Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

Introduction

What do Magna Carta, Beowulf and the world's oldest Bibles have in common? They are all cared for by the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section. This blog publicises our digitisation projects and other activities. Follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval. Read more

29 November 2022

The Lady of Las Huelgas

On 31 December 1313, infanta doña Blanca of Portugal (b. 1259, d. 1321), the first-born daughter of Alfonso III, King of Portugal (r. 1238–1248), and granddaughter of Alfonso X the Wise, King of Castile (r. 1252–1284), made charitable donations to various religious houses, churches and hospitals in Castile. Collectively, her donations amounted to over 20,000 maravedís (the currency of the Castilian Kingdom), a small fortune at the time. The details of Blanca’s grants are recorded in a document housed at the British Library (Add Ch 24806), written in Spanish and affixed with her personal seal. This is one of three original charters made at the time. The others are now in the Archivo de la Catedral de Burgos and the Archivo del Monasterio de Las Huelgas respectively. The charter held at the British Library has recently been digitised as part of our Medieval and Renaissance Women project and it can now be viewed online for the first time.

The charter of Blanca of Portugal

Grant of Doña Blanca of Portugal: Add Ch 24806

The principal beneficiary listed in the charter is the Cistercian abbey of Las Huelgas de Burgos, a royal foundation established by the Castilian king, Alfonso VIII (r. 1158–1214), and Leonor Plantagenet (b. 1160, d. 1214), his wife. From its foundation, Las Huelgas was known as a female convent with strong ties to royal women. Many members of the Castilian royal family professed there as nuns, and some of them performed the role of the Lady or señora of the Abbey.

The particularities of this role changed throughout the centuries, but fundamentally it allowed royal women to hold influence over the abbey and to ensure its preeminent position as a religious and economic centre in the kingdom. The responsibility for the abbey’s religious rule and day-to-day running remained with the abbess. Blanca became the Lady of Las Huelgas in 1295, after professing as a nun at the monastery at the request of her uncle, King Sancho IV (r. 1284–1295).

Blanca

A portrait of Blanca (her name is spelled 'BRANCA') in the ‘Portuguese Genealogies’ (16th century): Add MS 12531/3, f. 9r

Blanca gave generous sums of money to the women of Las Huelgas. Her charter includes detailed instructions of how much money each woman was to receive yearly:

A la abbadesa, dozientos maravedís; a cada una de las monjas, çient maravedís, a cada una de las que fueren para monjas, setenta marevedís; a cada una de las freyras, quarenta maravedís; a cada una de las que fueren para freyras, veynte e çinco marevedís. E mando que den cada anno a tres para ser monjas a cada una trezientos maravedís.

‘To the abbess, 200 maravedís; to each nun, 100 maravedís; to each novice, 70 maravedís; to each freyra [a type of nun], 40 maravedís; to each woman preparing to be a freyra, 25 maravedís. And I order that every year they give to three women who want to join the convent as nuns 300 maravedís’.

Photograph of the abbey of Las Huelgas de Burgos

The abbey of Santa María la Real de Las Huelgas, Burgos, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The other significant beneficiary of Blanca’s donations was the nearby Hospital del Rey. Like the abbey of Las Huelgas, the Hospital del Rey had been founded in the 12th century by King Alfonso VIII and Queen Leonor, and its connection with the royal family continued throughout the medieval period. The hospital received 6,000 maravedís in Blanca’s bequests, to be spent on the care and nursing of the poor, as well as to buy livestock to feed them. Many other religious institutions also benefited from Blanca's grant, including the church of Santa María in Burgos, the church of Santa María in Briviesca, the monastery of Santa Clara of Alcocer in Guadalajara, the monastery of Santo Domingo de Caleruega in Burgos, as well as the lepers of San Lázaro and the ‘emparedadas’ (anchorites) in Burgos.

A map of the beneficiaries of Blanca’s donations

A map of the beneficiaries of Blanca’s donations, courtesy of ArcGIS StoryMaps

Blanca’s donations were an attempt to guarantee her personal legacy and spiritual salvation. Alongside her grants, she provided specific instructions about how she wanted to be remembered by the religious community of Las Huelgas, where she was buried after her death in 1321. Most notably, she arranged for the sisters to commemorate the vigil and the anniversary of her death with 12 wax candles every year, which were to weigh exactly 10 pounds (‘cada çirio de diez libras de cera’). On the anniversary itself, the monastery had to distribute food-alms to the poor, made up of bread, wine and meat. During the year, eight chaplains had to give prayers for Blanca’s soul every day.

Tomb

The tomb of Blanca of Portugal at Las Huelgas, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Blanca’s grant functioned as a display of the piety and patronage expected from a royal infanta and the Lady of Las Huelgas. It also demonstrates how, through their donations, women were able to change the social and economic landscape of the territories over which they ruled.

The seal of Blanca of Portugal

Blanca of Portugal’s fragmentary seal: Add Ch 24806

We are extremely grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for their generous funding of Medieval and Renaissance Women. We will publish more updates about the project on this Blog over the coming months.

 

Paula Del Val Vales

@BLMedieval

17 November 2022

Reunited! A Russian manuscript of the Alexander Romance

The British Library’s major exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, gives an insight into the incredible spread of Alexander’s legends across time and across cultures. Central to the show is the legendary life of Alexander the Great, known as the Alexander Romance. Written in Greek around the turn of the 3rd/4th centuries AD, the Romance was a best-seller of its time, being translated into a number of Western and Eastern languages. This blogpost examines one of the most intriguing of these versions: the Slavonic Alexander Romance.

A creature with a human body and an amimal head is entwined with a serpent like creature  An army, led by a crowned Alexander, stand in front of a crowd of blue creatures with trunks
Alexander encountering the monsters of the East, in the Slavonic Alexander Romance (Russia, 17th century): courtesy of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, W 151, ff. 89v–90r

The Slavonic translation of the Alexander Romance was made from the fully-developed Greek-Byzantine version of the text, probably in the 14th century in what is today Serbia, before becoming popular not only in Serbia but also in Bulgaria and Russia. The British Library is fortunate to have a remarkable manuscript of this Slavonic version of the Alexander Romance displayed in the exhibition, on generous loan from the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin.

Created in Russia in the 17th century, this manuscript is a fascinating testament to how Alexander’s legends were appropriated in medieval and early modern Russia. The 14th-century translators of the Slavonic Alexander Romance adapted both the text and the images of their Greek original. Just like the Western and Middle Eastern adaptations, the Slavonic versions of the Romance are richly illustrated. Although many of the illuminations in the Slavonic tradition go back to Greek and Byzantine models, some were devised by the Serbian, Bulgarian and Russian artists themselves.

One new illustration is the representation of Alexander’s horse, Bucephalas. Although the original Greek name of the famous stallion clearly means 'ox-headed', opinions vary about its actual meaning. Some sources say that the horse had an ox-head branding, others suggest it had a mark on its head that made it look like an ox’s head. The Slavic artists combined these two traditions, depicting the horse as bearing an ox-head mark (on its thigh), while painting on its head something resembling an ox’s horn, making the horse look like a unicorn.

A group of men on horseback. A serpent like creature by their hooves

Bucephalus in the Slavonic Alexander Romance (Russia, 17th century): Chester Beatty Library, W 151, f.110r

The Romance also records that Alexander encountered mythical sirens during his adventures, who were imagined as beautiful women living in the water. They would lure men with their singing, who would fall asleep in their reed-bed and then drown. In common with ancient Greek tradition, the Russian illustrators imagined the sirens as mythical birds with human heads, enchanting Alexander’s soldiers with their songs.

Men on horseback face two women-headed birds

The sirens imagined as human-headed birds, in the Slavonic Alexander Romance (Russia, 17th century): Chester Beatty Dublin, W 151, f. 53r

Another interesting feature of the afterlife of the Slavonic Alexander in Russia is that it is often followed in the manuscripts by another Russian historical text. The History of the Rout of Mamai records the battle in 1380 between the Russians led by Grand Duke Dimitry and the Mongol invaders. There is clearly an agenda here to elevate this historical battle (a major turning point in the Russian revolt against the Mongol Khan Mamai) onto a par with Alexander’s mythological adventures.

Left: two men on white horses battle eachother. Right: Two mounted armies charge at eachother

Grand Duke Dimitry in battle with the Mongols, in The History of the Rout of Mamai (Russia, 17th century): Yates Thompson MS 51, ff. 38v–39r

Scholars have observed that the Chester Beatty manuscript looks remarkably similar to a 17th-century copy of The History of the Rout of Mamai at the British Library. They have in common the layout of the text, the decoration, a similar pattern of damage, and 19th-century attempts to redraw the outlines of the images in pencil. A conclusive factor is that the Slavonic page numbers in the right-hand corner of the leaves in the British Library manuscript continue the sequence of those found at the end of the Chester Beatty's Slavonic Alexander Romance.

A couple lie side by side. Both are wearing crowns Top of manuscript page with red writing

The final leaf (f. 127r) of the Chester Beatty Slavonic Alexander Romance (left) is numbered '155'; the first leaf (f. 1r) of the British Library’s History of the Rout of Mamai (right) is '156'

Based on these observations, scholars have treated the two manuscripts as parts of a single original volume containing both the Slavonic Alexander Romance and The History of the Rout of Mamai. Further research has revealed that both manuscripts were purchased around 1921 from the same antiquarian dealer in Florence, who separated them into two parts, selling one to Sir Alfred Chester Beatty (1875–1968) and the other to Henry Yates Thompson (1838–1928), whose widow bequeathed it to the British Library in 1941.

Two manuscripts lie open side by side

The two halves of the original volume next to each other, the Chester Beatty Slavonic Alexander Romance on the left and the British Library’s History of the Rout of Mamai on the right

Although it is widely accepted that these manuscripts originally formed one volume, the two halves have never been compared side-by-side until the generous loan of the Chester Beatty Slavonic Alexander to the British Library’s Alexander exhibition. After more than a century apart, the two halves now stand proudly next to each other in the show.

Book your tickets now to see the reunification of this important manuscript and to join Alexander on his other adventures. Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth is open until 19 February 2023.

We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for their support towards the exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors.

 

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

10 November 2022

Florimont, flower of the world

History records that Alexander the Great was the son of King Philip II of Macedon and Queen Olympias. (A rumour that his real father was the Egyptian pharoah Nectanebus is described in our blogpost A pharaoh in disguise). But having royal parents was never enough for a popular medieval hero; they were expected to have an entire dynasty of illustrious ancestors. And so various prequels were written, conjuring up marvellous origins for Alexander, and mixing real people with invented characters.

One of these origin stories is found in the French Roman de Florimont. This tells of Alexander's imaginary grandparents, the Albanian hero, Florimont, or ‘flower of the world’, and Romadanaple, a beautiful princess. Florimont was the son of Mataquas, Duke of Albania, and his wife Edonia, while Romadanaple’s parents were a certain King Philip of Greece, and Amorydale, daughter of the ‘King of Africa’.   

A kneeling messenger hands a letter to a king seated on a throne beside a queen, both crowned and holding sceptres

Alexander the Great’s parents, King Philip of Macedon and Queen Olympias, in Histoire ancienne jusqu'a César (France, 14th century): Royal MS 16 G VII, f. 121r

The romance of Florimont begins in Greece. King Philip, having founded the city of Philippolis, is under attack from the evil Camdiobras, King of Hungary. Philip has a beautiful daughter, Romadanaple, who he keeps hidden from her numerous suitors; but she becomes the subject of unwelcome attentions from Camdiobras, who threatens to carry her off. Meanwhile, in Albania, Duke Mataquas has a son named Florimont, whose destiny is revealed to him in a dream — he sees a lion cub leaving his palace to join a powerful male lion, then going on to defeat a monster and a huge wild boar.

But all doesn't proceed simply. The young Florimont falls under the spell of the Lady of the Island of Celée, who takes him to her enchanted world. He is rescued by his mother and freed from the spell, but spends some time wandering about under the name Pauvre Perdu (poor lost boy). At last, Florimont joins a group of warriors who are riding to rescue King Philip from Camdiobras. By single-handedly defeating the Hungarian attacker, Florimont wins the hand of the beautiful Romadanaple and her inheritance, which he unites with his own.

Inside a palace bearded king places the crown on the head of a kneeling prince with a crowned lady kneeling beside him. A group of courtiers watch.

The coronation of Florimont and Romadanaple, in the Livre du Roy Florimont fiz du duc d'AlbanyeParis, Bibliotheque nationale de France, ms français 12566, f. 179v 

Florimont goes on to have many adventures, including defeating a monstrous sea dragon and returning to Albania to rescue his parents from a giant, who has imprisoned them in a castle. Most importantly, Florimont and Romadanaple have a son, who becomes Philip II of Macedon. Philip marries Olympias and their son is none other than Alexander the Great.  

Aimon de Varennes, author of the romance of Florimont, was a native of Chatillon d’Azergues in the Lyonnais district of France. Aimon claimed to have unearthed the tale during a trip to Philippopolis (now Plovdiv in Bulgaria).

A photograph of a walled medieval town with towers on a hilltop.-800wi
The village of Chatillon d’Azergues (Rhone, France), photographed by Milardello, 2009 

Aimon may have travelled to that part of the world, but his assertion that he translated the text from Greek to Latin and then into French appears to be fictive. His Romance does retain certain ‘Greek’ words, which demonstrate a very elementary knowledge of the language. The author’s intentions and his claims as to the origins of the tale are laid out in the prequel in a 13th-century manuscript of the Roman de Florimont (Harley MS 4487).

Aymez….Fist le Rommans si sagement

Il lavoit en grece veue ...                                     

A Phelippole la trova                                            

A chastillon len aporta                                         

Ainsi com il lavoit enpris                                     

Lat de latin en romanz mis                                   

('Aymon conceived the romance well

He had seen it in Greece

He found it in Philippolis

Brought it to Chatillon

As he had learned it

He changed it from Latin into Romance')

(f. 3r, column 1, lines 8–9; 31–36)

A text page in 2 columns with red initials, and a note in cursive script beneath
The opening page of the manuscript with the author’s name and a 14th century ownership inscription in the lower margin, 'Pierre Derloit prestre ?Corodathis' (?Lotharingia, 1295): Harley MS 4487, f. 3r

Towards the end of the tale, Aimon even claims that French is not his mother tongue:

As fransois voel de tant server

Que ma langue lor est sauvage   

(f. 85v, column 2, lines 13–14)

You can discover more tales connected to Alexander in our major exhibition, Alexander the Great: the Making of a Myth. The show is open at the British Library until 19 February 2023, and tickets can be purchased online or in person, subject to availability.

 

Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval