THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

156 posts categorized "English"

30 September 2019

Middle English manuscripts online

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The British Library holds one of the most significant collections of manuscripts written in Middle English. Thanks to a very generous grant by The American Trust for the British Library, we have recently been able to digitize a sizeable number of them, the first batch of which can now be viewed on our Digitised Manuscripts site. They range from copies of the works of Geoffrey Chaucer to William Langland's Piers Plowman, and from texts relating to veterinary medicine to the Chronicle of London. We hope that our readers enjoy exploring them online; there are more to come, so keep an eye on this Blog and on our Twitter feed (@BLMedieval) for further announcements.

We are extremely grateful to our friends at the ATBL for supporting this project. We know that it will make a major difference to everyone who works on these texts, and on medieval literary culture in general. Please let us know if this has inspired you, or if you have made notable findings as a result of this digitisation.

A monk kneels before a bishop

A monk kneeling before a bishop, in The Weye of Paradys: Harley MS 1671, f. 1r 

 

Here is a list of the manuscripts we have recently made available online.

Harley MS 172: Devotional manuscript written by the 'Winchester scribe', principal scribe of the 'Winchester Anthology' (Add MS 60577), including Peter Idley, Instructions to His Son; Benedict Burgh, English translation of Cato Major; John Lydgate, Ryght as a Rammes Horne; Thomas Hoccleve, Ars Sciendi Mori

Harley MS 271: The true processe of Englysh polecie; Benedict Burgh, Parvus Cato, Cato Maior

Harley MS 372: John Lydgate, The Life of St Edmund and St Fremund; Advice to an old gentleman who wished for a young wife; John Lydgate, The Kings of England; John Lydgate, Complaint þat Crist maketh of his Passioun; A prayer to the Virgin Mary; A prayer to St Sebastian; Geoffrey Chaucer, Anelida and Arcite; Sir Richard Roos, La Belle Dame sans Mercy; John Lydgate, Prayer on the Five Joys of the Virgin Mary; Thomas Hoccleve, Regiment of Princes; Poem against excess in apparel; Latin tract about the qualities necessary for a priest

Harley MS 525: Miscellany of Middle English romances containing The Seege of Troy, Robert of Cisyle, and Speculum Gy de Warewyke

The beginning of the Chronicle of London

Chronicle of London, from the coronation of Richard I in 1189 to 1443, in the reign of Henry VI: Harley MS 565, f. 10r

Harley MS 565: Chronicle of London; 'The Expedition of Henry V into France'; John Lydgate, 'King Henry VI's Triumphal Entry into London'

Harley MS 629: John Lydgate, Life of Our Lady

Harley MS 875: William Langland, Vision of Piers Plowman

Harley MS 913: The Kildare Lyrics (in Latin, English and French), including the Land of Cokaygne

Geoffrey Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde

The opening page of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde: Harley MS 1239, f. 1r

lHarley MS 1239: Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, The Knight's Tale, The Man of Law's Prologue and Tale, The Wife of Bath's Tale, The Clerk's Tale and The Franklin's Tale

Harley MS 1671: The Weye of Paradys (unfinished)

Harley MS 1701: Robert Mannyng of Brunne, King Robert of Sicily, 'Handlyng Synne'; 'Medytacyouns of the soper of oure Lorde'; King Robert's romance in couplets

Harley MS 2338: Thomas Breus, Religious text in verse, mainly on the Passion

Harley MS 2382: John Lydgate, Life of Our Lady; The Assumption of Our Lady; Prayer to the Virgin from the Speculum Christiani; John Lydgate, Testament; Geoffrey Chaucer, The Prioress’s Tale; Geoffrey Chaucer, The Second Nun’s Tale; Life of Saint Erasmus; Long Charter of Christ; Childe of Bristowe; an animal prophecy of Merlin

A decorated page in Lydgate's Life of Our Lady

John Lydgate's Life of Our Lady, in a manuscript which belonged to John de Vere, 13th earl of Oxford (1442–1513): Harley MS 3862, f. 1r

Harley MS 3862: John Lydgate, Life of Our Lady

Harley MS 3943: Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde

Harley MS 4912: Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde

A treatise on equine medicine

A treatise on equine medicine with the added title ‘The boke of medycen for horsses and to know of what Cuntrey the best horses be bredin contaynyng 30 leves’: Harley MS 5086, f. 99r

Harley MS 5086: Miscellany of verse and prose treatises relating to hunting, manners, medicine and veterinary medicine, including a translation of Gaston Phebus's 'Livre de Chasse', in the Middle English translation by Edward of Norwich entitled 'Master of the Game', a dietary for King Henry V and a treatise on equine medicine

Harley MS 6041: William Langland, Vision of Piers Plowman; form of confession in Middle English prose

 

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29 August 2019

Tweet, tweet

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Does Twitter have its origins in the medieval period? Well, in a literal sense, no. As far as we are aware, no medieval ships came close to being named BoatyMcBoatFace as a result of a ‘campaign’ of parchment scraps. Medieval people did not write 280-character messages on pieces of parchment or paper, send them to each other or re-send the messages of others. But the imagery of ‘twitter’ and ‘tweet’ does have its origins in the Middle Ages. The modern name ‘Twitter’ was clearly chosen because there is something joyous about chattering birdsong. It implies something playful and social, and perhaps also lively, raucous debate. We can only speculate on whether Twitter’s creators knew that there is a now obsolete meaning of the word ‘twitter’ in English, which means a person who ‘reproaches or upbraids’.

Cropped bas de page from Howard Psalter
Here an owl is being used by a bird catcher to capture other birds, as referred to in The Owl and the Nightingale’, from the Howard Psalter (England, 14th century): Arundel MS 83, f. 14r

With their restless desire to anthropomorphise, humans have long heard birdsong and understood its rhythms and patterns to be akin to human speech. The idea that birds like to get into lively debates is very old. The early Middle English poem, The Owl and the Nightingale, tells the story of a bad-tempered debate between an owl and a nightingale. Each bird is horrified by the other, pouring scorn on their counterpart's song, nesting habits and appearance. But the poem is also a meditation on how to debate. In a revealing passage, the nightingale pauses before she speaks:

An sat sumdel & heo bi þohte

An wiste wel on hire þohte

Þe wraþþe binimeþ monnes red.

('She sat awhile and thought,

Reflecting on her thoughts,

Knowing that wrath robs a man of reason. ') [ll. 939–41]

This poem was written at some point between 1189 and 1216. Although it is anonymous, in the poem the birds resolve to seek the counsel of ‘Maister Nichole of Guldeforde’ (Master Nicholas of Guildford). This little in-joke may indicate that Guildford was the author or was known to them.

The Owl and the Nightingale
The Owl and the Nightingale (England, c. 1250–1300, possibly after 1275): Cotton MS Caligula A IX, f. 239v

While The Owl and the Nightingale imagines the birds as tetchy and sometimes downright rude, they are not always depicted in this way in medieval poetry. At around the time that the Owl and the Nightingale was composed, Farīd al-Dīn Aṭṭār (d. c. 1230) was at work thousands of miles away on The Conference of the Birds منطق الطیر‎, (Maniq-u-ayr). This poem is a work of Sufi mysticism and has a contemplative tone by comparison with The Owl and the Nightingale. It tells the story of a group of birds who gather together to choose a new sovereign. The hoopoe is the wisest of the birds and acts as their leader and guide. He tells them that they must travel on an arduous journey through seven valleys to find their new king. The conclusion of the poem (which we won’t give away) is a moment of realisation for the birds, and it involves a pun ... (You can read more about this manuscript on our Asian and African Studies Blog.)

The Conference of the Birds
The Conference of the Birds (late 15th or early 16th century): Add MS 7735, f. 30v

Perhaps one of the most delightful descriptions of avian debate is Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls, which was written in the late 14th century. It describes a group of birds gathering together in the early spring — on ‘seynt valentynes day’ — to choose their mates for the year. The poem appears to be the beginning of the tradition that associates Valentine’s Day with lovers. There is nothing in the hagiography (the Life) of St Valentine to suggest an association with lovers. The narrator describes the riot of sound made by the birds:

For this was on Saint Valentines day,

Whan every brid [bird] cometh ther to chese [choose] his make [mate],

Of every kinde that men thinke may;

And that so huge a noise [did] they make,

That erthe and air and tree and every lake

So ful was that unnethe [hardly] was ther space

For me to stonde, so ful was al the place.  [ll. 316–22]

The noble birds — the eagles — are allowed to make their selections first. Three male eagles (tercels) eagerly vie for the hand of the formel (female) eagle, but the other birds soon interrupt, complaining that this is all taking too long. A cacophonous semi-debate ensues.

The Parliament of Fowls
Geoffrey Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls (English, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 15th century): Harley MS 7333, f. 129v

If you’re interested in learning more about medieval avian debates, or in Middle English literature more generally, there are a very small number of places remaining on our adult learning course, Discovering Middle English, which starts on 11 September. You’ll get to encounter Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Arthurian legends of Thomas Malory and, of course, Geoffrey Chaucer.

 

Mary Wellesley

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Manuscripts mentioned in this blogpost

Arundel MS 83 (De Lisle Psalter)

Cotton MS Caligula A IX (The Owl and the Nightingale)

Add MS 7735 (The Conference of the Birds)

Harley MS 7333 (Geoffrey Chaucer, Parliament of Fowls)

17 August 2019

In August, in a high season: the wondrous Pearl

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You may be forgiven (especially if you're currently in London) that it's August, traditionally the time of the harvest and school summer holidays. This also happens to be the moment when Pearl, one of the masterpieces of Middle English literature, is set: 'in Augoste, in a hy seysone'.

The text of Pearl
The opening page of the Pearl poem (f. 43r)

Pearl was composed in the West Midlands region of England at the end of the 14th century. It survives in a single manuscript, held at the British Library, which also contains the unique copies of Patience, Cleanness and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Cotton MS Nero A X/2). You can view all four poems in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site, and you can also read about Pearl on Discovering Literature: Medieval.

Pearl is a moving work about grief and loss. The narrator, distraught at the loss of his ‘perle’, falls asleep and wakes in a garden with a jewelled stream. Looking across the stream he sees a beautiful maiden in white robes stitched with pearls. After a time, he realises that this woman is his dead two-year-old daughter. They engage in a discussion, as he attempts to reconcile his grief for her. The poem culminates in a vision of the heavenly Jerusalem, derived from the Book of Revelation, in which the dreamer sees his daughter as a bride of Christ.

The dreamer
The dreamer in the garden by the stream (f. 41r)
The dreamer
The dreamer beside the stream (f. 41v)

One of the most distinctive features of the manuscript is its cycle of illustrations, which were added to pages which had previously been left blank. The quality of this imagery has often been the subject of adverse comment, since they are not the work of an outstanding artist. We often feel, however, that they lend the poems their own idiosyncratic character, since every person has the same facial features and hairstyle, and the same simple palette of red, green, blue, yellow and white is used throughout.

The dreamer and Pearl
The dreamer sees a vision of Pearl as a grown woman (f. 42r)
The dreamer and Pearl in the garden
The vision of the heavenly Jerusalem (f. 42v)

The Pearl-manuscript is undeniably one of the jewels in the Library's medieval collections. We'd like to think that you might wish to read and re-read it, gazing upon the original handwriting and images, while sitting in your garden, sipping a cool drink, or else (more likely) sheltering indoors from the August rain. A high season indeed!

A text page of Pearl
The second page of the poem (f. 43v)
The text of Pearl
'In Augoste, in a hy seysone' (f. 43v)

Pearl and the other poems are available on Digitised Manuscripts (Cotton MS Nero A X/2).

 

Julian Harrison

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27 July 2019

Writing Wyatt

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Have you ever wondered how a 16th-century poet gathered their works together? A writer with an eye to posterity might have followed the example of Sir Thomas Wyatt (c. 1503–1542), poet, ambassador and rumoured lover of Anne Boleyn. In the 1530s, Wyatt arranged for clear and authoritative copies of his verse to be transcribed into an album under his own supervision. The resulting manuscript, Egerton MS 2711, has stood the test of time. It is one of the earliest examples of an English poet’s collection of their own poems.

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Portrait of Sir Thomas Wyatt after Hans Holbein, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery (NPG 1035)

But Wyatt’s collection did not stay tidy for long. Changes in handwriting reveal that the poet himself took over from his scribes (or amanuenses), first to correct and alter some of the poems, and later to compose new works directly into the album. It is thus the only surviving example of Wyatt’s poetry in his own handwriting. Because the manuscript's purpose evolved during his lifetime, Egerton MS 2711 offers a fascinating glimpse of a Tudor poet at work.

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The poet Thomas Wyatt's own hand: Egerton MS 2711, f. 54v

The manuscript reveals that Wyatt sometimes had trouble making up his mind. He often tweaked lines in some of his finished poems, and he experimented with alternative rhyme-words when composing new ones. One of the revised poems is the sonnet ‘If waker care, if sudden pale colour’, in which Wyatt imitated six lines of Petrarch’s Sonnet 188. Wyatt’s alterations to the poem can be read in light of his rumoured relationship with Anne Boleyn: the poem contains a reference to a ‘Brunet’ who ‘set my wealth in such a roar’, but the manuscript shows that the line originally read, ‘her that did set our country in a roar’.

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‘If waker care, if sudden pale colour’: Egerton MS 2711, f. 66v

Wyatt’s decision to begin composing poems into the volume may have been related to a journey he made to mainland Europe, as English ambassador to the Spanish court from 1537 to 1539. A satirical poem in the manuscript describes the busy life of a diplomat, who ‘trots still up and down / and never rests but running day and night / From Realm to Realm from city street and town’. When the volume became a working notebook for Wyatt, it also began to reflect his evolving network of colleagues: the handwriting of one scribe who copied verses into the volume has been identified as that of John Brereton, one of Wyatt’s diplomatic secretaries.

As well as providing a place for Wyatt’s poetry to be recorded during his lifetime, the manuscript also became a space for later readers to engage with his work. After Wyatt’s death, the poet Nicholas Grimald made several annotations in the manuscript, such as simple headings like ‘a Sonnett’. Meanwhile, Wyatt’s own son, Thomas, added more of his father’s poems to the collection, and even copied out two letters of paternal advice he had received during his father’s Spanish embassy. (Thomas Wyatt did not necessarily heed his father's advice, since he led an infamous rebellion against Queen Mary, and ended his life on the block at the Tower of London in 1554.)

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A letter copied into the manuscript by Thomas Wyatt the Younger: Egerton MS 2711, f. 71r

Despite the many hands involved in the creation of this manuscript, early owners and readers were careful to include material that would shed more light on Wyatt’s life and work, and solidify his reputation. As a result, Egerton MS 2711 very much remains a collection of Wyatt’s poems rather than a multi-authored anthology like the Devonshire manuscript (Add MS 17492).

A later owner of the manuscript, John Harington the elder, decided to include a categorisation of the poems by genre, while John Harington the younger entered some of his own paraphrases of the psalms following those made by Wyatt. Also thanks to the Harington family, many of the early pages of the manuscript are covered with copious mathematical notes and diagrams, which sometimes render Wyatt’s words all but illegible.

Egerton_ms_2711_f010r

Some pages are less easy to read since they are now covered with mathematical notes: Egerton MS 2711, f. 10r

Of course, nowadays we would discourage any further scribbles appearing in Thomas Wyatt's manuscript. But that doesn't mean that you can no longer interact with this important collection of poems. We are delighted to say that Egerton MS 2711 has been digitised, so that modern readers can explore Wyatt's handwriting for themselves. This manuscript can be accessed in full and for free on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.

 

Amy Bowles

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23 July 2019

Reading the runes in Beowulf (so seaxy)

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

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

Hroðgar maðelode,   hylt sceawode,

Ealde lafe, on ðæm wæs or writen

fyrngewinnes,   syðþan flod ofsloh,

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

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

Cotton_ms_vitellius_a_xv_f170r

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

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

Swa wæs on ðæm scennum sciran goldes

Þurh runstafas rihte gemearcod,

            geseted ond gesæd hwam þæt sweord geworht,

            irena cyst,   ærest wære,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cotton_ms_vitellius_a_xv_f170r wynn thorn copy

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

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

Cotton_ms_vitellius_a_xv_f170r + ethel

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

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

Seax

The Seax of Beagnoth: British Museum 1857,0623.1

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

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

 

Mary Wellesley

06 July 2019

Medieval cures for lung disease, gout and vertigo

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

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

Cotton_ms_vitellius_c_iii_f081v

 

(Image 1) cotton_ms_vitellius_c_iii_f082r

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

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

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

(Image 3) cotton_ms_vitellius_c_iii_f083r

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

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

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

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

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

Cotton_ms_vitellius_c_iii_f018v

Cotton_ms_vitellius_c_iii_f019r

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

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

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

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

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

 

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29 June 2019

Noah's Ark and the Anglo-Saxons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Calum Cockburn

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25 June 2019

Toads and ermine (and other coats of arms)

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Heraldry, or the study and design of armorial bearings, sometimes has a dusty reputation. This is quite undeserved: heraldic manuscripts can give us a fascinating insight into the way in which history and legend were interwoven in the medieval mind. In the mid-15th century, Richard Strangways of the Inner Temple wrote a treatise on the rules of heraldry that he exemplified with ‘imaginary arms’: coats of arms that were attributed to the protagonists of medieval legends and heroes of romances, and, retroactively, kings who had lived before the beginning of the age of heraldry in the 12th century. His treatise survives uniquely  in Harley MS 2259.

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Richard Strangways’s heraldic treatise (1455): Harley MS 2259, f. 11r

Strangways included in his treatise the attributed arms of Brutus of Troy, a legendary figure who — according to the anonymous 9th-century Historia Brittonum and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Brittaniae — was a descendant of the Trojan hero Aeneas, and the founder and first king of Britain. He also painted the attributed arms of William the Conqueror. Like the near-contemporary Men of Arms in Harley MS 4205, Strangways claimed that the Duke of Normandy bore a shield with silver and blue bars when he conquered England in 1066.

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The arms of Brutus [left] and William the Conqueror [right]: Harley MS 2259, ff. 179v, 95v

Describing the arms of the kings of France, Strangways followed a popular medieval legend: the pre-Christian kings of the Franks would have borne a pagan shield with three black toads (resembling the attributed arms of Satan), which the Franks continued to use until ‘Kyng Lowes’ [Louis the Pious?] prayed for a new charge and an angel gave him fleurs-de-lis to replace the toads.

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The pagan arms of the Frankish kings: Harley MS 2259, f. 163v

Arthurian literature was evidently another important source for Strangways. He formally described — or to put it in heraldic terms ‘blazons’ — the arms of the legendary King Arthur as a ‘gules three crowns in pale’. This means: a red shield with three golden crowns ordered vertically.

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A blazon of King Arthur’s arms: Harley MS 2259, f. 183r

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The arms of King Arthur (England, 4th quarter of the 15th century): Harley MS 2169, f. 5v

Strangways also showed the arms of Sir Geraint, who Welsh romances held to be one of Arthur’s most valiant knights, and those of Sir Gawain, one of the most renowned Knights of the Round Table. As the 14th-century Middle English romance of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in Cotton MS Nero A X has it, Gawain bore a red shield with a five-pointed golden star. But Strangways gave him a green shield with a golden bar that is covered with an ‘ermine’ — a heraldic pattern based on the winter coat of the stoat. He stated that adding this ‘fur’ was necessary because Gawain was born in bastardy, a claim corroborated by medieval works such as De Ortu Waluuanii Nepotis Arturi (The Rise of Sir Gawain, Nephew of Arthur). To put it in Strangways’s own words, ‘the rule in heraldry is that if he is born of a noble lady in bastardy and bears her arms he shall bear them with such a fur’ (‘the law of armys ys yf he come of a gret lady in bastardy and ber her armys he shall ber hem with such a furcot’).

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The arms of Geraint [left] and of Gawain [right]: Harley MS 2259, ff. 134r, 73r

Harley MS 2259 also features the arms of Sir John Mandeville, the supposed author of a fictional travel memoir describing the wonders of the Holy Land, Africa and Asia. Mandeville’s Travels survives in hundreds of medieval manuscripts, but none of the illustrated versions (such as Harley MS 3954 and Add MS 24189) show Mandeville bearing arms. His shield was once displayed in the church of Guillemins near Liège (in modern-day Belgium), where Mandeville was supposedly buried, but the church was destroyed during the French Revolution. Strangways’s treatise includes one of only two extant illustrations of Mandeville's arms, and the only medieval one.

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The arms of John Mandeville [‘maximus peregrinus’]: Harley MS 2259, f. 90r

Strangways made special mention of the attributed arms of Prester John. According to popular legend, he was the founder and ruler of a Christian kingdom in the Far East. A letter purportedly written by him to the Byzantine Emperor, Manuel Komnenos, describes a kingdom with mythical animals, monstrous races and marvels such as a fountain of youth. The letter survives in hundreds of medieval manuscripts, the oldest dating back to the 12th century (for example, Harley MS 3099). Prester John’s arms are exceptional because they display the Crucifixion of Christ, imagery that was reserved for only a few eminent bishops and religious institutions.

Strangways emphasized his heraldic charge’s rarity by explaining the distinction between a crucifix and a cross, which was commonly used on coats of arms: ‘It is called a crucifix because God is nailed upon it, because if it is so that God isn’t nailed upon it in person, then it should just be called a cross’ (‘hyt ys callyd a crucyfix be cause god ys naylyd and crucyfyd up on yt. For yf  yt were so þat god were nat naylyd on yt in figure than yt shuld be callyd but a crosse’).

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A blazon of the arms of Prester John: Harley MS 2259, f. 147r

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The arms of Prester John (northern France, 15th century): Egerton MS 3030, f. 9v

Strangways’s treatise is just one of several late medieval English heraldic works to feature attributed arms. These ‘imaginary arms’ reflect the importance placed on symbolism by the late medieval gentry and aristocracy, and a desire to associate themselves with important figures in medieval history and legend.

We are currently creating new online records for manuscripts in the Harley collection (one of the foundation collections of the British Library). You can read more about this project, which includes Harley MS 2259 (containing Strangways's treatise), in our blogpost Cataloguing the Harley manuscripts.

 

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

Clarck Drieshen

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