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7 posts from October 2019

31 October 2019

How to survive Halloween

On All Hallow’s Eve, also known as Halloween, witches are often said to congregate at Sabbaths. Celtic belief had it that, on the eve of Samhain, the boundary between our world and the Otherworld was at its weakest, allowing evil spirits and fairies to cross over. Just to be on the safe side, we've delved into our manuscripts to find forms of protection against any evil lurking out there.

Image of 2 witches colluding with a demon and then mixing a potion

Witches colluding with a demon (2nd quarter of the 15th century): Cotton MS Tiberius A VII/1, f. 70r

If you encounter a witch of the evil kind, we recommend that you consult Harley MS 3831 (recently re-catalogued as part of our Harley project). It features 16th-century ‘charms’ (spells using elements from prayers and incantations) against witchcraft, containing formulas from the Canon of Mass, divine names, and this prayer against evil:

‘Against witchcrafte:

Hec dona + hec munera + hec sacra sancta sacrificia illibata + hostia sacra sancta + Imemerata + Algramachi + Agla + tetragramaton + homo + natus + nathas + natha + Nathaniell + Barmatha. +

Another for Wi[t]chcr[a]fte:

In the name of Jesus christe be With me and forgive me my synnes / thetarnall god Lorde blesse me and deliver me from all eville [in the] in the name of the father and of the sonne and of the holy ghoste Amen.’  

Charms against witchcraft

Charms against witchcraft (16th century): Harley MS 3831, f. 11r

According to another manuscript, Sloane MS 3824, you might alternatively wear an amulet containing magical seals inscribed with the names of God and the Evangelists, and a binding spell for witches:

‘I binde these Witches […] by the vertue of all these holy Characters herein written, that these Witches […] may have noe power at any tyme or tymes hereafter upon me [Name], The Bearer hereof.’

An amulet designed to ward off witches

An amulet against witches (17th century): Sloane MS 3824, f. 70v

Don’t panic if you are bewitched. Simply follow these instructions provided by Sloane MS 3706: boil your urine over a fire, add to it a pinch of salt, and recite the opening of the Gospel of St John (‘In the beginning was the Word’) over it three times. Three needles should be put in the brew, while invoking the names of God, and reciting a prayer to break the witch’s power:   

‘Against witchcrafte proved and to unwitch the partie bewitched:

Take the parties water greved, and set it over the fier and put into it a Little salte, then reade the gospel of St Jhon for Christmas day .3. times and when the vreu [‘brew’] doth begin to boyle, have in a redines .3. needles, and in puttinge them into the vreu one after another, you must say in putting in the first, you must say, “one in godes name”, in putting in the second, say, “twoe in godes name”, and so for the thirde, say, “three in godes name”. Then say, “In the name of the father, of the sonne, and of the holy ghost”. Amen. Even as this vreu doth waste consume and burne, so may his, hir, or theyer witchecraftes, Inchauntments or sorceries or any other which hath bewitched .N. may returne, and lighte upon themselves againe, and that by the most vertues names of god: “Tetragramaton. Alpha et omega. Messias. Sother. Emanuel. Unigenitus. Vita. Via. Jesus Christus. Amen. By these holie names of god. I drive and curse thee, and swear you from your office and dignitie. I doe drive you by the virtue of them, into the nether pitt of hellfier, there to remaine and burne with unquenchable fier, till the day of Judgment, Excepte that you doe cause that even as this vreu doth waste consume and burne, so may his, hir, or theier witchcraft that bewitched N[ame]. thy servaunt returne again and light upon themselves againe”. Say this three times over and at every time say our Lordes prayer. And at the same hower and time that the praier is said an alteration shalbe in the partie bewitched, and so by godes grace it shall mende afterwardes.’

Instructions for unwitching

Instructions for ‘unwitching’ (late 16th or early 17th century): Sloane MS 3706, f. 23r

Evil spirits, like witches, can also be countered by making amulets against them. Here are some examples from a 17th-century English roll with sixty-three magical seals:

Three magical seals against evil spirits

Magical seals against evil spirits (England, 17th century): Add MS 25311

You should also be wary of elves. English manuscripts as early as the 8th century warned against them. A 15th-century charm in Sloane MS 963 put them on a par with demons and provided a powerful conjuration against them:  

‘I conjure and call upon you elves and all the offspring and seed of the devil and of diabolical deception, through the Father and Son and Holy Spirit, that you, from now on, may not have the power to harm this servant of God [Name].’ 

‘Coniuro vos elfas et contestor et omne genus et semen diabolicum et diabolice fraudis per patrem et filium et spiritum Sanctum ut non habeatis de cetero potestatem nocendi hinc famulo dei N.’

A charm against elves and demons

A charm against elves and demons (15th century): Sloane MS 963, f. 15r

It might be wise to recite a charm against elves and demons from Sloane MS 962 before going to bed. Aside from keeping you safe while awake, it will also protect you against nightmares — often thought to be caused by malign entities such as ‘mares’ and elves. It does so by invoking the names of the Seven Sleepers, who, according to popular legend, were a group of 3rd-century Christians from Ephesus. During the Roman persecution under Emperor Decius, they retreated to a mountain cave to pray. Having fallen asleep, the Romans sealed them inside the cave, but with divine protection they woke up only when the cave was reopened, more than 300 years later. Medieval charms often invoked them for safety during sleep:

‘I conjure you elves and all the nightly or daily troubles of demons, by the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit […] and by the intercession of all saints and by the Seven Sleepers whose names are as follows: Malchus, Maximian, Dionysius, John, Constantine, Serapion, Martinian […] that you may not harm or do any evil to or attack this servant of God [Name], neither while sleeping nor waking.’

‘Coniuro vos elves et omnia gravamina demoniorum nocturna sive diuturna per patrem et filium et spiritum sanctum […] et per intercessionem omni sanctorum et per septem dormentes hos quorum nomina sunt hec Malchus Maximianus Dionsisus Johannes Constantinus Seraphion Martinianus […] ut non noceatis neque aliquis mali facitis vel inferatis hinc famulo dei N. neque dormiendo neque vigilando.’

Another charm against elves and demons

A charm against elves and demons (15th century): Sloane MS 962, f. 9v

We hope these charms and amulets will help you ward off any evils on Halloween. Sweet dreams!

 

Clarck Drieshen

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28 October 2019

The Lindisfarne Gospels: Turning over a new leaf

Fans of the Lindisfarne Gospels will be excited to hear that we have just turned the page, so you can now see a new opening on display in the British Library's Treasures Gallery. This time we are showing some of the manuscript's text pages, ff. 82v-83r, which contain the account of Christ’s arrest in the Gospel of St Matthew (Matthew 26:39-55).

A text page from a medieval manuscript with two columns of stately script
The Lindisfarne Gospels, England, around 700: Cotton MS Nero D iv, f. 82v

These pages showcase the Lindisfarne Gospels’ stately script, one of the finest surviving examples of the formal calligraphy used for high status books in England and Ireland in the 7th-9th centuries. This script, known as Insular half-uncial, first developed in Ireland and is shared with masterpieces of Irish book art such as the Book of Durrow and Book of Kells. Insular half-uncial is a large, round, imposing script that could only be written by highly trained scribes. They had to work slowly and meticulously, holding the pen vertically and paying attention to details such as serifs and head strokes.

According to a colophon written in the 10th century, the Lindisfarne Gospels was created by Eadfrith, bishop of Lindisfarne from 698 to 721. The monastery of Lindisfarne was founded around 634 by the Irish missionary St Aidan, who brought to Northumbria the traditions of Irish monasticism and book production. After the Synod of Whitby in 664, Northumbria officially declared allegiance to the Roman Church, but the Irish missionaries left an enduring legacy in the script of manuscripts such as the Lindisfarne Gospels.    

A text page from a medieval manuscript with two columns of stately script
The Lindisfarne Gospels, England, around 700: Cotton MS Nero D iv, f. 83r

The pages on display also give you the chance to admire the manuscript's ground-breaking Old English translation. Aldred, the 10th-century priest who wrote the colophon, also added an Old English translation above the words of the Latin text, providing the oldest known translation of the Gospels into English. Look carefully at these pages and you might see some words that you recognise. For example, on the second line of the second column on f. 83r, the Latin word 'gladium' is translated as 'suord' (modern English, sword). Or on the fifth-from-last line of the first column on f. 82v, the Latin word 'pater' is translated as 'fader' (modern English, father). 

Come and see the Lindisfarne Gospels and other spectacular manuscripts from our collection for free in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery or explore them online on our Digitised Manuscripts website.

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25 October 2019

John Bagford, bibliophile or biblioclast?

It is unfortunate that most books made in the West in the medieval period have not survived. In England, for instance, only about 90 missals (books containing the order of the Mass) have survived, out of an estimated 40,000 extant around the beginning of the 15th century. The situation is far worse for less prominent books, such as manuscripts of classical, scientific, medical and grammatical works. More manuscripts were undoubtedly lost in the early modern and modern periods than in the course of the Middle Ages.

Today, some medieval manuscripts survive only in fragmentary form. Modern libraries have a duty to preserve both complete manuscripts and the fragments of other books that have been partially lost.

One of the lesser-known collections of manuscript fragments at the British Library is that of John Bagford (1650/1–1716), now part of the Harley collection. John Bagford was a London shoemaker turned bibliophile and bookseller. A friend of the leading antiquarians of his time, he is known today mostly as a collector of Restoration-period ballads. You can read more about his career in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry (subscription only) and in the blogpost ‘A Man of very surprising Genius’.

The Bagford collection includes nearly 300 manuscript fragments collected in six volumes, ranging from modest vellum scraps to full-size parchment and paper leaves. Bagford collected the fragments indiscriminately and did not arrange them in a specific order, with the sole exception of Harley MS 5958, which contains mainly fragments of musical manuscripts.

Image1

A fragment of a leaf from a 13th-century English book of motets: Harley MS 5958, f. 65

Originally, Bagford’s collection also included fragments of early printed books, but these were removed from the original volumes at the British Museum and are preserved separately. His scrapbooks contain fragments from a large variety of manuscripts dating from the 8th century down to the end of the Middle Ages. While fragments of musical, liturgical and biblical manuscripts are the most numerous, there is also a large number of fragments of patristic, scientific, classical, grammatical and legal texts.

Image2

A leaf from a Northumbrian 8th-century manuscript containing Justinus’s Epitome: Harley MS 5915, f. 10

Several fragments are from illuminated manuscripts, but it appears Bagford collected every sort he could find, no matter how humble.

Image3

A cut-out of a miniature depicting a law doctor instructing two adults and two children: Harley MS 5414, f. 28

Image4

This fragment contains some form of reference system for patristic books (A for Augustine, B for Beda, C for Cassiodorus): Harley MS 5915, f. 7

Collecting fragments has always been controversial. It is one thing to acquire and gather loose leaves and floating scraps, quite another to make cut-outs from other manuscripts, defacing, mutilating and even destroying other items in pursuit of enlarging one’s collection. Bagford’s fragments come from a variety of sources, the provenance of most of which is untraceable.

Many fragments of medieval manuscripts considered dispensable were used since the beginning of print to reinforce the bindings of printed books. Small scraps were pasted on book spines, larger ones were used as pastedowns (paper or parchment pasted on the inner covers) or endleaves. Recycling medieval manuscripts was already common in the Middle Ages, when discarded older books were used for binding new ones. Often, an old manuscript parchment leaf would be used as covers for a newer volume.

A fragment from a manuscript containing the hugely popular 12th-century retelling of the Trojan War by Joseph of Exeter (died 1210) reveals its bookbinding afterlife. A residue of adhesive on the back indicates that this fragment was sourced from a binding where it was used as a pastedown.

Image5

This fragment was once part of a manuscript containing Joseph of Exeter's De Bello Troiano: Harley MS 5977, f. 87r

Image6

The other side of the fragment shows traces of adhesive presumably used to paste the fragment onto the inside of the lower board: Harley MS 5977, f. 87v

An unexamined fragment of the 12th-century play Geta was similarly used as a pastedown. This fragment is a bifolium (a sheet folded in half to produce two leaves), later incorporated into a manuscript more than twice its size.

Image7

This fragment used to be folded in half. The holes for the binder’s stitching of cords are still visible, as is the folding line, slightly ripped at the top. The poor surface quality is due to it having been pasted, presumably, onto the lower board of another book: Harley MS 5977, f. 88 

Bagford was accused by some 19th-century bibliographers of biblioclasm, meaning ‘the destruction of books’, a capital crime among booklovers. A ‘wicked old biblioclast’ (according to William Blades), ‘the most hungry and rapacious of all book and print collectors’ (T.F. Dibdin), Bagford's book-collecting activities remain a mystery. One must wonder how Bagford, a Londoner, acquired a loose leaf of astronomical tables for use in London, or a multitude of cut-out illuminations from manuscripts no longer extant.

Image8

A leaf from a 13th-century scientific manuscript containing a table for the calculation of the meridian in London: Harley MS 5977, f. 131

Confronted with the low survival rates for books written before the Reformation, book historians often have to be content with the (vellum) scraps under the master’s table, regardless of whether the scraps were used in binding newer books or deliberately removed from a discarded manuscript. A manuscript scrap in hand is worth two in the dustbin of history. And so we are grateful today for Bagford’s zeal, which provides us with distant echoes of voices forever lost.

Image9

A fragment from Alfredus the Englishman’s translation of Nicolaus of Damascus’ work on plants, now lost, which incorporates material from Aristotle’s De Plantis, also lost. Alfredus translated Nicolaus’ book from Arabic, which had been translated from Syriac, which had been translated in turn from Greek: Harley MS 5414, f. 72

Bagford's manuscript fragments are found in Harley MS 5414, Harley MS 5915, Harley MS 5934, Harley MS 5958, Harley MS 5966 and Harley MS 5977, all of which are included in our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. They are also being systematically described as part of our project to recatalogue the Harley collection.

 

Cristian Ispir

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19 October 2019

Drawing a blank: an attempt to save the life of Charles I?

Leafing through Harley MS 6988, it would be easy to flick past an unobtrusive empty page towards the end of the manuscript. Upon closer inspection, however, this ‘blank’ may be one of the central documents of the trial and execution of King Charles I in 1649.

Harley MS 6988 contains royal letters and warrants from between 1625 and 1655, chronicling the reign of King Charles I from his accession to his execution for treason, along with the development of the Civil War. Although one page towards the end of the manuscript is empty, this ‘blank’ is nevertheless as revealing as it is enigmatic.

On the right-hand side is the signature ‘Charles P’, while the left bears the Prince’s seal. In the hand of William Oldys (1696–1761), a previous owner of the document, is written: ‘Prince Charles his Carte Blanche to the Parliament to save his Father’s Head 1648’. A carte blanche is a blank paper on which a recipient can write their own conditions, essentially a pre-signed offer of full discretionary power.

A blank paper with Prince Charles’s signature and seal

The suspected carte blanche sent by the Prince: Harley MS 6988, f. 222r

Is this empty sheet a carte blanche sent by Prince Charles (the future King Charles II) to Parliament as a last-ditch offer in exchange for his father’s life?

The question has been discussed in an article by T.C. Skeat, who notes that several early historians thought it probable that the paper was genuine: according to an account in the 1663 book Flagellum: or the Life and Death, Birth and Burial of Oliver Cromwell, ‘a Blank with the Kings Signet, and another of the Princes’ was given to Colonel John Cromwell, ‘for [Oliver] Cromwell to write his own conditions in, if he would now preserve the life of the King’.

In 1766 the story was linked to the blank pages of Harley MS 6988, when William Harris wrote in his biography of Charles II that, ‘I know there is in the British Museum a blank paper, at the bottom of which, on the right hand, is written Charles P. and on the left, opposite thereunto, a seal is affixed’.

However, it is questionable whether Prince Charles would have made such an offer on the eve of his father’s execution. Letters from the King to his son had instructed against any concessions on religion. Earlier in Harley MS 6988, King Charles I wrote to the Prince, ‘I command you to do nothing, whether it concerns war or peace, but with the advice of your council, and that you be constant to those grounds of religion and honour, which heretofore I have given you’ (f. 208r).

A letter addressed to Prince Charles, signed by King Charles I

The King instructs his son to be constant in religion and honour: Harley MS 6988, f. 208r

On the other hand, as Skeat noted, the offer of a carte blanche was a familiar strategy during the period. Soon after the King’s execution, James, 1st Duke of Hamilton, was also sentenced to death for treason. His family protested, but Parliament refused to ‘hearken to the Earl of Denbigh, who proposed, on behalf of Duke Hamilton his brother-in-law, to give them a blank signed by the said Duke, to answer faithfully to such questions as should be there inserted’.

Royal figures are also found appending their signatures and seals to documents containing blank spaces to be filled in later, such as the 1601 licence in the Folger Shakespeare Library (MS X.d.70) signed by King James I, and the c. 1648 bond signed by Prince Charles now in the National Archives (SP 16/516 f. 225).

Although the empty page in Harley MS 6988 may have been ‘intentionally left blank’ by Prince Charles, it is not certain whether it was indeed a carte blanche intended to ‘save his Father’s Head’. Skeat concluded that the story was genuine, writing that ‘it seems almost perverse to refuse to accept the Carte Blanche as the very document with which the Prince of Wales sought to preserve his father’s life’. Despite uncertainties around its original purpose, the surviving leaf in Harley MS 6988 is a tantalising witness to a tempestuous historical moment, as well as a reminder of the potential of the blank page.

 

Amy Bowles

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11 October 2019

The Nine Worthy Women

In the late medieval and early modern eras, heraldic collections often contained, alongside contemporary examples, the imaginary coats of arms of men from medieval romance and legend or of kings who lived before the age of heraldry. Prominent among these attributed coats of arms were those of the so-called ‘Nine Worthies’ (Les Neuf Preux), a group of three pagan (Classical), three Jewish, and three Christian leaders first described in the early 14th-century French poem Les Voeux du Paon by Jacques du Languon (found, for example, in Harley MS 3992). The Nine Worthies personified the ideals of chivalry and military excellence. At the beginning of one late 15th-century book of heraldry (Harley MS 2169), they were introduced as ‘The IX Worthy Conqwerourys’, and were identified (from left to right) as Hector of Troy, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar; David, Joshua and Judas Maccabeus; and King Arthur, Charlemagne and Godfrey of Bouillon (one of the leaders of the First Crusade).

Image 1 - Nine Male Worthies

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

In the late 14th century, a group of female worthies joined their male counterparts. The Nine Worthy Women (Les Neuf Preuses) consisted of queens and female leaders who were also associated with military prowess. This grouping was much less fixed than that of the male worthies. For instance, the majority of the Nine Worthy Women who were part of the pageant for the coronation of King Henry VI at Paris in 1431 were queens of the Amazons, a tribe of warrior women from Greek mythology who, according to medieval sources such as the legendary travel memoir of John Mandeville, governed the land of Amozoyne where ‘dwellyth no man’. Other versions included female British leaders such as Boudica, queen of the Iceni (a British Celtic tribe), who led an uprising against Roman occupying forces; Æthelflæd, daughter of King Alfred, who fought off various Viking attacks; and Margaret of York, wife of King Henry VI, who led the Lancastrians in battle against Edward IV.

Image 2 - Amazons

The Amazons in Mandeville’s Travels (1st half of the 15th century): Harley MS 3954, f. 30r

Another version of the Nine Worthy Women features at the beginning of Harley MS 6090, a late 16th- or early 17th-century English heraldic collection. In that manuscript the three Classical queens and female leaders are: Minerva, the Roman goddess of war, whose arms feature the ‘Aegis’ (a shield with the head of the gorgon Medusa) of her Greek equivalent Athena; Semiramis, a mythical queen of Babylon; and Tomyris, a legendary ruler of the Massagetae, who defeated Cyrus the Great. 

Image 3 - Nine Worthy Women [1]

The arms of Minerva, Semiramis and Tomyris (late 16th or early 17th century): Harley 6090, f. 3v

The three Jewish queens and female leaders are Deborah, a prophetess and judge of the Israelites; Jael, who killed the commander of an enemy Canaanite army by hammering a tent peg (of which six are displayed on her arms) into his temple; and Judith, who decapitated Holofernes (his head is displayed on her arms), the leader of an Assyrian army that occupied Israel.

Image 4 - Nine Worthy Women [2]

The arms of Deborah, Jael, and Judith (late 16th or early 17th century): Harley 6090, f. 4r

The three Christian queens and female leaders are Empress Matilda (1102–1167), daughter of King Henry I, who initiated a war against her cousin, Stephen of Blois, after he usurped the throne; Isabel I of Castile [also known as Elizabeth I of Spain] (1451–1504), under whose rule Spain was united and the Emirate of Granada conquered; and Joanna II (1371–1435), Queen of Naples, who managed to re-establish herself as Queen after she had been imprisoned by her husband, James of Bourbon.

Image 5 - Nine Worthy Women [3]

The arms of Empress Matilda, Isabel I of Castile, and Joanna II of Naples (late 16th or early 17th century) (late 16th or early 17th century): Harley 6090, f. 4v

The arms of the Nine Worthy Women in Harley MS 6090 were most likely copied from John Ferne’s The Blazon of Gentrie, first printed in 1586. Their audience would have been familiar with these women through contemporary and medieval works that praised their achievements, such as De Mulieribus Claris (About Famous Women) by Giovanni Boccaccio (as in Harley MS 4923) and the works of Christine de Pizan (for example, Harley MS 4431).

Image 6 - Minerva

Minerva giving arms to her followers in Christine de Pizan’s L'Épître Othéa (c. 1410–1414): Harley MS 4431, f. 102v

Why are the female worthies so prominent in Harley MS 6090, while the male worthies are absent? Perhaps they were particularly popular among English authors. In an article published in 1946, Celeste Turner Wright pointed out that, during and following the reigns of Queen Mary I (1553–1558), and Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603), English authors often cited the Nine Worthy Women to justify female governance, to prove women's ability in national affairs, and to attack the Salic Law of France that excluded women from succession to the throne ('The Elizabethan Female Worthies', Studies in Philology, 43 (1946), 628–43).

 

Clarck Drieshen

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05 October 2019

Medieval saints as protectors of animals

St Francis of Assisi (1181/82–1225) is traditionally known as the patron saint of animals and the natural environment. During the Middle Ages, however, other saints were sometimes associated with protecting animals, particularly in magical texts or ‘charms’.

One such charm is found in an 11th-century Psalter from Winchester (Cotton MS Vitellius E XVIII), recently digitised as part of The Polonsky England and France Project. This manuscript features a number of magical remedies for healing animals, written in Old English. The book also contains instructions for making a magical device known as 'St Columcille’s Circle', used to protect bees and keep them in a bee-enclosure (‘apiary’) when they were swarming. The text advised that you should use the point of a knife to draw a circle on a malmstone, and to inscribe Roman numerals and a Latin text inside the circle: ‘contra apes ut salui sint et in corda eorum scribam hanc’ (‘[This circle is] in case of a swarm of bees so that they may be safe, and in their hearts I will write my law’). One should then drive a stake into the ground at the centre of the apiary, and place the stone on top of the stake, so that the stone disappeared into the ground while its surface with the magical circle remained visible. You can read more about this in Martha Dana Rust's article, 'The Art of Beekeeping Meets the Arts of Grammar: A Gloss of "Columcille's Circle"', Philological Quarterly, 78 (1999), 359–87.

St Columcille’s Circle

St Columcille’s Circle (3rd quarter of the 11th century): Cotton MS Vitellius E XVIII, f. 15v

It is not clear why the charm associates St Columcille (521–597), also known as Columba — one of Ireland’s three patron saints — with the protection of bees. Martha Dana Rust has suggested that the author of 'St Columcille’s Circle' may have been influenced by the Ecclesiastical History of the English People written by Bede (673/4–735). Bede interpreted the name ‘Columcille’ as a compound of the name Columba and the Latin cella (‘cell’), which could refer both to the monastic cell or the wax cell of a honeycomb. For example, in one 12th-century English bestiary, Add MS 11283, it is noted that bees use flowers to create ‘small and rounded cells’ ('minutae atque rotundae cellulae').

A swarm of bees in an English bestiary

A swarm of bees in an English bestiary (4th quarter of the 12th century): Add MS 11283, f. 23v

Another saint associated with the protection of animals is named in a 12th-century scientific and magical manuscript from southern France (Egerton MS 821). This collection contains various charms for healing cattle, including a charm for protecting an animal that invokes a certain ‘St Silvanus’. The text includes prayers to Christ and the Virgin Mary for support, but also instructs the reader to give three sticks to three men, and then say to them: ‘I appeal to you, [?named] men, that you should defend this animal from thieves or malign animals’ (‘apello homines nom[?ine] ut cum baculos defendatis hanc bestia a latronibus vel a malis bestiis’). Finally, the reader was instructed to invoke St Silvanus himself to protect the animal in question from thieves, dangerous animals and all ‘evil things’ (‘malos omnes’).  

St Silvanus charm

An ‘animal-charm’ invoking St Silvanus (12th century): Egerton MS 821, f. 56r

The Silvanus who is invoked in the charm has not been identified. He may represent a Christianised version of the Roman wood deity, Silvanus, who was venerated as a protector of animals and a patron of shepherds and their herds in the pre-Christian Roman Empire. The cult of Silvanus may have been recast into Christian form by missionaries during the Middle Ages, while retaining aspects of its pre-Christian identity. (You can read more about this in Peter F. Dorcey's book, The Cult of Silvanus: A Study of Roman Folk Religion (Leiden: Brill, 1992)). It is possible that Silvanus, whose cult flourished particularly in southern France, continued to be invoked as a protector of animals during the Middle Ages alongside other saints who were closely linked with the natural world.

We have digitised 800 manuscripts dating from pre-1200, in partnership with the Bibliothèque nationale de France. You can see some of the highlights on this dedicated webspace, including articles, videos and links to all the manuscripts in the project.

 

Clarck Drieshen

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval (#PolonskyPre1200)

 

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03 October 2019

Off to a good start: exploring decorated initials

Decorated initials are one of the most distinctive features of medieval manuscript illumination. Enlarging the letters at the beginning of texts was a practical way to help readers find their place in a manuscript. But it also provided an opportunity for scribes and artists to beautify the page and explore the relationship between text and image. In this blogpost we’re pondering the development and meaning of decorated initials in some of the manuscripts digitised as part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project.

Page from a medieval manuscript showing a the opening of a text with a decorated initial
The opening to Bede, Ecclesiastical History, 9th century, England, the Midlands: Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 5v

In the 7-9th centuries, initial letters in English manuscripts were decorated like prestige metalwork. This letter ‘b’ from the opening of a 9th-century manuscript of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History looks similar to the silver disc brooches that were popular among elites of the period.

An Anglo-Saxon silver disc brooch, decorated with animal and foliage motifs and a cross design
Disc brooch from the Pentney Hoard, Norfolk, early 9th century: British Museum 1980,1008.3

They share the same round shape, with an outer border divided into panels of decoration, and a central field divided into a cross-shape. Within this rigid geometry, animal and plant forms twist and intertwine, set against a dark background. Using the forms of metalwork connects the decorated letters to a visual language of prestige usually associated with kings and queens. It signifies that the words are precious and powerful.

In the case of the Tiberius Bede, the design also echoes some of the ideas that are expressed in the text. The Ecclesiastical History begins, ‘Britain, an island of the ocean, which once was called Albion, lies to the north-west, being opposite Germany, France and Spain, which form the greater part of Europe.' In the context of this geographic description, the circular bowl of the letter ‘b’ looks similar to a medieval map, divided into the four cardinal points.

A page from a medieval manuscript with a large letter Q formed from interlace animals and plants
The opening to Psalm 51, the Bosworth Psalter, Southern England (Canterbury?), 3rd quarter of the 10th century: Add MS 37517, f. 33r

In the 10th century, decorated initials moved away from the appearance of metalwork. In manuscripts such as the Bosworth Psalter, the tangled animals and vegetation took over. Whereas in the earlier image the plants and animals were confined to fixed panels within the body of the letter, here they are the letter. The letter ‘Q’ is entirely made up of looping strands that sprout indiscriminately into bunches of leaves and beast heads, which spew out more foliage from their gaping mouths. The endless twisting, transforming and re-generating of forms makes the letter seem alive. This might suggest the life-giving properties of the Psalms, which were central to medieval worship, or it might comment more broadly on the organic qualities of writing in which letters create language and generate ideas.

Page from a medieval manuscript showing a large letter D containing a picture of a man beheading another man with a sword
Psalm 101, the Eadui Psalter, Canterbury, c. 1012-23: Arundel MS 155, f. 93r

Historiated initials are letters that contain a picture inside. They first appeared in English manuscripts of the 8th century and became an important feature of illuminated manuscripts throughout the Middle Ages. Here in the Eadui Psalter, the initial ‘D’ contains an image of the young David defeating the giant Goliath, aided by God who is represented by a hand reaching down from the sky in blessing. The image encourages the reader to connect the opening words of the Psalm, ‘Hear, O Lord, my prayer: and let my cry come to thee’, to the account of David and Goliath’s combat in 1 Samuel 17, and to consider the ways in which the texts of the Bible interrelate.

In historiated initials, the letter becomes a frame through which readers can glimpse an insight into the text. But the shape of the letter might also add to the effect of the image. Here the upper bowl of the ‘D’ appears to trace the arc of David’s sword swing, vividly creating a sense of the force that David brings smashing down on Goliath’s neck.

It's clear that decorated initials were much more than decorative page markers. If you’re curious to learn more, check out our article on English manuscript illumination on The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project website.

 

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