14 July 2022
One of the questions that we consider in our current Gold exhibition is ‘where did the gold come from?’ In medieval Europe, natural deposits of gold were limited so most gold had to be either recycled by melting down older objects or imported by long-distance trade. From the 8th to 16th centuries, the kingdoms of West Africa were major suppliers and traders of gold, which was carried by camel caravans across the Sahara Desert to North Africa. From there, the gold travelled with merchants into the Middle East and Europe. Some of it ended up illuminating manuscripts thousands of miles away.
Medieval Europeans had little reliable information about West Africa, but they did know that it was an abundant source of gold. One account that made it all the way to medieval Europe was of the phenomenally wealthy Mansa Musa (r. 1312 to 1337), emperor of Mali, whose empire covered an area larger than Western Europe. In 1324 Mansa Musa made a pilgrimage to Mecca, bringing so much gold with him that it devalued the price of gold in Egypt, where he stopped on the way, for years afterwards. He is sometimes said to have been the richest person in history. In Europe, tales of this gold-drenched ruler made such an impression that he was portrayed on luxurious illustrated maps from the 14th to 16th centuries.
The earliest surviving map to depict Mansa Musa is the famous Catalan Atlas of 1375 (Paris, BnF, MS. Espagnol 30). This manuscript is attributed to Abraham Cresques, a 14th-century Jewish cartographer from Majorca. It includes a picture of Mansa Musa seated on a throne, wearing a gold crown and holding a sceptre and a round gold object, perhaps an orb, coin or nugget of gold. An accompanying caption in Catalan explains:
‘This Black ruler is named Musse Melly (Musa of Mali), lord of Guinea. This king is the richest and noblest ruler of this whole region because of the abundance of gold that is found in his lands’.
From then on, the figure of Mansa Musa sometimes appears on luxurious illustrated maps, always with emphasis on his vast riches of gold. In the Gold exhibition, you can see an example from the Queen Mary Atlas. This impressive volume, probably made for Queen Mary I of England and her husband Philip II of Spain, was completed by Portuguese cartographer Diogo Homem in 1558. You can read more about it in a previous blogpost.
While the detailed outlines and place names along the coasts reveal the extent of Portuguese exploration of Africa by sea, the interior of the continent is depicted more vaguely. Some of the information is based on centuries-old traditions, including the pictures of African rulers, labelled in Latin: ‘Emperor of Mali’, ‘King of Nubia’ and ‘Manicongo’ (ruler of the kingdom of Kongo). Although not specifically named, the ‘Emperor of Mali’ is probably intended as Mansa Musa, given the long tradition of portraying him on illustrated maps. The depictions emphasise the wealth and power of the African rulers, with their prominent golden crowns, sceptres and jewellery.
Another example is on a map showing Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, made around 1529 by cartographer Conte di Ottomanno Freducci, who was based in Ancona, Italy (active 1497-1539). Unusually Mansa Musa is represented with white skin, wearing European-style clothing and playing a stringed musical instrument.
The image of Mansa Musa on this map is accompanied by a caption in Latin which praises him as a ruler and emphasises his great wealth in gold:
‘This king Mansa Musa rules the province of Guinea and is no less prudent and knowledgeable than powerful. He has with him excellent mathematicians and men versed in the liberal arts, and he has great riches, as he is near the branch of the Nile which is called the Gulf of Gold. From this is brought a great quantity of gold dust or tibr, and this is a passage through his kingdom, and these regions abound in all the things that there are above the ground, particularly in dates and manna, and the best of all other things that can be had — they only lack salt’.
(Translation from Chet Van Duzer, 'Nautical Charts, Texts, and Transmission', eBLJ 2017, p. 32, available online)
Despite the whitewashing of the image of Mansa Musa on this map, the caption does seem to contain some authentic information about the trans-Saharan trade in gold. It refers to the Arabic word for gold dust ‘tibr’, and correctly identifies salt as one of the major commodities exchanged for gold in West Africa.
A further example is on a map attributed to Jacobo Russo, a cartographer who was active from 1520 to 1588 in Messina, Sicily. On this map, the rulers are not captioned but their identities are implied by the cities they are pictured beside. The figure of a Black ruler holding two large gold rings next to a city labelled ‘Guinea’ is most likely intended as Mansa Musa. The large gold rings suggest his wealth in gold, while the camels and camel-riders pictured nearby hint at the importance of this region for trading caravans.
These 16th-century maps stand at a turning point in the history of relations between Europe and West Africa. On the one hand, they illustrate the trans-Saharan trade in gold which had flourished for centuries. On the other, they show that Europeans had already managed to bypass the caravan routes by establishing direct overseas trade with West Africa. Initially their main goal was to obtain gold, but increasingly also people to enslave. In the following centuries, West African gold would become marginalised and the region devastated by the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Yet these depictions of medieval African rulers are a vivid reminder of an earlier time when West Africa was a centre of wealth, power and global connections, celebrated the world over for its glorious gold.
If you would like to find out more about medieval West Africa, we recommend the article Building West Africa on the British Library’s West Africa webspace, and the companion website for the past exhibition Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time by the Block Museum of Art.
The British Library’s Gold exhibition runs from 20 May to 2 October 2022 and you can book your tickets online now. An accompanying book Gold: Spectacular Manuscripts from Around the World is available from the British Library shop.
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The exhibition is supported by the Goldhammer Foundation and the American Trust for the British Library, with thanks to The John S Cohen Foundation, The Finnis Scott Foundation, the Owen Family Trust and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous.
17 October 2018
The British Library holds the world’s most important collections of books made or owned in England between the eclipse of Roman Britain and the Norman Conquest of 1066. These books and documents contain crucial evidence for the development of society, economy, literature, government, art and religion during the transformative period between the 7th and the 11th centuries. Ahead of the Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, we are delighted to announce that over 200 manuscripts made or owned in England before 1100 can now be viewed in full online on our Digitised Manuscripts website, along with the surviving single-sheet documents produced before the Norman Conquest. We’ve produced a list of manuscripts digitised as of October 2018 that appear in Helmut Gneuss and Michael Lapidge, Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts: A Bibliographical Handlist of Manuscripts and Manuscript Fragments Written or Owned in England up to 1100 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014): Download Digitised Manuscripts from the AngloSaxon Kingdoms. The list is available here as a spreadsheet (this format does not work with all web browsers): Download Digitised Manuscripts from the AngloSaxon Kingdoms
Miniature of David surrounded by musicians and scribes, from the Vespasian Psalter, made in Kent in the 8th century with later additions: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 30v
Many of these manuscripts were digitised in 2015 and 2016 in memory of Melvin R. Seiden. Others have been digitised thanks to the generosity of a variety of other funders. These books and documents demonstrate the range of writing produced by early English speakers, including the oldest intact European book; epic poems; short riddles; mesmerising illuminated Gospel-books; even rough notes on 200 cheeses. The list includes not only books that were made in England, but works whose annotations show they were owned in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. For example, the oldest book known to have been owned in England in this period was made in Africa.
Detail of Biblical quotations from the letters of Cyprian, made in North Africa in the 4th century, with annotations added in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms around the 8th century: Add MS 40165a, f. 3v
Still more Anglo-Saxon manuscripts are being digitised all the time under The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200. Stay tuned to the #PolonskyPre1200 hashtag on Twitter for the latest updates.
Other early manuscripts could not be photographed in the traditional way due to historic damage, such as burning and erasures. However, Christina Duffy and the British Library's Conservation Centre have been doing pioneering work with new forms of imaging. Come to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition to learn more, and to see some of these manuscripts in person, as well as online.
27 October 2016
To commemorate Black History Month in the United Kingdom, today we remember one of the Africans to live in Anglo-Saxon England. The man in question was Hadrian (d. 709), the abbot of St Peter’s and St Paul’s at Canterbury, who played a pivotal role in the development of church structures in what is now England.
Bede’s description of Hadrian, beginning column 2 line 18, from his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, England (Canterbury?), c. 825: Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 94r.
According to Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People (completed in 731), Hadrian was ‘vir natione Afir’ (translated as 'a man of African race' by Bertram Colgrave and R.A.B. Mynors), who spoke both Greek and Latin. Some scholars have suggested that Hadrian was Amazigh, and that he came from the area that is now Libya. There are a series of Biblical commentaries (surviving in a manuscript in Milan) that were derived from notes on Hadrian’s teaching at his school at Canterbury, and these include references and vocabulary that were specific to north Africa. For example, there are notes on a beautiful bird called a porphyrio, 'said to be found in Libya' ('in Libia sit').
Detail of North Africa, from a world map in a scientific collection, England, mid-11th century: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 56v.
Hadrian may have been forced to flee the Arab invasions of North Africa. At any rate he arrived in Italy as young man. In Europe, he had a remarkable career as the emperor’s translator, diplomat and abbot of a monastery near Naples. He was then sent by Pope Vitalian to accompany Theodore of Tarsus, the newly-appointed archbishop of Canterbury, to Kent. They arrived in 668. The two men immediately set about touring the archdiocese, restructuring the Church in what is now England by dividing large dioceses into smaller ones, and legislating through regular synods. They also created an internationally renowned school at Canterbury where they may have introduced the study of Greek to Anglo-Saxons.
Among the students of that school was Aldhelm, later bishop of Sherborne, who was considered a pre-eminent scholar by many of his contemporaries. Aldhelm praised the school in his letters, including one to Hadrian himself, in which he described Hadrian as his 'revered father and respected teacher' and himself as a 'humble pupil of your holiness'. In another letter, Aldhelm scolded his young correspondent for going to study in Ireland when Hadrian and Theodore offered better educational opportunities in Kent. Manuscripts of Aldhelm’s letters have recently been digitised by the British Library and are now available online (Royal MS 6 A VI and Cotton MS Domitian A IX).
Passage from Aldhelm's letter to Heahfrith where he praises Hadrian as 'endowed with ineffably pure urbanity', the moon to Archbishop Theodore's sun, England (Canterbury?), 1st half of the 11th century: Royal MS 6 A VI, f. 8v.
Judging from commentaries from his school and his students' writings, Hadrian can be credited with introducing Anglo-Saxons to a whole range of ideas, from astronomical thought inherited from Plato and Aristotle to the commemoration of Neapolitan saints venerated at his old monastery in Italy. He may even have influenced Anglo-Saxon literature through types of riddles: Aldhelm also wrote a book of riddles explicitly inspired by the North African writer Symphosius, whose enigmas may have been brought by Hadrian to England.
Aldhelm's prologue invoking Symphosius, from Aldhelm's Riddles, England (Canterbury?), c. 1000: Royal MS 12 C XXIII, f. 79v.
One of the earliest books known to have been owned in post-Roman Britain also came from Africa, perhaps from Carthage. This book contains a 4th-century copy of letters by another North African, Cyprian. Although this manuscript is now fragmentary, it was once an impressive codex, in fine uncial script and with the Biblical passages picked out in red. This book had come to England by the 8th century, because someone writing in early English script annotated, expanded and added to some of the words. These letters undoubtedly influenced 8th-century Anglo-Saxon writers, including Bede, who quoted from them. Some scholars have suggested that Hadrian himself may have brought this African manuscript to the British Isles.
Detail of one of the earliest books known to have been owned in Anglo-Saxon England, containing the letters of Cyprian, North Africa, 4th century: Add MS 40165 A, f. 2r.
Details of the letters ‘vr’ added to the manuscript in England by the 8th century: Add MS 40165 A, f. 2v.
According to Bede, Hadrian had been reluctant to come to Kent, so much so that he turned down an offer to be made archbishop of Canterbury and instead nominated several others for that office, including his eventual companion, Theodore. Nevertheless, Hadrian stayed in England for 41 years, and his influence has lasted much longer. He was remembered in saints' Lives at Canterbury later in the Middle Ages, and he helped to shape religious structures and literary traditions which remain in England today.
Beginning of Goscelin's Life of Hadrian, England (Canterbury), 1st quarter of the 12th century: Cotton MS Vespasian B XX, f. 233r.
07 January 2016
In 2013 we were pleased to tell you about a ‘new life’ for one of our Royal manuscripts: a banner-sized detail of a 15th century mappa mundi, which originally greeted visitors to our exhibition Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination, was repurposed to brilliant effect by Turner prize-winning artist Mark Leckey.
Installation View: detail of a Mappa mundi from Bartholomaeus Angelicus' De proprietatibus rerum, Royal MS 15 E III, f. 67v, behind Double Dome, 1967 by Derek Boshier, courtesy the Arts Council Collection from The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things curated by Mark Leckey, a Hayward Touring exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary 27 April – 30 June 2013. Photo: Andy Keate
But the story doesn’t end there. Following its sojourn in the heady realm of contemporary art, the banner came home with me. It made its way onto the wall of my infant daughter’s nursery, so that from a very early age she would be able to contemplate the important things in life (mappae mundi and medieval manuscript illumination, basically).
But first a bit of background. This miniature can be found at the beginning of Book 15 of a French translation of Bartholomaeus Angelicus’ encyclopaedia, De proprietatibus rerum. Angelicus’s text, a compliation of theology, natural history, and science, was a bestseller, by medieval standards. A century after it was written, De proprietatibus rerum was translated into French, and illuminated copies began to be produced. Royal MS 15 E III is a lavish copy, produced in Bruges in 1485, which may have once belonged to Edward IV.
Detail of a tripartite mappa mundi, from a French translation of Bartholomaeus Angelicus’ De proprietatibus rerum, Bruges, 1482, Royal MS 15 E III, f. 67v
Book 15 of Angelicus’s text is called ‘On the provinces and countries’ and discusses Isidore of Seville’s division of the world into three parts: Asia, Africa, and Europe. Most maps depicting this division show east at the top of the map (the origins of our term ‘to orient’), but the miniature above is interesting in that Asia shares the top space with Africa. It is also unusual amongst maps of its type by depicting the three lands as mountainous landscapes, full of castles and rivers.
It is in these rivers, though, that we can begin to see something odd – at least, the rivers in the Africa section. At first glance it appears that there are no ships to be found in Africa, unlike Asia and Europe. But a closer inspection reveals that there are ships, or rather, there were ships at one time.
Three of these ships are visible (circled in red above), ghostly and barely present. Examining the manuscript itself indicates that what we are seeing are most likely the original underdrawings, which were strangely emphasised in pigment but never fully painted. The outlines of these ‘disappearing’ ships were painted over with the river landscapes, but are now visible.
Also of interest in the Africa section are the only two inhabitants of the map: the outsized figures of two black men standing against a rocky outcrop. Both figures appear to have been repainted (at least in part) to alter their positions; this is particularly visible in the way their arms are depicted. It is possible, though far from certain, that these two men were not part of the original design but were added when the miniature was painted.
It is always a challenge to interpret such manuscript mysteries. Were the Africa ships included in the original design in error and then corrected by the painter? Was this only a simple design change? Or were the ships removed at some point during the design process as part of an effort to make Africa appear more foreign, less civilised? And how do the figures of the two black men – the only humans in evidence on the map – relate?
As always, we’re grateful for any ideas or suggestions you may have. You can comment below, or reach us at Twitter @BLMedieval.
- Sarah J Biggs