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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

17 February 2019

When love comes knockin’ at your door

To the joy and relief of some, the magic of Valentine’s Day has now vanished, taking heart-shaped chocolates and romantic cards with it. A different perspective of love is offered by a motif popular in the Classical world: the so-called paraclausithyron.

This term, used by Plutarch (Moralia 753B), refers to a song of lament and despair sung by an ‘excluded lover’ (amator exclusus) at the firmly shut door of their beloved. The lover usually carries a garland and has walked at night by torchlight to reach their beloved’s house, where they plead to be admitted without success.

In Greek literature, the motif occurs in different genres. An illustrious example is found in Theocritus’ Idyll 3, where the lover, a goatherd, begs his mistress Amaryllis to let him come into her cave. He laments in despair:

Just look: there’s such pain in my heart. If only I could turn into a buzzing bee and come into your cave through the ivy and fern that hide you! Now I know what love is: he’s a cruel god. Truly he was suckled by a lioness, and his mother gave birth to him in a thicket: he’s making me smoulder with love and torturing me deep in my bone. (translated by N. Hopkinson)

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The beginning of Theocritus, Idyll 3 (15th century): Add MS 11885, f. 12r

A number of surviving epigrams relate to the scene of the closed door. This one, by the poet Asclepiades of Samos from the 3rd century BC, emphasises the lover's sorrow at not being admitted into the house:

Abide here, my garlands, where I hang ye by this door, nor shake off your leaves in haste, for I have watered you with my tears — rainy are the eyes of lovers. But when the door opens and ye see him, shed my rain on his head, that at least his fair hair may drink my tears. (translated by W. R. Paton)

Another poem by Meleager of Gadara, written roughly 2,100 years ago, contains several elements typical of the motif:

O stars, and Moon, lighting well the way for those disposed to love, and Night, and you, my instrument that accompanies my revels — will I gaze upon my wanton one, still awake on her bed, singed often by her lamp? Or does someone share her bed? I will take off my suppliant garland, douse it with tears, and fix it on her porch, inscribing on it just this: “Cypris, to you Meleager, the initiate in your revels, hung up these spoils of love. (translated by Paton)

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Detail of a heart (15th century): King's MS 322, f. 1r

It is not only male lovers who might be excluded. The ‘Alexandrian Erotic Fragment’ (Papyrus 605 verso) relates the lament of an ‘excluded woman’.  The motif of the ‘abandoned woman’ is well-known in Classical mythology: one thinks immediately of poor Ariadne, deserted by Theseus, or Medea who, left by Jason for another woman, killed her own children to punish him.

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Medea killing her children (c. 1450–1460): Harley MS 1766, f. 33r

The text of this papyrus was copied by Dryton, a cavalry-man, after 10 October 174 BC. His family archive is now dispersed across the world. A small fragment in the Sackler Library, Oxford, supplies a few more words of the second column of the British Library papyrus.

The poem has a complex metrical scheme, although its language is simple. It starts abruptly, with the woman remembering the old promise of love, having Aphrodite as a security (all translations by P. Bing):

Our feelings were mutual, we bound ourselves together. (ll. 1–2)

The tender memories of the past torture her, because her lover has proven to be an ‘inventor of confusion’ (l. 7). An invocation to the stars and night begins her journey to the house:

O beloved starts and lady Night, companions in my desire, take me even now to him. (ll. 11–12)

The trip is lightened not by a torch, but by the fire that enkindles her soul:

My guide is the potent torch that’s ablaze in my soul. (ll. 15–16)

The woman pleads to be admitted in a vortex of feelings, being mad, jealous and ready to submit to her beloved. After all, ‘if you devote yourself to just one, you will just go crazy’ (l. 31), she explains. She has a ‘stubborn temper’ when she gets in a fight (ll. 33–34), yet she now seeks reconciliation. Unfortunately, the second column of the papyrus is fragmentary.

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The ‘Alexandrian Erotic Fragment’: Papyrus 605 verso

Ancient authors had different views on these lovers’ practices. Plato considered that imploring one's beloved and sleeping on doorsteps was a form of slavery (Symposium 183A), whereas Plutarch thought that serenading and decorating the beloved’s threshold with garlands might bring some ‘alleviation that is not without charm or grace’ (De cohibenda ira 455B–C).

We should add a word of warning. Should you plan to serenade your lover, make sure that the right person is listening. In Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazusae, two young lovers exchange love songs. One of them invokes her beloved to open the door, but the person who opens it is not exactly whom the young man was hoping for …

 

Federica Micucci

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

15 February 2019

New records of slavery from Anglo-Saxon Cornwall

In the past twenty years, there have been some fantastic archaeological discoveries that date to the Anglo-Saxon period. Gold treasure, such as the Staffordshire Hoard and the Winfarthing Pendant, and stone sculpture, such as the Lichfield Angel, have all been unearthed since the year 2000. At the same time, recent scientific developments have enabled new discoveries to be made on the pages of certain medieval manuscripts. One such technique, known as multispectral imaging, has revealed previously erased additions to a 9th-century gospel-book, known as the Bodmin Gospels. These additions, known as manumissions, record the freeing of medieval slaves.

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The beginning of the Gospel of St Mark, in the Bodmin Gospels: Add MS 9381, f. 50r

The Bodmin Gospels was made in Brittany, but by the end of the 10th century we know that it had reached the priory of St Petroc at Bodmin, in Cornwall. Between the years 950 and 1025, records of public manumissions at the high altar of the church of St Petroc were added to its pages, and these mention at least three bishops of Cornwall (Comoere, Wulfsige and Burhwold). Some of these records remain visible, as we reported in a previous blogpost, but others have been erased, making them either invisible or difficult to read.

As part of the preparations for the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, and in order to facilitate research being conducted by Dr David Pelteret, the British Library's Imaging Scientist, Dr Christina Duffy, photographed a page from the Bodmin Gospels using multispectral imaging. This is a non-invasive, non-destructive form of computational photography which can enhance difficult-to-read text using an extended light spectrum. Christina then processed the data stack using an iterative statistical method known as Principal Component Analysis, which isolates patterns in the data. The results were hugely impressive.

The page shown below (f. 49v) was originally a list of capitula (chapter headings) of the gospel-book. Its text was later erased and five manumission records were added. These were also later erased so that only ‘h’ and a cross are just about visible with the naked eye.

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The now-erased manumissions, before and after multispectral imaging and data processing: Add MS 9381, f. 49v

The results of the multispectral imaging reveal some of the text from these previously-erased Latin manumissions. The second text can be translated as follows:

+This is the name of that woman, Guenenguith, and her son whose name is Morcefres, who[m] Bishop Comoere freed on the altar of St Petroc for the redemption of his soul in the presence of these witnesses: Beorhtsige priest, Mermen priest, Athelces priest, Saithred cleric, Cenmen cleric, Heden deacon, Ryt deacon.

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Canon tables with records of manumissions added in a later hand: Add MS 9381, f. 13r

Another manumission in the Bodmin Gospels, still visible, was copied in Latin into the arches of a canon table:

This is the name of a woman, Medguistyl, with her offspring, Bleiduid, Ylcerthon and Byrchtylym, who were freed by the clerics of St Petroc on the altar of St Petroc for the souls of King Eadred and for their souls, before these witnesses, Comuyre the priest etc …

Another manumission in the Bodmin Gospels, written in Old English, describes how a man named Aelsig bought a woman named Ongynedhel and her son and then freed them straight away. He bought them specifically so that he could free them.

Fleeting references to slaves in Anglo-Saxon documents suggest that they were an integral part of Anglo-Saxon society. People could enter slavery through several different routes. For example, Bede's Ecclesiastical History (IV.22) records how an Anglo-Saxon nobleman, Imma, was captured after a battle and was sold to a Frisian at a slave market in London.

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A drawing illustrating Psalm 122, showing a female slave and her mistress (centre) and a master holding up a sword to two male slaves (left), in the Harley Psalter: Harley MS 603, f. 65r

References to slaves are also found in the law-codes of King Æthelberht of Kent (d. 616). These laws are preserved in a compilation made at Rochester in the 12th century, known as Textus Roffensis. They mention women who were ‘grinding slaves’, and state that the fine for ‘highway robbery of a slave is to be three shillings’.

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The law-code of King Æthelberht of Kent: Rochester, Cathedral Library, MS A.3.5, f. 1r

When the Anglo-Saxon noblewoman, Wynflæd, wrote her will in the 10th century, she included instructions regarding the fate of her slaves. The will specified that, 'at Faccombe, Eadhelm and Man and Johanna and Sprow and his wife … and Gersand and Snel are to be freed'. However, Wynflæd did not free two of her seamstresses, Eadgifu (Edgyfu) and Æthelgifu (Æþelyfu), instead bequeathing them to another woman called Eadgifu.

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Detail of the names of Eadgifu (Edgyfu) and Æthelgifu (Æþelyfu) in the will of Wynflæd: Cotton Ch VIII 38

The new manumissions in the Bodmin Gospels, uncovered with the aid of multispectral imaging, are incredibly exciting. They are important sources of information for slavery in early medieval Britain and for daily life in early medieval Cornwall. This manuscript has been in the national collection since 1833, but only know are some of its many secrets being revealed. Hopefully, as new technologies develop, we may be able to make even more discoveries on the pages of our age-old manuscripts.

 

Becky Lawton

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

14 February 2019

My ‘right well-beloved Valentine’

In 1477, a gentlewoman named Margery Brews was soon to be married to a member of the Norfolk aristocracy, John Paston. Margaret and John were rather smitten with each other, and in the year leading up to their marriage they exchanged a series of love letters. In one particular letter, sent in February, Margery described John as her ‘right well-beloved Valentine’ and signed off the letter as ‘your Valentine, Margery Brews’. This intimate letter between these two lovebirds is thought to be the earliest surviving Valentine’s love letter.  

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Letter of Margery Brews to John Paston, February 1477: London, British Library, Add MS 43490, f. 24r

Despite their passion, there was trouble ahead for Margery and John. Their relatives initially opposed the marriage. Margery’s father felt that his daughter could make a more financially advantageous match and John’s elder brother was insulted that his permission had not been asked before seeking Margery’s hand in marriage. Thankfully, Margery’s mother, Elizabeth, was a skilled negotiator. Elizabeth wrote a letter to John, and took advantage of the Valentine’s season to sort out these problems. She wrote:

'On Friday it is Saint Valentine’s Day, and every bird chooses itself a mate. And if you would like to come on Thursday night ... I trust God that you will speak to my husband, and I will pray that we will bring the matter to a conclusion.'

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Margery addresses John as 'right well-beloved Valentine': Add MS 43490, f. 24r

John’s family were also unwilling to support the match on the grounds that Margery’s dowry was too low. In the letter where Margery calls John her ‘right well-beloved Valentine’, she states:

'I want you to understand clearly that my father refuses to part with any more money than a £100 and 50 marks in this business, which is very far from fulfilling your wishes.'

Margery informed John that if he was not satisfied with the £100 or felt that he could get more money, he was 'not to take the trouble to visit any more on this business'.

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Annotation on the back of the letter notes that Margery calls herself John’s “Valentine”: Add MS 43490, f. 24v

As Virgil said, “Love conquers all”. Margery and John were married a few months later. These letters are part of a large archive known as the Paston Letters, comprising 1,000 letters and documents including petitions, leases and wills. These documents provide a fascinating insight into the private lives of the Paston family of Norfolk over a period of 70 years.

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The martyrdom of St Valentine in the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 243r

Margery and John’s love letters also provide valuable insight into the connection between romance and the feast of St Valentine on 14 February. The two have not always been associated. We know that St Valentine was a Christian martyr who lived and died in Rome during the 3rd century. Over 1,000 years later, Geoffrey Chaucer (d. 1400) wrote a poem called Parliament of Fowls, in which he described a group of birds who gather together in the early spring — on ‘seynt valentynes day’ — to choose their mates for the year.

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Margery signs the letter as 'Be your Voluntyne / Mergery Brews': Add MS 43490, f. 24r

During their courtship, Margery wrote another letter to John in which she referred to him as her ‘dearly beloved valentine’. Margery ended this letter by saying, 'I beg you that you will not let anyone on Earth see this letter, except yourself'. If only Margery knew that over 500 years later, her love letters would be discussed in the news and be fully available to view online!

Quotations from the letters in this blogpost have been taken from D. Watt (ed.), The Paston Women: Selected Letters (Woodbridge, 2004).

 

Becky Lawton

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval