THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

10 posts from June 2019

29 June 2019

Noah's Ark and the Anglo-Saxons

When our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition ended recently, you might have been forgiven for thinking that little more remains to be discovered about this crucial period of early medieval history. It's highly unusual for unknown Anglo-Saxon manuscripts to come to light (although we did recently purchase a leaf formerly in private hands), while archaeological finds like the Staffordshire Hoard and the Winfarthing Pendant are still extreme rarities. We are delighted, therefore, to reveal that new technologies can enable us to uncover more about the Anglo-Saxon past.

Some of our readers may be familiar with the Old English Orosius, Add MS 47967 is the earliest surviving copy of a vernacular translation of the Historiarum adversus Paganos Libri Septem (Seven Books of History against the Pagans), a history of the world written by Paulus Orosius (d. after 418). This manuscript was probably copied in Winchester during the reign of King Alfred the Great (r. 871–899) and it may have been part of Alfred’s programme to translate important Latin works into Old English.

At the very end of this copy is a faded page of text (f. 87v), nearly impossible to read, although N. R. Ker attempted a transcription in his Catalogue of Manuscripts containing Anglo-Saxon (1957). Now, with the help of multi-spectral imaging technology employed by Dr Christina Duffy at the Library, we have been able to produce a clearer photograph of the page, unveiling more of the text it contains.

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Before and after: the page of faded text at the end of the Old English Orosius, and after undergoing multispectral imaging: Add MS 47967, f. 87v

The Old English written here comprises a long note that provides details relating to the Bible, specifically the ages of Adam, Noah, his sons and their wives, and the dimensions of the Ark. The text reads as follows:

Adam lifede nigon hund geara 7 XXX geara [...] Noe lifede ær ðam flode syx hund geara 7 æfter ðam flode ðryo hund wintra 7 fiftig wintra 7 he wæs innan ðære earc feowertig daga he 7 his ðryo suna Sem. Cham. 7 Iapheh 7 hyra ðryo wif seo earc waes ðryo hund faeðma lang 7 fiftig faeðma wid. 7 ðryttig faeðma heah. 7 his sunu Sem. Lifede syx hund geara. 7 ðryo 7 ðryttig geara his sunu hatte Arfaxad se lifode feower hund geara 7 eahta 7 ðryttig geara. Ða gestrynde he sunu se hatte heber. Of him asprang ðaet ‘h’ebreisc folc.’

('Adam lived for 930 years. Noah lived 600 years before the Flood and 350 winters after it and he was in the Ark for 40 days, he and his three sons Shem, Ham and Japheth and their three wives. The Ark was 300 fathoms long, 50 fathoms wide, and 30 fathoms high. And his son Shem lived 630 years and his son Arfaxad lived 438 years. Then he begat a son called Heber. From him sprung forth the ‘Hebrew’ people.')

Comparable examples of this type of Old English text survive from other early manuscripts. At the end of a 12th-century copy of excerpts from the Disticha Catonis (Cotton MS Julius A II) is a series of notes written in the vernacular.

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A page of notes written in Old English: Cotton MS Julius A II, f. 140v

This text concerns a variety of subjects, including the names of the two thieves who were crucified next to Christ, the Temple of Solomon and the Church of St Peter in Rome, the dimensions of the world, and the number of bones in the human body. There is also a note that, like the faded text in the Old English Orosius, details the measurements of Noah’s Ark.

Noes arc waes iii hund fedma lang 7 fiftig wid 7 ðritig heah.

('Noah’s Ark was 300 fathoms long and 50 fathoms wide and 30 fathoms high.')

The story of Noah and his sons, and the building of the Ark, seems to have been popular in Anglo-Saxon England. Many of the surviving genealogical lists of Anglo-Saxon kings, for example, feature Noah prominently. The West Saxon Regnal List tell us that the line of the kings of Wessex, the dominant kingdom of Anglo-Saxon England from the late 9th century onwards, was descended from the Old Testament patriarch, through his fourth son Sceaf, said to have been born on the Ark itself. This work survives in a miscellany of astronomical, geographical and theological material, made in England during the second quarter of the 11th century.

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This copy of the West Saxon Regnal List states that the West Saxon kings were descended from Noah, through his fourth son Sceaf: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 23r

In the same manuscript, a mappa mundi or ‘map of the world’ shows where the Ark is thought to have come to land. Here, its final resting place (marked with a drawing of the Ark itself) is identified as east of the Black Sea, close to the mountain ranges of Armenia.

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A map of the world from the Anglo-Saxon miscellany, showing the location of Noah’s Ark: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 56v

Meanwhile, the artists of the Old English Hexateuch (Cotton MS Claudius B IV), written around the same time, were particularly inspired by Noah’s story and included several illustrations to accompany the account of Noah and his sons from the book of Genesis. These colourful framed images show the various phases of the Ark’s construction, the loading of the animals, the Ark at sea and the animals leaving the Ark with Noah and his family, once the waters had retreated.

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The animals leaving the Ark after the Flood has subsided, from the Old English Hexateuch: Cotton MS Claudius B IV, f. 15v

We are very excited to have been able to read the page in the Orosius manuscript for perhaps the first time in a thousand years. This is proof that there are many more discoveries to be made, which collectively will enable us to build up a more detailed picture of pre-Conquest history.

 

Visit our Medieval England and France website to discover how to make a medieval manuscript, to read beastly tales from the medieval bestiary, and to learn about medieval science, medicine and monastic libraries.

 

Calum Cockburn

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

27 June 2019

Unexpected encounters of the fragmentary kind

Over the last few months, we have been progressively adding new descriptions of the Harley manuscripts to our online catalogue. We have been surprised on a regular basis by the number of medieval fragments we have encountered in some of these volumes. Many of these leaves were not previously described in the printed Catalogue of Harleian Manuscripts (1808–1812), and they have gone largely unnoticed in modern times.

One of our most unexpected discoveries comes from the collections of John Bagford (1650–1716), a shoemaker, bookseller and library agent for Hans Sloane (1660–1753) and Robert Harley (1661–1724), founders of the Library’s Sloane and Harley collections. For example, tucked between Bagford’s notes on the history of printing is a parchment fragment that features a decorated monogram of the letters Te Igitur followed by the words clementissime pater, the opening words of the Canon of the Mass (‘Thee, therefore, most merciful Father’).

Image 1 - Bagford Fragment (recto)

Image 2 - Bagford Fragment (verso)

The opening of the Canon of the Mass and the Commemoration of the Living and the beginning of the Invocation of the Saints, from a fragmentary liturgical book (late 10th century or early 11th century): Harley MS 5910, ff. 79v, 79r

This fragment was cut from a manuscript used to celebrate Mass, probably a missal or sacramentary. Its script and the initial's design suggest that it was made  in the late 10th century or early 11th century, probably in France. The script and initial bear close similarities with a 10th-century manuscript made in Stavelot (modern-day Belgium). That manuscript (Stowe MS 3) was recently digitised as part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project. It contains a copy of the Four Gospels and a lectionary (a collection of readings of Scripture used for worship on a particular day). Here, pencil sketches for a large initial Q and F mark the beginning of the Gospel of St Luke.

Image 3 - Stowe MS 3 [I]

Image 4 - Stowe MS 3 [II]

Sketches in pencil for a large initial Q and F marking the beginning of the Gospel of St Luke, from a 10th-century Gospel-book and Lectionary made in Stavelot: Stowe MS 3, ff. 111v–112r

During the Middle Ages, monasteries often recycled old liturgical manuscripts as binding materials. This may explain how a 15th-century manuscript of the Speculum Curatorum (Mirror for Curates) by the English Benedictine monk Ranulf Higden (d. 1364) came to include a flyleaf from a 12th-century Roman ritual, a manuscript containing the rites that were performed by priests. The fragment contains part of the rite of sprinkling a congregation with holy water (Asperges), followed by a blessing for pilgrims (‘Benedictio peregrinorum’).

Image 5 - Roman Ritual Fragment

A fragment from a Roman ritual (12th century): Harley MS 1004, f. 198r

The Dissolution of the Monasteries between 1536 and 1541 caused many religious manuscripts to be dispersed among lay owners. The latter often exploited such manuscripts as sources of binding materials for other books, resulting in some unusual pairings of medieval and early modern leaves. For example, we have found two flyleaves with a 13th-century glossary of plant names in an early modern manuscript of texts concerning the Church of England.

Image 6 - Glossary Fragment

A glossary of plant names (13th century): Harley MS 828, f. 1*recto

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Texts concerning the Church of England (late 16th century or early 17th century): Harley MS 828, f. 1r

In cataloguing a manuscript (Harley MS 6547) containing the Tractatus de Libero Arbitrio (Treatise on Free Will), we encountered a parchment fold-out that was taken from a 13th-century glossed Bible.

Image 7 - Glossed Bible Fragment

Romans 11:1-6 (13th century): Harley MS 6547, f. 36r

Image 9 - Tractatus de Libero Arbitrio

Tractatus de Libero Arbitrio (late 16th or early 17th century): Harley MS 6547, f. 1r

An unknown early modern English manuscript owner appears to have taken a leaf from a 13th-century lectionary to supply a flyleaf for a mid 16th-century survey of English counties (Harley MS 71).

Image 8 - Gospel Readings Fragment

Readings from the Gospels (13th century): Harley MS 71, f. 1r

Image 11 - Survey of English Counties

A survey of English counties (1558–1559): Harley MS 71, f. 1r

A final example of an unusual pairing can be found in Harley MS 6355. This manuscript contains a 16th-century treatise on gunpowder, just as the printed catalogue describes. What the catalogue does not mention is that it also contains four flyleaves with texts and music notation for liturgical feasts, taken from a 14th-century manuscript.

Image 9 - Liturgical Music Fragment

Liturgical texts with music notation (14th century): Harley MS 6355, ff. 3v–4r

Image 13 - Treatise on gunpowder

A treatise on making gunpowder, using cannons and mortars (16th century): Harley MS 6355, ff. 5v–6r

Many other Harleian binding fragments await further research. Not only do such leaves sometimes contain materials that are valuable sources for medieval history and art, but they also provide us with an insight into how they were used and re-used by their early owners. We hope to discover many more as our cataloguing project continues. Maybe you will have your own close encounters with some of these 'UFLs' (unidentified flyleaves).

 

Visit our Medieval England and France website to discover how to make a medieval manuscript, to read beastly tales from the medieval bestiary, and to learn about medieval science, medicine and monastic libraries.

 

Clarck Drieshen & Calum Cockburn

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

26 June 2019

History Today Trustees' Award 2019

We are thrilled to announce that Claire Breay, Head of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts at the British Library, has received this year's Longman-History Today Trustees' Award. This honour is in recognition of Claire's efforts to promote history in the public sphere, culminating most recently in the Library's once-in-a-generation (or should that be once-in-a-millennium?!) Anglo-Saxons Kingdoms exhibition. Claire received her award from Paul Lay, editor of History Today, pictured with her below, and in characteristic style she paid tribute to her colleagues across the British Library, together with Professor Simon Keynes and Professor Joanna Story, who advised on the exhibition, as well as her husband (for remembering to feed her family while she was otherwise occupied).

Claire

Speaking on behalf of the judges, Paul Lay remarked that Claire deserved the Trustees' Award for a string of major achievements, which include curating the Library's exhibition Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy in 2015, and for co-editing (with Jo Story) the catalogue which accompanied Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. Many of our readers will be aware that this most recent exhibition brought together for the first time a significant number of the most precious early English treasures, including the four Old English poetic codices, items from Sutton Hoo and the Staffordshire Hoard, Domesday Book and (one of our particular favourites) Spong Man. Also on display was the mightily impressive (and phenomenally heavy) Codex Amiatinus, which had been returned temporarily to these shores for the first time in 1,300 years. Securing agreement to borrow these manuscripts and artefacts was no mean feat. As Claire pointed out in her acceptance speech, this enabled us to tell the story of a critical period of early medieval history alongside many of the Library's own Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, a remarkable number of which belong to the Cotton collection.

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Claire Breay with the Lindisfarne Gospels (Cotton MS Nero D IV), prior to it being installed in the exhibition

We are delighted that Claire has been honoured in this way, and hope that you join us in congratulating her.

 

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25 June 2019

Toads and ermine (and other coats of arms)

Heraldry, or the study and design of armorial bearings, sometimes has a dusty reputation. This is quite undeserved: heraldic manuscripts can give us a fascinating insight into the way in which history and legend were interwoven in the medieval mind. In the mid-15th century, Richard Strangways of the Inner Temple wrote a treatise on the rules of heraldry that he exemplified with ‘imaginary arms’: coats of arms that were attributed to the protagonists of medieval legends and heroes of romances, and, retroactively, kings who had lived before the beginning of the age of heraldry in the 12th century. His treatise survives uniquely  in Harley MS 2259.

Image 1 - Strangways

Richard Strangways’s heraldic treatise (1455): Harley MS 2259, f. 11r

Strangways included in his treatise the attributed arms of Brutus of Troy, a legendary figure who — according to the anonymous 9th-century Historia Brittonum and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Brittaniae — was a descendant of the Trojan hero Aeneas, and the founder and first king of Britain. He also painted the attributed arms of William the Conqueror. Like the near-contemporary Men of Arms in Harley MS 4205, Strangways claimed that the Duke of Normandy bore a shield with silver and blue bars when he conquered England in 1066.

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The arms of Brutus [left] and William the Conqueror [right]: Harley MS 2259, ff. 179v, 95v

Describing the arms of the kings of France, Strangways followed a popular medieval legend: the pre-Christian kings of the Franks would have borne a pagan shield with three black toads (resembling the attributed arms of Satan), which the Franks continued to use until ‘Kyng Lowes’ [Louis the Pious?] prayed for a new charge and an angel gave him fleurs-de-lis to replace the toads.

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The pagan arms of the Frankish kings: Harley MS 2259, f. 163v

Arthurian literature was evidently another important source for Strangways. He formally described — or to put it in heraldic terms ‘blazons’ — the arms of the legendary King Arthur as a ‘gules three crowns in pale’. This means: a red shield with three golden crowns ordered vertically.

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A blazon of King Arthur’s arms: Harley MS 2259, f. 183r

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The arms of King Arthur (England, 4th quarter of the 15th century): Harley MS 2169, f. 5v

Strangways also showed the arms of Sir Geraint, who Welsh romances held to be one of Arthur’s most valiant knights, and those of Sir Gawain, one of the most renowned Knights of the Round Table. As the 14th-century Middle English romance of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in Cotton MS Nero A X has it, Gawain bore a red shield with a five-pointed golden star. But Strangways gave him a green shield with a golden bar that is covered with an ‘ermine’ — a heraldic pattern based on the winter coat of the stoat. He stated that adding this ‘fur’ was necessary because Gawain was born in bastardy, a claim corroborated by medieval works such as De Ortu Waluuanii Nepotis Arturi (The Rise of Sir Gawain, Nephew of Arthur). To put it in Strangways’s own words, ‘the rule in heraldry is that if he is born of a noble lady in bastardy and bears her arms he shall bear them with such a fur’ (‘the law of armys ys yf he come of a gret lady in bastardy and ber her armys he shall ber hem with such a furcot’).

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The arms of Geraint [left] and of Gawain [right]: Harley MS 2259, ff. 134r, 73r

Harley MS 2259 also features the arms of Sir John Mandeville, the supposed author of a fictional travel memoir describing the wonders of the Holy Land, Africa and Asia. Mandeville’s Travels survives in hundreds of medieval manuscripts, but none of the illustrated versions (such as Harley MS 3954 and Add MS 24189) show Mandeville bearing arms. His shield was once displayed in the church of Guillemins near Liège (in modern-day Belgium), where Mandeville was supposedly buried, but the church was destroyed during the French Revolution. Strangways’s treatise includes one of only two extant illustrations of Mandeville's arms, and the only medieval one.

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The arms of John Mandeville [‘maximus peregrinus’]: Harley MS 2259, f. 90r

Strangways made special mention of the attributed arms of Prester John. According to popular legend, he was the founder and ruler of a Christian kingdom in the Far East. A letter purportedly written by him to the Byzantine Emperor, Manuel Komnenos, describes a kingdom with mythical animals, monstrous races and marvels such as a fountain of youth. The letter survives in hundreds of medieval manuscripts, the oldest dating back to the 12th century (for example, Harley MS 3099). Prester John’s arms are exceptional because they display the Crucifixion of Christ, imagery that was reserved for only a few eminent bishops and religious institutions.

Strangways emphasized his heraldic charge’s rarity by explaining the distinction between a crucifix and a cross, which was commonly used on coats of arms: ‘It is called a crucifix because God is nailed upon it, because if it is so that God isn’t nailed upon it in person, then it should just be called a cross’ (‘hyt ys callyd a crucyfix be cause god ys naylyd and crucyfyd up on yt. For yf  yt were so þat god were nat naylyd on yt in figure than yt shuld be callyd but a crosse’).

Image 10 - Prester John (blazon)

A blazon of the arms of Prester John: Harley MS 2259, f. 147r

Image 11 - Prester John (arms)

The arms of Prester John (northern France, 15th century): Egerton MS 3030, f. 9v

Strangways’s treatise is just one of several late medieval English heraldic works to feature attributed arms. These ‘imaginary arms’ reflect the importance placed on symbolism by the late medieval gentry and aristocracy, and a desire to associate themselves with important figures in medieval history and legend.

We are currently creating new online records for manuscripts in the Harley collection (one of the foundation collections of the British Library). You can read more about this project, which includes Harley MS 2259 (containing Strangways's treatise), in our blogpost Cataloguing the Harley manuscripts.

 

Visit our Medieval England and France website to discover how to make a medieval manuscript, to read beastly tales from the medieval bestiary, and to learn about medieval science, medicine and monastic libraries.

Clarck Drieshen

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

22 June 2019

Join us at Leeds

The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200 will be hosting a session at the Leeds International Medieval Congress this year. Join us for a roundtable discussion exploring ways to increase the impact of research on medieval manuscripts within the Research Excellence Framework, using this project as a model.

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The Annunciation to the shepherds (northern France or southern Netherlands, 3rd quarter of the 12th century): Cotton MS Caligula A VII, f. 6v

We would love to see you on Tuesday 2 July at 19:00 for Session 924. You can download our flyer here.

We will have a panel of four:

  • Dr Kathleen Doyle (Lead Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts at the British Library), supervisor of the project.
  • Tuija Ainonen (Merton College, Oxford/The Bodleian Library), who served as the project manager. Tuija is currently Medieval Manuscripts Electronic Catalogue Project Officer at Merton College, working on the migration of its catalogue of medieval manuscripts to the new Oxford digital catalogue, as well as Project Cataloguer on the #PolonskyGerman project at the Bodleian.
  • Dr Alison Ray (Canterbury Cathedral Archives and Library), the project’s web content officer. Alison looks after the medieval and modern collections at Canterbury. She wrote her PhD at UCL on the pecia system of book production.
  • Professor Joanna Story (Professor of Early Medieval History, University of Leicester), who co-supervises with Kathleen a collaborative doctoral student who worked on the project. Jo was an academic advisor of the Library’s recent Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, as well as being co-editor of the exhibition book.

As regular readers of this Blog will know, the England and France Project was an ambitious and innovative project to digitise, promote and interpret 800 manuscripts made in England or France before 1200, generously funded by The Polonsky Foundation. We produced two websites: one with complete digital coverage of all 800 manuscripts hosted by the Bibliothèque nationale de France; the second, hosted by the British Library, seeks to interpret this research for students and the general public, with 30 articles, 11 videos and over 150 general descriptions of specific manuscripts.

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A selection of fishes in a medieval bestiary (England, early 13th century): Harley MS 4751, f. 68r

At the roundtable we will discuss how to demonstrate quantitative and qualitative impact in funded projects, and how to maximise usage and knowledge transfer using social media, blogs and traditional news outlets. We will welcome your questions and comments, and will aim to make this session as interactive as possible. 

 

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

The Polonsky Foundation logo

21 June 2019

Even more digitised manuscripts

Long-term readers of this Blog may be aware that we periodically publish lists of our digitised manuscripts. Our last one was published in July 2018 and the wait for a new one is over — here are up-to-date lists of manuscript hyperlinks to make it easier for you to explore our amazing digitised treasures.

A decorated letter 'E' containing two scenes of musicians playing instruments and a dog dancing
Cause for celebration! Musicians and a dog play music and rejoice in a decorated initial at the opening of Psalm 80 (81), 13th-century Psalter, eastern England: Lansdowne MS 431, f. 64v (detail)

There are now 2,535 Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern manuscripts on our Digitised Manuscripts website and more being added all the time. For a full list of what is currently available, please see this PDF: Download Full list digitised MSS June 2019. This is also available as an Excel spreadsheet:  Download Full list digitised MSS June 2019 (this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers).

The Library's Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern team have been busy as ever over the last year, working to make more manuscripts available online. All the images included in this blogpost are from manuscripts that we digitised in 2018–19. To admire our most recent additions to the Digitised Manuscripts site, take a look at this list of manuscripts published since January 2018 (not including Polonsky Project manuscripts, for which see below). PDF: Download Digitised MSS Jan 2018 to June 2019. Excel: Download Digitised MSS Jan 2018 to June 2019.

A picture of a man on a horse turning backwards towards a half-naked beggar. The horseman holds out his cloak and is about to cut it with his sword.
St Martin dividing his cloak to share with a beggar, southern Netherlands, c. 1200: Add MS 15219, f. 12r (digitised by The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project)

In addition to these, we have also digitised 400 of our manuscripts as part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700–1200. You can browse the list of all 800 British Library and Bibliothèque nationale manuscripts digitised in the project as a PDF: Download Polonskypre1200_bl_bnf_800mss_urls and Excel spreadsheet: Download Polonskypre1200_bl_bnf_800mss_urls.

A boat on the sea, with one sailor being pulled overboard by a mermaid. Meanwhile a centuar with a bow runs past.
A siren luring a mariner to a watery grave and a centaur practising archery, 13th-century bestiary, northern France: Sloane MS 278, f. 47r

To find out how to make the most of Digitised Manuscripts, check out this blogpost. Many images of our manuscripts are also available to download from our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts which is searchable by keywords, dates, scribes and languages.

A cucumber plant, with fruits and flowers.
A cucumber, the Carrara Herbal, northern Italy, c. 1390-1404: Egerton MS 2020, f. 162v

We hope you enjoy exploring!

 

Visit our Medieval England and France website to discover how to make a medieval manuscript, to read beastly tales from the medieval bestiary, and to learn about medieval science, medicine and monastic libraries.

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

16 June 2019

Explore Leonardo's notebooks

Our major new exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion, is open now at the British Library. It features highlights from three of the Reniassance thinker's extraordinary notebooks: the Codex Forster II, on loan from the Victoria & Albert Museum; the Codex Leicester, owned by Bill Gates; and the Library's Codex Arundel. The exhibition is on until 8 September, and tickets for adults cost £7 (members and children under 11 enter for free and other concessions are available).

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Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion marks the 500th anniversary of his death

Our exhibition takes the opportunity to to explore the inner workings of Leonardo's complex mind and his fascination with motion — which he considered to be ‘the cause of all life’. Visitors will be able to marvel at his detailed studies of natural phenomena, and to see studies for his painting The Virgin of the Rocks.

You can explore Leonardo's Codex Arundel for yourself on the Library's Digitised Manuscripts website. Leonardo described this notebook on the opening page as a 'a collection without order, drawn from many papers, which I have copied here, hoping to arrange them later each in its place according to the subjects of which they treat'. It contains pages datable between 1478 and 1518 (though mostly to 1508), and written variously at Florence, Milan, Rome and Amboise in France. Tthis notebook is named after an early owner, Thomas Howard (1585–1646), 2nd earl of Arundel, 4th earl of Surrey, and 1st earl of Norfolk. It was presented by Henry Howard (d. 1684), 6th duke of Norfolk, to the Royal Society in 1667, from whom it was purchased by the British Museum in 1831.

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This image from Codex Arundel, taken using UV light, shows Leonardo da Vinci's studies of limbs from different viewpoints

Our Events programme contains a number of talks connected to the work of Leonardo da Vinci, including Waterways (17 June), Leonardo da Vinci’s Scientific Impact with Domenico Laurenza (2 July), and a curator talk by Juliana Barone (15 July). You can book tickets for all these on our Events pages, and for the exhibition here.

 

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11 June 2019

The Ruin of Britain

Very few texts survive that were written in Britain between the 5th and 7th centuries. We have works by just two named authors from that period. One was a shepherd, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery and became the patron saint of Ireland, none other than St Patrick. The other wrote one of the most influential rants in British history.

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A page from the earliest substantial copy of Gildas's The Ruin of Britain, made possibly in Canterbury in the 10th century: Cotton MS Vitellius A VI, f. 14v

The ranter in question was Gildas, a Romano-British deacon and monk. Sometime between the late 5th century and the 6th century, he wrote The Ruin of Britain, which describes a time of dramatic change, when the Roman legions had left Britain and the Romano-British population was under attack from invaders:

‘I shall try, God willing, to say a little about the situation of Britain; about her obstinacy, subjection, and rebellion ... the destruction of cities; about those who survived’: Gildas: The Ruin of Britain and other works, ed. and trans. by Michael Winterbottom (London: Phillimore, 1978), p. 16.

As this quotation suggests, The Ruin of Britain is a moralising polemic that condemned the British lay and ecclesiastical leaders. The text is full of examples and quotations from the Bible. Although Gildas's account is vivid, he was not an eyewitness: most of the events he described occurred before he was born.

A fragment of The Ruin of Britain survives in a late 9th- or early 10th-century continental copy (now in Bibliothèque Carnegie de Reims, MS 414). The oldest substantial copy was made in southern England in the mid-10th century (British Library Cotton MS Vitellius A VI). Sadly, this manuscript was significantly damaged by fire in 1731.

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The pages of this manuscript of The Ruin of Britain were damaged by fire in 1731, before being placed in paper mounts in the 19th century: Cotton MS Vitellius A VI, f. 7v

In The Ruin of Britain, Gildas depicted the defeats and natural disasters suffered by the Britons as divine punishment for their sins. He claimed that Romano-British leaders had invited three ship-loads of Saxons to protect them from Pictish invaders, but these Saxons had turned on their hosts and become an even worse enemy. Gildas described vividly how whole settlements were put to the sword, ‘fragments of bodies covered with coagulated clots of red blood, in confusion as if in some kind of horrible wine press’ (translated by Hugh Williams, Gildas (London, 1899)). Some Britons surrendered to the invaders, others fled into the mountains or deep into forests, others still migrated to the continent. Some resisted, such as Ambrosius Aurelianus, who reputedly defeated the invaders at Mons Badonicus in the year that Gildas was born.

While Gildas praised leaders like Ambrosius, he did not mince his words about the Romano-British kings and churchmen of his own day: ‘Britain has kings, but they are tyrants: she has judges, but they are unrighteous men’. Gildas singled out five kings in particular for condemnation: Constantine, king of Dumnonia (the area around modern Cornwall and Devon); Aurelius Caninus; grey-haired Vortipor of the Demetae (in what is now Pembrokeshire); Cuneglas, who probably ruled the area around the Dinarth Rhos peninsula; and Maelgwn of Gwynedd. Gildas accused all these men of murder and adultery. He saved his fiercest criticism for the most powerful British king, Maelgwn:

‘And you, island dragon … greater than almost all the kings of Britain, but worse in morality ... You are certainly not lacking in warnings, since you were taught by the finest teacher in almost all of Britain.’

It is unclear what happened to Gildas after he wrote The Ruin of Britain. Some have suggested that he migrated to Brittany, like many other Britons, since there was a Breton monastery dedicated to St Gildas. But there is no firm evidence for this. Gildas was remembered as a saint by the Anglo-Saxons, and his name is found in eight pre-Conquest calendars of saints' days.

Ironically, Gildas’s writings survive to this day in part because the Anglo-Saxons that he so despised continued to quote him. For example, Bede (d. 735) used The Ruin of Britain as one of his sources for the history of post-Roman Britain.

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The most substantial surviving manuscript of The Ruin of Britain was copied in England in the 10th century: Cotton MS Vitellius A VI, f. 15r

Three centuries years later, Archbishop Wulfstan of York (d. 1023) used Gildas as cautionary tale, to try to galvanise English resistance to the Scandinavian invasions:

‘There was a historian in the time of the Britons, Gildas, who wrote about their misdeeds, how they exasperated God with their sins so much that He finally allowed the English army to conquer their land … Let us take warning from this: it is true what I say, we know of worse deeds among the English than we have heard of among the Britons.’

The Ruin of Britain had long-lasting effects, even they were not what Gildas intended. He may not have swayed the leaders of his own day, and it is clear that the Germanic invaders became dominant in southern Britannia. The Ruin of Britain nonetheless had a major impact on some later writers. It remains the principal (near) contemporary narrative account of the momentous events of the 5th and 6th centuries.

 

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Alison Hudson

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