Medieval manuscripts blog

8 posts from March 2020

31 March 2020

Don’t waste time writing

What should you do if you read something remarkable, or come across a brilliant observation that you must remember? Take a photo and share it via the family WhatsApp group? Post it on Twitter and wait for the likes to roll in? Or perhaps it should go on Instagram, with a background of a sunset to set it off?

In the early modern era, contemporaries would either commit these gems to memory or store them in commonplace books. Add MS 32494 is one of these treasure troves of wisdom, once belonging to the scholar and poet Gabriel Harvey (1552/3–1631). If you’re grappling with the perennial question of what you should (and shouldn’t) be doing, Harvey is here to help. Here is some of his advice:

A manuscript page containing Harvey’s advice about dreams and not making the same mistakes

Gabriel Harvey's advice about dreams and making the same mistakes, in his commonplace book: Add MS 32494, f. 11v


Don't be frustrated if you can’t remember last night’s really good dream. According to Harvey, ‘who so regardith Dreames, is lyke him, that takith howld of A shaddowe, and followith after the wynde’ (f. 11v).

Making the same mistakes

It’s time to break the pattern. As Harvey put it, ‘he that wasshith himself bycause of A dead boddy, and then towchith the deade againe, what good doith his washing? So is it with A man that repentith his misdeeds, and doith them againe’ (f. 11v).

A manuscript page in which Harvey advises getting up early

Harvey's advice about eating and sleeping: Add MS 32494, f. 19r

Eating and sleeping

If you’re reading this in bed, it’s time to get up! Hannibal used to get up before daybreak and never rest until supper, before sleeping on the ground with only his cloak to cover him. Both Alexander the Great and Scipio used to eat whilst going about their business. And as Harvey’s mother used to say, ‘all the speede, is in the morning’ (f. 19r).


Another bad habit. Harvey was given to this vice, sternly reminding himself to ‘auoyde all writing, but necessary, which consumith unreasonable much tyme, before you ar aware: you haue alreddy plaguid yourselfe this way: Two Arts lernid, whilest two sheetes in writing’ (f. 16r).


The way to happiness is to ‘make the best of euery thing’ (f. 12r). If you’re unhappy, don’t let anyone know (‘he bearith his misery best, that hydeth it most’, f. 22r).


If you haven’t got a copy of Seneca to hand, fortunately Harvey took some notes for you. To gain a woman’s affection, all you have to do is ‘to looue and to be loouely’. The lover who is the most devoted will enjoy the greatest success: ‘he rulith most in Venus Court, that servith his Lady best’. Don’t think that because your lady has ostensibly forgiven you that she isn’t seething inside. As Harvey noted, ‘a pleasante looke doth pacify the Loouer, thowgh his Ladyes Hart be neuer so angry’. Remember that romance is a mixture of work and win: ‘he that gatherith Roses, must be content to prick his fingars, and he that will win his Looues fauour, must abide her sharpist words awhile’ (f. 25v). Finally, before embarking on a new courtship, Harvey advised reflecting on how other people you know are doing (‘When thou goist awooing, marke how thy neighbours haue spedd before ye’, f. 25r). If they all seem to be trapped in unhappy relationships, will it be any different for you?

A manuscript page containing Harvey’s advice about women and romance

Harvey's relationship advice: Add MS 32494, f. 25r

We hope Gabriel Harvey’s advice proves useful. Don’t forget, ‘it is better not to lyue, then not to know how to lyue, or not to lyue as you know’ (f. 23r).


Jessica Crown

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28 March 2020

The caption competition is back!

Hold on to your hats. Our funtastic caption competition is back.

This is your opportunity to shine, by coming up with an appropriate description for the image below. What on Earth is going on?

A page from an illuminated manuscript showing a lady holding a sword and shield and a man brandishing the sae weapons

The page is found in a 14th-century Book of Hours of the Use of Saint-Omer (Add MS 36684, f. 26v), which you can explore in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

We'll publish or retweet the best suggestions. You can either submit them using the comment field below or send them by Twitter to @BLMedieval. May the best pun win! (There is no prize, of course, just eternal glory.)


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26 March 2020

Humfrey Wanley, Library-Keeper of the Harleian Library

One of the many gems of the British Library is the Harleian collection, founded by Robert Harley, Lord High Treasurer and 1st Earl of Oxford, and his son, Edward (1689–1741), 2nd Earl of Oxford. It's the largest intact 18th-century manuscript collection in the world, containing more than 7,000 manuscripts, 14,000 charters and 500 rolls. While we are re-cataloguing the manuscripts, we thought we'd take the opportunity to pay tribute to the collection's early Library-Keeper, Humfrey Wanley (1672–1726).

Wanley was appointed as Library-Keeper for the Harleian Library in 1705 after he successfully negotiated the acquisition for Robert Harley of the 660 manuscripts of the late antiquary Sir Simonds D’Ewes (1602–1650). Wanley — who had previously been employed as Assistant at the Bodleian Library, cataloguer of the library of Hans Sloane (his catalogue survives in Sloane MS 3972 B), and inspector of the library of Robert Cotton (1586–1631) — continued to expand the Harleian Library with thousands of manuscripts.

A portrait of Humfrey Wanley holding in his hands a Greek gospel-book

Thomas Hill, portrait of Humfrey Wanley in the Harleian Library holding his notebook open at his own facsimile copy of the 10th-century Greek Covel Gospels, and with the so-called Guthlac Roll of about the year 1200 on his desk (1711): courtesy of the Society of Antiquaries of London

Among Wanley’s most significant acquisitions for the Harleian Library are the more than 300 manuscripts of Edward Stillingfleet (d. 1699), late Bishop of Worcester; over 200 heraldic manuscripts from the Randle Holme arms-painters of Chester; and about 125 manuscripts of the clergyman Robert Burscough (1650/51–1709). Simultaneously, he used Continental agents to purchase manuscripts from Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands and monasteries in the Levant. He also sold his own collection of manuscripts to the Library. A 14th-century French Psalter in the Harleian collection (Harley MS 3978), for example, bears his ownership inscription: ‘Liber Humfredi Wanley’.  

Image in a Psalter of the Adoration of the Magi

An ownership inscription of Wanley

The Adoration of the Magi in a Psalter (above) and the ownership inscription of Humfrey Wanley (below), North-Eastern France, 2nd half of the 14th century: Harley MS 3978, f. 15v and f. 1*recto

The Harleian Library also acquired manuscripts composed and copied by Wanley himself. It features a parchment volume with facsimile copies of medieval charters (Harley MS 7505) that a young Wanley made around 1689–1691 from local archives in Warwickshire. These reveal his skills as both a palaeographer and calligrapher.

A copy of a charter, written by Humfrey Wanley

Humfrey Wanley’s copy of a mid-14th-century charter of Richard Fitzalan (c. 1313–1376), 3rd Earl of Arundel: Harley MS 7505, f. 2r

Wanley meticulously recorded his acquisition activities in his diary (Lansdowne MSS 1716-1718), but also kept a notebook (Lansdowne MS 677) with a ‘wish-list’ of manuscripts owned by other collectors he hoped to acquire for the Harleian Library (‘Things proper for the Library in the Hands of Particular Persons’). It includes both the Warwickshire charters and the manuscripts of Hans Sloane with which he had previously worked.

A reward offered for the return of Wanley's notebook

Humfrey Wanley offering a reward for returning his notebook to him: ‘Whoever brings this Book to Mr Humfrey Wanley at the Right Honourable the Earl of Oxford’s [Lord Harley’s House] in Dover-street, Westminster; shall receive one Guinea Reward’: Lansdowne MS 677, f. 1v

In acquiring manuscripts, Wanley showed a level of integrity that was unusual for his time. When a bookseller of a 9th-century manuscript containing the four Gospels written in gold ink (Harley MS 2797) insisted that Wanley should erase a 17th-century ownership inscription of the abbey of Sainte Geneviève in Paris because it was bought through a ‘private seller’, Wanley refused to do so, stating that ‘I do not love to putt a pen-knife upon an old Book in order to erase’ (The Diary of Humfrey Wanley (1996), vol. 2, pp. 359–60).

Wanley's 'Golden Gospels'

The un-erased ownership inscription of the abbey of Sainte Geneviève in Paris: ‘Ex Libris S. Genovefae Parisiensis’ (Northern France, 3rd quarter of the 9th century): Harley MS 2797, f. 1r

Wanley considered ownership inscriptions as one of the most important features that should be mentioned in manuscript catalogues. He gave much thought to manuscript cataloguing, since he considered it to be one of his principal tasks at the Harleian Library. In a letter he wrote following his inspection of the Cottonian library in 1703, he recommended that the textual and artistic contents of manuscripts be catalogued to a high level of detail:

‘That every Book & Tract be particularly described [...] whether it [be] written upon Parchment or Paper; whether the Language be English, Saxon, Latin, French etcaetera. Particular Notice also might be taken of such books as are remarkable for their Beauty, for being written Correctly, or in very Good or very Bad Hands; [or] remarkable for their Antiquity. And when the Age of the Book or Tract or Name of the Scribe that wrote it, of any Eminent Person that owned it; or old Library to which it did formerly belong does appear; it should be carefully noted, because by these Marks Posterity will be sure that these are the individual Books now described; and no Original or Antient Copie can be changed for a New one, but the Cheat may be discovered’ (Harley MS 7055, f. 19r).

Wanley first demonstrated his meticulousness in cataloguing Hans Sloane’s manuscripts and in producing a monumental catalogue of Old English manuscripts in 1705. Subsequently, he wrote catalogue entries for over 2,400 Harleian manuscripts in a ‘Catalogus Brevior’ (Additional MSS 45701–45707) — completed and published by the British Museum almost a hundred years later — and hundreds of records for a ‘Catalogus Maior’ (Additional MSS 45699–45700). In addition, he began a subject catalogue for the entire collection (Lansdowne MS 815), wrote an index to the Harleian charters (Add MS 45711), and a catalogue of heraldic manuscripts in the Harleian Library (Add MS 6052).

Wanley's catalogue of Old English manuscripts

The frontispiece of Humfrey Wanley’s catalogue of Old English manuscripts, printed at Oxford at the Sheldonian Theatre in 1705

Wanley is an example to modern cataloguers. We certainly hope to follow in his footsteps as we re-catalogue the Harleian collection to modern standards and make records of the Harley manuscripts accessible in our online manuscripts catalogue

You can read more about Humfrey Wanley here:

The Diary of Humfrey Wanley 1715-1726, ed. by Cyril Ernest Wright and Ruth C. Wright, 2 vols (London: Bibliographical Society, 1966).

Deirdre Jackson, 'Humfrey Wanley and the Harley Collection', Electronic British Library Journal (2011), article 2 [pp. 1–20].

Michael Murphy, 'Humfrey Wanley on How to Run a Scholarly Library', The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, 52:2 (1982), 145–55.

Cyril Ernest Wright, ‘Humfrey Wanley: Saxonist and Library-Keeper’, Proceedings of the British Academy, 46 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960), pp. 99–129.


Clarck Drieshen

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23 March 2020

Surveying Lord Burghley’s Atlas

Map-making, according to the 16th-century cosmographer William Cunningham, is ‘a treasure worthy to be had in estimation’. In the early modern period, maps and atlases were central to the business of government, as cartographers and surveyors devised new ways of charting Britain’s land, as well as the rest of the globe. Twenty years after Cunningham emphasised the importance of mapping in his 1559 book The Cosmographical Glasse, the period’s cartographic innovations culminated in an ambitious English atlas, now held in the British Library.

By the 1560s, Queen Elizabeth I’s principal minister Sir William Cecil, later Lord Burghley, was on the lookout for a cartographer to make a detailed map of the country. A survey was proposed by the antiquarian Laurence Nowell, who produced a pocket map of England and Ireland (now Add MS 62540) as a specimen. Burghley decided against Nowell’s proposals, and the plan appears to have been shelved. However, it wasn’t long before a full-scale mapping project came to fruition. Christopher Saxton, a map-maker from Yorkshire, produced a complete atlas of England, under the patronage of Thomas Seckford, a lawyer and administrator.

A coloured map of the counties of England

A coloured map of the counties of England, 1579: Royal MS 18 D III, f. 6r

Sir William Cecil’s manuscript copy is now Royal MS 18 D III, and contains printed and coloured maps from drawings by Saxton, dated between 1576 and 1577. The atlas contains information on distances, as well as relevant information for each county covered, including lists of local Justices of Peace and noblemen. As well as maps of the English counties, Burghley’s atlas also covers Wales and Scotland, and even contains a coloured map of the coasts of Norway, Lapland and North West Russia.

A coloured manuscript map of the coasts of Norway, Lapland and North West Russia

A coloured manuscript map of the coasts of Norway, Lapland and North West Russia, by William Borough (bap. 1536, d. 1598), explorer and naval administrator: Royal MS 18 D III, f. 124r

The volume also shows signs of Burghley’s extensive use. His historical and topographical notes begin in ‘Anno Mundi 2390, when Brutus came to Britain’, and pepper the margins and spare pages. Burghley’s maps are assembled in a different order to Saxton’s printed copies, indicating that the statesman rearranged the prints with his other maps and notes into an atlas for his personal examination. His jottings on the central fold of the map suggest that Burghley carried the volume for regular perusal.

A coloured manuscript map of Shrewsbury

A coloured manuscript map of Shrewsbury, Shropshire, with annotations in Burghley’s hand: Royal MS 18 D III, f. 90r

In his 1592 list of the duties of a Secretary of State, the administrator and diplomat Robert Beale observed that, ‘A Secretary must likewise have […] a book of the Maps of England, with a particular note of the division of the shires into Hundreds, Lathes, Wapenta[k]es, and what Nobleman, Gentleman, and others be residing in […] them’. Burghley’s cartographic commonplace book would have been essential for the statesman’s responses to foreign and domestic troubles, for military direction, and for decisions on law, trade and defence. Some of Burghley’s notes also show a more light-hearted use of the volume. On the map of Essex, the minister has recorded his opinions of different areas: ‘Heyghfeld fayre and fatt, Barndon park better than that, Coppledon beares a Crown, Copthall best of all’.

A coloured map of Essex

A coloured map of Essex, 1576, with annotations in Burghley’s hand: Royal MS 18 D III, f. 36r

Although Saxton’s atlas was full of detailed information, and served as a valuable reference book for the royal minister, the fast-paced world of Elizabethan map-making meant that it was soon surpassed by a series of county topographies developed by John Norden. However, Royal MS 18 D III remained in use. As late as 1603, five years after the death of Burghley himself, new information was still being added to his manuscript, including a list of knights from the coronation of King James I. Fortunately, the atlas is now available for all cartographers and explorers to consult, and can be found on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website.

Here is a selection of some of the other fabulous maps from the Burghley Atlas.

A coloured manuscript map of the coasts of Devon and Dorset

A coloured manuscript map of the coasts of Devon and Dorset from Dartmouth to Weymouth: Royal MS 18 D III, f. 10r

A coloured manuscript map of the Humber river

A coloured manuscript map of the Humber river, and the seacoast from Hull to Scarborough, with particulars of the tide, and a list of ‘Havens and Crickes’ on the North side of the Humber, pertaining to the Custom house of Hull: Royal MS 18 D III, f. 63r

A coloured map of Northumberland

A coloured map of Northumberland, with marginal notes in Burghley’s hand, listing the names of the principal Lords and Lordships in the Middle March: Royal MS 18 D III, f. 72r

A coloured map of Wales

A coloured map of Wales: Royal MS 18 D III, f. 99r


Amy Bowles

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19 March 2020

Your plain friend without flattery

Have you ever told someone off for their own good? Would you like some inspiration from the early modern era?

One of our manuscripts (Add MS 15891) began as a letterbook compiled by Samuel Cox, secretary to the Elizabethan courtier Sir Christopher Hatton (c. 1540–1591), but it continued to accrue examples of elegantly phrased letters after his death. Among them is a blistering letter (ff. 195r–v) Lady Margett wrote in response to the ‘paper mouth full of lyes’ she had received from her son’s schoolmaster. The copy of her letter is undated, but words such as ‘spurgaule’ (to strike with the spur) would suggest that it belongs to the mid- to late 16th century.

The first page of the letter

The first page of a letter of a gentlewoman to a schoolmaster: Add MS 15891, f. 195r

During this time, there was a flourishing market for letter writing manuals in English. They provided formulae and models for topics such as exhorting someone to lament, rejoicing about a friend’s return to health, or even how to write a letter when you had very little news to impart.

According to William Fulwood, whose The Enemie of Idlenesse (1568) was the first letter writing manual in English, a letter of invective should fall into three parts. First, the author should win goodwill by emphasising that they wrote reluctantly, only after deciding that, having already endured the addressee’s wicked behaviour for some time, it would be wrong to allow it to worsen. Second, they should explain the grounds for their censure and provide evidence. Finally, if the writer was addressing a friend, they should write gently, stating the inconveniences which would ensure if their behaviour continued. When addressing an enemy, the writer ought to emphasise that they acted out of morality rather than hatred, and would speak more fully on the matter at an opportune moment.

As a gentlewoman, Lady Margett might have received a reasonable education in rhetoric, but is highly likely to have been familiar with these manuals. If she had used Fulwood’s suggested opening in her previous ‘curtuous’ letter, this time she decided to go on the attack by likening him to a horse whose ‘wynching [wincing] and kicking … bewrayes your gald back.’ Not content with one insult when she might use several, Margett had evidently mastered the abundant style and the use of a colourful simile:

'You ar lyke the cholerick horse ryder, who beeing cast from the back of a young coult and not daring to kill the horse, went into the stable to cut the sadle: or lyke an angry gnarling dogg, that byteth the stone & not hym that threwe it.'

As well as being like a horse with a sore back, an angry dog and an irritable horse rider, the schoolmaster was ‘not vnwarthy of a fooles coate with fowre elbowes’ for failing to heed the wise man’s saying that ‘he maketh hym self well belouved, that geueth a mylde & a gentil awnswere’.

Lady Margett had good reason to be angry. The schoolmaster was not the ‘honest playne breasted’ man she thought he was, but a ‘dissembling sycophant.’ Her good opinion of him had blinded her to the fact that several others (including the ‘Countesse of K’) had made him ‘taste of the sower as well as the sweete’ after discovering that he was ‘vnfitt … to take charge of there children.’ Her guilt at committing her ‘poore lambe to a woolues keeping’ was compounded by the slurs he had made on her reputation for generosity. For him to claim that he was poorly paid for teaching was an ‘ympudent lye’, since she had always ‘allowed the woorkman his hyer’. Clearly, he would rather lose a friend than the ‘liberty of a licentous petulant tounge’.

The second page of the letter

The second page of Lady Margett's admonishing letter: Add MS 15891, f. 195v

The schoolmaster’s decision not to sign his letter provided Lady Margett with further ammunition. Drily observing that she could not understand such dishonesty unless he had burned his hand and vowed never to sign anything with it again, she could still recognise his style as ‘a pigg of the sowe of your muse & a ragg of youre owne dunghill’. Despite these insults, she characterised herself as acting from the best of motives. She sternly reminded him to ‘take heede of libelling’, lest the same disgraceful fate befall him as had a fellow schoolmaster, whose love of ‘rayling Rhetorick’ meant that he now had ‘no more cares left hym on his heade’. Doling out further sententious wisdom, she counselled him that he had no right to feel aggrieved: ‘such a blowe as the asse geueth agaynst the wall, such a one he receaueth’. Signing off as his ‘playne frend without flatery’, she prayed that God would forgive his ‘foule mouthe & venymous lippes this & all other such wycked woordes of malice’.

The end of the letter

The subscription to the letter: Add MS 15891, f. 195v

Alhough very few of us may take up our pens the next time someone offends us, the schoolmaster and Lady Margett’s world of honour culture and social credit still resonates. As she showed in this letter, you can take the moral high ground and still get your own back.


Jessica Crown

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14 March 2020

Pilgrimage by proxy

A recent addition to our digitised collections is a unique 15th-century guidebook for pilgrims to the Holy Land. Almost like a late medieval Lonely Planet guide for a prospective pilgrim, it contains an illustrated narrative of the journey, a detailed itinerary with distances, and practical instructions for prospective pilgrims.

The main text is a detailed account of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and Mount Sinai, originally written in Italian by the Franciscan friar Niccolò da Poggibonsi (fl. 1345–1350), and known as Libro d’Oltramare (Book of Outremer). Our manuscript (Egerton MS 1900) is the only known copy of the German translation of this text.

A coloured drawing of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, with bell tower and a ramp leading to the upper level.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem; Southern Germany (Nürnberg?), c. 1465: Egerton MS 1900, f. 12v

The genre of written pilgrimage accounts to the Holy Land has its origins in the 4th century. Such texts were aimed at readers who were unable to physically make such a long and difficult journey. By reading descriptions of the actual locations mentioned in the Bible, they could instead go on a mental pilgrimage, envisaging the places as they read.

Niccolò’s mid-14th-century text revolutionised this genre in several ways, making it easier than ever before for a European reader to visualise the cities, churches and places of veneration. Firstly, his account was the first pilgrimage guidebook written in the vernacular. Moreover, it is a first-person narrative based on his first-hand experiences, whereas most previous accounts were derived from much older texts. Moreover, it seems that Niccolò planned from the beginning to incorporate illustrations of the places and marvels he encountered into the text.

Coloured drawing of the walled up Golden Gate of the Temple Mount, Jerusalem, with five lines of text underneath.

Golden Gate, Jerusalem: Egerton MS 1900, f. 51r

Unsurprisingly, the text describes the many important churches and sites in Jerusalem in the most detail. These passages are illustrated with no fewer than 40 drawings. They mainly portray important buildings and churches, such as the Golden Gate (f. 51r), the complex of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (ff. 12v, 14r, 15r, 18v, 19v, 20v, 23v, 26r), the Chapel of the Ascension (f. 44r), and the Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount (f. 52v).

Coloured drawing at the bottom of a manuscript page, of the place of the Last Supper with a wooden table and entrance on the right hand side.

The place of the Last Supper: Egerton MS 1900, f. 36r

More specific locations associated with important events from the Bible are also included, such as ‘the place where our Lord ate his evening meal with his Disciples' (der stat do unnser herr sein abent essen aß mit seinem Jungern). Although the perspective is slightly confusing, the illustration of the place of the Last Supper shows a wooden trestle table on a colourful mosaic floor.

Coloured drawing of the city of Nazareth with a fountain in the foreground on the left-hand side.

Nazareth and ‘St Gabriel’s well’: Egerton MS 1900, f. 75v

Numerous locations of important biblical events elsewhere in the Biblical Levant and the Sinai Peninsula are also portrayed. For instance, under the heading ‘Saint Gabriel’s well’ is a nearly full-page drawing of a well or a fountain with the city of Nazareth in the background. This was the well where, according to tradition, the Angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary during the Annunciation.

A manuscript page with a coloured drawing of a tree with leaves reaching down to the ground in the middle of the page.

The tree of the apples of Paradise: Egerton MS 1900, f. 139r

Another site mentioned towards the end of the text, as the narrator is travelling through Sinai, is the tree of ‘the apples of Paradise’. This seems to refer to the very Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden, the fruit of which tends to be depicted as an apple in western Christian art.

Coloured drawing of a mount with the body of St Catherine, wearing a golden crown, on the top.

The mountain where the body of St Catherine was found: Egerton MS 1900, f. 132r

Another category of important places in the pilgrimage account is locations related to the veneration of early Christian martyrs. For example, there are several illustrations of sites connected to St Catherine of Alexandria (d. c. 305). The most unusual among them is perhaps the drawing of ‘the mountain where St Catherine was first found’ (Der perg do Sant Katrey am ersten funden wart). It shows a mottled brown mound with the incorrupt body of the saint, dressed in a red dress and a golden crown, lying on the top.

Close-up of a manuscript page with a coloured drawing of four pyramids in a row.

Detail of pyramids: Egerton MS 1900, f. 116v

A smaller category of illustration is that of various marvels that were curious to a medieval European traveller. Shown above are the small drawing of four pyramids, most likely representing the pyramids at Giza. The heading testifies to the late-medieval belief that, instead of monumental tombs, they were in fact the ‘granaries of the Pharaohs’ (korn kasten kunig pharaonis).

A coloured drawing of an imagined giraffe with short legs, long neck, and a shaggy grey coat.

Giraffe: Egerton MS 1900, f. 110v

Interrupting the sequential narrative of the journey is a small series of exotic animals encountered by Niccolò, including the elephant, a local goat breed big enough to ride, and the ostrich. More unusually for a medieval illustration, the fourth exotic animal is the giraffe. The text is based on an eyewitness encounter, but the artist is unlikely to have seen an actual giraffe. While they included the characteristic long neck, they seem to have based the other features of this giraffe — such as the cow-like head and the shaggy grey coat — on domesticated animals closer to home.

Why not check out the rest of this wonderful manuscript and go on a mental pilgrimage of your own? You can read more about it in this article by Kathryn Blair Moore: ‘The Disappearance of an Author and the Emergence of a Genre: Niccolò da Poggibonsi and Pilgrimage Guidebooks between Manuscript and Print', Renaissance Quarterly, 66 (2013), 357–411.


Emilia Henderson

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12 March 2020

Puppets and papyri

What's the connection between puppets and papyri? You can find out in person on 17 March, when the British Library is hosting an event entitled Fragments: A Journey Through Papyri.

An image of a fragmentary papyrus of a play by Euripides

A section from Euripides’ lost play Cresphontes, which has inspired the new show. The papyrus dates from the 3rd century AD and is a fragment of an actor’s copy of the script which he would have used to learn his lines. This scene comes from the start of the play, where the young hero first returns from exile to avenge his murdered father: British Library Papyrus 3041 (P.Oxy. XXVII 2458)


This evening of discussion and performance is presented in association with Potential Difference, a theatre company which brings together writers and theatre-makers with academics and specialists to tell stories inspired by science, philosophy and technology. Their next production, Fragments, will be presented in Spring 2020; our event will include puppetry sequences from the upcoming show to evoke the journey of the papyri through time.

Fragments is a collaboration between Potential Difference and puppetry director Jess Mabel Jones with Dr Laura Swift (Senior Lecturer in Classical Studies at the Open University) and specialist conservators. In addition to the puppetry sequences, our event on 17 March will combine a talk from a papyrus conservator about their work, together with a discussion with the creative team, who will share how they have drawn on these ancient artefacts to develop an evocative language of shadow puppetry.

Tickets for this event can be purchased from the British Library Box Office.


Fragments: A Journey Through Papyri

The British Library

17 March, 19:15–20:30


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11 March 2020

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

In early modern England, the act of writing a poem did not always begin with a flash of inspiration. One manuscript at the British Library offers a glimpse of how an anonymous poet used the words of others to get started. Stowe MS 962 is a comprehensive collection of early modern verse, containing around 350 poems. The volume is a Who’s Who of manuscript poetry: it amasses works by over twenty poets, from John Donne, Ben Jonson and Sir Francis Bacon to Henry King, William Strode and Sir Kenelm Digby. It also contains three anonymous poems that at first glance appear to be the work of the poet and historian Samuel Daniel (1562/3–1619). On closer inspection, however, they are something else entirely.

When the first lines of these poems are entered into The Union First Line Index of English Verse 13th-19th Century, hosted by the Folger Shakespeare Library, the results suggest that they belong to Daniel’s influential sonnet sequence Delia, first published in 1591. Reading beyond the first lines, however, it seems that an anonymous poet has simply borrowed the opening lines of Daniel’s sonnets, only to use them as a springboard for new poetic compositions.

Imitating the style of other writers was an important feature of early modern education. Ben Jonson noted that a skilful poet should be able to ‘convert the substance or riches of another poet to his own use’. The words of others could thus generate material for allusions, responses and even poetic parodies. In Stowe MS 962, for instance, one of Jonson’s own poems begins: ‘Have you seen the white lily grow / Before rude hands had touched it?’. Transcribed alongside this work, however, is a scurrilous parody: ‘Have you seen but a black little maggot / Gone creeping over a dead dog?’ (f. 179v).

The first page of 'Upon a Death's Head'

'Uppon a Deaths heade': Stowe MS 962, f. 227v

The poems that take their cue from Daniel’s Delia are less satirical and suggest a subtler creative technique. They fit into the genre of the response poem, using Daniel’s words and images to reach a different poetic conclusion. Two of the poems condense Daniel’s 14-line sonnets into 12 lines, and reduce the sonnet’s characteristic five-beat line to a more sprightly four beats. The first of these response poems uses the opening line and a later couplet of Daniel’s Sonnet 37, retitling the work ‘Upon a Death’s head’ (i.e. a skull):

Uppon a Deaths heade

When winter snowes uppon thy hayres

when thy greene hopes and blacke dispayres

when ages frostes hath nipt thee neere

All dry’d and dead was greene and deere

when thou shalt canker soyle and rust

when youthes glory falls to dust

when thou shalt dreame of wormes and graves

when yeallow age thy beauty braves

Then take this picture which I here present thee

And see the guiftes which god and nature lent thee

                And for each guift thou hast abusd, even heere

                Send upp a sigh, and then dropp downe a teare.                                             

(f. 227v)

The second response poem follows Daniel’s Sonnet 9 in its first line, and uses other features of its imagery:

If it be love to draw a breath

Short and bitter, and one earth

To pant. and sigh. to wound the ayre

With cryes. that full of passions are

To seeke forgotten pathes where none

May see me weepe or heare me groane

If love afflict us with sadd thoughtes

And fill our musique with sadd notes

If love enforce us loose ourselves

And split our shipps on sorrowes shelves

Then farewell love, let me live as before

                Ile weepe, and sigh, and pant, and greeve noe more                       

(f. 228r)

'If if be love' and other poems

'If it be love' and other poems: Stowe MS 962, f. 228r

A third poem in Stowe MS 962 has a much closer relationship to one of Daniel’s sonnets, but still suggests a concerted attempt to refashion Daniel’s lines into a new poetic work. Beginning ‘Reade in my face a volume of despairs’, the poem takes its first line from Daniel’s Sonnet 42, and includes variations of its second line and its final couplet. Unlike the other response poems, it retains the five beats of iambic pentameter, but reduces the sonnet itself to a mere 8 lines. Ignoring Daniel’s references to Helen of Troy, the poem is more interested in contrasting the burning heart of the speaker with the chilly response of his mistress:

Reade in my face a volume of dispayres

Drawne with my blood and printed by my cares

The waylinge witnes of my woundrous woe

Wrought by her hand that I have sigh’d for soe

O whilst I burne she freezeth her desire

(Oh straynge) to cold, addes fewell to my fire

                Thus ruins shee (to satisfie her will)

                The Temple where her name was honored still.                 

(f. 227v)

The pages of Stowe MS 962 offer an intriguing glimpse of a broader culture of literary imitation and response. These anonymous verses may have been written as an admiring tribute to Samuel Daniel, as exercises in composition, or simply as a means of overcoming writer’s block. Whatever the intention, they reveal one of the many ways in which early modern manuscripts offered opportunities to find, compose and share verse.


Amy Bowles

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