THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

12 posts from May 2019

31 May 2019

What does a wheelbarrow have to do with Aristotle?

Visitors to the British Library exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, will no doubt stop to admire a copy of Aristotle’s works on natural sciences, probably made for a medieval student at Oxford University. The careful layout and the perfectly formed gothic handwriting in different styles is impressive, but what will they make of the images on the page?

The page on display shows a decorated letter containing, logically enough, a seated philosopher examining a book and pointing to the heavens. But in the margin there is a man pushing a naked figure in a wheelbarrow, similar to the figures sometimes used to illustrate the fool of Psalm 52, “The fool (insipiens) said in his heart: There is no God” (e.g. in the Rutland Psalter, Add MS 62925). What does this scene have to do with Aristotle?

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A philosopher and a man pushing a fool in a wheelbarrow, Aristotle’s Libri naturales, England (Oxford?), 3rd quarter of the 13th century: Harley MS 3487, f. 22v  

In the 12th and 13th centuries, the works of the Greek philosopher Aristotle were translated into Latin and completely transformed ideas on philosophy and natural science in Western Europe. A number of manuscripts containing works by Aristotle or attributed to him have been digitised in The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200 and are referenced in this article https://www.bl.uk/medieval-english-french-manuscripts/articles/medieval-science-and-mathematics.

Despite Church disapproval of the study of ‘pagan’ writings that contradicted its teachings, and the subsequent banning of Aristotle’s works in Paris, they soon became key texts in medieval universities. This book contains a collection of the required reading on the Oxford curriculum, complete with glosses and commentaries in the margins and between the lines of text to provide detailed explanations. But it is the decoration that makes this manuscript unique: it is exceptional for a volume of Aristotle’s works to be so elaborately illustrated at this time. There are 29 historiated initials, one at the beginning of each book or chapter, each representing the text that is to follow. Because there was no earlier tradition of illustrating Aristotle’s texts, the artists had to be innovative. Sometimes they adapted subjects from other genres, and sometimes they invented new ones.

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Books being burned before a king, a friar and others, Aristotle’s Libri naturales: Harley MS 3487, f. 4r

Perhaps the most intriguing of all the initials is the first in the manuscript, on the opening page of Physics. The decorated letter on this page depicts a small child throwing books onto a fire before a king, a friar and other figures.  Scholars have suggested that this scene represents the burning of books of Aristotle’s works in Paris in 1210, while the friar represents the role played by the Franciscans and other preaching orders in teaching Aristotle.

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A windmill and a bird, Aristotle’s Libri naturales: Harley MS 3487, f. 161r

The most well-known image in this manuscript is one of the earliest depictions of a windmill. This is found at the beginning of the book Meteorologica, which includes early accounts of weather phenomena. Here a man is adjusting the direction of a windmill to catch the wind. Beneath, a bird holds a twig in its beak, perhaps referring to the way that birds use the wind in flight.

Now, let’s return to the illustration of a philosopher star-gazing and a fool riding in a wheelbarrow on the page on display in the exhibition. It appears at the beginning of book IV of Physics, which studies the Heavens. A possible interpretation for this image is that it juxtaposes knowledge and foolishness. The seated philosopher inside the letter is looking up at the stars, but above him the fool could be a reminder that too much knowledge leads to madness. But as with many of the marginal images in the manuscript, there are no definite explanations.

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A coat of arms, possibly of a son of Geoffrey Beauchamp of Bedford, with one man blowing a horn and another eating, Aristotle’s Libri naturales: Harley MS 3487, f. 216r

This manuscript is an example of the skills that came together in 13th-century Oxford to produce a work that is both educational and entertaining. The thoughtful explanations and interpretations of the text, the remarkable planning and layout, and the innovative decoration and illustration, make it easy and delightful to use. The owner must have been one lucky student, and indeed a likely candidate would be the son of Geoffrey Beauchamp of Bedford (fl. c. 1256), member of one of the richest and most powerful families in England at the time.

 

Chantry Westwell

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29 May 2019

Crocodiles rock (never smile at a manuscript)

Regular readers of our Blog may have noticed that animals are one of our favourite subjects, especially the weird and wonderful creatures that inhabit the Bestiary. Some of these creatures, like the unicorn or bonnacon, are no longer to be seen; but one of the strangest beasts is still thriving (though please don’t get too close) — the crocodile. The British Library's bestiaries contain a huge variety of images of these creatures, by medieval artists who were compelled to use their imagination  — after all, one rarely encountered a crocodile when fishing for eels in the Essex mud-flats in the 13th century!

A fairly realistic depiction of a crocodile is found in this bestiary, which was in the library of Rochester Priory in the 14th century and may have been made there. This manuscript, as well as two others described in this blogpost (Royal MS 12 C XIX and Harley MS 3244), is currently on display in the exhibition Book of Beasts at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

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A crocodile in the ‘Rochester Bestiary’, 2nd quarter of the 13th century: Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 24r

The crocodile is often accompanied by its enemy, a snake-like beast from the Nile, known as the hydrus. The text describes how, when a crocodile is asleep with its mouth open, the hydrus rolls in the mud to become slippery; it slithers into the crocodile’s mouth before being swallowed. It then begins to eat its way out, killing the crocodile in the process. In the bestiary tradition, animal behaviours are seen as moral allegories; in this case the crocodile’s mouth represents the mouth of Hell, while the hydrus is Christ, who enters through the gate of Hell to redeem lost souls. In this manuscript there are two drawings of crocodiles, one with the hydrus and the other eating fish.

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A beaver with a man blowing a horn, a crocodile swallowing a hydrus, a crocodile eating fish, and a winged hyena (England, 1st quarter of the 13th century): Stowe MS 1067, ff. 2v–3r

Guillaume le Clerc, a Norman cleric and early compiler of the bestiary, described crocodiles as being shaped ‘somewhat like an ox’. The artist of one bestiary seems to have followed this trend, as their crocodile has long legs and looks more like a horse.

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Bears and a crocodile (England, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 13th century): Sloane MS 3544, f. 10v

Later in the same volume, a different artist drew a more plausible shape, although this crocodile's ears are rather dog-like.

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Another crocodile in Sloane MS 3544, f. 43r

All the early writers who described crocodiles, from Pliny to Isidore to Mandeville, were agreed that they are ferocious beasts. Some alluded to their taste for humans, while Mandeville and Bartholomaeus Anglicus mentioned the tears that they cried before swallowing their hapless prey. In this image, a crocodile (labelled 'serpens') is shown swallowing a man who is stabbing him, while a hydra emerges from a hole it has bitten in his side.

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A crocodile swallowing a man (England, 2nd quarter of the 13th century): Harley MS 3244, f. 43r 

For pure invention, the prize goes to these two artists, whose creatures resemble dinosaurs or prehistoric insects.

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A crocodile swallowing a hydrus (England, 1st quarter of the 13th century): Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 12v

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A crocodile with a knotted tail (England, early 13th century): Harley MS 4751, f. 62v. This manuscript was digitised as part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project.

Bestiaries are not the only manuscripts to contain images of crocodiles. Here are two in the margins of Psalters, one made in Constantinople and the other in England.

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A crocodile in the Bristol Psalter (Constantinople, 11th century): Add MS 40731, f. 92r

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A crocodile in the Queen Mary Psalter (England, between 1310 and 1320): Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 102v

So why blog about crocodiles? They are certainly not cuddly creatures like the dogs, cats, elephants, hedgehogs, beavers or owls that we've blogged about before. The idea came to me while I was writing another blogpost on the works of Homer. What do crocodiles have to do with Homer, one might ask? The missing link is the remarkable survival of two Egyptian papyri containing his writings, known as the ‘Harris Homer’, one in roll-form and one in book-form (Papyrus 107 and Papyrus 126).

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The Harris Homer (Egypt, 1st–2nd century): Papyrus 107, f. 1r

The papyrus roll was found in ‘the crocodile pit’ at Ma’abdey, near Monfalat, in Egypt, on 9 December 1849, before being acquired by Mr A. C. Harris. This story has been investigated by Brent Nongbri in his article ‘The Crocodile pit of Maabdeh, Florence Nightingale, and the British Museum's acquisition of the Harris Homers’, Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists, 54 (2017), 207–17. Apparently the pit was a cave on the banks of the Nile containing thousands of crocodile and human mummies, much visited by 19th-century travellers who wished to experience the thrill of being attacked by bats and encountering the spirits of dead crocodiles.

 

Chantry Westwell

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27 May 2019

Let's get quizzical

It's time to rack your brains. The ten images found here can all be located on our Medieval England and France website. Can you identify them all? How long does it take you?

When you've done that, answer the simple question at the end. Pencils at the ready!

Quiz 1

Quiz 2 - Copy

Quiz 9

Quiz 3

Quiz 10

Quiz 8

Quiz 4

Quiz 5

Quiz 7

Quiz 6

So, you've found every image on our website? Now we'd like you to add up all the manuscript numbers (for instance, Add MS 12345) and tell us the final answer. You can either send it as a comment below or tweet it to @BLMedieval with the hashtag #fiendishquiz. It couldn't be easier!

If that's all too devious for you, you might like to relax by watching this wonderful video of a whale, made as part of our project sponsored by The Polonsky Foundation. It's based on one of the medieval manuscripts we've recently digitised, in collaboration with the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

 

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The Polonsky Foundation logo

25 May 2019

How to name a mummy

The British Library’s landmark exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, opened recently. Many unique objects are on display, revealing the uses and ways of writing from the ancient to the modern world. Among them is one small piece encapsulating the story of an entire life.

The item in question is one of the numerous mummy labels housed in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, University College London, who have kindly loaned it to our exhibition.

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The mummy label on loan to our Writing exhibition: UC 28078 © Petrie Museum

The tag, written in Ancient Greek between the 1st and 3rd centuries of the current era, reads ‘Bobastous to the gate of Thermouthiakes of the metropolis of the Arsinoite (district)’. It is the name of a person (Bobastous) and an address in Arsinoe, the capital of a district in Graeco-Roman Egypt, which corresponds to the modern Medinet el-Fayum, in Middle Egypt, on the western side of the Nile. This little wooden label was attached to the mummified corpse of Bobastous, in order to identify the body and to ensure that, after mummification, it was delivered to the right address for burial.

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‘View of Medinet El-Fayoum’ (1868-1870) by Jean-Léon Gérôme: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Mummy labels are well known from Roman Egypt. They were usually made out of various types of wood, but other materials like faience and stone were also used. The tags could have different shapes, ranging from a tiny stela to a little tablet with one or two ‘ears’ (‘tabula ansata’). Standard forms such as the rectangle are also attested, such as the tag from the Petrie Museum in our exhibition.

The labels usually had one or more holes, through which a string was passed to append the tag to the mummy's neck or feet: the label on display in Writing: Making Your Mark even preserves the original cord.

The tag could bear writing on one or both sides, and two languages — usually Greek and Egyptian (Demotic) — were often employed on the same object. The text was normally drawn in black ink, but it could also be carved. In some cases, red ink was used.

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This tag from the Petrie Museum (UC 45635), a tabula ansata with one ansa, belonged to a certain Didyme: the text is carved and also drawn with ink © Petrie Museum

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A tag on limestone from the Petrie Museum (UC 34473) in Demotic script, written in red ink © Petrie Museum

Each label recorded details of the deceased for the purpose of identification. Alongside the personal name, additional information such as the names of the father and mother, the deceased's place of origin, their profession, and sometimes the age at the time of the death, could also be recorded. In rare occurrences, even the cause of death is stated. For example, one tag now held in Berlin (SB I 1209) reads: ‘Apollonius, son of Eusebes and Tamis, died because of a scorpion’s bite’.

Mummy labels served an important function. It was essential to be able to identify the embalmed corpse, because the body had to be transported to the cemetery or returned to the home village of the deceased (if they had passed away elsewhere). Papyri sometimes shed further light on how mummies were transported. For example, in the British Library's collection is a letter from a man complaining that the recipients had failed to collect the body of the deceased (possibly their brother), and that they did not pay for the funeral expenses (520 drachmas) (Papyrus 717). However, they did take his belongings …

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A papyrus describing funeral expenses: Papyrus 717 (P.Nekr. 18)

Besides providing identification and instructions as to the transport and shipping of the body, mummy labels sometimes bear drawings such as the dog Anubis (guardian dog of the cemeteries) and symbols like the ankh (life) or, in a Christian environment, the cross. In other cases, wishes for prosperity, phrases of encouragement and condolence, and maxims (such as ‘nobody is immortal’) were added as a means of commemoration and farewell.

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Anubis holding the key (kleidouchos) to the Underworld and a burning torch in a mummy tag from the Liverpool Museum

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A Petrie Museum label (UC 45656) for Socrate, daughter of Cyrillus, featuring the ankh, the symbol of life © Petrie Museum

The majority of mummy labels published to the present day are collected in a database with the wonderful name Death on the Nile. If you want to see one of them in person, we'd love you to visit our exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, which is open at the British Library until 27 August.

 

Federica Micucci

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22 May 2019

Book of Beasts at the Getty

Bestiaries are one of the most popular medieval texts, describing the characteristics and habits of beasts real and imagined. We are delighted to say that the British Library has loaned six manuscripts to an exciting new exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Book of Beasts, curated by Elizabeth Morrison and Larisa Grollemond, explores the wonders of the medieval bestiary tradition, drawing together manuscripts, tapestries and paintings, as well as a variety of other objects.

Two of these British Library loans are magnificent 13th-century English bestiaries. The first (Royal MS 12 C XIX) contains over 80 illustrations of beasts, birds and fish, painted in gold and bright colours. This bestiary is accompanied by several theological works, including extracts from the Book of Genesis and the Etymologies of Isidore of Seville (c. 560–636), as well as a number of medical recipes. In the page illustrated here, it tells us that the camel can endure thirst for three days, and that it prefers to drink muddy water.

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A bestiary made in England (c. 1200–c. 1210): Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 33r (detail)

The second manuscript (Royal MS 12 F XIII) is now known as the Rochester Bestiary, because it belonged to the cathedral priory of St Andrew, Rochester. This manuscript includes 55 finished illustrations, although there were spaces left for 126 in total, some with added instructions in Frecnch to an illuminator. The bestiary is followed by a lapidary (an account of the properties of precious stones), written in Anglo-Norman French.

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The lion (the king of the beasts) is usually the first animal to be described in a bestiary, as found in the Rochester Bestiary (c. 1230): Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 4r

Medieval bestiaries were produced in many different forms. Another of the manuscripts on loan to the Getty contains an illustrated aviary (or text about birds) by Hugh of Fouilloy (Sloane MS 278). It is combined with the Dicta Chrysostomi, which survives in very few manuscripts from this period and contains only a small number of accounts of animals, discussed across 27 chapters. Although the title of this text — The Words of John Chrysostom on the Nature of Beasts — suggests that its author was St John Chrysostom, who lived during the 4th century, it was actually written in France around the year 1000.

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A watchful crane raises its foot, in a bestiary with Hugh of Fouilloy’s Aviarium (northern France, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 13th century): Sloane MS 278, f. 27r (detail)

Another bestiary is featured in the theological miscellany pictured below (Harley MS 3244). Made in the middle of the 13th century, the volume is a compilation of texts intended for a Dominican friar, who is depicted kneeling before Christ on f. 27r. Many of its 133 illustrations have unique designs; it includes more images of fish and insects than most other bestiaries that survive from this period, as well as a number of additions to the text itself.  

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An elephant with a ‘castle’ on its back (England, c. 1236–c. 1250): Harley MS 3244, f. 39r (detail)  

The Getty Museum's exhibition examines how artists adapted the stories and images of the bestiary for use in other medieval manuscripts and artworks. For example, we have also loaned an illustrated collection of treatises on heraldry, compiled around 1494 by a certain Adam Loutfut, a Scottish scribe in the service of Sir William Cummyn of Inverellochy (Harley MS 6149). One of its treatises describes the animals that most commonly appear on medieval coats of arms, many of which derive from the bestiary tradition.

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A page from a heraldic treatise by Adam Loutfut, including images of a modewarp (mole), tiger, horse and a bear (Scotland, c. 1494): Harley MS 6149, f. 17r

The final volume in this selection is known as ‘The Northern French Miscellany’ (Add MS 11639), a lavishly illustrated manuscript containing a variety of biblical and theological texts in Hebrew. Numerous inhabited initial-word panels appear throughout the book, some featuring vibrant images of birds and beasts, whose designs are stylistically very similar to the illustrations of bestiary manuscripts.

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An eagle lands upon an unsuspecting duck in this inhabited initial-word panel, from the Northern French Miscellany (southern Germany or France, 1277–1324): Add MS 11639, f. 107r

To explore more of the stories from the medieval ‘book of beasts’, check out our animations about the lives of the Crane and the Whale, both based on accounts and illustrations from another early illustrated bestiary (Harley MS 4751). Our own website also features an article written by Beth Morrison, Senior Curator of Manuscripts at the Getty Museum, 'Beastly tales from the medieval bestiary'.

Book of Beasts is on at the Getty Center until 18 August. We'd love you to catch it if you're in California this summer.

 

Calum Cockburn

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20 May 2019

Mehmed the Conqueror, scourge of the world

The fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in 1453 brought Turkish politics closer to western Europe. The Italian merchant cities already had commercial ties with the Ottomans across the Mediterranean, but after the collapse of the Byzantine Empire, western Europeans became increasingly more interested in — and often worried by — their new eastern neighbours.

It was not only scholars, manuscripts and ideas that flowed from East to West. In the wake of the Ottoman conquest of the Byzantine Empire, the reputation of Mehmed II (1432–1481), commonly known as Mehmed the Conqueror, spread throughout Western Europe. Reports travelled of his military genius, political astuteness and cultural refinement.

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A portrait of Mehmed II in Kiyafet ül-insaniye, a description of the first twelve Ottoman sultans: Add MS 7880, f. 45v

A celebrity of the 15th century, Mehmed mesmerised his contemporaries, particularly Italian humanists and artists. Gentile Bellini was even invited to paint Mehmed’s portrait. The humanists’ fascination with the Ottoman sultan may be gauged through an epitaph for Mehmed, which started circulating soon after the sultan’s death in 1481. Previously attributed to Leonardo Griffi (1437–1485), friend of the renowned Italian humanist Francesco Filelfo (1398–1481), but now considered to have been composed anonymously, the epitaph extols Mehmed’s virtues and conquests.

An early copy of the epitaph known as ‘the epigram of the great Turk’ (epigrama magni teurci [sic]) survives in Harley MS 2455, a late-15th century manuscript written probably in Milan. The volume also contains works by Terence and Ovid and a copy of the 14th-century epitaph for Giovanni Visconti, archbishop of Milan (d. 1354), composed by Gabrio Zamorei. As Zamorei’s epitaph occurs in many other manuscripts produced in Milan, it is likely Harley 2455 may have also been written there.

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This copy of the epitaph for Mehmed II is written in a clear humanistic script: Harley MS 2455, f. 90r

The epitaph for Mehmed brings together the humanists’ fascination for the Ottoman sultan and their enthusiasm for classical antiquity. In flowing elegiac couplets, the sultan is described as the ‘dread of the world’ (timor orbis), having conquered countless peoples, kingdoms and cities. Mehmed’s conquest of Constantinople was followed by that of other major Greek cities as well as that of the Genovese colony in Crimea. He is not an equal to Alexander the Great or Hannibal, the text explains, but stands well above them.

In good humanistic tradition, the poet censures ‘proud Italy’ (superba Italia), whom the sultan would have conquered had the fates not conspired against him. Mehmed may have the whole world, but in the face of death, the poet concludes, human pride, magnificence, empires and gold perish without a trace.

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Portrait of Mehmed II by Gentile Bellini, in the collections of the National Gallery, London

The British Library has recently started to upgrade the catalogue records of the Harley manuscripts, including Harley MS 2455. You can read an introduction to this project here.

 

Cristian Ispir

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18 May 2019

Ink in the clink

While he was imprisoned in the Tower of London from 1603 to 1616, the famous courtier, explorer and author, Sir Walter Raleigh (1554–1618), turned to writing. One manuscript is an impressive witness to the years he spent in prison. Add MS 57555 contains Raleigh’s own handwritten notes, a shelf-list of his books held in the Tower, and an autograph poem addressed to Queen Elizabeth I.

Writing was a familiar activity in the Tower of London. The building contains a substantial collection of early modern graffiti, as prisoners inscribed their names, initials, symbols, monograms or verses onto the walls. A number of early modern prisoners’ poems were circulated with accounts of how they were originally written upon windows with pins or diamonds. Elizabeth I herself, as a prisoner in Woodstock Palace, was said to have written the following verse with a diamond upon her window: ‘Much suspected by me / Nothing proved can be. Quoth Elizabeth, Prisoner’. Lady Jane Grey is also meant to have written verses upon her window in the Tower of London during her imprisonment, using a pin.  

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Walter Raleigh's map of Egypt, showing the lands around 'Babilon or Cairo', 'Heliopolis' and 'Memphis', from his commonplace book: Add MS 57555, f. 23r

Raleigh’s written remains from the Tower can be found in this manuscript. It is partly a ‘commonplace book’: a book in which notes and memoranda could be recorded for easy reference, under subject-headings which had been written in advance. Raleigh used his notebook to compile historical information on the Middle East and North Africa, arranged alphabetically by ancient place-name. This research was most likely undertaken in preparation for his capacious prose work The History of the World (published in 1614). The manuscript also contains Raleigh’s draft maps of the coast and hinterland of North Africa and Palestine, some of which closely mirror the engravings by William Hole which accompany the printed History of the World.

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An alphabetical list in Raleigh's commonplace book: Add MS 57555, f. 2r

Raleigh similarly used his notebook as an apparatus when it came to recording information about the books he owned in the Tower. In his room within the Bloody Tower, Raleigh had approximately 515 books, as well as mathematical instruments and a 'stilhows' or laboratory. In his notebook, Raleigh and two servants or amanuenses compiled a list of these books, and their locations on the shelves, according to their subject and size. The manuscript would have helped Raleigh physically navigate the reading material he had amassed upon his shelves.

This manuscript shows how Raleigh was surrounded by the written word during his time in the Tower. His notebook was an organisational tool for writing; whether that was organising research and notes for his own writing, or the contents and location of volumes in his library. Appropriately, the final item in the volume, an older poem addressed to Elizabeth I, ends with Raleigh imagining an ideal scene of writing, but one which has sadly been diminished:

If love could find a quill

drawn from an angells winge

or did the muses singe

that prety wantons will,

perchance he could indyte

to pleas all other sence

butt loves and woes expens

Sorrow cann only write

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The verse beginning 'If love could find a quill', towards the bottom of the page: Add MS 57555, f. 172v

Raleigh was released from the Tower in 1618, to make a final journey to Guiana in search of El Dorado, a city of gold. The voyage was unsuccessful and, upon his return, King James I ordered his execution for violating peace treaties with the Spanish. Sir Walter Raleigh was executed on the morning of 29 October 1618, at Westminster.

You can see an extraordinary range of similar items relating to the history of writing in the British Library's current major exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark , which is on until 27 August 2019.

 

Amy Bowles

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15 May 2019

Cataloguing the Harley manuscripts

In recent months, the British Library has started to revise the online catalogue descriptions of manuscripts in the Harley collection. Sold to the nation in 1753, the Harley manuscripts form one of the Library's foundation collections. The collection comprises more than 7,000 manuscripts, 14,000 charters and 500 rolls, spanning the period from the 8th to the 17th centuries. Some of these manuscripts are already well-known — such as the Harley Psalter (Harley MS 603), the 'Book of the Queen', containing the works of Christine de Pizan (Harley MS 4431), and the Book of Thomas More (Harley MS 7368) — but many of them have received less attention than they deserve. Our cataloguing project aims to make them more accessible.

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Two famous manuscripts in the Harley collection: the Harley Psalter (Harley MS 603, f. 8r) and the 'Book of the Queen', with a miniature of Christine de Pizan (Harley MS 4431, f. 4r)

The Harleian library was founded in October 1704, when Robert Harley (1661–1724) purchased more than 600 manuscripts from the collection of Sir Simonds d’Ewes (1602–1650). In 1711, Harley was made 1st Earl of Oxford and Mortimer; after that date, his son, Edward Harley (1689–1741), was most active in augmenting the collection. The 1710s saw further groups of important English manuscripts enter the library, and from about 1717 the Harleys began using overseas agents to purchase manuscripts from Continental Europe, especially France, Germany and Italy. Numerous important British and foreign collections were auctioned in London in the 1720s, allowing further acquisitions.

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A painting of Humfrey Wanley by Thomas Hill, at the Society of Antiquaries: Wanley holds a Greek lectionary, while the Guthlac Roll (Harley Roll Y 6) hangs by his side

A prominent role in the formation of the library was played by Humfrey Wanley (1672–1726), who became library-keeper to the Harleys in 1708. His diary (Lansdowne MSS 771–772) and letters are an important resource for understanding the growth of the collection.

Edward Harley bequeathed the library to his widow, Henrietta Cavendish Harley, countess of Oxford and Mortimer (1694–1755), during her lifetime, and thereafter to their daughter, Margaret Cavendish Bentinck, duchess of Portland (1715–1785). In 1753, the manuscripts were sold by the Countess and the Duchess to the nation for £10,000 under the Act of Parliament that also established the British Museum.

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A page from the printed catalogue of the Harley manuscripts, published in 1808, showing the descriptions of Harley MSS 4990–4994

The Harley manuscripts were described systematically in the catalogue printed in four volumes between 1808 and 1812. This reference tool is a product of its own time, and is of limited use for modern users. Some of the Harley manuscripts have been catalogued and digitised in recent years (for example, by The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project), but the vast majority have not been described since the 19th century. Our cataloguing project will create new online records for these manuscripts, as well as augmenting existing descriptions on the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

As time progresses, the new records of the Harley manuscripts will be made available on the Library's Explore Archives and Manuscripts online catalogue. We have started by focusing on manuscripts referenced in surveys such as Andrew Watson’s Catalogue of Dated and Datable Manuscripts c. 700-1600 in the Department of Manuscripts, the British Library (London, 1979), and in Ruth Dean & Maureen Boulton’s Anglo-Norman Literature (London, 1999). More records are being added every week.

Many manuscripts were described inadequately in the printed catalogue, which we are now attempting to remedy. For example, one 15th-century manuscript containing a fragment of an important textbook about rules for teaching correct French, was previously described as: ‘Formulas of letters, charters, obligations, etc, partly on parchment, partly on paper. 15th century.’

Harley catalogue - Copy

We have now been able to identify this textbook as the popular Orthographia Gallica, sometimes attributed to Thomas Sampson, a 14th-century teacher of letter writing at Oxford.

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Grammatical works such as Thomas Sampson's Ars Dictamini and Orthographia Gallica are included in this 15th-century volume: Harley MS 4993, ff. 21v–22r

Meanwhile, this manuscript, described in the printed catalogue as a gospel-book, contains one of the earliest example of polyphonic music from England.

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An early 13th-century Latin chant with musical notation and text guides: Harley MS 5393, f. 80v

The Harley collection also contains some fascinating 17th-century manuscripts. Harley MS 1960 is a anthology of riddles written by members of the Holme family in Chester. One riddle reads: ‘ten teeth & neer a tongue, it is sport for old & yong: I pulled it out of my yellow fleece & tickled it well on the belly piece’. The solution is ‘one playing on a violin’.

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The 17th-century manuscript contains around 144 riddles, listed as questions and answers: Harley MS 1960, f. 15v

Some little-known manuscripts reveal unsuspected gems. For example, an ABC illustrated poem, in which each stanza features a richly decorated initial, is found in Harley MS 1704.

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This decorated initial 'N' in a 17th-century manuscript is a reminder of the glory of medieval manuscript illumination: Harley 1704, f. 155r

As our cataloguing project progresses, we will publish more blogposts about our discoveries. We will also be tweeting about the Harley manuscripts via @BLMedieval, using the hashtag #HarleyMSS. Make sure you follow us closely.

 

Cristian Ispir, Clarck Drieshen and Julian Harrison

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