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148 posts categorized "English"

18 May 2019

Ink in the clink

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While he was imprisoned in the Tower of London from 1603 to 1616, the famous courtier, explorer and author, Sir Walter Raleigh (1554–1618), turned to writing. One manuscript is an impressive witness to the years he spent in prison. Add MS 57555 contains Raleigh’s own handwritten notes, a shelf-list of his books held in the Tower, and an autograph poem addressed to Queen Elizabeth I.

Writing was a familiar activity in the Tower of London. The building contains a substantial collection of early modern graffiti, as prisoners inscribed their names, initials, symbols, monograms or verses onto the walls. A number of early modern prisoners’ poems were circulated with accounts of how they were originally written upon windows with pins or diamonds. Elizabeth I herself, as a prisoner in Woodstock Palace, was said to have written the following verse with a diamond upon her window: ‘Much suspected by me / Nothing proved can be. Quoth Elizabeth, Prisoner’. Lady Jane Grey is also meant to have written verses upon her window in the Tower of London during her imprisonment, using a pin.  

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Walter Raleigh's map of Egypt, showing the lands around 'Babilon or Cairo', 'Heliopolis' and 'Memphis', from his commonplace book: Add MS 57555, f. 23r

Raleigh’s written remains from the Tower can be found in this manuscript. It is partly a ‘commonplace book’: a book in which notes and memoranda could be recorded for easy reference, under subject-headings which had been written in advance. Raleigh used his notebook to compile historical information on the Middle East and North Africa, arranged alphabetically by ancient place-name. This research was most likely undertaken in preparation for his capacious prose work The History of the World (published in 1614). The manuscript also contains Raleigh’s draft maps of the coast and hinterland of North Africa and Palestine, some of which closely mirror the engravings by William Hole which accompany the printed History of the World.

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An alphabetical list in Raleigh's commonplace book: Add MS 57555, f. 2r

Raleigh similarly used his notebook as an apparatus when it came to recording information about the books he owned in the Tower. In his room within the Bloody Tower, Raleigh had approximately 515 books, as well as mathematical instruments and a 'stilhows' or laboratory. In his notebook, Raleigh and two servants or amanuenses compiled a list of these books, and their locations on the shelves, according to their subject and size. The manuscript would have helped Raleigh physically navigate the reading material he had amassed upon his shelves.

This manuscript shows how Raleigh was surrounded by the written word during his time in the Tower. His notebook was an organisational tool for writing; whether that was organising research and notes for his own writing, or the contents and location of volumes in his library. Appropriately, the final item in the volume, an older poem addressed to Elizabeth I, ends with Raleigh imagining an ideal scene of writing, but one which has sadly been diminished:

If love could find a quill

drawn from an angells winge

or did the muses singe

that prety wantons will,

perchance he could indyte

to pleas all other sence

butt loves and woes expens

Sorrow cann only write

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The verse beginning 'If love could find a quill', towards the bottom of the page: Add MS 57555, f. 172v

Raleigh was released from the Tower in 1618, to make a final journey to Guiana in search of El Dorado, a city of gold. The voyage was unsuccessful and, upon his return, King James I ordered his execution for violating peace treaties with the Spanish. Sir Walter Raleigh was executed on the morning of 29 October 1618, at Westminster.

You can see an extraordinary range of similar items relating to the history of writing in the British Library's current major exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark , which is on until 27 August 2019.

 

Amy Bowles

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

27 February 2019

Inside information

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In early modern England, the business of government produced a lot of paper. Flurries of notes, memoranda, bills and reports regularly passed through many different hands. Once they had been read, they also needed to be preserved and filed away for future reference. In April 1592, the administrator Nicholas Faunt (1553/4–1608) noted that letters and documents ‘dayly come in of all sortes’, and that care should be taken, since ‘greate inconveniences may growe through the losse of papers and unorderlie keepinge of them’.

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Sir Francis Walsingham's Table Book: Stowe MS 162

One manuscript in the Stowe collection shows how Sir Francis Walsingham (c. 1532–1590), Principal Secretary of State, organised this daily deluge of paper. Stowe MS 162, also known as ‘Walsingham’s Table Book’, is an inventory of the statesman’s own personal archive. The volume, which is in the handwriting of Walsingham’s secretary, Thomas Lake (d. 1630), records where and how each document was stored, for easy location and retrieval. As the head of a network of Elizabethan ‘intelligencers’, Walsingham depended on up-to-date information, so the accurate management of his memoranda, letters and reports was essential.

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'Bondels of Scottish matters remaining in the study at London': Stowe MS 162, f. 66r

Walsingham categorised his files into three subjects: foreign matters; home matters; and the catch-all heading, ‘diverse matters’. Within ‘home matters’, for instance, we find papers concerning ‘Forts and Castles’, ‘Piracy’, ‘Recusants’, and ‘Religion and Matters Ecclesiastical’. Documents on these subjects were assembled into bound books compiled by Walsingham’s secretaries, or gathered as loose papers into portable bundles, parcels or bags, often indexed using a letter of the alphabet.

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'A table of the matters conteined in the book of Piracies': Stowe MS 162, f. 29r

Walsingham’s collection of documents was in regular use. Some items were kept ‘in the Chests’, or ‘Remaining at the Courte upon the Shelfe’ in Whitehall, while others were held ‘in the study at London’, in Walsingham’s house on Seething Lane. When new documents arrived, the table book was updated. It was also used to keep track of loans, recording for example that Sir Robert Cecil, who succeeded Walsingham as Secretary of State, consulted in 1596 a volume on Ireland titled ‘a book of Plotts and discourses’.

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A note recording the borrowing of a volume by Robert Cecil: Stowe MS 162, f. 2r

When Walsingham died, the volumes from his neatly indexed archive passed into many different hands. One of these volumes may have been Lansdowne MS 146, a compilation of papers titled ‘Matters of Piracies’. According to the table book, Walsingham’s ‘book of Piracies’ was made up of 25 documents, including a copy of a commission to allow Kingston upon Hull to ‘appoint shipps out for taking of Piracies’, and a ‘proclamation against the maintenance of Pirats’. The contents of Lansdowne MS 146 correspond exactly with the ‘table of the matters conteined in the book of Piracies’ described in the table book. Although the table book can no longer tell us the whereabouts of a given document, it can still offer clues to material that may once have belonged to this Elizabethan statesman.

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The contents of the Matters of Piracies: Lansdowne MS 146, f. 1r

Walsingham’s table book offers one solution to the perennial problem of keeping up with the latest information. Using this finding aid, the Principal Secretary of State could amass a comprehensive and carefully organised archive of papers that was accessible, up-to-date and accurate. Although Walsingham’s boxes and bundles no longer remain, Stowe MS 162 offers a glimpse of how one statesman organised and navigated the copious papers that shaped the Elizabethan government.

 

Amy Bowles

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

14 February 2019

My ‘right well-beloved Valentine’

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In 1477, a gentlewoman named Margery Brews was soon to be married to a member of the Norfolk aristocracy, John Paston. Margaret and John were rather smitten with each other, and in the year leading up to their marriage they exchanged a series of love letters. In one particular letter, sent in February, Margery described John as her ‘right well-beloved Valentine’ and signed off the letter as ‘your Valentine, Margery Brews’. This intimate letter between these two lovebirds is thought to be the earliest surviving Valentine’s love letter.  

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Letter of Margery Brews to John Paston, February 1477: London, British Library, Add MS 43490, f. 24r

Despite their passion, there was trouble ahead for Margery and John. Their relatives initially opposed the marriage. Margery’s father felt that his daughter could make a more financially advantageous match and John’s elder brother was insulted that his permission had not been asked before seeking Margery’s hand in marriage. Thankfully, Margery’s mother, Elizabeth, was a skilled negotiator. Elizabeth wrote a letter to John, and took advantage of the Valentine’s season to sort out these problems. She wrote:

'On Friday it is Saint Valentine’s Day, and every bird chooses itself a mate. And if you would like to come on Thursday night ... I trust God that you will speak to my husband, and I will pray that we will bring the matter to a conclusion.'

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Margery addresses John as 'right well-beloved Valentine': Add MS 43490, f. 24r

John’s family were also unwilling to support the match on the grounds that Margery’s dowry was too low. In the letter where Margery calls John her ‘right well-beloved Valentine’, she states:

'I want you to understand clearly that my father refuses to part with any more money than a £100 and 50 marks in this business, which is very far from fulfilling your wishes.'

Margery informed John that if he was not satisfied with the £100 or felt that he could get more money, he was 'not to take the trouble to visit any more on this business'.

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Annotation on the back of the letter notes that Margery calls herself John’s “Valentine”: Add MS 43490, f. 24v

As Virgil said, “Love conquers all”. Margery and John were married a few months later. These letters are part of a large archive known as the Paston Letters, comprising 1,000 letters and documents including petitions, leases and wills. These documents provide a fascinating insight into the private lives of the Paston family of Norfolk over a period of 70 years.

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The martyrdom of St Valentine in the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 243r

Margery and John’s love letters also provide valuable insight into the connection between romance and the feast of St Valentine on 14 February. The two have not always been associated. We know that St Valentine was a Christian martyr who lived and died in Rome during the 3rd century. Over 1,000 years later, Geoffrey Chaucer (d. 1400) wrote a poem called Parliament of Fowls, in which he described a group of birds who gather together in the early spring — on ‘seynt valentynes day’ — to choose their mates for the year.

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Margery signs the letter as 'Be your Voluntyne / Mergery Brews': Add MS 43490, f. 24r

During their courtship, Margery wrote another letter to John in which she referred to him as her ‘dearly beloved valentine’. Margery ended this letter by saying, 'I beg you that you will not let anyone on Earth see this letter, except yourself'. If only Margery knew that over 500 years later, her love letters would be discussed in the news and be fully available to view online!

Quotations from the letters in this blogpost have been taken from D. Watt (ed.), The Paston Women: Selected Letters (Woodbridge, 2004).

 

Becky Lawton

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

09 February 2019

Easy as ABC?

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Do you know your ABC? How about your ᚠ ᚢ ᚦ ᚱ ᚳ ? Or your ᚁ ᚂ ᚃ ?

The inhabitants of the British Isles in the first millennium spoke many different languages and wrote in several alphabets. Variant writing systems identified from early Anglo-Saxon England — some of which can be viewed in our stellar Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition — include runes, ogham and Greek, and even attempts at replicating Hebrew and Arabic letters.

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The back of the Harford Farm Brooch includes a runic inscription which says ‘Luda repaired [or makes reparations by] this brooch’ (England, c. 610–650): Norwich Castle Museum 1994.5.78

Runes were used to represent the earliest Germanic languages, including early forms of Old English and the Scandinavian languages. The earliest surviving examples of these angular letters were incised into metal, stone, wood or ceramics. We know that each of these runes had a name, taken from a noun that started with that rune: for example, (n) was called nyd (need), while (th) was called thorn (thorn), perhaps because the symbol itself looks slightly like a branch with thorn. In the 10th century, someone added the names to a runic alphabet on the back of a copy of the Old English version of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

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Runes copied in the 10th century, with their names added in the 11th century: Cotton MS Domitian A IX, f. 11v

Even though the Latin alphabet was eventually adapted to write English, runes did not cease to be used in Anglo-Saxon England. Several objects from the 7th to the 11th centuries feature runic inscriptions. Some surviving blades and scabbards feature the names of their early owners in runes or cryptic, talismanic inscriptions.

The Ruthwell Cross features the ‘Dream of the Rood’ poem inscribed in runes around its sides. Even when writing in Latin letters, the Anglo-Saxons used runes to represent sounds in their language which were not present in the Roman alphabet, such as æ, th (represented by þ or the adapted Latin letters Ð, ð), and w (Ƿ). Some of these letters are still used in Icelandic and Faroese spelling to this day.

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A scribe from 10th-century England practised his alphabet in the margins of this 9th-century copy of Alcuin’s letters: Harley MS 208, f. 117v 

Another non-Latin alphabet known in England in the first millennium was ogham. This writing system is formed of lines carved at different angles around a central line. Examples of ogham inscriptions have been found in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and beyond. On display in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition is a knife inscribed with ogham that was found in South-West Norfolk.

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A knife with an ogham inscription, from Norwich Castle Museum

Ogham script was certainly known to Byrhtferth of Ramsey in the late 10th or early 11th century, and by the scribes who copied his work in the 12th century. Ogham occurs in a 12th-century copy of his diagram (in Oxford, St John’s College, MS 17), although not in the version in Harley MS 3667. Perhaps the scribe of the Harley manuscript omitted the symbols because he did not understand them.

Alphabets from other parts of the world were known to certain Anglo-Saxons. Greek letters appear in some early medieval English manuscripts. Knowledge of Greek in Anglo-Saxon England may be associated with the school run by Archbishop Theodore and Abbot Hadrian in Canterbury in the late 7th and early 8th century. Theodore was from the Greek-speaking part of the Mediterranean and became archbishop of Canterbury in 668. Bede used the Greek alphabet in mathematical calculations and recommended it for creating codes. Some early medieval scribes also tried to imitate Hebrew letters, with somewhat less success. 

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Greek letters, in red, spelling the Latin phrase ‘Deo Gratias’: Harley MS 5431, f. 106v

One incredible survival featured in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms is a coin of King Offa (d. 796) that imitates the Arabic script on a dinar of Abbasid caliph al-Mansur (AH 136–58/ AD 754–75). The Mercian moneyer who made the coin did not copy the letters correctly and clearly could not read Arabic.

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Gold dinar of Offa of Mercia: British Museum, CM 1913,1213.1

You can see many of these alphabets for yourself in the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, which is open until 19 February. We recommend that you check availability before you travel as many time-slots are already full.

 

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

23 January 2019

Cambridge loans in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms  

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What do the St Augustine Gospels, the Eadwine Psalter and the Moore Bede have in common? They have all been kindly loaned to our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition by institutions in Cambridge. On display in the exhibition are a host of manuscripts from Corpus Christi College, Trinity College and the University Library. Read on to find out more about some of these fantastic loans.

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The St Augustine Gospels: Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 286, f. 129v

The St Augustine Gospels is one of the great treasures on loan from Corpus Christi College. This gospel-book dates from the late-6th to the early-7th century and is thought to have been made in Italy, possibly at Rome. This manuscript likely came to England soon after its creation, perhaps with the mission of Augustine of Canterbury. The St Augustine Gospels is still used today at every inauguration of a new archbishop of Canterbury, travelling from Cambridge for the occasion. This splendid manuscript provides a tangible link to the very early days of the Anglo-Saxon Church.

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The Dean of Canterbury holds the “Canterbury Gospels”, as Archbishop Rowan Williams kisses the ancient book (by permission of James Rosenthal/Anglican World)

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The Otho-Corpus Gospels: Cotton MS Otho C V, f. 27r

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The Cotton-Otho Gospels: Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 197B, p. 245

In the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition are displayed two portions of the Otho-Corpus Gospels. One fragment is from the British Library’s own collections, and was badly damaged in the Cotton Library fire in 1731; the other part has been loaned by Corpus Christi College. This is a rare opportunity to view these two portions together and to compare the illustrations of John’s eagle and Mark’s lion.

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The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, manuscript A: Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 173, f. 13v

Another manuscripts on loan from Corpus Christi College is the A-text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, otherwise known as the ‘Parker Chronicle’. This is a 9th-century copy of the original compilation of the Chronicle, one of the most important narrative sources for the Anglo-Saxon period, and the earliest surviving witness of this text. Later versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle are also on display in the exhibition, namely manuscript B, manuscript C and manuscript D.

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Asser’s Life of King Alfred: Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 100, p. 325

Corpus Christi has also loaned a 16th-century transcript of Asser’s Life of King Alfred. This is a biography of the 9th-century King Alfred the Great of Wessex, written during the king’s lifetime by the Welsh monk Asser. The only medieval manuscript of the ‘Life of King Alfred’ that survived into modern times was destroyed in the Cotton Library fire in October 1731. Although Alfred is commonly remembered as the Anglo-Saxon king who defeated the Vikings, Asser’s work barely mentions this, instead giving a more personal account of Alfred’s life.

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The Eadwine Psalter: Cambridge, Trinity College, MS R.17.1, f. 24r

The Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition also features a selection of manuscripts on loan from Trinity College, Cambridge. Among them is the Eadwine Psalter, a mid-12th century manuscript made in England. This Psalter is the second copy made of the 9th-century Utrecht Psalter, which was revolutionary for its inclusion of drawings outside the confines of decorative initials and borders. The Eadwine Psalter is extraordinary because of its elaborate illustrations, and also its inclusion of all three of Jerome’s translations of the Psalms, an Anglo-Norman French translation and a translation into Old English.

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The Trinity Gospels: Cambridge, Trinity College, MS B.10.4, ff. 59v–60r

The Trinity Gospels, also on loan from Trinity College, is one of the most elaborately decorated of all surviving 11th-century gospel-books. This manuscript is notable for containing all four of the full-page decorated ‘incipit’ pages at the beginning of the gospels. They are decorated with gold and painted haloed figures holding books and scrolls.

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Hrabanus Maurus, De laudibus sanctae crucis: Cambridge, Trinity College, MS B.16.3, f. 30v

A copy of Hrabanus Maurus’s fascinating text, ‘In Praise of the Holy Cross’, is also on loan to the exhibition from Trinity College. This is one of only two copies of this text to be made in Anglo-Saxon England. Hrabanus Maurus was a renowned Carolingian scholar whose works were popular throughout medieval Europe. This particular work contains poems where both word and metre are embedded into a grid, with concealed phrases revealed only by superimposed images and shapes, in this instance a cross.

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The ‘Moore Bede’: Cambridge University Library MS Kk.5.16, f. 22r

One of the manuscripts on loan from Cambridge University Library is known as the ‘Moore Bede’. This is perhaps the earliest surviving copy of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed in 731. This well-known text is the first narrative historical account of the origins of the English. The manuscript is copied in Insular minuscule, which was faster to write than the more elaborate uncial script, allowing scribes to meet the exceptional demand for Bede’s work.

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The Book of Cerne: Cambridge University Library MS Ll.1.10, f. 32r

Finally, Cambridge University Library has loaned us The Book of Cerne, a beautifully decorated 9th-century prayer-book. It contains extracts from the four Gospels, 74 prayers, a selection of Psalms and the earliest surviving liturgical drama in England, the Harrowing of Hell. The illustrations in this manuscript are very sophisticated, with each gospel proceeded by a portrait of the evangelist and his symbol.

We are incredibly grateful to our Cambridge friends for lending these manuscripts to Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. The exhibition runs until Tuesday, 19 February. Tickets are available here. Hurry… they’re selling fast!

Eleanor Stinson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

03 January 2019

The Anglo-Saxon origins of the English counties

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At Christmas 1085, William the Conqueror commissioned a great survey of the land and property in England. The information gathered during that survey is recorded in three manuscripts, Great Domesday, Exon Domesday and Little Domesday, which together list the information county by county. This was possible because many English counties have their roots in the very early days of Anglo-Saxon history.

Some English counties owe their names to the earliest Anglo-Saxon settlers in the 5th and 6th centuries. These settlers formed small socio-political units that slowly grew into powerful kingdoms able to claim dominance over smaller kingdoms.

Counties in the Tribal Hidage

East engle, east sexena, cantwarena, suth sexena, and west sexena in the Tribal Hidage: British Library Harley MS 3271 f. 6v

The Tribal Hidage provides an insight into the kingdoms south of the River Humber between the 7th and 9th centuries. This document lists 35 tribes and the number of ‘hides’ assigned to each territory. A ‘hide’ may have been a unit of tribute that each territory was required to pay to an overlord. The final five groups in the Tribal Hidage may sound rather familiar; east engle, east sexena, cantwarena, suth sexena and west sexena. In their modern form, these places are East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Sussex and Wessex. The names of Essex, Kent and Sussex are preserved as modern counties. East Anglia and Wessex may no longer be English counties, but they were important Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and retain strong regional identities to this day.

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The Sutton Hoo gold belt buckle: British Museum BEP 1939,1010.1

East Anglia was a powerful kingdom in the 7th century. An East Anglian king was perhaps buried in the Sutton Hoo ship burial. Norfolk and Suffolk now occupy most of the land that was once the kingdom of East Anglia, and their names have their origins in the Anglo-Saxon period. The Old English root of Norfolk is Nordfolc, which can be broken down into two elements, north and folc. These translate to ‘the (territory of) the northern people (of the East Angles)’. Similarly, the old English root of Suffolk translates as ‘the (territory of) the southern people (of the East Angles).

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Items from the Staffordshire Hoard: Birmingham City Council and Stoke-on-Trent City Council

Many English counties now feature the suffix –shire, which derives from the old English scir. A shire refers to a division of land governed by a government official who became known as a ‘shire reeve’ or ‘sheriff’. Shires were often based around a prominent town or city.

The county of Staffordshire is located in what was once the heartlands of the kingdom of Mercia. Key centres of Mercian power include the ‘burgh’ at Tamworth and the bishopric of Lichfield. It was near to these centres of power, in the village of Hammerwich, that the Staffordshire Hoard was discovered in 2009.

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Entry for 913 in the Mercian Register: British Library Cotton MS Tiberius B IV, f. 46r

In the Mercian Register of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the entry for 913 states that Æthelflæd ‘went with all the Mercians to Tamworth and built a ‘burgh’ at Stafford.

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Entry for 1016 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: British Library Cotton MS Tiberius IV, f. 66v

In 1016, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded King Cnut’s conquest of England. When the chronicler described Cnut’s progression northward, the army moved through ‘Staffordshire, Shropshire and into Chester’. By the 11th century, the land surrounding the burgh at Stafford had become known as Staffordshire.  

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The first mention of Eboracum (York) in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People: British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 8v

The city of York gave its name to England’s largest county, Yorkshire. York is first referred to in the written sources as Eboracum, which was the Latinised version of a British name meaning ‘yew-tree estate’. When Bede recounted the history of York in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, he referred to the city as Eboracum. This Latin name gradually became the Old English Eoforwic, combining the Eofor- from the old name with the suffix –wic. When the Danes conquered the city in the 9th century, the Old English Eoferwic became Jórvík, which has gradually evolved to York.

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Bede’s account of the Battle of Chester. Legacæstir is written at the end of the second line: British Library Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 39v

The city of Chester, from which Cheshire derives its name, was once known as Legacæstir. In the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Bede described a great battle in 606 between Æthelfrith, king of Northumbria, and an army from the Welsh kingdoms of Powys and Rhôs. Bede explained that the battle happened near ‘the city of the legions which is called Legacæstir by the English and more correctly Cærlegion (Chester) by the Britons’.

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Entry for 980 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius B I, f. 143v

Chester’s association with its Roman history persisted into the 10th century. The entry for 980 in the C-text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, records that ‘Legeceasterscir (Cheshire) was ravaged by a northern naval force’.

The scope and scale of English local government has incurred many changes since the Anglo-Saxon period. Although the boundaries of counties and boroughs may warp and shift, in many cases their names persist. These names have deep roots in local history, and many are first recorded on the pages of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts.

Many of these manuscripts can be viewed in person in the British Library's once-in-a-generation Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. It's open until 19 February 2019 and we recommend that you book online before you visit.

Becky Lawton 

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

01 January 2019

Alfred ordered me to be made

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King Alfred of Wessex (d. 899) has quite the reputation. He is often referred to as Alfred ‘the Great’, perhaps on account of the victories of his kingdom of Wessex against the Vikings invasions in the late-9th century. Legend has also crafted Alfred as an incompetent kitchen assistant, on account of the myth that he failed to prevent a lady’s cakes from burning when seeking refuge in the marshes of South-West England.

Some of our readers may be surprised to learn that Alfred also has a reputation as a scholar and intellectual, who was keen to promote learning at his court and throughout his kingdom.

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Statue of King Alfred the Great in Winchester

A stunning object, which may stand as a testament to Alfred’s patronage of education and learning, is the Alfred Jewel. The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford has very kindly loaned the Alfred Jewel to the British Library's once-in-a-generation Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. This is one of the most celebrated objects surviving from Anglo-Saxon England.

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The Alfred Jewel: Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, AN1836 p.135.371

It came to be known as the Alfred Jewel thanks to the inscription +ÆLFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN (‘Alfred ordered me to be made’), which surrounds the central figure. It was discovered in 1693, a few miles away from King Alfred’s fortress and monastery at Athelney, Somerset. Athelney Abbey is the site where Alfred found shelter and then launched his retaliation against King Guthrum’s ‘Great Heathen Army’ in 878. The combination of its history and the inscription has led scholars to suggest that it was King Alfred himself who ordered this jewel to be made.

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The Fuller Brooch: British Museum, BEP 1951, 0404.1

The figure’s prominent staring eyes and the two floral stems held in each hand are rather similar to the central figure in the Fuller Brooch, which has also been loaned to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, this time by the British Museum.

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The Alfred Jewel: Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, AN1836 p.135.371

At the lower end of the jewel is a small socket that may have once held a small rod, perhaps of wood or ivory. Similar, though significantly less splendid, objects with the same small socket also survive from the Anglo-Saxon period. These objects were perhaps intended to act as the decorative end of a small pointer, used for following the line when reading. 

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The Old English Bede: Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 41, p. 352.

Alfred is known to have encouraged the translation of a number of Latin texts into Old English. Some of these were the core texts of the Anglo-Saxon schoolroom, such as Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

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King Alfred’s translation of the Pastoral Care: Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Hatton 20, f. 1r 

The writings of Pope Gregory the Great were widely studied in Anglo-Saxon England and also featured in the programme of translation initiated by Alfred’s court. An Old English translation of Gregory the Great’s Cura Pastoralis (‘Pastoral Care’) has even been attributed to King Alfred himself. This translation of the ‘Pastoral Care’ is preceded by a letter from King Alfred to Bishop Werferth of Worcester. In the letter, Alfred encourages his bishops to lead a programme of translation of texts from Latin to English, therefore making these texts more widely accessible. The letter also states that translations of the Pastoral Care should all be accompanied by an æstel, an object used to point to words when reading. Some people have proposed that the Alfred Jewel may be an example of such an æstel. If the remarkable Alfred Jewel was indeed ‘ordered to be made’ by King Alfred, it certainly reflects the regal splendour and the intellectual pursuits of a scholar-king. 

Thaks to the generosity of the Ashmolean Museum and our other lenders, you can view the Alfred Jewel and other items discussed in this blogpost in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition (until 19 February 2019). Tickets are available here.

Becky Lawton 

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

12 December 2018

A useless letter?

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Have you ever wondered, if you lived in Anglo-Saxon England, how would you communicate with distant friends and colleagues? Before the days of email and WhatsApp, letters were written onto pieces of parchment, and could take weeks or even months to arrive at their destination.

A very small number of Anglo-Saxon letters survive in their original form. Letters were often practical documents, sent with a purpose or key message in mind. Many clerks saw little reason for preserving the originals unless they had important historical or theological content, or were sent by or addressed to an important person. Somewhat inevitably, Letters written on single sheets of parchment were more prone to wear and damage than manuscripts. Original Anglo-Saxon letters are exceedingly rare, and the majority of letters from this period are preserved in later copies.

Inutilis

Ep[isto]la inutil[is] (‘A useless letter'): Cotton MS Augustus II 18

In 12th-century Canterbury, a clerk sorting through a collection of Anglo-Saxon charters and letters wrote the words epistola inutilis ('useless letter') on the back of an Anglo-Saxon letter sent in the year 704 or 705. We would certainly not refer to this letter as ‘useless’ today, as it is now well-known as the earliest surviving letter written on parchment from the Latin West. The letter was written by Bishop Wealdhere of London and addressed to Archbishop Berhtwald of Canterbury. Wealdhere wrote to ask Berhtwald’s permission to attend a meeting of bishops that aimed to resolve recent disputes between the kingdom of the East Saxons and the neighbouring kingdom of the West Saxons.

Cropped

Wealdhere’s letter to Archbishop Berhtwald: Cotton MS Augustus II 18

The letter is in Insular minuscule script, which was quick to write and so perfect for letter writing. On the back, it is possible to see impressions left from when the letter was folded for delivery. Once folded, the scribe wrote the address inscription. Although faded, this inscription becomes a lot clearer with the assistance of multi-spectral imaging.

A possible transcription of the inscription is as follows:

A UALDH[ARIO] d[omino]    ad berhtualdo.

FROM WEALDHERE            to Berhtwald

Address

PCA

The address inscription on Weadhere’s letter before and after multispectral imaging: Cotton MS Augustus II 18

Another original Anglo-Saxon letter that was dubbed ‘useless’ in 12th-century Canterbury is the Fonthill Letter, now well-known for being the earliest surviving letter in the English language. In it ltter, Ordlaf, an ealdorman of Wiltshire, wrote to King Edward the Elder (899–924) to explain how he had acquired some disputed land in Fonthill, Wiltshire. This letter is also written in a minuscule script and retains impressions from where it was folded for delivery.

Cropped Fonthill

The Fonthill Letter: Canterbury, Dean and Chapter, Chart. Ant. C. 1282

Many letters written by Alcuin of York (d. 804) survive in letter collections. Letter writing was a skill, influenced by convention and classical rhetoric, and students often consulted letter collections to learn their craft. One particular collection of Alcuin’s letters bears marginal notes made when the manuscript was used in the schoolroom.

Harley abc

Harley pater noster

Annotations in the margin of a letter collection of Alcuin’s letters: Harley MS 208, ff. 87v–88r

The manuscript was copied in 9th-century Francia, but was in an Anglo-Saxon England by around the year 1000. In the upper margin of one page, a student copied the alphabet (but inverted the letter 'b'), followed by 4 Old English letters and the first line of the Lord’s Prayer. In the bottom margin, the scribe wrote a line of Old English, Hwæt ic eall feala ealde sæge (‘Listen, I [have heard] many ancient tales’) which is reminiscent of a line from the epic poem Beowulf. Maybe the scribe felt that the collection of letters found in this manuscript were indeed ‘ancient tales’?

Listen I have heard many ancient tales

Old English annotation in the margin of a letter collection of Alcuin’s letters: Harley MS 208, f. 88r

Alcuin spent the early years of his life at York, before moving to the Frankish court in the early 780s. He regularly wrote letters to Charlemagne, king of the Franks, and members of his court, discussing practical matters or engaging in theological discussion. Although Alcuin remained in Francia until his death in 804, he maintained regular contact with friends back in Anglo-Saxon England. When long distance travel was time-consuming and often dangerous, writing or receiving a letter must have been a special, emotive experience.

In his letters, Alcuin often acknowledged the joy of receiving a letter from a distant friend. In a letter to Higbald, bishop of Lindisfarne, he wrote:

“Let my speedy letter show in writing what my tongue cannot say in your ears, that the eyes may replace the ears in communicating the secret of the heart.”

Ms_218_f191v

Decorated capitals beginning a letter from Alcuin to Charlemagne: London, Lambeth Palace Library MS 218, f. 191v

Although letter collections were often utilitarian manuscripts, some were clearly aimed at high-status audiences. The manuscript illustrated above was copied in 10th-century England, and it includes many of Alcuin’s letters to Charlemagne. The first two lines of every letter were copied in lavishly coloured display capitals, suggesting that the letter collection was compiled for a high status patron, perhaps a king given the focus of many of the letters.

You can see these original letters for yourself in our landmark exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, on at the British Library until 19 February 2019. Tickets are available here.

 

Rebecca Lawton

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval