Medieval manuscripts blog

10 posts from March 2023

03 March 2023

Bringing the Cotton fragments to life

One of the most catastrophic episodes in modern library history was the Ashburnham House fire. On the night of 29 October 1731, a fire took hold below the room which held the famous Cotton collection, containing many of the most iconic historical and literary treasures from early times, among them Magna Carta, Beowulf and the Lindisfarne Gospels. Some of these items escaped the flames intact, others were singed or damaged by the water used to douse the fire, while many hundreds were burned significantly or completely destroyed. The fire-damaged survivors are held today at the British Library, but many of them remain extraordinarily difficult to handle or are too blackened to be read with the naked eye.

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One of the burnt pages from a 10th-century Irish Psalter: Cotton MS Vitellius F XI, f. 1v

But help is now at hand. Thanks to the incredible generosity of the Goldhammer Foundation, since 2020 the Library has been engaged in a project to bring some of the fragmentary Cotton remains to life. We have used multispectral imaging to photograph a selection of the damaged items, and our conservation team has employed new techniques to re-house some of the most vulnerable fragments and to improve the handling of the bound volumes.

Over the coming months, we will feature on this Medieval Manuscripts Blog stories about the most recent restoration of the burnt Cotton manuscripts, but here is a sample to whet your appetite. In due course, the items themselves will be available to view online in all their glory. The Cotton fire may have had tragic consequences, but there is potentially some light at the end of the tunnel.

Cotton MS Fragments I is a 12th-century manuscript containing a compilation of historical, geographical and other texts, made at Saint-Bertin. This work has been shown to be closely related to the Liber Floridus (‘Book of Flowers'), an important medieval encyclopedia made by Lambert, canon of Saint-Omer, between 1090 and 1100. Among its many texts, the manuscript notably contains an early plan of the city of Jerusalem, near impossible to discern in its current burnt state, but which can now be seen again in the new multispectral images.

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A plan of the city of Jerusalem, revealed under multispectral imaging: Cotton MS Fragments I, f. 19r

In the 19th century, many of the fire-damaged Cotton manuscripts underwent intensive restoration, led principally by the efforts of Sir Frederic Madden, Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum. During this process, their folios were often remounted and reorganised. However, some of the smallest and most fragile of the burnt fragments could not be reunited with their original volumes and were instead housed separately in nine small boxes, now known as Cotton MS Fragments XXXII. One focus of this project has been the imaging and preservation of these tiny fragments, some measuring as little as a few millimetres in diameter. 

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A fragment of a burnt Old English manuscript: Cotton MS Fragments XXXII/3, Fragment 1r

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A burnt fragment from the Cotton collection: Cotton MS Fragments XXXII/2, Fragment 1r

Our project also includes a number of illuminated manuscripts. Particularly notable is an early Gallican Psalter, made in Ireland during the first half of the 10th century. This Psalter was so badly damaged in the 1731 fire that the 1802 catalogue of the Cotton manuscripts stated that it was ‘desideratur’ (destroyed). The Psalter was subsequently rediscovered by Madden, who remounted and reorganised its pages.

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An illustration of David and Goliath from an early 10th-century Irish Psalter, revealed under multispectral imaging: Cotton MS Vitellius F XI, f. 1r

The Psalter features two full-page illustrations, now placed at the beginning of the volume, which depict David killing Goliath (f. 1r) and David enthroned, playing a harp (f. 2r); they were once placed at the openings of Psalms 51 and 102, facing framed initial pages. It also features numerous zoomorphic initials, made up of the bent bodies of ribbon shaped animals or distinctive panels of interlace.

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The beginning of Psalm 51 from the Irish Psalter, showing a zoomorphic initial, set within a full-page frame, revealed under multispectral imaging: Cotton MS Vitellius F XI, f. 3r

We are extremely grateful to Gina Goldhammer and the Goldhammer Foundation for their generous support of the Cotton Fragments Project. We would also like to acknowledge the contributions of Dr Christina Duffy (formerly Research Imaging Scientist at the Library) and our conservation team (Gavin Moorhead, Camille Dekeyser, Gary Kelly, Francesca Whymark and Mark Oxtoby), without whom none of this could have been achieved.

 

Julian Harrison and Calum Cockburn

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02 March 2023

Venusse was her name

How were royal children brought up in the Middle Ages? A manuscript newly digitised as part of our Medieval and Renaissance Women project supplies us with clues. Add MS 37656, a household account book compiled in 1305 by John de Claxton, keeper of the wardrobe, demonstrates how women were in charge of key aspects of the care of two medieval princes, Thomas of Brotherton (b. 1300, d. 1338) and Edmund of Woodstock (b. 1301, d. 1330).

The opening page of the household account

The household account of Princes Thomas and Edmund: Add MS 37656, f. 1r

Thomas of Brotherton and Edmund of Woodstock, afterwards Earls of Norfolk and Kent, were the fifth and sixth sons of King Edward I (r. 1272–1307), and the first by his second marriage to Margaret of France (b. c. 1279, d. 1318). At the time when this household account was compiled, the princes were four and three years old respectively. and lived primarily in the royal residences at Ludgershall (Wiltshire), under the supervision of a governess (‘magistra’) named Lady Edelina de Venusse. Lady Edelina was in charge of the princes' upbringing, wellbeing and provisioning, and she played a key role in their education. She was in charge of administering their household, and even had a damsel at her service.

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The children of Edward I in a genealogical roll (Thomas of Brotherton and Edmund of Woodstock are on the right: Royal MS 14 B VI, f. 7r

Together with Lady Edelina, another nine women are mentioned in this account. One of them is none other than Mary of Woodstock, Thomas and Edmund’s older half-sister, who was a nun at Amesbury Priory but spent significant periods of time visiting and living with her younger siblings. The other women named in this record are mostly unknown, and this account is almost certainly the only evidence of the roles they played within the royal household. Among them are three nurses or nursemaids, two women assistants, a washerwoman, and the damsel who served Lady Edelina. Here is list of all the women mentioned in the household account:

  • Lady Mary of Woodstock, nun of Amesbury and the sister of Thomas and Edmund.
  • Lady Edelina de Venusse, governess (‘magistra’) of the princes’ household.
  • Mabel of Raunds, Thomas’ nurse (‘nutrix’).
  • Perretta de Poissy, nursemaid (‘berceressa’) of Edmund.
  • Erembourga, nursemaid (‘berceressa’) of Thomas.
  • (Unnamed) damsel of Lady Edelina.
  • Annis of Northampton, woman assistant (‘muliere coadjuvante’).
  • Pernell de Boweys, woman assistant (‘muliere coadjuvante’).
  • Matilda, washerwoman (‘lotrix’).
  • A certain Joanna, who is said to be 'the daughter of Isabella'.

These women not only provided the care and upbringing of the young princes, but they were also the recipients of numerous gifts and pieces of clothing. For example, Lady Edelina, Mabel the nurse, and Erembourga and Perretta, the nursemaids received coloured cloth to make corsets for themselves. Queen Margaret also ordered gifts valued at £12 13s 4d for Edelina, Mabel and Perretta as a reward for the work they had undertaken in caring for Thomas and Edmund.

A page from the household accounts

The entries recording the gifts to Edelina, Mabel and Perretta (the first paragraph of this page): Add MS 37656, f. 4v

The household account also records a series of objects and items that were bought for the royal children, providing us with a glimpse of day-to-day life during their early childhood. One of the entries records that a certain Martin the Minstrel was given 2 shillings as compensation for his services, but also for the repair of his drum, which had been broken by Thomas and Edmund, presumably when they were playing with the instrument. It is also noted that, during a time when Edmund was ill, sugar candies, apples, pears and, notably, a urinal were purchased for him. The princes also enjoyed the company of a pet ferret that was bought for them to catch rabbits.

A photograph of Ludgershall Castle from the air

An overhead view of Ludgershall Castle, home to the prince and their household, courtesy of English Heritage

This household account of Thomas and Edmund provides an invaluable insight into the roles played by women in the upbringing of the royal children. It also demonstrates how female care-providers could be highly regarded and amply rewarded, in the royal household at least.

We are extremely grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for their generous funding of Medieval and Renaissance Women.

 

Paula Del Val Vales

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