Medieval manuscripts blog

5 posts from April 2021

20 April 2021

‘Frenssh’ as it was ‘spak’ in medieval England

In the prologue to the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer’s prioress is accused of speaking an inferior version of French learned in Stratford rather than in Paris:

Frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly,
After the scole of Stratford atte Bowe,
For Frenssh of Parys was to hire unknowe.

(And she spoke French fluently and elegantly,
After the school of Stratford-at-Bow,
For French of Paris was to her unknown.)

Illustration of an elegantly dressed nun
An elegantly dressed nun playing a musical instrument in the Queen Mary Psalter, London or East Anglia, 1310–1320: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 177r

In the same vein, there are examples of French medieval commentators criticising the way French was spoken in England as it evolved from being the mother tongue of royalty and the nobles who crossed the Channel after the Norman Conquest to being an acquired status symbol, as it was for Chaucer’s prioress. A separate dialect known as Anglo-Norman diverged from the French used in mainland France during this period. Spelling, pronunciation and vocabulary were influenced by the Norman French spoken by William the Conqueror and his followers, and by the existing vernacular, Old English, still used by much of the local population.

French was one of the languages of both spoken and written communication in England for an extended period from 1066 onwards and it was still used in some legal contexts up to the end of the 17th century. The fact that French was widely used is evident in the quantity of word-pairs in modern English – where two words exist with same meaning, one derived from an Old English root word and the other from a French one (e.g., thoughtful/pensive; kingdom/realm; enough/sufficient, walk/march). Such examples show how large numbers of French words were adopted during the Middle Ages, hugely enriching the vocabulary of English and changing the language fundamentally.

One of the earliest surviving manuscripts in Anglo-Norman French contains two texts, the Computus and the Bestiary adapted from Latin works by the earliest named French author, Philippe de Thaon, in the 12th century. The latter was dedicated to Adeliza of Louvain (d. 1151), wife of King Henry I of England. On line 4 of the page pictured below de Thaon confirms that he has written en franceise raisun (in the French language).

A text page from Philippe de Thaon’s Comput in Latin and French
A page from Philippe de Thaon’s Comput with text in Latin and French, England, 1100-1150: Cotton MS Nero A V, f. 41v

During the reign of Henry II (r. 1154–1189) and Eleanor of Aquitaine, literature in French flourished at the English royal court, though surviving manuscripts from this period contain mostly devotional texts, such as the Psalter in French verse below. Latin remained an important written language, particularly in the Church, and so the corresponding text in Latin is written in red in the margins.

A text page from a Psalter in Latin and Anglo-Norman French verse
A Psalter in Latin and Anglo-Norman French verse, England or France, 1175-1225: Harley MS 4070, f. 2r. In the upper margin someone has added ‘Cest sauter en fraunceys est’ (This Psalter is in French)

Written legends, chronicles and other literary texts in Anglo Norman survive in greater numbers from the 13th century onwards, when romances surrounding heroes like King Arthur were popular. It is not always possible to establish if surviving manuscripts were produced in England or in Normandy, as many nobles and English royalty held territory on both sides of the channel.

Guy of Warwick, a now almost forgotten hero but quite the superstar in medieval England, is the subject of an early written romance in Anglo-Norman pictured below. Beginning life as a humble page to the Earl of Warwick, Guy becomes a knight and performs numerous chivalric deeds throughout Europe and the East in order to win the hand of the earl’s daughter, his beloved Felice. But he has no sooner married than he abandons his wife and renounces the wealth and power he has gained to become a hermit, devoting his life to God.

The opening page of the Anglo-Norman romance, Gui de Warwik
The opening page of the Anglo-Norman romance, Gui de Warwik, England or France, 1225-50: Add MS 38662, f. 1r

Though the 13th-century text above is not illustrated, an episode from Guy’s legend is pictured in the lower margins of the Taymouth Hours, which includes some prayers in Anglo-Norman French. Across several pages are a series of graphic, comic-strip style illustrations of one of Guy’s many swashbuckling adventures. Fighting on the side of the Emperor of Constantinople, he meets a lion that is being pursued by a ferocious dragon. Taking up his sword, he kills the dragon with one blow, and so the lion becomes his faithful follower, never leaving his side and even lying at the foot of his bed each night. The story must have been familiar enough to medieval audiences to require little explanation as only the caption, ‘Gwi de Warwik’, accompanies the action (beneath the images on ff. 14r and v). The spelling ‘Gwi’ instead of French Gui (for Guy) features the English letter ‘w’, not used in French.

A collage of scenes from the story of Guy of Warwick and the lion from the Taymouth Hours
Scenes from the story of Guy of Warwick and the lion, the Taymouth Hours, ?London, mid-14th century: Yates Thompson MS 13, ff. 12v-14v. Guy riding on his white horse (f. 12v) sees the dragon attacking the lion (f. 13r); the lion watches (f. 13v) as Guy slays the dragon with his lance (f. 14r); and the lion follows Guy as he rides away (f. 14v).

Tales of the early kings of Britain were also popular among French-speaking nobility and royalty in both England and France, judged by the manuscripts that survive. An illustrated copy of the Roman de Brut, an Anglo-Norman verse chronicle of Britain that includes legendary characters like King Arthur and Merlin, survives from the mid-14th century. At the end is an update to the reign of Edward III (r. 1327-77), containing the following words:

‘Apres li regne sun fiz qe or est Ke dieu li garde se il plest Edward le noble conqueror ki fort et pruz est’
(After him [Edward II] reigned his son - may God keep him if he pleases - Edward the noble conqueror who is strong and brave).

Here the scribe uses ‘ke’ alternating with ‘qe’ for the French que (that), and variant spellings, including ‘sun’ for French son (his) and ‘pruz’ for preux (brave), which provide evidence that vowels were pronounced differently in Anglo-Norman and Continental French by this time.

The coronation of King Arthur from the Roman de Brut
The coronation of King Arthur, Roman de Brut, England, 1338-40: Egerton MS 3028, f. 37r

As English regained its position as the dominant written language in England, literature in French was replaced by the works of authors like Chaucer, Gower and Lydgate who wrote in Middle English. Nevertheless, French continued to be used in some contexts including the law courts for a considerable period.

A number of 12th-century manuscripts containing Anglo-Norman French were digitised as part of the Polonsky Medieval England and France 700-1200 project. You can read more about the use of French on both sides of the Channel before 1200 in our article on the Polonsky project site.

Chantry Westwell

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15 April 2021

A newly discovered manuscript from Byland Abbey

In 1538, the Cistercian abbey of St Mary at Byland in Yorkshire surrendered its house to King Henry VIII (r. 1509–1547), who was dissolving all of England’s religious houses around this time. The abbey was founded in 1153 in a remote area of the North Yorkshire Moors. This location was particularly suitable for Cistercian monks, since their order encouraged them to seek solitude at desolate and wild locations. The abbey grew to become one of England’s largest Cistercian monasteries and amassed a magnificent library of most likely hundreds of books. With Byland Abbey’s dissolution, however, its library became forever dispersed. Until now, only a small number of its manuscripts have been rediscovered. However, in our ongoing Harley cataloguing project, we have identified a previously unknown Byland Abbey manuscript. In this blogpost, we will explore this discovery further.

A watercolour, showing a gateway, with behind it the ruins of an abbey, representing Byland.
A watercolour of Byland Abbey, as seen through its gateway, by John Chessell Buckler (1793–1894): Add MS 37120/9

The MLGB3 website records twenty-six manuscripts and manuscript fragments that have been identified from the library of Byland Abbey. Many of these manuscripts are now kept at the British Library. Most famous among these is a theological manuscript (Royal MS 15 A XX) which features ghost stories that were written by one of the abbey’s monks in the early 15th century. You can read about these spine-chilling tales in our previous blogpost.

Other Byland Abbey manuscripts include religious works such as a 13th-century copy of the Verbum Abbreviatum [Abridged Word] (Add MS 35180), a manual on moral theology by the French theologian Peter Cantor (d. 1197); a late 12th- or early 13th-century copy of the Historica Scolastica (Arundel MS 368), a work on biblical history by the French theologian Petrus Comestor (d. 1178); and a 12th-century copy of the Gesta Pontificum Anglorum [Deeds of the Bishops of the English] (Harley MS 3641) by the Benedictine monk and historian William of Malmesbury (b. c. 1090, d. in or after 1142).

A large red initial ‘P’ with penwork decoration in the same colour at the beginning of William of Malmesbury’s history of the deeds of English bishops.
The opening of William of Malmesbury Gesta Pontificum Anglorum (Byland, 2nd half of the 12th century): Harley MS 3641, f. 1r

To these identified manuscripts from Byland Abbey, we can now add a Bible from the second quarter of the 13th century (Harley MS 2807). The manuscript of almost 340 parchment leaves is ornamented with decorated initials throughout. Strikingly for a manuscript from a Cistercian house from this period, some of these initials also contain illustrations. Cistercian manuscripts, in line with the order’s ideals of austerity and simplicity, typically only feature restricted forms of decoration at this date. The order issued statutes between 1145 and 1151, and in 1202, which stipulated that letters should be made of one colour and contain no figurative images. Only one of Byland’s identified manuscripts features figurative images. This is a 12th-century Psalter (York, Minster Library, MS XVI.I.7) with two initials containing dragons that combat human figures. The Harley manuscript, in contrast, has three decorated initials, of which two are elaborate and depict identifiable historical and biblical figures.

The first of the decorated letters in the Harley manuscript appears at the beginning of a prefatory letter by St Jerome (c. 342–420), known for his work on the translation of the Latin Vulgate Bible. Here an initial ‘F’ features a depiction of St Jerome at his writing desk.

A blue and red initial with a tonsured figure in a dark blue habit seated at a writing desk, holding a scroll in one hand and a quill in the other
St Jerome at his writing desk in a decorated initial ‘F’ (? Byland, 2nd quarter of the 13th century): Harley MS 2807, f. 3r

Another example of the manuscript’s illustrations can be found at the beginning of the Book of Genesis, where the initial ‘I’ features scenes from the Creation, with, below that, a depiction of the Crucifixion.

A green initial ‘I’ with six panels that represent scenes from the Creation, and in the lower margin, a seventh panel of the Crucifixion, with the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist next to Christ on the Cross.
Scenes from the Creation and Crucifixion in a decorated initial ‘I’ (? Byland, 2nd quarter of the 13th century): Harley MS 2807, f. 5v

Further, an initial ‘I’ at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark features a horned mask at the top and a three-faced crowned head upside-down at the bottom.

A blue and red initial ‘I’ with a horned grotesque on top of the letter, and below the letter, upside down, a three-faced crowned head that seems to be breathing fire out of two of its mouths.
An initial decorated ‘I’ with grotesques at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark (? Byland, 2nd quarter of the 13th century): Harley MS 2807, f. 283v

Until now, little was known about the manuscript’s origin and ownership before it reached the library of Robert Harley (1661–1724) and his son Edward Harley (1689–1741). Its only known owner was William Petyt (1636–1707), antiquary of Middle Temple and Keeper of the Tower Records, who added his coat of arms and a title-page in 1665.

The heraldic achievement of William Petyt, including his coat of arms, mantle, helmet, crest, and motto, coloured with red, pink, and gold.
The heraldic achievement of William Petyt, added in 1665 to f. 1r of Harley MS 2807

In re-cataloguing the Bible manuscript, however, we have found two previously unnoticed erased inscriptions written on empty pages at the end of the volume. More importantly, with the help of UV light, we have been able to decipher both of these.

One inscription is written in a 13th-century script and confirms Byland Abbey’s ownership in a Latin formula that can be found in various of its other manuscripts: ‘Liber Sancte Marie de Bellalanda’ [The Book of St Mary of Byland]. You can compare this inscription with the nearly identical ownership inscription that is visible in the second image of this blogpost (at the top of f. 1r of William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Pontificum Anglorum in Harley MS 3641).

13th-century inscription under UV light
UV light image of an erased 13th-century ownership inscription by Byland Abbey in Harley MS 2807, f. 339r

The other inscription also confirms Byland’s ownership, but it is written in a 15th-century script and gives the monastery’s location in English: ‘Liber Beate Marie de Byland’. This ownership formula can only be found in one other manuscript (now Manchester, John Rylands Library, Lat. 153). Both inscriptions may have been added by the same 15th-century librarian at the abbey.

15th-century inscription under UV light
UV light image of an erased 15th-century ownership inscription by Byland Abbey in Harley MS 2807, f. 338v

These inscriptions leave little doubt that Harley MS 2807 was present at Byland Abbey soon after its production, and was kept there for hundreds of years, probably until the monastery’s dissolution. The identification of the manuscript’s provenance contributes to the efforts of scholars to reconstruct the monastic libraries that were dispersed in King Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries. Further research into the manuscript may shed new light on book production by Cistercian monasteries in Northern England, and on their changing views on the use of decoration in the books they preserved.

We will keep posting on the findings that we are making in our Harley cataloguing project, so keep a close eye on this blog!

Clarck Drieshen
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13 April 2021

Decorating the Decretum

Church law, known as canon law (from the Greek word kanon, meaning ‘rule’), sets out the rules governing Church organization and Christian practice. In the early Christian period different types of rules, such as the decisions of councils, papal letters and episcopal statutes were circulated separately. But in the middle of the 12th century, a legal scholar called Gratian sought to systematise and harmonise these decisions by bringing them together in one volume. His work, generally known as the Decretum Gratiani sive Concordantia Discordantium Canonum (the Decretals of Gratian or concordance of discordant canons), became the first general textbook of canon law. The Decretum was the first of six volumes of canon law produced between the 12th and 14th centuries, and formed the main basis of Church law until the early 20th century.

The work quickly became a fundamental textbook for students and teachers of law, and several hundred medieval copies of the Decretum survive today. The text itself features case studies relating to a wide range of topics, including ecclesiastical administration, marriage and the Sacraments. These cases (or causae) describe various situations and develop questions from them.

Manuscript illustration of a pope with two litigant bishops and their advisers, from a copy of Gratian’s Decretum
A pope acting as a judge with two litigant bishops and their advisers, from a copy of Gratian’s Decretum, France, 3rd quarter of the 13th century: Royal MS 10 D VIII, f. 133v (detail)

Very often, Gratian’s text is accompanied by later commentaries, used to interpret aspects of the cases discussed in the main text. These glossed copies typically feature a distinctive page layout in which Gratian’s text appears in the centre of the page, with the outer and lower margins occupied by the commentary.

In illuminated copies, decoration assists in distinguishing various sections of the text by illustrating each case with a decorated or historiated initial. For example, in an elaborate copy made in Barcelona, a case (causa 14) concerning the receipt of funds by clerics begins with an image of the pope sitting with an open book instructing tonsured men, while money changes hands to the left. In this copy each of the six questions also begins with a large initial in gold that corresponds to one in the surrounding gloss indicating the start of the commentary on that question.

A text page with a miniature of a pope, clerics, and laymen with a money bag, from the beginning of Causa 14 in a copy of Gratian’s Decretum
A text page with a miniature of a pope, clerics, and laymen with a money bag, from the beginning of Causa 14 in a copy of Gratian’s Decretum, Barcelona, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 14th century: Add MS 15274, f. 201v

Sometimes the subjects of the initials do not relate to the text directly. The beginning of Part I of the Decretum in this French copy probably made in Sens features a Channel-style initial with naked men and lions or dogs clambering amongst the structure of the letter ‘H’(umanum) (human). In these cases, the initials may have served primarily to help a reader find and remember the place of relevant cases or other divisions more quickly, instead of illustrating them. 

Full page with an illuminated 'Channel-style' initial 'H', in a copy of Gratian’s Decretum
Full page with an illuminated 'Channel-style' initial 'H', in a copy of Gratian’s Decretum, , probably Sens, last quarter of the 12th century: Arundel MS 490, f. 7r
An illuminated 'Channel-style' initial 'H' with naked men and lions or dogs, in a copy of Gratian’s Decretum
Detail of an illuminated 'Channel-style' initial 'H' with naked men and lions or dogs, in a copy of Gratian’s Decretum, probably Sens, last quarter of the 12th century: Arundel MS 490, f. 7r

In this way, medieval artists were able to make these legal manuscripts beautiful as well as useful. If you would like to find out more about medieval legal texts, take a look at our article on Legal manuscripts in England and France.

Kathleen Doyle

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04 April 2021

Easter Sunday in the Sherborne Missal

One of the most glorious celebrations of the feast of Easter in a medieval manuscript is surely the page for Easter Sunday in the Sherborne Missal. In November 2020 we took a detailed look at this page and its beautiful artwork for the BBC Radio 4 Moving Pictures programme, which you can still listen to on the BBC website. If you didn’t get chance to listen to the programme at the time, or even if you did, we think it would make perfect seasonal listening for this Easter weekend.

The Resurrection of Christ from the page for Easter Sunday in the Sherborne Missal
Decorated initial letter ‘R’ containing a scene of the Resurrection of Christ, from the page for Easter Sunday in the Sherborne Missal: Add MS 74236, p. 216 (detail)

Moving Pictures is a radio series that offers listeners the chance to take a long, slow look at great artworks, photographed in incredible detail. You're invited to view a high-resolution image on Google Arts & Culture while presenter Cathy FitzGerald and a group of experts talk you through the details. The speakers on the Sherborne Missal episode are Kathleen Doyle (the British Library), Eleanor Jackson (the British Library), Alixe Bovey (the Courtauld Institute of Art), Paul Binski (the University of Cambridge) and Patricia Lovett (professional scribe and illuminator).

Details of portraits of the patrons and craftsmen of the Sherborne Missal
The patrons Bishop Mitford and Abbot Brunyng (left), and the scribe and artist, John Whas and John Siferwas (right), from the page for Easter Sunday in the Sherborne Missal: Add MS 74236, p. 216 (details)

Made in the early 15th century for the Benedictine abbey of St Mary in Sherborne, Dorset, the Sherborne Missal is a particularly impressive example of a book containing the texts that were read as part of the Mass on the different feast days throughout the year. The page for Easter Sunday is lavished with intricate decoration exploring the significance of Christ’s Resurrection, as well as portraits of the main people involved in the making of the manuscript, whimsical fight scenes and beautifully observed representations of the natural world.

A detail of a picture of a bittern from the Sherborne Missal
Probable bittern, from the page for Easter Sunday in the Sherborne Missal: Add MS 74236, p. 216 (detail)

Discover the hidden meanings behind the artwork and celebrate the joys of medieval Easter by listening online while viewing the high-resolution image. You can also find out more about the Sherborne Missal in our previous blogpost.

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01 April 2021

Alas, poor Hamlet

How well do you know your Hamlet?

We're not talking about the tragic Prince of Denmark, of course. We're referring to Hamlet Anderson, who owned a manuscript of the Wycliffite New Testament in the 16th century.

His name was noticed by Clarck Drieshen, who is currently cataloguing the Harley collection at the British Library. In three places at the end of Harley MS 4027, Hamlet inscribed his name, as you can see in this image of f. 184r. Clarck speculates that the former owner of this manuscript may be identified as 'Hamlet Anderton, tailour' of King’s Lynn, who is recorded in A Calendar of the Freemen of Lynn, 1292–1836 (Norwich: Archaeological Society, 1913), p. 106.

A page of a manuscript showing the signature of Hamlet Anderson in two separate places

Hamlet Anderson's name is inscribed twice on a page at the end of Harley MS 4027 (f. 184r)

It may not be unreasonable to suppose that a tailor would have owned a copy of the New Testament in English, albeit a manuscript version made in the first half of the 15th century. Also on f. 184r is a list of purchased items, including shears (wool), perhaps relevant to his occupation.

A detail of the two signatures of Hamlet Anderson

A detail of Hamlet Anderson's signatures: Harley MS 4027, f. 184r

Among the other owners of this manuscript were:

  • Baudet Anderton in the 15th century (his name is inscribed on f. 140v);
  • Thomas Bloye in the 16th century (f. 102r);
  • William Peirson in the early 17th century (f. 9r);
  • Thomas Johnson in 1670 (f. 181v);
  • Thomas Peirson in 1678 (f. 181v).

The names of Baudet Anderton, Hamlet Anderson and Thomas Johnson were all recognised for the first time by Clarck while he was cataloguing Harley MS 4027.

A manuscript page of the New Testament, written in Middle English, in 2 columns, and with decorated initials

The opening page of the Wycliffite New Testament, in Middle English (England, 15th century): Harley MS 4027, f. 1r

We have now added descriptions of more than 3,000 manuscripts in the Harley collection to the British Library's online catalogue. We'd love you to explore them for yourselves. Maybe you will encounter more familiar names or discover unfamiliar manuscripts for the first time.

Julian Harrison

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