THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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107 posts categorized "Exhibitions"

30 July 2021

Chroniclers of History at St Albans Museum

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During the medieval period, the monastery of St Albans was recognised throughout England for the quality of its chroniclers. Between the 12th and 15th centuries, monks from the foundation recorded the events of English history, especially those that affected the Abbey and its holdings in the surrounding area. They included such figures as Roger of Wendover (d. 1236), William Rishanger (b. 1250), Matthew Paris (d. 1259), Thomas Walsingham (d. c. 1422).

A new exhibition, Chroniclers of History, has opened at St Albans Museum, which explores the lives and works of these men and the importance of their monastery. The British Library is delighted to be one of the major lenders to the exhibition, and the following six books from our collections will all be on display at the museum’s Weston Gallery from 30 July - 31 Oct 2021.

A detail from a medieval manuscript, showing a pen-and-ink drawing depicting the construction of St Albans Abbey.
The construction of St Albans.s Abbey, from Matthew Paris’ Liber additamentorum: Cotton MS Nero D I, f. 23v (detail)

The Benefactors’ Book

One of the highlights is a work known as the Benefactors’ Book of St Albans (Cotton MS Nero D VII). In a previous blogpost, we described the manuscript as a who’s who of medieval England. It represents an invaluable source for our understanding of the history of the monastery and its influence throughout the country. Initially compiled by the Abbey’s precentor, Thomas Walsingham, the book is a register of all the people who made gifts to St Albans throughout the Middle Ages, as well as the abbots, monks and laypeople who made up its vibrant community. The manuscript preserves their names, details about their lives and occupations, and for many even their portraits, which might otherwise have been lost to us. The page on display shows the artist, Alan Strayler, who is responsible for these portraits. 

A page from the Benefactors’ Book of St Albans, showing three portraits of figures recorded in the manuscript.
Portraits of benefactors, including the artist Alan Strayer (the lowermost figure), from the Benefactors’ Book of St Albans: Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 108r

A St Albans Calendar

St Albans was responsible for the production of hundreds of manuscripts between its foundation and dissolution in the 16th century. This copy of the Latin work De Trinitate (On the Trinity) by St Augustine, for example, was made at the monastery during the second half of the 12th century (Egerton MS 3721). It is prefaced by a calendar, commemorating the feast days of important saints throughout the year. Feast days for local saints connected with the Abbey are also recorded here, most notably St Alban himself, as well as several of the monastery’s former abbots.

A page from a medieval manuscript of St Augustine’s De Trinitate, showing a calendar page for June, arranged in a table, with important feast days marked in red and green ink.
A calendar page for June, from a manuscript of St Augustine’s De Trinitate (On the Trinity), made at the monastery of St Albans: Egerton MS 3721, f. 4v

 

A detail from a medieval manuscript, showing part of a calendar page for June, with feast days for saints marked.
Feast days for two abbots and St Alban recorded in the calendar: Egerton MS 3721, f. 4v (detail)

The Collectanea of John of Wallingford

Among the many chroniclers represented in the exhibition is the monk John of Wallingford (d. 1258). John was the infirmarer of St Albans (responsible for looking after the Abbey’s sick) and a friend and contemporary of Matthew Paris, another chronicler based at the Abbey. John is mostly known to us because of his Collectanea, surviving in a single manuscript, which comprises a huge variety of material, some written in his own hand (Cotton MS Julius D VII). Medical recipes in Middle English, copies of charters and documentary texts, John’s own chronicle of English history, and even a table for predicting the time of high tide at London Bridge, all appear in the collection. In addition to these works, the manuscript features a map of Britain and several drawings made by Matthew Paris, including a portrait of John of Wallingford himself, sitting before an open copy of the Book of Psalms. You can read more about the manuscript and Paris’ map in our previous blogpost, The Maps of Matthew Paris.

A page from the Collectanea of the chronicler and monk John of Wallingford, showing a portrait of him sat before an open book on a stand.
A portrait of the chronicler John of Wallingford, made by Matthew Paris, from a copy of Wallingford’s Collectanea: Cotton MS Julius D VII, f. 42v

Matthew Paris’ Liber additamentorum

Matthew Paris was renowned for his work as a chronicler, cartographer, artist, and scribe, both during his lifetime and for centuries after his death. Numerous surviving books show evidence of his hand and the influence of his distinctive style of drawing and painting, many of which are now housed at the British Library. His notable works include the Chronica Maiora, a universal history of the world, and Historia Anglorum, a history of England, both of which he copied and illuminated himself.

Paris’ Liber additamentorum (Book of Additions) is one of the manuscripts that can be found on display at the exhibition at St Albans Museum. The volume (now Cotton MS Nero D I) is a collection of original literary treatises and documents he assembled to support his research. Among the various texts, notes, tracts, and drawings it contains is his Gesta abbatum monasterii sancti Albani, a record of the lives and deeds of the abbots of St Albans. Paris drew a portrait of each of the subjects of his work, which appear as illustrations in the margins beside each of their respective entries. The page below, for example, features a portrait of Leofric, who served as abbot towards the end of the 10th century, and whom Paris identifies in an accompanying inscription in red ink, written in his own distinctive hand.

A page from Matthew Paris’ Books of Additions, showing his work on the deeds of the abbots of the monastery of St Albans, arranged in two columns, with marginal illustrations and a portrait of Abbot Leofric.
Matthew Paris’ Gesta abbatum monasterii Sancti Albani (Deeds of the Abbots of the Monastery of St Albans), with a marginal portrait of Abbot Leofric, also painted by Paris: Cotton MS Nero D I, f. 32v

Ralph of Diceto’s Chronicles

Another of Paris’ contemporaries was Ralph of Diceto (d. c. 1200), a chronicler and dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Ralph was particularly known for a Latin chronicle, written and arranged in two parts. The first is called the Abbreviationes chronicorum (Abbreviations of chronicles) and it constitutes a summary of existing chronicles already circulating in England during the 12th century. It covers the history of the world from the birth of Christ to around 1147. The second part, meanwhile, is entitled the Imagines historiarum (Images of History) and records events that occurred during Ralph’s own lifetime .

A page from a medieval manuscript, showing the opening of a chronicle by Ralph of Diceto, arranged in three columns, with two large decorated initials in gold.
The opening of Ralph of Diceto’s chronicle Imagines historiarum (Images of History): Royal MS 13 E VI, f. 49r

One manuscript in the British Library (Royal MS 13 E VI), made between 1199 and 1209, contains copies of both these chronicles, complete with an innovative pictorial indexing system that Ralph invented. It has been suggested that this volume was made for the Abbey of St Albans and that it was copied from an original housed in St Paul’s, believed to have been Ralph’s personal copy of his works. Numerous additions related to St Albans have been inscribed in the margins of the text: a shelfmark identifying that it was part of the Abbey’s monastic library, marginal notes concerning important events in the Abbey’s history, the obits (or dates of death) of some of its abbots, and even notes and a drawing made by Paris himself.

A detail from a medieval manuscript, showing a marginal illustration of King Lucius being baptised in a tub, identified by an inscription in red ink.
A marginal illustration of Lucius, a legendary King of the Britons, added into a manuscript of Ralph of Diceto’s chronicles, made by Matthew Paris: Royal MS 13 E VI, f. 11r (detail)

The Chronicles of England, printed by the Schoolmaster Printer

While the monastery of St Albans was known for its production of handwritten books and manuscripts, in the later medieval period the city also housed a printing press, notable for being one of the first to operate in England outside of Westminster and London. The name of the printer remains unknown, and many have speculated about his true identity. One of the only hints we have originates from the famous English printer Wynkyn de Worde (d. 1534), who once described him as a ‘Sometime schoolmaster’. Since then, he has typically been referred to as the ‘Schoolmaster Printer’.

This particular volume was made by the St Albans press around 1486 and contains the Chronicles of England, written in Middle English and one of the very first chronicles to be printed in the country (C.11.b.1*). It features a number of woodcut illustrations throughout the text, and on the final page, there appears a printer’s device (or emblem), bearing the arms of the Abbey and the town of St Albans, in red ink.

The final page of a printed copy of the Chronicles of England, made by the Schoolmaster Printer, showing a device in red ink, of a saltire cross on a shield.
The Chronicles of England, made by the ‘Schoolmaster Printer’, showing the printer’s device with the arms of the abbey and town of St Albans: C.11.b.1*, p. 575

The records of the chroniclers featured in this exhibition are the basis for much of our understanding of England during the Middle Ages, and without their work, our knowledge of early English history would be far poorer. Their texts and manuscripts provide an insight not only into the major events that affected the Church and the Crown in this period, but also how these events affected people at a local level.

You can visit Chroniclers of History at The Weston Gallery, St Albans Museum, from 30 July until 31 October 2021. The exhibition catalogue Chroniclers of History: The Medieval Monks of St Albans and their Books. An Exhibition is edited by James Clarke and published by St Albans Council.

Calum Cockburn

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21 July 2021

Miniature books

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Medieval manuscripts come in all shapes and sizes: handy books for personal reading, mid-size volumes for the library or classroom, staggeringly huge tomes for the choir or lectern. But manuscripts that are extra tiny are especially rare and fascinating. Miniature books wow us with the skilfulness of their delicate script and puzzle us with the question of "why so small?". What motivated people to make books with pages so petite that they take all your dexterity to turn, and script so minute that you have to strain your eyes to read? Inspired by the British Library’s current Miniature Books exhibition, we thought we'd explore some of our teeny tomes.

A papyrus leaf, a frame containing nine parchment leaves, a book in a red binding, a book in a gold binding, and a walnut
A scale image of some of the manuscripts included in this blogpost next to a walnut: Papyrus 2556, Papyrus 120 (3), Add MS 58280, Stowe MS 956

Definitions vary, but books measuring under 3 or 4 inches (76 or 101 mm) on their longest side are generally considered miniature. The earliest books of these dimensions in the British Library are leaves which once formed part of miniature codices from Roman Egypt, written in Greek. A papyrus example, dating from the 3rd century and containing a fragment of the Psalms, measures 73 x 56 mm (Papyrus 2556). Discussing why miniature books appealed to Christian owners in the late Roman Empire, scholars have suggested that they might have been particularly useful for carrying on travels, or for wearing close to the body as religious amulets, or for discretely hiding in times of persecution.

A page from a papyrus miniature codex
A fragment of the Psalms from a miniature codex. Egypt, 3rd century. 73 x 56 mm. Papyrus 2556

Nine parchment leaves, each measuring about 68 x 45 mm, once formed a complete codex from 6th century-7th century Egypt (Papyrus 120 (3)). These diminutive pages of Greek writing contain a hymn to the Nile with a prayer for the flood, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed and Psalm 132 (133). Its small dimensions, short length and texts which were believed to have particular potency suggest that it may have been used as an amulet.

Nine parchment leaves from a miniature codex
Nine leaves from a miniature codex containing a hymn to the Nile with a prayer for the flood, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed and Psalm 132 (133). Egypt, 6th-7th century. 68 x 45 mm. Papyrus 120 (3)

Miniature books had a novelty value, prompting writers to comment on them as marvels. For example, Pliny the Elder, citing Cicero, reports in his Natural History (AD 77) that there was a copy of Homer's Iliad written on a piece of parchment so small that it could fit inside a walnut shell. Later scribes were inspired to try and match this ancient achievement, including the 16th-century English calligrapher Peter Bales. A note written in 1586/7 describes ‘A most strange and rare piece of worke brought passe by Peter Bales, an Englishman, a Clerke of the Chauncery of the proofe and demonstracioun of the Whole Bible to be written by hym everie word at length within an English Wallnut no bigger then a hennes egg’ (Harley MS 530, f. 14v). Sadly Bales’ tiny Bible doesn’t survive. None of our miniature books can rival these impressive walnut-sized feats (see the image at the top of this blogpost).

A note in a manuscript describing a miniature manuscript written by Peter Bales
A note describing a Bible manuscript that could fit inside a walnut written by Peter Bales. England, 1586/7. Harley MS 530, f. 14v.

Display of scribal skill might have motivated the creation of an illuminated 15th-century Book of Hours measuring only 54 x 40mm (Add MS 58280). Unusually, the scribe, Roger Pynchebek, signed his name at the end of the book: 'Scriptori merita mater pia redde Maria. Amen. Nunc finem feci. Da mihi quod merui. Quod Rogero Pynchebek þe writer of þis boke. In þe yere of our lorde MoCCCC.lxx iiiio' (Affectionate Mother Mary, give to the writer his just reward. Amen. Now I have made an end, give me what I deserve. That is, Roger Pynchebek the writer of this book. In the year of our Lord 1474). Perhaps with this tiny volume, Roger Pynchebek hoped to advertise his impressive scribal skills to prospective clients.

An inscription naming Roger Pynchebek as the scribe
Scribal note by Roger Pynchebek, in a Book of Hours. England, 1474. Add MS 58280, f. 373v
 

Miniature Book of Hours held open on an illuminated page
An opening from the Book of Hours written by Roger Pynchebek, with a miniature of Christ as Man of Sorrows. England, 1474. Add MS 58280, ff. 323v-324r

In the 16th century, it became fashionable for aristocratic women to wear miniature prayer books bound in elaborate metalwork covers hanging from their girdles (i.e. belts). These girdle books provided them with handy reading material as well as fashionable dress accessories, allowing them to display their literacy and piety to the world. They are sometimes included in medieval portraits of the period, such as that of Mary Tudor by Hans Eworth.

Portrait of Mary Tudor wearing a girdle book by Hans Eworth
Hans Eworth, portrait of Mary Tudor wearing a girdle book, c. 1553. The Fitzwilliam Museum, PD.1-1963

A girdle book made in Paris around 1520 which belonged to a lady at the court of King Henry VIII of England measures a dainty 35 x 20 mm (Sloane MS 116). The book, which contains devotional texts, even includes tiny painted pictures the size of postage stamps, here showing St George slaying the dragon.

Girdle book held open on the page with a picture of St George slaying the dragon facing a prayer
St George and the Dragon, from a girdle book. Paris, c. 1520. 35 x 20 mm. Sloane MS 116, ff. 69v-70r
 
Girdle book shown closed with elaborate metal openwork cover over red velvet
Girdle book with elaborate metal openwork cover over velvet. Paris, c. 1520. 35 x 20 mm. Sloane MS 116

A particularly luxurious example is a girdle book with covers of gold filigree that measures a diminutive 40 x 30 mm (Stowe MS 956). It contains selected Psalms in English verse, translated and apparently written out by John Croke, one of Henry VIII’s clerks in Chancery, with a portrait of Henry VIII at the beginning. The volume is traditionally thought to have belonged to Anne Boleyn, who is said to have handed it to one of her maids of honour when she was standing on the scaffold before her execution in 1536.

Girdle book held open on the page with Henry VIII's portrait
Portrait of Henry VIII, from a girdle book. England, c. 1540. 40 x 30 mm. Stowe MS 956, ff. 1v-2r

 

Girdle book shown closed with gold filigree cover
Elaborate gold filigree covers, from a girdle book. England, c. 1540. 40 x 30 mm. Stowe MS 956

The tradition of miniature books continued into the modern era and up to the present day. You can visit the British Library’s current Miniature Books exhibition for free in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery. The exhibition includes Sloane MS 116 described above, displayed alongside other miniature manuscripts and printed books from the Library’s historical collections, as well as books created especially for the project by contemporary children’s authors and illustrators, and miniature books submitted by children in response to the British Library's lockdown callout. You can also find out more in the British Library's online event The Magnificent World of Miniature Books (Thursday 22 July 2021, 19:30 - 20:30 BST).


Eleanor Jackson
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22 May 2021

Gold and Glory at Hampton Court

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The exhibition Gold and Glory: Henry VIII and the French King opens this week at Hampton Court Palace. It celebrates the ‘Field of Cloth of Gold’, one of history’s most famous and spectacular peace summits at which rival Renaissance rulers Henry VIII of England (1509–1547) and Francis I of France (1515–1547) met in person. The British Library is delighted to have loaned a number of manuscripts to be displayed alongside an array of treasures from 1520, including works of art, gold, weapons and textiles. Together they tell the story of a dazzling spectacle of diplomacy, pageantry and magnificence.

A detail of a coloured manuscript drawing showing an armoured knight holding a lance and sitting on a horse

Detail of a figure wearing armour, perhaps King Henry VIII, at the Field of Cloth of Gold: Cotton MS Augustus III/1, f. 35r

Henry and Francis’s legendary encounter inaugurated a new Anglo-French alliance that was signed in 1518 as part of a European-wide Treaty of Universal Peace. The treaty was negotiated by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Henry VIII’s brilliant administrator and trusted adviser, in response to Pope Leo X’s call for universal peace the previous year. As a result, Wolsey succeeded in reasserting his master’s status as a powerful European prince through peaceful means rather than warfare.

In the wake of the Treaty of Universal Peace, preparations got underway for the kings to meet in person.  Initially planned for 1519, the peace summit was postponed following the death of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. Henry expressed his disappointment by gallantly promising not to shave his beard until he and Francis were able to meet face to face and the French king agreed to do the same. One of the British Library loans, a letter sent by Sir Thomas Boleyn to Cardinal Wolsey in November 1519, records that Henry later reneged on his vow because Queen Katherine ‘desired hym to putt yt of for her sake’. The French delegation was appeased by Thomas Boleyn’s assurance that Henry felt more affection for Francis than for any other king or prince and agreed that ‘their love is nat in the berdes but in the hartes’.

A manuscript page containing a letter in English from Sir Thomas Boleyn to Cardinal Wolsey. The edges of the paper page have been burned and remounted in paper frames.

Letter from Sir Thomas Boleyn to Cardinal Wolsey, recording how Henry VIII had reneged on his earlier promise not to shave off his beard until his meeting with Francis I (16 November 1519): Cotton MS Caligula D VII, f. 164r

Henry departed for France on 31 May 1520, accompanied by Queen Katherine, his sister Mary Tudor, dowager Queen of France, Cardinal Wolsey, and some 6,000 subjects, courtiers and English nobility. The two kings met on 7 June 1520 in the Val Doré, a small valley equidistant between the French town of Ardres and the English headquarters at Guînes in the Pale of Calais, a territory held since 1347 by the kings of England as part of their claim to the kingdom of France. Another British Library loan provides visitors with a contemporary view of the English castle of Guînes, where Henry lodged for the duration of the peace conference.

A pen-and-ink drawing of the castle at Guînes, showing its towers and ramparts

View of the keep and part of the walls of the English castle at Guînes (2nd quarter of the 16th century): Cotton MS Augustus I II 12

Both kings viewed the summit as an opportunity to impress those in attendance with magnificent displays of their wealth and culture; everything was done on a grand scale. A temporary town of tented pavilions that replicated royal palaces was built to accommodate their vast entourages. Constructed of canvas, the tents were dressed in rich fabrics, including cloth of gold, which gave the event its name: the Field of Cloth of Gold or ‘Camp du Drap d’Or’. A stunning tent design on loan from the British Library illustrates the size and splendour of the accommodation erected for Henry’s court.

A design for the red tents erected for King Henry VIII at the Field of Cloth of Gold

Manuscript tent design for the Field of Cloth of Gold, showing red tents with gold detail and crowned with fleur-de-lis, Tudor roses and heraldic beasts: Cotton MS Augustus III/1, f. 18r

After their initial meeting on 7 June, Henry and Francis demonstrated their princely power and military prowess in a daily round of tournaments involving jousting, mock battles, archery, wrestling matches and other feats of arms lasting more than two weeks. Both kings participated in the jousting competitions. Henry VIII in particular was renowned as a skilled jouster, and it is possible that in one drawing loaned by the British Library, the figure shown on horseback with a broken jousting lance is Henry himself.

A coloured drawing of a man wearing armour and carrying a lance, sitting upon a horse

Drawing of a figure on horseback, possibly of Henry VIII, with a broken jousting lance: Cotton MS Augustus III/1, f. 35r

The Field of Cloth of Gold was also a spectacular festival of entertainments. Henry and Francis hosted sumptuous feasts and banquets and laid on lavish entertainments with music, singing, dancing and masques. Choristers from the English Chapel Royal were in attendance and performed at the great liturgical feasts and the public Mass led by Cardinal Wolsey on the summit's final day. Shown below is a beautiful choirbook from the British Library on display in the exhibition. It was produced sometime between 1513 and 1525 for Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon in the workshop of Petrus Alamire, contains 28 motets, and is magnificently decorated with Tudor heraldic emblems and Katherine of Aragon’s pomegranate.

An opening of a manuscript choirbook, with decorated initials on each page and the staves laid out for the music

A book of choral music made for Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon, decorated with the Tudor royal arms and heraldic emblems: Royal MS 8 G VII, ff. 2v–3r

 

Gold and Glory: Henry VIII and the French King runs at Hampton Court from 20 May to 5 September 2021. 

 

Andrea Clarke

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14 May 2021

Hot off the press

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Today sees the publication of Manuscripts in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Cultures and Connections. This new book brings together 14 essays based on papers delivered at the British Library conference held in December 2018, in conjunction with the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.

Book cover with a medieval illustration of a scribe and the title Manuscripts in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Cultures and Connections
Front cover of Manuscripts in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Cultures and Connections

All the essays in the book focus on manuscripts produced between the 7th and the 11th centuries. Like the exhibition, they explore the artistic, literary and historical connections between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and their neighbours, and the scribal and artistic networks that developed across Britain, Ireland and much of early medieval Europe.

A striking feature of several papers at the conference was the use of multispectral imaging to enhance texts and images damaged by fire or the use of reagents in the past. This imaging was undertaken by the Library’s imaging scientist, Christina Duffy, and the results feature in three essays which span the artistic, literary and historical themes of the conference and exhibition.

Bernard Meehan’s essay on ‘The Royal-Otho-Corpus / Cambridge-London / Parker-Cotton-Wolsey Gospels’ includes new multispectral imaging of Cotton MS Otho C V, which was badly damaged in the Cotton Library fire of 1731. This image shows the lion – the evangelist symbol for St Mark – as it appears to the naked eye:

Medieval illustration of the lion of St Mark, darkened and damaged by fire
The fire-damaged lion evangelist symbol: Cotton MS Otho C V, f. 27r

Multispectral imaging reveals significant new details in this black and white image:

Medieval illustration of the lion of St Mark in black and white, enhanced by multispectral imaging
Black and white multispectral image of the lion evangelist symbol: Cotton MS Otho C V, f. 27r

And the psychedelic colours of this enhanced multispectral image show the dotting on the lion’s lower front legs and paws:

Medieval illustration of the lion of St Mark in vibrant colours, enhanced by multispectral imaging
Coloured multispectral image of the lion evangelist symbol: Cotton MS Otho C V, f. 27r

Jonathan Wilcox’s essay, ‘The Wolf at work: uncovering Wulfstan’s compositional method’, draws on multispectral imaging of two pages in Add MS 38651 which have been treated with blue reagent in the past:

A medieval manuscript page that was previously treated with blue reagent, which obscures most of the text
One of the pages previously treated with blue reagent, which obscures most of the text: Add MS 38651, f. 58r

The multispectral imaging reveals texts by Archbishop Wulfstan which Jonathan uses as new evidence to explore Wulftan’s compositional method:

A medieval manuscript page that was previously treated with blue reagent, with the texts revealed by multispectral imaging
New texts by Wulfstan revealed by multispectral imaging: Add MS 38651, f. 58r

Winfried Rudolf, who has an essay in the book on the Italian provenance of the Vercelli Book, has also been working on these images in parallel, to publish an edition and commentary of the newly revealed texts.

And Simon Keynes draws on several further multispectral images in his essay, ‘The “Canterbury letter-book”: Alcuin and after’. His essay includes this page from the letter-book, Cotton MS Tiberius A XV, before and after multispectral imaging:

A page from the Alcuin letter-book, with faded text
The Alcuin letter-book before multispectral imaging: Cotton MS Tiberius A XV, f. 172v
A page from the Alcuin letter-book, with the text recovered through multispectral imaging
The Alcuin letter-book after multispectral imaging: Cotton MS Tiberius A XV, f. 172v

The imaging published today adds to Christina Duffy’s earlier multispectral imaging of erased additions to the Bodmin Gospels (Add MS 9381). The imaging of these erasures, which record the freeing of slaves in early medieval Cornwall, was shown on a video in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, next to the manuscript itself.

All of these examples show the power of multispectral imaging to recover evidence previously obscured by the effects of fire-damage, the use of reagents and erasure. You can read more about the new imaging in the book, as well as the eleven other essays by Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, Richard Gameson, Larry Nees, Joanna Story, Rosamond McKitterick, David Johnson, Tessa Webber, Winfried Rudolf, Francesca Tinti, Susan Rankin and Michael Gullick.

We are grateful to the Leverhulme Trust for funding the Insular Manuscripts: Networks of Knowledge international research network, which ran from 2016 to 2019 and supported research opportunities for Bernard Meehan, Dáibhí Ó Cróinín and Joanna Story. We also thank the British Library Collections Trust for their generous subvention towards this publication, Martin Fanning at Four Courts Press, Christina Duffy for her multispectral imaging, Ellie Jackson for all her editorial support and Jessica Hodgkinson for compiling the indices. And I would especially like to thank Joanna Story for her tireless collaboration over the last five years in preparing for the exhibition and the conference, and for co-editing the exhibition catalogue and this new book of conference essays with me.

Manuscripts in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Cultures and Connections is available through the Four Courts Press website, and the publisher is offering a 20% discount until Tuesday 18 May.

Claire Breay

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

18 February 2021

Digesting History

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You are invited to sit down with Sheffield Libraries at their digital dinner table at 8.00pm on 25 February to enjoy a menu of poetry, conversation, music and film inspired by our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.

A decorated page in the Vespasian Psalter, showing David playing the harp

The Vespasian Psalter: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 30v

In early 2019, poets Rachel Bower, Kayo Chingonyi and Joe Kriss visited the exhibition, as part of a collaboration between Sheffield Libraries, the British Library and Poet in the City.

A photograph of poets Kayo Chingonyi, Rachel Bower and Joe Kriss

Poets Kayo Chingonyi, Rachel Bower and Joe Kriss

Their visit was part of the ‘Collections in Verse’ project to commission poetry inspired by exhibitions at the Library. ‘Collections in Verse’ encourages poets to work closely with local people to integrate their stories into themes from Library exhibitions.

Rachel, Kayo and Joe took the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition as their starting point for conversations with people in three different branch libraries in Sheffield. These conversations were sparked by items in the exhibition such as the will of Wynflæd, a well-to-do 10th-century widow who lived in south-western England.

Photograph of the will of Wynflaed

Wynflæd’s will, early 11th century: Cotton Ch VIII 38

Wynflæd’s will lists her lands and livestock, but also paints a picture of her domestic life. The objects she bequeathed allow us to see how her house was furnished, to look inside her wardrobe, and to see items on her table and in her jewellery box. The passing on of objects and the survival of the jewelled metalwork in the exhibition inspired conversations with women in Sheffield about objects they had inherited and will pass on.

The Winfarthing Pendant

Pendant from Winfarthing: Norwich Castle Museum, 2017.519.6

One of the key themes running through the exhibition was the development of the English language and early English literature. Exhibits included objects inscribed with some of the earliest surviving records of the use of the English language, the earliest datable text written in English (the laws of King Æthelberht of Kent), manuscripts containing over 90 per cent of all surviving Old English poetry, and works by the prolific writer in Old English, Ælfric of Eynsham.

A page from Ælfric's Grammar

Ælfric, Grammar: Cotton MS Faustina A X, f. 53v

This theme was picked up strongly in Sheffield with explorations of the wide-ranging national and international influences on local dialects, and reflections on how language and inherited stories influence ideas of national identity.

Sheffield Central Library had planned to hold an Anglo-Saxon-inspired feast with live poetry and performance in March 2020 to celebrate the work of poets and the Collections in Verse project. While the first lockdown meant that had to be cancelled, around that time Sheffield Libraries began supporting local communities in new ways, with some branch libraries becoming food banks. In response, the poetry commissioned by ‘Collections in Verse’ has now been incorporated into a new film inspired by conversations with the people of Sheffield and the food banks in the city. This film, directed by Eelyn Lee, will be premiered as part of the live online event, Digesting History, on 25 February. During the event, hosted by Silé Sibanda from BBC Radio Sheffield, guest speakers will explore the development of the English language and Sheffield’s dialect, questions of national identity, and how the pandemic has reinforced the importance of libraries in local communities.

Tickets to Digesting History are free and can be booked at Digesting History | Poet in the City.

 

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04 February 2021

Loan of the Lindisfarne Gospels to the North East of England

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The British Library and Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums are delighted to announce the loan of the Lindisfarne Gospels to the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle for an exhibition scheduled to open in 2022. This exhibition will explore the contemporary resonance of this spectacular and justly celebrated manuscript in a range of personal, regional and national contexts, focusing on themes such as identity, creativity, learning and a sense of place.

At the same time next year, Newcastle City Library will stage a complementary exhibition. This will be accompanied by a range of public, community and school events across the North East, and a newly commissioned artwork to reimagine the Gospels for the 21st century.

A decorated carpet page in the Lindisfarne Gospels

The carpet page at the beginning of the Gospel of John in the Lindisfarne Gospels: Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 210v

The exhibition in Newcastle will see the fifth loan of the Gospels to the North East. The manuscript was loaned to Durham Cathedral in 1987, the 1300th anniversary of the death of St Cuthbert. This was followed by two loans to the Laing Art Gallery in 1996 and 2000, and the most recent loan in 2013 to the ‘Lindisfarne Gospels Durham’ exhibition at Durham University, which generated great excitement in the region and attracted nearly 100,000 visitors.

A photograph of the Lindisfarne Gospels in a glass display case at Durham in 2013

The Lindisfarne Gospels on display at Palace Green Library, Durham University, in 2013

The Lindisfarne Gospels has also featured in two recent temporary exhibitions at the British Library that focused on different aspects of the manuscript. In 2018–19, the ‘Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms’ exhibition included a spectacular display of illuminated manuscripts from the Golden Age of Northumbria.

Photograph of the Lindisfarne Gospels being removed from its box for display in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition

The Lindisfarne Gospels being installed in the ‘Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms’ exhibition

The Lindisfarne Gospels was displayed with the Book of Durrow on loan from Trinity College Dublin, the Echternach Gospels on loan from the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the Durham Gospels on loan from Durham Cathedral, the St Cuthbert Gospel, and Codex Amiatinus, returning to Britain from Italy for the first time in 1300 years. In contrast, in the 2019 exhibition, ‘Writing: Making Your Mark’, the beautiful Insular Half-Uncial script of the Gospels was the focus. It was displayed with other manuscripts dating from the 6th to the 15th centuries to illustrate the many different scripts used during the Middle Ages for the Roman alphabet.

A text page from the Lindisfarne Gospels

The Lindisfarne Gospels displayed in the ‘Writing: Making Your Mark’ exhibition, showing the Insular Half-Uncial script: Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 208r

Although the British Library's physical sites are currently closed to the public, when we are able to reopen our exhibitions the Lindisfarne Gospels will be on display again in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery alongside other highlights from the national collection. So we look forward both to sharing the Gospels in the Treasures Gallery later this year, and to the loan of Gospels to Newcastle next year. In the meantime, you can find out more about the Lindisfarne Gospels on our website and explore all the pages of the manuscript in detail on Digitised Manuscripts.

A decorated page from the Lindisfarne Gospels

The Chi-rho page in the Lindisfarne Gospels: Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 29r

 

Claire Breay

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

29 January 2021

Bede, The Dig and Sutton Hoo

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This weekend has seen the release on Netflix of The Dig, a fictionalised account of the excavation at Sutton Hoo of an Anglo-Saxon ship-burial. Starring Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown, a self-taught archaeologist, and Carey Mulligan as a very youthful Edith Pretty, the landowner, The Dig is based on real events. The Sutton Hoo finds are among the most extraordinary from early medieval England — we displayed this gold belt buckle and part of the sword-belt in the British Library's recent Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition — but the identity of the person buried with the ship remains unresolved. In this blogpost we review some of the oldest written evidence connected to Sutton Hoo, as recorded in Bede's Ecclesiastical History.

Basil Brown in the Sutton Hoo ship-burial

A photograph of Basil Brown in the ship-burial, from the website of the Sutton Hoo Ship's Company

The mound containing the ship-burial at Sutton Hoo, on the banks of the River Debden in Suffolk, was opened in the summer of 1939, on the eve of World War II. At first, Basil Brown was digging with the assistance of Mrs Pretty's gardener, her gamekeeper and an estate worker, until archaeologists from Cambridge University and the Ordnance Survey intervened. Together they uncovered not only the outline of an early medieval ship, revealed by the rivets left in the sandy soil, but a number of grave goods including precious jewellery, silver bowls from the Mediterranean, and the remains of the famous Sutton Hoo helmet.

After the war the finds were examined by a young researcher, Rupert Bruce-Mitford, who spent the rest of his career analysing the site. Although much of the context for the discoveries had already disappeared by the late 1940s (Sutton Hoo had been commandeered by the British military during wartime), Bruce-Mitford recognised that the combination of 'pagan' and 'Christian' artefacts most likely dated the burial to the period of the conversion of the kingdom of the East Angles to Christianity, in the 7th century.

The Sutton Hoo helmet

The Sutton Hoo helmet, courtesy of the British Museum

Over the years a number of candidates have been put forward as the person buried in the ship-mound. They include Rædwald, king of the East Angles from around 600 to perhaps the 620s, and his sons and successors Earpwald and Sigeberht. Some historians and archaeologists have been less circumspect than others in naming Rædwald, the most famous of the three, as the king commemorated at Sutton Hoo. This is based, in turn, on the account of the East Anglian kingdom provided by Bede approximately 100 years after the burial.

Bede (died 735), a monk at Wearmouth in Northumbria, completed his Ecclesiastical History, or Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, in 731. Much of its focus is on the conversion period, from the mission of Augustine from Rome to Canterbury in 597 to the time when the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms first adopted Christian customs.

The British Library holds two of the oldest surviving manuscripts of Bede's History, both of which can be viewed in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site. One of them (Cotton MS Tiberius A XIV) was probably made in Northumbria in the late 700s or the early decades of the 800s. The other (Cotton MS Tiberius C II) is characterised by the decorated initials which mark the beginning of each book, and it was most likely made in Kent sometime in the middle of the 9th century. (Another important early copy of the Historia ecclesiastica, known as the Moore Bede, was also displayed in our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.) The two manuscripts which formerly belonged to Sir Robert Cotton (died 1631) were damaged by a fire at Ashburnham House, London, in 1731. You will notice that their parchment pages were blackened and warped by the heat of the flames, with the occasional loss of parts of their text.

A decorated initial B in a manuscript of Bede's Ecclesiastical History

The opening page of the first book of Bede's Ecclesiastical History, in Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 5v

According to Bede (Historia ecclesiastica, II.5), Rædwald was for a while the most powerful king to rule South of the Humber. He was described as the fourth such king to hold 'imperium' over the southern Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, a phrase later translated into Old English as 'bretwalda' ('Britain-ruler'). Rædwald's candidacy as occupant of the Sutton Hoo ship-burial is based furthermore on his being the first king of the East Angles to be baptised as a Christian (Historia ecclesiastica, II.15). But Bede did not hold him in the greatest esteem. Rædwald was said to have been perverted by his wife and other evil counsellors into maintaining a temple with one altar for the Christian sacrifice and another for pagan worship. This would align with the combination of Christian and non-Christian grave-goods discovered at Sutton Hoo. In Bede's words, 'rex Reduald natu nobilis quamlibet actu ignobilis' ('King Rædwald was of noble birth but ignoble in his deeds').

A text-page from Bede's Ecclesiastical History

The chapter of Bede's Ecclesiastical History in which he records that Rædwald was a lapsed Christian, of noble birth but ignoble in his deeds (lines 1-2 of the 2nd column): Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 54v

But Rædwald isn't the only candidate for the ship-burial. He was succeeded as king by his pagan son, Earpwald, who later converted to Christianity under the influence of King Edwin of Northumbria. Bede reports that Earpwald was assassinated by a pagan not long after his conversion, thereby becoming the first Anglo-Saxon king to be martyred on account of his Christian faith (Historia ecclesiastica, II.15). Sigeberht, another son (or step-son) of Rædwald, ruled East Anglia in the aftermath of Earpwald's death. He was a devout Christian, who had been converted in Gaul while fleeing from the enmity of Rædwald (Historia ecclesiastica, III.18). Sigeberht eventually abdicated and retired to a monastery, until an army led by the pagan King Penda of Mercia invaded around the 640s. Sigeberht was dragged to the battlefield in order to inspire the East Angles, but he refused to carry anything but a staff and was killed. The whole East Anglian army was either slain with him or scattered.

A still from the Netflix production of The Dig

A still from The Dig (Netflix)

The complicated dynastic history of the East Anglians, combined with the lack of firm dates for the reigns of these kings, makes it well-nigh impossible to conclude with any certainty who was buried at Sutton Hoo. As we have seen, Rædwald, Earpwald and Sigeberht alike all adopted the Christian faith, but Rædwald effectively renounced it while Earpwald was murdered soon after he had converted. Assigning the ship-burial to any of these men depends in large part on our subjective opinion of what constitutes a 'pagan' or 'Christian' grave-good at this period. But this does not detract from our romantic notions of the burial site, as exemplified by The Dig itself.

The book which accompanied the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition is available to purchase from the British Library online shop. You can also read more about the background to Sutton Hoo and the conversion period on our dedicated Anglo-Saxons webspace, including this article by Alison Hudson on the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. We would also heartily recommend the blogpost Inside 'The Dig' by the British Museum's curator, Sue Brunning, which analyses the historical accuracy of the new film.

 

Julian Harrison

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

03 August 2020

Treasures on Tour: an Armagh gospel-book on display in Belfast

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Last year we announced the digitisation of two of the Library's most important medieval Irish manuscripts, the Harley Irish Gospels. This year we're loaning one of them, the Gospels of Máel Brigte (Harley MS 1802), to the Ulster Museum in Belfast as part of the British Library’s Treasures on Tour programme.

Medieval manuscript miniature of an ox surrounded by a patterned border
The ox symbol of the evangelist St Luke, Harley MS 1802, f. 86v

As we discussed in the previous blog post, the manuscript has a number of  fascinating features. Its detailed colophons reveal that it was made by a 28-year-old scribe named Máel Brigte, working in Armagh in 1138. Máel Brigte also mentioned contemporary events in his colophons, including a great storm that happened two years earlier and the killing of King Cormac Mac Carthaig by Toirdelbach Ua Briain in 1138, which he called 'a great crime'.

Medieval manuscript miniature of a lion surrounded by a patterned border
The lion symbol of the evangelist St Mark, Harley MS 1802, f. 60v

The main texts of the manuscript are the Gospels, which are splendidly illustrated with evangelist symbols and decorated initial letters painted in vibrant colours. Unusually, the animal symbols of the evangelists are depicted sideways, as though standing on a vertical ground. Perhaps this was designed to make the figures fill the space, or to remind the viewer to mentally reorient themselves before beginning to read the Gospel text.

Medieval manuscript page containing a poem
Irish poem on the Three Magi, Harley MS 1802, f. 5v

In addition to the Gospels, the pages of the manuscript are filled with other rare and interesting texts, including commentaries, poems and exegesis. A particularly intriguing example is an Irish poem on the names and descriptions of the Three Magi (f. 5v), which seems to be one of the earliest texts that describe one of the magi as being black. According to the poem, Melcho was the elder magus, who had grey hair, wore a yellow mantle, a green tunic and speckled sandals, and presented gold; Caspar was youthful and beardless, wore a purple mantle, yellow tunic and green sandals, and presented Frankincense; while Patifarsat was a dark-skinned man (fer odor) who wore a white-spotted mantle and yellow sandals, and presented myrrh.

On f. 9v another Irish poem describes the appearance of Christ and the Apostles, stating that Christ had brown hair and a long red beard.

Medieval manuscript page with a decorated XPI initial
Chi-rho initial, Harley MS 1802, f. 10r

The Gospels of Máel Brigte is now on display in the Saints and Scholars gallery at Ulster Museum for the next three months. The Treasures on Tour programme is generously supported by the Helen Hamlyn Trust. The British Library is working with other libraries, museums and galleries across the UK to share our collections with thousands of people every day, and the Library will be announcing additional loans as part of Treasures on Tour over the coming months.

Eleanor Jackson

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