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96 posts categorized "Animals"

19 March 2019

Let sleeping cranes lie

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The RSPB has reported that the crane is coming back to Britain, with a record number of new birds reported in recent years. We have similarly found many cranes hidden in the British Library’s medieval bestiaries, manuscripts full of fantastic stories about all manner of birds and beasts.

A bird with great wings and long thin legs, the crane’s Latin name — grus — was thought to derive from the hoarse cry of her voice. The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project has created an animation that tells the story of the life of the bird and her flock, based on an account in an illustrated bestiary (Harley MS 4751). You can watch it here.

Cranes are not solitary creatures. They fly together as a flock, arranging themselves with military discipline high up in the air. According to this medieval bestiary, the birds swallow sand before they take off. Watch the animation to find out why.

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A crane guards the rest of her flock, holding a rock in her claws, in a bestiary with additions from Gerald of Wales’ Topographia Hibernica (Salisbury, late 12th century–early 13th century): Harley MS 4751, f. 39r

At night, the cranes are known for keeping a careful watch, guarding their camp and looking over the rest of the flock as they sleep. Other birds act as sentries, looking out for any enemies who might attack them. When there is cause for alarm, the cranes call out, to wake the rest and make sure they are safe.

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A pair of cranes alongside a Latin description of the bird in an early illustrated bestiary (England, 4th quarter of the 12th century): Add MS 11283, f. 17r

On duty, the crane has a particularly surprising way of keeping awake: she holds a stone in her claws. If she falls asleep, the stone will fall to the ground, make a noise and wake her up. Representations of this behaviour were common in early medieval bestiaries, and the crane’s vigilance and loyalty to her flock were regarded as particularly admirable traits.

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Sleeping cranes in an illustrated bestiary (England, c. 1200–c. 1210): Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 40r

We would love you to explore more stories of birds and beasts from the bestiary. Check out this brilliant discussion on our website, entitled Beastly tales from the medieval bestiary.

 

Calum Cockburn

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12 March 2019

A useful companion for a scholar: cats in the Middle Ages

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Who am I?

'I am a most faithful watchwoman, ever-vigilant in guarding the halls; in the dark nights I make my rounds of the shadowy corners — my eyes’ light is not lost even in black caverns. For unseen thieves, who ravage the heaped-up grain, I silently lay snares as fatal obstacles. Though I am a roving huntress and will pry open the dens of beasts, I refuse to pursue the fleeing herds with dogs, who, yapping at me, instigate cruel battles. I take my name from a race that is hateful to me.'

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A decorated initial featuring a cock, a dog biting a cat, and a cat carrying mice, at the beginning of book 16 of Gregory the Great's Moralia in Job (Arnstein, Germany, 12th century): Harley MS 3053, f. 56v

The answer is, of course, a cat. This riddle was posed by Aldhelm, abbot of Malmesbury, in 7th-century England. It is a striking portrait of an animal that was, it seems, especially important to those in religious life during the Middle Ages. In the Ancrene Riwle, a guide for anchoresses written in the early 13th century these religious women, who were shutting themselves away from the world, were only allowed to have one animal companion … and that was a cat. Medieval monks and nuns, leading sometimes solitary but often studious lives, immortalised their beloved feline companions in texts that have captivated their readers ever since.

Perhaps the most famous tribute to a scholar’s cat is the 9th-century poem known as Pangur Bán, named after the cat that inspired it (the cat’s name indicates his soft, white coat). Written in Old Irish, by an Irish monk in exile in Continental Europe, it playfully and fondly compares the monk’s arduous tasks to those of his cat.

I and Pangur Bán my cat,
‘Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.

Better far than praise of men
‘Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill-will,
He too plies his simple skill.

‘Tis a merry task to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.

Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur’s way;
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.

‘Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
‘Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.

When a mouse darts from its den,
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!

So in peace our task we ply,
Pangur Bán, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.

Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.

(translated by Robin Flower)

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A miniature of a cat and mouse, from a herbal (Italy, 15th century): Sloane MS 4016, f. 40r

The nameless monk who was so fond of his cat came from a society (early medieval Ireland) in which there was an entire section of the law-code devoted to cats, so his love of his snow-white companion is perhaps not so surprising. The central tract on cats in medieval Irish law was called Catslechta — ‘Cat-sections’ — and detailed not only the types of cat (herders, mousers, guard cats, but also kittens as playmates for children and simple pet cats) but also what was due to an owner for the loss of such cats, as well as certain exemptions available to cats in the pursuit of their duties. For example, a cat was not held to be liable if it injured someone who had no business being there while it was chasing a mouse. There is a respect for and a tolerance of cats in domestic settings within the medieval Irish law codes, which indicate a high importance and affection attached to these domestic creatures. Little wonder then that one of the most famous of medieval poems about a cat evolved from such a society. 

Cats were appreciated as both companions and skilled mousers during the Middle Ages. There is no doubt that many cats were a valuable and beloved part of people’s domestic life whether in the cloister or the wider world. Cats were not only useful animals to have around but also loving companions whose loyalty alleviated loneliness and whose antics amused their owners no end — some of which have become immortalised in literature — from the Middle Ages and beyond.

These authors’ fascination with and love for their cats continues to shine through the centuries as can be seen in the Cats on the Page exhibition currently running at the British Library.

For more feline capers, you may be interested in our blogposts Lolcats of the Middle Ages, Cats, get off the page! and Cat and mouse, and hairy elephants.

The British Library’s Cats on the Page exhibition explores cats and their capers in rhymes and stories familiar to us from childhood. Whether raising a smile, solving a crime, wreaking magical havoc or even performing in theatre, cats take centre stage in this free exhibition. Cats come to life in books manuscripts and artwork to captivate and inspire audiences. 

Cats on the Page is supported by Animal Friends Pet Insurance Experts and is open until 17 March 2019. Visit now to avoid missing this fantastic exhibition.

 

Dr Gillian Kenny

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27 December 2018

Cats, get off the page!

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The British Library’s current free exhibition, Cats on the Page, celebrates the role that cats have played in literature and book illustration. In the interests of fairness and balance, we thought that we should point out the shameful times when cats on the page were a very literal problem for our medieval manuscripts. Join our manuscript detectives for some crime-scene reconstruction.

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A 12th-century copy of Gregory the Great, Registrum epistolarum, from the cathedral priory of St Andrew, Rochester: Royal MS 6 C X, f. 19v.

Ellie: What a CATastrophe! This 12th-century copy of Pope Gregory the Great’s letters is covered in muddy paw-prints.

Kate: Judging from the position of the four muddy paw-prints, it looks as though a crafty cat jumped onto the corner of the page. Did it step away backwards or was it lifted off carefully before it could get any further? A couple of the prints are quite distinct and not scuffed, as you’d expect if the cat had struggled or been pushed off the page.

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Royal MS 6 C X, f. 19v (detail).

Ellie: Perhaps the crime scene looked something like this evangelist portrait of St Mark from a Flemish Book of Hours. The picture shows St Mark as a scholar writing in a domestic setting, his books piled up by his side. He’s so absorbed in his work that he hasn’t noticed the cat prowling in the background. Let’s hope that this furry intruder keeps its paws to itself.

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Evangelist portrait of St Mark in a Flemish Book of Hours, c. 1500: Add MS 35313, f. 16v.

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An English copy of Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae, from the 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 12th century: Burney MS 326, f. 104v.

Kate: Another cat may have been a little less lucky. This 12th-century copy of Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies may show signs of a human/feline struggle. One muddy paw-print is very clear at the top of the page, but the others, which number perhaps ten or more and cover about half of the written page, are severely scuffed. It seems that the cat did not want to be evicted from the nice seat it had found, while the reader may not have been so pleased to see dirty marks all over a fine copy of the Middle Ages’ greatest encyclopaedia!

Ellie: Or maybe there’s another explanation. In the Etymologies, Isidore wrote that cats are called ‘mousers’ because they are troublesome to mice, or ‘cats’ because they are good at catching things. Perhaps the feline troublemaker who prowled across this page was pursuing a mouse at the time. We know that in the Middle Ages, cats were kept mostly for their rodent-catching abilities. Perhaps we are looking at the traces of a high-speed cat-and-mouse chase through the monastic library?

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A cat toys with a mouse in the margins of the Luttrell Psalter, England, 1325–1340: Add MS 42130, f. 190r.

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A compilation of Middle English poetry, 1457–c 1530: Royal MS 18 D II, f. 205v.

Ellie: These verses in Middle English offer guidance on how to lead a wise and virtuous life. The poet included words of wisdom such as ‘make no wronge informacion’, ‘Meddill litill’ and ‘grownde thyn entent upon charite’. But they forgot to mention one important piece of life advice — always keep your books out of reach of cats.

The two paw-prints in the middle of the page suggest that the feline felon leapt onto it from afar. It is pawsible — I mean, possible — that the guilty culprit was a pet of Henry Algernon Percy, earl of Northumberland, who ordered this part of the manuscript to be made between c. 1516 and 1527.

Kate: Although all these manuscripts date from the Middle Ages, we cannot say for certain when the cats made their mark. Manuscripts could be read and used for centuries, by monastic communities, wealthy families and later collectors. Any one of these might have found a pesky feline brushing up against their manuscript.

Ellie: Sounds like these crimes against manuscripts will have to remain unsolved.

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A calendar scene for January in a Flemish Book of Hours, c. 1500: Add MS 35313, f. 1v (detail). Not content with ruining its owners’ books, this cat is now contemplating their roast dinner.

If you love cats and books, we highly recommend visiting the British Library’s free exhibition, Cats on the Page, open until Sunday 17 March 2019.

Two of these manuscripts — Burney MS 326 and Royal MS 6 C X — have been digitised for the Polonsky Foundation England and France 700-1200 project. To find out more about medieval cats, take a look at our previous blog post, or learn about medieval views on animals through the Polonsky Foundation project article, ‘Beastly tales from the medieval bestiary’.

 

Eleanor Jackson and Kate Thomas

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21 December 2018

A whiskered beast

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A whiskered beast of woods, I shred each boar,

Though armed with tusks, and antlered stags that roar;

Crushing bears’ forearms doesn’t give me pause.

Lips bloody, I don’t fear wolves’ teeth or jaws

And dread no terror by high royal right;

I sleep wide-eyed, with my jewelled beams closed tight.

(A.M. Juster, Saint Aldhelm’s Riddles, Toronto, 2015, pp. 22–23)

 

This riddle was composed over 1,300 years ago by the Anglo-Saxon author Aldhelm. Big whiskers, ferocious, regal, never closes its eyes. Have you worked it out? It refers, of course, to the lion, the king of beasts.

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The lion of St Mark in the Echternach Gospels: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS lat. 9389, f. 75v

There are some fabulous 'Anglo-Saxon' lions currently on show in the British Library's once-in-a-generation Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. It's been described (by Melanie McDonagh for the Evening Standard) as 'by some distance, the most significant exhibition in London'. The manuscripts featuring the lions are displayed alongside other artistic, historical and literary treasures, from Sutton Hoo and the Staffordshire Hoard to Beowulf and Domesday Book.

Where would you have expected to see a lion in Anglo-Saxon England? The answer, most likely, was in a gospelbook. A lion, a winged man, an eagle and a calf or ox were the symbols of the four writers of the gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, as described in Ezekiel 1.5–11 and Revelation 4.6–7:

‘And in the sight of the throne was, as it were, a sea of glass like to crystal; and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four living creatures, full of eyes before and behind.

And the first living creature was like a lion: and the second living creature like a calf: and the third living creature, having the face, as it were, of a man: and the fourth living creature was like an eagle flying.’

The lion was associated with St Mark, whose gospel begins with a ‘voice crying out in the wilderness’ (Mark 1:3).

The image at the beginning of this blogpost is found in the spectacular Echternach Gospels. Helpfully, it is labelled ‘IMAGO LEONIS’. The lion itself leaps out of a maze of lines, which form an irregular cross. Its fur is drawn in a stylised, geometric manner and is coloured in yellow (representing gold) and a reddish-pink. It is impossible to tell precisely where this manuscript was made. Its 'Insular style' of decoration is typical of artwork produced around the year 700 in Ireland and England, as well as in monasteries in mainland Europe — such as at Echternach, now in Luxembourg — which were founded by Anglo-Saxon missionaries.

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The lion of St Mark, from the Otho-Corpus Gospels: Cotton MS Otho C V, f. 27r

Another lion is found in an Anglo-Saxon manuscript known as the Otho-Corpus Gospels. Sometime during the 16th century, this gospelbook was divided into two parts: one half was acquired by Matthew Parker, archbishop of Canterbury (died 1575), who bequeathed it to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge; the other portion entered the collection of Sir Robert Cotton (died 1631) before eventually passing into the ownership of the British Library. (Cotton kept his manuscripts in book-presses named after the Roman emperors, including Julius, Nero and, in this instance, Otho.)

As in the Echternach Gospels, this lion is painted in red and yellow, and it appears to bound out of the page. But you will notice that it is no longer in pristine condition. In October 1731 it was badly damaged by fire when the Cotton library was being stored at the unfortunately-named Ashburnham House in London. The heat of the fire seems to have intensified the red and yellow pigments on the lion’s fur.

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St Mark and his lion, from the Coronation Gospels: Cotton MS Tiberius A II, f. 74v

The third lion in our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition looks rather different. It has a clear mane and golden fur, and it flies into the scene from the right, clutching a book with a decorated cover. This manuscript was made approximately 200 years after the other two examples, possibly in Lobbes (in what is now Belgium). It probably arrived in England as a present to Æthelstan, the first king of all England (924–939), from his brother-in-law, the future emperor Otto I.

All these Anglo-Saxon lions can be viewed in the flesh at the British Library until 19 February 2019. We hope that they capture your imagination in much the same way as they did their original owners and readers. And if you need an extra fill of cats, why not also come to the Library's amazing Cats on the Page exhibition (on until 17 March 2019)?

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War (19 October 2018–19 February 2019)

 

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15 December 2018

Name that rune!

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Some readers of this Blog may remember a sword with a mysterious inscription that was displayed in the British Library’s Magna Carta exhibition in 2015. Thousands of people across the world tried to solve that particular puzzle, so we thought we'd test your brains again with another undeciphered inscription.

This time round, it's found in our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, on display in London until 19 February 2019. On show alongside some of the greatest manuscripts from Anglo-Saxon times, and treasures from Sutton Hoo and the Staffordshire Hoard, is this silver-gilt fitting, kindly loaned by the British Museum. It's dramatically decorated with a beast’s head: blue-glass eyes, scrolled ears, fangs and a looped tongue define its features.

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A silver gilt fitting with a runic inscription: British Museum BEP 1869,0610.1 © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.

The ‘body’ attached to the head is decorated with a line of runes. Transliterated into the Latin alphabet, they read as follows:

‘sbe/rædhtȝbcai/e/rh/ad/æbs’

But what does this mean? To date, no one has been able to translate this runic inscription into modern English. Maybe you can try?

The fitting probably dates to the late 8th century. It resembles artwork made in Mercia around that time: compare, for example, its beast head with some manuscripts from that period. The fitting’s function is uncertain, but since it is only decorated on one side, it might have been part of a scabbard for a long knife or seax. It was found in the River Thames near Westminster Bridge in the 19th century.

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Compare and contrast: (1) the beast's head from the silver gilt fitting: British Museum BEP 1869,0610.1
© The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved. (2) detail of an initial with a beast’s head, from a manuscript made in Mercia in the late 8th or early 9th century: Royal MS 2 A XX, f. 17r

Some people have suggested that cryptic collections such as this may have acted as talismans, offering protection to the owner. You may be aware that the word ‘rún’ (rune) is related to the Germanic words for ‘secret’ and ‘whisper’.

So what do these mysterious runes mean? We'd love you to send us your thoughts, either by tweeting @BLMedieval or by using the comments button below.

 

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14 September 2018

Wynflaed and the price of fashion

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Some of the most interesting texts in the British Library’s collections have deceptively unassuming appearances. For example, this fragile piece of parchment is the closest equivalent of the Vogue wardrobe for early medieval England. Written in Old English, it is one of the earliest wills which survive from England in the name of a woman only. It details bequests made by a noblewoman called Wynflæd sometime before the late 10th or early 11th century, and it describes her wardrobe as well as her estates, slaves, metalwork, livestock and familial relationships. 

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Will of Wynflæd, England, late 10th or early 11th century: Cotton Ch VIII 38

We can’t be sure as to Wynflæd's exact identity. One of King Edgar’s grandmothers was called Wynflæd, but this will could pertain to someone else with the same name. What we do know is that our Wynflaed was a widow, and that she had a daughter called Æthelflæd and a son called Eadmer. We also know that she was rich. Her will mentions several estates, bands of tamed and untamed horses, slaves, many coins, livestock, items in gold and silver, and even books (annoyingly for us, no further information is given). The compiler of her will described some of the other items, such as Wynflæd's ‘wooden cups decorated with dots’ and her ‘red tent’. Anglo-Saxon nobles often travelled around — Wynflæd may have had to travel to manage her estates — and they stayed in tents when doing so. The Durham Collectar, for instance (Durham Cathedral Library MS A.IV.19), mentions that some of its text was written before tierce (around 9 a.m.) on Wednesday, 10 August 10, ‘for Ælfsige the bishop [of the community of St Cuthbert] in his tent’ while he was travelling in Dorset.

Wynflæd's will also gives details about her attire, from her engraved bracelet to linen gowns to caps and headbands. Such detailed descriptions of clothes are relatively unusual in Old English texts. A particularly striking item among Wynflæd’s clothes is a ‘twilibrocenan cyrtel’. This garment has been alternatively interpreted as a ‘badger-skin dress’, an embroidered dress or even a dress that was only worn twice. Gale Owen-Crocker and Kate Thomas have already discussed Wynflæd’s clothes, if you’d like to learn more.

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A badger? Detail of a decoration around a flaw in parchment, from the Tollemache Orosius, England (Winchester?), late 9th or early 10th century: Add MS 47967, f. 62v

Wynflæd may have taken religious vows towards the end of her life, but that does not seem to have impeded her fashion sense. Her will mentions a ‘holy veil’ and at the beginning it focuses on her donations to an unspecified church. This church seems to have housed women, since the first part of the will also specifies bequests to ‘slaves of God’ there with female names such as Ceolthryth, Othelbriht and Elsa. At least one of these names appears again towards the end of the will as the recipient of some of the finer pieces in Wynflæd's wardrobe: Ceolthryth was to receive ‘whichever she prefers of her black tunics and her best holy veil and best headband’ (translated by D. Whitelock, Anglo-Saxon Wills, Cambridge, 1930, p. 15). Nor were these the only fashionable religious women or nuns in late 10th-century England, if later stories about St Edith are to be believed.

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A holy veil? An angel presents Queen Emma with a veil, from the New Minster Liber Vitae: Stowe MS 944, f. 6r

Wynflæd’s will highlights another important aspect of fashion history: who made the clothes. Wynflæd not only bequeathed her clothes to her relatives, but she also bequeathed the people who made them. To Eadgifu (possibly her granddaughter), she gave ‘a woman-weaver and a seamstress, the one [also] called Eadgifu, the other called Æthelgifu’. One gets the impression that her granddaughter Eadgifu was a favourite: she also received the ‘best bed-curtain’, ‘best dun tunic’, best cloak and an ‘old filigree brooch’, among other objects.

Eadgifu the weaver and Æthelgifu the seamstress were not so lucky. While Wynflæd freed some of her slaves in her will, these two may have been condemned by their skill. They are two of only four slaves whose professions are specified in the will, the others being a wright and a cook called Ælfsige. Wynflæd was — and is — not alone in exploiting garment makers. To this day, the fashion industry has an uncomfortably close relationship with exploitation and poor labour conditions in many parts of the world.

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

Although Cotton Ch VIII 38 is a copy of the original will, it shows signs of how such a document might have been used.  It is a single sheet, folded carefully in half, then lengthways, and then again into thirds, as if it has been used and been put away for safe keeping.  The interlinear additions to the text are also intriguing: as these are meaningful pieces of text, rather than occasional words, they are clearly not just the result of scribal error, but were intended as clarifications, or to add extra information.  For example, when Wynflaed bequeaths her cloak, an extra word is added to specify which one: it is 'hyre beteran mentel' (her better cloak).  Many of these additions are concerned with what would happen to Wynflaed's slaves.  The will specifies that 'at Faccombe Eadhelm and Man and Johanna and Sprow and his wife … and Gersand and Snel are to be freed,' with Sprow and his wife added between the lines; while elsewhere, where 'aelfferes dohtor' (Aelffere's daughter) is given to Aethelflaed, someone has added 'þa geonran' (the younger) between the lines, specifying which one of his daughters was to be Aethelflaed's slave.  Needless to say, these additions had serious consequences for the futures of Sprow, his wife, and of Aelffere's daughter.

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Detail of folds and interlinear additions: Cotton Ch VIII 38

The British Library's major exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, opens on 19 October 2018: tickets and further details are available here.

 

Alison Hudson and Kate Thomas

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01 September 2018

A calendar page for September 2018

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Spears to the ready! It’s time to go on a hunt. So says a calendar page for September, made over one thousand years ago. You can read more about this calendar in the first of our series of posts about it this year, and soon you can come to see it in person at our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.

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Detail of a scene with hunters and pigs: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 7r

This calendar is one of only two calendars from Anglo-Saxon England that are illustrated with scenes of daily life (the other is in Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1). For the preceding months these scenes have tended to focus on agriculture, but for September the artist has drawn a hunting scene. Two men with spears, a hunting horn and a dog follow a group of boars or possibly domestic pigs into a forest of sinuous trees. The oblivious pigs, meanwhile, munch on items hanging near the base of the trees. This scene nicely matches a description in an Old English riddle from the Exeter Book on Creation/the World/the Universe:

‘I am bigger and fatter than a fattened swine,
a swarthy boar, who lived joyfully
bellowing in a beech-wood, rooting away …’ (translated by Megan Cavell)

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Calendar page for September: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 7r

This page is also notable for containing the only depiction of a woman to feature in this calendar. She represents the astrological sign Virgo and appears in a roundel at the top of the page. She is shown holding a plant. Her dress seems to be that of an 11th-century English woman: she wears a veil on her head and has flowing sleeves.

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Detail of a roundel depicting Virgo: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 7r

The absence of women elsewhere in the calendar is puzzling, since women would have participated in many agricultural activities. For example, notes on farming equipment, produce and workers from early 11th-century Ely mention dairymaids and other women working on farms. Women also attended feasts, such as the one depicted in the calendar page for April. Even the poem Beowulf — not noted for its gender representation — mentioned women attending a feast, including Queen Wealhtheow and her maidens.

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Farm records mentioning female agricultural workers: Add MS 61735

The absence of women elsewhere in the calendar is perhaps puzzling. The only other surviving calendar from Anglo-Saxon England that is illustrated with agricultural and pastoral scenes (Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1) does not include women, either. Perhaps these artists were working from models that did not feature women. Additionally, it is tempting to speculate that these images conveyed a spiritual meaning as much as depicting contemporary activities: scenes of ploughing and harvesting were well-known Biblical metaphors. It is therefore possible that female figures were excluded not because women did not play a role in 11th-century agriculture, but because women’s participation in preaching and spiritual teaching was being curtailed in some circles by the 11th century.

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Detail of a verse on the feast of Michael the Archangel: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 7r

In addition to the artwork, this calendar features tables for calculating the day of the month, the day of the week, and lunar cycles, along with a poem with a verse for every day. Three major feast days have been marked out with gold crosses in the margin: the Virgin Mary’s birthday (8 September); the feast of St Matthew the Evangelist (21 September); and the feast of the Archangel Michael, or Michaelmas (29 September). Michaelmas continued to be an important feast throughout the Middle Ages, and its date still affects several institutions that originated in the medieval period. For example, law courts in England and Ireland and several universities in England, Wales and Scotland use Michaelmas as the start date for their terms.


Alison Hudson

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27 August 2018

Anglo-Saxon elephants

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My favourite Old English word — for the moment — is ‘ylp’. It means ‘elephant’. I was discussing this over lunch with my colleagues at the British Library, when someone asked a fair question: why was there a specific Old English word for elephant, when writers such as Ælfric (d. c. 1010) acknowledged, ‘Some people will think it wondrous to hear [about these animals], because elephants have never come to England’? The short answer is: elephants did not have to physically come to the British Isles to influence early medieval culture. They are a good example of the links that existed between Anglo-Saxon England and the wider world, through the exchange of books.

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An elephant, from the Marvels of the East, in a mid-11th century scientific collection: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 81r

Some people in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had travelled long distances, and if they had visited the southern Mediterranean, they may have seen elephants there. One elephant had also reportedly been given to the Emperor Charlemagne (d. 814). However, many Anglo-Saxon people had never seen an elephant, as is evident from their attempts to illustrate them. But literate people who had never left England could still encounter elephants in their books. Elephants appear in several of the classical and Late Antique texts which were available in early medieval Britain. Church fathers such as Augustine used elephants as metaphors, since their large size and apparently calm demeanour suggested stability and chastity. Such beliefs led to the motif of the noble elephant fighting the demonic dragon in later medieval art.

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An elephant and a monkey, from an illustrated Old English translation of medical remedies, England (? Christ Church Canterbury or Winchester), c. 1000–1025: Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 82r

Mediterranean medical texts that circulated in the British Isles also mentioned elephants. For example, an Old English translation of the group of remedies known as the Pseudo-Apuleius complex recommended that elephants be used as a beauty product: to remove ‘disfiguring marks’ on the body, ‘take elephant bone [possibly ivory] and point with honey and apply it. It removes the marks wonderfully.’ Don't try this at home!

Other classical and Late Antique texts described elephants being used in military campaigns. Some of these works were translated into Old English, including Orosius’s History Against the Pagans. The earliest surviving manuscript of this translation includes a passage which described how Hasdrubal, king of Carthage, set out with 30 elephants (‘mid xxx elpenda’). The scribe of a later copy of this text mistakenly changed the passage to 30 helpers ('helpenda'). 

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Detail of a passage discussing elephants, from the Tollemache Orosius, England (Winchester?), late 9th or early 10th century: Add MS 47967, f. 55v

Based on these texts, many Old English writers understood elephants as war animals. In his sermon on the Book of Maccabees, Ælfric described how:

‘Five hundred mounted men went with every elephant, and a war-house (wighus) was built on each of the elephants, and in each war-house were thirty men … An elephant is an immense animal, larger than a house, completely surrounded with bones within its hide, except at the navel, and it never lies down. The mother carries the foal for 24 months, and they live for 300 years … and man can tame them wonderfully for battle’ (translated by Joe Allard & Richard North, Beowulf and Other Stories, 2nd ednLondon: Pearson, 2012).

As a sidenote, if for some reason you ever need to ask for directions to the Elephant and Castle Underground station in Old English, according to Ælfric you should ask for ‘Ylp ond Wighus’.

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Start of a riddle about an elephant, from a copy of Aldhelm's riddles, England (Canterbury), c. 1000: Royal MS 12 C XXIII, f. 100v 

Elephants were also characterised by their military role in war in a Latin riddle composed by Aldhelm (d. 709/10), bishop of Sherborne:

‘As armoured troops and soldiers pack in tight

(Wretches who with vain lust incite a fight

While arms taint sacred civil loyalties),

A trumpet sucks in air with bursts of breeze

And raucous, clanging battle horns resound;

Fierce, bold, I’ve come to know their savage sound…’

(translated by A.M. Juster, St Aldhelm’s Riddles, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, p. 59).

Aldhelm’s riddle also shows that elephants were known for more than just their skills in battle. They were also prized for their ivory. The riddle continues:

‘Although God made me ugly at my start, I picked up gifts of life once I debuted ...

I can’t be beaten by fine sheets of gold,

Although the precious polished metal’s decked

With gleaming gems and stylish luxuries.

Nature won’t let me kneel when I feel old

Or rest my eyelids while on bended knees.

Indeed, I have to spend my life erect.’

Elephant ivory may have been known in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. It has been detected in some 6th-century bag frames, although walrus ivory is more common. 

Beyond copying texts that mentioned elephants as metaphors or resources, many Old English writers were fascinated by them out of a sense of wonder that such creatures could exist. Ælfric marvelled at their size, and both he and Aldhelm believed that elephants never sat down.

A text that exists in both Latin and Old English versions, known as the Marvels of the East, similarly presents elephants as a wonder. It claims that elephants stand 15 feet high with a ‘long nose’ covered in black hair. It also states that they are plentiful in India. The artists who illustrated two copies of this text did not pay much heed to this description. One artist portrayed a pink-skinned elephant with a long tongue and tusks, instead of a long nose, as shown at the start of this blogpost. Meanwhile, the artist of the Marvels of the East in the Nowell Codex (which also contains Beowulf) drew elephants in a way that is suspiciously reminiscent of the way they also illustrated camels.

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Elephants, from the Marvels of the East, England, late 10th century or early 11th century: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 101v

Elephants probably did not arrive in England for several more centuries. The earliest recorded elephant in England is the gift that King Louis IX of France presented to King Henry III of England in 1255. The chronicler Matthew Paris was on hand to illustrate and to describe it, claiming that ‘we believe [it was] the only elephant ever seen in England …’ But even before that, elephants had already had a significant impact on English literature and culture.

Would you like to learn more about the earliest English literature and its connections to the wider world? You can find out more on our Discovering Literature: Medieval site. And don't miss our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, on show at the British Library from 19 October 2018 to 19 February 2019.

 

Alison Hudson

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