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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19 March 2020
Have you ever told someone off for their own good? Would you like some inspiration from the early modern era?
One of our manuscripts (Add MS 15891) began as a letterbook compiled by Samuel Cox, secretary to the Elizabethan courtier Sir Christopher Hatton (c. 1540–1591), but it continued to accrue examples of elegantly phrased letters after his death. Among them is a blistering letter (ff. 195r–v) Lady Margett wrote in response to the ‘paper mouth full of lyes’ she had received from her son’s schoolmaster. The copy of her letter is undated, but words such as ‘spurgaule’ (to strike with the spur) would suggest that it belongs to the mid- to late 16th century.
The first page of a letter of a gentlewoman to a schoolmaster: Add MS 15891, f. 195r
During this time, there was a flourishing market for letter writing manuals in English. They provided formulae and models for topics such as exhorting someone to lament, rejoicing about a friend’s return to health, or even how to write a letter when you had very little news to impart.
According to William Fulwood, whose The Enemie of Idlenesse (1568) was the first letter writing manual in English, a letter of invective should fall into three parts. First, the author should win goodwill by emphasising that they wrote reluctantly, only after deciding that, having already endured the addressee’s wicked behaviour for some time, it would be wrong to allow it to worsen. Second, they should explain the grounds for their censure and provide evidence. Finally, if the writer was addressing a friend, they should write gently, stating the inconveniences which would ensure if their behaviour continued. When addressing an enemy, the writer ought to emphasise that they acted out of morality rather than hatred, and would speak more fully on the matter at an opportune moment.
As a gentlewoman, Lady Margett might have received a reasonable education in rhetoric, but is highly likely to have been familiar with these manuals. If she had used Fulwood’s suggested opening in her previous ‘curtuous’ letter, this time she decided to go on the attack by likening him to a horse whose ‘wynching [wincing] and kicking … bewrayes your gald back.’ Not content with one insult when she might use several, Margett had evidently mastered the abundant style and the use of a colourful simile:
'You ar lyke the cholerick horse ryder, who beeing cast from the back of a young coult and not daring to kill the horse, went into the stable to cut the sadle: or lyke an angry gnarling dogg, that byteth the stone & not hym that threwe it.'
As well as being like a horse with a sore back, an angry dog and an irritable horse rider, the schoolmaster was ‘not vnwarthy of a fooles coate with fowre elbowes’ for failing to heed the wise man’s saying that ‘he maketh hym self well belouved, that geueth a mylde & a gentil awnswere’.
Lady Margett had good reason to be angry. The schoolmaster was not the ‘honest playne breasted’ man she thought he was, but a ‘dissembling sycophant.’ Her good opinion of him had blinded her to the fact that several others (including the ‘Countesse of K’) had made him ‘taste of the sower as well as the sweete’ after discovering that he was ‘vnfitt … to take charge of there children.’ Her guilt at committing her ‘poore lambe to a woolues keeping’ was compounded by the slurs he had made on her reputation for generosity. For him to claim that he was poorly paid for teaching was an ‘ympudent lye’, since she had always ‘allowed the woorkman his hyer’. Clearly, he would rather lose a friend than the ‘liberty of a licentous petulant tounge’.
The second page of Lady Margett's admonishing letter: Add MS 15891, f. 195v
The schoolmaster’s decision not to sign his letter provided Lady Margett with further ammunition. Drily observing that she could not understand such dishonesty unless he had burned his hand and vowed never to sign anything with it again, she could still recognise his style as ‘a pigg of the sowe of your muse & a ragg of youre owne dunghill’. Despite these insults, she characterised herself as acting from the best of motives. She sternly reminded him to ‘take heede of libelling’, lest the same disgraceful fate befall him as had a fellow schoolmaster, whose love of ‘rayling Rhetorick’ meant that he now had ‘no more cares left hym on his heade’. Doling out further sententious wisdom, she counselled him that he had no right to feel aggrieved: ‘such a blowe as the asse geueth agaynst the wall, such a one he receaueth’. Signing off as his ‘playne frend without flatery’, she prayed that God would forgive his ‘foule mouthe & venymous lippes this & all other such wycked woordes of malice’.
The subscription to the letter: Add MS 15891, f. 195v
Alhough very few of us may take up our pens the next time someone offends us, the schoolmaster and Lady Margett’s world of honour culture and social credit still resonates. As she showed in this letter, you can take the moral high ground and still get your own back.
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11 March 2020
In early modern England, the act of writing a poem did not always begin with a flash of inspiration. One manuscript at the British Library offers a glimpse of how an anonymous poet used the words of others to get started. Stowe MS 962 is a comprehensive collection of early modern verse, containing around 350 poems. The volume is a Who’s Who of manuscript poetry: it amasses works by over twenty poets, from John Donne, Ben Jonson and Sir Francis Bacon to Henry King, William Strode and Sir Kenelm Digby. It also contains three anonymous poems that at first glance appear to be the work of the poet and historian Samuel Daniel (1562/3–1619). On closer inspection, however, they are something else entirely.
When the first lines of these poems are entered into The Union First Line Index of English Verse 13th-19th Century, hosted by the Folger Shakespeare Library, the results suggest that they belong to Daniel’s influential sonnet sequence Delia, first published in 1591. Reading beyond the first lines, however, it seems that an anonymous poet has simply borrowed the opening lines of Daniel’s sonnets, only to use them as a springboard for new poetic compositions.
Imitating the style of other writers was an important feature of early modern education. Ben Jonson noted that a skilful poet should be able to ‘convert the substance or riches of another poet to his own use’. The words of others could thus generate material for allusions, responses and even poetic parodies. In Stowe MS 962, for instance, one of Jonson’s own poems begins: ‘Have you seen the white lily grow / Before rude hands had touched it?’. Transcribed alongside this work, however, is a scurrilous parody: ‘Have you seen but a black little maggot / Gone creeping over a dead dog?’ (f. 179v).
'Uppon a Deaths heade': Stowe MS 962, f. 227v
The poems that take their cue from Daniel’s Delia are less satirical and suggest a subtler creative technique. They fit into the genre of the response poem, using Daniel’s words and images to reach a different poetic conclusion. Two of the poems condense Daniel’s 14-line sonnets into 12 lines, and reduce the sonnet’s characteristic five-beat line to a more sprightly four beats. The first of these response poems uses the opening line and a later couplet of Daniel’s Sonnet 37, retitling the work ‘Upon a Death’s head’ (i.e. a skull):
Uppon a Deaths heade
When winter snowes uppon thy hayres
when thy greene hopes and blacke dispayres
when ages frostes hath nipt thee neere
All dry’d and dead was greene and deere
when thou shalt canker soyle and rust
when youthes glory falls to dust
when thou shalt dreame of wormes and graves
when yeallow age thy beauty braves
Then take this picture which I here present thee
And see the guiftes which god and nature lent thee
And for each guift thou hast abusd, even heere
Send upp a sigh, and then dropp downe a teare.
The second response poem follows Daniel’s Sonnet 9 in its first line, and uses other features of its imagery:
If it be love to draw a breath
Short and bitter, and one earth
To pant. and sigh. to wound the ayre
With cryes. that full of passions are
To seeke forgotten pathes where none
May see me weepe or heare me groane
If love afflict us with sadd thoughtes
And fill our musique with sadd notes
If love enforce us loose ourselves
And split our shipps on sorrowes shelves
Then farewell love, let me live as before
Ile weepe, and sigh, and pant, and greeve noe more
'If it be love' and other poems: Stowe MS 962, f. 228r
A third poem in Stowe MS 962 has a much closer relationship to one of Daniel’s sonnets, but still suggests a concerted attempt to refashion Daniel’s lines into a new poetic work. Beginning ‘Reade in my face a volume of despairs’, the poem takes its first line from Daniel’s Sonnet 42, and includes variations of its second line and its final couplet. Unlike the other response poems, it retains the five beats of iambic pentameter, but reduces the sonnet itself to a mere 8 lines. Ignoring Daniel’s references to Helen of Troy, the poem is more interested in contrasting the burning heart of the speaker with the chilly response of his mistress:
Reade in my face a volume of dispayres
Drawne with my blood and printed by my cares
The waylinge witnes of my woundrous woe
Wrought by her hand that I have sigh’d for soe
O whilst I burne she freezeth her desire
(Oh straynge) to cold, addes fewell to my fire
Thus ruins shee (to satisfie her will)
The Temple where her name was honored still.
The pages of Stowe MS 962 offer an intriguing glimpse of a broader culture of literary imitation and response. These anonymous verses may have been written as an admiring tribute to Samuel Daniel, as exercises in composition, or simply as a means of overcoming writer’s block. Whatever the intention, they reveal one of the many ways in which early modern manuscripts offered opportunities to find, compose and share verse.
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27 February 2020
We have recently published a new selection of manuscripts online. They contain a variety of swashbuckling tales, mischievous furry creatures, and ever more glorious images. Which is your favourite?
Petit Jean de Saintré and Floridan and Elvide (Cotton MS Nero D IX)
This book contains two little-known romances. The first, by Antoine de La Sale, tells the adventures of the hero, Jean, at the court of King John of France. His lady, the Dame des Belles Cousines, teaches him how to become the perfect knight. Following this is the tragic story of Floridan et Elvide, a French prose romance about a young couple who elope in order to avoid an arranged marriage. They are waylaid at an inn by a group of rascals, who first murder Floridan, then attack Elvide, who is forced to take her own life to avoid dishonour. A not so happy ending.
A knight kneeling at court, from Petit Jean de Saintré: Cotton MS Nero D IX, f. 2r
Floridan is attacked while Elvide watches, from Floridan and Elvide: Cotton MS Nero D IX, f. 109r
Le Roman de Renart (Add MS 15229)
We recently blogged about this collection of tales of one of the world’s most famous tricksters. Tibert the cat is the only one of the animals who is the match of the cunning fox, Renard, and manages to avoid falling victim to his wicked schemes.
Renard and Tibert the cat, seated, looking at the moon: Add MS 15229, f. 53r
Dante Alighieri, Divina Commedia (Add MS 19587)
This manuscript, with coloured drawings showing Dante on his remarkable journey, was copied in Naples around 1370. It has the coats of arms of the Rinaldeschi family and the Monforte family, Counts of Biseglia (Naples), with on the final page are found entries of births and deaths in the family between 1449 and 1483.
Dante and Virgil are in a barren wood, with the harpies perched on top of thorny trees, representing the souls of suicides; hounds tear the bodies of the profligates; Virgil breaks off a twig and the wounded tree drips blood, from Inferno, Canto 13: Add MS 19587, f. 21r
The Pilgrimage of the Soul (Egerton MS 615)
This allegory of life as a pilgrimage was translated from the French work by Guillaume de Deguileville. As in the well-known Pilgrim’s Progress, the protagonist, assisted by his guardian angel, undergoes various trials and overcomes temptation on a long journey that ends in Paradise. This manuscript was copied and illustrated somewhere in eastern England.
The pilgrim and his guardian angel, unbaptized souls in a band of darkness, devils torturing a soul and a mock court scene with Satan and a devil: Egerton MS 615, f. 46v
The Mirror of Human Salvation, made for a royal owner (Harley MS 2838)
The Mirror of Human Salvation draws parallels between episodes and prophesies in the Old and New Testaments, historical and natural events, and saints' Lives. This copy was made for King Henry VII (1485–1509), founder of the Tudor dynasty. The royal arms of England with the motto 'Honi soit qui mal y pense' are found on the first folio.
The Virgin Mary, holding the instruments of the Passion, banishes the devil; Judith holds the head of Holofernes: Harley MS 2838, f. 32v
Aldobrandino of Siena, Le Régime du corps; Gautier of Metz, L'Image du monde (Sloane MS 2435)
This 13th-century volume contains Aldobrandino’s handbook on health, composed for Beatrice of Savoie (1220–1266). Its contents are based mainly on Latin translations of Arabic medical texts. It is followed by a poem by Gautier of Metz about the Earth and the universe. The first text includes a section on sleep as part of a healthy lifestyle, with an illustration of a situation that is all-too-familiar.
Illustration of a treatise on sleeping and waking; above, a person is sleeping peacefully; below, two people absorbed in a game that is keeping them awake: Sloane MS 2435, f. 7r
The Romance of the Three Kings’ Sons (Harley MS 326)
This Middle English romance concerns three young princes, Philip of France, Humphrey of England, and David of Scotland, who set off to battle the Turks. The illustrations in this manuscript are unique, as it is a rare surviving illustrated copy of the story.
The coronation of the Emperor: Harley MS 326, f. 98v
Fribois, Abrege de Croniques de France (Add MS 13961)
This 15th-century manuscript contains an abbreviated chronicle of France, from the destruction of Troy to the death of Louis de Mâle, Count of Flanders, in 1383. It was composed in 1459 by Noel de Fribois, counsellor to King Charles VII of France, and was written and painted for Etienne Chevalier, secretary to the king.
The decorated opening page of the chronicle: Add MS 13961, f. 2r
You can explore all these manuscripts in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site, alongside other gems from the British Library's collections.
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09 February 2020
What do The Vision of Piers Plowman, The Canterbury Tales and The Master of Game have in common?
They are all found in British Library manuscripts which have recently been digitised and are now available to view online. Thanks to a generous grant by The American Trust for the British Library, forty-one of our priceless Middle English manuscripts have been conserved, digitised and catalogued and uploaded to our Digitised Manuscripts site. You can download the full list of Middle English manuscripts (in the form of an Excel spreadsheet). The full list is also found below.
So which manuscripts can you explore from the comfort of your office/living room/bed [delete as appropriate], thanks to the wonders of modern technology? If the Chester Cycle of plays is your thing, copied by the scribe George Bellin in 1600, why not look up Harley MS 2013? If you're a fan of the poetry of John Lydgate (who isn't?), you have lots of new manuscripts to choose from, including Harley MS 116, Harley MS 629 and Harley MS 1245. It was a difficult task to select which manuscripts to digitise (we estimate that we hold at least 600 volumes containing Middle English, the largest such collection in the world), but we were able to include The Seege of Troy (Harley MS 525), the poems of Charles of Orléans (Harley MS 682) and the South English Legendary (Harley MS 2277). Which are your favourites? A Myrour to Lewde Men and Wymmen, anyone (Harley MS 45)?
The opening page of John Lydgate's Life of Our Lady, beginning 'This booke was compilid by Iohn lidgate monke of Bury at the excitacion and steryng of oure worshipful Prince kyng herry the fifthe, in the honour glorie and worshippe of the birthe of the most glorious maide wife and moder of oure lord ihesu criste chapitrid and markyd after this table': Harley MS 629, f. 2r
This copy of A Myrour to Lewde Men and Wymmen was owned by Margaret Bent in the 15th century: Harley MS 45, f. 1r
The opening page of the Chester Cycle: Harley MS 2013, f. 4r
This manuscript of The Seege of Troye once belonged to the famous collector Sir Robert Cotton: Harley MS 525, f. 1r
Drawings of four types of fish (a trout, a pike, a minnow, a porpoise) on a formerly blank page of The Vision of Piers Plowman: Harley MS 6041, f. 96v
Once again, we are extremely grateful to The American Trust for the British Library for providing the funding that supported this project. We feel a little like Chaucer's pilgrims: there is a long journey ahead of us, but plenty to keep us occupied along the way.
|Shelfmark||Title||Digitised Manuscripts URL|
|Harley MS 0024||Prose Brut||http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?index=0&ref=Harley_MS_24|
|Harley MS 0045||A Myrour to Lewde Men and Wymmen||http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_45|
|Harley MS 0116||An English miscellany including Thomas Hoccleve, The Regiment of Princes; The Short Charter of Christ; Benedict Burgh, Parvus Cato and Cato Major; anonymous Middle English poems and poems by John Lydgate; Gottfried von Franken, Godfridus Super Palladium (Middle English translation); Nicholas Bollard, The Book of Planting and Grafting||http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_116|
|Harley MS 0172||A devotional miscellany of Middle English prose and verse||http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_172|
|Harley MS 0271||The true processe of Englysh polecie; Benedict Burgh, Parvus Cato, Cato Maior||http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_271|
|Harley MS 0525||The Seege of Troy; Robert of Cisyle; Speculum Gy de Warewyke||http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_525|
|Harley MS 0565||Chronicle of London; an English poem on the expedition of Henry V into France; John Lydgate, King Henry VI's Triumphal Entry into London||http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_565|
|Harley MS 0614||Bartholomaeus Anglicus, De Proprietatibus Rerum, in the English translation by John Trevisa||http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_614|
|Harley MS 0629||John Lydgate, Life of Our Lady||http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_629|
|Harley MS 0661||John Hardying, Chronicle in verse (second version)||http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?index=0&ref=Harley_MS_661|
|Harley MS 0682||Charles of Orléans, Collected poems||http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_682|
|Harley MS 0875||William Langland, Vision of Piers Plowman||http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_875|
|Harley MS 0913||The Kildare Lyrics||http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_913|
|Harley MS 1239||Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde; a selection from The Canterbury Tales||http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_1239|
|Harley MS 1245||John Lydgate, The Fall of Princes; Defence of Holy Church||http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_1245|
|Harley MS 1304||John Lydgate, Life of Our Lady||http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_1304|
|Harley MS 1568||The Prose Brut Chronicle||http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_1568|
|Harley MS 1671||The Weye of Paradys (unfinished)||http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_1671|
|Harley MS 1701||Robert Mannyng, Handlyng Synne; Meditations on the Supper of Our Lord and the Hours of the Passion; King Robert of Sicily; a mass against the plague||http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_1701|
|Harley MS 2013||The Chester Cycle||http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?index=0&ref=Harley_MS_2013|
|Harley MS 2250||Miscellany of Middle English poems on the life of Christ; John Watton, Speculum Christiani; Pseudo-Bonventura, Dieta Salutis (excerpts); catechetical teachings; saints' lives; John Mirk, Festial (extracts); Middle English tracts on the reckoning of time; anonymous theological tract on the Ten Commandments, vices and virtues; Robert of Winchelsey, Constitutio de Juramento ac Obedientia||http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_2250|
|Harley MS 2255||A collection of poems by John Lydgate||http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_2255|
|Harley MS 2277||South English Legendary||http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?index=0&ref=Harley_MS_2277|
|Harley MS 2280||Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde||http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_2280|
|Harley MS 2338||The Meditations of the Supper of Our Lord (abridged version); a Merlin prophecy (imperfect)||http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_2338|
|Harley MS 2376||William Langland, Piers Plowman||http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_2376|
|Harley MS 2382||Middle English verse collection including Lydgate's Life of Our Lady and Chaucer's Prioress' Tale and Second Nun's Tale||http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_2382|
|Harley MS 2392||Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde||http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_2392|
|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; 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; anonymous prayers and poems||http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_372|
|Harley MS 3862||John Lydgate, Life of Our Lady||http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_3862|
|Harley MS 3943||Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde||http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_3943|
|Harley MS 4011||An English miscellany including poems by John Lydgate; Craft of Dying; Duodecim Gradus Humilitatis; Counsels of Isidore; The Libel of English Policy; Osbern Bokenham, Mappula Anglie; John Skelton, Of the Death of the Noble Prince, Kynge Edwarde the Forth; John Russell, Book of Nurture||http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_4011|
|Harley MS 4203||John Lydgate, The Fall of Princes||http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_4203|
|Harley MS 4260||John Lydgate, Life of Our Lady||http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_4260|
|Harley MS 4789||Bartholomaeus Anglicus, De Proprietatibus Rerum, in the English translation by John Trevisa||http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?index=0&ref=Harley_MS_4789|
|Harley MS 4912||Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde||http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_4912|
|Harley MS 5086||Edward of Norwich, The Master of Game; The Babees’s Book; The ABC of Aristotle; Dietary for King Henry V; Treatise on equine medicine||http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_5086|
|Harley MS 5272||John Lydgate, Life of Our Lady; The Life of St Dorothy; The Abbey of the Holy Ghost||http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_5272|
|Harley MS 6041||William Langland, Vision of Piers Plowman||http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_6041|
|Harley MS 7333||Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, and other Middle English poetic works by Benedict Burgh, John Lydgate, Richard Sellyng, Charles d'Orléans, John Gower and Thomas Hoccleve||http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?index=0&ref=Harley_MS_7333|
|Harley MS 7335||Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales||http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_7335|
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