THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

4 posts from June 2019

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.

 

Alison Hudson

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07 June 2019

Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion

On 7 June an exciting new exhibition opens at the British Library. Marking 500 years since his death, Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion showcases Leonardo’s manuscript legacy by displaying together — for the first time in the UK — highlights from one of the British Library’s finest treasures, the Codex Arundel, alongside Codex Forster II from the V&A, and a selection of sheets from the Codex Leicester, widely considered to be one of Leonardo’s most important scientific journals and now owned by Bill Gates.

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Observations on the course of the River Arno: British Library, Arundel MS 263, f. 149r 

Studies for a perpetual motion wheel  Codex Forster II  ff. 90v (c) Victoria and Albert Museum  London Studies for a perpetual motion wheel  Codex Forster II  ff. 91r (c) Victoria and Albert Museum  London
Studies for a perpetual motion wheel: Codex Forster II, ff. 90v–91r © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Studies on the use of obstacles... Seattle  Bill Gates Collection  Codex Leicester  13B (ff. 13v-24r) © bgC3

Studies on the use of obstacles: Seattle, Bill Gates Collection, Codex Leicester, 13B (ff. 13v–24r) © bgC3

The exhibition explores Leonardo’s fascination with motion, which he considered to be ‘the cause of all life’. It reveals the major role he ascribed to motion in his quest to understand the natural world and discover the rigorous laws which govern nature. In particular, it follows his life-long study of water, which for Leonardo was the driving force of nature.

Leonardo’s remarkable notebooks, written in his distinctive mirror writing, are used in the exhibition to illustrate how his detailed studies of natural phenomena — and in particular of water — influenced his work both as an artist and an inventor. With intricate drawings and diagrams crowding every page, visitors will be able to follow Leonardo in his tireless pursuit of knowledge, track his thoughts and experiments, and marvel at his insights into subjects as varied as the formation of waves and air bubbles, river flow, bird flight, and the nature of light and shadow.

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Underwater breathing apparatus: British Library, Arundel MS 263, f. 24v

Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion is on at the British Library from 7 June to 8 September 2019. The exhibition is in partnership with Automobili Pininfarina and tickets can be purchased here. The exhibition is accompanied by a series of events inspired by the exhibition, including a range of adult learning courses, free family workshops and an audio-description tour for blind and partially sighted visitors. An exhibition book edited by Dr Juliana Barone, associate curator, is available from the British Library shop.

 

 

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06 June 2019

The curse of the spiritual sword

We have previously reported about our fascination with medieval book curses, added in monastic libraries to ward off thieves and warn careless users. Book curses typically state that those who stole or damaged a book would be spiritually condemned, often including the Greek-Aramaic formula ‘Anathema Maranatha'. For example, during the 12th and 13th centuries monks at Reading Abbey systematically added such curses to their manuscripts containing biblical commentaries (examples include Add MS 38687Harley MS 101 and Harley MS 1246).

Image 1  Reading Abbey's Book Curse  Add MS 38687  f. 150r

Reading Abbey’s book curse in a commentary on Deuteronomy and Joshua (1st quarter of the 13th century): Add MS 38687, f. 150r

We would like to share some new findings that will enable you to protect your favourite books, as well as other prized possessions. One example comes from the so-called ‘Noyon Sacramentary’ (Add MS 82956). This 10th-century manuscript, produced by the monastic community at Noyon Cathedral in northern France, contains masses and prayers for blessings and ceremonies. The manuscript opens with a wrathful curse that would bring down a series of spiritual punishments upon those who stole from or committed any other crime against Noyon Cathedral.

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Noyon Cathedral’s ‘Curse of the Spiritual Sword’ (4th quarter of the 10th century): Add MS 82956, f. 1v

The Noyon Cathedral curse begins: ‘excommunicamus eos et gladio sancti spiritus a vertice capitis usque ad plantam pedis transverberamus’ (‘We will excommunicate them and cut through them with the sword of the Holy Spirit, from the top of the head to the sole of the feet').

It then declares that book-thieves would be condemned to burn in the eternal fire of Hell together with Judas Iscariot, perhaps because they, like Judas, committed betrayal for material gain. Finally, to top it off, these thieves were to remain in the darkness of Hell where they would keep the devil company.

Perhaps an even more powerful curse for protecting your belongings comes from a 12th-century lectionary (containing readings from the Gospels for the Mass) from the Benedictine abbey of Tholey in western Germany (Add MS 29276). The curse is preceded by an itemised list of the monastery’s relics and sacred objects: ‘We have in this monastery of St Peter and St Mauritius eight bookcases of silver, four books of silver, and ten chalices’. Protecting this treasure is a curse that the community would collectively cast upon anyone who stole from the monastery:

‘a sancte matris ecclesiae segregamus ac perpetuae maledictionis anathemate condempnamus . sit que maledictus in domo . in agro . veniantque super eum omnes ille maledictiones . quas dominus per moysen in populum divin[a]e legis prevaricatione se esse missurum. Sitque anathema maranatha . id est pereat in secundo adventu domini. Stix sit ei potus. Amen’.

‘We will segregate him from the mother church and condemn him with the eternal curse of anathema: may he be cursed in the house and on the land, and let all the curses that the Lord cast through Moses onto the transgressors of the Divine Law come upon him. May he be anathema maranatha. That means: may he be damned at the Second Coming of Our Lord (the Last Judgement); may the Styx be his drink. Amen’.

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Tholey Abbey’s ‘Styx-Curse’ (c. 1100–c. 1175): Add MS 29276, f. 162v

This curse encompasses both the eternal sentence to Hell, at the Last Judgement, and the Styx, the principal river of the Underworld. While it may seem unexpected to find a medieval monk referring to the Styx, monasteries gained knowledge about the Underworld through their copies of works such as Virgil's Aeneid . For example, in a 12th-century theological miscellany from the Cistercian abbey of Thame in Oxfordshire (Burney MS 357), the Styx is listed as one of the rivers in Hell, and its name is defined as ‘sadness’ (tristicia).  

Image 5  Thame Abbey's Names of the Infernal Waters  Burney MS 357  f. 4v

The ‘Stix’ among the ‘Names of the Infernal Waters’ (Nomina Humorum Infernalium) (1st half of the 12th century): Burney MS 357, f. 4v

It's clear that some medieval monks were very resourceful when it came to protecting their most precious treasures. The book curses that they devised indicate not only their knowledge of religious and Classical works, but also the importance they attributed to their sacred books and objects.

To learn more about medieval monastic libraries, and how books were acquired, used and stored, see this article on Medieval monastic libraries by Alison Ray, created as part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700–1200. Together with the Bibliothèque nationale de France, we have digitised 800 manuscripts from our collections, which you can learn more about on our dedicated Medieval England and France webspace.

 

Clarck Drieshen

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