Medieval manuscripts blog

8 posts from July 2021

30 July 2021

Chroniclers of History at St Albans Museum

During the medieval period, the monastery of St Albans was recognised throughout England for the quality of its chroniclers. Between the 12th and 15th centuries, monks from the foundation recorded the events of English history, especially those that affected the Abbey and its holdings in the surrounding area. They included such figures as Roger of Wendover (d. 1236), William Rishanger (b. 1250), Matthew Paris (d. 1259), Thomas Walsingham (d. c. 1422).

A new exhibition, Chroniclers of History, has opened at St Albans Museum, which explores the lives and works of these men and the importance of their monastery. The British Library is delighted to be one of the major lenders to the exhibition, and the following six books from our collections will all be on display at the museum’s Weston Gallery from 30 July - 31 Oct 2021.

A detail from a medieval manuscript, showing a pen-and-ink drawing depicting the construction of St Albans Abbey.
The construction of St Albans.s Abbey, from Matthew Paris’ Liber additamentorum: Cotton MS Nero D I, f. 23v (detail)

The Benefactors’ Book

One of the highlights is a work known as the Benefactors’ Book of St Albans (Cotton MS Nero D VII). In a previous blogpost, we described the manuscript as a who’s who of medieval England. It represents an invaluable source for our understanding of the history of the monastery and its influence throughout the country. Initially compiled by the Abbey’s precentor, Thomas Walsingham, the book is a register of all the people who made gifts to St Albans throughout the Middle Ages, as well as the abbots, monks and laypeople who made up its vibrant community. The manuscript preserves their names, details about their lives and occupations, and for many even their portraits, which might otherwise have been lost to us. The page on display shows the artist, Alan Strayler, who is responsible for these portraits. 

A page from the Benefactors’ Book of St Albans, showing three portraits of figures recorded in the manuscript.
Portraits of benefactors, including the artist Alan Strayer (the lowermost figure), from the Benefactors’ Book of St Albans: Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 108r

A St Albans Calendar

St Albans was responsible for the production of hundreds of manuscripts between its foundation and dissolution in the 16th century. This copy of the Latin work De Trinitate (On the Trinity) by St Augustine, for example, was made at the monastery during the second half of the 12th century (Egerton MS 3721). It is prefaced by a calendar, commemorating the feast days of important saints throughout the year. Feast days for local saints connected with the Abbey are also recorded here, most notably St Alban himself, as well as several of the monastery’s former abbots.

A page from a medieval manuscript of St Augustine’s De Trinitate, showing a calendar page for June, arranged in a table, with important feast days marked in red and green ink.
A calendar page for June, from a manuscript of St Augustine’s De Trinitate (On the Trinity), made at the monastery of St Albans: Egerton MS 3721, f. 4v

 

A detail from a medieval manuscript, showing part of a calendar page for June, with feast days for saints marked.
Feast days for two abbots and St Alban recorded in the calendar: Egerton MS 3721, f. 4v (detail)

The Collectanea of John of Wallingford

Among the many chroniclers represented in the exhibition is the monk John of Wallingford (d. 1258). John was the infirmarer of St Albans (responsible for looking after the Abbey’s sick) and a friend and contemporary of Matthew Paris, another chronicler based at the Abbey. John is mostly known to us because of his Collectanea, surviving in a single manuscript, which comprises a huge variety of material, some written in his own hand (Cotton MS Julius D VII). Medical recipes in Middle English, copies of charters and documentary texts, John’s own chronicle of English history, and even a table for predicting the time of high tide at London Bridge, all appear in the collection. In addition to these works, the manuscript features a map of Britain and several drawings made by Matthew Paris, including a portrait of John of Wallingford himself, sitting before an open copy of the Book of Psalms. You can read more about the manuscript and Paris’ map in our previous blogpost, The Maps of Matthew Paris.

A page from the Collectanea of the chronicler and monk John of Wallingford, showing a portrait of him sat before an open book on a stand.
A portrait of the chronicler John of Wallingford, made by Matthew Paris, from a copy of Wallingford’s Collectanea: Cotton MS Julius D VII, f. 42v

Matthew Paris’ Liber additamentorum

Matthew Paris was renowned for his work as a chronicler, cartographer, artist, and scribe, both during his lifetime and for centuries after his death. Numerous surviving books show evidence of his hand and the influence of his distinctive style of drawing and painting, many of which are now housed at the British Library. His notable works include the Chronica Maiora, a universal history of the world, and Historia Anglorum, a history of England, both of which he copied and illuminated himself.

Paris’ Liber additamentorum (Book of Additions) is one of the manuscripts that can be found on display at the exhibition at St Albans Museum. The volume (now Cotton MS Nero D I) is a collection of original literary treatises and documents he assembled to support his research. Among the various texts, notes, tracts, and drawings it contains is his Gesta abbatum monasterii sancti Albani, a record of the lives and deeds of the abbots of St Albans. Paris drew a portrait of each of the subjects of his work, which appear as illustrations in the margins beside each of their respective entries. The page below, for example, features a portrait of Leofric, who served as abbot towards the end of the 10th century, and whom Paris identifies in an accompanying inscription in red ink, written in his own distinctive hand.

A page from Matthew Paris’ Books of Additions, showing his work on the deeds of the abbots of the monastery of St Albans, arranged in two columns, with marginal illustrations and a portrait of Abbot Leofric.
Matthew Paris’ Gesta abbatum monasterii Sancti Albani (Deeds of the Abbots of the Monastery of St Albans), with a marginal portrait of Abbot Leofric, also painted by Paris: Cotton MS Nero D I, f. 32v

Ralph of Diceto’s Chronicles

Another of Paris’ contemporaries was Ralph of Diceto (d. c. 1200), a chronicler and dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Ralph was particularly known for a Latin chronicle, written and arranged in two parts. The first is called the Abbreviationes chronicorum (Abbreviations of chronicles) and it constitutes a summary of existing chronicles already circulating in England during the 12th century. It covers the history of the world from the birth of Christ to around 1147. The second part, meanwhile, is entitled the Imagines historiarum (Images of History) and records events that occurred during Ralph’s own lifetime .

A page from a medieval manuscript, showing the opening of a chronicle by Ralph of Diceto, arranged in three columns, with two large decorated initials in gold.
The opening of Ralph of Diceto’s chronicle Imagines historiarum (Images of History): Royal MS 13 E VI, f. 49r

One manuscript in the British Library (Royal MS 13 E VI), made between 1199 and 1209, contains copies of both these chronicles, complete with an innovative pictorial indexing system that Ralph invented. It has been suggested that this volume was made for the Abbey of St Albans and that it was copied from an original housed in St Paul’s, believed to have been Ralph’s personal copy of his works. Numerous additions related to St Albans have been inscribed in the margins of the text: a shelfmark identifying that it was part of the Abbey’s monastic library, marginal notes concerning important events in the Abbey’s history, the obits (or dates of death) of some of its abbots, and even notes and a drawing made by Paris himself.

A detail from a medieval manuscript, showing a marginal illustration of King Lucius being baptised in a tub, identified by an inscription in red ink.
A marginal illustration of Lucius, a legendary King of the Britons, added into a manuscript of Ralph of Diceto’s chronicles, made by Matthew Paris: Royal MS 13 E VI, f. 11r (detail)

The Chronicles of England, printed by the Schoolmaster Printer

While the monastery of St Albans was known for its production of handwritten books and manuscripts, in the later medieval period the city also housed a printing press, notable for being one of the first to operate in England outside of Westminster and London. The name of the printer remains unknown, and many have speculated about his true identity. One of the only hints we have originates from the famous English printer Wynkyn de Worde (d. 1534), who once described him as a ‘Sometime schoolmaster’. Since then, he has typically been referred to as the ‘Schoolmaster Printer’.

This particular volume was made by the St Albans press around 1486 and contains the Chronicles of England, written in Middle English and one of the very first chronicles to be printed in the country (C.11.b.1*). It features a number of woodcut illustrations throughout the text, and on the final page, there appears a printer’s device (or emblem), bearing the arms of the Abbey and the town of St Albans, in red ink.

The final page of a printed copy of the Chronicles of England, made by the Schoolmaster Printer, showing a device in red ink, of a saltire cross on a shield.
The Chronicles of England, made by the ‘Schoolmaster Printer’, showing the printer’s device with the arms of the abbey and town of St Albans: C.11.b.1*, p. 575

The records of the chroniclers featured in this exhibition are the basis for much of our understanding of England during the Middle Ages, and without their work, our knowledge of early English history would be far poorer. Their texts and manuscripts provide an insight not only into the major events that affected the Church and the Crown in this period, but also how these events affected people at a local level.

You can visit Chroniclers of History at The Weston Gallery, St Albans Museum, from 30 July until 31 October 2021. The exhibition catalogue Chroniclers of History: The Medieval Monks of St Albans and their Books. An Exhibition is edited by James Clarke and published by St Albans Council.

Calum Cockburn

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26 July 2021

A letter of recommendation split between two continents

How many of us have ever needed a letter of recommendation to apply for university or to seek employment, to rent a flat or to consult a special manuscript in a reading room? Well, in using these letters we are following a practice that was already in use thousands of years ago.

Letters of recommendation are well attested in the Classical world. They feature as one of the twenty-one types of letters recorded in a letter-writing manual mistakenly attributed in the manuscript tradition to the 4th-century BC orator and statesman Demetrius of Phalerum. 

Page from a manuscript dating from 1712, containing the beginning of a letter-writing treatise attributed to Demetrius of Phalerum
Beginning of the treatise entitled ‘Epistolikoi Typoi’ (‘Types of Letters’) attributed to Demetrius of Phalerum, preserved in a manuscript of 1712: Add MS 39619, f. 116r

A passage from the sixth book of Homer’s Iliad testifies to a rather treacherous use of a letter of ‘recommendation’, quite the opposite of what is expected. King Proetus writes a letter for Bellerophon asking his father-in-law, the king of Lycia, to kill Bellerophon, who is bearing the folded tablet containing the message.

St Paul also mentions recommendation letters, commenting: ‘Do we begin again to commend ourselves? Or need we, as some others, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? You are our epistle written in our hearts, which is known and read by all men’ (2 Corinthians 3:1-2).

The Greek papyri from Greco-Roman Egypt offer several examples of recommendations, dating from the 3rd century BC onwards. The letters usually display a consistent format: the author greets the recipient and recommends the bearer of the message, asking the addressee to offer whatever help the recommended person may need. Sometimes letters request even more, asking for loans, job offers, and assistance with taxes or legal issues. The person recommended would usually be introduced as someone close to the writer, often a friend or relative, whose preferential treatment would be considered as a personal favour to the writer.

Among the British Library holdings is a letter of recommendation forming half of a papyrus sheet (Papyrus 2553).

Left-hand portion of a papyrus sheet
Left half of a letter of recommendation on papyrus: Papyrus 2553

Many details about this letter would have been unclear had the right-hand half of the papyrus not been identified in a fragment (P. Col. VIII 211) now held in the papyrus collection of Columbia University's Rare Book & Manuscript Library, in New York. The two papyrus halves join perfectly, as Antonia Sarri recognised in an article published in 2014 in Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies

The full letter, dated 16 February 6, concerns a dispute between Isidorus, a farmer from the village of Psophthis, in the Memphite district, and Tryphon, governor (strategus) of a different district, the Arsinoite. 

Two perfectly joining papyrus fragments preserve a full letter of 6 CE
Full papyrus sheet, consisting of the British Library fragment on the left and the Columbia fragment on the right

Isidorus appears to have been detained and compelled by the governor’s agents to swear that he would cultivate a plot of land located on the estate of the empress Livia, wife of Augustus, in the village of Philadelphia, in the Arsinoite district. However, because Isidorus was formally registered in another district, he shouldn’t have been obliged to perform this work. Several influential people took Isidorus’s side in this affair, one of whom is Proclus, author of another letter from the archive.

In this letter, Proclus instructs Asclepiades, a local official, to investigate the matter and cooperate with Isidorus, a member of his household. Moreover, Asclepiades is reminded not to forget in the future that Isidorus is recommended by Proclus. From the tone of the letter, it can be surmised that Proclus’s social standing was rather high.

In the postscript, Proclus adds ‘… do everything for Isidorus, for I am concerned about him.’

Conclusion of a letter on papyrus, containing the postscript in a different hand
Postscript in a second hand added at the end of the letter, after the date

Despite being thousands of miles apart, the two fragments can now be joined virtually thanks to the advanced technologies and the combined efforts of the curatorial teams at the British Library and Columbia University. The British Library fragment has now been displayed in the new IIIF Univeral Viewer, and the Columbia portion will made available on their current platform for IIIF, Columbia's Digital Library Collections (DLC), in the coming months. We’ll be sharing further examples of fragments that can be reunited in the coming weeks, so look out for further updates. 

Federica Micucci

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21 July 2021

Miniature books

Medieval manuscripts come in all shapes and sizes: handy books for personal reading, mid-size volumes for the library or classroom, staggeringly huge tomes for the choir or lectern. But manuscripts that are extra tiny are especially rare and fascinating. Miniature books wow us with the skilfulness of their delicate script and puzzle us with the question of "why so small?". What motivated people to make books with pages so petite that they take all your dexterity to turn, and script so minute that you have to strain your eyes to read? Inspired by the British Library’s current Miniature Books exhibition, we thought we'd explore some of our teeny tomes.

A papyrus leaf, a frame containing nine parchment leaves, a book in a red binding, a book in a gold binding, and a walnut
A scale image of some of the manuscripts included in this blogpost next to a walnut: Papyrus 2556, Papyrus 120 (3), Add MS 58280, Stowe MS 956

Definitions vary, but books measuring under 3 or 4 inches (76 or 101 mm) on their longest side are generally considered miniature. The earliest books of these dimensions in the British Library are leaves which once formed part of miniature codices from Roman Egypt, written in Greek. A papyrus example, dating from the 3rd century and containing a fragment of the Psalms, measures 73 x 56 mm (Papyrus 2556). Discussing why miniature books appealed to Christian owners in the late Roman Empire, scholars have suggested that they might have been particularly useful for carrying on travels, or for wearing close to the body as religious amulets, or for discretely hiding in times of persecution.

A page from a papyrus miniature codex
A fragment of the Psalms from a miniature codex. Egypt, 3rd century. 73 x 56 mm. Papyrus 2556

Nine parchment leaves, each measuring about 68 x 45 mm, once formed a complete codex from 6th century-7th century Egypt (Papyrus 120 (3)). These diminutive pages of Greek writing contain a hymn to the Nile with a prayer for the flood, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed and Psalm 132 (133). Its small dimensions, short length and texts which were believed to have particular potency suggest that it may have been used as an amulet.

Nine parchment leaves from a miniature codex
Nine leaves from a miniature codex containing a hymn to the Nile with a prayer for the flood, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed and Psalm 132 (133). Egypt, 6th-7th century. 68 x 45 mm. Papyrus 120 (3)

Miniature books had a novelty value, prompting writers to comment on them as marvels. For example, Pliny the Elder, citing Cicero, reports in his Natural History (AD 77) that there was a copy of Homer's Iliad written on a piece of parchment so small that it could fit inside a walnut shell. Later scribes were inspired to try and match this ancient achievement, including the 16th-century English calligrapher Peter Bales. A note written in 1586/7 describes ‘A most strange and rare piece of worke brought passe by Peter Bales, an Englishman, a Clerke of the Chauncery of the proofe and demonstracioun of the Whole Bible to be written by hym everie word at length within an English Wallnut no bigger then a hennes egg’ (Harley MS 530, f. 14v). Sadly Bales’ tiny Bible doesn’t survive. None of our miniature books can rival these impressive walnut-sized feats (see the image at the top of this blogpost).

A note in a manuscript describing a miniature manuscript written by Peter Bales
A note describing a Bible manuscript that could fit inside a walnut written by Peter Bales. England, 1586/7. Harley MS 530, f. 14v.

Display of scribal skill might have motivated the creation of an illuminated 15th-century Book of Hours measuring only 54 x 40mm (Add MS 58280). Unusually, the scribe, Roger Pynchebek, signed his name at the end of the book: 'Scriptori merita mater pia redde Maria. Amen. Nunc finem feci. Da mihi quod merui. Quod Rogero Pynchebek þe writer of þis boke. In þe yere of our lorde MoCCCC.lxx iiiio' (Affectionate Mother Mary, give to the writer his just reward. Amen. Now I have made an end, give me what I deserve. That is, Roger Pynchebek the writer of this book. In the year of our Lord 1474). Perhaps with this tiny volume, Roger Pynchebek hoped to advertise his impressive scribal skills to prospective clients.

An inscription naming Roger Pynchebek as the scribe
Scribal note by Roger Pynchebek, in a Book of Hours. England, 1474. Add MS 58280, f. 373v
 

Miniature Book of Hours held open on an illuminated page
An opening from the Book of Hours written by Roger Pynchebek, with a miniature of Christ as Man of Sorrows. England, 1474. Add MS 58280, ff. 323v-324r

In the 16th century, it became fashionable for aristocratic women to wear miniature prayer books bound in elaborate metalwork covers hanging from their girdles (i.e. belts). These girdle books provided them with handy reading material as well as fashionable dress accessories, allowing them to display their literacy and piety to the world. They are sometimes included in medieval portraits of the period, such as that of Mary Tudor by Hans Eworth.

Portrait of Mary Tudor wearing a girdle book by Hans Eworth
Hans Eworth, portrait of Mary Tudor wearing a girdle book, c. 1553. The Fitzwilliam Museum, PD.1-1963

A girdle book made in Paris around 1520 which belonged to a lady at the court of King Henry VIII of England measures a dainty 35 x 20 mm (Sloane MS 116). The book, which contains devotional texts, even includes tiny painted pictures the size of postage stamps, here showing St George slaying the dragon.

Girdle book held open on the page with a picture of St George slaying the dragon facing a prayer
St George and the Dragon, from a girdle book. Paris, c. 1520. 35 x 20 mm. Sloane MS 116, ff. 69v-70r
 
Girdle book shown closed with elaborate metal openwork cover over red velvet
Girdle book with elaborate metal openwork cover over velvet. Paris, c. 1520. 35 x 20 mm. Sloane MS 116

A particularly luxurious example is a girdle book with covers of gold filigree that measures a diminutive 40 x 30 mm (Stowe MS 956). It contains selected Psalms in English verse, translated and apparently written out by John Croke, one of Henry VIII’s clerks in Chancery, with a portrait of Henry VIII at the beginning. The volume is traditionally thought to have belonged to Anne Boleyn, who is said to have handed it to one of her maids of honour when she was standing on the scaffold before her execution in 1536.

Girdle book held open on the page with Henry VIII's portrait
Portrait of Henry VIII, from a girdle book. England, c. 1540. 40 x 30 mm. Stowe MS 956, ff. 1v-2r

 

Girdle book shown closed with gold filigree cover
Elaborate gold filigree covers, from a girdle book. England, c. 1540. 40 x 30 mm. Stowe MS 956

The tradition of miniature books continued into the modern era and up to the present day. You can visit the British Library’s current Miniature Books exhibition for free in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery. The exhibition includes Sloane MS 116 described above, displayed alongside other miniature manuscripts and printed books from the Library’s historical collections, as well as books created especially for the project by contemporary children’s authors and illustrators, and miniature books submitted by children in response to the British Library's lockdown callout. You can also find out more in the British Library's online event The Magnificent World of Miniature Books (Thursday 22 July 2021, 19:30 - 20:30 BST).


Eleanor Jackson
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19 July 2021

Dürer in the Low Countries

Five hundred years after the artist Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) travelled through the Low Countries, the exhibition “Dürer was here. A journey becomes legend” has opened at the Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum in Aachen, Germany. Drawing on the detailed travel journal that Dürer kept, the exhibition reconstructs the artist’s journey, with a particular focus on the time he spent in Aachen in 1520 when he attended the coronation of Emperor Charles V.

The British Library is delighted to have loaned the only surviving page-fragments from Dürer’s original journal to the exhibition, where they are displayed with an early copy of the complete text, loaned by the Staatsbibliothek in Bamberg. The first British Library fragment shows two sketches of a piece of folded cloth with instructions on how to make a type of woman’s cloak worn in the Low Countries.

Page from Dürer's original diary showing two patterns for a type of woman’s cloak worn in the Low Countries, 1520

Page from Dürer's original journal, 1520: Add MS 5229, f. 50r

The second fragment contains two sketches of the Coat-of-Arms of Lorenz Staiber (1485/6–1539), writer, orator and patrician of Nuremberg, and mentioned by Dürer in his journal. The sketches are thought to have been made in preparation for a woodcut.  

Page from Dürer's original diary showing two sketches of the Coat-of-Arms of Lorenz Staiber, 1520-21

Page from Dürer's original journal, 1520-21: Add MS 5229, f. 59r

Dürer used his journal to document his itinerary, diet, expenses and earnings, and to record noteworthy sights, encounters with fellow artists, and meetings with influential individuals and patrons. The journal also mentions around 120 portrait drawings and a small number of paintings that Dürer produced and either sold or gifted during his travels. Now widely dispersed, the exhibition brings together many of these masterpieces, as well as works by some of the artists whom Dürer met and inspired on the way.

In addition to his extraordinary artistic abilities, Albrecht Dürer possessed a lifelong fascination with artistic theory. From about 1500 he became increasingly absorbed by his studies on the techniques and underlying principles of art and in particular on the correct depiction of the human body. The British Library holds four volumes of Dürer’s research notes, which relate overwhelmingly to his studies on human proportion. They contain numerous mathematically constructed drawings of men, women and children, accompanied by precise measurements and detailed notes in German on the correct construction of the human figure.

The sheet below is dated 1513 and bears Dürer’s characteristic ‘AD’ monogram. It shows a proportion drawing of a male nude with detailed measurements. Dürer has used a framework of vertical and horizontal lines to calculate the dimensions of different sections of the body as fractions of the total height of the figure.

Proportion drawing of a male nude with a framework of horizontal and vertical lines and detailed measurements

Proportion drawing of a male nude with detailed measurements: Add MS 5230, f. 93r

Proportion drawing of a ‘stout woman’ accompanied by measurements

Proportion drawing of a ‘stout woman’ accompanied by measurements and step-by-step instructions in German on the correct construction of the figure: Add MS 5231, f. 5r

Proportion drawing of a male nude seen from the front and in profile
Proportion drawing of a male nude seen from the front and in profile: Add MS 5228, f. 124r 

Proportion drawing of an infant, before 1513

Proportion drawing of an infant: Add MS 5228, f. 186v

Drawing showing the construction of a male head in profile

Drawing showing the construction of a male head in profile: Add MS 5230, f. 10r

As Dürer’s sketches of fencers in combat illustrate, he was also interested in the theory of movement and how to capture the appearance and form of the body in motion. The inscriptions accompanying the rapidly executed drawings explain that they show the positions for the blades and for counter-blows or parries.

Drawing of fencing positions, 1512

Drawing of fencing positions, 1512: Add MS 5229, f. 67v

Albrecht Dürer’s extensive research, conducted over 30 years, culminated in the illustrated treatise Vier Bücher von menschlicher Proportion or ‘Four Books on Human Proportion’ which was posthumously published by his wife Agnes in Nuremberg in 1528.

“Dürer was here. A journey becomes legend” runs in Aachen from 18 July until 24 October 2021.

 

Andrea Clarke

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17 July 2021

A library under lockdown

How would you cope if your library was under lockdown? That is the situation Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631) found himself in late in his life. We can all probably sympathise — most of us would never have anticipated the events of the past year — but the treasures denied to Cotton, by order of King Charles I, were astonishing. They included the Lindisfarne Gospels, Beowulf and a copy of Magna Carta issued in 1215 with King John's seal intact; for Cotton had assembled one of the greatest private libraries ever known. At a time when the British Library's own Reading Rooms and galleries have now reopened, and remembering of course that we have always remained open online, we look back in this blogpost to the events of the 1620s–30s and consider what lessons can be learned from them. 

A portrait of Sir Robert Cotton, with his hand resting on the Cotton Genesis

A portrait of Sir Robert Cotton, commissioned in 1626 and attributed to Cornelius Johnson, reproduced from the collection of The Rt. Hon. Lord Clinton, D.L.

The temporary closure of Cotton's library is summarised by Colin Tite in The Manuscript Library of Sir Robert Cotton (The British Library, 1994). Cotton, a Member of Parliament for Huntingdonshire and advisor to King James I (reigned 1603–1625), as well as a prominent antiquary and manuscript collector, had aroused suspicion over a number of years. Cotton's London residence was at Westminster — Members of the House of Lords had to pass through his garden in order to enter their chamber — and his habit of amassing state papers for antiquarian and political purposes (what we would now call 'preserving them for posterity') had earned the mistrust of the new king, Charles I (reigned 1625–1649), and his favourite, the Duke of Buckingham.

As early as 1616 Cotton had been suspected of communicating 'secretts of state' to the Spanish ambassador, for which he was threatened with the confiscation of his papers. Cotton frequently loaned his manuscripts or allowed others to consult them, what we may consider a charitable act but which curried disfavour in certain quarters. One of those borrowers was Francis Bacon (1561–1626), the Lord Chancellor of England, until he was impeached, barred from office, fined £40,000 and imprisoned for three days. (Bacon's disgrace, ostensibly for taking bribes, was ultimately the result of a scandal relating to monopolies and patents, for which he was made the scapegoat.) In 1621, as part of his extended punishment, Bacon was forbidden access to Cotton's library, but we know that the two men remained close. Two years later, in 1623, Bacon presented to Robert Cotton the benefactors' book of St Albans Abbey (Cotton MS Nero D VII), as is evidenced by an inscription on its opening page.

A page from the Benefactors Book of St Albans, with a decorated initial P, and at the foot an inscription recording that Francis Bacon gave the book to Robert Cotton

The Benefactors Book of St Albans, presented to Robert Cotton by Francis Bacon in 1623: Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 1r

The year 1626 witnessed another two incidents that suggested all was not well between Sir Robert Cotton and the new king. First, at Charles's coronation in 1626, Cotton attempted to present him with a gospel-book on which the early kings of England had reputedly sworn their oaths (Cotton MS Tiberius A II). Charles refused the gift and ordered that the royal barge be rowed past Cotton House, where Sir Robert was waiting, book in hand, as a result of which the king had to wade onshore, hardly a good omen for his own rule. Around the same time, the Duke of Buckingham urged that the famous Cotton library be closed, most probably because it contained the historical precedents on which his Parliamentary critics often relied. The library, in other words, had become a battleground for political debate.

A page of the Coronation Gospels with a decorated initial B followd by display script and the signature of Robert Cotton

A page of the so-called Coronation Gospels, with the signature Ro: Cotton Bruceus: Cotton MS Tiberius A II, f. 3r

Buckingham may have been assassinated by a discontented soldier at Portsmouth in 1628, but his untimely demise did not remove the heat from Sir Robert Cotton. After an allegedly seditious tract was found among Cotton's papers in 1629, Sir Robert and his associates were arrested and his library was ordered to be closed, with a guard placed on its door. The full impact of its closure may never be known, but the denial of his books to Cotton and his fellow antiquaries cannot be underestimated. The Privy Council appointed commissioners to search the library for state papers and other records that Cotton was suspected of having appropriated, and they drew up a catalogue of its contents (now Add MS 36789) to aid them in that process. The catalogue reveals that the manuscripts were arranged in presses named after the Roman emperors, and also that many of the papers were unbound. Tite also surmised that some items may have been confiscated from the library at this very time, since they are named in that catalogue but no longer form part of the Cotton collection. An example is the 'Survey of the Anne Royall 1626', a reference to the naval ship the Ark Royal, named after Queen Anne of Denmark, that sank in the 1630s.

Sir Robert Cotton was granted only limited access to his own library for the remainder of his life. He died on 6 May 1631, and it remained for his son and successor, Sir Thomas Cotton (1594–1662), to petition the king for the library to be re-opened. But the Cotton collection did not remain dormant in its final years. We know that Robert Cotton continued to receive new acquisitions even after 1629 — one wonders where he kept them — among which was the copy of Magna Carta we cited at the beginning of this blogpost, sent to him by Sir Edward Dering from Dover Castle on 10 May 1630. So the Cotton library may have been physically closed, but it remained an intellectual entity, cherished by Sir Robert Cotton, his family and the leading scholars of his day. It had been Cotton's ambition, essentially, to create a national collection, and his wish was fulfilled when his library was bequeathed to the British nation in 1702 'for Publick Use and Advantage', as confirmed by Act of Parliament (12 and 13 William III, c. 7). The Cotton manuscripts formed one of the foundation collections of the British Museum in 1753, and more recently, in 2018, they were inscribed on the UNESCO UK Memory of the World Register.

A letter addressed to Robert Cotton by Edward Dering, dated at Dover Castle, 10 May 1630

The letter of Edward Dering, informing Robert Cotton that he was sending him 'the charter of K. John dated att Running Meade', now Cotton Ch XIII 31 A: Cotton MS Julius C III, f. 143r

So what can we learn from this sorry episode? First of all, you should never give up, even if you lose access to your books due to circumstances beyond your control. We know that the last sixteen months and counting have been very difficult for so many of our readers, as well as the staff and supporters of the British Library, but we hope sincerely that with time we'll be able to recommence our studies with the benefit of the Library's collections and those of our sister-institutions around the world. Secondly, knowledge is precious. The attempts by the government of King Charles I to suppress the Cotton library were founded on jealousy, mistrust and abuse of process, but ultimately they proved unsuccessful. Finally, Sir Robert Cotton did not have the benefit of having digital surrogates made of his precious books, but today you can view some 312 of his manuscripts, 51 of his charters and 2 of his rolls on our Digitised Manuscripts site, with more items being added on a regular basis. Once again, we hope that Robert Cotton would have approved.

 

Julian Harrison

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

15 July 2021

The lost miracles of Wulfsige of Evesham

Little is known about Wulfsige (d. 1104 or 1105), also known as ‘Wulsinus’, an important figure of the Benedictine abbey of St Mary the Virgin and St Egwin at Evesham (Worcestershire). Wulfsige reputedly lived at the abbey for 75 years, and was venerated as a saint after his death. According to the Peterborough Chronicle, an Evesham monk named Thomas of Northwich (d. 1206 or 1207) wrote three books about the miracles that had taken place at Wulfsige’s tomb. Until now, no trace of Northwich’s work has been found. However, while cataloguing the Harley manuscripts, we have discovered what seems to be a fragment of this lost miracle collection. 

An entry from the Peterborough Chronicle, written in brown ink, about the three books that Thomas of Northwich wrote about Wulfsige

Wulfsige’s miracles in the Peterborough Chronicle: ‘[Wulfsige] at whose tomb many miracles are made by the Lord, which Master Thomas of Northwich wrote down in three books’ (‘ad cujus tumbam multa miracula a domino facta sunt que iij libris scripsit magister Thomas Norwicensis’): Cotton MS Claudius A V, f. 19r (England, 2nd half of the 14th century)

Wulfsige lived at Evesham Abbey as an ‘anchorite’, a recluse who separated himself from the monks in an enclosure. This was either a cell or, according to one source, an underground cavity. Despite his secluded lifestyle, Wulfsige engaged actively with worldly affairs. He allegedly wrote to King Edward the Confessor (1042–1066) urging him to re-found Westminster Abbey, provided spiritual advice to Leofric (d. 1057), Earl of Mercia, and his wife Godgifu (d. ?1067), better known as ‘Lady Godiva’, and persuaded St Wulfstan (c. 1000–1095) to accept the bishopric of Worcester in 1062. Wulfsige’s importance to Evesham is evident from the fact that he was buried in the middle of the choir of the abbey church. The monks celebrated his feast on 24 February.

A text written in early modern script and red ink, recording the feast of Wulfsige

The feast of Wulfsige in an early 18th-century transcript of a 14th-century Evesham Calendar in Cotton MS Vitellius E XVII, that is now illegible due to fire damage: ‘Wulfsige, a monk and anchorite of this place’ (‘Wlsinus Monachus et Anachorita istius loci’): Lansdowne MS 427, f. 4r

We can now get a glimpse of Wulfsige’s miracles through the discovery of two fragmentary parchment leaves in a 13th-century English manuscript — Harley MS 4242. The leaves record the miracles of a certain ‘Wlsinus’. The old printed catalogue of the Harley manuscripts published in 1808 calls him ‘Walsinus’, but closer examination makes clear that he is none other than Wulfsige. All the miracles are set in or close to the Vale of Evesham. Moreover, in one of them a woman from the village of Wick, who was suffering from a severe headache, identified him as an anchorite: ‘St Wulsinus, anchorite, help me’ (‘Sancte Wlsine anachorita adiuva me’).

A text beginning with a large blue initial and written in black ink in which a woman of Wick calls Wulfsige an anchorite (‘anachorita’) in line 10

Wulfsige heals a woman of Wick who invokes him as an anchorite: Harley MS 4242, f. 65v

Wulfsige’s miracles typically involved supernatural healing. One tells of a certain Helewisa of Badsey whose entire body was seized by pain. When she was brought to Wulfsige’s tomb to ask for his help, her husband forced her to return to their village. She complied reluctantly, regretting that she had not dared to stay at the tomb for longer. But Wulfsige clearly heard her prayers as she was completely relieved of her pain.

A text beginning with a large initial in red and written in black ink in which Wulfsige heals Helewisa of Badsey

Wulfsige heals Helewisa of Badsey: Harley MS 4242, f. 65v

Another miracle concerned a boy of Evesham who suffered from bloody diarrhoea and constantly had to go to the latrine, day and night. When his mother took holy water and dedicated it to Wulfsige, the boy was cured within the same hour.

A text beginning with a large blue initial and written in black ink in which a woman dedicates holy water (‘aqua benedicta’) to Wulfsige in lines 8 and 9

Wulfsige heals a boy of Evesham from bloody diarrhoea: Harley MS 4242, f. 65v

Wulfsige also aided those who prayed for their animals. One miracle tells of a man of Evesham who had been searching for his sow and her piglets for a long time. After he vowed to venerate Wulfsige if his pigs would reappear, he found them the next day.

A text beginning with a large blue initial and written in black ink in which Wulfsige returns a sow with piglets (‘Sus cum porcellis’ in line 1) to a man of Evesham

Wulfsige reunites a man of Evesham with his sow and her piglets: Harley MS 4242, f. 66r

In other miracles, the diseased recovered when their bodies were measured in dedication of Wulfsige. One woman was unable to breast-feed her baby, but when she used a cord to measure her breasts in veneration of Wulfsige, they started to lactate. Similarly, a calf of Hugh of Ullington did not eat or walk for two days, but when Hugh used a cord to measure it in Wulfsige's honour it suddenly revived.

A text beginning with a large red initial and written in black ink in which a calf is healed by measuring it in dedication to Wulfsige in lines 6 and 7: ‘ad honorem sancti Wlsini mensuratus’ (‘having been measured to the honour of Saint Wulsinus’)

A calf in Ullington is healed after it is measured in dedication to Wulfsige: Harley MS 4242, f. 66r

After measuring, these cords were typically used as wicks for votive candles that were offered at a saint’s shrine, in this case Wulfsige’s tomb. An example is featured on the 800-year old ‘Miracles Windows’ of Canterbury Cathedral that are currently on display at the British Museum’s exhibition Thomas Becket: Murder and the Making of a Saint. They show a woman who had recovered from abdominal problems at the tomb of Thomas Becket (d. 1170), archbishop of Canterbury. She offers Becket a coiled wick, known as a ‘trindle’, which she had probably used to measure herself in his honour. 

A woman in a white robe and a green mantle kneels before the tomb of St Thomas of Canterbury to place a coiled wick on top of the tomb

A woman offers a coiled wick to St Thomas of Canterbury on the Miracle Windows, 1200s: © The Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral & Trustees of the British Museum

Wulfsige was also associated with Becket by an owner of Harley MS 4242. The leaves with his miracles are later additions to the manuscript. Originally, it only contained a 13th-century copy of the Quadrilogus, an account of Becket’s life and martyrdom that was compiled by an Evesham monk in 1198–1199. Whoever added the fragments of Wulfsige’s miracles to the manuscript — an Evesham monk perhaps — may have linked the anchorite with the archbishop because of the many healing miracles that were performed at their tombs.

A marginal drawing showing Thomas Becket bowing his head and lifting his hands in prayer with a cross behind him and a bishop’s mitre to his right. The drawing shows how the bishop was given a fatal blow to the head with a sword while he was in prayer

A marginal drawing of the murder of Thomas Becket: Harley MS 4242, f. 6v

While hundreds of Becket’s miracles survive, the leaves with Wulfsige’s miracles only contain seventeen complete stories. However, the fragments clearly originate from a larger collection, and their compiler suggests that there were many more miracles that they did not write about: ‘These are a few of the many things that Christ performed for his saint Wulfsige’ (‘Hec pauca de multis que pro sancto suo Wlsino est operatus Christus’).

A text beginning with a large blue initial and written in black ink in which the compiler of Wulfsige’s miracles comments on their multitude. The Latin quotation in the main text above starts on line 1: ‘Hec pauca de multis que pro sancto suo Wlsino est operatus Christus’ (‘These are but a few of the many things that Christ performed for his saint Wulsinus’).

The compiler refers to the multitude of Wulfsige’s miracles: Harley MS 4242, f. 66r

Do the leaves with Wulfsige’s miracles come from the original books compiled by Thomas of Northwich? Possibly. First, the script is datable to the early 13th century, which corresponds with the time when Northwich was active. Moreover, Wulfsige was venerated primarily at Evesham and his miracles may not been widely distributed.

Our fragments add to the small number of surviving books attributable to Evesham Abbey. The MLGB3 website lists twenty-seven surviving manuscripts and fragments from that abbey, which is only a fraction of the library at the monastery until it was dissolved in 1540. Whether or not the fragments originated from Northwich’s manuscript, they shed new light on the miracles that enhanced Evesham’s reputation as a site of sanctity and wonder during the Middle Ages.

Keep an eye on this Blog for more discoveries from the Harley collection.

 

Clarck Drieshen

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

10 July 2021

Euro 2020: the medieval manuscript version

One thousand years. That's how long Euro 20 seems to have been running. It's the summer when football officially came home — provided, that is, you live in Baku, St Petersburg or Budapest.

In time-honoured fashion, we have selected our European XI of the best medieval manuscripts at the British Library. We've gone for a traditional 3-2-3-1-1 formation because, quite frankly, we haven't got a clue, either. We think you'll agree that our line-up is more happy than Mbappé, less immobile than Immobile, and as apocalyptic as a Spanish defender's back pass.

When they're not representing their nation, all of these manuscripts can be viewed online on Digitised Manuscripts.

(1) The Cnut Gospels (DEN)

The decorated opening of St John's Gospel, with the words 'In principio erat verbum' written in gold ink

Canterbury, early 11th century: Royal MS 1 D IX, f. 111r

 

(2) The Portuguese Genealogy (POR)

A decorated genealogy of the rulers of Portugal, with the city of Lisbon depicted in the lower border

Lisbon and Bruges, 1530–34: Add MS 12531, f. 7r

 

(3) The Carmina Regia (ITA)

A crowned Robert of Anjou sitting on his throne, with gold fler-de-lys on a blue background

Tuscany, c. 1335: Royal MS 6 E IX, f. 10v

 

(4) The Harley Golden Gospels (GER)

A manuscript portrait of St Matthew the Evangelist

?Aachen, early 9th century: Harley MS 2788, f. 13v

 

(5) The Silos Apocalypse (ESP)

Noah's Ark in the Silos Apocalypse

Silos, 1091-1109: Add MS 11695, f. 79v

 

(6) Christine de Pizan's 'The Book of the Queen' (FRA)

Christine de Pizan presenting her book to queen Isabeau of Bavaria

Paris, c. 1410: Harley MS 4431, f. 3r

 

(7) The Middle Dutch Historie van Jason (NED)

A naval scene from the Dutch History of Jason and the Argonauts

Haarlem, c. 1470-80: Add MS 10290, f. 118r

 

(8) The Theodore Psalter (GRE/TUR)

The decorated opening page of the Theodore Psalter, illuminated in gold, red, blue and other colours

Constantinople, 1066: Add MS 19352, f. 1r

 

(9) The Luttrell Psalter (ENG)

Sir Geoffrey Luttrell mounted on his charger, in a decorated page of the Luttrell Psalter

Lincolnshire, c. 1325-40: Add MS 42130, f. 202v

 

(10) The Harley Froissart (BEL)

A decorated page with a jousting scene

Bruges, c. 1470–72: Harley MS 4379, f. 23v

 

(11) The Gospels of Máel Brigte

A text page with a decorated initial 'X' for 'Christi'

Armagh, 1138: Harley MS 1802, f. 10r

 

Julian Harrison

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09 July 2021

Murder most foul in the Cotswolds

Opening the door of a pretty Norman church down a country lane in the Cotswold village of South Newington, I was shocked to be confronted by two rather violent murder scenes painted on the wall. The first is of a man being viciously cut down while he raises his hands in prayer; his head is split in two by a sword, and blood spurts over his forehead. Though the paintings are rather fragmentary and difficult to make out at first, the figure in the red cloak, his hands raised in prayer is unmistakeably Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was murdered by four knights in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170, an event that caused a great scandal throughout Christendom.

Beside it is another violent scene that has been identified as the execution in 1322 of Thomas Plantagenet, 2nd Earl of Lancaster, who led a rebellion against King Edward II (r. 1307-1327). He is also shown kneeling while his executioner towers over him, using all his force to chop off his head. Drops of blood spurt from his neck – by one account it took several blows to decapitate him. Both paintings have been dated to the 1330s.

Two fragmentary wall paintings. Left, a kneeling man is hit on the head with a sword. Right, a kneeling man is attacked by a standing soldier from behind.
Wall Paintings in St Peter ad Vincula church, South Newington, Oxfordshire, of the murder of St Thomas Becket and the execution of Thomas Plantagenet. Photos by Chantry Westwell

While attempts to canonise Thomas Plantagenet were, not surprisingly, unsuccessful, Thomas Becket was made a saint not long after his martyrdom, and Canterbury became a popular destination of pilgrimage. Two hundred years later, Henry VIII did his utmost to stamp out the cult of Becket and ordered all representations of him to be destroyed. Becket’s face in this painting only survived because it had an image of St George, another popular English saint, painted over it at a later date. It was uncovered and restored in the 20th century.

Had the full scene in the wall painting survived, it may have looked a little like one of the two scenes below. Both are dated to the early part of the 14th century and are in the margins of personal prayerbooks probably made in south-eastern England. The Queen Mary Psalter contains a whole series of more than 20 images from the life and afterlife of St Thomas Becket. 

Two knights from a group of four attack a kneeling saint with swords, while a man holds a cross over him. The word Thomas is written beneath
The murder of Thomas Becket in the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 237r (detail)
Two knights from a group of four attack a kneeling bishop with swords, while a man holds a cross out from behind an altar
The murder of St Thomas Becket in the Taymouth Hours: Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 85v (detail)

The Taymouth Hours has numerous scenes of the torture and murder of saints across the lower margins. On the other side of the page from Becket is an even more gruesome scene: the martyrdom of St Lawrence, who was burned on a brazier. 

A tonsured, nude figure is burned on a brazier over red flames, while a figure uses bellows to stoke the fire
The martyrdom of St Lawrence in The Taymouth Hours: Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 86r (detail)

A finely painted miniature from the 15th century of the scene in Canterbury Cathedral shows details of Thomas’s ethereal gaze, the grim facial expressions of the attackers and the elaborately decorated backdrop of the sanctuary. This is from a rather small prayer book (about the size of a Kindle), but the digital images allow us to zoom in and see the exquisite details clearly.

A churchman in robes with a halo kneels at an altar, looking upwards, while two knights attack him with weapons and two watch; behind are statues and the apse of the cathedral; the border has flowers and gold foliate decoration
The murder of Thomas Becket at the altar in Canterbury Cathedral in the Hastings Hours: Add MS 54782, f. 55v

As one of the most popular English saints, Becket was frequently depicted alongside other well-known saints. Here in a Psalter from northern England he is shown with two much-venerated female martyrs of the early Church: St Catherine of Alexandria and St Margaret of Antioch.

Four knights on the left of the upper image, one hitting the kneeling saint with a long sword, while a monk holds a cross over him; in the lower image, Saints Margaret and Catherine
The Murder of Thomas Becket (above); St Margaret emerges from the belly of a dragon, and beats a demon with a whip (lower left); St Catherine prays amidst the dead bodies of the men who attempted to martyr her by breaking her over a wheel, while an angel breaks the wheels with clubs (lower right); in the Huth Psalter: Add MS 38116, f. 13r

My encounter with the image of Thomas Becket in the Cotswolds was timely, as the 850th anniversary of his murder is being marked this summer by an exhibition at the British Museum (postponed from 2020), Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint. Included among the objects on display are other British Library manuscripts with scenes from his life and death, featured in our recent blogpost, Thomas Becket: manuscripts showing the making of a saint. There's also more about saints in medieval manuscripts, including Becket, on the Polonsky Medieval England and France 700-1200 project website.

You can also discover amazing images from British Library manuscripts for yourself using the 'Advanced Search' page in the our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. If you search for ‘Becket’ in the 'Image description' field, twenty-five results are displayed, some from manuscripts in this blogpost. For example, the Queen Mary Psalter (seen above) includes this scene of Thomas Becket being brought into the Lord’s presence by two angels. It is beneath a full-page image of the Trinity in the section containing the Canticles. 

Drawing of Thomas Becket, supported by two angels, kneeling before the Lord
A bas-de-page drawing of Thomas Becket, supported by two angels, kneeling before the Lord, in the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 299r (detail)
The Trinity, surrounded by four angels, with a bas-de-page drawing of Thomas Becket
A miniature of the Trinity, surrounded by four angels, with a bas-de-page drawing of Thomas Becket, in the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 299r

Chantry Westwell

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