THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

15 posts from August 2019

31 August 2019

5 million page-views and counting

We once declared privately that we would never again begin a blogpost with the words, 'We are delighted to announce'. But today we have to break that rule: we are extremely delighted to announce that our Medieval Manuscripts Blog recently received its 5 MILLIONTH page-view. We have been blogging about the British Library's marvellous manuscripts since 2010, telling you all about our exhibitions, events and digitisation projects. We hope you have enjoyed reading this Blog as much as we have enjoyed writing it.

To celebrate, and for one day only, we are going to give the Blog over to you, our loyal readers. You keep us on our toes, and your kind and incisive comments help us to know what you're interested in. Earlier this summer, we asked you to tell us which British Library manuscripts inspire you? Here is some of the wonderful feedback we received: what 'delighted' us most was the range of people who responded, from art historians to nuns to calligraphers to fans of tattoos to historic sites, and from across the world. We received so many comments that we're listing them here in alphabetical order. Thank you all again.

PS this is one of the easiest blogposts we've ever had to write, as you've done it for us!

PPS we'd also like to thank the Blog's many contributors over the years (you know who you are); you'll be hearing from some of them over the coming days.

PPPS we'd finally like to thank the funders of our many digitisation initiatives, including The Polonsky Foundation and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, without whom it would not have been possible to make so many of our manuscripts available online.

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

A knight fighting a snail

 

I started delving into medieval manuscripts and images because I was doing research that included herbals, alchemy, and early medicine. That got me hooked on many other types of medieval images. I can't possibly pick a favorite. So many are divine or informative.

 

Nuria Bono

Nuria M. Bono tweet: 'I'm here for the cats'

Kaleb Borromeo

Kaleb Borromeo tweet: 'they have inspired me to learn the original languages'

The Brooklyn Art Historian

Brooklyn Art Historiam tweet: 'Seyssel's translation of Xenophon's Anabasis, gifted to Henry VII'

The Anabasis manuscript presented to Henry VII

Miniature of Henry VII receiving the book from the translator, Claude de Seyssel: Royal MS 19 C VI, f. 17r

 

Marianne Lee Burdi

Marianne Lee Burdi tweet: 'I always love your snails'

Nancy Ewart

Nancy Ewart tweet: 'You put a banquet in front of me & tell me I can only have one? ONE of the manuscripts I love is the Spanish Beatus'

One copy of the commentary on the Apocalypse by Beatus of Liébana can be found here: Add MS 11695

 

Göktug and Lilac Sunday

Goktug tweet: 'Beowulf is my favourite'; Lilac Sunday: 'Beowulf, I became hooked after the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition'

The Beowulf manuscript can be found online here: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV

 

Brandon Hawk

Brandon Hawk tweet: 'So many British Library manuscripts made it into my book, Preaching the Apocrypha in Anglo-Saxon England'

Presenting the Rule to St Benedict

A miniature of monks presenting a copy of the Rule of St Benedict to St Benedict: Cotton MS Tiberius A III, f. 117v

 

My research is on the way memory systems work in non-literate and early literate cultures. I read Mary Curruthers "The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture" and started looking at medieval manuscripts for the way they were designed and annotated to aid memory during my PhD research. I already loved the artistry, but add in the incredible mnemonic aids - drolleries and glosses and the layout and lettering - and I fell even more deeply in love with them. I have written about medieval manuscripts and what they can teach us about the memory arts in my most recent book.

I have spent way too many hours browsing your glorious database and choosing a favourite is impossible. But if I have to, the Smithfield Decretals win my vote.

For example, I love this image:

The Smithfield Decretals

A bas-de-page scene of a centaur fighting dragons, in the Smithfield Decretals: Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 173r

Catherine Leglu

I discovered BL Egerton MS 1500 in 2005 because I was exploring the Occitan manuscripts. I was amazed by the rows of tiny heads, some of them topped by gold crowns, and by the maps. Nobody I asked at the time seemed to be sure what the text was. In 2011 I obtained funding from the Leverhulme Trust, which included digitising the manuscript. Our project's first three articles about Egerton 1500 came out in the eBLJ in late 2013. One of the exciting discoveries was that the columns of kings, popes, doges and emperors included borrowings from some illuminated rolls depicting kings of England, some of them also in the British Library. Since then, I have published several articles on this Occitan version of Paolino Veneto's illustrated history of the world until 1313, and more are to come.

The Occitan illustrated chronicle

Scenes from the First Crusade, in Abreviamen de las Estorias: Egerton MS 1500, f. 46r

Sjoerd Levelt tweet: 'I wrote a whole book about Cotton MSS Vitellius F XV and Tiberius C IV
 
Lewes Castle
Lewes Castle tweet: 'So many, but it has to be the Beowulf manuscript'
 
Linda

I'm a newbie calligrapher, and was transfixed by the carpet pages I've seen in the gallery. So much so that I've actually just spent sixty or seventy hours creating my own, painstakingly painting knots and swirls and even attempting a bit of gold leaf! A brilliant experience for me, though I confess a certain amount of 'Anglo-Saxon' was muttered over the fiddly bits!

Fell into the manuscript rabbit hole whilst researching cats in art...and found a treasure trove. Since then have "spread the words" by posting the occasional video and giving introductory presentations on the story of Med MSS and its artwork at any institution interested... Do I have a favorite? Think the Rutland for its superb dragons and marginalia, Lindisfarne & St Cuthberts of course, the Talbot Shrewsbury, Lisbon Bible...too many favorites to list.

The Rutland Psalter

Historiated initial of a king and queen kneeling before an altar, with Christ above with a sword in his mouth, at the beginning of Psalm 101, in the Rutland Psalter: Add MS 62925, f. 99v

 

Melibeus

Melibeus tweet: 'Seriously? I have to choose a favourite manuscript? That is so cruel. Here we go: the Maastricht Hours'

The Maastricht Hours can be found online here: Stowe MS 17

 

It is incredibly difficult to single out individual items in such an awe-inspiring and magisterial collection of ancient, medieval and early modern manuscripts as that held by the British Library.

On a personal level, the first manuscript I consulted for my thesis will always stand out. The humble Additional 10289 is a miscellaneous 13th-century book copied at the abbey of Mont Saint-Michel, containing a history of the abbey in Old French. I remember feeling privileged to be handling the book in the reading room, contemplating the production of its parts and the strange addition of the crude tale Jouglet on the final folios (in which the advice of a mischievous jongleur leads to an unfortunate toilet incident on a young couple’s wedding night…)

I’m currently consulting on a daily basis the Library’s digital images of three important illuminated manuscripts of the Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César, the earliest universal chronicle in French composed at the beginning of the 13th century. Thanks to the Digitised Manuscripts website, our team has been able to transcribe collaboratively the complete text of the significant Angevin manuscript, Royal MS 20 D I. In addition, we’ve recorded the contents of two substantial 13th-century manuscripts in our digital Alignment tool, which offer insights into the early dissemination of this text in the Holy Land (Additional MS 15268) and northern France (Additional MS 19669).

The ‘Medieval manuscripts blog’ has been an amazing resource for discovering more about the incredible items in the collection, from the illuminations on calendar pages to medieval lolcats, knights vs snails, the mindboggling marginalia in the Maastricht Hours (Stowe MS 17, my personal favourite) and of course, who could forget the unicorn cookbook!

The histoire ancienne

The minotaur, in the Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César: Royal MS 20 D I, f. 22r

 

Claudine Moulin

Claudine Moulin tweet: 'Harley 3034: merci for giving us so much'

Claudine's 9th-century manuscript can be found online here: Harley MS 3034

 

Rachel

Rachel tweet: 'Any of the ones with animals on. I even have one tattooed on my arm!'

A good opportunity to tell you I don't have a single favorite. The joy of your blog is exactly that I am surprised by the variation and richness of our heritage. The comments and the wealth of background information is of help, but it is the images on my screen so rich in color and meaning that offer me great moments. Thanks for that.

 

Lucy Freeman Sandler

By a rough count I've written 3 books and about 30 articles either mentioning or solely focused on British Library manuscripts. Not one of these publications could have appeared without 1) access to the manuscripts; 2) the knowledge, assistance and interest of the BL staff; 3) the reference facilities of the BL; 4) the BL Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts; 5) most recently, and most wonderfully, the digitization of an increasing number of BL manuscripts; and 6) the BL Manuscripts Blog, which provides delight and discovery to specialists and amateurs alike. Bravo!

I have written about several manuscripts that have been featured in this blog, including the Neville of Hornby Hours (Egerton 2781), the subject of my dissertation and several articles as well as a key work in my first book; the Taymouth Hours (Yates Thompson 13), the subject of my second book; and the Queen Mary Psalter (Royal 2 B VII), about which I have written two articles. Multispectral imaging by The British Library's Christina Duffy enriched the research for my second article on the Psalter, published earlier this year. Most of my publications mention other BL manuscripts. My research as a whole has benefitted enormously from the BL's digitization initiatives as well as from access to the manuscripts, for which I am extremely grateful. I require students in my "Illuminated Book" course to subscribe to the blog and to use other of the BL's online resources: they and the blog are wonderful resources for teaching.

The Taymouth Hours

Miniature of Christ feeding the 5,000, in the Taymouth Hours: Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 102r

 

Sister Walburga

Sister Walburga tweet: 'Harley MS 3908 is mostly about St Mildred, our second abbess here at Minster Abbey. As it was digitalised I could access it from our monastery. Fantastic!'

Mass for St Mildred

A mass for the feast of St Mildred: Harley MS 3908, f. 42r

29 August 2019

Tweet, tweet

Does Twitter have its origins in the medieval period? Well, in a literal sense, no. As far as we are aware, no medieval ships came close to being named BoatyMcBoatFace as a result of a ‘campaign’ of parchment scraps. Medieval people did not write 280-character messages on pieces of parchment or paper, send them to each other or re-send the messages of others. But the imagery of ‘twitter’ and ‘tweet’ does have its origins in the Middle Ages. The modern name ‘Twitter’ was clearly chosen because there is something joyous about chattering birdsong. It implies something playful and social, and perhaps also lively, raucous debate. We can only speculate on whether Twitter’s creators knew that there is a now obsolete meaning of the word ‘twitter’ in English, which means a person who ‘reproaches or upbraids’.

Cropped bas de page from Howard Psalter
Here an owl is being used by a bird catcher to capture other birds, as referred to in The Owl and the Nightingale’, from the Howard Psalter (England, 14th century): Arundel MS 83, f. 14r

With their restless desire to anthropomorphise, humans have long heard birdsong and understood its rhythms and patterns to be akin to human speech. The idea that birds like to get into lively debates is very old. The early Middle English poem, The Owl and the Nightingale, tells the story of a bad-tempered debate between an owl and a nightingale. Each bird is horrified by the other, pouring scorn on their counterpart's song, nesting habits and appearance. But the poem is also a meditation on how to debate. In a revealing passage, the nightingale pauses before she speaks:

An sat sumdel & heo bi þohte

An wiste wel on hire þohte

Þe wraþþe binimeþ monnes red.

('She sat awhile and thought,

Reflecting on her thoughts,

Knowing that wrath robs a man of reason. ') [ll. 939–41]

This poem was written at some point between 1189 and 1216. Although it is anonymous, in the poem the birds resolve to seek the counsel of ‘Maister Nichole of Guldeforde’ (Master Nicholas of Guildford). This little in-joke may indicate that Guildford was the author or was known to them.

The Owl and the Nightingale
The Owl and the Nightingale (England, c. 1250–1300, possibly after 1275): Cotton MS Caligula A IX, f. 239v

While The Owl and the Nightingale imagines the birds as tetchy and sometimes downright rude, they are not always depicted in this way in medieval poetry. At around the time that the Owl and the Nightingale was composed, Farīd al-Dīn Aṭṭār (d. c. 1230) was at work thousands of miles away on The Conference of the Birds منطق الطیر‎, (Maniq-u-ayr). This poem is a work of Sufi mysticism and has a contemplative tone by comparison with The Owl and the Nightingale. It tells the story of a group of birds who gather together to choose a new sovereign. The hoopoe is the wisest of the birds and acts as their leader and guide. He tells them that they must travel on an arduous journey through seven valleys to find their new king. The conclusion of the poem (which we won’t give away) is a moment of realisation for the birds, and it involves a pun ... (You can read more about this manuscript on our Asian and African Studies Blog.)

The Conference of the Birds
The Conference of the Birds (late 15th or early 16th century): Add MS 7735, f. 30v

Perhaps one of the most delightful descriptions of avian debate is Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls, which was written in the late 14th century. It describes a group of birds gathering together in the early spring — on ‘seynt valentynes day’ — to choose their mates for the year. The poem appears to be the beginning of the tradition that associates Valentine’s Day with lovers. There is nothing in the hagiography (the Life) of St Valentine to suggest an association with lovers. The narrator describes the riot of sound made by the birds:

For this was on Saint Valentines day,

Whan every brid [bird] cometh ther to chese [choose] his make [mate],

Of every kinde that men thinke may;

And that so huge a noise [did] they make,

That erthe and air and tree and every lake

So ful was that unnethe [hardly] was ther space

For me to stonde, so ful was al the place.  [ll. 316–22]

The noble birds — the eagles — are allowed to make their selections first. Three male eagles (tercels) eagerly vie for the hand of the formel (female) eagle, but the other birds soon interrupt, complaining that this is all taking too long. A cacophonous semi-debate ensues.

The Parliament of Fowls
Geoffrey Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls (English, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 15th century): Harley MS 7333, f. 129v

If you’re interested in learning more about medieval avian debates, or in Middle English literature more generally, there are a very small number of places remaining on our adult learning course, Discovering Middle English, which starts on 11 September. You’ll get to encounter Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Arthurian legends of Thomas Malory and, of course, Geoffrey Chaucer.

 

Mary Wellesley

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

Manuscripts mentioned in this blogpost

Arundel MS 83 (De Lisle Psalter)

Cotton MS Caligula A IX (The Owl and the Nightingale)

Add MS 7735 (The Conference of the Birds)

Harley MS 7333 (Geoffrey Chaucer, Parliament of Fowls)

28 August 2019

The Joyful Ballad of the Taverners

Diluting wine with water, also known as baptising wine, was a common medieval practice. Taverners (innkeepers) and vintners (wine merchants) were especially associated with this custom. Literary accounts sometimes depicted them as nefarious figures who mixed wine with water in order to maximize their profit. Ironically, at the same period drinking diluted wine was associated with the virtue of temperance; in contrast, the excessive drinking of wine was associated with the deadly sin of gluttony (gula).

Bacchus and his followers
Bacchus and his followers as examples of gluttony, in Christine de Pizan’s L'Épître Othéa (France, c. 1410–c. 1414): Harley 4431, f. 106r

While cataloguing the Harley manuscripts, we recently discovered a previously unknown copy of a remarkable Middle French poem that responds to the practice of diluting wine. This poem, known as The Joyful Ballad of the Taverners (Ballade joyeuse des Taverniers), survives only in a few French manuscripts and early printed books. Our copy was added to a flyleaf of a manuscript (Harley MS 512) containing De Proprietatibus Rerum ('On the Properties of Things'), an encyclopedia of natural knowledge compiled by the Parisian scholar Bartholomaeus Anglicus (d. 1272).

The manuscript of The Joyful Ballad
The Joyful Ballad of the Taverners (France, 15th century): Harley MS 512, f. 1r

The Joyful Ballad is essentially a catalogue of curses that the poet wished upon taverners who diluted their wine. Although its author is unknown, it has long been associated with François Villon (c. 1431–after 1463), one of the most renowned French poets of the late Middle Ages, but also a murderer, thief and vagabond. Here is a translated stanza in order to give you a taste of the poem:

'Let some great gunshot blow their heads off sheer;

Let thunders catch them in the market-place;

Let rend their limbs and cast them far and near,

For dogs to batten on their bodies base;

Or let the lightning-stroke their sight efface.

Frost, hail and snow let still upon them bite;

Strip off their clothes and leave them naked quite,

For rain to drench them in the open air;

Lard them with knives and poniards and then bear

Their carrion forth and soak it in the Rhine;

Break all their bones with mauls and do not spare

The vintners [or ‘taverners’] that put water into our wine.'

[translation from John Payne, The Poems of Master François Villon of Paris (London, 1892), p. 137].

The Joyful Ballad is perhaps the most vitriolic poem to challenge the practice of mixing wine with water. But this subject was also central to medieval debate poetry, in which personifications of Water and Wine were pitted against each other. In the Goliae Dialogus inter Aquam et Vinum ('Goliardic Dialogue between Water and Wine'), they are represented by Thetis, goddess of the sea, and Dionysus, god of winemaking and wine. Dionysus argued that God created the grape without mixing it with water, for which reason it was heresy to drink diluted wine.

Manuscript of the Goliardic Dialogue
Goliae Dialogus inter Aquam et Vinum, (England, 14th century): Cotton MS Titus A XX, f. 66r

Diluted wine was not only disliked by medieval poets. The Roman poet Gaius Valerius Catullus (d. 54 BC) dedicated one of his poems to the subject. (This was well-known in the Middle Ages: the copy in Burney MS 133 is a good example.) Catullus's poem is suitably addressed to his cup-bearer (Ad Pincernam Suum). Here’s a translated extract:

'And get lost, water; off to drier lands,

Wine-spoiler. Fill the cups of prudish hands.

Thyonian [Bacchic] is the only wine for me.'

[translation by Len Krisak from Gaius Valerius Catullus Carmina (Manchester, Carcanet Press, 2014), p. 19]

The poem of Catullus
Catullus, Ad Pincernam (Italy, 1460): Add MS 11915, f. 13r

This is a lesson you may wish to bear in mind the next time you visit your local hostelry. We are sure that your friends may be amused if you recite The Joyful Ballad to them, although we cannot guarantee that the innkeeper or bartender may react in the same fashion.

 

Clarck Drieshen

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

Manuscripts cited in this blogpost

Harley 4431 (Christine de Pizan’s L'Épître Othéa)

Harley MS 512 (The Joyful Ballad of the Taverners)

Cotton MS Titus A XX (Goliae Dialogus inter Aquam et Vinum)

Burney MS 133 (Catullus, Ad Pincernam)

Add MS 11915 (Catullus, Ad Pincernam)

24 August 2019

What's happening here?

Many of you may be aware, especially if you follow us on Twitter, that we have a penchant for a little manuscript known as Le Petit Livre d'Amour (Stowe MS 955). Written by Pierre Sala early in the 16th century, it was presented as a love-gift to his mistress (and future wife), Marguerite Builloud. On the reverse of a portrait of the lover (f. 17v) is written, 'Set de vray le portret de Pierre Sala mestre dotel de ches le roy avec des enimes quil avoit fet a sa mestresse qui estoit grand honcle a madame de Ressis laquelle est sortie de la mayson de Guillien en Quercy.' Alongside the portrait of Sala (attributed to Jean Perréal) and the series of enigmatic miniatures (attributed to the Master of the Chronique scandaleuse), one of the manuscript's most distinctive features is its original wooden carrying case, designed to be suspended from a girdle. The leather covering is carved with devices which include the letters P (for Pierre) and M (for Marguerite), formed out of crossed compasses or staves. We suggest that you read more about the 'Little Book of Love' in this blogpost, and that you view it in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

Miniature of a man and a woman playing the bagpipes

This is a prelude to this weekend's caption competition. As ever, there are no prizes, but we'd love to have your responses to the question, 'What is happening here?' Answers please via the comments box below or on Twitter to @BLMedieval

23 August 2019

Ancient recycling: writing on potsherds

There are only a few days left to visit the British Library's major exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark. Recently, we dedicated a blogpost to one of the exhibits that has undoubtedly captured our visitors’ attention for its length, beauty and interest: the so-called Ravenna papyrus.

Another object on display, quite different from the Latin papyrus in terms of its size, nature and content, has also raised considerable public interest. It is a small potsherd, measuring 6.7 x 10 x 0.7 cm, whose outside (convex) side was used to host writing (Ostracon 13993). It is just one of the almost 4,200 potsherds, written in Ancient Greek, which form part of the British Library collections. They are known as ostraca (singular ostracon). You may not be immediately familiar with this term, but a modern English verb is derived from it. In Athens, in the 5th century BC, names of political figures who were believed to represent a threat to democracy were scratched onto the surface of potsherds, which were then deposited in urns. If a certain number of votes was reached, the person was expelled, that is, ostracised, for a period of ten years.

An ostracon issued for a sex-worker in ancient Egypt
The ostracon on display in Writing: Making Your Mark, dated 7 October 110 (Ostracon 13993)

Writing on pottery was common in the ancient world, and served different purposes. Containers of various types and shapes could be inscribed with information as to their contents, origi, or destination, especially for trade. Such labels, called ‘tituli picti’ or ‘dipinti’, were generally executed on the neck or shoulders of the amphora in red or black ink. However, these painted inscriptions are not considered to be ‘ostraca’, even when they are preserved in fragmentary form.

In contrast, shards of broken pots were commonly recycled and used as a writing material. For example, in Graeco-Roman Egypt ostraca were widely employed for writing many kinds of text, despite their disadvantages. Their smaller surface could only host short texts; they were heavier than a sheet of papyrus; and they could not be sealed. On the other hand, such shards were not only easy to source, such as in households and rubbish heaps, but they were also free of charge. Writing was usually traced on them in ink using the calamus, a reed pen employed for writing Greek and Latin texts on papyrus, or the reed brush for Egyptian writing. In Writing: Making Your Mark, our visitors have the opportunity to view an example of a reed pen in Arabic style, with the nib cut left oblique in order to favour writing from right to left.

As a result of their widespread use, ostraca from Egypt bear a wide variety of Greek texts. These include everyday documents such as tax receipts, lists, accounts and letters, as well as writing exercises and literary texts. At times, it can be difficult to tell whether these literary works were themselves being copied as writing exercises. One of the most famous examples of ostraca preserving a literary text is a Ptolemaic ostracon now held in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence (PSI XIII 1300). This contains an ode by Sappho, of which only a few words are quoted by other ancient authors.

The island of Elephantine
Elephantine Island (source https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elephantine)

The ostracon on display in our exhibition dates from over 1,900 years ago, and it contains a type of permit which is only rarely attested in our sources. In it, two tax collectors authorised a woman named Thinabdella to perform her activity as a sex-worker on a specific day. The ostracon is one of a handful of such permits to survive from Elephantine, an island off Aswan in Upper Egypt. The text on our ostracon reads:

Pelaias and Sokraton, tax farmers, to the ‘hetaira’ Thinabdella, greetings. We grant you permission to have intercourse with whomever you wish in this place on the day written below.

The date then follows, corresponding to 7 October 110, alongside the subscription of Sokraton, penned in a different hand. Why the permit was granted for a single day has been a matter of debate. Did Thinabdella come to the town for a short stay, or on a specific occasion, such as a festival?

There are just a few days left to see the ostracon in person at Writing: Making Your Mark: the exhibition closes on 27 August. If you would like to see more ostraca, you can check them out on Digitised Manuscripts, where you will currently find over 145 ostraca originating from Elephantine, with more yet to come!

The exhibition catalogue, in both paperback and hardback, is available from the British Library Shop.

9780712352536 Writing Making Your Mark

 

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

21 August 2019

Win tickets to see Dan Jones: Crusaders

On 9 September, the author and broadcaster Dan Jones is speaking at the British Library about the Crusades. We're delighted to have a pair of tickets for one of our lovely readers. To have a chance of winning, simply answer the question at the end of this blogpost.

Drawing on his new book Crusaders, Dan Jones will tell a tale soaked in Islamic, Christian and Jewish blood, peopled by extraordinary characters, and characterised by low ambition and high principle. These are events that have left an enduring imprint on relations between the Muslim world and the West.

Dan Jones

Dan Jones is a broadcaster, award-winning journalist and pioneer of the resurgence of interest in medieval history. He is the bestselling author of Summer of BloodThe PlantagenetsMagna Carta, Realm Divided and The Templars.

To have a chance of winning 2 tickets to see this event, answer the following question by using the comments box at the end of this blogpost. One pair of tickets is available. The winner will be drawn at random on 4 September from all the entries, and will be notified the same day. You must be able to make your own way to the event and there is no cash alternative.

 

Question: Which Pope was responsible for preaching the First Crusade?

Closing date for entries: 3 September, midnight (GMT).

 

Dan Jones: Crusaders is at the British Library Knowledge Centre, St Pancras (London), on 9 September (19:00–20:30). Tickets cost £15 (concessions are available).

20 August 2019

A medieval guide to predicting your future

How can you predict the future, interpret your dreams, and protect yourself against harm? Some of the manuscripts digitised for The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project have the answer. Many medieval manuscripts include charms, which seek to influence events through the use of words and ritual actions, and prognostics, which predict what will happen. These were usually created and written down by people who knew the church liturgy well and had a deep understanding of the changes of the Moon and the seasons. You can read more about medieval knowledge of such natural phenomena in our article about medieval science.

Page from a medieval manuscript listing months followed by numbers
'On the bad days and which months they are from', Winchester, 3rd quarter of the 11th century: Cotton MS Vitellius E XVIII, f. 9r

Some particularly intriguing Old English charms and prognostics appear in the opening leaves of an 11th-century Psalter (Cotton MS Vitellius E XVIII). These include a list of ‘bad days’ in every month on which nothing you begin will be ended, which are calculated by counting how many days it has been since the last New Moon (the night on which the Moon is on the opposite side of Earth from the Sun, making it invisible).

So in case you have any important projects coming up, the text reveals that in August these are the 8th and 13th nights of the Moon (counting the night of the New Moon as the first), in September they are the 5th and the 9th nights of the Moon, in October they are the 5th and the 15th nights, November the 7th and 9th nights, and in December the 3rd and 13th nights. So for the UK in 2019, these translate into the following calendar dates: 8th and 13th of August, 3rd and 7th of September, 2nd and 7th October, 3rd, 5th and 28th of November, and 8th December. Best not to start your projects on these days!

(You can calculate the unlucky dates for any place and year using an online Moon phases calendar).

A page from a medieval manuscript containing a charm
'On theft', from Ælfwine’s Prayerbook, Winchester, third decade of the 11th century: Cotton MS Titus D XXVI, f. 79v

If one of your treasured belongs has gone astray, you might find this Latin charm from a collection of liturgical, scientific and prognostic texts useful (Cotton MS Titus D XXVI). The charm claims to reveal the identity of a thief: 'If you have lost something, write these letters on a blank sheet and place it under your head in the night when you sleep, and you will see him who has taken it from you'. Then it provides a group of letters and symbols for you to copy out.

But if you dream about something else, the prognostic on f. 9r-v might help. A dream which takes place on the 1st night of the New Moon pertains to joy, a dream on the 11th night will be without danger, and whatever you dream about on the 7th night will happen after a long time.

Prognostics could also foretell the course of a person’s life. A text on ff. 7v-8r claims to tell a person’s future based on how many days after the New Moon they were born. For example, we learn that whoever is born on the 21st night of the New Moon will be an ingenious robber, someone born on the 10th will travel around many places, but someone born on the 2nd will merely be 'mediocris' (average)!

A page from a medieval manuscript containing a charm
'Names to protect against a king or emperor', perhaps written in Bréziers, Southern France, 12th century: Egerton MS 821, f. 59v

Another manuscript in the collection is wholly composed of prognostics and charms (Egerton MS 821). One of these is a list of names that you should think through in your mind when in the presence of a king or emperor to work against his power: ‘in axbidino . henonia . adonay, sabaot iactriel. sa. adonai. eloym. hagai’.

If you wish to foretell the outcome of a fight, f. 40r instructs you to count the letters in the combatants' names, add five to whichever is the longer, and deduct ten. If the resulting numbers are equal, the one with the longer name will win; but if they are unequal, the one with the longer name will be beaten. It’s oddly reminiscent of the games that many of us used to play as children: by counting the number of letters in someone’s name, or by drawing a spiral and counting the number of lines in it, you can find out what your future is. Perhaps those fortune-telling games have been circulating for much longer than we think!

Kate Thomas

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18 August 2019

What is a bestiary?

As the Getty's wonderful Book of Beasts exhibition draws to close, it's an apt moment to reflect on the medieval manuscripts we know as 'bestiaries'. Elizabeth Morrison, one of the curators of Book of Beasts, has described the bestiary as 'one of the most appealing types of illuminated manuscripts, due to the liveliness and vibrancy of its imagery ... All of us can find something to relate to in the bestiary and its animals' ('Beastly tales from the medieval bestiary').

Lions resuscitating their cubs
The lion bringing its cubs to life (Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 6r)

Function and origins

We might regard bestiaries as a kind of medieval encyclopedia relating to natural history, with one notable distinction: each creature was described in terms of its place within the Christian worldview, rather than as a purely scientific phenomenon. The animals were interpreted as evidence of God’s divine plan for the world. This is particularly true of the first animal typically described in the bestiary, namely the lion. One famous bestiary story is that of the birth of lions. Lion cubs were said to be born dead, until on the third day their father breathed upon them, bringing them to life, a reflection of the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ. 

A page from a bestiary, illustrating a lion
The opening page of a medieval bestiary (Add MS 11283, f. 1r)

The origins of the bestiary can be traced to the Physiologus, a Greek text devoted to natural history from late Antiquity. Around the 11th century, material was added from Isidore of Seville's Etymologies, a popular early medieval encyclopedia. Bestiaries themselves became popular in England from the 12th century onwards, but they did not all contain the same descriptions or illustrations, leading to them being divided into different families by modern scholars. As Elizabeth Morrison has pointed out, 'the bestiary was not a single text, but a series of changeable texts that could be reconfigured in numerous ways. The number of animals could vary quite significantly, as well as their order.'

MedievalBestiary4-cats-mice-f36v
Cats and mice in a bestiary (Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 36v)

Real and imagined

Bestiaries offer an enticing insight into the medieval mind. Some of the creatures they describe would have been very familiar to their original audience, such as cats, donkeys and owls. Others were more exotic, such as crocodiles and elephants, and this is often a source of amusement for modern readers; normally, the artists were relying upon the text and their own imaginations when depicting such beasts, rather than working from first-hand experience.

An elephant from a bestiary
Men mounted on an elephant (Harley MS 3244, f. 39r)

Likewise, bestiaries contain accounts of animals that we would now identify as mythical, such as phoenixes and unicorns. These fantastic beasts inhabited a special place in the medieval imagination, and beyond. You may recognise the illustration of the phoenix, below, from an English bestiary, as one of the stars of the British Library exhibition Harry Potter: A History of Magic.

A phoenix rising from the flames
A phoenix in a medieval bestiary (Harley MS 4751, f. 45r)

Bestiary folklore

Bestiaries abound with tales of fantastic and fabulous proportions. The story of the whale is a case in point. In bestiary tradition, the whale was so large that it could rest on the surface of the water until greenery grew on its back. Passing sailors, mistaking the animal for an island, would set camp on its back and unsuspectingly light a fire. The whale would then dive back into the ocean, dragging its victims with it.

Whale2
Sailors making camp on the back of a whale (Harley MS 4751, f. 69r)

We have reproduced the tale of the whale in this animation, created as part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700–1200. You could say, we 'had a whale of a time'.

Surviving manuscripts

Illuminated Latin bestiaries survive in significant numbers. The Getty's exhibition catalogue lists a total of 62 examples, now dispersed across collections in the United Kingdom, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Russia and the USA. No fewer than 8 are held at the British Library (and we loaned 6 manuscripts in total to Book of Beasts).

Illustration of a dragon
A dragon from an English bestiary (Harley MS 3244, f. 59r)

Here is a list of the illuminated Latin bestiaries in the British Library's collections:

Add MS 11283: England, 4th quarter of the 12th century

Cotton MS Vitellius D I: England, 2nd half of the 13th century

Harley MS 3244: England, after 1236

Harley MS 4751: England, early 13th century

Royal MS 12 C XIX: England, early 13th century

Royal MS 12 F XIII: Rochester, c. 1230

Sloane MS 3544: England, mid-13th century

Stowe MS 1067: England, 1st half of the 12th century

Medieval sheep
Sheep in a bestiary (Sloane MS 3544, f. 16r)
 
A manticore wearing a jaunty hat
A manticore (Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 29v)

You can read more about bestiaries in Elizabeth Morrison's article, 'Beastly tales from the medieval bestiary'.

 

Julian Harrison

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