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Introduction

What do Magna Carta, Beowulf and the world's oldest Bibles have in common? They are all cared for by the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section. This blog publicises our digitisation projects and other activities. Follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval. Read more

15 February 2019

New records of slavery from Anglo-Saxon Cornwall

In the past twenty years, there have been some fantastic archaeological discoveries that date to the Anglo-Saxon period. Gold treasure, such as the Staffordshire Hoard and the Winfarthing Pendant, and stone sculpture, such as the Lichfield Angel, have all been unearthed since the year 2000. At the same time, recent scientific developments have enabled new discoveries to be made on the pages of certain medieval manuscripts. One such technique, known as multispectral imaging, has revealed previously erased additions to a 9th-century gospel-book, known as the Bodmin Gospels. These additions, known as manumissions, record the freeing of medieval slaves.

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The beginning of the Gospel of St Mark, in the Bodmin Gospels: Add MS 9381, f. 50r

The Bodmin Gospels was made in Brittany, but by the end of the 10th century we know that it had reached the priory of St Petroc at Bodmin, in Cornwall. Between the years 950 and 1025, records of public manumissions at the high altar of the church of St Petroc were added to its pages, and these mention at least three bishops of Cornwall (Comoere, Wulfsige and Burhwold). Some of these records remain visible, as we reported in a previous blogpost, but others have been erased, making them either invisible or difficult to read.

As part of the preparations for the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, and in order to facilitate research being conducted by Dr David Pelteret, the British Library's Imaging Scientist, Dr Christina Duffy, photographed a page from the Bodmin Gospels using multispectral imaging. This is a non-invasive, non-destructive form of computational photography which can enhance difficult-to-read text using an extended light spectrum. Christina then processed the data stack using an iterative statistical method known as Principal Component Analysis, which isolates patterns in the data. The results were hugely impressive.

The page shown below (f. 49v) was originally a list of capitula (chapter headings) of the gospel-book. Its text was later erased and five manumission records were added. These were also later erased so that only ‘h’ and a cross are just about visible with the naked eye.

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The now-erased manumissions, before and after multispectral imaging and data processing: Add MS 9381, f. 49v

The results of the multispectral imaging reveal some of the text from these previously-erased Latin manumissions. The second text can be translated as follows:

+This is the name of that woman, Guenenguith, and her son whose name is Morcefres, who[m] Bishop Comoere freed on the altar of St Petroc for the redemption of his soul in the presence of these witnesses: Beorhtsige priest, Mermen priest, Athelces priest, Saithred cleric, Cenmen cleric, Heden deacon, Ryt deacon.

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Canon tables with records of manumissions added in a later hand: Add MS 9381, f. 13r

Another manumission in the Bodmin Gospels, still visible, was copied in Latin into the arches of a canon table:

This is the name of a woman, Medguistyl, with her offspring, Bleiduid, Ylcerthon and Byrchtylym, who were freed by the clerics of St Petroc on the altar of St Petroc for the souls of King Eadred and for their souls, before these witnesses, Comuyre the priest etc …

Another manumission in the Bodmin Gospels, written in Old English, describes how a man named Aelsig bought a woman named Ongynedhel and her son and then freed them straight away. He bought them specifically so that he could free them.

Fleeting references to slaves in Anglo-Saxon documents suggest that they were an integral part of Anglo-Saxon society. People could enter slavery through several different routes. For example, Bede's Ecclesiastical History (IV.22) records how an Anglo-Saxon nobleman, Imma, was captured after a battle and was sold to a Frisian at a slave market in London.

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A drawing illustrating Psalm 122, showing a female slave and her mistress (centre) and a master holding up a sword to two male slaves (left), in the Harley Psalter: Harley MS 603, f. 65r

References to slaves are also found in the law-codes of King Æthelberht of Kent (d. 616). These laws are preserved in a compilation made at Rochester in the 12th century, known as Textus Roffensis. They mention women who were ‘grinding slaves’, and state that the fine for ‘highway robbery of a slave is to be three shillings’.

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The law-code of King Æthelberht of Kent: Rochester, Cathedral Library, MS A.3.5, f. 1r

When the Anglo-Saxon noblewoman, Wynflæd, wrote her will in the 10th century, she included instructions regarding the fate of her slaves. The will specified that, 'at Faccombe, Eadhelm and Man and Johanna and Sprow and his wife … and Gersand and Snel are to be freed'. However, Wynflæd did not free two of her seamstresses, Eadgifu (Edgyfu) and Æthelgifu (Æþelyfu), instead bequeathing them to another woman called Eadgifu.

Wynflaed's slaves

Detail of the names of Eadgifu (Edgyfu) and Æthelgifu (Æþelyfu) in the will of Wynflæd: Cotton Ch VIII 38

The new manumissions in the Bodmin Gospels, uncovered with the aid of multispectral imaging, are incredibly exciting. They are important sources of information for slavery in early medieval Britain and for daily life in early medieval Cornwall. This manuscript has been in the national collection since 1833, but only know are some of its many secrets being revealed. Hopefully, as new technologies develop, we may be able to make even more discoveries on the pages of our age-old manuscripts.

 

Becky Lawton

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14 February 2019

My ‘right well-beloved Valentine’

In 1477, a gentlewoman named Margery Brews was soon to be married to a member of the Norfolk aristocracy, John Paston. Margaret and John were rather smitten with each other, and in the year leading up to their marriage they exchanged a series of love letters. In one particular letter, sent in February, Margery described John as her ‘right well-beloved Valentine’ and signed off the letter as ‘your Valentine, Margery Brews’. This intimate letter between these two lovebirds is thought to be the earliest surviving Valentine’s love letter.  

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Letter of Margery Brews to John Paston, February 1477: London, British Library, Add MS 43490, f. 24r

Despite their passion, there was trouble ahead for Margery and John. Their relatives initially opposed the marriage. Margery’s father felt that his daughter could make a more financially advantageous match and John’s elder brother was insulted that his permission had not been asked before seeking Margery’s hand in marriage. Thankfully, Margery’s mother, Elizabeth, was a skilled negotiator. Elizabeth wrote a letter to John, and took advantage of the Valentine’s season to sort out these problems. She wrote:

'On Friday it is Saint Valentine’s Day, and every bird chooses itself a mate. And if you would like to come on Thursday night ... I trust God that you will speak to my husband, and I will pray that we will bring the matter to a conclusion.'

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Margery addresses John as 'right well-beloved Valentine': Add MS 43490, f. 24r

John’s family were also unwilling to support the match on the grounds that Margery’s dowry was too low. In the letter where Margery calls John her ‘right well-beloved Valentine’, she states:

'I want you to understand clearly that my father refuses to part with any more money than a £100 and 50 marks in this business, which is very far from fulfilling your wishes.'

Margery informed John that if he was not satisfied with the £100 or felt that he could get more money, he was 'not to take the trouble to visit any more on this business'.

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Annotation on the back of the letter notes that Margery calls herself John’s “Valentine”: Add MS 43490, f. 24v

As Virgil said, “Love conquers all”. Margery and John were married a few months later. These letters are part of a large archive known as the Paston Letters, comprising 1,000 letters and documents including petitions, leases and wills. These documents provide a fascinating insight into the private lives of the Paston family of Norfolk over a period of 70 years.

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The martyrdom of St Valentine in the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 243r

Margery and John’s love letters also provide valuable insight into the connection between romance and the feast of St Valentine on 14 February. The two have not always been associated. We know that St Valentine was a Christian martyr who lived and died in Rome during the 3rd century. Over 1,000 years later, Geoffrey Chaucer (d. 1400) wrote a poem called Parliament of Fowls, in which he described a group of birds who gather together in the early spring — on ‘seynt valentynes day’ — to choose their mates for the year.

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Margery signs the letter as 'Be your Voluntyne / Mergery Brews': Add MS 43490, f. 24r

During their courtship, Margery wrote another letter to John in which she referred to him as her ‘dearly beloved valentine’. Margery ended this letter by saying, 'I beg you that you will not let anyone on Earth see this letter, except yourself'. If only Margery knew that over 500 years later, her love letters would be discussed in the news and be fully available to view online!

Quotations from the letters in this blogpost have been taken from D. Watt (ed.), The Paston Women: Selected Letters (Woodbridge, 2004).

 

Becky Lawton

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

12 February 2019

Picture this: portraits of Anglo-Saxon rulers

Only five contemporary manuscript portraits of identifiable Anglo-Saxon rulers survive. Recent visitors to the British Library or to this Blog are probably already familiar with one of them. This is the illuminated miniature featuring King Edgar (959–975) which forms the frontispiece of the New Minster Charter (Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII), confirming the rights of the reformed church at Winchester. It is the 'frontispiece' of our sold-out exhibition Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, adorning the posters as well as the entrance to the Library.

In this blogpost, we look at some of these Anglo-Saxon ruler portraits, alongside contemporary European examples.

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King Edgar with the Virgin Mary, St Peter, Christ in Majesty and angels (New Minster, Winchester, c. 966): Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII, f. 2v

In the New Minster Charter, made in around 966, King Edgar, facing towards the heavens, presents a golden copy of the document to Christ. The Virgin Mary and St Peter look on approvingly. The fact that he is surrounded by saints and handing the charter straight to Christ reminds the viewer of his status as a pious, Christian king, ruling with divine blessing. These themes were all central to the idealised representations of the royal office in the early medieval Christian West.

Depicting the king holding a politically important document, in the shape of a book, is more remarkable in the context of early medieval ruler portraits. This emphasised Edgar as a learned king, to whom the written word was significant, but also visually confirmed his politically motivated patronage of the New Minster. It exemplified the key motifs of the specifically Anglo-Saxon image of kingship and queenship, in which the ruler was shown to be actively involved with learning, patronage of the Church, and the production or use of texts and books. These motifs set the Anglo-Saxon ruler portraits apart from those of their early medieval contemporaries.

The Continental approach to portraying rulers makes this contrast clear. Throughout their mutual history the Anglo-Saxons and their neighbours across the Channel, the Carolingians, were in close contact. The most famous and influential ruler of the Carolingian dynasty (c. 714–877), whose empire covered most of western Continental Europe, was Charlemagne (768–814).

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Emperor Lothar I enthroned (the court of the Emperor Lothar, ?Aachen, c. 840–855): Add MS 37768, f. 4r

No contemporary illustrations of Charlemagne have survived, but there is a striking depiction of his oldest legitimate grandson, Lothar I (817–855), in the manuscript known as the Lothar Psalter (Add MS 37768).

Roman imperial portraits were the main source for early medieval ruler portraits. This link became even more important to the Carolingians when Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope in 800. The resulting emphasis on imperial majestic splendour and military authority is clearly seen in Lothar’s portrait. His golden and jewel-encrusted crown is matched by an extravagant cloak of gold, covered in gems. The entire backdrop is a deep purple — the colour associated specifically with emperors since Antiquity because of the exceedingly high value of the pigment. In his hands he holds a long sceptre, recalling the sceptrum Augusti (sceptre of imperial majesty) of the Roman emperors, and the hilt of a sword, drawing visual comparisons to the military status of the imperial role.

The Anglo-Saxon ruler portrait closest in time to that of Lothar is also the earliest surviving. In a manuscript containing Bede's Lives of St Cuthbert, King Æthelstan is depicted presenting the book itself to St Cuthbert (d. 687). Cuthbert was a monk and bishop of Lindisfarne, whose cult became increasingly popular across northern England. The image commemorates Æthelstan’s gift of the manuscript to St Cuthbert’s community, while also associating the king with the patronage of a politically significant religious centre, and the production of a book containing works by an eminent Anglo-Saxon author.

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King Æthelstan presenting St Cuthbert with the book (South England, c. 934–939): Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 183, f. 1v

Despite Æthelstan’s many diplomatic connections with Continental rulers (not least exemplified by his gifts of books), the Continental focus on the extravagant stateliness and military might of the monarch has not influenced this portrait. He humbly bows his head to the saint; only his crown betrays his grand status.

The surviving Anglo-Saxon ruler portraits also stand apart when it comes to the depiction of queens. Hardly any portraits of Carolingian queens survive, but during the Ottonian dynasty (c. 919–1024) double-ruler portraits of the queens alongside their husbands or sons became popular.

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Christ in Majesty crowning Henry II and his wife Kunigunde, with St Peter on the left and St Paul on the right. Below is the female personification of Rome, with female personifications of Gallia and Germania on either side (Reichenau, c. 1007–1012): Munich, Bayerisches Staatsbibliothek, Clm 4452, f. 2r

For instance, the Evangelistary of Henry II (Munich, Bayerisches Staatsbibliothek, Clm 4452) contains an extravagant image of the future coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry II (1014–1024), and his wife, Empress Kunigunde of Luxembourg (d. 1040). Christ crowns both Henry and Kunigunde, while St Peter supports Henry on the left, and St Paul supports Kunigunde on the right. Kunigunde is depicted as equal in size to her husband, but it is Henry who stands on the right of Christ, symbolically the place of honour.

In the lower register stands the female personification of Rome, holding a sceptre. Beside her are female personifications of the territories of Gallia and Germania (the primary territories of the king and queen, respectively). Undoubtedly, this represents the joining together of Henry and Kunigunde’s territories into one Holy Roman Empire, underlining the political importance of their union.

Queen Emma, one of the most important political figures in 11th-century England, is depicted in two of the five surviving Anglo-Saxon portraits. In one, the New Minster Liber Vitae, she is depicted next to her second husband, King Cnut, in a manner similar to the double-coronation portrait of Henry and Kunigunde. But in a slightly later manuscript (Add MS 33241) there is a decidedly different portrait of her.

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Queen Emma enthroned, with two of her sons in the background, receiving the Encomium Emmae reginae (northern France or England, mid-11th century): Add MS 33241, f. 1v

Emma alone is enthroned and centrally placed in this image, whereas her two sons (both of whom became king) peer slightly awkwardly from behind a pillar. Moreover, she is shown receiving a copy of the manuscript, which contains the Encomium Emmae reginae ('In Praise of Queen Emma'). This is a highly political work, commissioned to portray Emma's past actions in a more favourable light, while smoothing over the current, turbulent political situation. It is entirely appropriate for her to be portrayed as the central character and as a queen in her own right and with her own independent agency.

You can read more about some of the manuscripts featured in this blogpost on the British Library's Anglo-Saxons webspace. Due to incredible demand, all tickets to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition have now been sold.

 

                                                                                     Emilia Henderson

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