01 October 2021
What would a manuscript tell us if it could recount its travels and describe the places where it lived? The Locating a National Collection project, led by a team at the British Library, is exploring what place references can reveal about the ‘biography’ of historic objects. Does knowing that a precious manuscript is linked to a particular medieval abbey make it more interesting and relatable to us? Similarly, does knowing that a castle or a palace is connected to a rare medieval book help us to see it in a different light, and ultimately maybe even make us want to visit it?
To test this idea, and to discover how far following the footsteps of a manuscript can take us, the Locating a National Collection project has joined forces with the British Library’s medieval manuscript curators to dive into the Library's records and explore an exceptional story filled with great journeys, fortuitous discoveries and joyful reunifications. We thought that the best way to tell it was to use a map, or, better, an interactive one: a StoryMap. Scroll down to follow the tales of the travelling Bibles, click on the dots on the map to find more information about the places we mention along the way, and, if you are left wanting more, follow the links to other articles and resources.
We hope you enjoy your (virtual) journey.
Valeria Vitale and Gethin Rees
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14 May 2021
Today sees the publication of Manuscripts in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Cultures and Connections. This new book brings together 14 essays based on papers delivered at the British Library conference held in December 2018, in conjunction with the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.
All the essays in the book focus on manuscripts produced between the 7th and the 11th centuries. Like the exhibition, they explore the artistic, literary and historical connections between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and their neighbours, and the scribal and artistic networks that developed across Britain, Ireland and much of early medieval Europe.
A striking feature of several papers at the conference was the use of multispectral imaging to enhance texts and images damaged by fire or the use of reagents in the past. This imaging was undertaken by the Library’s imaging scientist, Christina Duffy, and the results feature in three essays which span the artistic, literary and historical themes of the conference and exhibition.
Bernard Meehan’s essay on ‘The Royal-Otho-Corpus / Cambridge-London / Parker-Cotton-Wolsey Gospels’ includes new multispectral imaging of Cotton MS Otho C V, which was badly damaged in the Cotton Library fire of 1731. This image shows the lion – the evangelist symbol for St Mark – as it appears to the naked eye:
Multispectral imaging reveals significant new details in this black and white image:
And the psychedelic colours of this enhanced multispectral image show the dotting on the lion’s lower front legs and paws:
Jonathan Wilcox’s essay, ‘The Wolf at work: uncovering Wulfstan’s compositional method’, draws on multispectral imaging of two pages in Add MS 38651 which have been treated with blue reagent in the past:
The multispectral imaging reveals texts by Archbishop Wulfstan which Jonathan uses as new evidence to explore Wulftan’s compositional method:
Winfried Rudolf, who has an essay in the book on the Italian provenance of the Vercelli Book, has also been working on these images in parallel, to publish an edition and commentary of the newly revealed texts.
And Simon Keynes draws on several further multispectral images in his essay, ‘The “Canterbury letter-book”: Alcuin and after’. His essay includes this page from the letter-book, Cotton MS Tiberius A XV, before and after multispectral imaging:
The imaging published today adds to Christina Duffy’s earlier multispectral imaging of erased additions to the Bodmin Gospels (Add MS 9381). The imaging of these erasures, which record the freeing of slaves in early medieval Cornwall, was shown on a video in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, next to the manuscript itself.
All of these examples show the power of multispectral imaging to recover evidence previously obscured by the effects of fire-damage, the use of reagents and erasure. You can read more about the new imaging in the book, as well as the eleven other essays by Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, Richard Gameson, Larry Nees, Joanna Story, Rosamond McKitterick, David Johnson, Tessa Webber, Winfried Rudolf, Francesca Tinti, Susan Rankin and Michael Gullick.
We are grateful to the Leverhulme Trust for funding the Insular Manuscripts: Networks of Knowledge international research network, which ran from 2016 to 2019 and supported research opportunities for Bernard Meehan, Dáibhí Ó Cróinín and Joanna Story. We also thank the British Library Collections Trust for their generous subvention towards this publication, Martin Fanning at Four Courts Press, Christina Duffy for her multispectral imaging, Ellie Jackson for all her editorial support and Jessica Hodgkinson for compiling the indices. And I would especially like to thank Joanna Story for her tireless collaboration over the last five years in preparing for the exhibition and the conference, and for co-editing the exhibition catalogue and this new book of conference essays with me.
Manuscripts in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Cultures and Connections is available through the Four Courts Press website, and the publisher is offering a 20% discount until Tuesday 18 May.
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18 February 2021
You are invited to sit down with Sheffield Libraries at their digital dinner table at 8.00pm on 25 February to enjoy a menu of poetry, conversation, music and film inspired by our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.
The Vespasian Psalter: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 30v
In early 2019, poets Rachel Bower, Kayo Chingonyi and Joe Kriss visited the exhibition, as part of a collaboration between Sheffield Libraries, the British Library and Poet in the City.
Poets Kayo Chingonyi, Rachel Bower and Joe Kriss
Their visit was part of the ‘Collections in Verse’ project to commission poetry inspired by exhibitions at the Library. ‘Collections in Verse’ encourages poets to work closely with local people to integrate their stories into themes from Library exhibitions.
Rachel, Kayo and Joe took the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition as their starting point for conversations with people in three different branch libraries in Sheffield. These conversations were sparked by items in the exhibition such as the will of Wynflæd, a well-to-do 10th-century widow who lived in south-western England.
Wynflæd’s will, early 11th century: Cotton Ch VIII 38
Wynflæd’s will lists her lands and livestock, but also paints a picture of her domestic life. The objects she bequeathed allow us to see how her house was furnished, to look inside her wardrobe, and to see items on her table and in her jewellery box. The passing on of objects and the survival of the jewelled metalwork in the exhibition inspired conversations with women in Sheffield about objects they had inherited and will pass on.
Pendant from Winfarthing: Norwich Castle Museum, 2017.519.6
One of the key themes running through the exhibition was the development of the English language and early English literature. Exhibits included objects inscribed with some of the earliest surviving records of the use of the English language, the earliest datable text written in English (the laws of King Æthelberht of Kent), manuscripts containing over 90 per cent of all surviving Old English poetry, and works by the prolific writer in Old English, Ælfric of Eynsham.
Ælfric, Grammar: Cotton MS Faustina A X, f. 53v
This theme was picked up strongly in Sheffield with explorations of the wide-ranging national and international influences on local dialects, and reflections on how language and inherited stories influence ideas of national identity.
Sheffield Central Library had planned to hold an Anglo-Saxon-inspired feast with live poetry and performance in March 2020 to celebrate the work of poets and the Collections in Verse project. While the first lockdown meant that had to be cancelled, around that time Sheffield Libraries began supporting local communities in new ways, with some branch libraries becoming food banks. In response, the poetry commissioned by ‘Collections in Verse’ has now been incorporated into a new film inspired by conversations with the people of Sheffield and the food banks in the city. This film, directed by Eelyn Lee, will be premiered as part of the live online event, Digesting History, on 25 February. During the event, hosted by Silé Sibanda from BBC Radio Sheffield, guest speakers will explore the development of the English language and Sheffield’s dialect, questions of national identity, and how the pandemic has reinforced the importance of libraries in local communities.
Tickets to Digesting History are free and can be booked at Digesting History | Poet in the City.
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04 February 2021
The British Library and Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums are delighted to announce the loan of the Lindisfarne Gospels to the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle for an exhibition scheduled to open in 2022. This exhibition will explore the contemporary resonance of this spectacular and justly celebrated manuscript in a range of personal, regional and national contexts, focusing on themes such as identity, creativity, learning and a sense of place.
At the same time next year, Newcastle City Library will stage a complementary exhibition. This will be accompanied by a range of public, community and school events across the North East, and a newly commissioned artwork to reimagine the Gospels for the 21st century.
The carpet page at the beginning of the Gospel of John in the Lindisfarne Gospels: Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 210v
The exhibition in Newcastle will see the fifth loan of the Gospels to the North East. The manuscript was loaned to Durham Cathedral in 1987, the 1300th anniversary of the death of St Cuthbert. This was followed by two loans to the Laing Art Gallery in 1996 and 2000, and the most recent loan in 2013 to the ‘Lindisfarne Gospels Durham’ exhibition at Durham University, which generated great excitement in the region and attracted nearly 100,000 visitors.
The Lindisfarne Gospels on display at Palace Green Library, Durham University, in 2013
The Lindisfarne Gospels has also featured in two recent temporary exhibitions at the British Library that focused on different aspects of the manuscript. In 2018–19, the ‘Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms’ exhibition included a spectacular display of illuminated manuscripts from the Golden Age of Northumbria.
The Lindisfarne Gospels being installed in the ‘Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms’ exhibition
The Lindisfarne Gospels was displayed with the Book of Durrow on loan from Trinity College Dublin, the Echternach Gospels on loan from the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the Durham Gospels on loan from Durham Cathedral, the St Cuthbert Gospel, and Codex Amiatinus, returning to Britain from Italy for the first time in 1300 years. In contrast, in the 2019 exhibition, ‘Writing: Making Your Mark’, the beautiful Insular Half-Uncial script of the Gospels was the focus. It was displayed with other manuscripts dating from the 6th to the 15th centuries to illustrate the many different scripts used during the Middle Ages for the Roman alphabet.
The Lindisfarne Gospels displayed in the ‘Writing: Making Your Mark’ exhibition, showing the Insular Half-Uncial script: Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 208r
Although the British Library's physical sites are currently closed to the public, when we are able to reopen our exhibitions the Lindisfarne Gospels will be on display again in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery alongside other highlights from the national collection. So we look forward both to sharing the Gospels in the Treasures Gallery later this year, and to the loan of Gospels to Newcastle next year. In the meantime, you can find out more about the Lindisfarne Gospels on our website and explore all the pages of the manuscript in detail on Digitised Manuscripts.
The Chi-rho page in the Lindisfarne Gospels: Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 29r
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29 January 2021
This weekend has seen the release on Netflix of The Dig, a fictionalised account of the excavation at Sutton Hoo of an Anglo-Saxon ship-burial. Starring Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown, a self-taught archaeologist, and Carey Mulligan as a very youthful Edith Pretty, the landowner, The Dig is based on real events. The Sutton Hoo finds are among the most extraordinary from early medieval England — we displayed this gold belt buckle and part of the sword-belt in the British Library's recent Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition — but the identity of the person buried with the ship remains unresolved. In this blogpost we review some of the oldest written evidence connected to Sutton Hoo, as recorded in Bede's Ecclesiastical History.
A photograph of Basil Brown in the ship-burial, from the website of the Sutton Hoo Ship's Company
The mound containing the ship-burial at Sutton Hoo, on the banks of the River Debden in Suffolk, was opened in the summer of 1939, on the eve of World War II. At first, Basil Brown was digging with the assistance of Mrs Pretty's gardener, her gamekeeper and an estate worker, until archaeologists from Cambridge University and the Ordnance Survey intervened. Together they uncovered not only the outline of an early medieval ship, revealed by the rivets left in the sandy soil, but a number of grave goods including precious jewellery, silver bowls from the Mediterranean, and the remains of the famous Sutton Hoo helmet.
After the war the finds were examined by a young researcher, Rupert Bruce-Mitford, who spent the rest of his career analysing the site. Although much of the context for the discoveries had already disappeared by the late 1940s (Sutton Hoo had been commandeered by the British military during wartime), Bruce-Mitford recognised that the combination of 'pagan' and 'Christian' artefacts most likely dated the burial to the period of the conversion of the kingdom of the East Angles to Christianity, in the 7th century.
The Sutton Hoo helmet, courtesy of the British Museum
Over the years a number of candidates have been put forward as the person buried in the ship-mound. They include Rædwald, king of the East Angles from around 600 to perhaps the 620s, and his sons and successors Earpwald and Sigeberht. Some historians and archaeologists have been less circumspect than others in naming Rædwald, the most famous of the three, as the king commemorated at Sutton Hoo. This is based, in turn, on the account of the East Anglian kingdom provided by Bede approximately 100 years after the burial.
Bede (died 735), a monk at Wearmouth in Northumbria, completed his Ecclesiastical History, or Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, in 731. Much of its focus is on the conversion period, from the mission of Augustine from Rome to Canterbury in 597 to the time when the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms first adopted Christian customs.
The British Library holds two of the oldest surviving manuscripts of Bede's History, both of which can be viewed in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site. One of them (Cotton MS Tiberius A XIV) was probably made in Northumbria in the late 700s or the early decades of the 800s. The other (Cotton MS Tiberius C II) is characterised by the decorated initials which mark the beginning of each book, and it was most likely made in Kent sometime in the middle of the 9th century. (Another important early copy of the Historia ecclesiastica, known as the Moore Bede, was also displayed in our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.) The two manuscripts which formerly belonged to Sir Robert Cotton (died 1631) were damaged by a fire at Ashburnham House, London, in 1731. You will notice that their parchment pages were blackened and warped by the heat of the flames, with the occasional loss of parts of their text.
The opening page of the first book of Bede's Ecclesiastical History, in Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 5v
According to Bede (Historia ecclesiastica, II.5), Rædwald was for a while the most powerful king to rule South of the Humber. He was described as the fourth such king to hold 'imperium' over the southern Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, a phrase later translated into Old English as 'bretwalda' ('Britain-ruler'). Rædwald's candidacy as occupant of the Sutton Hoo ship-burial is based furthermore on his being the first king of the East Angles to be baptised as a Christian (Historia ecclesiastica, II.15). But Bede did not hold him in the greatest esteem. Rædwald was said to have been perverted by his wife and other evil counsellors into maintaining a temple with one altar for the Christian sacrifice and another for pagan worship. This would align with the combination of Christian and non-Christian grave-goods discovered at Sutton Hoo. In Bede's words, 'rex Reduald natu nobilis quamlibet actu ignobilis' ('King Rædwald was of noble birth but ignoble in his deeds').
The chapter of Bede's Ecclesiastical History in which he records that Rædwald was a lapsed Christian, of noble birth but ignoble in his deeds (lines 1-2 of the 2nd column): Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 54v
But Rædwald isn't the only candidate for the ship-burial. He was succeeded as king by his pagan son, Earpwald, who later converted to Christianity under the influence of King Edwin of Northumbria. Bede reports that Earpwald was assassinated by a pagan not long after his conversion, thereby becoming the first Anglo-Saxon king to be martyred on account of his Christian faith (Historia ecclesiastica, II.15). Sigeberht, another son (or step-son) of Rædwald, ruled East Anglia in the aftermath of Earpwald's death. He was a devout Christian, who had been converted in Gaul while fleeing from the enmity of Rædwald (Historia ecclesiastica, III.18). Sigeberht eventually abdicated and retired to a monastery, until an army led by the pagan King Penda of Mercia invaded around the 640s. Sigeberht was dragged to the battlefield in order to inspire the East Angles, but he refused to carry anything but a staff and was killed. The whole East Anglian army was either slain with him or scattered.
A still from The Dig (Netflix)
The complicated dynastic history of the East Anglians, combined with the lack of firm dates for the reigns of these kings, makes it well-nigh impossible to conclude with any certainty who was buried at Sutton Hoo. As we have seen, Rædwald, Earpwald and Sigeberht alike all adopted the Christian faith, but Rædwald effectively renounced it while Earpwald was murdered soon after he had converted. Assigning the ship-burial to any of these men depends in large part on our subjective opinion of what constitutes a 'pagan' or 'Christian' grave-good at this period. But this does not detract from our romantic notions of the burial site, as exemplified by The Dig itself.
The book which accompanied the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition is available to purchase from the British Library online shop. You can also read more about the background to Sutton Hoo and the conversion period on our dedicated Anglo-Saxons webspace, including this article by Alison Hudson on the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. We would also heartily recommend the blogpost Inside 'The Dig' by the British Museum's curator, Sue Brunning, which analyses the historical accuracy of the new film.
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06 October 2020
Regular readers of this blog are likely familiar with splendid examples of ‘Insular’ art — the art of the islands of Britain and Ireland from the 7th to 9th centuries. The iconic Lindisfarne Gospels is one of the most well-known, but you can also admire several examples on the webspace for the recent Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.
As is clear from this initial from the Tiberius Bede, one of the main decorative elements of Insular art is the incorporation of delicately drawn interlacing knotwork designs. The inside of the letter is decorated with interlacing ribbons on a black ink background. The tongue of the beast’s head at the top of the letter also interweaves with itself. Patterns like this are still closely associated with Irish, Scottish, and Welsh cultural identity, often called ‘Celtic knotwork’.
Intricate interlace designs are also an important element of the style of manuscript art known as ‘Franco-Saxon’. ‘Franco’ refers to Francia (the kingdom of the Franks), where this style originated. The ‘Saxon’ part of the term refers to the incorporation of Insular decorative motifs (when this term was coined in the late 19th century Insular art was often called ‘Hiberno-Saxon’). In general, the Franco-Saxon style is characterised by a fusion of motifs based on Insular models and features of layout, decoration, and script of the Carolingian manuscript tradition. The Carolingian dynasty seized control over the area roughly corresponding to modern-day France from 751, expanded the kingdom, and ruled (intermittently) until 987.
Interlace is usually described as one of the most defining Insular components of the Franco-Saxon style. Interlace decoration has also been seen as evidence of the spread of this style to the scriptorium of Saint-Martin of Tours during the second half of the 9th century. The Benedictine abbey of Saint-Martin of Tours was one of the most influential centres of manuscript production in the Carolingian empire in the early decades of the century. However, in 853 Tours was attacked by one of the Norse war bands who carried out raids along the rivers of France. To help restore the Abbey’s destroyed library, books from other Carolingian centres were sent to the monks of Tours. We know that at least one of those manuscripts was a Franco-Saxon manuscript from Saint-Amand, one of the main centres of the Franco-Saxon style.
Consequently, the decoration in manuscripts made at Tours in the decades after the attack of 853 has been described as incorporating the Franco-Saxon style into the diverse and well-developed Tours style. This Gospel book from Tours, digitised as part of the Polonsky project (Add MS 11849), is one example of this. The golden ribbons that both form the outline of the ligature ‘LI’ (Liber) (book) as well as interlaced designs within the letter and at their terminals, have been compared to decorated initials in well-known Franco-Saxon manuscripts.
But there is a problem with using the presence of interlace as a distinguishing feature of an early medieval style. When you start to look at early medieval manuscripts from across northern Europe, you quickly notice that interlacing knotwork decoration is an omnipresent decorative element.
For example, in the area that is now Belgium and the Southern Netherlands, interlace in a slightly different variant was also common during this period. Here it is incorporated within the stem of the initial ‘D’ as well as in a design within the letter, in red and brown ink.
Similarly, interlace is also present in contemporary manuscripts that were most likely made in Brittany, which was never incorporated fully into the Carolingian empire. Perhaps that is why manuscript art from this area often continued to resemble Frankish manuscripts created before the spread of Carolingian influence (i.e. before c. 750).
Further south, in Northern Italy, early medieval manuscripts also feature interlace in their decorated initials. This is apparent in a late 8th-early 9th manuscript (now Cotton MS Nero A II), which has a large initial ‘D’, with its ascender swooping to the left. The letter incorporates knotwork patterns within its rounded bowl, while another interlace design of thicker ribbons continues and reaches inside the bowl.
Insular artists, responsible for creations like the Lindisfarne Gospels, undeniably mastered the basic principles of interlacing knotwork and created incredibly intricate and imaginative designs. As a type of pattern in itself, however, it was such a ubiquitous feature of early medieval European art that its presence in a manuscript does not necessarily indicate specifically Insular influence.
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Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project
20 May 2020
This week we are looking back at the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition which opened to the public in October 2018. By the time the exhibition closed four months later, the enigmatic figure of ‘Spong Man’ had greeted over 108,000 visitors.
‘Spong Man’, on loan from Norwich Castle Museum (1994.192.1)
Excavated in Norfolk about 40 years ago, Spong Man is the ceramic lid of a cremation urn, who had travelled from his current home in Norwich Castle Museum to London for the exhibition. Sitting with his head in his hands, he looked visitors straight in the eye and welcomed them to his 5th-century world. While Spong Man sat alone, some of the most memorable moments in the exhibition were manuscripts brought together for display alongside each other, thanks to the generosity of so many lenders. Here is a reminder of just a few.
Just behind Spong Man was a single exhibition case containing the St Augustine Gospels, perhaps brought from Rome by St Augustine in 597, the Moore Bede, probably the earliest copy of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, and the Textus Roffensis, which contains the first piece of English law and the earliest datable text written in English.
The St Augustine Gospels, on loan from Cambridge, Corpus Christi College (MS 286) © Corpus Christi College, Cambridge
The Moore Bede, on loan from Cambridge University Library (MS Kk.5.16) © Cambridge University Library
Textus Roffensis, on loan from Rochester Cathedral Library (MS A. 3. 5)
The Book of Durrow, on loan from Dublin, Trinity College Library (MS 57) © Trinity College Dublin
The Echternach Gospels, on loan from Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France (MS lat. 9389)
In the same room were the Durham Gospels next to the Lindisfarne Gospels and, at the far end, two manuscripts made at Wearmouth-Jarrow in the early 8th century were reunited when the pocket-sized St Cuthbert Gospel, acquired by the British Library in 2012, was displayed next to the giant Codex Amiatinus, which had returned from Italy to Britain for the first time in over 1300 years.
The St Cuthbert Gospel (British Library, Add MS 89000)
Codex Amiatinus, on loan from Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana (MS Amiatino 1)
The Lichfield Angel, on loan from Lichfield Cathedral
Gold dinar of King Offa, on loan from the British Museum (CM 1913,1213.1) © Trustees of the British Museum
The Alfred Jewel, on loan from Oxford, Ashmolean Museum (AN1836 p.135.371)
The Pastoral Care, on loan from Oxford, Bodleian Library (MS Hatton 20)
The section on languages and literature was dominated by a replica of the Ruthwell Cross with its extracts from the poem ‘The Dream of the Rood’.
The Ruthwell Cross replica in the gallery
Nearby the cases containing the Four Poetic Codices, brought together for the first time Beowulf, the Vercelli Book (containing the whole text of ‘The Dream of the Rood’), the Exeter Book and the Junius Manuscript.
The Four Poetic Codices on display in the exhibition: Beowulf (British Library, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV); The Vercelli Book, on loan from Vercelli, Biblioteca Capitolare (MS CXVII); The Junius Manuscript, on loan from Oxford, Bodleian Library (MS Junius 11); The Exeter Book, on loan from Exeter Cathedral Library (MS 3501)
Further on, the jewelled binding of the Gospels of Judith of Flanders was displayed in the centre of the room containing eight highlights of the manuscript art from the late 10th- and 11th-century kingdom of England.
The Judith of Flanders Gospels, on loan from New York, Morgan Library (MS M 708) © The Pierpont Morgan Library and Museum, New York
Towards the end of the exhibition the Domesday surveyors’ questions and part of the Exon Domesday survey were displayed with Domesday Book itself, showing the vast amount of evidence it reveals about the landscape, organisation and wealth of late Anglo-Saxon England.
Great Domesday Book, on loan from The National Archives (E/31/2/2)
Finally, and several hours later for some dedicated visitors, the exhibition ended with the Utrecht Psalter, the Harley Psalter and the Eadwine Psalter, which drew together key themes in the exhibition: the connections between Europe and the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, the movement of manuscripts, and the development and continuity of the English language.
The Utrecht Psalter, on loan from Utrecht, Universiteitsbibliotheek (MS 32) © Utrecht University Library
The Harley Psalter, British Library Harley MS 603
The Eadwine Psalter, on loan from Cambridge, Trinity College (MS R.17.1)
Although the exhibition closed in February 2019, you can continue to explore exhibits through the collection items and articles featured in our Anglo-Saxons website, and the exhibition catalogue is available from the British Library online shop.
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26 March 2020
One of the many gems of the British Library is the Harleian collection, founded by Robert Harley, Lord High Treasurer and 1st Earl of Oxford, and his son, Edward (1689–1741), 2nd Earl of Oxford. It's the largest intact 18th-century manuscript collection in the world, containing more than 7,000 manuscripts, 14,000 charters and 500 rolls. While we are re-cataloguing the manuscripts, we thought we'd take the opportunity to pay tribute to the collection's early Library-Keeper, Humfrey Wanley (1672–1726).
Wanley was appointed as Library-Keeper for the Harleian Library in 1705 after he successfully negotiated the acquisition for Robert Harley of the 660 manuscripts of the late antiquary Sir Simonds D’Ewes (1602–1650). Wanley — who had previously been employed as Assistant at the Bodleian Library, cataloguer of the library of Hans Sloane (his catalogue survives in Sloane MS 3972 B), and inspector of the library of Robert Cotton (1586–1631) — continued to expand the Harleian Library with thousands of manuscripts.
Thomas Hill, portrait of Humfrey Wanley in the Harleian Library holding his notebook open at his own facsimile copy of the 10th-century Greek Covel Gospels, and with the so-called Guthlac Roll of about the year 1200 on his desk (1711): courtesy of the Society of Antiquaries of London
Among Wanley’s most significant acquisitions for the Harleian Library are the more than 300 manuscripts of Edward Stillingfleet (d. 1699), late Bishop of Worcester; over 200 heraldic manuscripts from the Randle Holme arms-painters of Chester; and about 125 manuscripts of the clergyman Robert Burscough (1650/51–1709). Simultaneously, he used Continental agents to purchase manuscripts from Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands and monasteries in the Levant. He also sold his own collection of manuscripts to the Library. A 14th-century French Psalter in the Harleian collection (Harley MS 3978), for example, bears his ownership inscription: ‘Liber Humfredi Wanley’.
The Adoration of the Magi in a Psalter (above) and the ownership inscription of Humfrey Wanley (below), North-Eastern France, 2nd half of the 14th century: Harley MS 3978, f. 15v and f. 1*recto
The Harleian Library also acquired manuscripts composed and copied by Wanley himself. It features a parchment volume with facsimile copies of medieval charters (Harley MS 7505) that a young Wanley made around 1689–1691 from local archives in Warwickshire. These reveal his skills as both a palaeographer and calligrapher.
Humfrey Wanley’s copy of a mid-14th-century charter of Richard Fitzalan (c. 1313–1376), 3rd Earl of Arundel: Harley MS 7505, f. 2r
Wanley meticulously recorded his acquisition activities in his diary (Lansdowne MSS 1716-1718), but also kept a notebook (Lansdowne MS 677) with a ‘wish-list’ of manuscripts owned by other collectors he hoped to acquire for the Harleian Library (‘Things proper for the Library in the Hands of Particular Persons’). It includes both the Warwickshire charters and the manuscripts of Hans Sloane with which he had previously worked.
Humfrey Wanley offering a reward for returning his notebook to him: ‘Whoever brings this Book to Mr Humfrey Wanley at the Right Honourable the Earl of Oxford’s [Lord Harley’s House] in Dover-street, Westminster; shall receive one Guinea Reward’: Lansdowne MS 677, f. 1v
In acquiring manuscripts, Wanley showed a level of integrity that was unusual for his time. When a bookseller of a 9th-century manuscript containing the four Gospels written in gold ink (Harley MS 2797) insisted that Wanley should erase a 17th-century ownership inscription of the abbey of Sainte Geneviève in Paris because it was bought through a ‘private seller’, Wanley refused to do so, stating that ‘I do not love to putt a pen-knife upon an old Book in order to erase’ (The Diary of Humfrey Wanley (1996), vol. 2, pp. 359–60).
The un-erased ownership inscription of the abbey of Sainte Geneviève in Paris: ‘Ex Libris S. Genovefae Parisiensis’ (Northern France, 3rd quarter of the 9th century): Harley MS 2797, f. 1r
Wanley considered ownership inscriptions as one of the most important features that should be mentioned in manuscript catalogues. He gave much thought to manuscript cataloguing, since he considered it to be one of his principal tasks at the Harleian Library. In a letter he wrote following his inspection of the Cottonian library in 1703, he recommended that the textual and artistic contents of manuscripts be catalogued to a high level of detail:
‘That every Book & Tract be particularly described [...] whether it [be] written upon Parchment or Paper; whether the Language be English, Saxon, Latin, French etcaetera. Particular Notice also might be taken of such books as are remarkable for their Beauty, for being written Correctly, or in very Good or very Bad Hands; [or] remarkable for their Antiquity. And when the Age of the Book or Tract or Name of the Scribe that wrote it, of any Eminent Person that owned it; or old Library to which it did formerly belong does appear; it should be carefully noted, because by these Marks Posterity will be sure that these are the individual Books now described; and no Original or Antient Copie can be changed for a New one, but the Cheat may be discovered’ (Harley MS 7055, f. 19r).
Wanley first demonstrated his meticulousness in cataloguing Hans Sloane’s manuscripts and in producing a monumental catalogue of Old English manuscripts in 1705. Subsequently, he wrote catalogue entries for over 2,400 Harleian manuscripts in a ‘Catalogus Brevior’ (Additional MSS 45701–45707) — completed and published by the British Museum almost a hundred years later — and hundreds of records for a ‘Catalogus Maior’ (Additional MSS 45699–45700). In addition, he began a subject catalogue for the entire collection (Lansdowne MS 815), wrote an index to the Harleian charters (Add MS 45711), and a catalogue of heraldic manuscripts in the Harleian Library (Add MS 6052).
The frontispiece of Humfrey Wanley’s catalogue of Old English manuscripts, printed at Oxford at the Sheldonian Theatre in 1705
Wanley is an example to modern cataloguers. We certainly hope to follow in his footsteps as we re-catalogue the Harleian collection to modern standards and make records of the Harley manuscripts accessible in our online manuscripts catalogue.
You can read more about Humfrey Wanley here:
The Diary of Humfrey Wanley 1715-1726, ed. by Cyril Ernest Wright and Ruth C. Wright, 2 vols (London: Bibliographical Society, 1966).
Deirdre Jackson, 'Humfrey Wanley and the Harley Collection', Electronic British Library Journal (2011), article 2 [pp. 1–20].
Michael Murphy, 'Humfrey Wanley on How to Run a Scholarly Library', The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, 52:2 (1982), 145–55.
Cyril Ernest Wright, ‘Humfrey Wanley: Saxonist and Library-Keeper’, Proceedings of the British Academy, 46 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960), pp. 99–129.
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