07 April 2016
by Chantry Westwell
Spring is in the air and April is upon us, so it is high time for a floral gift to our readers. Here it is: all 14 of our Roman de la Rose manuscripts have now been fully digitised and are or will soon be available online at Digitised Manuscripts.
Detail of the God of Love locking the Lover's heart with a large gold key, from Roman de la Rose, France (Paris), c. 1380, Additional MS 42133, f. 15r
The ‘Roman de la Rose’, the most famous allegorical love poem of all time, was composed in France in the thirteenth century, at the height of the age of chivalry and courtly love. It was a best-seller in the Middle Ages, with over 300 manuscripts surviving from the 13th to the 16th centuries (many more than Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales). This work exerted a strong influence on literature in France and beyond: Dante, Petrarch, Gower and Chaucer were well acquainted with it and the latter’s Middle English ‘Romaunt de la Rose’ is a partial translation.
Historiated initial 'M'(aintes) of the lovers sleeping, with a full border bar border at the beginning of the Roman de la Rose, France (Paris), 15th century, Royal MS 19 B XII, f. 2r
Our collections are representative of the types of Rose manuscripts produced, mainly in France: some have extensive cycles of miniatures and others, for more modest patrons, have little or no decoration. Below, a page from one of the most lavishly illuminated copies, made in Bruges, is compared to a plainer manuscript from France; both were produced in the 15th century.
Miniature of the Lover outside the Castle of Jealousy, where Bel Accueil (Fair Welcome) is imprisoned by Jealousy, from Roman de la Rose, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1500, Harley MS 4425, f. 39r
Text page with decorated initials from the Roman de la Rose, France, 1st quarter of the 15th century, Royal 20 D VII, f. 39r
The first part of the Roman de la Rose, by Guillaume de Lorris, consists of about 4030 lines composed between 1225 and 1245 and tells of the Lover’s dream in which he is let into the garden by Oiseuse (Idleness), and there he takes part in a carole or dance, meets representatives of the courtly virtues, including Amour and Doux Regard (Sweet glance) and sees the fountain where Narcissus fell in love with his own image and perished. Narcissus and the fountain is a popular subject with artists, featuring in most series of Rose illuminations
Detail of Narcissus at the fountain, from Roman de la Rose, France (Paris), c. 1320-1340, Royal MS 20 A XVII, f. 14v
The Lover with a rosebud at Narcissus’ fountain, from the Roman de la Rose, France, 14th century, Additional MS 31840, f. 14r
The above are two of our earliest Rose manuscripts, dated to the first half of the 14th century, while the one below is from the second half of that century.
Narcissus and his reflection in the water, Roman de la Rose, France (Paris), c. 1380, Egerton MS 881, f. 11r
Finally in a late 15th-century representation the Lover sees the rose bush reflected in the fountain:
Narcissus and the fountain, Roman de la Rose, France (Paris), 1475-1500, Egerton MS 2022, f. 22v
The Lover is wounded by the arrows of Amour, falling hopelessly in love with the Rose and embarks on a quest to win her love, but she is guarded by Danger, Fear and Jealousy, who erects a castle around the Rose bush (see the image above from Harley MS 4425), and imprisons Bel Acueil, his sweet accomplice. Here the section by Guillaume de Lorris ends abruptly.
Bel Acueil imprisoned in the castle, Roman de la Rose, France (Paris) 1320-1340, Royal MS 19 B XIII, f. 31v
Jean de Meun’s continuation, consisting of some 17,700 lines, takes up the Lover’s quest, but adds long digressions on morality and a variety of topics of contemporary interest such as free will, the influence of heavenly bodies and the increasing power of the friars in medieval society. Examples from history and legend are invoked to instruct the Lover and to illustrate the topics covered. The story of Pygmalion and the statue is included, recalling de Lorris’ reference to the legend of Narcissus.
Paulin Paris, the 19th-century manuscript scholar and French academician, dated de Meun’s composition to before 1285, as in it he refers to Charles of Anjou, who died in that year, as King of Sicily.
The romance ends with the Lover achieving his goal of attaining the Rose, as depicted in this 15th-century manuscript.
The Lover and the Rose, Roman de la Rose, France, 15th century, Additional MS 12042, f. 166r
The contents are summed up in the final couplet:
Explicit le Romaunt de la Rose / Ou lart d’amor est tout enclose.
Here ends the Romance of the Rose, where everything about the art of love is included.
04 April 2016
Isidore of Seville died on this day in 636. Isidore, who was born in 560, was the bishop of Seville from about 600 to his death. He is better known, however, as an author than as an administrator. His most famous work is the Etymologies, a vast reference work, which functioned as an etymological encyclopaedia. The text was highly influential throughout the Middle Ages. It represents Isidore’s ambitious attempts to condense a huge body of knowledge into a single work.
Hedgehogs feed their young from a Bestiary attached to Isidore of Seville's Etymologies, c 1200-c 1210, Northern or Central England, Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 8v
As well as containing information on a range of subjects, like mathematics, canon law, philosophy, the human body, geography, ship-building, weights and measures and rhetoric, it also has some excellent (and highly dubious) zoological information. According to Isidore, hedgehogs feed their young by visiting vines, plucking the grapes from the plant and rolling over them in order to impale them on their spines. In the image above we can see the hedgehog doing a sterling impression of a 1970s canapé tray.
Diagrams of the path of the Sun and the phases of the moon; from Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, England, last quarter of the 11th century, Royal MS 6 C I , f. 30r
Given its ambitious scope, many manuscripts of the work contain a complex extra-textual apparatus to help readers navigate the work. You can see an example of this apparatus – in this case a table of contents – in a ninth century copy of the work, below. (This is not the only ninth century copy held by the library: Harley MS 3941 has also been digitised.) It is for this reason that Pope John Paul II nominated Isidore to be the patron saint of the internet. Isidore is the perfect candidate. Like the internet, his Etymologies contains a large body of information which requires a complex searching mechanism to help you find information about medicine or law or just cool stuff about hedgehogs.
Table of contents, Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies, Northern France, 9th century, Harley MS 2686, f. 5r
A particularly striking example of a 'search function' in one copy of the work-- an eleventh-century manuscript (Royal MS 6 C I), probably copied at St Augustine's Abbey in Canterbury-- is the affinity diagrams, laying out the relationships within members of a family. Who exactly is your second cousin twice removed? Fortunately for the reader, a simple chart should sort out the confusion. 'The grandfather of my paternal uncle,' it reads across one line, 'is my propatruus, and I am to him the niece or nephew of his son or daughter'. Relationships are labelled with both the terms for the relative and the term by which he or she would refer to the reader: both grandfather and grandson, both uncle and nephew (or niece!). Just as the world has been diagrammed, so have the intricacies of the family tree.
Chart of familial affinities, from Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, England, last quarter of the 11th century, Royal MS 6 C I , f. 78r
The Etymologies is also famous for its sometimes quirky explanations of the history of words. In some cases, when Isidore takes the word apart based on what it sounds like, the explanation that results can be extremely engaging, if not necessarily true. The Latin word for 'beggar' (mendicus) is now believed to derive from an earlier word meaning 'deformity' or 'lack'. Isidore, however, speculates a much more charming story, of a 'custom among the ancients' to 'close the hungry mouth and extend a hand, as if speaking with the hand' (manu dicere).
Etymologies of words beginning with F and G; from Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, Book 10, England, last quarter of the 11th century, Royal MS 6 C I , f. 82r
In other cases, Isidore’s etymologies, while colourful, are spot-on. The one he gives for the words Fornicarius and Fornicatrix (male and female prostitute) explains that these terms come from the Latin word for 'arch' (fornix), and refers to the architecture of ancient brothels. Prostitutes were understood to lie under such arches while practising their trade. This is the same explanation for the word 'fornicate' offered in the Oxford English Dictionary today!
T-O map of the world, with east at the top, from Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, England, last quarter of the 11th century, Royal MS 6 C I , f. 108v
Isidore's work had an immense influence on later medieval thinkers across Europe. For example, Isidore was the first to explain the layout of the continents in what would become the classic medieval schema, the T-O map. The world is round, with Jerusalem its spiritual as well as geographical centre, standing at the convergence between the three known continents of Asia, Europe and Africa.
Opening page from Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, Low Countries (Munsterbilsen), c. 1130-1174, Harley MS 3099, f. 1v
Isidore's influence is also suggested by the number of copies of the Etymologies which survive, from every century of the medieval period, across Europe, copied by diverse scribes. We now have no less than ten manuscripts of Isidore's Etymologies available on our Digitised Manuscripts website. As well as those listed above, you can also see Harley MS 3099, which was, somewhat unusually, copied by eight female scribes (see image above). They were Benedictine nuns in the Abbey of Munsterbilsen near Maastricht (now Belgium), working in the period 1130-1174.
Excerpt from Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, Northern France, late 8th century, Cotton MS Caligula A XV, f. 37r
The earliest digitised copy is Cotton Caligula A XV which dates from the 2nd half of the 8th century and was made in Northern France. Alongside this, you can see a late 11th-century version (Royal MS 6 C I), an early 12th-century copy (Harley MS 2660), made in the Rhineland , a mid 13th-century copy, Harley MS 6 and our youngest digitised manuscript, which is a mere five centuries old Harley MS 3035.
- Nicole Eddy, updated by Mary Wellesley
02 April 2016
Calendar page for April from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430, Add MS 18850, f. 4r
Spring is well underway in the Bedford Hours calendar pages for April.
Detail of miniatures of a man gathering leaves and the zodiac sign Taurus, from the calendar page for April, Add MS 18850, f. 4r
At the bottom of the first folio is the standard (for this manuscript) two-part miniature. On the left, a man is carrying a leafy young tree past a flowing river, having presumably just trimmed the branches from the stump before him. He is well dressed for a labourer, wearing a fur-lined surcoat and carrying a long dagger on his belt. To his right is a bull for the zodiac sign Taurus, enjoying a lie-down in the sun.
Detail of a marginal roundel of Venus, from the calendar page for April, Add MS 18850, f. 4r
The marginal roundel at the right, however, displays the true central figure for the month of April – Venus, the goddess of love. The accompanying verses tell us that April was dedicated to Venus by the pagans, because Venus (the planet) is a ‘hot and moist and drenched planet’, much like the month of April.
Calendar page for April, Add MS 18850, f. 4v
The emphasis on Venus and April continues on the following folio. Alongside the conclusion of April’s saints’ days are two roundels relating to the goddess. On the middle left is a scene of the abduction of Proserpina (Persephone) in a cart drawn by two horses. According to mythology this abduction was ultimately instigated by Venus, who envied the young girl’s beauty and ordered her son, Eros, to loose his arrows so that all would be smitten with love for her, leading ultimately to Proserpina being carried down into the depths of Hades.
Detail of marginal roundels of the abduction of Proserpina and a flower festival, from the calendar page for April, Add MS 18850, f. 4v
The bottom roundel shows a more genial scene, illustrating, as the rubrics tell us, ‘how in April the pagans had a festival for the goddess of flowers.’
- Sarah J Biggs
28 March 2016
What are these Easter bunnies (or hares) hurrying towards?
Detail of hares, from Roman de la Rose, France, c. 1325-1375, Add MS 31840, f. 3
An updated list of all the early and medieval manuscripts digitised in full by the British Library! Every quarter, we try to publish a list of all the medieval manuscripts uploaded to the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website. The most recent list can be found here: Download List of Digitised BL AMEMM Manuscripts by Shelfmark, March 2016. And, by special request from our friends on Twitter, a list of manuscripts with the most recent digitisations at the end can be found here: Download List of Digitised BL AMEMM Manuscripts with More Recent Uploads at the End, March 2016.
Riddle about an elephant, from Aldhelm’s Riddles, England (Canterbury?), c. 970-1020, Royal MS 12 C XXIII, f. 100v
Particular highlights uploaded in the past three months include:
All 4 of the British Library’s copies of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
2 collections of material related to the cult of St Cuthbert
One 1,000-year-old collection of riddles (Royal MS 12 C XXIII).
Miniature of Christ appearing to Margaret of York, from the Dialogue de la Duchesse, Low Countries (Brussels), c. 1468-1477, Add MS 7970, f. 1v
With several different digitisation projects under way, new manuscripts are regularly uploaded to Digitised Manuscripts. In order to get the latest news about our digitisation, please consult our Twitter page, www.twitter.com/blmedieval, where we announce the most recent uploads to Digitised Manuscripts.
25 March 2016
It’s Women’s History Month and to celebrate we are running a series of posts about medieval women. Today’s focus is an enigmatic poet who lived in 9th-century Constantinople. Kassia (b. 805/810, d. 843x867) was courageous, highly educated and beautiful. She was so beautiful, in fact, that the Emperor of Constantinople - Emperor Theophilus (d. 842AD) - wanted her as his wife. Not taken with the idea of becoming Empress, Kassia rejected his advances and chose instead to become an abbess and poet.
Kassia came from a noble family and was well-educated. In a letter to her, Theodore the Studite (d. 826) - one of the most important theologians of the 9th century - wrote that he was ‘astonished’ by her erudition, especially in one so young. He went on, ‘the fair form of your discourse has far more beauty than a mere specious prettiness’.
Theodore the Studite (right) from the Theodore Psalter, Eastern Mediterranean, 1066, Add MS 19352, f. 27v
Yet it was her prettiness that caught the eye of the Emperor in the year 830 CE. In this year, according to a number of Byzantine chroniclers, Kassia appeared in a ‘Bride Show’. These were events in which commissioners were sent throughout the empire to find possible wives for the Emperor and would bring them back to Constantinople to be displayed (some historians dispute whether they actually happened). According to the chroniclers, at one such show, Theophilus saw Kassia and, struck by her beauty, remarked ‘Ach, what a flood of base things come through woman’. Kassia, surefooted, replied, ‘but also from woman better things spring’. Her response – both witty and candid – espouses the Christian idea that through the Virgin Mary, Jesus brought redemption to mankind.
After rejecting the hand of the Emperor, Kassia became a nun at a convent in Xerolophos, Constantinople’s seventh hill. There she became a prolific poet and composer. Of the hundreds of hymn composers from the Eastern Church, only four women can be positively identified and only one of these – Kassia -- had her works incorporated into official service books for use in church worship. She also wrote secular works. The British Library holds a collection of her epigrams. In it she displays her sharp mind and sharp wit. She speaks disparagingly of thoughtlessness, writing, ‘There is absolutely no cure for stupidity.’ She went on, ‘knowledge in a stupid person is a bell on a pig’s snout’.
Kassia's Epigrams from Works of Demetrius Cydones and others, Eastern Mediterranean, 16th Century, Add MS 10072, f.94r
Kassia was also courageous. 9th-century Constantinople was rocked by fierce debate over the legitimacy of religious images, but just as she was unafraid to reject the advances of the Emperor, so too Kassia stood up to defend the veneration of the icons. In one of her verses she writes, ‘I hate silence when it is time to speak’. And her courage was not only demonstrated in her writing, but in her actions too. In another of his letters to her, Theodore thanks Kassia for helping one of his disciples who has been imprisoned by the authorities for his defence of icon-worship.
An image of the destruction of icons from the Theodore Psalter, Eastern Mediterranean, 1066, Add MS 19352, f. 88r
Kassia’s best known and most popular work is a hymn for Holy Wednesday, in which she gives voice to a nameless woman from the gospels. The woman appears in an episode in the gospels, whereby Christ, dining in the house of a wealthy man, is anointed by a woman (Matthew 26: 6-13; Mark 14: 3-9), whom Luke describes as having led a sinful life (Luke 7: 36-50).
The anointing of Christ's feet from Xanthopulus and Ephraem the Syrian, Eastern Mediterranean, 4th quarter of the 14th Century, Egerton MS 3157, f. 45v
A fine copy of Kassia’s poem survives in a 16th-century manuscript held by the British Library, where Kassia imagines the woman’s lament.
Kassia's Hymn for Holy Wednesday, from a collection of Hymns and Canons, Eastern Mediterranean, 16th century, Add MS 39618, f. 8v
The text reads as follows:
Woe is me, for the love of adultery surrounded me with darkness:
A lightless night of sin.
Accept the springs of my tears,
As you who disperse the waters of the sea From the clouds.
Bow down to the sighs of my heart,
As you bent the heavens, by your inapprehensible incarnation.
I kiss your purest feet and wipe them with my own tresses.
I kiss your feet whose tread Eve heard in Paradise
Where, frightened, she hid herself in fear.
Who can count the multitude of my sin and the depths of your judgment?
Wherefore, O my Saviour and the Redeemer of my soul
Do not turn away from your handmaiden, as your mercy is boundless.
(Translation modified and adapted from Anne M. Silvas, cited below.)
Hear what Kassia’s poem probably sounded like in this video. Happy Women’s History Month!
Anna M. Silvas, ‘Kassia the Nun c.810-865: an Appreciation’, in Byzantine Women: Varieties of Experience 800-1200, ed. Lynda Garland (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), pp. 17-39.
Also In Our Series:
20 March 2016
by Alison Hudson
20 March was an important day in the medieval English calendar: it was St Cuthbert’s Day.
St Cuthbert meets King Ecgfrith of Northumbria and others, from Bede’s Prose Vita S Cuthberti, England (Durham), c. 1175-1200, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 51
St Cuthbert (d. 687) was one of the most important saints in medieval England and beyond. He was an influential figure during his own lifetime, first as a hermit whose advice was sought by kings and abbesses, then as Bishop of Lindisfarne. After his death, he became the focus of a major cult. When Cuthbert’s tomb was opened 11 years after his death, his body was reported to be incorrupt. To the monks of the community at Lindisfarne, Cuthbert’s incorrupt state was proof that he was a saint.
Music from an office for St Cuthbert, Southern England (Canterbury), late 10th century, Harley MS 1117, f 43v
Accounts of Cuthbert’s life, death, and miracles were written soon after by an anonymous member of the Lindisfarne community and by the Northumbrian scholar Bede, who wrote both a verse and a prose account of Cuthbert’s life and miracles. Bede also wrote extensively about Cuthbert in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Cuthbert’s community eventually moved to Durham in 995, where Cuthbert’s shrine became a major pilgrimage centre.
Four manuscripts containing some of the earliest accounts of Cuthbert’s life—written by Bede—have also recently been uploaded to the Digitised Manuscripts website: Harley MS 526, Harley MS 1117, Cotton MS Vitellius A XIX, and Cotton MS Claudius A I.
These manuscripts demonstrate how influential Cuthbert’s cult remained, even over wide geographic areas and chronological spans. The earliest of these manuscripts, a copy of Bede’s verse Life of Cuthbert in Harley MS 526, was not even written in England. It was copied in Northern France, showing how Cuthbert’s cult had become known and celebrated in different regions of Europe by the 9th century.
Opening page from Bede’s Metric Vita S. Cuthberti, Northern France, late 9th century, Harley MS 526, f. 1
Similarly, Harley MS 1117 and Cotton MS Vitellius A XIX were written in the far south of England, probably in Canterbury, in the late 10th century, well outside the heartlands of Cuthbert’s community.
Detail of an initial from Harley MS 1117, f. 4
While West Saxon sources, like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, frequently downplayed or omitted Northerners’ influence on the south, the creation of multiple fine manuscripts containing Bede’s writings on Cuthbert and offices for celebrating Cuthbert’s feast in Canterbury show that southerners still paid great attention to certain figure-heads from the north.
Opening page from Bede’s Prose Vita S Cuthberti, England (Canterbury), late 10th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XIX, f. 1v
Cotton MS Claudius A I, a late 11th- or 12th-century copy of Bede’s prose Life of Cuthbert has also been digitised. It was probably copied in England, and includes accounts of many other famous saints, from Egypt to Cyprus to Arles. Incidentally, some unrelated pages bound in this manuscript contain a copy of a poem about Cuthbert’s contemporary Northumbrian churchman, Wilfrid, possibly handwritten by their 10th-century author, Frithegod, himself. Like the lavishly illustrated copy of Bede’s Vita S. Cuthberti in Yates Thompson MS 26, which has already been digitised, Cotton MS Claudius A I reflects the continuation of this cult from the 8th century, even after the Norman Conquest in 1066.
Opening page from Bede’s Prose Vita S Cuthberti, England, c. 1075-1125, Cotton MS Claudius A I, f. 125v
In addition to the manuscripts listed above, the British Library has already digitised several manuscripts connected to Cuthbert and his later cult, such as the St Cuthbert Gospel (Additional MS 89000), which was discovered when Cuthbert’s coffin was opened in Durham Cathedral in 1104, and the Lindisfarne Gospels (Cotton MS Nero D IV). So please click over to our Digitised Manuscripts site and have a look at some of these manuscripts, on the 1,329th anniversary of the death of the man who inspired them all.
18 March 2016
by Becky Lawton
This week sees the arrival online of the manuscript containing the ‘Wulfstan’s Letter Book’, which has been digitised as part of our Anglo-Saxon manuscripts digitisation project. The manuscript (Cotton Vespasian A XIV) is a compilation of three sections, written in the 11th and 12th centuries.
Page for February from a calendar, South Wales?, c. 1150-1200, Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV, f. 1v
The first section of this manuscript is believed to have been written in south-eastern Wales, and contains a calendar, a Latin-Old Cornish glossary containing over 300 words and a collection of saints lives. The page above is taken from the calendar page for February, and it features the feast day for St Brigid at the top of the page. Dedicated followers of the blog may remember some interesting aspects from the Life of St Brigid from a post on her feast day, 1 February.
An extract from the Libellus Responsionem in Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, England, c. 1130-1170, Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV, f. 109r
The second section of the manuscript is a selection of extracts from ‘The Ecclesiastical History of the English Church and People’, completed by Bede in 731. The extracts in this manuscript were copied in the mid-12th century; but a copy of Bede’s text made in the late 8th or early 9th century was uploaded to Digitised Manuscripts last month.
Extract of a letter from Alcuin to King Æthelred of Northumbria, from the Letter Book of Archbishop Wulfstan, England, c. 1002-1023, Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV , f. 114r
The final section in this manuscript is commonly known as the ‘Wulfstan Letter Book’. This text is a collection of letters written by Alcuin of York (c.735-804), which was compiled by Archbishop Wulfstan of York (d.1023) in the early 11th century. Alcuin was raised and educated at the church of York before moving to the court of Charlemagne in Francia in the 790s. Alcuin did not forget his fellow Englishmen, and sent many letters back to Anglo-Saxon England. Chief among his correspondents were the monks at York and King Æthelred of Northumbria, who is the recipient of the letter on the page above. Alcuin wrote to Æthelred to advise him on how to combat the Viking invasions of the time and how best to rule his kingdom. Archbishop Wulfstan also had connections to York, lived during a time of Danish invasions in England, and his king was also named Æthelred. Wulfstan may have found the advice in Alcuin’s letters helpful in his own day, and perhaps had them copied for this very reason.
Extract of a letter from Alcuin to King Æthelred of Northumbria, Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV, f. 117r
On some pages it is possible to see sections that have been highlighted by a pointing hand or underlining. It is commonly thought that these annotations were made by Archbishop Wulfstan himself, owing to his close associations with the manuscript.
Extract of a letter from Alcuin to King Æthelhred of Northumbria, Cotton Vespasian A XIV, f. 116v.
Many of the phrases which were underlined or pointed to contain advice on good kingship and how to rule a good, Christian kingdom, in order to prevent the Viking invasions. Wulfstan’s specific interest in these passages may reflect his concerns for the behaviour of his own king and the state of the kingdom of England.
Verses written in Archbishop Wulfstan's own hand, Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV, f. 148v
After compiling his collection of Alcuin’s letters, Wulfstan added a number of other items to the manuscript. On f. 148v is a poem, which includes Archbishop Wulfstan’s name six times. This poem is thought to have been written in Wulfstan’s own hand, rather than by a scribe.
Discover a beautifully illuminated single volume Latin Vulgate Bible produced at Alcuin's monastery of Tours in the 9th century.
16 March 2016
Today we are beginning a series of posts about medieval women. Our first post shines a spotlight on a highly educated, shadowy female poet. Contrary to popular belief, there were quite a number of famous medieval women writers and readers, and the British Library is lucky enough to look after a range of texts made for, written by, and even copied by women writers, from ninth-century Mercian prayer books (such as Harley MS 7653) to the Book of Margery Kempe (Add MS 61823, perhaps the earliest surviving autobiography of an English person) to the works of Christine de Pizan in the lavishly illustrated Book of the Queen (Harley MS 4431) to a collection of Latin, French, and Italian prayers translated and copied by the twelve-year-old future Elizabeth I as a New Year’s present for her father, Henry VIII (Royal MS 7 D X). Elizabeth really went the extra mile when it came to presents: not only did she translate and copy the text herself, she even embroidered the manuscript’s cover with Tudor roses and her father’s and stepmother’s initials.
Embroidered front cover from the ‘Prayerbook of Princess Elizabeth’, England, 1545, Royal MS 7 D X
However, medieval women writers did not always have an easy time, according to a poem written by a medieval woman about women writers in the newly digitised manuscript Add MS 21499, ff. 77v-78r.
Detail of a line with a female pronoun from the poem ‘Laudis honor’, England (Bury St Edmunds?), 12th century, Add MS 24199, f. 78r
The author of the poem appears to be female, because she uses the female pronoun ‘grata’ in the penultimate line. In her learned poem, which is full of classical allusions, she claims that she has been exiled by ignorant rulers who disapprove of her writing, and asks the muse Clio to leave her as she won’t need her help any more. ‘Art is my crime, and my genius’, she laments. (The poem is edited and translated in The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard, by Constant J. Mews, translated by Mews and Neville Chiavaroli (2nd edn, 2008), pp. 164-66).
Detail of the poem ‘Laudis honor’, Add MS 24199, f. 78r
The poet also suggests that the (male) leaders who have banned her writing might just be jealous of her talent, since she could see no theological reason for banning women from writing:
‘Now if only I knew what wickedness our writing might be....
Much writing will not stop me from being good,
Writing allows me, not forbids me to know God.
We believe and know rationally that God exists
And also that what we do God does not forbid...
Your mind desired to condemn what it could not do...
Compose verses, you slanderer of verse, so that I may think
That you of course can create but do not want to.
I would be acceptable to you if my writing were acceptable:
Equal genius usually reconciles two people!’
The identity of this brave and outspoken poet is unknown, although it has been suggested that the writer might be Heloise, the noted female writer from early 12th-century France.
Detail of a later medieval miniature depicting Heloise teaching, from the poems of Pseudo-Heloise, Low Countries (Bruges), c. 1450-1483, Royal MS 16 F II, f. 137
In 1129, Suger, the powerful abbot of Saint-Denis, sanctioned the expulsion of Heloise and her nuns from their convent in Argenteuil on charges of misconduct, which might have inspired a poem about exile such as the one in Add MS 24199. The classical allusions echo the language of some of Heloise’s letters to her former lover, Abelard; but the writer may equally have been an anonymous female scholar who refused to be silenced.
This woman's poetry did find more appreciative audiences. The copy of this poem which has been digitised has been associated with Bury St Edmunds, an all-male house in East Anglia. The poem is an enigmatic testament to an extraordinary woman whose identity remains uncertain and a reminder of how often women’s voices have been muted through history.
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