THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

9 posts from August 2020

30 August 2020

Elizabeth Elstob, Old English scholar, and the Harleian Library

Elizabeth Elstob (1683–1758) is considered to be the first female scholar of Old English and one of the earliest advocates of women’s education. She was supported in her scholarly pursuits by Robert Harley (1661–1724), 1st Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer, the founder of the Harley collection, and his Library-Keeper Humfrey Wanley (1672–1726), another renowned scholar of Old English. 

The youngest of eight siblings born to a merchant family in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Elizabeth initially received private education under her mother’s tutelage. When her mother died in 1691, she was sent to her uncle Charles Elstob, Prebendary of Canterbury, who was opposed to the education of women. Despite his disapproval, Elizabeth began studying ancient and modern languages. She subsequently moved in with her brother William, a clergyman and scholar in Oxford, who introduced her to the leading Old English scholars of their day. In 1702, they moved to London where she began publishing major works on the Old English language.

An engraving of a woman’s portrait representing Elizabeth Elstob

An engraved portrait of Elizabeth Elstob: Add MS 29300, f. 39r

Among Elizabeth’s publications were an edition of the Latin Athanasian Creed with an Old English interlinear gloss (1708); an edition and translation of the Old English Life of Pope Gregory the Great by the Benedictine monk Ælfric of Eynsham (1709); and The Rudiments of Grammar for the English-Saxon Tongue (1715). The latter was the first grammar of Old English published in modern English. Up to that point, scholarship on Old English had been mostly in Latin, so this was an important publication for making the study of Old English more accessible to students and amateur female scholars alike. While preparing a complete edition of Ælfric’s Homilies, she worked with her brother William on his editions of the Old English adaptation of Orosius’s History of the World and Old English legal texts.  

The initials ‘W. E.’ and ‘E. E.’ drawn in and decorated with penwork in red ink

The initials of William Elstob and Elizabeth Elstob from a transcript of Textus Roffensis which they collated with the original manuscript in 1712: Stowe MS 960, f. 3r

During her career, Elizabeth received the support of Robert Harley at a time when he practically was Prime Minister and enjoyed great proximity to Queen Anne (1665–1714). On two occasions, she petitioned Harley for financial support from Queen Anne in order to publishing her edition of Ælfric’s Homilies. She was successful in her second attempt, as evidenced from a letter in which she thanked him ‘for so great a Favour’.

A letter written in brown ink in the hand of Elizabeth Elstob

Elizabeth Elstob’s letter to Robert Harley: Harley MS 7524, f. 30r

During her career, Elizabeth was in close contact with Humfrey Wanley, Library-Keeper of the Harleian collection. Aside from consulting manuscripts herself at the Bodleian Library and the Cottonian Library, she made ample use of Wanley’s catalogue of Old English manuscripts that he had published in 1705 with the support of Robert Harley. Her respect for his work is clear from a letter dated 1709, in which she explained that she abandoned her plan to make an edition of the Psalms in Old English after learning that Wanley was already working on an edition of the Bible in Old English:

‘I had a design upon the Psalms, but since that, Mr. Wanley tells me he is preparing the whole Bible: of which the Psalms make a part, I cannot allow myself to interfere with so excellent a person, tho’ he has been so generous as to offer me, all the assistance he can give’

A letter written in brown ink in the hand of Elizabeth Elstob

Elizabeth Elstob on Humfrey Wanley: Add MS 29300, f. 40r

Wanley also greatly valued Elizabeth’s scholarly work. He transcribed a manuscript at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, for her publication on the Old English Life of St Gregory, and he incorporated a number of her works into the Harleian Library. Elizabeth sent him a genealogy of the Elstob family to the year 1710, and a separate descent of her mother’s family, which traced her ancestry back to Brochwel Ysgithrog, a 6th-century king of Powys. Wanley was clearly impressed with the genealogies that she had expanded by researching and citing Old English and Latin sources. He inserted them into a 17th-century manuscript with pedigrees from the Palatinate of Durham; in cataloguing the manuscript, he attributed them to ‘that ingenious virgin gentlewoman Mrs Elstob’ (A Catalogue of the Harleian Manuscripts in the British Museum, London, 1808–12), II, p. 29).

A drawing of a Roman pillar, including roundels with the names of Elizabeth Elstob’s mother’s ancestors. Next to the pillar are citations from historical sources in Latin and Old English, and a coat of arms in colours

The ancestry of Elizabeth Elstob’s mother Jane Hall, drawn up by her for Humfrey Wanley: Harley MS 1397, f. 238r

Wanley also expressed his appreciation when, in 1712, Elizabeth presented him a facsimile reproduction on parchment of an early 12th-century manuscript containing the 'Annals of Rochester' (Textus Roffensis), an important source for the study of law in early medieval England. Wanley paid her five guineas and catalogued the manuscript, noting that 'Mrs Elstob hath finely imitated the Hand-writing of the [...] Textus Roffensis' (Catalogue of the Harleian Manuscripts, II, p. 272).

A page with a medieval script copied by Elizabeth Elstob, featuring an introduction in red, initials in green and red, and a decorated initial featuring Christ and a dragon in green, purple, and red against a yellow background.

Elizabeth Elstob’s facsimile of Textus Roffensis, featuring an initial decorated with Christ and a dragon: Harley MS 1866, f. 9r

The Harleian Library also obtained a second parchment manuscript with a facsimile of Textus Roffensis written and decorated by Elizabeth Elstob.

Elizabeth Elstob’s reproduction of King Alfred’s law texts, written in minuscule script, organised in two columns, and featuring numerals in red ink, and initials in red and purple

Elizabeth Elstob’s facsimile of King Alfred’s laws: Harley MS 6523, f. 9r

In 1715, Elizabeth’s scholarly career came to an abrupt end when her brother died suddenly. She was left with financial debts from their joint publishing projects and without any support, since Queen Anne had died before sending her the funding secured by Robert Harley. Perhaps in an attempt to flee her creditors, Elizabeth left London for Evesham (Worcestershire) where she lived in relative anonymity as a teacher at an elementary school for girls. She never returned to her scholarship and left her magnum opus, the complete edition of Ælfric’s Homilies, unfinished: her manuscript volumes survive at the British Library as Lansdowne MSS 370–374 and Egerton MS 838. However, Elizabeth Elstob did remain attached to the Harley collection in some small way. From 1739 until her death in 1758, she was governess to the children of Margaret Cavendish Bentinck (1715–1785), duchess of Portland, who, as granddaughter of Robert Harley, had inherited the Harley collection. Perhaps Elizabeth felt some comfort in returning to the family who had supported her scholarly pursuits, and whose collection, formed under her friend Wanley's direction, preserved her work.

 

Mechtild Gretsch, 'Elizabeth Elstob: A Scholar's Fight for Anglo-Saxon Studies', Anglia, 117 (199), 163–300, 481–524.

Jacqueline Way, '"Our Mother-Tongue": The Politics of Elizabeth Elstob's Antiquarian Scholarship', Huntington Library Quarterly, 78:3 (2015), 417-440.

 

Clarck Drieshen

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

27 August 2020

Digitisation of the Sherborne Missal

Weighing as much as the average 5-year-old child and containing more paintings than most art galleries, the Sherborne Missal is a titan of a manuscript. The breath-taking quality of its artwork has inspired art historians to declare it, 'the unrivalled masterpiece of English book production in the fifteenth century' (Kathleen Scott), and 'beyond question the most spectacular service book of English execution to have come down to us from the later Middle Ages' (Janet Backhouse).

It is particularly exciting, then, to announce that this exceptional manuscript is now available to view in full as a pilot project in our Universal Viewer.

Feast day of the Assumption of the Virgin, with miniatures of the Virgin Mary and Benedictine monks
Feast day of the Assumption of the Virgin, with miniatures of the Virgin Mary and Benedictine monks: Add MS 74236, p. 524

The Sherborne Missal (Add MS 74236) is a service book containing all the texts required for celebrating Mass on the different feasts, holidays and saints’ days throughout the year. It was made for the Benedictine abbey of St Mary in Sherborne, Dorset, between approximately 1399 and 1407.

We know a surprising amount about the people responsible for creating the Sherborne Missal, largely because it calls attention to its patrons and makers at every opportunity. The book was probably commissioned by Robert Brunyng, the abbot of Sherborne from 1385–1415, whose image appears in the manuscript about a hundred times. It is hard to think of another medieval person for whom such a remarkable number of portraits survive. These portraits may also provide some insight into Brunyng’s tastes and personality. In two instances he is depicted with a group of small hunting dogs, which scholars have suggested may be his personal hounds. On many of the feast days he is shown wearing exceptionally fine vestments of brocade, embroidery and jewels.

A collage of detail pictures of Abbot Brunyng with his dogs (left) and in a selection of fine vestments
Portraits of Abbot Brunyng with dogs, p. 492 (left), and wearing a selection of fine vestments, pp. 220, 266, 279 (upper), pp. 262, 264, 51 (lower) (details)

On a number of occasions Brunyng is depicted together with Richard Mitford, bishop of Salisbury from 1396–1407, who may also have played a role in the patronage of the manuscript or was perhaps included to emphasise Sherborne Abbey’s close relationship with the bishopric.

Portraits of Richard Mitford, bishop of Salisbury, with his personal arms, and Robert Brunyng, the abbot of Sherborne, with the arms of Sherborne Abbey, on the page for Christmas Day
Portraits of Richard Mitford, bishop of Salisbury, with his personal arms, and Robert Brunyng, the abbot of Sherborne, with the arms of Sherborne Abbey, on the page for Christmas Day: Add MS 74236, p. 36 (detail)

The principal artist, a Dominican friar named John Siferwas, included his portrait and coat of arms several times in the manuscript. In one extraordinary instance, he depicted himself floating in the lower margin, his habit entwined around the branch of a rose bush which forms the lower border to the page, in the same way that angels are represented throughout the manuscript. Another of his surviving works is the Lovell Lectionary (Harley MS 7026), commissioned by John, Lord Lovell, for presentation to Salisbury Cathedral.

Self-portrait of John Siferwas, the artist of the manuscript, floating in the lower margin, his habit entwined around the border of roses
Self-portrait of John Siferwas, the artist of the manuscript, floating or kneeling in the lower margin, his habit entwined around the border of roses: Add MS 74236, p. 225 (detail)

The Sherborne Missal also provides portraits of the master scribe, John Whas, who was probably a monk of Sherborne Abbey. Whas recorded his name in several colophons, for example, emphasising the physical effort of scribal work: 'John Whas the monk has worked to write this book, and rose early, his body becoming much wasted in the process' (Librum scribendo Ion Whas monachus laborat, Et mane surgendo corpus multum macerabat, p. 661).

Colophon of John Whas the scribe
Colophon of John Whas the scribe: Add MS 74236, p. 661 (detail)
Portraits of John Whas, the scribe, and John Siferwas, the artist, on the page for Easter Day
Portraits of John Whas, the scribe, and John Siferwas, the artist, on the page for Easter Day: Add MS 74236, p. 216 (detail)

With decoration on nearly all of its 694 pages, the Sherborne Missal contains thousands of images. It is particularly famous for its series of 48 highly illusionistic depictions of British birds in the margins of the Ordinary and Canon of the Mass, most of them inscribed with their names in Middle English. These birds are unique in medieval manuscript illumination both for their ornithological accuracy and for the rich variety of species shown.

Details of birds: kingfisher, robin, skylark, female house sparrow, starling, spotted woodpecker
Kingfisher (kyngefystere), robin (roddock), skylark (larke), female house sparrow (sparwe hen), starling (stare), spotted woodpecker (wodewale): Add MS 74236, pp. 383, 382, 369, 377, 385, 373 (details)

Local pride in Sherborne and its venerable history is a running theme throughout the manuscript. The Preface of the Mass features a series of portraits of 25 bishops of Sherborne from the creation of the diocese in 705 to the transfer of the bishopric to Salisbury in 1075. Clearly the Abbey was eager to emphasise its historic significance as the original site of the bishop’s seat.

Details of bishops: St Aldhelm, Forthere and Asser
St Aldhelm and Forthere, the 1st and 2nd bishops of Sherborne, and Asser, 11th bishop of Sherborne, from the Preface of the Mass: Add MS 74236, pp. 363 and 366 (details)

There is also a series of roundels in the lower borders of the Ordinary and Canon of the Mass that contain portraits of historic benefactors of the Abbey. They hold charters recording their gifts, the large seals hanging down into the margins.

Details of kings Cenwalh and Cynewulf holding charters
Benefactions of kings Cenwalh and Cynewulf, from the opening of the Canon of the Mass: Add MS 74236, p. 381 (detail)

Local Dorset saints are similarly prominent in the manuscript, such as St Juthwara, a pious virgin of the 6th century whose relics were housed at Sherborne Abbey. It is said that after being beheaded by her stepbrother, St Juthwara picked up her head and put it back on.

The martyrdom of St Juthwara, with a praying Benedictine
The martyrdom of St Juthwara, with a praying Benedictine: Add MS 74236, p. 489 (detail)

Select pages of the Sherborne Missal were previously published online as part of the Library's Turning the Pages project in 2002. We are now delighted to make the entire manuscript available to view through a pilot project on the Library’s Universal Viewer, a new viewer which offers a range of improved features. This pilot will be extended to include further collection items in due course.

The Sherborne Missal was purchased by the British Library in 1998 with generous support from the National Heritage Memorial Fund.

Eleanor Jackson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

21 August 2020

Online resources for medieval manuscripts

In November 2018, we launched The Polonsky Foundation England and France 800-1200 Project. This ground-breaking collaboration between the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France digitised a total of 800 medieval manuscripts from our two collections. The British Library’s curated website, Medieval England and France, 700–1200 now includes its own downloadable list of all 400 British Library manuscripts that were featured in the project, in spreadsheet format and as a PDF. This list can be accessed from the website’s About page.

An author portrait of St Dunstan writing at a desk, holding a quill pen and knife, with a background made of gold leaf
An author portrait of St Dunstan: Royal MS 10 A XIII/1, f. 2v

The bilingual site (available in both English and French) also offers our readers a wealth of resources on the early medieval period, including:

  • Six broad themes covering art, history, science, religion, making manuscripts, and medieval manuscript collections today.
  • 30 articles on a variety of subjects, from medieval science and maths to early medical knowledge, bindings, and monastic libraries.
  • 148 collection items, providing short introductions to some of the most stunning manuscripts digitised during the project.
  • Ten people pages, focusing on a selection of the major figures and authors active in England and France during the Middle Ages, from Bede and Anselm of Canterbury, to Emma of Normandy and William of Malmesbury.
  • A video series that explores all the steps needed to make a manuscript, narrated by Patricia Lovett MBE, as well as two additional videos discussing scribal culture and the role of law in early medieval England, featuring Professors Julia Crick and Nick Vincent.
  • Two animations based on accounts of the crane and the whale from an early medieval bestiary (Harley MS 4751).
  • A glossary that defines important terms relating to medieval culture and art.
  • An overview of the project itself and the collaboration between the British Library and Bibliothèque nationale de France.
A detail from a medieval collection of texts on computus and astronomy, featuring diagrams that demonstrate the technique of finger-counting
Diagrams used to demonstrate the technique of finger-counting: Egerton MS 3314, f. 73r

We hope you enjoy exploring the Medieval England and France 800-1200 site and all the manuscripts digitised in the project!


Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project
Supported by

The Polonsky Foundation logo

18 August 2020

How did the Cotton library grow?

How, when and from whom did Sir Robert Cotton acquire his manuscripts? These are questions which, in some cases, remain unanswered. But there is a substantial body of material which provides clues to the growth of the Cotton collection. Some of that evidence can now be viewed online on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.

A portrait of Sir Robert Cotton

A portait of Sir Robert Cotton attributed to Cornelius Janssen (1626)

One important resource for understanding the evolution of the Cotton library is supplied by the correspondence bound in Cotton MS Julius C III. This volume contains around 360 original letters addressed to Robert Cotton (1571–1631), dating from 1592 onwards. Many of these letters relate to the acquisition of manuscripts or to loans from the library; the correspondents read like a roll-call of the famous men of the day. Among them are the poet John Donne (d. 1631) — who thanked Cotton for lending him books during his imprisonment for his secret marriage — the playwright Ben Jonson (d. 1637), the historian William Camden (d. 1623), and the astrologer John Dee (d. 1609). Many of the letters were written in England, but we have also identified correspondence sent to Cotton in French, Italian, Hebrew and Greek, and from destinations in Europe (Amiens, Antwerp, Bremen, Cambrai, Delft, Douai, Dublin, Florence, Paris and Venice) and in northern Africa (Algiers and Tunis). If it was not already appreciated, here is indication that Cotton's manuscript-collecting and sphere of influence was international in its scope.

So what do the letters tell us? Much remains to be done in identifying the books to which they refer, but here is one well-known example. On 10 May 1630, Sir Edward Dering (d. 1644), lieutenant of Dover Castle, wrote to Robert Cotton as follows:

'I have sent up two of your books, which have much pleasured me: I have here the charter of K. John dated att Running Meade: by the first safe and sure messenger it is your’s. So are the Saxon charters, as fast as I can coppy them: but in the meane time I will close K. John in a boxe and send him.'

A letter written by Edward Dering to Robert Cotton, dated 10 May 1630

Dering's letter sending Magna Carta to Robert Cotton: Cotton MS Julius C III, f. 143r

The charter of King John was none other than an original copy of the 1215 Magna Carta, which is now Cotton Ch XIII 31A (sadly, it was badly damaged by fire in 1731 and is now mostly illegible). We should note that Dering, one of the leading antiquarian scholars of the day, described himself as Cotton's ‘affectionate freind and servant’. Clearly, he considered the Cotton library as a suitable home for a document which now has such global appeal.

The first page of the catalogue of Cotton charters

The first catalogue of the Cotton manuscripts: Harley MS 6018, f. 3r

What other evidence can tell us when Sir Robert Cotton acquired his manuscripts? Important in this context is his first handwritten catalogue, Harley MS 6018, which has also been recently digitised. A significant amount of research into this catalogue was conducted by the late Colin Tite, and is published in his book The Early Records of Sir Robert Cotton's Library (London, 2003). The first portion of Harley MS 6018 (ff. 3r–146r) contains the catalogue of Cotton's manuscripts, dated 1621 but with subsequent additions; the heading and a number of later entries are in Robert Cotton's own hand. A further section of this volume (ff. 147r–151v, 152v–190r) contains notes on printed books and manuscripts that had been loaned to others by Sir Robert and his son, Sir Thomas Cotton (1594–1662), sometimes with confirmations of receipt, and dated between 1606 and 1653. Tite used this evidence to piece together who was consulting works in the Cotton library in the 17th century (his edition of the loan lists is found on pp. 31–73 of The Early Records).

A page from the Cotton catalogue recording Asser's Life of King Alfred

 

A page from the Cotton catalogue, with Asser's Life of Alfred the Great (Otho MS A XII) recorded under no. 29: Harley MS 6018, f. 21r

In time, we hope that Tite's work is built upon in order to establish further who was using the Cotton library, and which manuscripts were in circulation. Sir Robert Cotton had been one of the petitioners to Queen Elizabeth I in 1602, requesting permission to form an 'Academy for the study of Antiquity and History', which would establish a library containing 'ancient books and rare monuments of antiquity, which otherwise might perish' (Cotton MS Faustina E V, f. 89). The queen did not grant their request, but Cotton himself made much of his collection available to other scholars, to the extent that certain manuscripts were loaned and never returned, such as the Utrecht Psalter (Cotton MS Claudius C VII, now Utrecht, Universiteitsbiliothek, MS 32), or were not returned until after Robert's death in 1631, such as the Cotton Genesis (Cotton MS Otho B VI).

What is equally interesting is that this catalogue of the manuscripts was itself alienated from the Cotton library. It somehow made its way into the collection of Robert Harley (1661–1724), 1st earl of Oxford and Mortimer, and Edward Harley (1689–1741), the 2nd earl, and thence into the collections of the British Museum Library in 1753. This shows that the Harleys would have had good understanding of what the Cotton library once contained, and may have been able to instruct their own librarian, Humfrey Wanley (d. 1726), to track down any manuscripts that had gone missing.

The opening page of Humfrey Wanley's catalogue of the Cotton charters

Humfrey Wanley's catalogue of the Cotton charters (1703): Harley MS 7647, f. 2r 

The name of Wanley is also significant for the third original resource for the Cotton collection that has now been digitised. This one is much less known, but has equally great potential for learning more about the contents of that library. It contains two catalogues of the Cotton charters, one in Latin made by Humfrey Wanley in 1703 (ff. 2r–12v), and the other in English made by Richard Widmore (d. 1764) sometime after 1750 (ff. 13r–52r). Although now classified as part of the Harley collection, Harley MS 7647, the volume in question was formerly known as Add MS 4998, and it is not listed in the printed catalogue of the Harley manuscripts (published in 1808). Colin Tite makes mention of it in The Early Records (p. 102), observing that Wanley's listing in this manuscript is near-identical to that recorded in his 1703 Report on the contents of the Cotton library, on the occasion of its passing into the hands of the nation.

The final page from Wanley's catalogue of the Cotton charters

 

The final page from the catalogue of Cotton charters, for the Faustina press: Harley MS 7647, f. 12r

Unlike today, the Cotton charters as noted by Wanley are classified by emperors rather than arranged in numerical series. Wanley's ordering is as follows:

  • Julius: 13 charters
  • Augustus: 18 boxes (capsae) of charters, plus coins and other royal charters
  • Tiberius: 42 charters
  • Caligula: 8 charters and 1 seal
  • Claudius: 32 charters
  • Nero: 21 charters
  • Galba: 33 charters
  • Otho: 9 papal bulls, 6 rolls, 1 letter and 'a small parcel of little loose papers' 
  • Vitellius: 53 charters, 2 seals and 3 rolls
  • Vespasian: a number of medallions, wax seals, metal antiquities and other items
  • Titus: 1 charter, 5 rolls, 4 brass seals, 1 wax seal 'with some other things of no value'
  • Cleopatra: 6 rolls etc
  • Faustina: 44 charters plus other maps and miscellaneous materials, including 'Dr Dees Conjuring Table', 'A Sword with Inscription HUGO COMES CESTRIÆ', 3 'small pikes or lances' and various pictures of Robert Cotton and others

It will take some time, inevitably, to identify everything in Wanley's catalogue of the charters and other antiquities, many of which remain at the British Museum. By digitising this manuscript, along with Robert Cotton's own catalogue of his manuscripts and the correspondence addressed to him, we nonetheless hope to have made it easier to understand how the great Cotton collection developed.

 

Julian Harrison

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

14 August 2020

“Collect the fragments – they should not perish!”

The old saying calling for careful preservation of fragments originally comes from the Bible and refers to the collection of the breadcrumbs remaining after the miraculous multiplication of loaves (John 6:12). Renaissance scholars reinterpreted it as a call to search for and rescue remnants of the past, especially of classical literature and scholarship. The saying could equally apply to fragments of ancient manuscripts which, carefully collected and preserved, are still providing new discoveries.

A detail from the Bristol Psalter, featuring a marginal illustration of the miracle of the manna.
Collecting fragments of the heavenly food (mannah) from the Bristol Psalter, Constantinople, 11th century: Add MS 40731, f. 128r (detail)

Written heritage can become fragmented for multiple reasons. Sometimes disasters such as fire and wars devastated collections of books. A well-known and sad case is the 1731 fire in Ashburnham House, near Westminster school, where Robert Cotton’s extraordinary collection of manuscripts was held. Although the efforts of librarians and many others saved a large number of manuscripts from the fire, there are some sorrowful and often-lamented losses. The remarkable 5th-century illuminated copy of the Book of Genesis, for example, which was still complete in Robert Cotton’s time, came out of the fire in a handful of charred fragments.

A burnt fragment from the Cotton Genesis, featuring an illustration of Abraham receiving three angels.
Abraham receiving three angels, fragment of an illuminated copy of the Greek text of the Book of Genesis, known as the Cotton Genesis, Egypt, 5th/6th century: Cotton MS Otho B VI, f. 26v

Apart from such disasters, the most common reasons for the fragmentation of books were age and obsolescence. As decades and centuries passed, books fell out of use. There were new copies of the same text, easier to read and handier to use. Previous copies, often worn, damaged or even unbound, were left on library shelves to disintegrate further.

In exceptional cases librarians did recognise the inherent value in ancient manuscripts and saved and treasured them in various ways. A fragment of a 6th-century copy of Pope Gregory the Great’s homilies on papyrus was found and framed in a beautifully illuminated parchment sheet in the 15th century.

A detail of a mounted papyrus fragment added to a leaf from the Breviary of Margaret of York.
Detail of a papyrus fragment surrounded by a border from the 15th century, Ghent, c. 1480: Cotton MS Titus C XV, f. 1r (detail)

Similarly, it was probably a librarian in a monastery on Mount Athos who found these astonishing fragments of a 6th-century Greek gospel-book illuminated with gold. In order to rescue the treasure, he bound them in a later manuscript, which resulted in trimming the originally much larger sheets to the size of the volume. Nevertheless, his actions preserved three remarkable survivals of early Byzantine book illumination.

One of the Golden Canon Tables, written on gold paint, with elaborate floral decoration and a small portrait of a haloed man.
"The Golden Canon Tables", a fragment of a luxury gospel-book in Greek, trimmed and bound in a 12th-century volume, Constantinople, 6th century: Add MS 5111/1, f. 1r

The majority of the forgotten volumes, however, were not this lucky: their sheets were usually reused either for flyleaves or binding supports in later volumes.

Studying and collecting such fragments from manuscript and printed volumes started as early as the 17th century. Flyleaves and pastedowns were often removed from books, mounted on paper sheets and bound together in large volumes to serve as palaeographical specimens to illustrate script and writing in various times and traditions. We have blogged about one of the most famous and prolific producers of such collections, John Bagford (1650-1715) previously.

A fragment from a 13th-century Greek liturgical manuscript, showing evidence of folding and handwritten notes.
Fragment from a 13th-century Greek liturgical manuscript, showing signs of folding and handwritten notes: Add MS 70516, f. 2v.

Cataloguing such collections is a fascinating challenge. One can easily come up with no result and unable to identify the fragmented pieces, but sometimes an unexpected find emerges from the fragmentary sheets. Add MS 70516 was such an endeavour. The volume, which may have been part of the personal collection of the learned librarian of the Harley Collection, Humphrey Wanley (1672-1726), contains 90 fragments in various languages and scripts. The earliest are probably the two thin Greek fragments, foliated as folios 84-85 today, whose characteristic script can be dated to the early 9th century.

A fragment from a 9th-century copy of the Greek Life of St Pachomius, featuring a marginal illustration.
Fragment from a 9th-century copy of the Greek Life of St Pachomius: Add MS 70516, f. 84r.

The fragments are from the lower part of a double-sheet (bifolium) from a lost-9th century manuscript. As shown by their folding marks, they were reused as binding support in an unknown volume. The sheets were previously described as containing remnants of a Greek monastic text. Further research has now confirmed this hypothesis and identified the text as the life of the 4th-century founder of monastic communities, St Pachomius of Egypt.

A detail from the Eadui Psalter, showing an illustration of St Pachomius receiving the monastic rule from an angel.
St Pachomius receiving the monastic rule from an angel in the The Eadui Psalter, Canterbury, 1st half of the 11th century-mid 12th century: Arundel MS 155, f. 9v (detail)

Despite his significance as the inventor of monasteries around 323 in Upper Egypt, exact details of the life of St Pachomius are unclear. One of the most important sources, the earliest version of his Greek biography, a text written in rather clumsy and unpolished Greek, came down to us in one single copy, a truncated 11th-century Greek manuscript now in Florence.

A detail from an 11th-century manuscript, featuring the earliest version of the Greek Life of St Pachomius.
The only other existing manuscript of the earliest version of St Pachomius’s Greek Life showing the same text (cf. line 5) as the British Library Fragment presented above (cf. line 5 from bottom of the fragment), Apiro, Italy 11th century: Florence, Biblioteca Laurenziana Plut. 11.09, f. 170v

Closer inspection has confirmed that the 9th-century fragments contain portions of this particular text – the earliest version of the Greek Life of St Pachomius, hitherto known from only one much later manuscript. What this new find means for the history of the text and how it complements the information about the earliest abbot still awaits exploration, but the identification of the two sheets neatly confirms the old axiom that such “fragments should be collected and not be allowed to perish”.

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

For a detailed presentation, see P. Toth, “Wisdom in Fragments: The Earliest Manuscript of the First Greek Life of St Pachomius”, in Susan Ashbrook Harvey, Thomas Arentzen, Henrik Rydell Johnsén and Andreas Westergren (eds.), Wisdom on the Move: Late Antique Traditions in Multicultural Conversation (Leiden: Brill, 2010), pp. 13-34.

11 August 2020

Jewels make the Virgin Queen

Queen Elizabeth I (r. 1558–1603) amassed an extraordinary collection of objects made from and decorated with gold, silver and precious stones, as demonstrated by two inventories that were drawn up during her lifetime. Aside from the regalia that she inherited from her predecessors — such as the imperial crown, sceptre and orb — she received many personalised jewels from her courtiers at the customary presentation of gifts to the queen on New Year’s Day. Very few of these precious objects survive today: her successors James I and Charles I sold or donated her jewels, while the regalia were destroyed after the abolition of the monarchy in 1649.

Luckily, the inventories (Stowe MS 555 and Stowe MS 556) give us detailed descriptions of the more than 1.500 items that were kept in the Jewel House at the Tower of London. These suggest that Elizabeth surrounded herself with objects and imagery that celebrated female leadership and virtue, supporting her unusual position of being only England’s second ruling queen and the first who chose to remain unmarried: a controversial choice since queens were expected to marry in order to create political allegiances, to acquire a husband to handle military affairs, and to produce offspring.

A portrait of a woman, representing Queen Elizabeth I, wearing a yellow dress, and a golden crown and necklace with gemstones in different colours

A portrait of Queen Elizabeth I wearing various jewels (northern England, 2nd half of the 16th century): Egerton MS 2572, f. 11r

One of the very few items from the inventories that survives today is the so-called ‘Royal Gold Cup’. The cup is covered in gold, adorned with pearls, and enamelled with scenes from the life of St Agnes, an early Christian who was martyred during the Roman persecution. It was made for the French royal family at the end of the 14th century, but was in the possession of the Tudor monarchy by 1521. As a Protestant, Elizabeth opposed the cult of saints, but the life of St Agnes may have resonated with her on a secular level: like Elizabeth, Agnes rejected a range of suitors and committed herself to a life of virginity.

An excerpt from the inventory of Queen Elizabeth’s jewels in 1596, featuring writing in a 16th-century cursive script written in brown ink

The Royal Gold Cup described in the Inventory of Jewels [‘a cuppe of golde with Imagerye’] (London, 1596): Stowe MS 556, f. 10r

A view of the cover of the Royal Gold Cup showing St Agnes in a red dress, accompanied by her foster-sister Saint Emerentiana in a blue dress, being offered a casket of jewels by her suitor Procopius in blue and red clothes

St Agnes, accompanied by her foster-sister St Emerentiana, rejecting a casket of jewels from her suitor Procopius on the cover of the Royal Gold Cup, London, British Museum (image by Fæ / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Elizabeth may have used jewels made from the horn of the unicorn (in reality, narwhal tusk or walrus ivory) to celebrate her unmarried status. The popular belief that the mythical creature could only be captured by a virgin may have made its horn a particularly useful symbol for Elizabeth to reinforce her status as ‘Virgin Queen’. We recently mentioned that she owned a drinking cup made from unicorn’s horn, but our inventories show that she possessed much greater quantities of it. They itemize an unadorned piece of unicorn’s horn (‘pece of unicornes horne not garnished’), a staff from unicorn’s horn featuring a silver-gilt cross with a round crystal (‘Staffe of unycornes horne with a Crosse garnished with silver guylte and a rounde Chyrstall’), and another staff that was made from unicorn’s horn (or bone), adorned with silver, and featuring Elizabeth’s coat of arms.

An excerpt from the inventory of Queen Elizabeth’s jewels in 1596, featuring writing in a 16th-century cursive script written in brown ink

A unicorn staff [‘one verge of bone or unycorne [...] with the Quenes Armes’] in the Inventory of Jewels (London, 1596): Stowe MS 556, f. 33v

Elizabeth’s jewels suggest that she associated herself with Lucretia, a noblewoman from ancient Rome who committed suicide after she had been raped by an Etruscan prince. During the Middle Ages, Lucretia was cited as a paragon of female virtue by authors such as Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375) in his De claris mulieribus (Concerning Famous Women), Cristine de Pizan (1364– c.1430) in her Le Livre de la Cité des Dames (The Book of the City of Ladies), and Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340–1400) in his Legend of Good Women. Elizabeth owned a ewer engraved with an image of ‘Lucrece kylling herself’, two gilt cups with her image, and a wooden cup which may have depicted her suicide, since it is described as having ‘a woman holding a dagger two edged in her handes’.

Two panels showing scenes from the life of Lucretia. On the left, Lucretia lies in bed while her arm is being held by an Etruscan prince who raises a sword at her. On the right, Lucretia commits suicide with a sword in front of her husband and father

The rape and suicide of Lucretia (? Paris, 1473–c. 1480): Harley MS 4374/4, f. 210r

Other jewels supported Elizabeth’s status as England’s sole leader through images of virgin goddesses from Classical mythology. For example, the inventories describe a salt vessel (‘Saulte’) that was shaped like a golden globe and was held up by two figures representing the Roman god Jupiter and his daughter Minerva. Elizabeth received it on New Year's Day 1583/4 from Francis Drake (1540–1596), who presented her with many gifts he had raided from Spanish and Portuguese ships. While the globe symbolises England’s imperial aspirations, Minerva, Roman virgin goddess of warfare and defender of the state, was strongly associated with Elizabeth, who was likened by her contemporaries  to a ‘new Minerva’.

An excerpt from the inventory of Queen Elizabeth’s jewels in 1596, featuring writing in a 16th-century cursive script written in brown ink

Francis Drake’s ‘Saulte of golde like a Globe standinge uppon [...] Jupiter and Pallas’, in the inventory of Elizabeth’s jewels (London, 1596): Stowe MS 556, f. 23r

Among the inventories, we find one jewel that seems to reflect on Elizabeth’s leadership in a bold and humorous way. It is a dish described as having an engraving of a ‘woman syttinge uppon a man holdinge a whippe in her righte hande and holdinge his heade in her lefte hande’. This unmistakably represents the late medieval tale of Phyllis and Aristotle. The story tells that after Alexander the Great took Phyllis as his wife, he became distracted from state affairs. His mind was turned back to his kingdom and away from his wife when the Greek philosopher Aristotle remonstrated with him. When Phyllis learned the cause of her husband’s changed attitude, she decided to take revenge: she seduced Aristotle and, after he begged her to requite his love, she agreed to do so on condition that he first allowed her to ride upon his back like a horse. The story of Phyllis and Aristotle was part of a ‘Power of Women’ trope in late medieval and early modern art and literature that reflected anxieties over women’s dominance over men. But for Elizabeth it may have been an example of succesful female governance and therefore fitted in well with the rest of her collection.

A woman (Phyllis) in a red robe using a whip with her left hand and pulling reins with her right hand to control the movements of a bearded man in a grey robe and with a green hat, on whose back she is sitting

Phyllis sitting on Aristotle’s back (Metz, 1302–1303): Yates Thompson MS 8, f. 187r

Elizabeth’s jewels played an important role in how she represented herself to the outside world and was perceived by others. Our inventories suggest that her courtiers were aware of their function and carefully selected jewels or had ones made that emphasised her identification with illustrious women and virgin goddesses. These strategically designed jewels were powerful symbols that helped Elizabeth promote the idea of single leadership in England by an unmarried woman.

From golden toothpicks to drinking vessels made from griffin’s eggs, you can now study the newly digitised versions of Stowe MS 555 and Stowe MS 556 on our Digitised Manuscripts website.

08 August 2020

Ludicrous figures in the margin

‘Hours of the Virgin, decorated with shields of arms, and ludicrous figures in the margin’, was the description of Harley MS 6563 provided in the 1808 catalogue of the Harley Collection. Our catalogue records have come on a long way since then, but the lively marginal antics in this little Book of Hours still stand out. Already popular with viewers on the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, they can now be appreciated in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

Harley MS 6563 was made around 1320-1330 in Southern England, perhaps London, probably for a woman owner. Originally the manuscript must have been extensively illuminated, but sadly all the pages containing decorated initials or miniatures were removed in the early modern period. Yet almost all of its remaining pages feature drawings from the topsy-turvy world of medieval marginalia. In honour of its digitisation, let’s dive down the parchment rabbit hole to explore some of its marginal subjects and their possible meanings.

A detail from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a rabbit running into a hole and emerging the other side.
A rabbit runs into a hole on one side of the page and emerges on the other side: Harley MS 6563, f. 33r-v

While endlessly inventive, this kind of playful marginalia found in manuscripts of the 13th-14th centuries tended to draw on certain reccurring themes which were common to medieval art of other media such as stained-glass windows, wall paintings, misericords and stone carvings, as well as popular literature of the time. The meanings of these themes are much debated and there are no definite answers, but this uncertainty makes marginalia all the more fun to puzzle over.

Crafty foxes

One much-loved character who makes a prominent appearance in the margins of this Book of Hours is the crafty fox, trickster and master of disguise, who was well-known to medieval audiences from the Renard the Fox stories and other animal fables. Two double-page scenes in the manuscript show a fox preaching to a flock of birds. The fox leans on a pilgrim’s staff and gestures emphatically while the birds gaze on in gullible wonder. Later in the manuscript we see the conclusion of the tale: a fox running away with an unlucky member of the congregation in his jaws.

An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a fox preaching to a flock of birds.
A fox preaching to a flock of birds: Harley MS 6563, ff. 54v-55r
A detail from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a fox running with a bird in its mouth.
A fox runs away with a bird: Harley MS 6563, f. 6v

In another double-page scene the fox appears as a schoolmaster, birch and rod in hand, teaching a dog pupil who holds a book up to his face as though attempting to read. As with his preacher guise, the fox once again assumes a position of authority to misguide the ignorant and unwary.

Such scenes might be understood as social satires commenting on the corruption and folly of the human world. There may be a lesson to be learned here, as the Nun’s Priest concludes his retelling of a Renard the Fox story in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, ‘Taketh the moralite, goode men’ (take up the moral, good men)—although he is conveniently vague about what the moral actually is.

An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a fox teaching a dog.
A fox teacher instructs a dog pupil: Harley MS 6563, ff. 22v-23r

Animal musicians

One particularly well-represented subject in this Book of Hours is animal musicians. A whole musical troupe of cats, pigs, dogs and rabbits is shown in concert over a series of five leaves in the Penitential Psalms, and others also appear throughout the manuscript.

The animal musicians probably belong to the popular theme in medieval marginalia of ‘the world turned upside down’. The idea that animals are unable to appreciate music was commonplace in the Middle Ages. A proverb inherited from classical antiquity via Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy referred to someone who fails to understand something as ‘the ass which cannot hear the lyre’. Similarly, a Middle English poem listing impossibilities includes, ‘whan swyn be conyng in al poyntes of musyke’ (when swine are knowledgeable in all points of music), as we might say ‘when pigs might fly’. The animal musicians might therefore represent the impossible becoming reality.

Details of animals playing musical instruments from the marginalia of Harley MS 6563
A cat playing a fiddle (f. 40r), a cat playing bagpipes (f. 40v), a boar playing a portative organ (f. 41r), a boar playing a harp (f. 41v), a dog playing a hurdy gurdy (f. 43r), a cat playing a psaltery (f. 43v), a rabbit playing a drum (f. 44r), a rabbit playing a trumpet (f. 44v): Harley MS 6563

Fighting snails

Another example of the inversion of reality is the ever-popular subject of figures fighting snails. In medieval marginalia, snails are notoriously hostile, as we see in this Book of Hours where a man attempts to fend off a large advancing snail with a club. On the following page, another man has cast down his sword and shield and begs for mercy before a ferocious mollusc.

An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a man with a club fending off a snail.
A man with a club fends off a snail: Harley MS 6563, ff. 61v-62r
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of an armed man surrendering to a snail.
An armed man surrenders to a snail: Harley MS 6563, ff. 62v-63r

Warrior women

But if anyone is able to triumph over such a formidable adversary, it is probably this naked woman warrior who is shown charging with a lance towards a snail. As part of the reversal of the social order in medieval margins, women, who were often expected to be subservient in medieval society, are sometimes shown as powerful militants and victors. Similarly, on another page a man surrenders to an armed woman.

An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a naked woman fighting a snail.
A naked woman warrior vs a snail: Harley MS 6563, ff. 86v-87r
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a man surrendering to an armed woman.
A man surrenders to an armed woman: Harley MS 6563, ff. 63v-64r

Battle of the cats and mice

Role reversal is also the theme of the series of images for which this manuscript is best known: the battle of the cats and the mice. Over an eight-page narrative sequence, an epic war unfolds. First the mice besiege the cats’ castle, hurling rocks from a trebuchet and attempting to scale its walls. Then the cats attack the mouse castle, one firing a crossbow and another being crushed by a falling rock from the battlements. Next, a cat archer and a mouse lancer go head-to-head, and finally the mouse succeeds in impaling the unfortunate cat.

This triumph of the mice over the cats may also be understood as social commentary. In Boccaccio's Decameron, the artist and trickster Bruno paints a fresco of a battle of cats and mice in the house of the foolish doctor Simone. The doctor considers it a very fine piece, little knowing that Bruno and his friend Buffalmacco are actually swindling him. In the story, the cat’s defeat by the mice may reflect the wealthy doctor’s humiliation by the artists.

An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of mice besieging a cat in a castle.
Mice besiege cat castle: Harley MS 6563, ff. 71v-72r
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a cat with a crossbow attacking mice in a castle.
Cats besiege mouse castle: Harley MS 6563, ff. 72v-73r
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a cat with a bow and a mouse lancer taking aim at each other.
Cat archer and mouse lancer take aim at one another: Harley MS 6563, ff. 73v-74r
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a cat impaled by a mouse lancer, begging for mercy.
Mouse warrior has impaled the cat who begs for mercy: Harley MS 6563, ff. 74v-75r

Rabbit huntsmen

The idea of the hunted becoming the hunter also underlies the manuscript’s images of a rabbit huntsman, who in one instance takes aim at a very sorry-looking spotty dog. The same theme of killer rabbits taking revenge on the hounds is found in the margins of the Smithfield Decretals.

A detail from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a rabbit setting out and returning from a hunt.
A rabbit hunter sets out with a full quiver of arrows and returns with his quarry: Harley MS 6563, f. 20r-v
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a rabbit hunter aiming at a dog with a bow and arrow.
A rabbit archer takes aim at a spotty dog: Harley MS 6563, ff. 96v-97r

The rich man and Lazarus

Yet there is also religious imagery with serious moral messages, such as scenes of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus the beggar from the Gospel of Luke (16:19–31). First we see three fashionably dressed diners at a feast shooing away a beggar on the facing page while dogs lick the sores on his legs. On the following pages, the rich man is shown on his deathbed accompanied by a devil, while the beggar is shown dying outdoors with an angel at his side.

This parable is also an instance of role reversal in that the rich man suffers torments in death, whereas the beggar is received into comfort, yet here the message is clearly sincere. That at least one of the manuscript’s owners found it disturbingly real is suggested by the way in which they attempted to rub out the figures of the devil and angel.

An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of the rich man's banquet and the beggar Lazarus.
The rich man’s banquet and Lazarus the beggar: Harley MS 6563, ff. 10v-11r
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of the death of the rich man and Lazarus.
The death of the rich man and Lazarus the beggar: Harley MS 6563, ff. 11v-12r

To us it may seem strange to place scenes of cartoon violence alongside religious imagery with such urgent moral messages. But for medieval audiences, perhaps this was all part of a visual culture in which the sacred and profane, the entertaining and didactic, and the ludicrous and meaningful were more intricately intertwined than today.

Eleanor Jackson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

03 August 2020

Treasures on Tour: an Armagh gospel-book on display in Belfast

Last year we announced the digitisation of two of the Library's most important medieval Irish manuscripts, the Harley Irish Gospels. This year we're loaning one of them, the Gospels of Máel Brigte (Harley MS 1802), to the Ulster Museum in Belfast as part of the British Library’s Treasures on Tour programme.

Medieval manuscript miniature of an ox surrounded by a patterned border
The ox symbol of the evangelist St Luke, Harley MS 1802, f. 86v

As we discussed in the previous blog post, the manuscript has a number of  fascinating features. Its detailed colophons reveal that it was made by a 28-year-old scribe named Máel Brigte, working in Armagh in 1138. Máel Brigte also mentioned contemporary events in his colophons, including a great storm that happened two years earlier and the killing of King Cormac Mac Carthaig by Toirdelbach Ua Briain in 1138, which he called 'a great crime'.

Medieval manuscript miniature of a lion surrounded by a patterned border
The lion symbol of the evangelist St Mark, Harley MS 1802, f. 60v

The main texts of the manuscript are the Gospels, which are splendidly illustrated with evangelist symbols and decorated initial letters painted in vibrant colours. Unusually, the animal symbols of the evangelists are depicted sideways, as though standing on a vertical ground. Perhaps this was designed to make the figures fill the space, or to remind the viewer to mentally reorient themselves before beginning to read the Gospel text.

Medieval manuscript page containing a poem
Irish poem on the Three Magi, Harley MS 1802, f. 5v

In addition to the Gospels, the pages of the manuscript are filled with other rare and interesting texts, including commentaries, poems and exegesis. A particularly intriguing example is an Irish poem on the names and descriptions of the Three Magi (f. 5v), which seems to be one of the earliest texts that describe one of the magi as being black. According to the poem, Melcho was the elder magus, who had grey hair, wore a yellow mantle, a green tunic and speckled sandals, and presented gold; Caspar was youthful and beardless, wore a purple mantle, yellow tunic and green sandals, and presented Frankincense; while Patifarsat was a dark-skinned man (fer odor) who wore a white-spotted mantle and yellow sandals, and presented myrrh.

On f. 9v another Irish poem describes the appearance of Christ and the Apostles, stating that Christ had brown hair and a long red beard.

Medieval manuscript page with a decorated XPI initial
Chi-rho initial, Harley MS 1802, f. 10r

The Gospels of Máel Brigte is now on display in the Saints and Scholars gallery at Ulster Museum for the next three months. The Treasures on Tour programme is generously supported by the Helen Hamlyn Trust. The British Library is working with other libraries, museums and galleries across the UK to share our collections with thousands of people every day, and the Library will be announcing additional loans as part of Treasures on Tour over the coming months.

Eleanor Jackson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval