Medieval manuscripts blog

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2 posts from April 2024

18 April 2024

A knight's tale

In medieval England, land was conventionally held in return for either rent (in the form of money or other items) or service (acts performed by one party to the other). These items could range from token gifts like a rose or an arrowhead to valuable crops or produce. A typical service might entail a tenant serving in a jury or attending upon their lord in times of war. But some land was held on more unusual terms, and these more specific duties reveal fascinating details about medieval life and society. For instance, one Norfolk knight held his land from King Henry III (r. 1216–1272) for the service of carrying twelve fish pasties to the king wherever he was in England (Calendar of Inquisitions Post Mortem, I, London, 1904, no. 849).

A small parchment charter recording Osbert of Arden’s grant of land to Thurkil Fundu

Osbert of Arden’s grant of land to Thurkil Fundu: Cotton Ch XXII 3

The service recorded in one small document (Cotton Ch XXII 3) has been identified as some of the earliest evidence of English knights fighting in tournaments, and also of such events being held in England. Dating to between 1124 and 1139, it is a grant by Osbert of Arden giving Thurkil Fundu land in Ashbrook and a meadow in Kingsbury, both in Warwickshire. In return, Thurkil was to do service of carrying Osbert’s dyed lances from London or Northampton to Osbert’s house in Kingsbury, all on Osbert’s horses and at Osbert's expense. Thurkil would also attend upon him at tournaments overseas, again at Osbert’s own cost. He was effectively promising to be Osbert’s squire.

Within an enclosure, Ponthus, on the left, kills the duke of Burgundy on the right with his lance. Each combatant is flanked by retainers. Above, the French king and his courtiers watch.

A 15th-century depiction of a tournament from the romance Ponthus: Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 220v

Popular imagination holds tournaments as contests between kings, dukes and earls, full of elaborate pageantry and ceremony. In fact, the earliest tourneys were usually more simple contests between knights. The great magnates would not fight in them until later in the 1100s. Henry I (r. 1100–1135) had even banned tournaments late in his reign and the Church regularly railed against them, bemoaning knights wasting their energies or even losing their lives in these mock combats when they could be going on crusade.

Dyed or painted lances like those owned by Osbert were typically used for parade and tournaments, with bare lances used for war. The references to London and Northampton suggest that these towns also staged tournaments at this time.

Thurkil, as his name suggests, was English, not Norman. Thurkil, or Turchil, was a Saxon name with Norse origins. Osbert is a Norman name, but his father was called Siward, another English name, and his great-grandfather was Æthelwine, a sheriff under Edward the Confessor. Here we have an English knight, less than a century after the Norman Conquest, fighting in tournaments in England and on the Continent.

Two men with helmets, lances, and shields jousting on rams against a background of flowers. The man on the left has struck his opponent and knocked him from his mount.

Two men jousting on sheep: Royal MS 1 E V, f. 171r

It may have been at one of these tournaments that Osbert would later meet his patron, David I of Scotland (r. 1124–1153). The Scottish king, who had his own English ancestry, surrounded himself with many English and Norman knights from his time as Earl of Huntingdon in Henry I’s court. David was also interested in tournaments and had participated in a few in northern France in the 1120s. Osbert would go on to become one of David’s courtiers, joining his court in Scotland by the 1140s.

This charter was published first in 1903 by George F. Warner & Henry J. Ellis (Facsimiles of Royal and Other Charters in the British Museum, I, plate IX), and it was discussed in more detail by David Crouch, Tournament (2005), pp. 41, 64. You can read more about Osbert here.

Osbert of Arden's charter is just one of more than 1,000 Cotton charters and rolls that we are adding to the British Library's online catalogue. As the project progresses, further blogposts will highlight other interesting documents from the collection.


Rory MacLellan

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01 April 2024

Annual manuscripts weigh-in

It's that time of year when we carry out our annual manuscripts weigh-in.

The Bedford Hours on a weighing scale

The weighing of the Bedford Hours

In keeping with tradition, teams work overnight to weigh every manuscript in our collection. They then compare the results with the famous table compiled by Sir Horace Round (after whom the British Museum Round Reading Room was named). This enables scholars worldwide to embellish their papers with little-known facts that no-one could possibly verify, along the lines 'the Luttrell Psalter weighs as much as next door's dog'.

The Splendor Solis on the weighing scales

The weighing of the Splendor Solis

Here are some results from this year's survey. Note: manuscripts tend to gain an extra gram or two during Leap Years.

  • The Bedford Hours, a masterpiece of 15th-century Parisian illumination: 9.0114 kg, or the same as a baby Pygmy Hippo (unwashed);
  • Splendor Solis, an alchemical treatise made in Germany in the 1580s: 3.067 kg, or a flamingo standing on one leg;
  • A charter of Raymond of Toulouse, with a wax seal: 0.0925 kg, or half a dormouse.

A charter placed on the weighing scales

The weighing of the charter

All measurements have been scrutinised by the Guinness Book of Records, who have kindly asked us never to bother them again.


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