Medieval manuscripts blog

5 posts from March 2021

30 March 2021

Great medieval bake off: Lent edition

You are probably familiar with the Christian tradition of giving up something for Lent, the forty-day period before Easter. In the Middle Ages, however, the rules of Lent were much stricter: it was a period of obligatory fasting for all but the very old, very young or very sick. People were only allowed one meal per day and were forbidden from eating all meat, dairy and eggs, with the exception of fish. Many medieval people found these rules very challenging, so cooks tried to find creative ways to make the most of the few cheering foods that were still allowed – especially wine, ale, nuts, fruit, sugar and spice.

The great medieval bake off team are taking up the challenge of medieval Lenten baking by recreating three recipes for Lent or fast days from a Middle English recipe book from the 1430s, Harley MS 279. On your marks, get set, bake!

Medieval drawing of fasting nuns at the refectory table being served by skeletons
Fasting nuns at the refectory table being served by skeletons (an allegory of abstinence), from Cotton MS Tiberius A VII/1, f. 97v

Clarck’s recipe: Flathouns in Lente

Flathouns recipe in a medieval manuscript
Recipe for ‘Flathouns in lente’, from Harley MS 279, f. 43v

Take an drawe a þrifty Milke of Almandes temper with Sugre Water . þan take hardid cofyns and pore þin comad þer on . blaunche Almaundis hol and caste þer on Pouder Gyngere Canelle Sugre Salt and Safroun bake hem and serve forth

Take and blend a rich milk of almonds, mix it with sugar water, then take hardened pastry crusts and pour your filling on them, blanch whole almonds and sprinkle ginger powder, cinnamon, sugar, salt, and saffron on them, bake them and serve them forth.

Flat pies, known as ‘Flathouns’, were evidently a popular delicacy in 15th-century England. Our Harley manuscript has two recipes for them. One version contains a sweet custard filling made with dairy milk, eggs, and butter. The other one is almond-based and specifically made for Lent.

Almonds were a popular ingredient in recipes for medieval days of fast. People thought that they were good for your health as well. In her book Physica, a work on natural medicine, the German abbess and polymath Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179) recommended almonds for remedying headaches, restoring a healthy colour to one’s face, and strengthening the lungs and liver.

I first filled a muffin tray with vegan puff pastry that I blind baked for 15 to 20 minutes in a preheated fan oven at 200°C. To make the filling, I mixed 500 grams of powdered sugar with 4 to 5 tablespoons of almond milk and vegan butter, which, after some whipping, essentially created a frosting. I poured the filling into the crusts and sprinkled them with blanched almonds, a few pinches of cinnamon, ginger, and salt, and drops of saffron water. Finally, I returned them to the oven for another 5 minutes of baking. The resulting ‘Flathouns’ tasted delicious both hot and cold. I suspect that they were the highlight of many a medieval Lenten fast.

Photo of a modern recreation of flathouns
A plate with ‘Flathouns in lente’, photo by Clarck Drieshen

Ellie’s recipe: A potage on ffysdaye / a pottage on a fishday

Recipe for pottage on a fishday
Recipe for a pottage on a fishday, from Harley MS 279, f. 23r

Take an sethe an .ij. or .iij. Applys y pede . and strayne hem þorw a straynoure . and fflowre of Rys þer with . þan take þat whyte Wyne and strayne it with alle . þan loke þat it be nowt y bounde to moche with þe ffloure of Rys . þan ȝif it a boyle . þen caste þer to Saunderys and Safroun and loke it be marbylle . þen take Roysonys of corauns and caste þer on . and Almaundys y schredyd þer on y nowe . and mynce Datys Smale and caste þer on . and a lytil Hony to make it dowcet or ellys Sugre . þenne caste þer to Maces and Clowys Pepir Canelle Gyngere and oþer spycery y now . þen take Perys and sethe hem a lytil . þen reke hem on þe colys . tyl þey ben tendyr . þan smale schrede hem rounde . and a lytil or þou serve it in . þrow hem on þe potage . and so serve hem in almost flatte noȝt ffullyche.

Take and boil 2 or 3 pared apples and strain them through a strainer with rice flour; then take white wine and strain it with everything; then make sure that it isn't too thick from the rice flour, then give it a boil; then add sandalwood and saffron and check that it is marbled; then take currants and add them in, and enough shredded almonds; and mince dates finely and add them in, and a little honey to make it sweet, or else sugar. Then add mace, cloves, pepper, cinnamon, ginger and enough other spices. Then take pears and boil them a little; then rake them on the coals till they are tender; then chop them into round pieces, and a little before you serve it, put them on the pottage, and so serve them almost flat and not heaped.

In medieval England, fast days were known as ‘fishdays’ because fish was the only animal product that could be eaten. So this recipe is called ‘pottage on a fishday’ not because it contains fish, but rather because it meets the rules for fasting. Pottage, meaning a soup or stew, was a staple medieval meal for rich and poor alike. This, however, is a rather indulgent example packed full of fruit, wine and spices.

I wasn’t sure whether medieval people would have access to fresh apples in Lent, around six months after the apple harvest in late summer. But searching online, I found various websites claiming that many varieties of apple can keep until the spring if properly stored, and the fact that several medieval Lenten recipes call for apples suggests that this was also true in the Middle Ages.

To make the recipe, I peeled, cored and chopped 3 small apples and boiled them till soft, then puréed them. I added to the pan a cup of rice flour and a cup of wine, gradually mixing to avoid lumps, and brought the mixture to the boil. Then I added a pinch of saffron strands (sadly I couldn’t find any sandalwood). I added a handful each of currants, flaked almonds and chopped medjool dates, as well as a teaspoon of honey and a pinch each of mace, cloves, pepper, cinnamon and ginger. The same question about seasonal availability also applies to pears, so in this case I added chopped dried pears, a common method of food preservation in the Middle Ages (although the poached and grilled fresh pears that this recipe calls for would also be delicious). I simmered everything for around 10 minutes, stirring and adding water to prevent it getting too thick.

The finished result was a thick fruity stew which could satisfy even the sweetest sweet tooth. It reminds me of the filling for an apple strudel, although the velvety rice flour and the rich flavours of the wine and the different fruits make it much heartier and more complex.

Photo of pottage on a fishday
Modern recreation of a pottage on a fishday, photo by Eleanor Jackson

Calum’s recipe: Eyroun in lentyn

Recipe for eyroun in lentyn
Recipe for Eyroun in Lentyn, from Harley MS 279, f. 32v

Take Eyroun and blow owt þat ys with ynne atte oþer ende . þan waysshe þe schulle clene in warme Water . þan take gode mylke of Almaundys and sette it on þe fyre . þan take a fayre canvas and pore þe mylke þer on . and lat renne owt þe Water . þen take it owt on þe cloþe . and gader it to gedere with a platere . þen putte sugre y now þer to . þan take þe halvyn dele and colour it with Safroun . a lytil . and do þer to pouder Canelle þan take and do of þe Whyte in the neþer ende of þe schulle . and in þe myddel þe ȝolke . and fylle it uppe with þe whyte . but noȝt to fulle for goyng over . þan sette it in þe fyre and roste it and serve forth

Take eggs and blow out the insides, then wash the shell clean in warm water, then take good almond milk and set it on the fire. Take a fair piece of muslin (or any fine cloth) and then pour the milk through it and let the excess liquid run out. Then put it on the cloth and gather it together on a dish and mix with sugar. Take half of the mixture and colour it [yellow] with saffron a little and add a little cinnamon and put the white mix at the far end of the egg shell and put the yolk in the middle and then fill the rest up with the white mix, but not too full in case it spills out. Then set it on the fire and roast it and serve it forth.

Many recipes from surviving medieval cookery books express a real playfulness and sense of theatre around food, comparable to the delights of modern gastronomy and Michelin-starred cuisine. During Lent this creativity became particularly heightened as medieval cooks tried to overcome the restrictions of the fasting period. The recipe for ‘Eyroun in lentyn’ above describes a simple way to make a set of imitation eggs out of almonds for the dinner table.

For my version, I took blanched almonds and blended them in a food processor to create a fine powder. I added this to water, mixed it together to create my almond milk and then added sugar and heated the mixture until the sugar dissolved. Then I strained the mix through a sieve (you could also use a piece of fine muslin), leaving behind a moist and quite sweet almond mixture, similar to a pastry cream or frangipane. I imagine you could vary the amount to suit your tastes. I took a third of the mix and added yellow colouring to it (instead of saffron) to create my ‘yolk’. Then I gathered together the remaining mixture for the ‘white’ of the egg, piped it into a half shell and then put the yolk on top to complete the illusion. I put the half eggs in a casserole dish filled with ground almonds, so that they could stand up straight and then dried them out in the oven for about 10 to 15 minutes. Overall, the recipe was a lot of fun to make, but I think I may prefer the taste of a chocolate egg for my Easter treat this year…

Photo of eyroun in lentyn
Modern recreation of eyroun in lentyn, photo by Calum Cockburn

Many a medieval faster was surely glad when the austerity of Lent ended and Easter, one of the great feasts of the Church’s year, began. Nevertheless, after making and tasting our recipes, we believe that little delicacies such as ours brightened up people’s fasts and gave them a foretaste of the more festive times ahead.

If you're enjoying our medieval bake off blogposts, we recommend checking out the events in the British Library's Food Season, especially the talk on historical food manuscripts, Food Scribes, Food Lives.


Ellie Jackson, Clarck Drieshen and Calum Cockburn

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***disclaimer: these recipes were made in the authors' own time and at their own expense. No Library resources were used in the making of these medieval treats! ***

22 March 2021

The colour purple

Purple is a colour replete with imperial and spiritual associations. Certain Roman emperors famously reserved the use of purple clothing for themselves. It was also expensive: Diocletian’s Edict of Maximum Prices issued in the year 301 set the limit on a pound of purple wool at 50,000 denarii, the same value as a pound of gold. Books, too, written on purple were high-status objects. According to one account, Constantine the Great (r. 306-337) received a gift of poetry written in gold and silver on purple leaves (ostro tota nitens, argento auroque coruscis scripta notis) (P. Optatianus Porfyrius, Carmina I: 1-4.).

One of the earliest surviving manuscripts written in gold and silver on purple-stained parchment is in fact named for this colour: the Codex Purpureus Petropolitanus, a Greek manuscript of the Gospels written in the 6th century. In the Middle Ages, it seems probable that scribes and artists were inspired by these Late Antique manuscripts to incorporate purple into the design of prestigious books.

A page from the Codex Purpureus Petropolitanus, coloured purple with script in silver
Fragment from the Codex Purpureus Petropolitanus, Antioch, 2nd half of the 6th century: Cotton MS Titus C XV, f. 3r

From an early date, the use of purple in Christian biblical texts, often in combination with gold or silver writing, came to symbolise their sacred nature. For example, Godescalc, the scribe of a Gospel Lectionary made for the Emperor Charlemagne in 780, explained that ‘golden words’ on purple pages ‘disclose the joys of heaven’ (the manuscript is now BnF, MS nouv. acq. latin 1203).

One of the places where purple features in illuminated manuscripts is in full-page title or ‘incipit’ pages (from the Latin word incipit, meaning ‘it begins’), often paired with text written in gold or silver. An impressive example is found in a 9th-century manuscript made in the important centre of Tours. It is framed by decorated rectangular panels and interlaced golden corner pieces, which introduce the Gospel of St Matthew: ‘Incipit Evangel[ium] Sec[un]d[u]m Mattheu[m]’ (The beginning of the Gospel according to Matthew), written on painted purples panels.

Title page with a decorative frame and gold script on a purple background
Beginning of the Gospel of St Matthew, Tours, 2nd half of the 9th century: Add MS 11849, f. 26v

Sometimes an entire page is coloured purple, as in this early Bible from Canterbury, which although incomplete, retains four purple leaves. Three feature text written in alternating lines of gold and silver capital letters, while the fourth includes an Evangelist portrait of St Luke. The columns, formed of complex decorative interlace patterns in circles and rectangles redolent of metalwork provide a setting for the beginning of St Luke’s text: Quoniam quidem (forasmuch), written in gold and silver letters. 

Title page from the Royal Bible, with purple parchment and script in gold and silver
Title page from the Royal Bible, Canterbury, 1st quarter of the 9th century: Royal MS 1 E vi, f. 30r

Title page from the Royal Bible, Canterbury, 1st quarter of the 9th century: Royal MS 1 E vi, f. 30r

Evangelist portrait of St Luke with his symbol of an ox, on a purple background, in the Royal Bible
Evangelist portrait of St Luke with his symbol of an ox, at the beginning of his Gospel, from the Royal Bible, Canterbury, 1st quarter of the 9th century: Royal MS 1 E vi, f. 43r

It seems likely that the purple was achieved through painting or staining the parchment, rather than by dipping the entire page in dye, particularly considering the many examples of purple background on only part of the page. Recent analysis of a manuscript now in Cambridge revealed that its purple background was achieved by painting a purple made from a plant, probably orchil (Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, MS McClean 30, discussed in Colour: The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts, ed. by Stella Panayotova (London, 2016), no. 3. You can find out more about how medieval manuscripts were made in our video article.

The use of this colour was particularly popular in the early Middle Ages, when scribes and artists demonstrated the preciousness of the Gospel message through extraordinary decoration in gold, silver and special purple stained or painted leaves. 

Kathleen Doyle

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16 March 2021

Fascinating beasts (and where to find them)

The British Library's papyri are full of surprises. We've often described how our Greek papyri provide insights into the lives of women, children, teachers and even magicians, but even we were astonished, while cataloguing the collection, to come across a number of fragments containing fascinating descriptions of extraordinary creatures.

A fragmentary papyrus containing a school composition about the phoenix

A fragmentary school composition about the phoenix, written on the back of a tax register (Egypt, 2nd century AD): Papyrus 2239, fragment 1 verso

The first fragment probably dates from the 2nd century, is written on the back of a tax document, and describes a wondrous bird in Greek prose. According to the text, 'This bird can be seen flying through the air with its plumage gleaming, gold and light blue all over, being wondrously similar to the sea. The plumage of its wings seems to imitate the echo of the storming wind. It lives alone even as an adult, rich in wisdom, peaceful not carnivorous.'

Based on parallels in other texts, this miraculous bird can be identified as the phoenix. The bird in question was said to have lived in Egypt and, after living for 1,000 years, to have burned itself alive before resurrecting again from its ashes. Our papyrus provides new information about the colour of the bird, as well as the fascinating information that it could sing in an extraordinary voice which 'had an eternal quality, one with the entire universe'.

A manuscript illustration of a phoenix rising from the ashes and surrounded by flames

The phoenix in a bestiary (England, 2nd quarter of the 13th century): Harley MS 4751, f. 45r (detail)

Our second fragment comes from a 4th-century codex and contains a text in verse, probably from a play. The first legible portion of this papyrus describes another mythical creature, a female beast 'with tresses of long hair. Her tail she curls up under her lion’s feet and sits down carrying back her wings. Exposed to sunshine, the monster’s back glistens with gold, if a cloud comes, a sombre splendour, like a rainbow, is reflected on it. It is murderous and chants magical verses of a riddle: "One thing there is that has sense that walks on four feet, then on two and three — what’s that?"'

Two papyrus fragments of a Greek play

Two fragments from a play, probably the Oedipus of Euripides (Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, 4th century AD): Papyrus 3042, fragments 1-2 recto

It is this riddle about a creature that first walks on four legs, then on two and finally on three that helps us identify this beast. It is the Sphinx of Greek mythology, whose riddle refers to a man, who as a boy crawls on four legs, as an adult walks on two, and finally in old age leans on a stick as its third foot. The Sphinx was said to have a female head, a lion's body and wings; but the colour of its plumage is described uniquely in this papyrus.

A page of a manuscript with a coloured illustration of a Sphinx leaving her cave and confronting a knight on horseback

The Sphinx from the Histoire ancienne jusqu'à Cesar (France, 2nd quarter of the 14th century): Royal MS 20 D I, f. 2v (detail)

Our third example dates from around 1,900 years ago. It is found on a papyrus roll containing Greek verses, presumably from a tragedy. The first readable portion of the text describes an horrific monster, 'a compound, with double nature: bull and man, it bears a bull’s head square set on its shoulders, it walks on two legs with a black shaggy tail, it has a look of horror and a tail and strength of …' The rest of the text is missing.

A fragmentary Greek papyrus

Fragment from a play, presumably The Cretans by Euripides (Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, 2nd century AD): Papyrus 3044, fragment 2 recto

Despite the fragmentary condition of this papyrus, the two-fold nature of the bull-man makes it obvious that this is a description of the Minotaur. This creature was born from the love of the Cretan queen Pasiphae and a bull. Imprisoned in the mazes of the king’s palace, it was fed with the human flesh of slaves until Theseus, a young prince from Athens, helped by Pasiphae’s daughter Ariadne, chopped off its head with his sword.

A coloured manuscript illustration showing Theseus, on the left, facing the horned Minotaur, on the right

Theseus combatting the Minotaur from the Histoire ancienne jusqu'à Cesar (France, 2nd half of the 13th century): Add MS 19669, f. 96v (detail)

Although this papyrus provides no new details about the Minotaur's appearance , it's an interesting witness to the long-lived tradition of the monster of Crete. Seeing these exciting fragments, one cannot help wondering what other mysteries remain to be revealed among the British Library’s Greek papyri.

 

Peter Toth

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12 March 2021

The curious AB-script

Diligent readers of this Blog will remember previous posts presenting some of the finest Carolingian manuscripts, such as the Moutier-Grandval Bible and one of the so-called Theodulf Bibles. Like most Carolingian manuscripts they are characterised by the main text being written in Caroline minuscule script. The earliest known example of this script appears in a manuscript from the abbey of St Peter at Corbie (near Amiens), written at some point before 769. It soon developed and spread as a clear and legible standardised script throughout the Carolingian empire. Its ubiquity persists to this day since it was revived during the Italian Renaissance and became the base for modern lower case typefaces of the Latin alphabet.

Full page of text, beginning with an uncoloured initial ‘P’ drawn in brown ink
Beginning of Theodore of Mopsuestia, Commentarii in Epistulas Pauli Minores, Corbie, c. 775-825: Harley MS 3063, f. 39v

Interestingly, even as Caroline minuscule was becoming the predominant script at this period, minuscule scripts based on pre-Carolingian variants kept being created. One example is the so-called AB-script, which was influenced by the writing of Merovingian royal documents (the dynasty preceding the Carolingians). This distinctive script takes its name from the forms of the letters ‘a’ and ‘b’, and was in use around the turn of the 8th century (c. 780–830). There are 35 surviving manuscripts of this script.

One manuscript to feature this type of script (Harley MS 3063) contains two commentaries on St Paul's Epistles, the first by the anonymous author known as Ambrosiaster (written c. 366–384), and the second by Theodore of Mopsuestia (b. c. 350, d. 428).

Detail view of the first line of text
The first line of text beginning Theodore of Mopsuestia, Commentarii in Epistulas Pauli Minores, Corbie, c. 775-825: Harley MS 3063, f. 39v (detail)

The characteristic forms of the letters ‘a’ and ‘b’ can be seen clearly in the first line of the image above, which reads ‘Paulus Apostolus non ab hominib(us) neque p(er) homine(m), sed per...’. Focusing on the word ‘ab’, in the middle of the line, you can see that the form of the ‘a’ is open at the top. It almost looks like an ‘i’ with a small ‘u’ joined to it. The ‘b’ next to it is distinguished by a straight vertical stroke, like the cross bar of a ‘t’. This stroke does not connect with the upwards curve of the bowl at the bottom, as in the modern form of the lower case ‘b’.

Full page of text with damage at the top cutting off the top margin
Fragment of Augustine, De civitate Dei, Corbie, end of 8th century or beginning of 9th century: Harley MS 4980, f. 1r

Another example of AB-script is found in a fragmentary copy of St Augustine’s De civitate Dei (The City of God), now bound with two other originally separate manuscripts (Harley MS 4980, ff. 1–2). AB-script features other letters written in a distinctive way, such as ‘t’. This is evident in the word ‘inter’ in the 5th line of text (…inter se atq(ue) nobiscu(m) diuersitate tradunt(ur). Na(m) et simias…), pictured below. In this word the left side of the cross stroke of the ‘t’ curls back towards the stem, differentiating it from both a Caroline and modern lower case ‘t’.

Detail view of the fifth line of the text
Detail of the fifth line of text, fragment of Augustine, De civitate Dei, Corbie, end of 8th century or beginning of 9th century: Harley MS 4980, f. 1r (detail)

Both these examples of AB-script were written at Corbie Abbey, showing that the scribes there continued to experiment even in the early years of Caroline minuscule. It was once thought that AB-script originated at Corbie, because 14 of the 35 surviving manuscripts were made — or at least corrected by — scribes from that abbey. However, recent studies of these manuscripts and their extant exemplars have revealed a more complex picture of the development of this script. It appears that more than one centre was using AB-script to write often complicated and unusual texts, possibly commissioned directly from prominent personalities at the Carolingian court.

You can read more about the continued influence of Corbie Abbey in the article on medieval places of manuscript production in France and England on the Polonsky Foundation England and France Project-website.


Emilia Henderson
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01 March 2021

Rhygyfarch: poetry and protest in medieval Wales

To mark St David’s Day this year, we are looking at the life and work of a medieval Welsh poet, clerk, and biographer, and one of the most renowned scholars of his time.

His name was Rhygyfarch (b. 1057, d. 1099) and he was born the eldest son of Sulien the Wise (b. 1011, d. 1090/1), a learned teacher who served two terms as bishop of the city of St Davids in Pembrokeshire. Named after Wales’ patron saint (its Welsh name Tyddewi means ‘David’s house’), the city of St Davids was regarded as an important place of learning during the medieval period and the ecclesiastical centre of the Welsh Church. Its cathedral was the resting place of St David’s body and his relics, and was later declared a pilgrimage destination by Pope Calixtus II (r. 1119-1124). By the mid-11th century, the city had also become home to a highly influential monastic school overseen and maintained by Sulien and members of his family.

A view of St David's Cathedral and the Bishop's Palace.
The cathedral of St Davids and the Bishop’s Palace (mattbuck / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-2.0

Rhygyfarch’s early life was evidently devoted to learning. He appears to have spent much of this time in St Davids, where he and his brothers were personally taught by their father. Their education most likely involved an intensive study of major Classical authors including Ovid, Virgil, Boethius, and Macrobius, and Anglo-Latin writers such as Bede and Aldhelm of Sherborne. Subsequently, Rhygyfarch became the clerk of the ecclesiastic community of St Padarn at Llanbadarn Fawr, situated further up the coast near Aberystwyth, which housed an important scriptorium (a place where manuscripts were made) and a well-stocked monastic library, though few of its manuscripts now survive.

It was there that Rhygyfarch gained a reputation amongst his contemporaries as a foremost scholar and teacher, which persisted for centuries after his death. In fact, he was so widely regarded throughout the country that the Brut y Tywysogion (Chronicle of Princes), a historical work that informs much of our understanding of the history of early medieval Wales, described him as ‘y doethaf o doethon y Brytanyeit’ (one of the most learned of the learned men of the Britons).

An illustration from a medieval manuscript, showing a scribe writing in a book.
A scribe writing in a medieval manuscript, from Gerald of Wales’ Topographica Hibernica (Royal MS 13 B VIII, f. 22r)

Rhygyfarch composed a number of Latin prose and poetic texts during his lifetime. Most notably, he was the author of the oldest surviving biography of St David, who lived in the 6th century. His Vita sancti Davidis episcopi appears in a single complete copy in a 12th-century manuscript that ultimately became part of the collection of Sir Robert Cotton (Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV). Rhygyfarch wrote the prose work in Latin but by the later medieval period it had also been translated and adapted into a Middle Welsh version known as the Buchedd Dewi.

A page from a medieval manuscript, featuring the opening of the Life of St David by the Welsh poet Rhygyfarch.
The opening of Rhygyfarch’s Life of St David, 2nd half of the 12th century, possibly south-east Wales (Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV, f. 61r)

Rhygyfarch’s Life of St David was written during the final decade of the 11th century, when Wales was suffering in the aftermath of successive Norman invasions undertaken by William I (r. 1066-1087) and his son William Rufus (r. 1087-1100). Rhygyfarch expressed his own feelings about the Norman occupation and the subjugation of his people in an emotional elegy now known as Rhygyfarch’s Lament, which he wrote not long after his biography of Wales’ patron saint. The Latin poem is attested in only a single manuscript (now Cotton MS Faustina C I), which was copied at the priory of Llanbadarn Fawr in the half century after the Welsh author’s death.

A page from a medieval manuscript, featuring the text of Rhygyfarch's Lament.
Rhygyfarch’s Lament, 1st half of the 12th century, Llanbadarn Fawr (Cotton MS Faustina C I, f. 66r)

In the course of his Lament, Rhygyfarch mourns Wales’ present plight and calls attention to the Norman oppression of the country, which has caused the apparent decline of all parts of Welsh society. He writes that ‘the people and the priest are despised by the word, heart, and work of the Normans’, that ‘there are continual sorrows and fears’, that ‘the courts are sad’ and ‘there is no pleasure in hearing the songs of poets’. Rhygyfarch’s depiction of Wales is of a country trapped by its grief, from where ‘it is not possible to leave, nor even possible to stay’.

Rhygyfarch also turns his focus to the Welsh people themselves, and in an extended passage denounces their lack of courage, urging them to take action against their oppressors in increasingly emotive language:

non audes humero ferre faretram,
arcum nec tenso tendere neruo,
ilia nec gladio cingere lato,
armo nec peltam tollere leuo,
nec vibrat patulo lancea pugno...
o moribunda doles, o tremebunda!
concidis, heu, misera tristibus armis.
nil tibi (nunc) letum nilque uenustum.
tristis barba cadit, tristis ocellus;
nam te aliena canit turba perosum.
et ignominia complet apertam
peccatis faciem. heu, mala pestis!
pingit enim affectus mens mala carni
ut bona mens campo gaudia monstrat
        (ll. 51-67; Lapidge. ‘Welsh-Latin Poetry’ (1973/4), pp. 90-92)

[Wales], you do not dare to carry the quiver of arrows on your shoulder, nor stretch the bow with a tight bow-string, nor gird your guts with the broadsword, nor raise the shield on your left shoulder... [Wales], you are struck down and dying, you tremble in fear, you collapse, alas, miserable in your sad defences. Nothing is joyful to you now, nothing pleasant. Your beard sags, your eye is sad; for a hostile crowd speaks of you as hateful. Disgrace fills your open face with blemishes. Alas for the evil plague: for the diseased mind reflects its condition in the flesh, just as the healthy mind shows its joys to the field.

Rhygyfarch’s Lament captured the frustration of many of the Welsh in their captivity and it also seems to have foreshadowed a call to arms against the Norman invaders that would soon spread throughout the country. In 1094, soon after the poem’s composition, the Welsh rose up against the Norman occupation in an open revolt that ultimately led them to reclaim many of the kingdoms they had previously lost by the end of the century.

Cotton MS Faustina C I is notable for featuring another of Rhygyfarch’s Latin poems, entitled De messe infelici (On the Unhappy Harvest). The work consists of a single four-line stanza written in the upper margin of one of the manuscript’s pages. The poem is noticeably more playful than his Lament and takes the form of a proverb that warns of the potential danger posed by mice to a harvest:

Longa fluit pluuiis tempestas noxia nimbis,
nam nequit in segites messor committere falces:
quamuis ipse suis maturis parcat aristis,
turba tamen muris nescit iam parcere campis.
        (ll. 1-4; Lapidge, ‘Welsh-Latin Poetry’ (1973/4, p. 92)

The endless rain pours down, destructive (to the harvest) with its violent downfall,
for the reaper cannot commit scythes to the crops:
although he spares his mature crops,
an army of mice nevertheless refuses to spare the fields.

A detail from a medieval manuscript, featuring a four-line Latin poem by Rhygyfarch, written in the upper margin of the page.
Rhygyfarch’s De messe infelici (On the Unhappy Harvest), 1st half of the 12th century, Llanbadarn Fawr (Cotton MS Faustina C I, f. 80r detail)

Both Cotton MS Faustina C I and Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV have been digitised in their entirety by the British Library and are available to view online on our Digitised Manuscripts site. We hope you enjoy reading Rhygyfarch’s writings and wish you a Happy St David’s Day!

 

Calum Cockburn
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Further Reading

David Howlett, ‘Rhygyfarch ap Sulien and Ieuan ap Sulien’, in The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, Volume 1: c. 400-1100, ed. by Richard Gameson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 701-706.

Michael Lapidge, ‘The Welsh-Latin poetry of Sulien’s family’, Studia Celtica (1973/4), 68-106.

St David of Wales: Cult, Church and Nation, ed. by J. Wyn Evans and Jonathan M. Wooding (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2007) [Includes an edition of Rhygyfarch’s Life of St David].