09 September 2021
The 14 September 2021 will be the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri, author of one of the greatest works of medieval poetry, the Divine Comedy. This epic poem in Italian recounts Dante’s visionary journey through the realms of hell, purgatory and heaven to reach God.
The British Library holds outstanding Dante collections, dating from the 14th century right up to the present day. To discover more about these fascinating items and celebrate the anniversary, join us for our online event, Dante in the British Library: Hell, Purgatory and Heaven on Tuesday 14 September 2021, 19:30 - 20:30. The event will feature two lectures by leading Dante scholars Alessandro Scafi (Warburg Institute; who has previously blogged for the British Library about Maps of Paradise) and Elisabeth Trischler (University of Leeds). Their original research focuses on the cartographic and architectural aspects of the Divine Comedy and is inspired by our medieval manuscripts and early printed editions.
You can also come to the British Library to see the Divine Comedy manuscript Yates Thompson MS 36, which is currently on display in The Sir John Ritblat: Treasures Gallery. And we will be blogging more about Dante and his amazing Divine Comedy on the big day, so watch this space.
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12 March 2020
What's the connection between puppets and papyri? You can find out in person on 17 March, when the British Library is hosting an event entitled Fragments: A Journey Through Papyri.
A section from Euripides’ lost play Cresphontes, which has inspired the new show. The papyrus dates from the 3rd century AD and is a fragment of an actor’s copy of the script which he would have used to learn his lines. This scene comes from the start of the play, where the young hero first returns from exile to avenge his murdered father: British Library Papyrus 3041 (P.Oxy. XXVII 2458)
This evening of discussion and performance is presented in association with Potential Difference, a theatre company which brings together writers and theatre-makers with academics and specialists to tell stories inspired by science, philosophy and technology. Their next production, Fragments, will be presented in Spring 2020; our event will include puppetry sequences from the upcoming show to evoke the journey of the papyri through time.
Fragments is a collaboration between Potential Difference and puppetry director Jess Mabel Jones with Dr Laura Swift (Senior Lecturer in Classical Studies at the Open University) and specialist conservators. In addition to the puppetry sequences, our event on 17 March will combine a talk from a papyrus conservator about their work, together with a discussion with the creative team, who will share how they have drawn on these ancient artefacts to develop an evocative language of shadow puppetry.
Tickets for this event can be purchased from the British Library Box Office.
Fragments: A Journey Through Papyri
The British Library
17 March, 19:15–20:30
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13 September 2019
Today's episode of BBC Radio 4' popular Gardeners' Question Time (repeated on Sunday at 14:00) was recorded here at the British Library.
If you listen carefully, as well as hearing Bob Flowerdew, Anne Swithinbank and James Wong discussing the size of someone's melons, you may catch our curators Julian Harrison and Maddie Smith introducing some of the nation's favourite herbals. Julian showed presenter Matt Biggs pages from the Old English illustrated herbal (Cotton MS Vitellius C III). Sadly, this manuscript was badly damaged by fire in 1731, but Matt and Julian discussed how it contains an important record of early plant lore. Some of the plants it illustrates were not native to early medieval England, indicating that this book was based on earlier texts compiled around the Mediterranean. Matt was fascinated in particular with the accuracy of the drawings: he recognized this depiction of brassica without being able to read the original Old English text.
A plant of the brassica family in the Old English illustrated herbal: Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 56v
Julian also showed Matt this early 16th-century German herbal (Harley MS 3736), which has a series of idiosyncratic illustrations. You may have come across the manuscript before as it was open (on the mandrake page) in our exhibition Harry Potter: A History of Magic. The page shown here depicts what was once thought to be the Emperor Charlemagne (died 814) kneeling in front of a plant pierced by an arrow. The plant is named 'Carlina' and the caption explains that an angel advised him to eat it in order to be purged of poison. Since the recording, we have realised that the genus 'Carlina' was actually named in honour of Emperor Charles V (reigned 1519–1556), and this helps us to date the manuscript with more accuracy.
The Emperor Charles and 'Carlina' in Giovanni Cadamasto's herbal: Harley MS 3736, f. 20r
Maddie presented the story of Elizabeth Blackwell's A Curious Herbal, made in the 1730s in order to fund her husband's release from a debtors' prison. You can read more about the story of Elizabeth Blackwell on our Treasures pages.
Gardener's Question Time is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Friday, 13 September (15:00), repeated on Sunday, 15 September.
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29 August 2019
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’.
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.
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, (Manṭiq-uṭ-Ṭayr). 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.)
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.
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.
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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)
21 August 2019
On 9 September, the author and broadcaster Dan Jones is speaking at the British Library about the Crusades. We're delighted to have a pair of tickets for one of our lovely readers. To have a chance of winning, simply answer the question at the end of this blogpost.
Drawing on his new book Crusaders, Dan Jones will tell a tale soaked in Islamic, Christian and Jewish blood, peopled by extraordinary characters, and characterised by low ambition and high principle. These are events that have left an enduring imprint on relations between the Muslim world and the West.
Dan Jones is a broadcaster, award-winning journalist and pioneer of the resurgence of interest in medieval history. He is the bestselling author of Summer of Blood, The Plantagenets, Magna Carta, Realm Divided and The Templars.
To have a chance of winning 2 tickets to see this event, answer the following question by using the comments box at the end of this blogpost. One pair of tickets is available. The winner will be drawn at random on 4 September from all the entries, and will be notified the same day. You must be able to make your own way to the event and there is no cash alternative.
Question: Which Pope was responsible for preaching the First Crusade?
Closing date for entries: 3 September, midnight (GMT).
Dan Jones: Crusaders is at the British Library Knowledge Centre, St Pancras (London), on 9 September (19:00–20:30). Tickets cost £15 (concessions are available).
23 July 2019
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')
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.
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’).
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.
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.
11 January 2019
On 17 January, the British Library is hosting an audio description tour of our landmark Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. This tour is designed specifically for blind and partially sighted visitors, and it will be delivered and audio-described by a member of the Medieval Manuscripts team who contributed to the preparation of the exhibition.
Among the items we will be introducing to our visitors are Spong Man, Codex Amiatinus, the Stockholm Codex Aureus, the Judith of Flanders Gospels and Domesday Book. The exhibition has received rave reviews and is already one of the most successful shows ever mounted by the British Library.
Spong Man, on loan to Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms from Norfolk Museums Service
One free ticket for a companion is available per visitor. Guide and assistance dogs are welcome. If you require any other support, or have other access requirements for this tour, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or phone +44 (0)20 7412 7797. The tour is free with an exhibition ticket.
The British Library
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23 November 2018
Manuscripts are hot in the fashion world right now! Attendees of the 2018 Met Gala drew inspiration from medieval manuscripts. The actor Ezra Miller recently caused a stir at the UK première of the new Fantastic beasts film (was it inspired by this manuscript in our Harry Potter exhibition?). And this September, the British Library itself hosted a London Fashion Week event: Nabil Nayal’s presentation of his Spring 2019 collection.
Dr Nayal is no stranger to the Library. He did his research here for his PhD in Elizabethan dress, and Elizabeth I and the British Library’s manuscripts were major inspirations for his recent collection. As he said at the launch, he hoped his collection will inspire modern women to ‘stand up for what you believe and be your true self, unleash your inner queen’.
Here are the stories of just a few of the manuscripts that inspired Nabil Nayal.
Nabil Nayal SS19 dress and the page from a 15th-century Book of Hours that inspired it: Harley MS 2971, f. 13r
One of the earliest manuscripts that was featured in Nayal's collection was a Book of Hours made in Paris around the 1450s. This manuscript was possibly made for a woman: a prayer on f. 20v uses the female form 'famule tue' (‘your female servant’), although a prayer a few pages later uses the common masculine form 'miserrimo paccatori' (‘most miserable sinner’). The fine illuminations have been associated with the workshop that produced the Bedford Hours. Nayal’s dress is based on a page that shows St John the Evangelist writing while in exile on Patmos.
Nabil Nayal SS19 dress and a page from the calendar in the Beaufort Hours: Royal MS 2 A XVIII, f. 30v
Meanwhile, Nayal transformed a calendar owned by Margaret Beaufort into a chic suit. The suit is based on the page for June. Notes in the margin record victories won by Margaret’s son, Henry VII, at the battles of Blackheath and Stoke. These notes were not made by Margaret herself — she had dreadful handwriting — but were probably added by members of her household. There are also notes on the birth of her grandson, the future King Henry VIII, on 28 June. A later hand has added a note about Margaret’s own death on 29 June 1509. We love the way Nabil Nayal laid out the jacket so that one side is dominated by the Gothic script of a fine scribe working in the first half of the 15th century, while the other side has the quicker, cursive scripts of the added notes from the late 15th and early 16th century.
Nabil Nayal SS19 outfit and a page from the Tilbury Speech: Harley MS 6798
The manuscript that inspired the most outfits was Harley MS 6798. It records the Tilbury Speech, which Queen Elizabeth I supposedly delivered in 1588 at Tilbury Camp ahead of the defeat of the Spanish Armada. It includes such memorable lines as 'Let tyrants fear!' and 'I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm …' You can read the whole speech here.
Nayal has said he used this manuscript repeatedly in his collection because it ‘was so important for me to remind people of this speech. It's the moment she revealed herself to be a strong, defiant woman who was going to overcome the obstacles she faced.'
Nabil Nayal SS19 coat, that has both a similar design to garments worn in depictions of Elizabeth I's funeral and also reproduces a contemporary image of part of Elizabeth's funeral procession: Add MS 35324
Elizabeth I remained in remarkably good health into old age, but even the most powerful of queens had to contend with mortality. Depressed after the death of her second cousin and chief gentlewoman of the privy chamber, Katherine Howard, countess of Nottingham, Elizabeth stopped eating and lost the ability to speak. She died in the early of hours of 24 March 1603 at Richmond Palace in Surrey. Her funeral took place at Westminster Abbey on 28 April. The total cost of her funeral and burial was about £3,000.
Nayal’s collection included a coat inspired by drawings of Elizabeth I’s elaborate funeral procession, now in Add MS 35324. The coat features the part of the manuscript that depicts Elizabeth’s coffin draped in purple velvet, carried by six knights and surrounded by twelve barons, who bore banners displaying her pedigree. Atop the coffin is her funeral effigy, constructed of wax, wood and straw, which in turn was based on her death mask. She wore her parliament robes, with a crown on her head and a sceptre in her hand. We can get a sense of what that effigy looked like from other sources. Between 1605-7 her successor, James I, employed the Frenchman Maximilian Colt to construct Elizabeth a tomb and effigy at a cost of £965. The effigy in white marble was based on her funeral effigy, which survived until the mid-18th-century, when a reconstruction was made (still housed at Westminster Abbey). The original corset worn by the effigy also survives, and was probably one worn by the queen in life.
If you're feeling inspired, the British Library has launched a new Fashion web resource. In collaboration with the British Fashion Council and its Council of Colleges, we hope to encourage design students to use our unique collections.
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Medieval manuscripts blog recent posts
- Dante in the British Library online event
- Puppets and papyri
- Gardeners' Question Time
- Tweet, tweet
- Win tickets to see Dan Jones: Crusaders
- Reading the runes in Beowulf (so seaxy)
- Audio description tour of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms
- Manuscripts à la mode: Nabil Nayal's new collection
- One-day tickets for ‘Manuscripts in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms’ symposium
- Lover, sorceress, demon: Circe's transformations