25 November 2021
Merlin is the central mythical character in the world of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table. A shadowy and untameable figure who seldom takes a single form for long enough to show us his true nature, he eludes definition today, just as he did a millennium ago, and his origins and fate remain mysterious. His character was probably an amalgam of Myrddin Wyllt, a bard and wild man of the Caledonian forest in Welsh tradition, Ambrosius Aurelianus, a warrior-prophet who was among the last of the Romans in Britain, and possibly a local pagan god whose cult was associated with the Welsh town of Carmarthon (from Caer Myrddin, meaning Merlin’s fort or castle).
As a fortune-teller and shape-shifter, Merlin became associated with necromancy and the dark arts in the imagination of medieval Christians. The story of his birth was founded in the religious legend of the Harrowing of Hell. The demons of Hell, annoyed by Christ’s interference and his rescuing of souls from their domain, plot their revenge through the birth of an Antichrist.
They send a devil to impregnate an innocent princess of Dyfed in Wales, but when the child is born, their evil plans miscarry as the devout mother finds a priest to baptise him before he is pulled into their evil orbit. This is Merlin, a child prodigy with magical powers and the ability to foretell the future, attributes that he decides to use on the side of good rather than evil.
The earliest of the Arthurian texts to include Merlin was Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account in his Historia regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain). For more information on this work and the surviving manuscripts of early legends, see, our article on Early Latin Versions of the Legend of King Arthur published on the Polonsky Medieval France and England, 700-1200 website.
Merlin first appears when, following the massacre of the British chieftains by the Saxon leader, Hengist, in the treacherous ‘Night of the Long Knives’, the British King Vortigern flees to Wales where he tries to build a strong tower to protect himself. But every night, the progress made by his builders is mysteriously undone when the foundations crumble. His wizards claim that only by mixing in the blood of a child who has no mortal father will he make the foundations sound. Merlin is found and brought to Vortigern for his purpose, but he is able to see a pool beneath the tower, in which lie two sleeping dragons, one white and one red, and he explains that the white dragon (i.e. the Saxons) will triumph over the red (i.e. the British). He then enters a trance and foretells the future of the Britons to the end of time, predicting the coming of a great king by the name of Arthur.
Perhaps Merlin’s most remarkable achievement is single-handedly transporting a ring of magical stones known as ‘the Giant’s Dance’ from Ireland to Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire to build Stonehenge. The earliest surviving picture of Stonehenge, showing Merlin helping to place the huge stones, is in a copy of the Roman de Brut, a verse chronicle of British history by a poet from Jersey named Wace, written in Anglo-Norman French.
Merlin’s next undertaking is to orchestrate the marvellous conception, birth and education of the future King Arthur. As he foretells, the young boy pulls the sword from the stone and inherits his rightful kingdom and - with Merlin’s help and guidance - achieves greatness. But though Merlin uses his powers to warn his young protégé about the future, he is powerless to change events that have been ordained. One day he appears in the form of a young boy to Arthur, who is out hunting in the forest, revealing that Arthur is son of King Uther and of Igraine. Later, changing into an old man, he prophesies that Mordred, the son who Arthur has conceived with his half-sister Morgause, will one day destroy his father and the court at Camelot.
Though he is a trusted adviser to kings, Merlin remains an unpredictable character with strange habits and a menacing laugh that announces his sometimes-macabre intentions. In one episode, he changes into a deer and is served up as Caesar’s dinner, later returning as a wild man to interpret the Emperor’s dreams.
When he becomes obsessed with the fairy huntress, Niniane, he performs bizarre stunts for her that include setting two harpists alight with sulphur, saying they are evil sorcerers.
In the end Niniane brings about Merlin’s downfall. Having tricked him into revealing all his magical knowledge to her, she uses one of his spells to seal him in a stone tomb in the forest of Broceliande, or in some versions in an oak tree, until the end of time.
Stories of King Arthur and Camelot, alongside some of the most celebrated tales in medieval manuscripts, are featured in my recently published book, Dragons, Heroes, Myths & Magic: The Medieval Art of Storytelling, now on sale now in the British Library shop. Perhaps it would make the perfect Christmas gift for a medieval story-lover?
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20 April 2021
In the prologue to the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer’s prioress is accused of speaking an inferior version of French learned in Stratford rather than in Paris:
Frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly,
After the scole of Stratford atte Bowe,
For Frenssh of Parys was to hire unknowe.
(And she spoke French fluently and elegantly,
After the school of Stratford-at-Bow,
For French of Paris was to her unknown.)
In the same vein, there are examples of French medieval commentators criticising the way French was spoken in England as it evolved from being the mother tongue of royalty and the nobles who crossed the Channel after the Norman Conquest to being an acquired status symbol, as it was for Chaucer’s prioress. A separate dialect known as Anglo-Norman diverged from the French used in mainland France during this period. Spelling, pronunciation and vocabulary were influenced by the Norman French spoken by William the Conqueror and his followers, and by the existing vernacular, Old English, still used by much of the local population.
French was one of the languages of both spoken and written communication in England for an extended period from 1066 onwards and it was still used in some legal contexts up to the end of the 17th century. The fact that French was widely used is evident in the quantity of word-pairs in modern English – where two words exist with same meaning, one derived from an Old English root word and the other from a French one (e.g., thoughtful/pensive; kingdom/realm; enough/sufficient, walk/march). Such examples show how large numbers of French words were adopted during the Middle Ages, hugely enriching the vocabulary of English and changing the language fundamentally.
One of the earliest surviving manuscripts in Anglo-Norman French contains two texts, the Computus and the Bestiary adapted from Latin works by the earliest named French author, Philippe de Thaon, in the 12th century. The latter was dedicated to Adeliza of Louvain (d. 1151), wife of King Henry I of England. On line 4 of the page pictured below de Thaon confirms that he has written en franceise raisun (in the French language).
During the reign of Henry II (r. 1154–1189) and Eleanor of Aquitaine, literature in French flourished at the English royal court, though surviving manuscripts from this period contain mostly devotional texts, such as the Psalter in French verse below. Latin remained an important written language, particularly in the Church, and so the corresponding text in Latin is written in red in the margins.
Written legends, chronicles and other literary texts in Anglo Norman survive in greater numbers from the 13th century onwards, when romances surrounding heroes like King Arthur were popular. It is not always possible to establish if surviving manuscripts were produced in England or in Normandy, as many nobles and English royalty held territory on both sides of the channel.
Guy of Warwick, a now almost forgotten hero but quite the superstar in medieval England, is the subject of an early written romance in Anglo-Norman pictured below. Beginning life as a humble page to the Earl of Warwick, Guy becomes a knight and performs numerous chivalric deeds throughout Europe and the East in order to win the hand of the earl’s daughter, his beloved Felice. But he has no sooner married than he abandons his wife and renounces the wealth and power he has gained to become a hermit, devoting his life to God.
Though the 13th-century text above is not illustrated, an episode from Guy’s legend is pictured in the lower margins of the Taymouth Hours, which includes some prayers in Anglo-Norman French. Across several pages are a series of graphic, comic-strip style illustrations of one of Guy’s many swashbuckling adventures. Fighting on the side of the Emperor of Constantinople, he meets a lion that is being pursued by a ferocious dragon. Taking up his sword, he kills the dragon with one blow, and so the lion becomes his faithful follower, never leaving his side and even lying at the foot of his bed each night. The story must have been familiar enough to medieval audiences to require little explanation as only the caption, ‘Gwi de Warwik’, accompanies the action (beneath the images on ff. 14r and v). The spelling ‘Gwi’ instead of French Gui (for Guy) features the English letter ‘w’, not used in French.
Tales of the early kings of Britain were also popular among French-speaking nobility and royalty in both England and France, judged by the manuscripts that survive. An illustrated copy of the Roman de Brut, an Anglo-Norman verse chronicle of Britain that includes legendary characters like King Arthur and Merlin, survives from the mid-14th century. At the end is an update to the reign of Edward III (r. 1327-77), containing the following words:
‘Apres li regne sun fiz qe or est Ke dieu li garde se il plest Edward le noble conqueror ki fort et pruz est’
(After him [Edward II] reigned his son - may God keep him if he pleases - Edward the noble conqueror who is strong and brave).
Here the scribe uses ‘ke’ alternating with ‘qe’ for the French que (that), and variant spellings, including ‘sun’ for French son (his) and ‘pruz’ for preux (brave), which provide evidence that vowels were pronounced differently in Anglo-Norman and Continental French by this time.
As English regained its position as the dominant written language in England, literature in French was replaced by the works of authors like Chaucer, Gower and Lydgate who wrote in Middle English. Nevertheless, French continued to be used in some contexts including the law courts for a considerable period.
A number of 12th-century manuscripts containing Anglo-Norman French were digitised as part of the Polonsky Medieval England and France 700-1200 project. You can read more about the use of French on both sides of the Channel before 1200 in our article on the Polonsky project site.
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14 February 2021
Around this time of year, the British Library’s reference team are often asked about the earliest known Valentine, supposedly a poem in our collection which was sent by the 15th-century prince Charles d'Orléans to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. If you search online for ‘earliest known Valentine’ you will see this claim appearing on various websites. As you might be able to guess, the story doesn’t fully check out. But it’s certainly true that Charles was partial to poetic musings on the theme of Valentine’s Day, so this year, we thought we’d set the record straight by exploring the truth of Charles’ Valentine’s Day poetry.
Who was Charles d'Orléans?
Born in 1394, Charles d'Orléans was a member of the French royal family, the grandson of King Charles V of France (r. 1364–1380) and nephew of King Charles VI (r. 1380-1422). He became Duke of Orléans at the age of fourteen after the assassination of his father. On 25 October 1415, Charles fought at the Battle of Agincourt when France was catastrophically defeated by England. The twenty-one-year-old was captured on the battlefield and brought back to England where he remained as a political prisoner for the next twenty-five years. He was finally released in 1440 and spent the last years of his life in France, dying in 1465.
Despite the political turmoil that surrounded his life, Charles is best remembered as a gifted writer of romantic, witty and sometimes wistful poetry. He wrote over 500 poems in the course of his life, with a particularly prolific period during his years of captivity. Charles wrote in both Middle French and Middle English, the latter of which he learned to speak fluently while in England. The British Library holds several important manuscripts of Charles’ work: a unique collection of his English poetry thought to have been made under his personal supervision (Harley MS 682), an exceptionally lavish illuminated copy of 166 of his French poems owned by King Henry VII of England (Royal MS 16 F II), a 15th-century copy of Charles' personal poetry manuscript (Harley MS 6916), as well as an early 16th-century copy of some of his French poems (Lansdowne MS 380).
Earliest known Valentine?
The poem that is sometimes referred to as the earliest known Valentine begins ‘Je suis desja d'amour tanné / Ma tresdoulce Valentinee’ (I’m already wearied by love, my very sweet Valentine). Yet the romantic story attached to the poem doesn’t stand up to fact-checking. Charles did not compose this poem while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London, but in around 1443-60 after he had returned to France. It is not included in Harley MS 682 or Royal MS 16 F II, both manuscripts which consist mainly of poems composed during Charles’ time in England. The only British Library manuscript which includes the poem is Harley MS 6916, a copy of Charles' personal poetry manuscript which he began in England then brought back to France and to which he continued adding until the end of his life (now Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Français 25458).
Despite being addressed to ‘my very sweet Valentine’, the poem is not a personal message of affection like today’s Valentine’s cards. It actually refers to the courtly practice of holding a lottery on St Valentine’s Day in which everyone was assigned a partner, generally not their husband or wife, who was supposed to be their ‘Valentine’ for the year. This was a rather artificial enactment of the concept of courtly love, in which knights were supposed to devote themselves to the service of a married lady. In the poem, Charles excuses himself from the custom, apologetically telling his allotted Valentine that he’s too old and tired.
By Charles’ time, Valentine’s Day poetry was already a well-established genre with examples by Geoffrey Chaucer, Oton de Grandson, John Gower, Christine de Pizan and John Lydgate, among others. It was the fact that such poems were already well-known that meant Charles could play with the audience’s expectations by writing what is essentially an anti-Valentine.
Charles’s Valentine’s Day poetry
Although he can’t qualify as having written the first Valentine, Charles d'Orléans was still an important figure in the development of Valentine’s Day. About fourteen of his poems explore the subject of Valentine’s Day, a surprisingly high number, many of which can be found in British Library manuscripts.
One poem, beginning ‘Dieu Cupido, et Venus la Deese’ (The god Cupid and goddess Venus), was written when Charles was still a young man in France. It takes the form of a mock contract placing Charles in the service of Cupid and Venus. The poem ends by stating that the contract is granted on St Valentine’s Day:
Donné le jour saint Valentin martir,
En la cité de gracieux desir,
Où avons fait nostre conseil tenir
Par Cupido et Venus souverains,
A ce presens plusieurs plaisirs mondains.
(Granted the day of Saint Valentine, martyr,
In the city of Gracious Desire,
Where we had our council convened.
On behalf of sovereign Cupid and Venus,
Several worldly pleasures to this man present).
(Poetry of Charles D’Orléans and His Circle, ed. Fox and Arn, trans. Barton Palmer, pp. 22-23).
The poem demonstrates the close association of St Valentine’s Day with love and desire. Its optimistic and playful tone makes a striking contrast with Charles’ later more sombre poetry on the theme of Valentine’s Day.
In a later poem set on St Valentine’s Day, written during his captivity in England, Charles sadly reflects on the death of his partner, perhaps his wife Bonne d’Armagnac (d. 1430/35). Beginning ‘Le beau souleil, le jour saint Valentin’ (On St Valentine's day, the beautiful sun), Charles tells how he wakes up and hears the birds singing and choosing their mates. The idea that birds pick their partners on Valentine’s Day had been a major theme in Valentine’s poetry since Chaucer's Parlement of Foules. This prompts the bereaved Charles to lament:
Saint Valentin choisissent ceste annee
Ceulx et celles de l'amoureux party.
Seul me tendray, de confort desgarny,
Sur le dur lit d'ennuieuse pensee.
(Let men and women of Love's party
Choose their St. Valentine this year!
I remain alone, comfort stolen from me
On the hard bed of painful thought).
(Poetry of Charles D’Orléans and His Circle, ed. Fox and Arn, trans. Barton Palmer, pp. 134-35).
Both of these poems were also adapted into Middle English versions which can be found in Harley MS 682 (ff. 1r-v, 47v-48r). For example, the above passage about Charles' grief on Valentine's Day appears in English as:
Als wele is him this day that hath him kaught
A valentyne that louyth him, a y gesse,
Where as this comfort sole y here me dresse
Upon my bed so hard of noyous thought.
(As he is well this day that has caught
A Valentine that loves him, as I guess,
Whereas this comfort addresses me here alone
Upon my bed so hard of painful thought).
So while the claims that Charles wrote the first Valentine aren’t true, he was certainly a prolific writer of Valentine’s Day poetry, drawing on earlier poetic traditions and developing them in new ways. His poems on feeling alienated or cynical about the amorous pursuits of St Valentine’s Day provide a novel and, for many, highly relatable perspective on the genre of Valentine’s poetry. Charles’ poetry was very popular in the 15th and 16th centuries, making it likely that he helped to further popularise the romantic associations of St Valentine’s Day. This makes him a particularly important Valentine’s poet.
If, however, you do want to find out about the earliest surviving Valentine’s love letter, take a look at our previous blogpost on the letter written by Margery Brews to her future husband John Paston in 1477.
Editions and translations of Charles’ French poetry from: Poetry of Charles D’Orléans and His Circle: A Critical Edition of BnF MS. Fr. 25458, Charles D’Orléan’s Personal Manuscript, ed. by John Fox and Mary-Jo Arn, trans. by R. Barton Palmer (Turnhout: Brepols, 2010).
For Charles’ English poetry, see: Fortunes Stabilnes: Charles of Orleans's English Book of Love: A Critical Edition, ed. Mary-Jo Arn (Binghampton, New York: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1994).
23 November 2020
Today is the two year anniversary of our launch of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700–1200, in which we collaborated with the Bibliothèque nationale to digitise and make available 800 medieval French and English manuscripts from our two collections.
We have two websites: one, hosted by the Bibliothèque nationale, in which you can view all 800 manuscripts in an International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) viewer, and a curated website hosted by the British Library on which you can read articles, view individual manuscript descriptions and watch videos and animations. Both are bilingual, in English and French.
We recently participated in an online seminar sponsored by the Consortium of European Research Libraries (CERL) that celebrated five digitisation projects sponsored by the Polonsky Foundation, some completed and others ongoing. The seminar was oversubscribed, so the presentations were recorded and may be watched here:
(Note: videos of the six presentations will automatically play in sequence, one after the other. Alternatively, you can click the 'playlist' button near the top right to select individual videos to play).
The Medieval England and France, 700-1200 website has been very well received, with over 150,000 individual users from all over the world. The majority of those are from the UK and the US, but there are thousands of viewers from France, Canada, Australia, Italy, Brazil, the Philippines, Spain and Italy making up the top ten countries by use.
So far, the most popular article is on how to make a medieval manuscript, in which you can watch seven videos on different aspects of manuscript production, such as parchment preparation, ink, pigments and applying gold leaf. Viewers spend an average of eleven minutes on this article. Other popular articles are featured in the Science and Nature theme, including those on mathematics, medicine, bestiaries and calendars. Articles discussing the use of Latin, Anglo-Norman French and Old English are also popular.
If you haven’t yet checked it out, or if you are amongst the 30% returning users, do explore the website. You may be interested in watching Professor Nick Vincent discussing law-making in early medieval England or Professor Julia Crick discussing manuscript production after the Norman Conquest. Or perhaps you'll enjoy the animated features on the whale and the crane from the bestiary. The project book has just been reprinted, too, if you would like to buy a copy.
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03 November 2020
The 16th century witnessed a huge revival of popular theatre, as playwrights and acting companies experimented with existing dramatic traditions, new literary techniques, and different approaches to performance. This artistic revival included the work of English writers such as William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and Ben Jonson, as well as playwrights throughout Europe, particularly in Germany, Italy, and France. Surviving manuscripts from this period can give us a real insight into not just how these plays were written, but also how they were performed.
One such volume, now housed in the Harley Collection of the British Library, contains a rare eye-witness account of the premier performance of a French play that took place in the city of Montbrison on 25 February 1588.
The work was written by Loÿs Papon (b. 1533, d. 1599), the canon of the Church of Notre-Dame-d'Espérance and later abbot of Marcilly, and is entitled Pastorelle sur la victoire obtenue contre les Allemands, Reytres, Lansquenets, Souysses et Francoys rebelles a Dieu et au Roy treschretien l'an 1587 (Pastoral on the victory won against the Germans, the Reiters, the Landsknecht, the Swiss, and the French Rebels by God and our most Christian King in the year 1587).
Written in five acts, the play is a celebration of the victories of Henry I (b. 1550, d. 1588), Duke of Guise, against the combined Huguenot, or Protestant, forces at Vimory on 26 October and Auneau on 24 November 1587, two major battles fought during the French Wars of Religion (1562-1598).
The plot of Papon’s play is simple. Rather than depict the conflict between the Catholic and Huguenot armies on stage, Papon’s narrative focuses on a small group of shepherds, whose lives in the French countryside have been in turmoil since the start of the war. In the first half of the play, the audience hears how the war has affected the shepherds during that time – how their crops have been blighted and their lands and possessions looted by invading armies – as they recount their struggles and voice their fears of new dangers that might affect them in the future.
During the third act, however, the shepherds learn about what has taken place during the battles at Vimory and Auneau, and in the course of Acts IV and V, buoyant at the news of Henry’s victories, they celebrate that their once peaceful lives will now be restored.
The manuscript (now Harley MS 4325) was written and illustrated by Loÿs Papon himself, who probably intended it as a presentation copy of the text. The work begins with a dedication from the author addressed to a certain ‘M[onsieur] le duc de Mayne’, who can be identified as Charles de Lorraine (b. 1544, d. 1611), Duke of Mayenne and brother of Henry, Duke of Guise, who led the victorious French army.
The volume also survives with its original 16th-century binding intact. Its red velvet covers feature a collection of different symbols, delicately embroidered with silver, gold and coloured thread, including two hands grasping a sword, a pair of chalices, a crown of thorns, and a single eye appearing above a cloud.
The account of the play’s first performance appears directly after the main text of the work in the manuscript and was also written by Papon. The ‘discours’ or account states that this took place on 25 February 1588 at the Salle de la Diana, in the city of Montbrison, the historic capital of the French region of Forez (now part of Central France), and the playwright’s birthplace.
Papon’s account provides details about all aspects of the production, from the actors and musicians, to the set and the props, and even the composition of the audience. He tells us, for example, that:
- The windows of the Salle were completely covered over, so that the only light came from a collection of 90 torches, made from white wax, which were positioned around the hall.
- The backdrop was split up by three pieces of tapestry, decorated with 10 large paintings at the top, portraits of the French king and queen, and the princes of Guise, and below them another collection of smaller portraits of other important figures of the time: popes, princes and princesses, and members of the nobility.
- The play’s musicians were placed on a scaffold constructed on the right hand side of the stage, and set above a doorway that the actors used to make their entrances and exits.
- The shepherds were dressed in costumes made of taffeta and satin, wore straw hats, and carried shepherds’ crooks. The manuscript also features a series of painted portraits, showing how the central characters looked, dressed in full costume.
- The audience was supposedly composed of between 1300-1400 people (though from the size of the hall that’s slightly hard to believe): ‘gentishomes, que Dames, demoyzelles, gens de Justice, d’Eglise, magistrats, bourgeois, Capitaines, marchandz, et touts pesonnes de qualité’ (gentlemen, ladies, young ladies, Justices, people of the Church, magistrates, the bourgeois, captains, merchants, and all people of quality).
In addition, the volume includes a paper fold-out inserted at the end of Papon’s account, which opens to reveal a watercolour illustration of Act IV, Scene II of the Pastorelle, showing how this scene was staged in the Salle de la Diana. The image suggests that despite the simplicity of the narrative, the production itself was a real spectacle, ambitious in its scale. In the scene, the assembled shepherds, having learnt of the defeat of the Huguenot forces, decide to construct a pyramid on stage, light a fire at its base, sing songs, and dance around it to express their joy at the news.
One of the most significant features of the watercolour is the Salle’s vaulted and vibrantly coloured ‘plafond’ or ceiling, tall enough to accommodate the pyramid’s spire (standing 18 feet high according to Papon’s account), and which is shown adorned with numerous compartments, each one bearing a small coat of arms.
Fortunately, the Salle de la Diana in Montbrison has survived to the present day and is now home to a library that holds over 30,000 books. Its elaborately decorated heraldic ceiling (featuring a total of 1728 coats of arms) was restored during the 19th century, and appears nearly identical to the design reflected in Papon’s illustration of the Pastorelle’s first performance.
This manuscript’s catalogue record has recently been revised as part of the Harley Cataloguing Project. For more information about the project and other recent discoveries, check out our blogpost on cataloguing the Harley manuscripts.
Loys Papon, Pastorelle sur la victoire obtenue contra les Alemands, Reytres, Lansquenets, Souysses et Françoys rebelles à Dieu et au Roy treschr etien l'an 1587, texte établi, présenté et commenté par Claude Longeon (Saint-Etienne: Centre d'Études Foréziennes, 1976).
Frank Dobbins, 'Music in French Theatre of the Late Sixteenth Century', Early Music History, 13 (1994), 85-122 (pp. 115-21 with plates).
Margaret M. McGowan, 'The Arts Conjoined: A Context for the Study of Music', Early Music History, 13 (1994), 171-98 (pp. 179-80, especially n. 26).
27 February 2020
We have recently published a new selection of manuscripts online. They contain a variety of swashbuckling tales, mischievous furry creatures, and ever more glorious images. Which is your favourite?
Petit Jean de Saintré and Floridan and Elvide (Cotton MS Nero D IX)
This book contains two little-known romances. The first, by Antoine de La Sale, tells the adventures of the hero, Jean, at the court of King John of France. His lady, the Dame des Belles Cousines, teaches him how to become the perfect knight. Following this is the tragic story of Floridan et Elvide, a French prose romance about a young couple who elope in order to avoid an arranged marriage. They are waylaid at an inn by a group of rascals, who first murder Floridan, then attack Elvide, who is forced to take her own life to avoid dishonour. A not so happy ending.
A knight kneeling at court, from Petit Jean de Saintré: Cotton MS Nero D IX, f. 2r
Floridan is attacked while Elvide watches, from Floridan and Elvide: Cotton MS Nero D IX, f. 109r
Le Roman de Renart (Add MS 15229)
We recently blogged about this collection of tales of one of the world’s most famous tricksters. Tibert the cat is the only one of the animals who is the match of the cunning fox, Renard, and manages to avoid falling victim to his wicked schemes.
Renard and Tibert the cat, seated, looking at the moon: Add MS 15229, f. 53r
Dante Alighieri, Divina Commedia (Add MS 19587)
This manuscript, with coloured drawings showing Dante on his remarkable journey, was copied in Naples around 1370. It has the coats of arms of the Rinaldeschi family and the Monforte family, Counts of Biseglia (Naples), with on the final page are found entries of births and deaths in the family between 1449 and 1483.
Dante and Virgil are in a barren wood, with the harpies perched on top of thorny trees, representing the souls of suicides; hounds tear the bodies of the profligates; Virgil breaks off a twig and the wounded tree drips blood, from Inferno, Canto 13: Add MS 19587, f. 21r
The Pilgrimage of the Soul (Egerton MS 615)
This allegory of life as a pilgrimage was translated from the French work by Guillaume de Deguileville. As in the well-known Pilgrim’s Progress, the protagonist, assisted by his guardian angel, undergoes various trials and overcomes temptation on a long journey that ends in Paradise. This manuscript was copied and illustrated somewhere in eastern England.
The pilgrim and his guardian angel, unbaptized souls in a band of darkness, devils torturing a soul and a mock court scene with Satan and a devil: Egerton MS 615, f. 46v
The Mirror of Human Salvation, made for a royal owner (Harley MS 2838)
The Mirror of Human Salvation draws parallels between episodes and prophesies in the Old and New Testaments, historical and natural events, and saints' Lives. This copy was made for King Henry VII (1485–1509), founder of the Tudor dynasty. The royal arms of England with the motto 'Honi soit qui mal y pense' are found on the first folio.
The Virgin Mary, holding the instruments of the Passion, banishes the devil; Judith holds the head of Holofernes: Harley MS 2838, f. 32v
Aldobrandino of Siena, Le Régime du corps; Gautier of Metz, L'Image du monde (Sloane MS 2435)
This 13th-century volume contains Aldobrandino’s handbook on health, composed for Beatrice of Savoie (1220–1266). Its contents are based mainly on Latin translations of Arabic medical texts. It is followed by a poem by Gautier of Metz about the Earth and the universe. The first text includes a section on sleep as part of a healthy lifestyle, with an illustration of a situation that is all-too-familiar.
Illustration of a treatise on sleeping and waking; above, a person is sleeping peacefully; below, two people absorbed in a game that is keeping them awake: Sloane MS 2435, f. 7r
The Romance of the Three Kings’ Sons (Harley MS 326)
This Middle English romance concerns three young princes, Philip of France, Humphrey of England, and David of Scotland, who set off to battle the Turks. The illustrations in this manuscript are unique, as it is a rare surviving illustrated copy of the story.
The coronation of the Emperor: Harley MS 326, f. 98v
Fribois, Abrege de Croniques de France (Add MS 13961)
This 15th-century manuscript contains an abbreviated chronicle of France, from the destruction of Troy to the death of Louis de Mâle, Count of Flanders, in 1383. It was composed in 1459 by Noel de Fribois, counsellor to King Charles VII of France, and was written and painted for Etienne Chevalier, secretary to the king.
The decorated opening page of the chronicle: Add MS 13961, f. 2r
You can explore all these manuscripts in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site, alongside other gems from the British Library's collections.
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28 August 2019
Diluting wine with water, also known as baptising wine, was a common medieval practice. Taverners (innkeepers) and vintners (wine merchants) were especially associated with this custom. Literary accounts sometimes depicted them as nefarious figures who mixed wine with water in order to maximize their profit. Ironically, at the same period drinking diluted wine was associated with the virtue of temperance; in contrast, the excessive drinking of wine was associated with the deadly sin of gluttony (gula).
While cataloguing the Harley manuscripts, we recently discovered a previously unknown copy of a remarkable Middle French poem that responds to the practice of diluting wine. This poem, known as The Joyful Ballad of the Taverners (Ballade joyeuse des Taverniers), survives only in a few French manuscripts and early printed books. Our copy was added to a flyleaf of a manuscript (Harley MS 512) containing De Proprietatibus Rerum ('On the Properties of Things'), an encyclopedia of natural knowledge compiled by the Parisian scholar Bartholomaeus Anglicus (d. 1272).
The Joyful Ballad is essentially a catalogue of curses that the poet wished upon taverners who diluted their wine. Although its author is unknown, it has long been associated with François Villon (c. 1431–after 1463), one of the most renowned French poets of the late Middle Ages, but also a murderer, thief and vagabond. Here is a translated stanza in order to give you a taste of the poem:
'Let some great gunshot blow their heads off sheer;
Let thunders catch them in the market-place;
Let rend their limbs and cast them far and near,
For dogs to batten on their bodies base;
Or let the lightning-stroke their sight efface.
Frost, hail and snow let still upon them bite;
Strip off their clothes and leave them naked quite,
For rain to drench them in the open air;
Lard them with knives and poniards and then bear
Their carrion forth and soak it in the Rhine;
Break all their bones with mauls and do not spare
The vintners [or ‘taverners’] that put water into our wine.'
[translation from John Payne, The Poems of Master François Villon of Paris (London, 1892), p. 137].
The Joyful Ballad is perhaps the most vitriolic poem to challenge the practice of mixing wine with water. But this subject was also central to medieval debate poetry, in which personifications of Water and Wine were pitted against each other. In the Goliae Dialogus inter Aquam et Vinum ('Goliardic Dialogue between Water and Wine'), they are represented by Thetis, goddess of the sea, and Dionysus, god of winemaking and wine. Dionysus argued that God created the grape without mixing it with water, for which reason it was heresy to drink diluted wine.
Diluted wine was not only disliked by medieval poets. The Roman poet Gaius Valerius Catullus (d. 54 BC) dedicated one of his poems to the subject. (This was well-known in the Middle Ages: the copy in Burney MS 133 is a good example.) Catullus's poem is suitably addressed to his cup-bearer (Ad Pincernam Suum). Here’s a translated extract:
'And get lost, water; off to drier lands,
Wine-spoiler. Fill the cups of prudish hands.
Thyonian [Bacchic] is the only wine for me.'
[translation by Len Krisak from Gaius Valerius Catullus Carmina (Manchester, Carcanet Press, 2014), p. 19]
This is a lesson you may wish to bear in mind the next time you visit your local hostelry. We are sure that your friends may be amused if you recite The Joyful Ballad to them, although we cannot guarantee that the innkeeper or bartender may react in the same fashion.
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Manuscripts cited in this blogpost
Harley 4431 (Christine de Pizan’s L'Épître Othéa)
Harley MS 512 (The Joyful Ballad of the Taverners)
Cotton MS Titus A XX (Goliae Dialogus inter Aquam et Vinum)
Burney MS 133 (Catullus, Ad Pincernam)
Add MS 11915 (Catullus, Ad Pincernam)
20 March 2019
Bonjour à tous!
International Francophonie Day highlights the global spread of French language and culture. It is the perfect day to celebrate our great collaboration with our French colleagues in The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700–1200.
An animation inspired by the Sirius constellation (Canis major) in British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius C I, f. 28r
As part of our ambitious collaborative project, we’ve digitised 800 medieval manuscripts from the two national libraries. In November 2018 we launched not one but two new project websites. One allows users to search and view all 800 project manuscripts through an innovative new viewer. We applied the International Image Interoperabitility Framework (or IIIF, as it is commonly known) standards to our images and descriptions. As a result, it is now possible to share, annotate, manipulate and download images from our 800 project manuscripts. You can also compare manuscripts side-by-side (up to four at a time!).
Two manuscripts from each institution, presented side-by-side
We are happy to offer our readers this massive list of manuscript identifiers, or shelfmarks, titles and URL links to the IIIF images on the new website. All of these manuscripts can be viewed in their full glory on the project website hosted by the BnF.
What is new with the project and the curated website?
On a website hosted by the British Library, we are offering our readers articles, descriptions, films and more interpreting these manuscripts: Medieval England and France, 700–1200. Everything is available in two languages, English and French – just choose your preferred language at any point of the visit.
There are six broad themes covering art, history, science, religion, making manuscripts and the medieval manuscript collections today. We chose a selection of manuscripts to explore through various articles in each theme. Since the initial launch in November 2018 with 24 articles, we have added six new articles, 33 new collection items, and created new pages with biographies and maps. Did we mention the animation of the crane, inspired by a tale in an illustrated bestiary? Medieval manuscripts offer us the greatest collection of surviving medieval artwork in any media. Often, the colours are still as vibrant and the gold as glittering as at the time they were made, over 800 years ago. These books offer us wonderful glimpses of medieval culture, ideas and even individual people.
There are famous thinkers and authors, like Alcuin or Anselm, who exemplify the movement of people, texts and ideas across Europe in the early Middle Ages. For example, Queen Emma’s achievements are celebrated in a work that is the earliest surviving account dedicated to a female political figure from England (excluding saints’ Lives).
A seal of Anselm of Canterbury, containing one of the earliest surviving representations of the archbishop, attached to the charter British Library, LFC Ch VII 5
For anyone interested in medieval manuscript culture in the Middle Ages, this site is a treasure-trove. It is easy to spend hours wondering around, or you can dip in for 5 minutes at a time. With 30 articles on various aspects on manuscript culture, over 140 highlighted collection items, 10 people pages and 10 short videos, you will be sure to find something intriguing.
French language, modern and medieval
It was clear from the start of the project that whatever we were to do, it would all be available in both English and French. The medieval world was multilingual. Latin was the main written language, but it was by no means the only one. Old English and different variants of written French, like Anglo-Norman or Old Occitan, were also written down.
The beginning of St John’s Gospel, Chapter 13 in Old Occitan, preceded by a Latin rubric: British Library, Harley MS 2928, f. 187v
To mark today’s theme, International Francophonie Day, we took a closer look at a copy of a poem by the earliest known French poet, Philippe de Thaon (active during the first half of the 12th century). One of his works called Comput is a verse explanation of the metrics of the medieval calendar and gives instructions about how to calculate the date of Easter. In the poem’s opening lines, Philippe tells the reader he has decided to compose his text in Anglo-Norman French: Ne nest griu ne latins (it isn't Greek or Latin), but the language De la nostre cuntree (of our country), so that the users Ben poënt retenir (are able to remember well).
… Në est pas juglerie,
Ne nest griu ne latins,
Ne ne nest angevins,
Ainz est raisun mustree
De la nostre cuntree:
Ben poënt retenir
Çoe dum ges voil garner
Së il volent entendre
E bone garde prendre.
('… [It] is not entertainment,
nor is it Greek, Latin,
or the Angevin dialect.
Rather [it] is the spoken discourse of our country:
[in it they] are able to remember well
what I want to teach them,
if they want to listen
and pay good attention.')
(translation by Dr Hannah Morcos, King’s College London)
Philippe de Thaon explains why he has chosen Anglo-Norman French to write his poem Comput: British Library, Cotton MS Nero A V, f. 2r
To find out more about languages present in medieval manuscripts, visit the History and Learning section of Medieval England and France, 700-1200.
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