01 July 2016
Calendar page for July from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430, Add MS 18850, f. 7r
Summer is in full swing in the Bedford Hours calendar pages for the month of July.
Detail of miniatures of a man scything wheat and the zodiac sign Leo, from the calendar page for July, Add MS 18850, f. 7r
At the bottom of the folio is a miniature of a man engaged in a very typical labour of the month for July, scything wheat. Although he is surrounded by a bucolic landscape including a river and a small bridge, our peasant appears less than pleased about his task. Happily, his grumpy attitude is not shared by his companion at the bottom of the page, a remarkably jolly looking lion, for the zodiac sign Leo.
Detail of a marginal roundel of Julius Caesar, from the calendar page for July, Add MS 18850, f. 7r
On the middle left of the folio is a roundel miniature of an armoured king, crowned, holding a sword and a tablet headed with the letters ‘KL’ – a very simplified version of a medieval calendar. This king, the rubrics tell us, is Julius Caesar, for whom the month of July was named. The verses go on to describe how Caesar ‘fixed and put in order’ the months of the year that were ‘confused in the ancient calendar’ and for this achievement he was eternally memorialised.
Calendar page for July, Add MS 18850, f. 7v
The saints’ days for July continue on the following folio, accompanied by two marginal roundels. The first of these, on the middle left, shows a snarling dog who appears to be biting at a bright star; this is most likely intended to represent Canis, the star that the rubrics tell us is ‘reigning’ in the month of July. At the bottom is a less pleasant scene of Julius Caesar. He is here seated on this throne, raising his arm in alarm as another man plunges a dagger in his chest. Two men close by are also pulling daggers from their sheaths in a scene that illustrates how Caesar ‘was killed by his counsel.’
Detail of marginal roundels of Canis and the murder of Julius Caesar, from the calendar page for July, Add MS 18850, f. 7v
- Sarah J Biggs
07 June 2016
The British Library’s new free exhibition, Punk 1976-78 is now open to the public (until 2 October 2016). This exhibition examines Punk’s influence on music, fashion, print and politics in the 40 years since the Sex Pistols came to prominence. However, the Medieval Manuscripts Section is here to tell you that rebellious attitudes and rad hairstyles have been around for much longer than 40 years!
Detail of Wat Tyler and John Ball leading the Peasants' Revolt, from Jean Froissart, Chroniques, vol. 2, Low Countries (Bruges), c. 1475-1500, Royal MS 18 E I, f. 165v
One set of medieval rule breakers seem particularly pertinent to the later punk scene: demons and vices. In the opening lines of the Sex Pistols’ controversial debut single ‘Anarchy in the UK’, Johnny Rotten proclaims, ‘I am an antichrist.’ Since Late Antiquity, artists and poets in Western Europe often used imagery of antichrists—opponents of Christ, conceived of as false prophets or demons or vices—to signal countercultural status. The Sex Pistols were, consciously or unconsciously, tapping into a tradition that was over a thousand years old.
The Antichrist from the Silos Apocalypse, Spain (Santo Domingo de Silos), c. 1091-1109, Add MS 11695, f. 143r
In particular, the British Library is in the process of digitising two sets of texts related to demons, virtues, vices, rulebreakers, antichrists and anarchy. The first are Apocalypse manuscripts, of which we have 19 in our collections, 10 of which have been recently digitised. One of these, Additional MS 19896, a 15th- century Latin copy made in Germany, contains a four-part miniature of the Book of Revelation, Chapter XI, which features a beast often described as the Antichrist:
Scenes from the Antichrist story, with the Antichrist represented as the beast of the bottomless pit who kills the two witnesses (here Enoch and Elias), followed by the great earthquake, 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Germany, Additional MS 19896, ff. 8v-9r
A parallel version of the Book of Revelation in Latin and Anglo-Norman French verse, also recently digitised (Royal MS 2 D XIII), contains an illustration of the same scenes: vengeance rains down on the Antichrist and the souls of the two witnesses are taken up into heaven.
The Antichrist kills the two witnesses; the ascension of the witnesses and the persecution of the Antichrist in the great earthquake (Revelation XI: 7-13), early 14th century, England or France, Royal MS 2 D XIII, ff. 23v-24r
Although the fashions and hairstyles do not obviously call to mind the punk asethetic, wild and wacky characters and dress are everywhere, as you will see if you look at our previous blogposts on the Apocalypse manuscripts.
A different take on anti-christs-- in the sense of opponents of Christ-- comes from the second set of manuscripts depicting rule breakers which we are digitising. These are copies of the Psychomachia by Prudentius, a provincial governor-turned-ascetic from Northern Spain (d. c. 413). This poem describes seven virtues, such as Faith, Chastity and Patience, duelling seven vices, including Worship-of-the-Old-Gods, Sodomy, and Wrath. In between, the poet digresses with Biblical examples to emphasize that vices oppose what Christ stands for, whereas the virtues will help save souls. We have already digitised one of the illustrated copies of the Psychomachia in the British Library’s collection (Additional MS 24199), made in England in the late 10th and early 11th century.
Wrath fighting Patience, from Prudentius, Psychomachia, England (Bury St Edmunds?), c.980-1010, Add MS 24199, f. 10r
In particular, having just seen the Punk exhibition’s cases on punk fashion, some members of the section were struck by the wild hairstyle which the Anglo-Saxon artist gave Wrath. She would not have looked out of place in Vivienne Westwood’s and Malcolm McLaren’s circle 1000 years later (although the illustrator did not intend Wrath to be seen as a trendsetter). Demons, too, were frequently depicted with gravity-defying hairdos and revealing or torn clothing in western medieval art.
Detail of Pride’s entrance, from Additional MS 24199, f. 12r
But while the punk movement used torn clothing and wild hair as a sign of countercultural rebellion, in the Psychomachia such attire was not, it should be noted, a feature of all vices, nor was it necessarily forbidden from virtues. In the recently digitised copy of the Psychomachia, Pride (Superbia) is depicted with particularly flamboyant and sumptuous attire. Meanwhile, the text describes Faith taking to the field of battle with ‘her rough dress disordered, her arms exposed’ as she faces off against Worship-of-the-Old-Gods (translated by H. J. Thomson, Prudentius, with an English translation (1949), p. 281). The Anglo-Saxon illustrator did depict Faith fully dressed, however, as she crowned a group of martyrs.
Detail of Faith fighting Worship-of-the-Old-Gods, from Additional MS 24199, f. 4v
There are many other parallels that can be drawn between the punk movement and the medieval period. Indeed, punks themselves sometimes explicitly invoked medieval imagery. Tenpole Tudor’s band name may have been a reference to its lead singer’s name, rather than Henry VIII’s jousting exploits, but their song ‘Swords of 1000 Men’ and its accompanying cover art show how they were inspired by neo-medievalism and also subverted it. If any aspiring punk rockers are reading this, please bear in mind digitised manuscripts from the 1470s and 1000s, as well as albums from the 1970s, as a source of inspiration.
~Alison Hudson and Chantry Westwell
Read more about demons in medieval art:
01 June 2016
Calendar page for June from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430, Add MS 18850, f. 6r
More beautiful summer scenes greet us in the folios for June from the Bedford Hours.
Detail of miniatures of a man mowing and the zodiac sign Cancer, from the calendar page for June, Add MS 18850, f. 6r
On the lower section of the folio are the traditional miniatures of the labour of the month and the zodiac sign. On the left a peasant is at work mowing grass, with a waterwheel visible in the background. To the right is a lobster-like crab, for the zodiac sign Cancer.
Detail of a marginal roundel of Juno, from the calendar page for June, Add MS 18850, f. 6r
At the right of the folio is a miniature roundel of a crowned woman seated among chests full of gold and jewels. The rubrics at the bottom of the folio explain this unusual scene: this is Juno (Hera), who was both sister and wife of Jupiter (Zeus). The month of June is of course named after Juno, who was ‘called the goddess of riches’ and also, interestingly, ‘put all the young men to the test of bravery’.
Calendar page for June, Add MS 18850, f. 6v
Juno’s importance in the month of June is echoed on the following folio. Amongst the remainder of the saints’ days are two miniature roundels. The first shows the marriage of Hercules and Hebe, who was the cupbearer of the gods and the daughter of Juno and Jupiter. Hebe was said to have the power to give eternal youth, and June is a month in which one could believe in such things. The following scene shows two crowned kings greeting one another while holding branches of peace; the rubric is somewhat confusing but it most likely refers to the legendary peace between the Sabine king Titus Tatius and the Roman king Romulus, following which the two jointly ruled over Rome.
Detail of marginal roundels of the marriage of Hebe and Hercules and the peace between Titus Tatius and Romulus, from the calendar page for June, Add MS 18850, f. 6v
- Sarah J Biggs
23 May 2016
The British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website reveals a number of remarkable things in the text and decoration of over 1460 complete manuscripts (and counting). One thing Digitised Manuscripts cannot show you, however, is the actual size of the manuscripts, since our viewer is limited by the size of your screen. Medieval book-makers did not have those limitations, and the British Library’s manuscripts come in all shapes and sizes.
We recently uploaded a two-volume Anglo-Saxon Bible to Digitised Manuscripts (Royal MS 1 E VII and Royal MS 1 E VIII). These volumes are notable for a number of reasons: first, they form one of only two more or less complete Bibles which were made in England before 1066 and which still survive. Secondly, they are remarkable for their large size, measuring 570 x 350 mm (making it the size of a small child). Here’s one of these volumes next to a 22 cm ruler.
Front cover of the Royal Bible vol. 2, Royal MS 1 E VIII
Many of the British Library’s largest manuscripts are Bibles or liturgical manuscripts. This makes sense, given these texts’ spiritual importance and the role they might have been expected to play in ceremonies and impressive performances. Other texts exist in large formats, too. Cotton MS Augustus V—which recently travelled to the Everlasting Flame exhibition in New Delhi—contains the Trésor des histoires, a middle French version of an anonymous historical compilation in prose from Creation to the pontificate of Clement VI, with other 14th-century texts interpolated. Like many luxurious manuscripts, it was designed to express the social status of its owner. Such manuscripts were sometimes copied more to be seen than read. Cotton Augustus V was made in Bruges and measures an impressive 480 x 230 mm. Its elaborate fifty-five miniatures show a special concern for the treatment of light. This manuscript was part of King Henry VIII of England’s library: it is the 'item 23' in the 1535 Richmond Palace booklist (February 1535). Its size, the high quality of illumination and script, and the rarity of the text make it a perfect example of a deluxe manuscript intended to display the King’s treasures at court.
At the other end of the scale—literally—the British Library recently acquired a very small manuscript, known as the Taverner Prayerbook (Add MS 88991). Probably made for Anne Seymour (b. c. 1497, d. 1587), Countess of Hertford and later Duchess of Somerset, this manuscript contains a number of prayers and beautifully detailed illumination on pages measuring only 70 x 52 mm.
The Taverner Prayerbook, Add MS 88991, with a 22-cm ruler
But the Taverner Prayerbook is by no means the smallest manuscript in the British Library’s collection. For example, the tiny Stowe MS 956 may have been worn on a necklace or girdle and is only slightly bigger than a modern postage stamp.
Portrait of Henry VIII, from Psalms in English Verse, South East England, c. 1540, Stowe MS 956, ff. 1v-2r
In between these, there are many other interestingly shaped manuscripts at the British Library, from long thin almanacs designed to be worn on belts to the earliest surviving ‘pocket-sized’ English law book (Cotton MS Nero A I) to the recently acquired St Cuthbert Gospel (Add MS 89000). That handy manuscript is just slightly larger than a person's palm.
The St Cuthbert Gospel, England (Wearmouth-Jarrow), early 8th century, Add 89000
You can see the St Cuthbert Gospel and many of the other manuscripts mentioned in this post on Digitised Manuscripts, but remember to check the dimensions listed in the 'Full Display' page: size matters!
Laure Miolo and Alison Hudson
10 May 2016
The Cycle of Alexander the Great, a group of stories surrounding the great hero of antiquity, is dealt with at length in H.L.D. Ward’s Catalogue of Romances in the British Museum, along with other legends with classical origins: Apollonius of Tyre, The Destruction of Jerusalem and The Prophecy of the Tenth Sybil. Some of our most beautifully illuminated manuscripts of the Roman d’Alexandre and the Histoire Ancienne, containing the legends of Alexander the Great, have been fully digitised, including Additional MS 15268, produced in Acre in the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the late 13th century.
The Amazons surrendering to Alexander on his throne, Histoire Universelle, Acre, late 13th-century, Additional MS 15268, f. 203r
Also digitised are Add MS 19669, Royal MS 20 D I, Royal MS 19 D I and perhaps the most famous of our Alexander manuscripts, Royal MS 20 B XX, which featured in our very popular blogpost Lolcats of the Middle Ages. The young Alexander is often depicted with his father, Philip II of Macedonia, accompanying him on his campaigns.
Philip and Alexander discussing envoys; Philip and Alexander setting out against Armenia; Pausanias and others marching against Philip, Roman d’Alexandre en prose, France, 1333-1340, Royal MS 19 D I, ff. 7v-8r
No earlier forebears are mentioned. In time, though, a popular hero like Alexander needed to have more than one illustrious ancestor, and so a prequel involving a fearless hero, Florimont, his paternal grandfather, came to light.
Aimon de Varennes, a native of Chatillon d’Azergues in the Lyonnais district of France, claims to have unearthed the tale of Florimont during a trip to Philippopolis (now Plovdiv, Bulgaria) in the late 12th century. He may have in fact travelled to that part of the world, but his assertion that he translated the text from Greek to Latin and then into French appears to be fictive, though he retains certain ‘Greek’ words, which in fact demonstrate a very elementary knowledge of the language. The author’s intentions and his claims as to the origins of the tale are laid out at the beginning of the text in Harley MS 4487, one of the manuscripts of the text in the British Library:
Aymez….Fist le Rommans si sagement Aymon conceived the romance well
(f. 3r: column 1, lines 8-9)
Il lavoit en grece veue He had seen it in Greece
A Phelippole la trova He found it in Philippolis
A chastillon len aporta Brought it to Chatillon
Ainsi com il lavoit enpris As he had learned it
Lat de latin en romanz mis He changed it from Latin into Romance
Opening folio with author’s name and 14th century ownership inscription, 'Pierre Derloit prestre ?Corodathis' in the lower margin, Florimont, France, East (?Lotharingia), 1295, Harley MS 4487, f. 3r
The romance of Florimont is in two parts, beginning with the story of the original King Philip I of Macedonia, whose daughter and heiress, Romadanaple married Florimont (‘flower of the world’), son of Mataquas, Duke of Albania. Their son, Philip II, married Olympias and was father to Alexander the Great.
Olympias giving birth to Alexander the Great, with two eagles on the roof of the palace (foretelling Alexander's two empires in Europe and Asia), Netherlands, S. (Bruges); c. 1485 – 1490, Royal MS 20 C III f. 15r
In some versions of the legend, Nectanebus, the last pharaoh, is involved in Alexander’s conception, as depicted in this miniature from a manuscript of the Roman d’Alexandre en Prose.
The conception of Alexander, with Nectanebus in the form of a dragon, flying over Queen Olympias and King Philip in bed, Roman d’Alexandre en prose, France, N. or Netherlands, S., 1st quarter of the 14th century, Royal MS 20 A V, f. 6r
The second part of the story tells of Florimont’s victory over the monster terrorising his father’s kingdom and his love for the enchantress of the Isle of Celée, which causes him to reject his birth-right and travel to Albania under the name Pauvre Perdu (Poor lost boy). We do not have an image of Florimont, but here is one of his grandson, Alexander, fighting monsters:
He defeats Camdiobras, king of Hungary, enemy of Mataquas of Albania, and is awarded the hand of his daughter, Romadanaple, together with his lands, which he unites with his own.
Ward’s Catalogue lists two manuscripts of the Romance of Florimont in the British Library. Both have recently been digitised, as, although they are not illustrated, they are important early copies of the text and contain examples of the south-eastern dialect of French. The earliest of the two manuscripts, Harley MS 4487, is dated to 1295 in the scribal colophon and on the previous page the author states that French is not his mother tongue:
As fransois voel de tant server
Que ma langue lor est sauvage
(f. 85v: column 2, lines 13 and 14)
The penultimate folio of Florimont, France, East (?Lotharingia), 1295, Harley MS 4487, f. 85v
The later Harley MS 3983 is written in a neat Gothic cursive of the early 14th century with decorated initials and flourishes in the upper margin.
Text page from Florimont with decorated initials at ‘A lostel le povre perdu’ and ‘Romanadaple la pucelle’, France, 1323, Harley MS 3983, f. 34r
Florimont is followed by a French minstrel’s chronicle known as the Récits d’un ménestrel de Reims that begins with the conquest of Antioch by Godefroi de Bouillon and ends with the death of the eldest son of St Louis, King of France, in 1260, including a fable relating to Ysengrin the wolf and Renard the Fox. The manuscript is dated to 1323 in the scribal colophon at the end of the Florimont text.
Last folio with colophon, Florimont, France, 1323, Harley MS 3983, f. 81v
There are close to 20 surviving manuscripts of Florimont including several in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France with miniatures illustrating the text.
01 May 2016
Calendar page for May from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430, Add MS 18850, f. 5r
All is lovely and bright in these calendar pages for May, in keeping with the joys of this most splendid of months.
Detail of miniatures of a man going hawking and the zodiac sign Gemini, from the calendar page for May, Add MS 18850, f. 5r
At the bottom of the folio is a typical ‘labour’ for May, albeit one in keeping with the aristocratic emphasis of this manuscript. On the left is a miniature of a man hawking, clad in luxurious clothing (note particularly the gold-embroidered stockings he is sporting). He rides a gray horse through a rural landscape with a castle in the distance. A similar landscape can be found to the right, where two blonde androgynous figures embrace, for the zodiac sign Gemini. They stand behind a gilded shield, which has been adorned by pricking in an excellent example of gold work.
Detail of a marginal roundel of the seven Pleiades, from the calendar page for May, Add MS 18850, f. 5r
The rubrics at the bottom of the folio add another dimension of understanding to the other miniature roundels for this month. On the upper right of this folio is a painting of the seven Pleiades, the mythological daughters of the titan Atlas and a sea-nymph. The eldest of these daughters is Maia (labelled Maya on the painting), who was the mother of Mercury (Hermes). The rubric informs us that the month of May is named after May, ‘because the aforesaid Mercury is called the god of eloquence and the master of rhetoric and marketing’ (‘merchandise’). This must certainly be a very early use of that latter term!
Calendar page for May, Add MS 18850, f. 5v
The emphasis on aristocratic and/or divine love continues on the following folio. The rubrics on this folio describe how Honour was married to Reverence, a marriage we can see witness by a group of praying men. Below this is a scene depicting ‘how the ancient nobles governed the people and the queens loved them’. A very pleasant image indeed!
Detail of marginal roundels of the marriage of Honour and Reverence and the governance of a city, from the calendar page for May, Add MS 18850, f. 5v
- Sarah J Biggs
23 April 2016
Today marks the 1000th anniversary of the death of King Æthelred II (reigned 978-1016). Æthelred II—often nicknamed Æthelred the ‘Unready’, from the Old English word for 'ill-advised'—has not enjoyed a glowing reputation throughout history.
Passage describing Æthelred’s death from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle C-text, England, 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B I, f. 153v
The longest narrative account of Æthelred’s reign comes from a group of entries in the C, D, and E texts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. (The British Library possesses the C and D texts and has recently digitised all its copies of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.) These entries were apparently composed after Æthelred’s death by a single chronicler, who was bitter about the repeated Viking invasions that had dogged Æthelred’s reign and the eventual conquest of England by the Scandinavian leader Cnut. The chronicler blamed Æthelred for many of these tribulations, and summed up Æthelred's life in his entry for 1016 by saying: 'He ended his days on St George's day, and he had held his kingdom with great toil and difficulties as long as his life lasted' (translated by Dorothy Whitelock and others, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Revised Translation (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1961), p. 95).
Passages describing Eadric Streona’s treachery from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D-text, England, 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B IV, f. 65v
In particular, the chronicler objected to Æthelred’s promotion of the treacherous noble Eadric Streona, who eventually joined Cnut’s forces. He also disapproved of the massive payments which English leaders collected and used to pay Viking forces in return for an end to hostilities.
Detail of a list of benefactors including ‘Æðelred [the Unready] Cynge' and 'Cnut Cynge', from the New Minster Liber Vitae, England (Winchester), 1031, Stowe MS 944, f. 25r
Despite the eventual conquest of Æthelred’s kingdom by Cnut, there are other suggestions that Æthelred was not an entirely incompetent ruler. Æthelred was one of the longest reigning early medieval kings: he ruled for approximately 38 years, even taking into account the period when the victories of the Viking leader Swein forced him into exile in Normandy in 1013 and 1014. By contrast, Æthelred’s father, Edgar the Peaceable, had only reigned for 16 years, and Æthelred’s successor Cnut reigned for 19 years. Æthelred’s longevity, particularly in the context of invasion and disruption, is remarkable.
Initial at the start of the Gospel of St Luke, from the Cnut Gospels, England, Royal MS 1 D IX, f. 70r
In addition to disruption, Æthelred’s reign also saw a flourishing of artistic production, as evidenced by several manuscripts in the British Library’s collection, which have now been digitised in full. These include the lavishly illustrated and gilded gospel-book pictured above which may have been made during Æthelred’s reign, even though it is known today as the ‘Cnut Gospels’ because charters of Cnut were later added to it around 1018.
Page from Beowulf, England, c. 1000-1016, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 140r
Similarly, the only surviving manuscript of the longest Old English epic, Beowulf, was copied during Æthelred’s reign, in the early 11th century. Curiously, Beowulf is a Geatish, or Scandinavian, hero, whose story was still being retold in a context of Scandinavian invasions of England. This manuscript contains a number of other notable texts as well, including an Old English poem about the Biblical heroine, Judith.
Deatil of the opening page of Ælfric’s Life of St Æthelthryth, from Ælfric’s Lives of the Saints, England (? Bury St Edmunds or Canterbury), 1st half of the 11th century, Cotton MS Julius E VII, f. 94v
Indeed, many of the most important works in the corpus of Old English literature were copied during Æthelred’s reign, and some were even produced then. In particular, Æthelred’s reign coincided with the career of Ælfric of Eynsham, one of the most prolific and talented authors of Old English works. Ælfric’s sermons, including his Lives of the Saints, his Grammar, and other texts were widely copied during the 11th century and are still studied in medieval English literature courses today. The British Library has now digitised two copies of the first series of Ælfric’s Catholic Homilies (see Cotton MS Vitellius C V), including the earliest surviving copy (Royal MS 7 C XII); one copy of Ælfric’s Lives of the Saints (Cotton MS Julius E VII); two copies of Ælfric’s Grammar (Cotton MS Faustina A X, Cotton MS Julius A II); a copy of the Old English translation of the Hexateuch, to which Ælfric was a principal contributor (Cotton MS Claudius B IV); and other works which include excerpts from Ælfric, such as a fragment of a colloquy associated him which was copied into the margins of a grammar book (Add MS 32246).
Page from a later copy of Ælfric’s Hexateuch, England (Canterbury), c. 1025-1050, Cotton MS Claudius B IV, f. 15v
Æthelred’s reign also coincided with the careers of other noted writers in Old English and Latin, including Wulfstan, bishop of Worcester and archbishop of York, and Wulfstan, cantor of the Old Minster, Winchester. Manuscripts of these men’s work—including some with additions and annotations in Wulfstan of Worcester’s own hand—have also recently been digitised, including Wulfstan of Winchester’s long Latin poem about the miracles of St Swithun (Royal MS 15 C VII).
Page from the Rule of St Benedict, England, c. 975-1016, Harley MS 5431, f. 44r
These writers were all products of the monastic reform movement which promoted the Rule of St Benedict, uniformity of lifestyle, and high standards of education. Much manuscript evidence of this learning survives, including a plethora of grammar books, glossaries, and texts on subjects from astronomy (Cotton Domitian A I) to Latin epics to hagiography to riddles.
Page from Prudentius' Psychomachia with illustration and glosses, England (? Bury St Edmunds), c. 980-1020, Add MS 24199, f. 12r
These texts show monks (and possibly nuns and lay people) studying and improving their Latin and even Greek.
Latin phrase ‘Deo gratias’ written in Greek letters, from Harley MS 5431, f. 106v
This artistic flourishing was not entirely unrelated to the troubles of Æthelred’s reign. Many members of Æthelred’s kingdom believed that the Viking invasions were divine punishment for lax practices and lack of learning. This view can, for instance, be found explicitly in the writings of another leading intellectual of Æthelred’s reign: Wulfstan, bishop of Worcester and archbishop of York, who wrote several law codes issued in Æthelred’s reign and was a senior administrator for him (and later, for Cnut). Wulfstan’s law codes and his famous ‘Sermon of the Wolf to the English’ blame his countrymen’s lax habits for Scandinavian forces’ recent victories. In the eyes of contemporaries, creating beautiful books to glorify God and educate clerics and lay people may have been one way to combat the country’s moral (and military) woes.
Page from Wulfstan’s Sermo lupi, England (? Worcester or ? York), Cotton MS Nero A I, f. 110r
Beyond the manuscripts related to art and learning, we have also recently digitised a series of documents which suggest that, in some regions at least, leases and property deals and farming continued apace during Æthelred’s reign. Such documents can be found in an early cartulary of Worcester, such as the Liber Wigorniensis (Cotton MS Tiberius A XIII, ff. 1-118v) and the Ely farming memoranda (Add MS 61735). The memoranda describe farm tools and livestock sent from Ely Abbey to Thorney Abbey, as well as rents payable in eels.
Grant by King Æthelred to the Bishopric of St David with reversion to Worcester from 1005, from the Liber Wigorniensis, England (Worcester), c. 1000-1025, Cotton MS Tiberius A XIII, f. 118v
Whatever one thinks of Æthelred, it cannot be denied that his reign was a fascinating time in political and artistic history. On 23 April 2016, when so many people around the world are celebrating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, it is worth pausing to remember that it is also the 1000th anniversary of the death of King Æthelred.
20 April 2016
There's something thrilling about seeing a literary work copied out in the author's own handwriting. What did he or she cross out? Was their writing neat or messy? Here at the British Library, we have recently digitised manuscripts which the author of the text copied in his or her own hand. These include works by famous figures, like Shakespeare and more enigmatic ones, like a poet named Frithegod.
Such ‘autograph’ manuscripts from the early modern and medieval periods are rare and often difficult to prove. Features such as spelling, punctution and substantial corrections can all be instructive. The British Library has recently digitised several manuscripts which are generally believed to be autograph copies or contain notes by known scribes.
Miniature of Margaret of York before the resurrected Christ, from Nicholas Finet, Dialogue de la Duchesse, Low Countries (Brussels), c. 1468, Additional 7970, f. 1v
For example, one newly digitised manuscript includes the handwriting of Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy. The Dialogue de la Duchesse de Bourgogne à Jésus Christ (Dialogue of the Duchess of Burgundy with Jesus Christ) was a devotional tract written especially for Margaret by her almoner or chaplain, and is discussed in more detail here. Margaret later gave the book to her friend and lady-in-waiting Jeanne de Hallewin, according to a dedicatory inscription written by Margaret herself at the end of the manuscript: ‘margarete dyork de angleterre au done a jane de halevyn dame vessenar et dame de la planc se lyvre...’ Interestingly, at some point Margaret erased the words ‘dyork’ (of York) and instead decided to describe herself as ‘de angleterre’ (of England).
Dedication in Margaret of York’s hand written c. 1502, from Additional 7970, f. 140vr
Another notable recent upload to the British Library's website may come from the pen of the most famous English author himself. The Book of Sir Thomas More is the only play script believed to contain Shakespeare’s own handwriting (Harley MS 7368). As noted on this blog in February, Shakespeare helped to revise the Book of Sir Thomas More in 1603 or 1604. The page in his handwriting includes a speech defending immigrants and foreigners against the ‘mountainish inhumanity’ of a mob seeking to banish them during the Evil May Day riots of 1517. Come and see it in person at the British Library’s current exhibition, Shakespeare in Ten Acts, or read more about it on the Library's Discovering Literature site.
Page containing Thomas More’s speech to the rebels, thought to be written in the hand of William Shakespeare, from the Book of Sir Thomas More, England, c. 1603-4, Harley MS 7368, f. 9r
Shakespeare is not the only notable figure from the history English literature whose handwriting appears in recently digitised manuscripts. The handwriting of two of the most prolific Old English writers—Ælfric of Eynsham and Wulfstan, bishop of Worcester and archbishop of York— have been identified in several British Library manuscripts. For example, some scholars believe that the bossy instructions for deletions and corrections in the earliest surviving copy of the first series of Ælfric’s Catholic Homilies were made by Ælfric himself. In the passage below, the hand associated with Ælfric blocks off a segment of text for deletion, on the grounds that this anecdote is discussed in his ‘oðre bec’ (other book), presumably the Second Series of his Catholic Homilies.
Detail of annotations possibly in Ælfric’s hand, from Ælfric, Catholic Homilies (First Series), England (Cerne?), 990s, Royal MS 7 C XII, f. 64r
Similarly, several manuscripts contain annotations and underlining believed to be in Wulfstan’s handwriting. These include annotations to a manuscript containing law codes, homilies (including Wulfstan's Sermo lupi) and Wulfstan's work on political and social order, Institutes of Polity (Cotton MS Nero A I) and to material in his letterbook (Cotton Vespasian A XIV), as discussed in a previous blog post.
Page believed to contain Archbishop Wulfstan's handwriting among others, from Wulfstan's Institutes of Polity, England, c 1000-1023, Cotton MS Nero A I, f 120r
Curiously enough, one of the more substantial additions to the letterbook in Wulfstan’s own hand is a poem praising... an archbishop called Wulfstan. One line of this poem states, ‘[This poem's] beauty is a praise for the kind Bishop Wulfstan, to whom may the Lord be endlessly merciful.’ The poem also acknowledges Wulfstan’s involvement in its production: the last stanza can be roughly translated as, ‘This work was prepared with Archbishop Wulfstan advising. The subtle supervisor [Archbishop Wulfstan] impressed it with his learned thumb.’ It is unclear why Wulfstan wanted to copy out his poem in his own hand. He could have been paying a compliment to its author. He could have been vain or in need of some good PR. Wulfstan may also have been drawn to this poem because he was anxious about the fate of his soul and the poem emphasizes God’s approval of Wulfstan and Wulfstan’s place in heaven. This seems to have been a particular concern of Wulfstan’s in the wake of renewed Viking attacks in the early 11th century, as demonstrated by the contents of the rest of the manuscript. Wulfstan even added an extra line to the poem that approximately translates as, ‘May the Lord give [Wulfstan] the holy kingdom of heaven, and may he protect all those entrusted to him from malignant hosts.’
Verses written in Archbishop Wulfstan's own hand, from the letterbook of Archbishop Wulfstan, England, c. 1002-1023, Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV, f. 148v
Recent uploads to Digitised Manuscripts also include a text which may have been copied almost entirely by its author: the Breviloquium Wilfridi, written by a figure called Frithegod (Cotton Claudius A I). The Breviloquium is a poem about an early Northumbrian saint called Wilfrid, written for Oda the Good, a mid-tenth-century archbishop who brought some of Wilfrid’s relics to Canterbury. Its complex structure and obscure vocabulary have led scholars to dub it one of the most difficult pieces of Latin ever written in England.
Page from Frithegod, Breviloquium Wilfridi, England? (Christ Church Canterbury?), mid-10th century, Cotton Claudius A I, f. 36v
The poem’s author, Frithegod, was probably a monk from the continent—possibly from Brioude, in what is now southern France—who was working for Oda at Canterbury. The script of the British Library’s manuscript of the Breviloquium shows it was copied down in the mid-tenth-century, when the work was first composed, by someone trained on the continent. The substantial nature of some of the corrections also suggests that the text was copied by Frithegod himself.
The way these writers interacted with the texts which they themselves had composed and the corrections they made suggest a whole array of possibilities about how they worked as writers, where they were educated, what their influences were, and even how they perceived themselves. Autograph manuscripts also offer a uniquely intimate connection to people who lived 400, 500, and even 1000 years ago: please click through to Digitised Manuscripts and have a look.
Read More about Previously Digitised Autograph Manuscripts:
Medieval manuscripts blog recent posts
- Births, births and (more) births
- An illustrated Old English Herbal
- A Calendar Page for December 2016
- A Calendar Page for November 2016
- A Calendar Page for October 2016
- A Calendar Page for September 2016
- A Calendar Page for August 2016
- Manuscript the Tube
- A Calendar Page for July 2016
- ‘I Am an Antichrist’: Demons, Vices and Punks