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285 posts categorized "Anglo-Saxons"

07 August 2019

Holiday reading matter

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Are you looking for something to read over the holiday season? Then look no further than some of the books which have accompanied our major exhibitions, ranging from Writing: Making Your Mark to Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms.

Writing

Writing: Making Your Mark is on at the British Library until 27 August. The book, featuring contributions by the exhibition curators and other experts, is available from the Library shop (hardback £30). 

Leo

The exhibition book for Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion, edited by guest curator Juliana Barone, is also available from our shop (£20), and is written by leading Leonardo scholars from across Italy, including the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

Ask

The catalogue for our stupendous Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War exhibition (which ended earlier this year), edited by Claire Breay and Jo Story, is still available in paperback (£25).

Hpbook

Finally, if Harry Potter is your thing, why not indulge yourself in a copy of the book written especially for Harry Potter: A History of Magic? Published by Bloomsbury in association with the British Library, the version designed especially for younger audiences can be purchased here (£9.99).

Writing: Making Your Mark is on at the British Library until 27 August 2019.

The run of Leonardo: A Mind in Motion extends until 8 September 2019.

 

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30 July 2019

New Anglo-Saxon acquisition on display

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Earlier this year, the British Library was delighted to acquire a leaf of an Anglo-Saxon benedictional (a service book used by a bishop). At the time we reported that, despite its fragmentary nature, this manuscript was of great significance for the study of 10th-century English political and religious culture. In particular, we observed that its script pointed to an early date of production, and that it was related textually to other benedictionals from Anglo-Saxon England, most notably the Benedictional of St Æthelwold.

We are pleased to announce that this manuscript (Add MS 89378) is now on display in our Treasures Gallery, in a display case devoted to new acquisitions. This gallery is free to visit and is open seven days a week. The benedictional leaf can be viewed in the same room as other iconic treasures, such as Magna Carta, the Shakespeare First Folio, the Beatles' lyrics, and a letter of the 19th-century computing pioneer, Ada Lovelace.

Leaf1

Given that this display coincides with the Library's major temporary exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, we thought it might be worth making a few remarks on the handwriting of the benedictional leaf. Most unusually, when compared with other surviving Anglo-Saxon benedictionals, it is written in English square minuscule. This script gained currency in 10th-century England during the reigns of King Athelstan (924–939) and his successors. It is characterised by its 'square' letter-forms, as shown, for instance, by the shape of a, c, d, e, g. We reproduce both pages here (the recto, above, is on show in Treasures) to give a flavour of this unusual script.

Our readers may also be interested to know that two leaves of the same benedictional (separated in the 1970s) are now in collections in the USA (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University, Houghton Library, Typ 612; New Haven, CT, Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Takamiya MS 89). In time we hope that they can be digitally re-united, and that researchers will be able to learn more about their production and usage.

Leaf2

 

Julian Harrison

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23 July 2019

Reading the runes in Beowulf (so seaxy)

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Students of the Old English epic poem Beowulf (which survives uniquely in Cotton MS Vitellius A XV) may be familiar with the fight between our hero and Grendel’s monstrous mother, and the part played in that encounter by a marvellous sword. As the pair tussle, Beowulf stumbles and falls to the floor. His opponent stabs him with a knife, and he is only saved by his chain mail. Beowulf then sees a sweord eotenisc (a sword of giants, l. 1558), which he grabs and uses to kill Grendel’s mother. Seeing Grendel’s corpse, Beowulf uses the same sword to cut the monster’s head from his body. As soon as Grendel’s blood touches it, the blade melts away like ice and only the hilt is left intact.

Later, when Beowulf returns to Heorot — the hall of the Geatish people — the sword hilt is examined by Hrothgar, their king:

Hroðgar maðelode,   hylt sceawode,

Ealde lafe, on ðæm wæs or writen

fyrngewinnes,   syðþan flod ofsloh,

gifen geotende,   giganta cyn  (ll. 1687–90)

('Hrothgar spoke, the hilt he examined,
— the ancient relic — where was written
of that primordial war, when the flood slew,
with raging waves, the race of giants')

Cotton_ms_vitellius_a_xv_f170r

A page from Beowulf describing the marvellous sword: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 170r

The poet goes on to describe this strange sword in more detail.

Swa wæs on ðæm scennum sciran goldes

Þurh runstafas rihte gemearcod,

            geseted ond gesæd hwam þæt sweord geworht,

            irena cyst,   ærest wære,

            wreoþenhilt ond wyrmfah.     (ll. 1694–98a)

('On those guards of shining gold
were runic staves, rightly marked

Their set-down shapes told a tale: for whom that sword was wrought,
best of irons, in bygone days,
with twisted hilt and serpent patterns.')

Beowulf is not easy to translate, but there are examples of ‘hypermetric lines’ in many Old English poems, including at ll. 1705–07 of Beowulf. What is important is that the sword is described as gemearcod (marked) with runstafas (runic staves). These markings gesetod ond gesæd, literally ‘set-down and said’ or ‘established and told’, the story of the sword’s original commissioner. This is quite a sword! It tells the story of the flood that killed the giants — usually thought to be a reference to the Biblical flood — and also the story, in snaking patterns and runic staves, of its own creation.

What kind of sword was the poet imagining? What was the significance of runes for the poet? What, indeed, are runes? The runic alphabet was used to write Germanic languages before the Latin alphabet arrived along with Christian missionaries. Runes are generally straight sided, hard-lined beasts. There are no round shapes in the letters as traditionally formed, probably because this made them easier to carve into wood and stone. The runic alphabet and the Latin alphabet were used in tandem in Anglo-Saxon England, and they were on friendly terms — two runic letters routinely appeared in Old English texts written in the Latin alphabet. The first was Þ (lowercase þ), which makes a ‘th’ sound. Runic letters also have names — this one is called thorn, which means ‘thorn’ in Modern English. The second runic letter was Ƿ (lowercase ƿ), which equates to a modern ‘w’. Its name is wynn, which means ‘joy’ (whence we get Modern English ‘winsome’).  

These two runes appear most commonly in Old English texts written in the Latin alphabet (although the ƿ is often changed to ‘w’ in modern editions). But they weren’t the only runes that made their way into texts written in the Latin alphabet. In fact, runes crop up quite frequently in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. The poet Cynewulf (one of the very few named poets from the Anglo-Saxon period) embedded runic signatures in his works, some of the riddles of the Exeter Book contain runes, and they also appear in the Beowulf manuscript, on the very same folio where Grendel’s sword hilt is described.

Cotton_ms_vitellius_a_xv_f170r wynn thorn copy

Runes in the Beowulf manuscript: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 170r

On this folio you can see an abundance of the commonly occurring runic letters, ƿ and þ, but 8 lines from the bottom, on the tattered, right-hand edge of the folio, you can see something quite unusual in this manuscript — ᛟ the ethel rune. Ethel means estate or homeland and here the scribe used it as an abbreviation for the first element in the compound ethelweard, meaning guardian of the homeland (weard means ‘guardian’ giving us Modern English ‘warden’). 

Cotton_ms_vitellius_a_xv_f170r + ethel

Runstafas and the ethel rune: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 170r

Why did the scribe chose the runic abbreviation at this point? Were they prompted by the reference to runstafas a few lines earlier? This brings us back to the sweord eotenisc, the sword of giants. In considering what kind of sword the poet was imagining, archaeology provides some clues. Those of you lucky enough to visit our recent Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition may remember the Seax of Beagnoth, also known as the Thames Scramasax, a 10th-century Anglo Saxon seax (a long, single-edged knife) on loan from the British Museum. On its blade the seax boasts the only complete carved Anglo-Saxon futhorc, or runic alphabet, as well as the name ‘Beagnoþ’ ᛒᛠᚷᚾᚩᚦ, who is assumed to be its commissioner or creator.

Seax

The Seax of Beagnoth: British Museum 1857,0623.1

This seax does not contain a narrative of the kind described in Beowulf. As yet, no weapons have been discovered that have a narrative inscribed on them, and it’s hard to imagine one having enough space to tell such a story. Perhaps, in describing these runstafas, the poet was not imagining a written text as we would know it today. Perhaps the runes on the sword hilt weren’t meant to be read, but more to prompt the recollection of a particular story. Maybe the runes made by giants were more than just letters — they conveyed something powerful. Maybe the first scribe of Beowulf (only the first of the text’s two scribes used the ethel rune) echoed that power as only a scribe could, by including their own runic abbreviation just a few lines later.

If you’re intrigued by any of these questions, then why not book a place on the Library’s Adult Learning course: Writing in Medieval England, 3–4 August. There are only a few places left, so get your ticket now! Meantime, don’t forget to visit our exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark, which closes on 27 August.

 

Mary Wellesley

06 July 2019

Medieval cures for lung disease, gout and vertigo

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Even after the Normans conquered England, Old English (the oldest form of the vernacular) continued to be spoken throughout the country. It continued to be used in books produced in  monasteries there for at least a century after William the Conqueror’s invasion.

One excellent example of this is found in the Old English Illustrated Herbal. Originally made in Canterbury in the early 11th century, this manuscript contains Old English translations of a collection of Latin remedies, illustrated with numerous paintings of plants and animals. You can read more about its history in Taylor McCall’s article on Medical knowledge in the early medieval period, as well as in this earlier blogpost.

Cotton_ms_vitellius_c_iii_f081v

 

(Image 1) cotton_ms_vitellius_c_iii_f082r

Illustrations of a lion, a bull, a monkey, a bear and a dog alongside Old English medical recipes, in the Old English Illustrated Herbal (Canterbury, 1st quarter of the 11th century): Cotton MS Vitellius C III, ff. 81v–82r

To judge by its additions and annotations, this manuscript continued to be read for many years after its production. During the 12th century, scribes at Canterbury were still adding new recipes to it, which were also written in the vernacular.

One added remedy is a cure for lung disease (Wið lungen adle), made from a mixture of herbs with warm ale. Another claims to be seo seleste eahsalf wið ehpærce (the best eye salve for eye pain). There is even a medical treatment for gout, entitled Wið fot adle (Against foot disease).

(Image 3) cotton_ms_vitellius_c_iii_f083r

A page of Old English medical recipes added in the 12th century, including a treatment for gout (column 2, lines 1–15): Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 83r

This remedy describes a recipe for a drink — a mixture of wine, leeks, cumin and laurel berries — that a patient should take every day until the disease is cured:

Wið fot adle 7 wið þone dropan nim datulus þa wyrt oðer nama titulosa þæt is on ure geþeoda þæt greata crauleac nim þes leaces heafda 7 dryg swiðe 7 nim ðer of þriddan healves penincges gewihte 7 peretreo 7 romanisce rinda  7 cymen 7 feorðan del lauwerberian 7 þera oðera wyrta ælces healves penincges gewihta 7 vi piper corn unwegen 7 grind ealle to duste 7 do win tra aeg faille fulle þis is foð læcæcræft fyle þan men drincan oþ ðæt he hal fy.

('Against foot rot (gout) and against wrist-drop: take the wort hermodactylus, known by another name titulosa that in our own language is called the ‘great crow leek’. Take the heads of this leek and dry them thoroughly, and take a weight amounting to two and a half pennies, and pyrethrum and Roman rinds and cumin and one fourth as much laurel berries, and of the other worts, each by weight of a half penny and six pepper corns, unweighed, and grind them all to dust. And add two egg shells full of wine: this is a true leechcraft. Give it to the man to drink till he is whole again.')

These 12th-century additions occur throughout the herbal. On one occasion, two medical recipes were added to a previously blank page, opposite a large illustration of a man and a centaur presenting a book in a landscape surrounded by animals. The image is captioned Escolapius Plato Centaurus.

Cotton_ms_vitellius_c_iii_f018v

Cotton_ms_vitellius_c_iii_f019r

Old English medical recipes added in the 12th century, facing a representation of a man and a centaur presenting a book: Cotton MS Vitellius C III, ff. 18v–19r

One of these added recipes purports to be a remedy for vertigo or giddiness. It instructs the reader to:

Nim betonica 7 wæll swyðe on win oþþa on ald ealað 7 wæse þæt heafod mid þam wose 7 leg fiððen þæt wyrt swa wærm abutan þæt heafod 7 wrið mid claðe 7 læt swab eon ealla niht.

('Take betony and boil it thoroughly in wine or in old ale, and wash the head with the infusion, and then lay the wort, so warm, about the head, and wreathe with it a cloth, and leave it there all night.')

While it is hard to determine the effectiveness of such cures, this addition to an older Anglo-Saxon book does reveal the continued use of English a century after William's victory at the Battle of Hastings. If you'd like to know more about writing in the vernacular in the 12th century, why not take a look at this article featured on our website.

 

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02 July 2019

Insular Manuscripts: Networks of Knowledge

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For the last three years, the ‘Insular Manuscripts: Networks of Knowledge’ project has been investigating the large number of manuscripts written in insular scripts between the mid-7th and the mid-9th centuries. The project aims to examine knowledge exchange in early medieval Europe through analysis of these manuscripts. Some of the manuscripts were written in Britain and Ireland, but many were written in Francia and northern Italy, in monasteries which had been founded by missionaries from Ireland and the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

Cotton_ms_nero_d_4_f031v

A text page from the Lindisfarne Gospels, made around 700: Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 31v. This manuscript is currently on display in the Library's major exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark.

So far, the project has recorded 844 items originating from at least 668 different manuscripts that were written in insular scripts between 650 and 850, in addition to 72 original Anglo-Saxon charters written before 850. Only 321 (38%) of the 844 items were definitely or probably written in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms or Ireland, and only 136 of those are still held in Britain or Ireland. The other 185 items written in Ireland or the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms are now held elsewhere. The majority were apparently early medieval exports to Francia and many are now held in libraries alongside even greater numbers of manuscripts in insular scripts that were produced in Francia itself.

Evangelia_quattuor_[Evangiles_dits_d'Echternach_[...]_btv1b530193948_45

The beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, in the Echternach Gospels: Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France, ms lat. 9389, f. 20r

As a result of the programmes in many libraries to digitise their medieval manuscripts, over 60% of the manuscripts written in insular scripts have now been digitised in some form, transforming opportunities for new research. (In the case of the British Library, you can find all our digitised content on our Digitised Manuscripts site.)

Egerton_ms_2831_f110r

Jerome's commentary on Isaiah (Marmoutiers, 2nd quarter of the 8th century: Egerton MS 2831, f. 110r

The third workshop in the project focused on ‘Knowledge Exchange: People and Places’, and was hosted last month in Vienna by Bernhard Zeller at the Institut für Mittelalterforschung der Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften. (Details of the programme and paper summaries are available on the project website.) The workshop included a visit to the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, to see a selection of manuscripts written in insular scripts, introduced by Andreas Fingernagel, Head of Manuscripts and Rare Books.

Insular MSS

Members of the Insular Manuscripts workshop in Vienna

The meeting in Vienna was the final workshop in a series of three, as part of the project which has been generously funded by the Leverhulme Trust. This workshop followed the first in London in April 2017 on ‘Methods of Making’ and the second in Dublin and Galway in June 2018 on ‘Digital Potential’. As the project draws to a close, the project partners will be considering the next steps to take forward their research questions, and the data compiled by the project on all known manuscripts written in insular scripts will be posted on the project website by the end of this year.

 

Claire Breay

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29 June 2019

Noah's Ark and the Anglo-Saxons

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When our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition ended recently, you might have been forgiven for thinking that little more remains to be discovered about this crucial period of early medieval history. It's highly unusual for unknown Anglo-Saxon manuscripts to come to light (although we did recently purchase a leaf formerly in private hands), while archaeological finds like the Staffordshire Hoard and the Winfarthing Pendant are still extreme rarities. We are delighted, therefore, to reveal that new technologies can enable us to uncover more about the Anglo-Saxon past.

Some of our readers may be familiar with the Old English Orosius, Add MS 47967 is the earliest surviving copy of a vernacular translation of the Historiarum adversus Paganos Libri Septem (Seven Books of History against the Pagans), a history of the world written by Paulus Orosius (d. after 418). This manuscript was probably copied in Winchester during the reign of King Alfred the Great (r. 871–899) and it may have been part of Alfred’s programme to translate important Latin works into Old English.

At the very end of this copy is a faded page of text (f. 87v), nearly impossible to read, although N. R. Ker attempted a transcription in his Catalogue of Manuscripts containing Anglo-Saxon (1957). Now, with the help of multi-spectral imaging technology employed by Dr Christina Duffy at the Library, we have been able to produce a clearer photograph of the page, unveiling more of the text it contains.

(Image 1) add_ms_47967_f087v

(Image 2) CompositeR_PCAG_PCAB_13

Before and after: the page of faded text at the end of the Old English Orosius, and after undergoing multispectral imaging: Add MS 47967, f. 87v

The Old English written here comprises a long note that provides details relating to the Bible, specifically the ages of Adam, Noah, his sons and their wives, and the dimensions of the Ark. The text reads as follows:

Adam lifede nigon hund geara 7 XXX geara [...] Noe lifede ær ðam flode syx hund geara 7 æfter ðam flode ðryo hund wintra 7 fiftig wintra 7 he wæs innan ðære earc feowertig daga he 7 his ðryo suna Sem. Cham. 7 Iapheh 7 hyra ðryo wif seo earc waes ðryo hund faeðma lang 7 fiftig faeðma wid. 7 ðryttig faeðma heah. 7 his sunu Sem. Lifede syx hund geara. 7 ðryo 7 ðryttig geara his sunu hatte Arfaxad se lifode feower hund geara 7 eahta 7 ðryttig geara. Ða gestrynde he sunu se hatte heber. Of him asprang ðaet ‘h’ebreisc folc.’

('Adam lived for 930 years. Noah lived 600 years before the Flood and 350 winters after it and he was in the Ark for 40 days, he and his three sons Shem, Ham and Japheth and their three wives. The Ark was 300 fathoms long, 50 fathoms wide, and 30 fathoms high. And his son Shem lived 630 years and his son Arfaxad lived 438 years. Then he begat a son called Heber. From him sprung forth the ‘Hebrew’ people.')

Comparable examples of this type of Old English text survive from other early manuscripts. At the end of a 12th-century copy of excerpts from the Disticha Catonis (Cotton MS Julius A II) is a series of notes written in the vernacular.

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A page of notes written in Old English: Cotton MS Julius A II, f. 140v

This text concerns a variety of subjects, including the names of the two thieves who were crucified next to Christ, the Temple of Solomon and the Church of St Peter in Rome, the dimensions of the world, and the number of bones in the human body. There is also a note that, like the faded text in the Old English Orosius, details the measurements of Noah’s Ark.

Noes arc waes iii hund fedma lang 7 fiftig wid 7 ðritig heah.

('Noah’s Ark was 300 fathoms long and 50 fathoms wide and 30 fathoms high.')

The story of Noah and his sons, and the building of the Ark, seems to have been popular in Anglo-Saxon England. Many of the surviving genealogical lists of Anglo-Saxon kings, for example, feature Noah prominently. The West Saxon Regnal List tell us that the line of the kings of Wessex, the dominant kingdom of Anglo-Saxon England from the late 9th century onwards, was descended from the Old Testament patriarch, through his fourth son Sceaf, said to have been born on the Ark itself. This work survives in a miscellany of astronomical, geographical and theological material, made in England during the second quarter of the 11th century.

(Image 4) cotton_ms_tiberius_b_v!1_f023r

This copy of the West Saxon Regnal List states that the West Saxon kings were descended from Noah, through his fourth son Sceaf: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 23r

In the same manuscript, a mappa mundi or ‘map of the world’ shows where the Ark is thought to have come to land. Here, its final resting place (marked with a drawing of the Ark itself) is identified as east of the Black Sea, close to the mountain ranges of Armenia.

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A map of the world from the Anglo-Saxon miscellany, showing the location of Noah’s Ark: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 56v

Meanwhile, the artists of the Old English Hexateuch (Cotton MS Claudius B IV), written around the same time, were particularly inspired by Noah’s story and included several illustrations to accompany the account of Noah and his sons from the book of Genesis. These colourful framed images show the various phases of the Ark’s construction, the loading of the animals, the Ark at sea and the animals leaving the Ark with Noah and his family, once the waters had retreated.

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The animals leaving the Ark after the Flood has subsided, from the Old English Hexateuch: Cotton MS Claudius B IV, f. 15v

We are very excited to have been able to read the page in the Orosius manuscript for perhaps the first time in a thousand years. This is proof that there are many more discoveries to be made, which collectively will enable us to build up a more detailed picture of pre-Conquest history.

 

Visit our Medieval England and France website to discover how to make a medieval manuscript, to read beastly tales from the medieval bestiary, and to learn about medieval science, medicine and monastic libraries.

 

Calum Cockburn

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26 June 2019

History Today Trustees' Award 2019

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We are thrilled to announce that Claire Breay, Head of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts at the British Library, has received this year's Longman-History Today Trustees' Award. This honour is in recognition of Claire's efforts to promote history in the public sphere, culminating most recently in the Library's once-in-a-generation (or should that be once-in-a-millennium?!) Anglo-Saxons Kingdoms exhibition. Claire received her award from Paul Lay, editor of History Today, pictured with her below, and in characteristic style she paid tribute to her colleagues across the British Library, together with Professor Simon Keynes and Professor Joanna Story, who advised on the exhibition, as well as her husband (for remembering to feed her family while she was otherwise occupied).

Claire

Speaking on behalf of the judges, Paul Lay remarked that Claire deserved the Trustees' Award for a string of major achievements, which include curating the Library's exhibition Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy in 2015, and for co-editing (with Jo Story) the catalogue which accompanied Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. Many of our readers will be aware that this most recent exhibition brought together for the first time a significant number of the most precious early English treasures, including the four Old English poetic codices, items from Sutton Hoo and the Staffordshire Hoard, Domesday Book and (one of our particular favourites) Spong Man. Also on display was the mightily impressive (and phenomenally heavy) Codex Amiatinus, which had been returned temporarily to these shores for the first time in 1,300 years. Securing agreement to borrow these manuscripts and artefacts was no mean feat. As Claire pointed out in her acceptance speech, this enabled us to tell the story of a critical period of early medieval history alongside many of the Library's own Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, a remarkable number of which belong to the Cotton collection.

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Claire Breay with the Lindisfarne Gospels (Cotton MS Nero D IV), prior to it being installed in the exhibition

We are delighted that Claire has been honoured in this way, and hope that you join us in congratulating her.

 

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11 June 2019

The Ruin of Britain

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Very few texts survive that were written in Britain between the 5th and 7th centuries. We have works by just two named authors from that period. One was a shepherd, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery and became the patron saint of Ireland, none other than St Patrick. The other wrote one of the most influential rants in British history.

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A page from the earliest substantial copy of Gildas's The Ruin of Britain, made possibly in Canterbury in the 10th century: Cotton MS Vitellius A VI, f. 14v

The ranter in question was Gildas, a Romano-British deacon and monk. Sometime between the late 5th century and the 6th century, he wrote The Ruin of Britain, which describes a time of dramatic change, when the Roman legions had left Britain and the Romano-British population was under attack from invaders:

‘I shall try, God willing, to say a little about the situation of Britain; about her obstinacy, subjection, and rebellion ... the destruction of cities; about those who survived’: Gildas: The Ruin of Britain and other works, ed. and trans. by Michael Winterbottom (London: Phillimore, 1978), p. 16.

As this quotation suggests, The Ruin of Britain is a moralising polemic that condemned the British lay and ecclesiastical leaders. The text is full of examples and quotations from the Bible. Although Gildas's account is vivid, he was not an eyewitness: most of the events he described occurred before he was born.

A fragment of The Ruin of Britain survives in a late 9th- or early 10th-century continental copy (now in Bibliothèque Carnegie de Reims, MS 414). The oldest substantial copy was made in southern England in the mid-10th century (British Library Cotton MS Vitellius A VI). Sadly, this manuscript was significantly damaged by fire in 1731.

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The pages of this manuscript of The Ruin of Britain were damaged by fire in 1731, before being placed in paper mounts in the 19th century: Cotton MS Vitellius A VI, f. 7v

In The Ruin of Britain, Gildas depicted the defeats and natural disasters suffered by the Britons as divine punishment for their sins. He claimed that Romano-British leaders had invited three ship-loads of Saxons to protect them from Pictish invaders, but these Saxons had turned on their hosts and become an even worse enemy. Gildas described vividly how whole settlements were put to the sword, ‘fragments of bodies covered with coagulated clots of red blood, in confusion as if in some kind of horrible wine press’ (translated by Hugh Williams, Gildas (London, 1899)). Some Britons surrendered to the invaders, others fled into the mountains or deep into forests, others still migrated to the continent. Some resisted, such as Ambrosius Aurelianus, who reputedly defeated the invaders at Mons Badonicus in the year that Gildas was born.

While Gildas praised leaders like Ambrosius, he did not mince his words about the Romano-British kings and churchmen of his own day: ‘Britain has kings, but they are tyrants: she has judges, but they are unrighteous men’. Gildas singled out five kings in particular for condemnation: Constantine, king of Dumnonia (the area around modern Cornwall and Devon); Aurelius Caninus; grey-haired Vortipor of the Demetae (in what is now Pembrokeshire); Cuneglas, who probably ruled the area around the Dinarth Rhos peninsula; and Maelgwn of Gwynedd. Gildas accused all these men of murder and adultery. He saved his fiercest criticism for the most powerful British king, Maelgwn:

‘And you, island dragon … greater than almost all the kings of Britain, but worse in morality ... You are certainly not lacking in warnings, since you were taught by the finest teacher in almost all of Britain.’

It is unclear what happened to Gildas after he wrote The Ruin of Britain. Some have suggested that he migrated to Brittany, like many other Britons, since there was a Breton monastery dedicated to St Gildas. But there is no firm evidence for this. Gildas was remembered as a saint by the Anglo-Saxons, and his name is found in eight pre-Conquest calendars of saints' days.

Ironically, Gildas’s writings survive to this day in part because the Anglo-Saxons that he so despised continued to quote him. For example, Bede (d. 735) used The Ruin of Britain as one of his sources for the history of post-Roman Britain.

GildasTheRuinofBritaincottonmsvitelliusavif015r

The most substantial surviving manuscript of The Ruin of Britain was copied in England in the 10th century: Cotton MS Vitellius A VI, f. 15r

Three centuries years later, Archbishop Wulfstan of York (d. 1023) used Gildas as cautionary tale, to try to galvanise English resistance to the Scandinavian invasions:

‘There was a historian in the time of the Britons, Gildas, who wrote about their misdeeds, how they exasperated God with their sins so much that He finally allowed the English army to conquer their land … Let us take warning from this: it is true what I say, we know of worse deeds among the English than we have heard of among the Britons.’

The Ruin of Britain had long-lasting effects, even they were not what Gildas intended. He may not have swayed the leaders of his own day, and it is clear that the Germanic invaders became dominant in southern Britannia. The Ruin of Britain nonetheless had a major impact on some later writers. It remains the principal (near) contemporary narrative account of the momentous events of the 5th and 6th centuries.

 

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Alison Hudson

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