28 May 2023
Exactly a thousand years ago, on 28 May 1023, Lupus – ‘The Wolf’ – died in York. Lupus was the punning Latin name used by the prolific writer, cleric and royal adviser, Archbishop Wulfstan.
At the end of his entry on Wulfstan in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Patrick Wormald wrote that research on Wulfstan’s manuscripts in the twentieth century had transformed him ‘from just another doubtless worthy Anglo-Saxon prelate into one of the half dozen most significant figures even in the crowded and dramatic history of eleventh-century England’. Settling on a list of the other five most significant figures is a distracting little game.
Wulfstan called himself Lupus (‘The Wolf’): Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV, f. 110r
Wulfstan, who had been bishop of London from 996 to 1002, became bishop of Worcester from 1002 to 1016 and archbishop of York from 1002 until his death in 1023. He had been a leading religious and political figure in the turbulent reign of King Æthelred the Unready (r. 978–1016). Although the Danish conquest of England by Cnut in 1016 saw a turnover in the English nobility, Wulfstan remained both a key royal adviser and archbishop of York under the new regime. He drafted laws for Cnut, as he had for Æthelred, and introduced reforms of both church and lay society.
Wulfstan’s own handwriting survives in a number of manuscripts, and a Latin poem praising him in one such volume (Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV), is thought to be in his own hand. The poem mentions Wulfstan’s name admiringly in each verse. It includes the line, Est laus wulfstano mea pulchritudo benigno pontifici cui sit dominus sine fine serenus ([This poem’s] beauty is praise for the kind Bishop Wulfstan, my Lord be endlessly merciful to him).
A poem praising Wulfstan, apparently written in his own hand: Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV, f. 148v
While no contemporary biographical account of Wulfstan’s life survives to set alongside the poem, we can reconstruct his life and career from his other works and from the manuscripts that he annotated. They show him to be a busy, restless figure, collecting legal, liturgical and instructional texts for use in the many crises of his day.
Wulfstan’s ‘letter-book’ (also Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV), compiled when he was Archbishop of York, includes a collection of letters written around two hundred years previously by the royal adviser and abbot, Alcuin (d. 804). Alcuin had sent advice to the English archbishops and to King Æthelred of Northumbria (r. 774–779, 789–796). He warned of the perils of sin, which he believed had led to Viking raids as divine punishment for the wickedness of the English. As Wulfstan was adviser to his own King Æthelred during another period of Danish invasion, he doubtless recognised the analogies between Alcuin’s times and his own.
The opening of Wulfstan’s letter book: Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV, f. 114r
Wulfstan took these lessons to heart in his own time and drew upon Alcuin in his most famous work, Sermo Lupi ad Anglos quando Dani maxime persecuti sunt eos (The Sermon of the Wolf to the English when the Danes were persecuting them most). In this barnstorming speech, he warned the people that they could lose their kingdom unless they repented from sin:
Leofan men, gecnawað þæt soð is. Ðeos worold is on ofste, and hit nealæcð þam ende, and þy hit is on worolde aa swa leng swa wyrse. And swa hit sceal nyde for folces synnan ær antecristes tocyme yfelian swyþe, and huru hit wyrð þænne egeslic and grimlic wide on worolde.
Beloved men, recognise what is true: this world is in haste and approaches its end; and therefore, in this world things always worsen the longer they last. And so, it must by necessity deteriorate greatly before the coming of the Antichrist, because of the people sins, and indeed it will then be terrible and grim widely in the world.
The Sermo Lupi ad Anglos (Sermon of the Wolf to the English): Cotton MS Nero A I, f. 110r
This manuscript also contains law-codes, drafted by Wulfstan for Æthelred and Cnut. It includes the earliest surviving copy of laws (known as I–II Cnut) issued in Cnut’s name at a meeting at Winchester around 1020 or 1021. These laws are the most extensive record of law in England before the Norman Conquest. They drew on earlier English kings’ law-codes, and this copy, made in the third quarter of the 11th century, is now bound with copies of earlier law-codes that Wulfstan used and annotated.
A law-code of King Cnut drafted by Wulfstan: Cotton MS Nero A I, f. 16r
We can see other aspects of Wulfstan’s activities in one of his own liturgical books (Cotton MS Claudius A III). This is a pontifical, a service book for the rites performed by a bishop. Wulfstan included in it Latin and Old English versions of an Æthelred law code that he had drafted. He seems to have added in his own hand the names of King Æthelred and himself between the lines of the text.
A law-code of King Æthelred drafted by Wulfstan, with the added names of King Æthelred and Wulfstan: Cotton MS Claudius A III, f. 35r
In other manuscripts, Wulstan’s annotations show him minutely changing the wording of his own sermons, as well as correcting and supplementing the texts of others. He also oversaw the compilation of the first cartulary gathering together evidence of gifts of property to the cathedral priory of Worcester and leases of its land.
Copies of leases in the first cartulary of Worcester: Cotton MS Tiberius A XIII, f. 87v
The manuscripts linked to Wulfstan reveal the multifaceted role of an early medieval bishop, responsible for pastoral care in his diocese and for the education and disciplining of the clergy, managing property, participating on the national stage as a major voice at the royal council and advising on the spiritual welfare of the kingdom.
Although Wulfstan died in York on 28 May 1023, he was buried, in accordance with his wishes, in the fenland abbey at Ely.
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23 April 2023
This year marks 400 years since the publication of one of the most influential books in the English language: Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies (1623), better known as the Shakespeare First Folio. Several plays are found in this collected edition for the very first time, including Macbeth, Twelfth Night and The Tempest. We might have remained ignorant of Prospero's books and 'Out damned spot' if this volume had never been published.
But some of the characters that are most familiar to us in Shakespeare's plays pre-date his time, and are featured in medieval manuscripts held at the British Library. Here we pick out five of our favourites.
Richard is delivered to the citizens of London: Harley MS 1319, f. 53v
King Richard II ruled England from the death of his grandfather, Edward III, in 1377, until he was deposed in 1399, and replaced on the throne by Henry IV (Part One). He is perhaps best remembered in Shakespeare's version of his life for the speech by John of Gaunt (Richard's uncle), 'This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle, this earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England'. A century after Richard's death, Jean Creton wrote La Prinse et mort du roy Richart at the request of Philip, Duke of Burgundy, one copy of which is Harley MS 1319. This manuscript contains some 16 miniatures illustrating events that culminated in the overthrow of Richard II, including one showing the king being handed over to the citizens of London.
Antony and Cleopatra (comin' at ya)
The double suicide of Antony and Cleopatra: Royal MS 14 E V, f. 339r
Shakespeare's fated lovers are illustrated in a host of medieval manuscripts. Their story is told in Giovanni Boccaccio's De casibus virorum illustrium, as translated into French as Des Cas des nobles hommes et femmes. We're particularly enamoured of this copy made in Bruges around 1480 for King Edward IV of England. Antony is poised to stab himself with his long pointed sword, while Cleopatra is shown standing next to him, two asps clasped to her naked bosom. Her headdress is very un-Egyptian, owing more to medieval fashion than that of the 1st century BC.
A page from the Chronicle of Melrose, including the entry for 1050, recording that Macbeth had visited Rome: Cotton MS Faustina B IX, f. 13r
We have blogged before about the real Macbeth. He was king of Scotland from 1040, when Duncan was killed in battle, until 1057, when Macbeth was himself killed by Malcolm at Lumphanan in Mar. The Chronicle of Melrose, dating from the 1170s, is one of the earliest narrative sources for Macbeth's reign, and reveals that he visited Rome in 1050, where he is said to have distributed alms. There is no mention in this account of daggers, witches or windswept heaths, no Banquo, Fleance or Macduff, no Lady Macbeth walking in her sleep.
Troilus and Cressida
The lovers, Troilus and Cressida: Add MS 15477, f. 35v
In 2012, at the Globe to Globe festival held in London, Troilus and Cressida was performed in the Māori language, notably including a challenge or haka at the beginning of the play. This reminds us how the story of the Trojan lovers has been re-imagined over the centuries, from Geoffrey Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, to William Walton's opera, and to the dramatic versions by both William Shakespeare and John Dryden. An early manuscript illustration is this copy of Guido delle Colonne's Historia destructionis Troiae, showing Troilus and Cressida in bed on the left and riding with Diomedes on the right.
The assassination of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March: Royal MS 18 E V, f. 355v
Also at Globe to Globe, an Italian company notoriously performed Shakespeare's Julius Caesar by omitting one of the central characters in the play, whose initials are JC (you didn't have to be there). One of the most famous scenes in that play, the assassination of Caesar, was recreated by the actors walking to the front of the stage, declaiming their speech, and marking a cross with chalk on a wooden chair (in place of stabbing their victim). The original scene is perhaps better understood in this illustration in the Histoire tripartite of Baudouin d'Avennes, made perhaps in Bruges in the 1470s. Et tu, Brute?
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05 April 2023
Have you ever wondered how a woman’s home in 16th-century England would be decorated? What rooms, furniture and furnishings might it have had? Two manuscripts digitised for the British Library’s Medieval and Renaissance Women project reveal just that.
Egerton Roll 8797 and a contemporary copy, Egerton Roll 8798, are inventories of the London house of Alice Smythe, drawn up soon after her death in 1593. Alice came from an important merchant family. Her father was Sir Andrew Judde (c. 1492–1555), mayor of London in 1550 and a master of the Skinners Company. In 1555, she married another Skinner, Thomas Smythe (1522–1591), an MP and a successful merchant himself. Three years later, Thomas became the customs collector for the port of London, a government role that brought him vast riches and the nickname Customer Smythe. We can easily see the couple’s wealth in this inventory of their home, drawn up after Alice died, two years after Thomas’ own death.
Portrait of Alice Smythe by Cornelius Ketel, c. 1580: Private Collection
On 30 June that year, Richard Rogers, a goldsmith, Richard Osborne, a draper, and two merchant tailors, William Greenway and Hugh Sherriot, citizens of London, appraised Alice’s house and its contents. The inventory they created goes room by room through her house in Fenchurch Street, London, beginning with the entrance hall. This had a couple of long tables, two candlesticks, and a picture of the coat of arms of Queen Elizabeth (2 shillings). Next were two parlours: the folks’ parlour, for everyday use, had a fireplace, chairs and a Bible, but the ‘best’ parlour had more elaborate decor. As well as leather chairs and green curtains, the room also had three ‘Turkey carpets’ (£2 16s 8d). Textiles like this from Turkey and elsewhere in the Islamic world were a sign of wealth and could be found in many prosperous Tudor homes.
The beginning of the inventory of Alice’s house: Egerton Roll 8797
The bedroom above the best parlour was decorated with tapestries and a painting of Moses meeting with Pharaoh (10 shillings). In the next room, which had a matted floor, was a painting of Henry VIII and one of Cupid and Venus (6 shillings each). Beside this was a painted bedroom with a featherbed, green rugs and curtains, and a virginal, a type of small harpsichord.
Many of the other rooms upstairs were equally well decorated, with more ‘Turkey’ carpets, featherbeds, and green or red curtains. There was a gallery filled with paintings and stained glass. In the room within the gallery was another sitting room with fourteen paintings of Alice and Thomas and their children, suggesting the importance she placed upon her family. Alongside these was a painting of the Roman heroine Lucretia, chests, and velvet and taffeta chairs.
Other artworks in the house were an Arras tapestry of Joseph, and paintings of Death and Pride, Christ as a shepherd, and the Last Supper. The great chamber had an embroidered coat of arms and portraits of Queen Elizabeth, William Cecil, Lord Treasurer, the Virgin Mary on stained glass, and Holofernes. Alice’s home, with its collection of paintings depicting Biblical figures, Classical myths and Tudor monarchs, is typical of a prosperous English house in this period. The great chamber’s contents came to £14 16s 10d. In contrast, the bedrooms of the three maids totalled just £4 19s 2d. Alice had at least seven other servants each with their own room. Outside the main house was a tennis court, a stable, a wash house and a still house. In the yard were a few weapons: two billhooks and three pikes.
Among Alice’s valuables were £23 10s 8d of rings including one with a diamond and twenty-two rubies. Her other jewellery and plate came to £183 14s 7d. One of these was diamond jewellery in the shape of an ‘A’, probably used by Alice herself. Alongside this was £177 9s in ready money.
Title page of Thomas Bentley’s The Monument of Matrones, 1582: British Library G.12047-49.
Alice also gives the impression of having been a literate woman. She had 35s 8d of books, including two chronicles, a few Bibles, the Book of Common Prayer, and Thomas Bentley’s The Monument of Matrones. Published in 1582, this volume contained prayers written by and for women, including Queen Elizabeth. While the other books may have been shared by Alice with her husband, this one would almost certainly have been her own.
In all, Alice’s possessions came to £1084 17s 1d, plus £1248 that was received from the executors of her husband’s will. The total would be worth almost £700,000 today and this didn’t include the value of the house itself or any other property she owned elsewhere. She owed debts of £76 14s to various individuals, mostly wages for her servants, the fee for having her will written, and money for her doctor. Alice left £438 17s 5d in funeral expenses.
This inventory takes us inside the house of a wealthy Elizabethan widow, giving us an insight into her interests, lifestyle and beliefs. The imported ‘Turkey’ rugs and Arras tapestries hint at London’s international ties in the late 1500s, while the copy of Bentley’s Monument of Matrones tells us about Alice’s personal spirituality; her paintings of classical figures and stories suggest an interest in the Greek and Roman past. It helps us recover the story of a woman who has often been overshadowed by her husband and who did not leave us many documents in her own voice.
We are extremely grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for their generous funding of Medieval and Renaissance Women.
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24 September 2021
What's the first thing that you think of when you hear the words 'the Green Knight'? Is it the new Hollywood movie starring Dev Patel, Joel Edgerton and Alicia Vikander, which has its UK release on 24 September? Or, if you are a medieval nerd, is it the unique manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that we look after at the British Library?
We haven't yet seen the film (have you booked your tickets yet?) but the 14th-century manuscript is available to view in full online, and it is also currently on display, for free, in the Treasures Gallery at the British Library. Its full-page illustrations have a charm all of their own, even if they were once dismissed as 'coarsely executed'. Take, for instance, the scene shown below, which prefaces the poem (Cotton MS Nero A X/2, f. 94v). At the top of the page, Sir Gawain (dressed in red and holding an axe) is addressing King Arthur and Queen Guinevere at their distinctly un-round table. Below, the Green Knight mounted on his green horse holds his severed head aloft, in front of a clearly bemused Gawain.
There are three further illustrations accompanying the text of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, all painted in the same palette and in which all the characters have identical features and hairstyles. These illustrations follow one another in sequence at the end of the poem (ff. 129r, 129v, 130r). First, we have Bertilak's lady entering Gawain's bedchamber in order to seduce him (f. 129r). She is wearing what seems to be a turban and a brightly spotted dressing gown. Gawain is swathed, quite fittingly, in a green blanket.
Then we have the scene of Sir Gawain (on horseback) and the Green Knight (wielding the axe) before the Green Chapel (f. 129v). It has to be said that this particular page is exceedingly green, with the odd hints of other colours to delineate Gawain and the Green Knight's blond hair.
Finally, a kneeling Gawain is shown being greeted by Arthur and Guinevere beneath a dark blue canopy (f. 130r). The perspective of the three figures at the rear is disproportionate to that of Gawain before them and the paint, it has to be said, has been applied rather thickly. But the king and queen's expressions say it all: Gawain has accomplished his challenge and has saved the honour of King Arthur's court.
There are some wonderful still images of The Green Knight movie available on the IMDb website. The costume design of Gawain (played by Dev Patel) and the Green Knight (played by Ralph Ineson) clearly owes nothing to their medieval counterparts. But we love their distinctive headdresses — Dev Patel shown below looks a tad like a Sun King — and the sheer menace on the Green Knight's face. The image of the Green Knight riding into King Arthur's court (featuring, incidentally, a very round-looking table) makes our hairs stand on end. There may be little in common with the image in the unique medieval manuscript, but they both convey a similar mood. This is a moment of wonder, of real danger, and of enticing mystery. We hope the film lives up to expectations. Never has it been more appropriate to declare, "Off with his head!"
All film images courtesy of IMDb.com, and as used in other reviews of the movie
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24 June 2021
To mark Midsummer's Day (24 June), we're taking a look at one of the sources for William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, as illustrated in some of the British Library's manuscripts — the legend of Pyramus and Thisbe.
You may be familiar with Shakespeare's play-within-a-play in Act V of The Dream, in which a band of 'mechanicals', played by Bottom and others, re-enact the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe. A Midsummer Night's Dream was written most probably in the 1590s — the First Quarto was published in 1600 — but the 'mini-play' featuring the parts of Pyramus, Thisbe, the Prologue, the Lion, Moonshine and the Wall has much older origins.
The story of the ill-fated lovers first emerges in its 'modern' form in Ovid's Metamorphoses, completed in AD 8. Pyramus and Thisbe lived in adjoining houses in Babylon, but were able to communicate only through a crack in the wall, due to their parents' rivalry. They arranged to meet near a mulberry tree, by the tomb of Ninus (the mythical founder of Nineveh), but Thisbe was disturbed by a lioness and fled, leaving behind her blood-stained cloak. When Pyramus discovered it, he assumed that Thisbe had been killed by a wild beast and fell on his sword, staining the white fruits of the mulberry tree with his own blood; Thisbe then returned and killed herself in turn with her lover's sword. The gods heard her dying lament and changed the mulberry fruits to their new dark shade in honour of the lovers.
In this 15th-century French translation of Ovid's text, known as Ovide moralisé, Thisbe is shown standing over Pyramus's body, in front of a mulberry tree and beside a fountain, stabbing herself with his sword.
Thisbe kills herself in despair at finding Pyramus dead, in a translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses (Southern Netherlands, 15th century): Royal MS 17 E IV, f. 55r
Shakespeare's deliberately muddled version of the legend is perhaps the best-known adaptation, but a number of medieval authors also recounted the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe. It turns up in Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron, completed in the 1350s, and in his De claris mulieribus (On Famous Women), dating from 1361–62. In this 15th-century French translation of De claris mulieribus (Des cleres et nobles femmes), a red-gowned Thisbe is shown piercing her neck with the sword (this tale is not for the squeamish), with the walls of Babylon in the background.
The death of the lovers, in a translation of Boccaccio's On Famous Women (Paris, c. 1410): Royal MS 20 C V, f. 22r
Geoffrey Chaucer in The Legend of Good Women (1380s) and John Gower in his Confessio Amantis, composed at the request of King Richard II (1377–1399), rendered the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe for the first time in English. But it is Christine de Pizan's The Book of the Queen (Harley MS 4431) which supplies perhaps our favourite medieval image of this story. Illustrating her L'Épître Othéa is this miniature depicting the suicide of the lovers. To the rear, a lion is tearing with its teeth at Thisbe's cloak. In the foreground Pyramus lies prostrate beside a fountain, clutching his heart, while an ashen-faced Thisbe has plunged the sword through her chest, penetrating her back, and is about to fall to the earth. Behind them grows the mulberry tree and to their rear is what may be taken for the wall through which they communicated. Christine herself was the scribe of part of this manuscript, which was made for Queen Isabeau of Bavaria (d. 1435), the wife of King Charles VI of France (1380–1422).
The death of the lovers in the Book of the Queen (Paris, c. 1410-14): Harley MS 4431, f. 112v
William Shakespeare's rendering of this episode in A Midsummer Night's Dream is more comical than tragic. The guests at the wedding of Duke Theseus and Queen Hippolyta are highly amused by the performance. Theseus turns down the chance to hear the prologue, 'for your play needs no excuse', and the actors finish with a dance. Happy ever after ... but far removed from the original macabre fate of Pyramus and Thisbe.
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01 April 2021
How well do you know your Hamlet?
We're not talking about the tragic Prince of Denmark, of course. We're referring to Hamlet Anderson, who owned a manuscript of the Wycliffite New Testament in the 16th century.
His name was noticed by Clarck Drieshen, who is currently cataloguing the Harley collection at the British Library. In three places at the end of Harley MS 4027, Hamlet inscribed his name, as you can see in this image of f. 184r. Clarck speculates that the former owner of this manuscript may be identified as 'Hamlet Anderton, tailour' of King’s Lynn, who is recorded in A Calendar of the Freemen of Lynn, 1292–1836 (Norwich: Archaeological Society, 1913), p. 106.
Hamlet Anderson's name is inscribed twice on a page at the end of Harley MS 4027 (f. 184r)
It may not be unreasonable to suppose that a tailor would have owned a copy of the New Testament in English, albeit a manuscript version made in the first half of the 15th century. Also on f. 184r is a list of purchased items, including shears (wool), perhaps relevant to his occupation.
A detail of Hamlet Anderson's signatures: Harley MS 4027, f. 184r
Among the other owners of this manuscript were:
- Baudet Anderton in the 15th century (his name is inscribed on f. 140v);
- Thomas Bloye in the 16th century (f. 102r);
- William Peirson in the early 17th century (f. 9r);
- Thomas Johnson in 1670 (f. 181v);
- Thomas Peirson in 1678 (f. 181v).
The names of Baudet Anderton, Hamlet Anderson and Thomas Johnson were all recognised for the first time by Clarck while he was cataloguing Harley MS 4027.
The opening page of the Wycliffite New Testament, in Middle English (England, 15th century): Harley MS 4027, f. 1r
We have now added descriptions of more than 3,000 manuscripts in the Harley collection to the British Library's online catalogue. We'd love you to explore them for yourselves. Maybe you will encounter more familiar names or discover unfamiliar manuscripts for the first time.
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09 July 2020
One of the most iconic literary manuscripts by one of the world's most famous playwrights, William Shakespeare (1564–1616), can now be viewed in full online on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.
The Booke of Sir Thomas Moore does not immediately spring to mind as among Shakespeare's masterpieces. This late 16th or early 17th-century play is not always included among the Shakespearean canon, and it was not until the 1800s that it was even associated with the Bard of Avon. So what is the connection with William Shakespeare, the author of the more distinguished Hamlet, Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet?
In 1871, William Shakespeare's handwriting was identified on this page of The Booke of Sir Thomas Moore: Harley MS 7368, f. 9r
A clue is presented by the handwriting of the surviving manuscript (Harley MS 7368). There are 22 leaves in question, 13 of which are original, 7 are inserted leaves, and 2 are pasted slips. What is immediately apparent is that Thomas Moore was the work of several dramatists. The primary hand is that of Anthony Munday (d. 1633), and he was possibly assisted by the printer, Henry Chettle (d. 1603–07), with further contributions by Thomas Dekker (d. 1632), and perhaps by Thomas Heywood (d. 1641). The handwriting of yet another scribe in the manuscript, known by scholars as the unspectacularly named 'Hand D', is possibly none other than Shakespeare himself. Finally, the manuscript is known to have been censored in turn by Edmund Tilney (d. 1610), Master of the Revels.
The division of the handwriting can be set out as follows. 'Hand D' (probably Shakespeare) contributed an addition on ff. 8r–9v, supplying lines 1–165 of Scene 6.
- ‘Hand S’: Anthony Munday
- ‘Hand A’: probably Henry Chettle
- ‘Hand B’: probably Thomas Heywood
- ‘Hand C’: an unidentified professional scribe
- ‘Hand D’: probably William Shakespeare
- ‘Hand E’: probably Thomas Dekker
It was not at all unusual for early modern dramatists to collaborate in this way. William Shakespeare is known to have written in partnership with John Fletcher (d. 1625) and others, and it would have been logical for Munday to have turned to his fellow playwrights to advise and assist him when revising his play about Sir Thomas More (1478–1535), the early Tudor Lord Chancellor, humanist and martyr. What is exceptional here, of course, is that Harley MS 7368 is the only identifiable example of Shakespeare's contribution to a playscript surviving in manuscript. None of his other plays have been transmitted to us in this way. What is more, in these pages we can perhaps see the master playwright at work, musing, composing and correcting his text: a window into Shakespeare's dramatic art, as it were.
Another page from Shakespeare's probable contribution to The Booke of Sir Thomas Moore: Harley MS 7368, f. 8v
There is a remarkable sub-text to William Shakespeare's contribution to Thomas Moore. Andrew Dickson, in an article ('Wretched Strangers') for the British Library's Discovering Literature site, has noted how William Shakespeare was presumably called upon by Munday to write the most emotional passage in the play, known as the 'insurrection scene'. Drawing upon events in 1517, when rioting Londoners demanded that immigrants be expelled from England, Shakespeare portrayed Sir Thomas More, as mayor of London, pleading with the crowd to accept the asylum seekers.
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs, with their poor luggage,
Plodding to th’ ports and coasts for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silenced by your brawl ...
This was all the more remarkable when one realises that similar xenophobic riots had occurred in London in the 1590s and 1600s. Was Shakespeare making a case in The Book of Thomas Moore for racial tolerance? By putting words into Thomas More's mouth, was he making a barbed attack upon the prejudice of his own day?
The Book of Thomas Moore was probably never performed in the time of its authors. The Elizabethan censor, Edmund Tilney, took serious dislike to the playscript, and it seems to have been banned from public performance. The manuscript instead passed into the Harley library and was then sold to the British nation in 1753; it might have remained in oblivion were it not that Shakespeare's style, and hence his own handwriting, was first recognised in the 'insurrection scene' in 1871. The playscript is now extraordinarily brittle, and it is difficult to put on display; but we are delighted to be able to make it available online for everyone to read and enjoy, and for you to determine for yourselves if was indeed William Shakespeare who wrote these lines, in his very own hand. You can gaze in wonder at it on our Digitised Manuscripts site.
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20 May 2020
This week we are looking back at the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition which opened to the public in October 2018. By the time the exhibition closed four months later, the enigmatic figure of ‘Spong Man’ had greeted over 108,000 visitors.
‘Spong Man’, on loan from Norwich Castle Museum (1994.192.1)
Excavated in Norfolk about 40 years ago, Spong Man is the ceramic lid of a cremation urn, who had travelled from his current home in Norwich Castle Museum to London for the exhibition. Sitting with his head in his hands, he looked visitors straight in the eye and welcomed them to his 5th-century world. While Spong Man sat alone, some of the most memorable moments in the exhibition were manuscripts brought together for display alongside each other, thanks to the generosity of so many lenders. Here is a reminder of just a few.
Just behind Spong Man was a single exhibition case containing the St Augustine Gospels, perhaps brought from Rome by St Augustine in 597, the Moore Bede, probably the earliest copy of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, and the Textus Roffensis, which contains the first piece of English law and the earliest datable text written in English.
The St Augustine Gospels, on loan from Cambridge, Corpus Christi College (MS 286) © Corpus Christi College, Cambridge
The Moore Bede, on loan from Cambridge University Library (MS Kk.5.16) © Cambridge University Library
Textus Roffensis, on loan from Rochester Cathedral Library (MS A. 3. 5)
The Book of Durrow, on loan from Dublin, Trinity College Library (MS 57) © Trinity College Dublin
The Echternach Gospels, on loan from Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France (MS lat. 9389)
In the same room were the Durham Gospels next to the Lindisfarne Gospels and, at the far end, two manuscripts made at Wearmouth-Jarrow in the early 8th century were reunited when the pocket-sized St Cuthbert Gospel, acquired by the British Library in 2012, was displayed next to the giant Codex Amiatinus, which had returned from Italy to Britain for the first time in over 1300 years.
The St Cuthbert Gospel (British Library, Add MS 89000)
Codex Amiatinus, on loan from Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana (MS Amiatino 1)
The Lichfield Angel, on loan from Lichfield Cathedral
Gold dinar of King Offa, on loan from the British Museum (CM 1913,1213.1) © Trustees of the British Museum
The Alfred Jewel, on loan from Oxford, Ashmolean Museum (AN1836 p.135.371)
The Pastoral Care, on loan from Oxford, Bodleian Library (MS Hatton 20)
The section on languages and literature was dominated by a replica of the Ruthwell Cross with its extracts from the poem ‘The Dream of the Rood’.
The Ruthwell Cross replica in the gallery
Nearby the cases containing the Four Poetic Codices, brought together for the first time Beowulf, the Vercelli Book (containing the whole text of ‘The Dream of the Rood’), the Exeter Book and the Junius Manuscript.
The Four Poetic Codices on display in the exhibition: Beowulf (British Library, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV); The Vercelli Book, on loan from Vercelli, Biblioteca Capitolare (MS CXVII); The Junius Manuscript, on loan from Oxford, Bodleian Library (MS Junius 11); The Exeter Book, on loan from Exeter Cathedral Library (MS 3501)
Further on, the jewelled binding of the Gospels of Judith of Flanders was displayed in the centre of the room containing eight highlights of the manuscript art from the late 10th- and 11th-century kingdom of England.
The Judith of Flanders Gospels, on loan from New York, Morgan Library (MS M 708) © The Pierpont Morgan Library and Museum, New York
Towards the end of the exhibition the Domesday surveyors’ questions and part of the Exon Domesday survey were displayed with Domesday Book itself, showing the vast amount of evidence it reveals about the landscape, organisation and wealth of late Anglo-Saxon England.
Great Domesday Book, on loan from The National Archives (E/31/2/2)
Finally, and several hours later for some dedicated visitors, the exhibition ended with the Utrecht Psalter, the Harley Psalter and the Eadwine Psalter, which drew together key themes in the exhibition: the connections between Europe and the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, the movement of manuscripts, and the development and continuity of the English language.
The Utrecht Psalter, on loan from Utrecht, Universiteitsbibliotheek (MS 32) © Utrecht University Library
The Harley Psalter, British Library Harley MS 603
The Eadwine Psalter, on loan from Cambridge, Trinity College (MS R.17.1)
Although the exhibition closed in February 2019, you can continue to explore exhibits through the collection items and articles featured in our Anglo-Saxons website, and the exhibition catalogue is available from the British Library online shop.
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