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69 posts categorized "Early modern"

08 November 2018

Through many hands: the Vespasian Psalter

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The British Library's current major exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, is a treasure-trove of marvellous manuscripts and astonishing artefacts. One of those many treasures is an 8th-century manuscript known as the Vespasian Psalter (Cotton MS Vespasian A I). Here we piece together its fascinating history. 

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The opening of Psalm 68 (‘Salvum me fac’) from the Vespasian Psalter, ?Canterbury, 2nd quarter of the 8th century: 
Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 64v 

The Vespasian Psalter is a wonderful witness to the ongoing processes of creation, addition and loss in a medieval manuscript. Its story begins in the second quarter of the 8th century, around the time Bede was completing his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (731).  

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Detail of the opening of the hymn ‘Splendor Paternae Gloriae’ by Ambrose of Milan: 
Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 152r 

It was designed from the outset as a song-book. The core part of the manuscript contains not just the Psalms but also a selection of canticles and hymns, including two written by Ambrose of Milan. These were all copied out in an elegant Insular uncial script, with headings in rustic capitals. 

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The opening of Basil of Caesarea’s ‘Homily on the First Psalm’, translated by Rufinus: 
Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 2v 

In the 9th century, several leaves were added to accommodate supplementary material. The manuscript henceforth was prefaced by Basil of Caesarea’s Homily on Psalm 1, epistles between Jerome (the Psalms’ translator) and Pope Damasus I, and various texts relating to the origin, division, performance, interpretation and ordering of the Psalms. These were all designed to expand upon the core of the manuscript and facilitate its use and study. 

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Psalm 151 (‘Pusillus eram’): 
Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 141r 

Jerome translated the Psalms not from the Masoretic (Hebrew) text of the Bible, but from the Septuagint (Greek) version. Itself a translation from the Hebrew into Greek, the Septuagint remains the preferred text in the Eastern Orthodox Church. The numbering adopted by the two versions is slightly different, primarily as a consequence of differing interpretations of how certain psalms should be divided. The Septuagint also includes an additional Psalm, numbered 151, not found in the Hebrew text. In the Vespasian Psalter, a single leaf was inserted between the end of Psalm 150 and the beginning of the first canticle to make space for its inclusion. 

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Detail of Anglo-Saxon neumes added to the end of Psalm 150 (‘Laudate dominum in sanctis eius’), with an additional noted line and explicit: 
Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 140v 

Cadences were added to selected verses of Psalms 148–150, to provide a guide for their chanting, with Anglo-Saxon neumes added at the end of verses and half-verses. 

It is not known who was responsible for instigating or executing each of these additions to the manuscript. However, the hands of two scribes who were intimately connected with Canterbury have been identified in the Vespasian Psalter, shedding light not only on its continued augmentation but also on a curious blip in its provenance. 

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Detail of the opening of Psalm 94 (‘Deus ultionum’) with interlinear Old English gloss: 
Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 90r 

The first scribe is known as the Royal Bible Master Scribe, after his role in Royal MS 1 E VI, and his hand is known in other manuscripts from St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury. Around the second quarter of the 9th century — amidst the other supplementary activities in the manuscript — he added an interlinear Old English gloss to the Psalms. It has the distinction of being the oldest extant translation into English of any biblical text. 

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Hymn and Athanasian Creed, copied by Eadwig Basan, with a later Old English gloss: 
Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 155r 

The second scribe is known by name: Eadwig Basan. He added several texts to the manuscript two centuries later: another hymn (for matins on Sunday), the Athanasian Creed, an Oratio by Eugenius of Toledo, and a confession prayer by Alcuin. These in turn were given an Old English gloss shortly afterwards, bringing them into line with the rest of the volume. 

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Full-page miniature of St Benedict and the monks of Christ Church, Canterbury, from the Eadui Psalter, Canterbury, 1012x1023: Arundel MS 155, f. 133r
 

Knowledgeable readers will have spotted that Eadwig’s name is usually associated not with St Augustine’s Abbey, but its neighbour Christ Church, Cathedral. His hand has been identified in several Christ Church books: most notably his eponymous Psalter (Arundel MS 155), in which he may be the figure prostrate at the feet of St Benedict in a full-page miniature; the Harley Psalter (with two other scribes, Harley MS 603) and the Cnut Gospels (an addition on f. 44v; Royal MS 1 D IX). He is famously memorialised with a full-page portrait of him at work in another Psalter that bears his name (Cambridge, Trinity College, MS R.17.1). 

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Full-page miniature of David and the musicians (described by Thomas of Elmham in his history): 
Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 30v 

The circumstances in which Eadwig made his additions to the Vespasian Psalter are not known. Whether he went to St Augustine’s or the book to Christ Church, it is clear that the Vespasian Psalter was at St Augustine’s for several further centuries. Thomas of Elmham’s history of St Augustine’s, written in the mid- to late 1410s and preserved in Cambridge, Trinity Hall, MS 1, described a Psalter that was kept on the high altar of the abbey church — a Psalter whose description exactly matches the present manuscript. 

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Two canticles, with the off-print from a missing carpet page: 
Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 142r 

Following the dissolution of St Augustine’s in 1538, the Psalter found its way into the hands of William Cecil, Elizabeth I’s chief minister. The manuscript had suffered losses in the interim. The opening few leaves of the Psalms were gone; Elmham’s description indicates that they contained a depiction of Samuel, perhaps in the form of a full-page miniature at the opening of the text. A carpet-page also once adorned the manuscript: all that remains is a shadowy, cruciform off-print on f. 142r. 

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Detail of a letter written by Matthew Parker to William Cecil, 24 January 1565/66: 
Lansdowne MS 8, f. 190r (formerly item 73) 

Cecil lent the book to Matthew Parker, archbishop of Canterbury. Although Parker dutifully returned it in 1566, his desire to keep it is obvious: in the accompanying letter, he dropped a hint to that effect, writing to Cecil that the Psalter is ‘remitted again to your library: in the riches whereof, videlicet of such treasures, I rejoice as much as they were in my own’. Parker lamented the losses at the opening of the Psalms and described to Cecil how he would have had them made good, had the manuscript been his: moving the miniature of David (f. 30v) to the beginning and having the missing text ‘counterfeited in antiquity’ (i.e. copied to resemble the Insular uncial used for the Psalms). 

  Cotton MS Augustus II 3 recto
Charter of King Æthelbald of Mercia, England, 736: Cotton MS Augustus II 3

It was Robert Cotton — who acquired the manuscript in 1599, a year after Cecil’s death — who addressed these deficiencies in his own unique way. He first inserted a charter of King Æthelbald of Mercia, and trimmed its edges so that it would fit. Cotton’s rationale (it seems) was that the charter provided a further example of Insular uncial. He may also have suspected, but cannot have known, that the charter was closely contemporary to the Vespasian Psalter’s production, being dated to 736. 

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Full-page foliate initial ‘B’ inhabited by men and animals, from Psalm 1 (‘Beatus vir’), from a psalter, England (East Anglia or London), Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 1v 

At some juncture this charter was removed (it is now Cotton MS Augustus II 3) and in its place was put a leaf from the beginning of an English Psalter of c. 1220. Containing a large decorated initial B and the opening words of the first Psalm, it is a better fit with the content, if not the decorative style, of the rest of the manuscript. 

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Detail of a cutting containing the coat of arms of Margaret of York impaled with those of her husband Charles the Bold, with her motto (‘Bien en aviegne’) and their initials ('CM'), by the Master of Mary of Burgundy illuminator, from the Breviary of Margaret of York: 
Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 160v 

Cotton made a further incongruous addition at the end of the manuscript: he pasted in a cutting from the Breviary of Margaret of York. Other excisions from this late 15th-century devotional book are present in other Cotton manuscripts – Cotton MS Tiberius A II, ff. 1r–1v, Cotton MS Galba A XVIII, f. 2r, and Cotton MS Titus C XV, f. 1r – and the much-mutilated remnant survives as Cambridge, St John’s College, MS H.13

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Fragment of Psalm 2 and opening of Psalm 3 (‘Domine, quid multiplicati sunt’), and the inscription of Robert Cotton: 
Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 12r 

The Vespasian Psalter escaped the Ashburnham House fire of 1731 completely unscathed — but by that time, as we have seen, it was in far from its original state. It is remarkably well-preserved for a book that is close to 1300 years old, but its life was demonstrably one of use and re-use: its developing role in the liturgy, its reading and translation, its decoration, and its mutilation and repair. It is the involvement of so many hands in the manuscript over so many centuries that has given it such a textured and fascinating history.

You can see the Vespasian Psalter with your own eyes in the once-in-a-generation Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, on display at the British Library in London until 19 February 2019.

James Freeman

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29 September 2018

Memory of the World award ceremony

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On 19 September, at an official award ceremony in London, the Cotton collection of manuscripts held at the British Library was formally admitted on to the UNESCO UK Memory of the World register. We are thrilled that the Cotton library has received this recognition, alongside treasures from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the British Antarctic Survey and other institutions. 

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Dr Claire Breay, Head of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts at the British Library, receiving the inscription certificate for the Cotton collection from UNESCO Ambassador Matthew Lodge (©Simon O’Connor)

The Memory of the World programme serves to preserve significant documentary heritage from across the globe for future generations. The UK Register recognises documentary heritage deemed by a panel of experts on behalf of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to be of outstanding significance to the United Kingdom. As we reported earlier this year, the British Library nominated Sir Robert Cotton's collection of manuscripts for such recognition, on account of its importance as the first library to pass into national ownership in 1702. The Cotton library contains many manuscripts and charters of global and national significance, including two of the original copies of Magna Carta issued by King John in 1215, the Lindisfarne Gospels, and the state papers of several British monarchs.

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The opening page of the Psychomachia, with Sir Robert Cotton's signature: Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII, f. 4r

The Cotton collection contains the largest surviving number of manuscripts written or owned in Anglo-Saxon England. They include volumes such as the oldest English cartulary (Cotton MS Tiberius A XIII), made in 11th-century Worcester; the Coronation Gospels, presented to King Æthelstan in the 10th century and taken by Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631) to the coronation ceremony of Charles I in 1625 (Cotton MS Tiberius A II); and a beautifully illustrated copy of the Psychomachia (Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII).

Vespasian Psalter (Cotton MS Vespasian A I  f31r)

Another Anglo-Saxon manuscript owned by Sir Robert Cotton is the Vespasian Psalter: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 31r

At any given time, several of the Cotton manuscripts can usually be found on display in the Treasures Gallery at the British Library. Many of the Anglo-Saxon volumes in Sir Robert Cotton's collection will be displayed in the Library's forthcoming major exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, which opens on 19 October.

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The Coronation Gospels, made in the 9th century and later owned by Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631): Cotton MS Tiberius A II, f. 3r

 

 

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21 September 2018

Cataloguer and Researcher, Early modern English manuscripts

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The British Library is undertaking a new project to digitise many of its most important English manuscripts from the period 1500 to 1650. We are recruiting three Cataloguer/Researchers to work on this project, who will use their specialist knowledge of original sources from this period to research and catalogue the manuscripts, to prepare the content for online publication and to promote the digitised collection to a wide audience.

ElizabethI1 speech Tilbury f 87

The speech supposedly delivered by Queen Elizabeth I in 1588 at Tilbury Camp, assembled to defend England against the Spanish Armada, and featuring the poignant lines, "I know I have the body butt of a weake and feble woman, butt I have the harte and stomack of a king, and of a king of England too": Harley MS 6798, f. 87r

Successful candidates will have a post-graduate degree, or its equivalent, in early modern English/British history or literature, or another directly relevant field. They will have specialist knowledge of early modern manuscripts, and a strong knowledge of early modern palaeography, with the ability to read early modern English handwriting fluently. Experience of cataloguing or describing early modern manuscripts is essential, as is a high level of time-management and organisational skills.

The duties of this role are as follows:

  • To undertake research on and catalogue English manuscripts dating from c. 1500–1650
  • To input information into the Library’s manuscripts cataloguing system
  • To review and update existing catalogue descriptions to reflect recent research, checking details against other international databases and publications and adding bibliographies to the records
  • To add authority-controlled data, for example for people, places or subjects
  • To assist and answer queries from staff undertaking quality control of digital images
  • To assist in preparing the digital images for online publication, ensuring that all requisite metadata is captured accurately
  • To write blog posts and tweets and undertake other promotional activities to raise the profile of the digitised collections with specialist and non-specialist audiences
  • To demonstrate a willingness to take on a range of tasks and to develop new skills, as appropriate, in own or other departments/directorates to support the delivery of the Library's services

These are full time, fixed term contract roles, funded until 31 March 2020. There are three positions available.

Full details of the position and how to apply are available here. The reference is 02315.

The closing date is 30 September. Interviews will be held on 15 October.

 

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11 September 2018

Births, births and (more) births

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In 1490, the curate of St Theodor in Basel, Switzerland, began compiling a register of the baptisms he performed at the church. The handwritten portion of the manuscript begins with a note in his hand: it records the year, 1490; the purpose for which the register was kept (‘ad inscribendum pueros baptisatos’); and his name, Johann Ulrich Surgant. The first entry, underlined in red, is for a baptism performed on 13 July, the feast day of St Henry (also known as Henry II, Holy Roman Emperor): a boy named Henry Falkner – after his father, it seems, rather than his beatified namesake. 

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Detail of the opening entries in the baptismal register of the church of St Theodor, Basel: 
Egerton MS 1927, f. 8r 

This register was maintained at the church for a little short of 250 years, with the last entries being made in 1737. In 1620, when the volume begun by Johann Ulrich Surgant was full, a second one was acquired. These two manuscripts – Egerton MS 1927 and Egerton MS 1928 – are a valuable resource for anyone pursuing prosopographical or genealogical research for families in Basel across four centuries. You can also study them in detail on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.

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Printed page from a Missale Basiliense, containing the ceremonies performed in preparation for the use of the baptismal font: 
Egerton MS 1927, f. 7r 

Surgant evidently sourced the blank volume locally. Inserted at the beginning are several printed pages from a Missale Basiliense printed by Michael Wenssler in 1488 (the British Library holds a complete copy at IB.37136; ISTC im00651500). These comprise a calendar, with the main religious feasts printed in red ink, and the ceremonies and prayers performed in preparation for the use of the baptismal font. These contents were of obvious utility in such a volume and illustrate that the book was designed and acquired with this specific purpose in mind.

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Front binding showing exposed oak boards, blind-stamped pigskin and metal clasps: Egerton MS 1927

The cover is characteristic of late 15th-century Swiss bindings, with blind-stamped pigskin covering a third of the front and back oak boards. Using the Einbanddatenbank, it is sometimes possible to identify the craftsman responsible, but in this case, none of the tools used on the covers of Egerton MS 1927 are a match for known binders or workshops in that region.

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Detail of an entry recording the baptism of Christiana Foxe, 22 September 1555: 
Egerton MS 1927, f. 115r 

These registers are of particular interest to anyone studying the protestant religious communities in Switzerland during the 16th century. The martyrologist John Foxe (b. 1516/17, d. 1587), of Acts and Monuments fame, spent at least four years of his exile in Basel, before returning to England in October 1559. The earliest evidence of his arrival in the city is an entry in this very register, on 22 September 1555: ‘to John Foxe, the Englander, a child, called Christiana’. Along with other Marian exiles, Foxe rented rooms in the Clarakloster, a former convent. The first of his daughter’s godparents was a fellow resident: Thomas Bentham (b. 1513/14, d. 1579), who became Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield under Queen Elizabeth I.

 

James Freeman (Medieval Manuscripts Specialist, Cambridge University Library)

17 July 2018

Digitised Manuscripts hyperlinks July 2018

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Hot on the heels of our recent announcement that the British Library's Anglo-Saxon charters are now online, we are pleased to provide you with another phenomenally fantastic list of digitised manuscripts hyperlinks. As usual, we are making this list available to download in two formats: as a PDF and as an Excel spreadsheet.

A quick glance reveals that no fewer than 2,336 of the Library's ancient, medieval and early modern manuscripts are now on Digitised Manuscripts, from Add Ch 19788 (a grant of King Wulfhere of the Mercians) to Yates Thomson MS 51 (Skazanie o Mamaevom Poboishche, 'The Tale of the Rout of Mamai', in Russian Church Slavonic). More are being added weekly to that number. It's always worth checking our Twitter feed, @BLMedieval, for the latest updates.

Here are just a few of the items on Digitised Manuscripts. We hope you enjoy trawling through the list to find your own highlights.

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Miniature of St Dunstan as a bishop (Canterbury, 12th century): Royal MS 10 A XIII/1

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Memorandum for a trip to Constantinople (Egypt, 5th–6th century): Papyrus 2237

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William Bruggys' Garter Book (England, 15th century): Stowe MS 594, f. 5v

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An Anglo-Norman verse miscellany (England or France, 13th century): Harley MS 4388, f. 2v


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The Caligula Troper (England, 11th century): Cotton MS Caligula A XIV. You will be able to see more of our early medieval manuscripts in person in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, opening at the Library on 19 October.

 

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16 June 2018

Cotton manuscripts quiz

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Last week we announced that the manuscript collection of Sir Robert Cotton, held at the British Library, has been added to the UNESCO Memory of the World UK Register. To celebrate, we've decided to test our readers' knowledge of the Cotton library. Some of these questions are easier than others, we hope. There are no prizes up for grabs but please let us know how you get on via Twitter, @BLMedieval, using the hashtag #cottonquiz, or by the comments field below. Good luck!

The answers are now given below (no peeking!).

1. On which manuscript does Sir Robert Cotton rest his hands in this portrait?

Cotton

2. From whom did Cotton reportedly acquire his two copies of the 1215 Magna Carta?

3. The diary of which English king is found in the Cotton library?

4. Which Roman emperor connects Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Lindisfarne Gospels?

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5. How old was Sir Robert Cotton when he acquired his first manuscript? (And for a bonus point, what was the manuscript in question?)

6. In 1602–03, Robert Cotton presented a dozen manuscripts to whom, one of the earliest donations for which other great collection?

7. The Reculver charter is written in what script?

8. Name the English monarch for whom this map was made.

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9. How many volumes were destroyed in their entirety in the 1731 fire?

10. The plan for which famous battle was identified in a fire-damaged Cotton manuscript?

 

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Here are the answers:

 

The Cotton Genesis (Cotton Otho MS B VI)

Sir Edward Dering (Cotton Charter XIII 31A, sent to Cotton in June 1630) and Humphrey Wyems of the Middle Temple (Cotton MS Augustus II 106, presented to him on New Year's Day 1629)

King Edward VI (Cotton MS Nero C X)

Nero (they are named Cotton MS Nero A X/2 and Cotton Nero MS D IV respectively)

Seventeen (Cotton MS Vespasian D XV is inscribed on f. 83v, 'Robertus Cotton 1588 Æ 17')

Sir Thomas Bodley, founder of the Bodleian Library in Oxford

Uncial (Cotton MS Augustus II 2)

King Henry VIII (Cotton MS Augustus I i 9)

Thirteen, plus three more in the 1865 British Museum bindery fire (as noted by Andrew Prescott, ‘“Their present miserable state of cremation”: the restoration of the Cotton library’, in C. J. Wright (ed.), Sir Robert Cotton as Collector: Essays on an Early Stuart Courtier and his Legacy (London, 1997), pp. 391–454, at pp. 392, 421)

Agincourt (the French battle-plan is found in Cotton MS Caligula D V, ff. 43v–44r)

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09 June 2018

Sir Robert Cotton's manuscripts added to Memory of the World register

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We are delighted that Sir Robert Cotton's collection of manuscripts, held at the British Library, has been added to the UNESCO Memory of the World UK Register. Cotton's library contains many historical and literary treasures of national and international significance, such as Magna Carta, the Lindisfarne Gospels, the only surviving copies of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the autograph papers of a number of British monarchs. Collectively they form a key part of the intellectual heritage of the nation. 

Vespasian Psalter (Cotton MS Vespasian A I  f31r)

A page from the Vespasian Psalter, known as Cotton MS Vespasian A I following Robert Cotton's system of arranging his manuscripts in presses named after Roman emperors and imperial ladies. This manuscript, made in Kent in the 8th century, contains an interlinear Old English gloss of the Psalter text: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 31r

Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631) was a politician and antiquarian scholar, who began to assemble his collection of manuscripts as early as 1588, aged just seventeen. Cotton's collecting interests focused on works central to the study of British history, such as chronicles, cartularies, maps and state papers.

Matthew Paris Map of Britain (Cotton MS Claudius D VI 1)

A map of Britain by Matthew Paris, monk and chronicler of St Albans (d. 1259). Scotland is joined to the mainland by a bridge at Stirling, while Kent is located due South of London: Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1

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The Cotton library contains a nationally significant collection of medieval chronicles. The manuscript of the Chronicle of Melrose Abbey, shown here recording (in red ink) the foundation of the monasteries of Rievaulx in 1132 and Melrose in 1136, is the oldest surviving annalistic chronicle from Scotland: Cotton MS Faustina B IX, f. 18r

The importance of these manuscripts for our knowledge of the past cannot be overstated. For example, Robert Cotton brought together the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in the world, including two early copies of Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum and five manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, as well as the earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon charter, dating from AD 679. Many of these manuscripts will be on display later this year in the Library's major Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition (19 October 2018–19 February 2019).

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The earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon charter, a grant of land by King Hlothhere of Kent to Abbot Beorhtwald and his monastery, dated 679. This document is also sometimes known as the 'Reculver charter' after the place where it was issued: Cotton MS Augustus II 2

After Robert Cotton's death, the library passed in turn to his son, Sir Thomas Cotton (d. 1662), and grandson, Sir John Cotton (d. 1702). In 1702, the Cotton library was acquired by the British government, the first occasion that any library passed into national ownership in Britain – an important step in the creation of a national, public library.

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Some of the greatest works of medieval English literature are preserved uniquely in the Cotton library, among them the only surviving copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Cotton MS Nero A X/2, ff. 94v–95r

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The Cotton library is integral to our knowledge of early modern British history. This document, written by King Edward VI of England in January 1551/2, is headed 'Certein pointes of weighty matters to be immediatly concluded on by my counsell': Cotton MS Vespasian F XIII, f. 273r. Edward's diary is also held in the Cotton collection: Cotton MS Nero C X, ff. 10–83

Most of the collection survived a major fire in 1731, which formed part of the impetus for the creation of the British Museum in 1753. Some of the manuscripts were damaged significantly in that fire, with a small number being completely destroyed. The volumes in question were restored in the 19th century and they continue to support scientific research into the preservation and digitisation of fire-damaged artefacts.

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In October 1731, the Cotton library narrowly escaped near-total destruction when a fire broke out at Ashburnham House in London. In the 19th century, it was discovered that the fire-damaged parchment leaves could be inlaid in modern paper mounts, as shown here in a page from Bede's Ecclesiastical History: Cotton MS Tiberius A XIV, f. 39r

Ever since the library's formation, the Cotton manuscripts have been made available for consultation by scholars worldwide. You can read more about the Cotton manuscripts in our collection guide here.

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The Cotton library is particularly rich in illuminated manuscripts from Britain and beyond. Here is the opening page of the Coronation Book of King Charles V of France, commissioned in 1365: Cotton MS Tiberius B VIII/2, f. 35r 

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Many of the manuscripts are written in Latin or in English (including Old English, Middle English and Scots English). Other European languages represented in the collection include Cornish, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Irish, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Welsh. Non-European languages include Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew, Inuit, Persian and Turkish. Here is page from a Latin-Old Cornish glossary, copied in South-East Wales in the 12th century: Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV, f. 8v

You can view many of the Cotton manuscripts on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site. We recommend that, on the homepage, you type into the Manuscripts search box 'Cotton MS' or 'Cotton Ch' in order to see those currently available; more are being added all the time.

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Sir Robert Cotton was closely acquainted with many of the leading scholars and collectors of his day. In this letter, Sir Edward Dering (d. 1644) sent him the charter of King John dated at Runnymede, now known as Magna Carta, and preserved as Cotton Charter XIII 31A: Cotton MS Julius C III, f. 143r

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Cotton was renowned for rearranging his manuscripts and for preserving pages from other books and documents. Prefacing a gospelbook is this cutting from the Breviary of Margaret of York, which in turn incorporates a mounted papyrus fragment of Gregory the Great, Homiliae XL in Evangelia, dating from the late 6th or 7th century: Cotton MS Titus C XV, f. 1r

The British Library's two manuscripts of Magna Carta, issued by King John in 1215 and both forming part of Sir Robert Cotton's library, were inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World International Register in 2009. We are thrilled that this whole manuscript collection of national and international importance has now been recognised by UNESCO. We hope that the Cotton library will continue to inspire research into the rich cultural and historical heritage of the British Isles. The full list of inscriptions on the UNESCO Memory of the World UK Register can be accessed here.

Tickets for the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, featuring a number of the Cotton manuscripts, can be purchased online.

 

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10 May 2018

What's in a name?

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Do you ever sign your name in your books? Is that something you did as a child (as I used to do in my Mr Men books) or is it a habit you've carried over into adulthood? Do you ever inscribe your books in case you lend them, or do you date them as a record of when they were acquired?

One person who regularly signed his books was the politician and antiquary, Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631). Cotton's library of manuscripts was presented to the British nation upon the death of his grandson, John, in 1702, and it now resides at the British Library. Among its many treasures are two copies of Magna Carta as issued by King John in 1215, the sole surviving medieval manuscript of Beowulf, and the state papers of the Tudor monarchs.

I am particularly keen to learn more about how and when Cotton obtained his manuscripts. Much pioneering work on this topic was done by Colin Tite, who died last year, as recorded in his The Manuscript Library of Sir Robert Cotton: The Panizzi Lectures, 1993 (London, 1994), and The Early Records of Sir Robert Cotton's Library: Formation, Cataloguing, Use (London, 2003). Among the evidence for the gradual growth of Robert Cotton's library are the various catalogues compiled during and after his lifetime, his correspondence with other scholars, and the manuscripts themselves. I hope in time to be able to collate all this information. Below are some examples of Cotton's dated signature, starting in 1588 when he was aged just 17, and encompassing manuscripts such as the magnificent Vespasian Psalter, dated in 1599.

Cotton_ms_vespasian_d_xv_f083v

Cotton_ms_vespasian_d_xv_f083v

A penitential manual (10th century), signed by Robert Cotton in 1588, aged 17: Cotton MS Vespasian D XV, f. 83v

 

Cotton_ms_vespasian_a_i_f012r

Cotton_ms_vespasian_a_i_f012r

The Vespasian Psalter (8th century), signed by Robert Cotton in 1599: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 12r

 

Cotton_ms_caligula_a_viii_f028r

Cotton_ms_caligula_a_viii_f028r

Libellus de primo Saxonum uel Normannorum aduentu (12th century), signed by Robert Cotton in 1600: Cotton MS Caligula A VIII, f. 28r

 

Cotton_ms_tiberius_b_viii!1_f003r

Cotton_ms_tiberius_b_viii!1_f003r

A Glasgow pontifical (12th century), signed by Robert Cotton in 1604: Cotton MS Tiberius B VIII/1, f. 3r

 

Cotton_ms_tiberius_c_iii_f004r

Cotton_ms_tiberius_c_iii_f004r

Honorius Augustodunensis, Gemma animae sive De divinis officiis (12th century), signed by Robert Cotton in 1618: Cotton MS Tiberius C III, f. 4r

 

Among other manuscripts whose acquisition we can potentially date on the basis of inscriptions in the books themselves are:

  • Cotton MS Julius E IV, 'Rob. Cotton Bruceus ex dono Walter Cop militis 1603' (f. 10r)
  • Cotton MS Nero D VII, 'Robertus Cotton Bruceus Liber ex dono vicecomitus sancti Albani 1623' (f. 1r)
  • Cotton MS Vespasian B XXVI, 'Ro: Cotton Cuningtonensis 1602' (f. 1r)
  • Cotton MS Titus A XXII, 'Ro: Cotton / 1596 / Conington' (f. 2v) and 'Robert Cotton / 1598' (f. 286r)
  • Cotton MS Faustina B VII, 'I had this book amongst Mr Talbotts papers 1598' (f. 2r). According to the Oxford Dictonary of National Biography, Thomas Talbot died between 1595 and 1599; this manuscript may indicate that he died around 1598.

Putting all this evidence together, I very much hope one day to be able to continue Colin Tite's magnificent work, so that collectively we understand more about the origins, growth and early usage of Sir Robert Cotton's manuscript collection.

 

Julian Harrison

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