marriage eventually ended. Their union was ruined by an evil spirit, and they agreed mutually to divorce. Senpsais returned all the wedding gifts to Soulis, as well as her dowry, and both were free one day to remarry. This papyrus contains the deed of divorce.

 

Healing through prayers

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Papyrus 2494 (P.Lond. VI 1926), 4th century

Valeria was afflicted by a grievous shortness of breath. Although she must have felt ill and weak, she had hope and faith. She sought healing through the prayers of father, Papnuthius, most valued and adorned with every virtue. This papyrus contains her letter to him.

 

A financial dispute

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Papyrus 1800 (P.Lond. V 1731), dated 20 September 585

When Aurelia Tsone of Syene was a young girl, her parents divorced. Her mother, Tapia, had received money from her former husband for the maintenance of their daughter; instead, she seems to have thrown Tsone out of the house and started a new life. Once Tsone reached the legal age, she continued to claim the money owed to her. This papyrus acknowledges receipt of the money, proving that Tsone won the dispute.

These are just a few of the stories preserved in the British Library's papyri. For similar tales, we recommend that you read our blogpost The Voices of Ancient Women.

 

Federica Micucci

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