THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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9 posts from May 2020

27 May 2020

The St Albans Benefactors' Book: precious gifts and colourful characters

Made to take pride of place on the abbey's high altar, the St Albans Benefactors' Book reads like a who's who of medieval England. It preserves hundreds of names, details and portraits of people who made gifts to the Abbey of St Albans throughout the Middle Ages. Far more than a list of donors, it presents a vivid picture of a community and all the individuals who comprised it. Its pages bustle with the life and colour of medieval society.

Donor portrait of King Offa of Mercia (d. 796), holding a miniature church
King Offa of Mercia (d. 796), who is said to have founded St Albans Abbey: Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 3v

The Benefactors' Book (Cotton MS Nero D VII) was begun around 1380 as a register of members of the Abbey's confraternity, established by Abbot Thomas de la Mare (r. 1350–96). According to the preface, anyone who made a donation could be admitted into the confraternity, which granted them a lavish induction ceremony, spiritual benefits and a record in this prestigious book.

As well as recording contemporary donors, the entries stretch far back into the Abbey's past, beginning with King Offa of Mercia who is said to have founded the Abbey in 793 (pictured above). Spaces were also left for future entries, and the abbey continued to add the details of new benefactors into the 16th century.

Donor portrait of Æthelgifu, a 10th-century noblewoman, holding a charter
Æthelgifu, a 10th-century noblewoman who gave lands, 30 gold mancuses, 30 oxen, 20 cows, 250 sheep, a herd of pigs with a swineherd, 2 silver cups, 2 horns, a book, a curtain and a cushion: Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 90r

The job of compiling the register from the Abbey's old documents was given to Thomas Walsingham (d. c. 1422), the precentor of the Abbey and a prominent historian. The scribe was a monk of the Abbey named William de Wyllum, and the illuminator was a professional lay artist named Alan Strayler who waived the cost of the pigments in return for his place among the Abbey's benefactors (f. 108r).

Self-portrait of Alan Strayler, the artist who illuminated the book
Self-portrait of Alan Strayler, the artist who illuminated the book: Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 108r

The book presents an orderly view of medieval society. The benefactors are organised according to social hierarchy: kings and queens first, followed by popes, abbots, priors and monks of St Albans, bishops and finally laypeople. All levels of society who could afford to donate are included, from members of the royal family and knightly aristocracy, to London burghers, fishmongers, millers and masons.

Donor portrait of Nigel the miller holding a money bag
Nigel the miller who gave a yearly sum of 4 shillings: St Albans Benefactors' Book, Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 96r

Strayler's lively portraits are full of individuality. People assume different postures, facial features, expressions and gestures. They wear detailed costumes appropriate to their social rank and many of them are shown proudly clutching the prized objects that they donated to the Abbey. Although it is unclear how closely they reflect the actual appearances of the people they represent, the portraits give a vivid impression of assorted personalities and walks of life.

Donor portrait of Joan, Countess of Kent, fashionably dressed and holding her gift of a necklace
Joan, countess of Kent, and princess of Wales and of Aquitaine (d. 1385), who gave a gold necklace and 100 shillings: St Albans Benefactors' Book, Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 7v
Donor portrait of Robert Chamberleyn, squire of the king, wearing a suit of armour and kneeling
Robert Chamberleyn, squire of the king, who gave wine liberally (1417): Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 142v

Where details of a person's appearance were known, it seems that Strayler took care to include them. For example, abbot of St Albans Richard of Wallingford (d. 1336), a gifted astronomer who created an extraordinary astronomical clock for the Abbey, is depicted with a blemished face, reflecting the fact that he was said to have suffered from leprosy.

Portrait of Richard of Wallingford, abbot of St Albans (d. 1336), with his clock
Richard of Wallingford, abbot of St Albans (d. 1336), with his clock: Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 20r

Similarly, a man named Æthelwine the Black (Egelwynnus ye Swarte) who, together with his wife Wynflæd, gave land to the abbey in the time of King Edward the Confessor (r. 1042–1066), is depicted with dark skin.

Donor portrait of Æthelwine the Black and his wife Wynflæd holding a charter
Æthelwine the Black (Egelwynus ye Swarte) and his wife Wynflæd, who gave land to the abbey in 11th century: Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 89v

Just as fascinating as the benefactors are their gifts, which richly evoke the splendour of medieval material culture. Besides land, property and money, people gave treasures such as jewellery, vestments, chalices, bowls, horns, bells, statues, precious stones and books.

Donor portrait of Petronilla de Benstede holding her gift of a round super-altar
Petronilla de Benstede who gave a round super-altar of jasper set in silver on which St Augustine of Canterbury was said to have celebrated: Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 101v

The entries are suffused with hints of stories that leave you longing to know more. For example, in the section on abbots of St Albans, we learn of Abbot Ealdred who filled in the cave of a dragon, and the unfortunate Abbot John Berkamsted who 'did nothing memorable in his life' (nichil memorabile fecit in vita).

Portrait of Abbot Ealdred with a dragon at his feet
Ealdred, abbot of St Albans in the 11th century, who filled in the cave of a dragon: Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 12v
Portrait of Abbot John Berkamsted wringing his hands in anguish
John Berkamsted, abbot of St Albans (d. 1302), who 'did nothing memorable in his life', Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 19r

Unlike the chronicles that Thomas Walsingham would go on to write, this is a history not of momentous events but of the colourful characters, precious gifts and shared stories that were the fabric of the Abbey's community for centuries.

Now you can immerse yourself in this captivating book too: the manuscript is newly digitised and available to view on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

Eleanor Jackson

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21 May 2020

It's tournament season!

On the 21st of May 1390, during a three-year truce in the Hundred Years’ War, the French knights, Boucicaut, de Roye and Saint Pi, set up three luxurious crimson tents in a spacious field between Calais and the Abbey of Saint-Inglevert. They issued a challenge to all comers for a friendly trial of arms lasting 30 days. Many English knights attended, one being Sir John Holland, Earl of Huntingdon, who was highly applauded for his contests against Boucicaut and de Roye. Afterwards, Huntingdon asked to be allowed one more challenge for the love of his lady, but this was not permitted by the rules. Over four days of tilting, more than 40 challenges were issued, each one described in detail by the writer Jean Froissart in his Chronicles.

The tournament of Saint-Inglevert in the Harley Froissart
The tournament of Saint-Inglevert, in the Harley Froissart, Harley MS 4379, f. 43r

Chivalric tournaments were a regular form of aristocratic entertainment from the 12th century onwards, often accompanying great occasions such as coronations or marriages. These simulated battles were well-planned and choreographed events where a knight could show off his skills. They also served as a training ground for real warfare.

The warmer months were the popular season for tournaments, as shown by this image of the activity for the month of June from a 16th-century Book of Hours known as the Golf Book. Calendars in these books often contain miniatures of the labours of the months, cycles of largely agricultural activities such as reaping and ploughing that were carried out throughout the year, but here sports and games supplement these traditional scenes. The miniature shows knights jousting and sword-fighting on horseback in a crowded arena. Below the picture is a border scene of figures riding on wooden hobby horses and holding toy windmills, perhaps intended as a parody of the tournament above.

A tournament before a city
A tournament before a city, workshop of Simon Bening, in the Golf Book, Add MS 24098, f. 23v

A winter tournament was held to celebrate the coronation of Joan of Navarre, wife of Henry IV of France in February 1403, in which Sir Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, fought as her champion. This drawing from his illustrated biography, the recently digitised Pageants of Richard Beauchamp, shows him wearing a helmet with the Warwick emblem, a bear with ragged staff, while the queen points to him from the balcony.

Beauchamp jousting in Queen Joan's coronation tournament
Beauchamp jousting in Queen Joan's coronation tournament, in the Pageants of Richard Beauchamp, Cotton MS Julius E IV/3, f. 3r

The medieval travel narrative The Travels of Sir John Mandeville describes a tournament in Constantinople, watched by the Byzantine emperor. The event is depicted in this elaborate scene based on a Czech translation of the Travels, illustrated in Bohemia in the early 15th century.

A tournament in Constantinople with jousting from The Travels of Sir John Mandeville
A tournament in Constantinople with jousting, in the Travels of Sir John Mandeville, Add MS 24189, f. 15v

Some of the most fabulous images of martial display are from manuscripts of courtly romance literature, which provided inspiration for the real events, with medieval knights doing their best to emulate Arthurian super-heroes like Sir Lancelot. This scene is from the romance of Méliadus about the chivalric deeds of Tristan’s father. In one episode, Méliadus falls in love with the queen of Scotland when he sees her passing in a magnificent procession on her way to a tournament. He takes part, defeating numerous challengers and winning the queen’s admiration. He is usually portrayed bearing the Neapolitan arms in this manuscript, which was copied and decorated for the king of Naples, Louis de Tarente, who founded the first Italian order of knighthood, the Nodo (knot).

Méliadus fights in a tournament with the Queen of Scotland watching
Méliadus fights in a tournament with the Queen of Scotland watching, in Méliadus, Add MS 12228, ff. 214v-215r

Medieval tournaments usually consisted of a melée, or mock combat between two teams, preceded by jousting between individuals, as depicted in this miniature from the French romance of Ponthus et Sidoine. To cut a long story short, Ponthus is heir to the kingdom of Galicia and one of Hoel’s knights. He falls secretly in love with Sidoine, who is promised in marriage to the Duke of Burgundy, and he has to flee to Britain to escape her father’s wrath. Returning to Brittany on his way to win back his kingdom, he finds that Sidoine’s wedding to the duke is about to be celebrated with a tournament. Disguised as a white knight, he kills the Duke in a joust, winning Sidoine’s hand. He regains his kingdom and the pair rule as joint monarchs of Galicia and Brittany. This plot is almost identical to the English romance of King Horn, though most names have been changed.

Ponthus kills the Duke of Burgundy, in the Shrewsbury Book
Ponthus kills the Duke of Burgundy, in the Shrewsbury Book, Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 220v

Somewhere between medieval legend and recorded history is a work known as Le Petit Jean de Saintré. It claims to be a chivalric biography, and there was indeed a knight by this name who lived about a hundred years before it was written, but the author pays little attention to historical facts. The young Jean is educated in the values of knighthood by the Dame des Belles-Cousines, who instructs him on a variety of subjects from the seven deadly sins to personal grooming. He travels around the courts of Europe, winning fame at many tournaments, but in a surprising plot twist at the end, the virtuous Dame falls prey to a lusty monk, much to the dismay of her earnest young champion.

Jean de Saintré in a tournament
Jean de Saintré in a tournament, Cotton MS Nero D IX, f. 32v

But not everyone took tournaments so seriously. In this manuscript border, two men in wicker armour tilt at each other while riding on sheep, and one falls clumsily to the ground. Looks like quite the baa-lancing act!

Royal_ms_1_e_v_f171r-(detail)

Men jousting on sheep in an illuminated border from a book of Gospels, Royal MS 1 E V, f. 171r

Chantry Westwell

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20 May 2020

Remembering Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War

This week we are looking back at the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition which opened to the public in October 2018. By the time the exhibition closed four months later, the enigmatic figure of ‘Spong Man’ had greeted over 108,000 visitors.

Spong Man on display in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition

‘Spong Man’, on loan from Norwich Castle Museum (1994.192.1)

Excavated in Norfolk about 40 years ago, Spong Man is the ceramic lid of a cremation urn, who had travelled from his current home in Norwich Castle Museum to London for the exhibition. Sitting with his head in his hands, he looked visitors straight in the eye and welcomed them to his 5th-century world. While Spong Man sat alone, some of the most memorable moments in the exhibition were manuscripts brought together for display alongside each other, thanks to the generosity of so many lenders. Here is a reminder of just a few.

Just behind Spong Man was a single exhibition case containing the St Augustine Gospels, perhaps brought from Rome by St Augustine in 597, the Moore Bede, probably the earliest copy of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, and the Textus Roffensis, which contains the first piece of English law and the earliest datable text written in English.

An illuminated page from the St Augustine Gospels

The St Augustine Gospels, on loan from Cambridge, Corpus Christi College (MS 286) © Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

A page from the Moore Bede

The Moore Bede, on loan from Cambridge University Library (MS Kk.5.16) © Cambridge University Library

The opening page of Textus Roffensis

Textus Roffensis, on loan from Rochester Cathedral Library (MS A. 3. 5)

Round the corner, the Book of Durrow and the Echternach Gospels shared a case.

A decorated page from the Book of Durrow

The Book of Durrow, on loan from Dublin, Trinity College Library (MS 57) © Trinity College Dublin

A decorated page from the Echternach Gospels

The Echternach Gospels, on loan from Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France (MS lat. 9389)

In the same room were the Durham Gospels next to the Lindisfarne Gospels and, at the far end, two manuscripts made at Wearmouth-Jarrow in the early 8th century were reunited when the pocket-sized St Cuthbert Gospel, acquired by the British Library in 2012, was displayed next to the giant Codex Amiatinus, which had returned from Italy to Britain for the first time in over 1300 years.

St Cuthbert Gospel

The St Cuthbert Gospel (British Library, Add MS 89000)

Codex Amiatinus on display in the exhibition

Codex Amiatinus, on loan from Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana (MS Amiatino 1)

The room focusing on Mercia included the Lichfield Angel, discovered in 2003, displayed next to King Offa’s gold dinar.

The Lichfield Angel on display in the exhibition

The Lichfield Angel, on loan from Lichfield Cathedral

The gold dinar of King Offa

Gold dinar of King Offa, on loan from the British Museum (CM 1913,1213.1) © Trustees of the British Museum

Highlights of the room on the West Saxons were the Alfred Jewel displayed directly in front of a case containing the copy of the Pastoral Care that Alfred sent to Worcester.

The Alfred Jewel

The Alfred Jewel, on loan from Oxford, Ashmolean Museum (AN1836 p.135.371)

A page from King Alfred's translation of the Pastoral Care

The Pastoral Care, on loan from Oxford, Bodleian Library (MS Hatton 20)

The section on languages and literature was dominated by a replica of the Ruthwell Cross with its extracts from the poem ‘The Dream of the Rood’.

The Ruthwell Cross replica in the gallery

The Ruthwell Cross replica in the gallery

Nearby the cases containing the Four Poetic Codices, brought together for the first time Beowulf, the Vercelli Book (containing the whole text of ‘The Dream of the Rood’), the Exeter Book and the Junius Manuscript.

The four poetic codices on display

The Four Poetic Codices on display in the exhibition: Beowulf (British Library, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV); The Vercelli Book, on loan from Vercelli, Biblioteca Capitolare (MS CXVII); The Junius Manuscript, on loan from Oxford, Bodleian Library (MS Junius 11); The Exeter Book, on loan from Exeter Cathedral Library (MS 3501)

Further on, the jewelled binding of the Gospels of Judith of Flanders was displayed in the centre of the room containing eight highlights of the manuscript art from the late 10th- and 11th-century kingdom of England.

The treasure binding of the Judith of Flanders Gospels

The Judith of Flanders Gospels, on loan from New York, Morgan Library (MS M 708) © The Pierpont Morgan Library and Museum, New York

Towards the end of the exhibition the Domesday surveyors’ questions and part of the Exon Domesday survey were displayed with Domesday Book itself, showing the vast amount of evidence it reveals about the landscape, organisation and wealth of late Anglo-Saxon England.

A page for Yorkshire in Great Domesday

Great Domesday Book, on loan from The National Archives (E/31/2/2)

Finally, and several hours later for some dedicated visitors, the exhibition ended with the Utrecht Psalter, the Harley Psalter and the Eadwine Psalter, which drew together key themes in the exhibition: the connections between Europe and the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, the movement of manuscripts, and the development and continuity of the English language.

A page from the Utrecht Psalter

The Utrecht Psalter, on loan from Utrecht, Universiteitsbibliotheek (MS 32) © Utrecht University Library

An opening of two pages from the Harley Psalter

The Harley Psalter, British Library Harley MS 603

A page from the Eadwine Psalter

The Eadwine Psalter, on loan from Cambridge, Trinity College (MS R.17.1)

Although the exhibition closed in February 2019, you can continue to explore exhibits through the collection items and articles featured in our Anglo-Saxons website, and the exhibition catalogue is available from the British Library online shop.

 

Claire Breay

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18 May 2020

Fabulous Mr Fox and other wise tales

Early in the 1400s, Ulrich von Pottenstein (c. 1360–1417), a clerk and chaplain to Duke Albert IV of Austria, translated into German a collection of Latin fables. Known in their expanded version as Das Buch der natürlichen Weisheit ('The Book of Natural Wisdom'), these fables describe the interactions between animals, humans, plants and the natural elements in order to teach moral lessons to their readers. One of the finest illustrated copies of this work, found in Egerton MS 1121, has recently been digitised. This manuscript, containing more than 70 fables, can teach us much about wisdom, beginning with:

(1) Listen to your sense of reason.

When the animals gather to choose the wisest, they divide into two factions. The land animals nominate the Fox and the birds elect the Raven. But the Monkey intervenes, explaining that they have chosen not with reason but with carelessness and poor judgement. They have allowed themselves to be misled, mistaking the cunning of the Fox and Raven for wisdom.

The land animals gather around the brown Fox (left), and the birds around the black Raven (right).

The Fox and Raven are chosen as the wisest animals: Egerton MS 1121, f. 4v

(2) Question things that appear to be certain.

The Fox plays dead in order to catch the Raven, who is sitting in a tree. The scavenging bird comes closer but, knowing the Fox’s cunning, inspects the ‘carcass’ from a safe distance. When the Raven notices that the Fox’s heart is beating, he drops a stone on his head and calls him out as a deceiver. The Fox, in turn, drops his charade.

he brown Fox plays dead under the tree in which the Raven sits.

The Fox and the Raven: Egerton MS 1121, f. 7v

(3) Choose your company carefully.

The Fox has remorse for his sins and decides to go on a pilgrimage. En route, the Dog, Donkey, Bear, Lion, Wolf, Swine and Peacock try to join him, but the Fox considers them imprudent and shakes them off. Instead, he chooses wiser animals as his fellow pilgrims: the Ant, Tracking Dog, Ox, Hedgehog, Hare, Lamb, Monkey and (multi-coloured) Panther. The Fox explains that, if you keep company with the wise and holy, you will become wise and holy as well.

On the left, the Fox rejects animals as fellow pilgrims. From bottom to top they are: the Dog, Donkey, Bear, Lion, Wolf, Swine, and Peackock. On the right, the Fox invites other animals to join him on his pilgrimage. From bottom to top they are: the Ant, Weasel, Ox, Hedgehog, Hare, Lamb, Monkey, and Panther with multi-coloured spots.

The Pilgrim Fox chooses his company: Egerton MS 1121, f. 36r

(4) Listen to good advice.

The Monkey decides to follow a sailor into the mast of a ship. The Raven warns against it, but the Monkey ignores the advice, falls down and hurts himself. He then sits on a king's throne, ignoring the warning of the Fox. Only when he is thrown off and bitten by dogs does he realise that he should listen to sound advice.

On the left, the Monkey climbs into the mast of a ship while the Raven, to his left, warns him. On the right, the Monkey holds a golden sceptre and sits on the throne of a king while the Fox, below him (in the right lower corner), warns him. Below the boat and throne, the Monkey is being bitten by two white dogs.

The Monkey ignores the advice of the Raven and the Fox: Egerton MS 1121, f. 48v

(5) Don’t put yourself above others.

A Cloud, newly born from the Earth, leaps high up into the air. Her mother, Earth, implores her to return. But the Cloud answers that she wants to raise herself above all the things in the natural world. The Earth then teaches her that those who exalt themselves will fall deep. Even the Sun, which raises itself high into the sky, goes down. It is better to be humble. As a reminder of this, Nature has placed the human heart and feet, that keep the entire body going, below the head. The Cloud is persuaded and lets herself fall back to Earth.  

A blue undulating beam, representing the new-born Cloud, leaps up into the air from a green field with flowers, representing the Earth.

The new-born Cloud leaps up from the Earth: Egerton MS 1121, f. 58v

(6) Use your powers wisely.

A fish with razor-sharp teeth tells the Swordfish that he would like to have a sword as well, in order to rob others. The Swordfish replies that it would be best if the other fish doesn’t have a sword or even teeth: corrupted hearts always take the opportunity to use the good things they have for evil purposes, turning their own luck into unhappiness.

Two blue-grey fish with scales in a small pond. The fish on the left has razor sharp teeth (Toothfish), while the fish on the right holds a sword in its mouth (Swordfish).

The ‘Toothfish’ and the Swordfish: Egerton MS 1121, f. 67r

(7) Greed leads to more loss than gain.

Having devoured yet another prey, the gluttonous Crocodile lies sleeping with its jaws open. The bird ‘Scrofilus’ seizes its opportunity, crawls inside the Crocodile’s mouth, and mortally wounds him from the inside. The Crocodile wakes up and asks why the bird has injured him. Scrofilus explains that those who always desire more always lose more than they gain. Alexander the Great, who conquered the whole world, always wanted to possess more lands; he was never satisfied and became poor in heart as a result.

A green crocodile with a large curled tail sleeps with its jaws open. A grey bird that sits in a tree above him flies down and wounds him inside his mouth.

Scrofilus mortally wounds the sleeping Crocodile: Egerton MS 1121, f. 97v

(8) Wealth always comes with a price.

The Monkey wants to grow a long tail like that of the Fox. But he then meets the Elephant who has removed his tusks to avoid being used in battle; the Swallow whose stomach has been cut open for the precious ‘swallow stone’ (Chelidonius); the Beaver who has removed his testicles to escape hunters looking for his castoreum; and the Peacock whose shiny tail has been cut off. The Monkey realises that wealth always comes with suffering and forgets about the tail. 

A brown monk talks with a brown Fox. Behind them stands the Elephant without tasks and with a castle on his back.

The Monkey with the Fox and the tuskless Elephant: Egerton MS 1121, f. 102r

(9) Good things take time.

The Gourd is proud to have reached the same height as the 100-year-old Palm within only a few summer days. The plant thanks Nature for allowing him to grow so quickly. But the Palm hears the Gourd’s boast and replies that what grows quickly will also wither quickly. The Palm gives the example of the quick-growing fish ‘Effimer’ (Ephemeral) that only lives for one day, and the slow-growing elephant that lives for 300 years.

On the left stands a palm tree with green foliage. Next to it, on the right, stands a Gourd with large green fruits and lobed leafs.

The Palm Tree and the Gourd: Egerton MS 1121, f. 121v

(10) Seek treasure inside yourself.

A Youth wants to get rich by visiting the ‘Golden Mountains’ in India. Upon reaching the emerald-covered mountains of pure gold, an Old Man warns him that all visitors are killed by griffins, fabulous creatures with the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle. The Youth is downcast but the Old Man explains that he already carries the greatest treasure inside his own heart. If he listens to his heart — and not greed — he will only seek pure goodness and not gold. Because gold only leads to vice, the peaceful Brahmani (‘Bragmani’) dispose of their gold in deep lakes and Nature hides it from mankind deep inside the Earth. The Youth thanks the Old Man for helping him find true treasure and no longer desires material wealth.

A Youth, wearing a pink robe with blue tights, is warned by an Old Man, with a beard and wearing a purple robe. In the right upper corner are the Golden Mountains with griffins flying around them.

The Old Man warns the Youth about griffins in the Golden Mountains: Egerton MS 1121, f. 114v

Follow your voice of reason, avoid bad company and tricksters, listen to good advice, stay humble, live a measured life, take time to grow, and look inside your own heart. That’s the path to Natural Wisdom.

 

Clarck Drieshen

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14 May 2020

How to be a hermit

When John Donne famously remarked that ‘no man is an island’, he meant, in a literal sense, that no person is isolated. The word ‘isolate’ comes from the Latin insulatus ('insulated'), which came, in turn from insula ('island'). Insulatus became Italian isolato, which gave us the Modern English ‘isolate’. Many of us are currently feeling the pain of being islands, isolated from family or friends. But, throughout history, many cultures have construed isolation as having a symbolic power. This tradition was especially strong in the Christian West in the Middle Ages, when people chose to 'island' themselves to bring them closer to God.

Medieval Christian solitaries often sought to emulate Biblical examples. The Old Testament prophet Elijah was visited by an angel who told him to travel for forty days and forty nights to Mount Horeb. There he dwelt in a cave and heard the voice of God (1 Kings 19:7–10). Elijah’s retreat was emulated by later figures. For instance, John the Baptist retreated into the desert in fulfilment of a prophecy of Isaiah that he would be a ‘voice of one crying in the desert’. There he wore camel skins, fed on locusts and wild honey, and preached penance, before he baptised Christ in the River Jordan (Matthew 3:3–13). Christ also famously emulated Elijah’s forty days and forty nights when he was tempted in the wilderness by the Devil (Matthew 4:1–11).

An initial in an illuminated manuscript, showing John the Baptist wearing animal skins

A historiated initial 'D'(eus), showing John the Baptist clad in animal skins, in the Hours of Bonaparte Ghislieri (Bologna, c. 1500): Yates Thompson MS 29, f. 48r

In the 3rd  and 4th centuries, a group of people retreated into the Egyptian desert to pursue lives of isolation. E. A. Jones has noted that, when Christianity was adopted as the official religion of the Roman Empire under the Emperor Constantine (r. 306–337), it 'lost its dangerous, ‘edgy’ status as a countercultural movement', so that devout Christians could no longer seek martyrdom (Hermits and Anchorites in England, 1200–1550, Manchester University Press, 2019, p. 2). Consequently, they sought other forms of martyrdom in regimes of self-discipline and the denial of bodily desire. These figures saw themselves as spiritual athletes (many Christian writers of this period used the term askesis, which was originally used of athletes training for a contest), intent on difficult and arduous labour in the pursuit of spiritual perfection.

Perhaps the most famous of the Desert Fathers was St Anthony of Egypt (c. 251–356), who is often considered the ‘founder of monasticism’. He made his life in the wilderness, where he was soon joined by followers with whom he formed an early monastic community. Like many hermits, he is said to have undergone demonic torments, including being tempted by devils in the shape of beautiful women and wild beasts. He is the patron saint of animals, skin diseases, farmers, butchers, basket-makers, brush-makers and gravediggers.

A miniature of St Anthony with 2 pigs at his feet

St Anthony in the desert, in the Hours of Charles le Clerc (Netherlands, 15th century): Add MS 19416, f. 126v

Alongside these Desert Fathers, there were also Desert Mothers. Perhaps one of the most engaging stories is that of St Mary of Egypt. Mary lived in the city of Alexandria, where she led a dissolute life for 17 years, ‘lying in the fire of promiscuity’ as the Old English version of her Life puts it. One day, she saw a large crowd of people hurrying to the sea to board a boat. They told her they were going to Jerusalem to venerate the Cross and she decided to join them, but not necessarily for religious reasons. In the Old English translation of her Life in Cotton MS Julius E VII, Mary describes how, ‘I saw ten young men standing together by the shore, good-looking enough in body and in demeanour … for the pleasure of my body’ (translated by Hugh Magennis, The Old English Life of Saint Mary of Egypt, University of Exeter Press, 2002, pp. 85–87). Mary travelled with them, but in Jerusalem she experienced a religious conversion. Thereafter she retreated into the desert, where she lived for 47 years, subsisting on desert plants and wearing only ‘the garment of the word of God’, when the scraps of her clothes had withered away. You can read more about her in our blogpost Hairy Mary.

A detail from the Dunois Hours, showing Zosimas handing his cloak to St Mary of Egypt

St Zosimas hands his cloak to St Mary of Egypt, from the Dunois Hours (Paris, c. 1439–c. 1450): Yates Thompson MS 3, f. 287r

In early medieval England, a number of figures sought to emulate the Desert Fathers and Mothers. St Guthlac was a 7th-century Mercian who, after a life as a soldier, retreated to the East Anglian fens (presumably the closest approximation of a desert that rainy England could offer). There he lived in a disused barrow on an island, and dispensed spiritual counsel to those who visited him. The 8th-century Life of Guthlac by a monk named Felix described how he fasted often, eating only barley bread. He had terrifying visions of devils, which some modern scholars think may have been the result of ergot poisoning. (Ergot is a fungus which can grow on barley and produces a compound similar to lysergic acid or LSD.) Guthlac’s life is clearly modelled, to some degree, on that of St Anthony. The modern medical explanation for Guthlac’s torments is ironic, because St Anthony’s intercession was often invoked by sufferers of ergotism.

A roundel from the Guthlac Roll, showing St Guthlac being tormented by demons

St Guthlac being tormented by devils, in the Guthlac Roll (England, late 12th or early 13h century): Harley Roll Y 6

Each of these figures lived in isolated places away from human society. In England a form of eremitical life emerged around the late 11th century called anchoritism, which allowed people to live as recluses but within the fold of society. Anchorites or anchoresses (the female form) would permanently enclose themselves in cells attached to a church in order to live a life of prayer and contemplation. The word comes from the Greek ἀναχωρεῖν (‘anachorein’) meaning ‘to retire or retreat’. In their cells they lived a life of extraordinary restriction. They had a small window which looked onto the church, another which led onto a servant’s parlour (through which they could receive food and get rid of waste) and a third window on the church yard or street, from which they could dispense spiritual counsel. They were otherwise confined to a single room for what could be decades. You can read more about the lives of anchoresses on the Discovering Literature: Medieval website.

A miniature showing an anchoress being enclosed

Miniature of an anchoress being enclosed, in a pontifical (England, 15th century): Lansdowne MS 451, f. 76v

Perhaps the most famous English anchoress was Julian of Norwich, who wrote the first work in English authored by a woman. During a period of illness in 1373, at the age of 30, Julian experienced visions of Christ. She recovered and composed a short account of her experiences. This account may have been submitted to ecclesiastical authorities when she applied for the right to become an anchoress. Her application was successful and she lived in a cell at St Julian’s Church in Conesford, in Norwich, for at least 20 years. During this time, she meditated on the meaning of her visions, producing a longer version of her initial account (which survives only in post-Reformation copies). This second version of the text represents Julian’s transition from mystic to sophisticated theologian. It is an elegant piece of rhetorical writing, in lyrical prose, which contains some unforgettable imagery. Given the privation of her life — a life of permanent enclosure — Julian’s work is strikingly, almost radically, hopeful.

The opening page of Julian of Norwich's treatise

The short version of Julian of Norwich's Revelations of Divine Love (England, 15th century): Add MS 37790, f. 97r

Julian never makes reference to the realities of her way of life. At one point she writes that ‘this place is pryson, and this lyfe is pennannce’, but she was likely referring to her life on Earth, rather than the confines of her cell. Her work is instead suffused with optimism. Julian’s most famous line, 'all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well', delivers a hopeful message of love as the guiding force of the universe.

A page from from a 17th-century manuscript containing the Long Text of Julian of Norwich's Revelations of Divine Love.

Julian of Norwich’s Long Text of Revelations of Divine Love (France, c. 1675): Stowe MS 42, f. 33r

In this time of isolation, the lives of medieval hermits may seem stranger to us, as we realise the true toll that isolation takes. But this strangeness perhaps also gives us a new appreciation of these figures, battling demons in mountain caves or fenland barrows or ‘islanded’ in small, dark cells. Julian’s hope in the darkness is a message that speaks to us across the centuries.

 

@marywellesley

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12 May 2020

Papyrus horoscopes: stars, planets and fortunes

'The stars (…) disclose for men what will pertain to them from the time of their birth till their leaving the world'. This is what Dorotheus of Sidon, an astrologer who lived in 1st-century Alexandria, wrote at the beginning of his verse treatise on astrology, the Pentateuch.

Heavenly bodies and human fate have long been perceived as intertwined. Predicting the course of human life by observing and studying the positions of the planets and other celestial objects has its roots in the ancient world. Even the lives of powerful rulers were said to have been affected by the planetary positions: legend has it that when Olympias, mother of Alexander the Great, was giving birth to the future conqueror, she was advised to delay the birth of her child by several hours until the right astral configuration appeared in the sky.

Royal_ms_20_c_iii_f015r
Detail of a miniature of Olympias giving birth to Alexander the Great, Royal MS 20 C III, f. 15r

Greek papyri from Egypt have preserved a good number of ancient horoscopes, mostly of the 1st−4th centuries AD, which collect astronomical data for interpretation. Horoscopes on papyrus usually bear standard details without astrological interpretation: the name of the ‘native’ (the individual whose birth details are being analysed), the date and time of birth, including the hour, the position of the Sun, the Moon and the five planets known at the time (Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, and Mercury), and the Ascendant (hôroskopos), that is, the rising point of the ecliptic. The position of the heavenly bodies was usually calculated by longitude (the degrees of the celestial body along the ecliptic), and, sometimes, by latitude (the distance perpendicularly above or below the ecliptic). The 360 degrees of the ecliptic were divided into twelve zodiacal signs of 30 degrees each. 

Astrological drawing of the moon and Zodiac constellations
Astrological drawing of the moon and Zodiac constellations, Egerton MS 845, f. 21v

While horoscopes are usually brief lists of data, a handful of them are more elaborate, to the extent that they may be considered proper prose texts. Among these are the three Greek horoscopes from the British Library collections presented below.

Papyrus 98 is a well-known roll preserving a 2nd-century copy of Hyperides’ (c.390-322 BC) Funeral Oration, a speech delivered in memory of the Athenians who lost their lives fighting against Macedonian rule in the Lamian War (323 BC). On the other side, the roll bears a detailed horoscope for a person born on 13 April 95, whose name is not preserved. To recover the erased sections of the text, the papyrus has recently undergone multi-spectral imaging. The horoscope is written in Ancient Greek and Old Coptic, that is, Egyptian language written in an adaptation of the Greek alphabet. It includes statements on the future life of the ‘native’, providing a level of astrological interpretation which has no parallel in Greek papyrus horoscopes. For example, it is predicted that the man will at first enjoy abundance and well-being, but at some point he will also suffer and live abroad.

Horoscope in Greek and Old Coptic, with erased lines
Horoscope in Greek and Old Coptic, with erased lines, Papyrus 98

The second horoscope is Papyrus 110, cast for a certain Anubion, born on 4 December 137, at the first hour of the day. As you can read in our article about children in ancient papyri, the astrologer identifies the star Venus as Anubion’s ruling constellation and wishes him good luck.

There exists a duplicate of this text (P.Paris 19), in addition to another horoscope recording different data that was issued for the same person and cast for the same birthdate (P. Paris 19bis). Did Anubion have his horoscope calculated by two different astrologers?

Conclusion of the horoscope for Anubion, with coronis in the left margin
Conclusion of the horoscope for Anubion, with coronis in the left margin, Papyrus 110

Our favourite piece, however, is Papyrus 130, which is newly digitised and available to view on our digitised manuscripts site. It is a deluxe horoscope cast for a child born in the late evening hours of 31 March 81. It was written after the emperor Titus died in September 81.

A deluxe papyrus horoscope
A deluxe horoscope, exhibiting numerous technical data, Papyrus 130(1)

This horoscope is quite unique, not only for its length and the richness of the details supplied, including the days of pregnancy (276), but also because it records the name of the astrologer who computed it, a certain Titus Pitenius.

Detail of papyrus horoscope
Detail with the name of Titos Pitênios, Papyrus 130(1)

Moreover, in Pitenius’ introductory letter addressing someone named Hermon, there is mention of the so-called 'Perpetual Tables'. These charts, criticised by Claudius Ptolemy, author of the Tetrabiblos, are reported by Pitenius to have been compiled by the ancient Egyptians, who had studied the heavenly bodies and learnt the motion of the 'seven gods'.

Beginning of a commentary on Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos
Beginning of a commentary on Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos (2nd c.), which played a major role in the development of western astrology, Burney MS 104, f. 3r

Just like the horoscope for Anubion (Papyrus 110), the deluxe horoscope on Papyrus 130 ends with some good wishes: 'with good fortune', is written at the end, in enlarged letters.

Detail of papyrus horoscope
Detail ‘with good fortune’ (ἀγαθῆι τύχηι), Papyrus 130(2)

These precious ancient horoscopes witness the continuous attempts of humankind to learn from the celestial bodies, and to relate events of our lives to a vast and fascinating universe.

Federica Micucci

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09 May 2020

In search of the books of Richard Amadas

Many of the medieval manuscripts that survive today passed through the hands of early modern book collectors. One of these was Richard Amadas, vicar of the small village and civil parish of Great Hallingbury, Essex, in the late 16th and early 17th century. Much of what we know about him (which is indeed very little) comes from the testament that he made and signed in 1626. From it, we learn that Amadas's will was proved in 1629, which suggests that he died in that year. We also learn that he bequeathed ‘all my bookes that I have’ to his wife, Mary.

A church with a stone spire on a tower with a crenellated top, red-tiled roof, and wooden doors and glass-stained windows in pointed arches, with a churchyard in front of it.

St Giles’ Church, Great Hallingbury, Essex, remodelled in 1874, but featuring medieval elements as old as the 11th century

Not long after Amadas’s death his books were dispersed. Only a small number of these have been identified in modern times; in our cataloguing work at the British Library, we have now discovered three medieval manuscripts from his collection. They survive in two of our foundation collections, formed respectively by Sir Robert Bruce Cotton (1574–1631), and by the Lord High Treasurer Robert Harley (1661–1724), first earl of Oxford and Mortimer, and his son Edward Harley (1689–1741). Here we explore what can be gleaned from these manuscripts about Amadas’s interests as an early modern book collector.

In the early 1980s, the librarian J. C. T. Oates identified a number of Amadas’s medieval manuscripts and printed books at Cambridge University Library. Among these is the so-called ‘Cambridge Juvencus Manuscript’ (Cambridge, University Library, Ff.4.42), containing a 9th-century copy of the Evangeliorum libri IV (The Four Books of the Gospels) by the 4th-century poet Juvencus, with the earliest surviving poems in Old Welsh entered in the margins. The manuscript has been annotated in a script that is identical to that found in Amadas’s testament. If this is Amadas's own handwriting, it suggests that he closely studied Juvencus’s verse rendering of the Gospel narrative.

A page from the Cambridge Juvencus manuscript, showing the name 'Richard Price'

The 'Cambridge Juvencus Manuscript' contains annotations attributed to Richard Amadas, including the name 'Mr. Price' on f. 1v: the whole manuscript can be viewed online

Each of the three newly-identified manuscripts from Amadas’s collection bears his signature on its opening page. But his signature is difficult to read, with Oates describing it as ‘an almost illegible tangle of narrow sloping loops’.

A tangle of narrow cursive loops in red ink, representing the name of Richard Amadas

The full page containing the signature of Richard Amadas

The signature of Richard Amadas (‘Richarde Amadas’) in Cotton MS Titus D XVI, f. 1r, followed by the full page in which it is found

One of Amadas’s manuscripts is Cotton MS Titus D XVI. It contains an early 12th-century copy of the Psychomachia (Battle of the Soul) by the early 5th-century Roman poet Prudentius, an allegorical work in which personifications of the seven vices and virtues combat each other. Colin Tite, who dedicated much of his career to studying the Cotton collection, managed to decipher Amadas’s signature but did not identify him with the book-collecting vicar of Great Hallingbury.

Cotton MS Titus D XVI provides interesting clues about how Amadas used his books. Writing in bright red ink and in a distinct squarish script with an unusually large letter ‘v’, he frequently added annotations to the Psychomachia. The annotations usually contain expansions of Latin abbreviations or synonyms for words in Prudentius’s work. For example, in a section that describes how Pride attacks Humility, Amadas has underlined the word ‘umbonis’ (boss of a shield) and added the word ‘bucklar’ (from the Old French bucler or Latin buccularius, a shield with a boss) in the page’s outer margin. 

A figure on horseback (Pride) raising a spear while charging at another figure holding a sword (Humility). Below the latter figure, Richard Amadas has written the word ‘bucklar’ in red ink.

Amadas’s annotation for ‘umbonis’ (underlined) in the outer margin (‘bucklar’) in Prudentius’s Psychomachia (St Albans Abbey, 1st quarter of the 12th century): Cotton MS Titus D XVI, f. 14r

Amadas also owned Cotton MS Vespasian D XI. This 12th-century manuscript contains the Hypognosticon — a salvation history from the Creation until the present time — by the poet Lawrence of Durham (c. 1110–1154), prior of Durham Cathedral Priory. The manuscript’s opening page features two signatures that previously had not been deciphered. However, a comparison with the signature that Colin Tite deciphered from Cotton MS Titus D XVI provides us with a match, leaving no doubt that this is another of Amadas’s manuscripts. 

The first signature of Richard Amadas

A second signature of Richard Amadas

A tangle of narrow cursive loops in red ink, representing the name of Richard Amadas, written in the lower margin of the opening page of the poems of Lawrence of Durham. His signature also occurs in the upper left corner.

Two signatures of Richard Amadas are found on the opening page of Lawrence of Durham's poems, one in the lower margin and the other in the upper left corner (Dore Abbey, 2nd half of the 12th century): Cotton MS Vespasian D XI, f. 2r

Cotton MS Vespasian D XI also contains annotations that suggest that Amadas closely studied its contents. Aside from expanding Latin abbreviations, he may also have been responsible for adding punctuation marks and corrections to the poems. For example, in a section which was highlighted as a ‘poem of the planets’ (planetarum versus), he may also have corrected the word ‘myras’ (wonderful) with ‘vias’ (ways).

A poem on the planets with the Latin names of the planets underlined and an interlinear correction, perhaps added by Richard Amadas

Amadas’s annotations to Lawrence of Durham’s Hypognosticon (Abbey Dore, 2nd half of the 12th century): Cotton MS Vespasian D XI, f. 62v

A third manuscript with Amadas’s signature (Harley MS 399) was recently discovered in our ongoing cataloguing project on the Harley collection. It contains a 15th-century copy of the Secretum Secretorum, a treatise that purports to be a letter from the Greek philosopher Aristotle to his pupil Alexander the Great, covering a wide range of subjects such as alchemy, astrology, ethics, magic, medicine and politics.

Amadas did not annotate the Secretum Secretorum, perhaps because there was little scholarly interest in this work during his lifetime. Although it was well known during the later Middle Ages, it lost its popularity during the 16th century when it became widely recognized that there was no evidence for Aristotle’s claimed authorship.

A tangle of narrow cursive loops in red ink, representing the name of Richard Amadas, written in the lower margin of the opening page of the Secretum Secretorum.

Richard Amadas’s signature at the opening of the Secretum Secretorum (England, 15th century): Harley MS 399, f. 1r

Richard Amadas was clearly a student of Latin language and literature. By clarifying and correcting the grammar of the Latin poems in his manuscripts, he followed a tradition of humanist scholars who sought to create accurate editions of Classical Latin texts. Today he is virtually unknown as a book collector, but through these new identifications we can gain a better understanding of the small but important collection of medieval manuscripts that he studied and preserved for posterity.

You can read more about Amadas and the Cambridge Juvencus in J. C. T. Oates, ‘Notes on the Later History of the Oldest Manuscript of Welsh Poetry: The Cambridge Juvencus’, Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies, 3 (1982), 81-87. This manuscript can be viewed on the Cambridge Digital Library, and there is also a facsimile and commentary by Helen McKee published for CMCS Publications (2000). Colin Tite deciphered the signature in Cotton MS Titus D XVI in his The Early Records of Sir Robert Cotton's Library: Formation, Cataloguing, Use (London: The British Library, 2003), p. 199.

 

Clarck Drieshen

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06 May 2020

The legend of Alexander in late Antique and medieval literary culture: PhD studentship at the British Library

The British Library is collaborating with Durham University to offer a fully-funded full-time or part-time PhD studentship via the AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnership scheme. The student’s research will focus on the legend of Alexander the Great, and the successful applicant will be supervised by Dr Venetia Bridges (Durham) and Dr Peter Toth (British Library).

Detail of a miniature of Alexander and the Wheel of Fortune

Alexander the Great on Fortune’s Wheel, in a French chronicle of the ancient world (France, 3rd quarter of the 15th century): Harley MS 4376, f. 271r (detail)

Alexander the Great is one of the most fascinating figures of the ancient world. He conquered the world from Greece to India in less than 10 years. Although he died in 323 BC when he was only 33, Alexander's legacy continues to influence European, Middle Eastern and Asian cultures.

A drawing of Alexander the Great holding an orb and sceptre, with Philosophy holding a pot and brush

Alexander the Great, anointed by the personification of Philosophy, in a Latin version of the Alexander Romance (England, last quarter of the 11th century): Royal MS 13 A I, f. 1v

In the last two millennia, Alexander the Great has been represented as a magician, a scientist, a statesman, a philosopher and as one of the greatest explorers of humankind. The British Library’s collection of materials relating to the legend of Alexander provides an exceptional opportunity for PhD research into his immense impact on European literary culture from a transnational and multilingual perspective. As a student at Durham but working on the British Library’s collections, the successful applicant will have a unique opportunity to study the fascinating Alexander legends in their primary sources. This studentship will coincide with an exhibition about the legends of Alexander to be held at the British Library in late 2022. 

Miniatures of Alexander the Great and his army fighting blemmyae

Alexander the Great fighting the headless blemmyae in a French version of the Alexander Romance (Flanders 1st quarter of the 14th century): Harley MS 4979, f. 72v (detail)

Legends of Alexander’s life and conquests were combined into a narrative, known as the Alexander Romance, soon after his death. This compilation quickly became a ‘best-seller’, with translations in almost every language of the medieval Mediterranean, including Latin, Armenian, Syriac, Ethiopic, Arabic, Persian, English, French and German. Moreover, many of these texts are lavishly decorated with fascinating combinations of ancient and medieval imagery.

Applicants are invited to propose a multilingual and comparative project on Alexander’s reception from Late Antiquity to the close of the Middle Ages in European contexts, with a particular focus on the Alexander Romance. The proposal should focus on texts in more than one language, and include manuscripts in the Library’s collections. Possible topics include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • the Alexander Romance’s influence upon high medieval literature (11th-13th centuries);
  • the Alexander Romance’s influence on travel and scientific literature and geographical exploration;
  • the Alexander Romance’s dissemination in the later Middle Ages (14th-15th centuries) in translations, adaptations and material witnesses;
  • a comparative study of the Alexander Romance in Western (European) and Eastern (Byzantine and Slavonic) versions;
  • the role of Alexander in royal and religious propaganda, including ‘nationalist’ historiographies and Crusader literature;
  • a study of key medieval manuscripts and/or texts related to the Alexander Romance that demonstrate aspects of Alexander’s appropriation in different cultures;
  • the Late Antique beginnings of the Alexander Romance’s textual histories.

Applicants

The successful applicant will have multilingual interests in medieval and/or late Antique literature and culture with reading fluency in at least two European languages. Applicants should have received a first or high upper-second class honours degree and a master’s either achieved or completed by the time of taking up the doctoral study, both in a relevant discipline. Applicants must satisfy the standard UKRI eligibility criteria.

Stipend

For the academic year 2020-21 the student stipend will be £16,885, consisting of £15,285 basic stipend, a maintenance payment of £600 and an additional allowance of £1,000. The British Library will also provide a research allowance to the student for agreed research-related costs of up to £1,000 a year.

Duration

The studentship is fully funded for 3 years and 9 months full-time or part-time equivalent, with the potential to be extended by a further 3 months to provide additional professional development opportunities.

For full details and how to apply, please visit https://www.dur.ac.uk/english.studies/postgrad/support/

The deadline for applications, including references, is 5pm on 29 May 2020.

 

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