03 March 2023
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.
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.
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.
A fragment of a burnt Old English manuscript: Cotton MS Fragments XXXII/3, Fragment 1r
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.
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.
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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