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Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

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

01 March 2021

Rhygyfarch: poetry and protest in medieval Wales

To mark St David’s Day this year, we are looking at the life and work of a medieval Welsh poet, clerk, and biographer, and one of the most renowned scholars of his time.

His name was Rhygyfarch (b. 1057, d. 1099) and he was born the eldest son of Sulien the Wise (b. 1011, d. 1090/1), a learned teacher who served two terms as bishop of the city of St Davids in Pembrokeshire. Named after Wales’ patron saint (its Welsh name Tyddewi means ‘David’s house’), the city of St Davids was regarded as an important place of learning during the medieval period and the ecclesiastical centre of the Welsh Church. Its cathedral was the resting place of St David’s body and his relics, and was later declared a pilgrimage destination by Pope Calixtus II (r. 1119-1124). By the mid-11th century, the city had also become home to a highly influential monastic school overseen and maintained by Sulien and members of his family.

A view of St David's Cathedral and the Bishop's Palace.
The cathedral of St Davids and the Bishop’s Palace (mattbuck / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-2.0

Rhygyfarch’s early life was evidently devoted to learning. He appears to have spent much of this time in St Davids, where he and his brothers were personally taught by their father. Their education most likely involved an intensive study of major Classical authors including Ovid, Virgil, Boethius, and Macrobius, and Anglo-Latin writers such as Bede and Aldhelm of Sherborne. Subsequently, Rhygyfarch became the clerk of the ecclesiastic community of St Padarn at Llanbadarn Fawr, situated further up the coast near Aberystwyth, which housed an important scriptorium (a place where manuscripts were made) and a well-stocked monastic library, though few of its manuscripts now survive.

It was there that Rhygyfarch gained a reputation amongst his contemporaries as a foremost scholar and teacher, which persisted for centuries after his death. In fact, he was so widely regarded throughout the country that the Brut y Tywysogion (Chronicle of Princes), a historical work that informs much of our understanding of the history of early medieval Wales, described him as ‘y doethaf o doethon y Brytanyeit’ (one of the most learned of the learned men of the Britons).

An illustration from a medieval manuscript, showing a scribe writing in a book.
A scribe writing in a medieval manuscript, from Gerald of Wales’ Topographica Hibernica (Royal MS 13 B VIII, f. 22r)

Rhygyfarch composed a number of Latin prose and poetic texts during his lifetime. Most notably, he was the author of the oldest surviving biography of St David, who lived in the 6th century. His Vita sancti Davidis episcopi appears in a single complete copy in a 12th-century manuscript that ultimately became part of the collection of Sir Robert Cotton (Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV). Rhygyfarch wrote the prose work in Latin but by the later medieval period it had also been translated and adapted into a Middle Welsh version known as the Buchedd Dewi.

A page from a medieval manuscript, featuring the opening of the Life of St David by the Welsh poet Rhygyfarch.
The opening of Rhygyfarch’s Life of St David, 2nd half of the 12th century, possibly south-east Wales (Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV, f. 61r)

Rhygyfarch’s Life of St David was written during the final decade of the 11th century, when Wales was suffering in the aftermath of successive Norman invasions undertaken by William I (r. 1066-1087) and his son William Rufus (r. 1087-1100). Rhygyfarch expressed his own feelings about the Norman occupation and the subjugation of his people in an emotional elegy now known as Rhygyfarch’s Lament, which he wrote not long after his biography of Wales’ patron saint. The Latin poem is attested in only a single manuscript (now Cotton MS Faustina C I), which was copied at the priory of Llanbadarn Fawr in the half century after the Welsh author’s death.

A page from a medieval manuscript, featuring the text of Rhygyfarch's Lament.
Rhygyfarch’s Lament, 1st half of the 12th century, Llanbadarn Fawr (Cotton MS Faustina C I, f. 66r)

In the course of his Lament, Rhygyfarch mourns Wales’ present plight and calls attention to the Norman oppression of the country, which has caused the apparent decline of all parts of Welsh society. He writes that ‘the people and the priest are despised by the word, heart, and work of the Normans’, that ‘there are continual sorrows and fears’, that ‘the courts are sad’ and ‘there is no pleasure in hearing the songs of poets’. Rhygyfarch’s depiction of Wales is of a country trapped by its grief, from where ‘it is not possible to leave, nor even possible to stay’.

Rhygyfarch also turns his focus to the Welsh people themselves, and in an extended passage denounces their lack of courage, urging them to take action against their oppressors in increasingly emotive language:

non audes humero ferre faretram,
arcum nec tenso tendere neruo,
ilia nec gladio cingere lato,
armo nec peltam tollere leuo,
nec vibrat patulo lancea pugno...
o moribunda doles, o tremebunda!
concidis, heu, misera tristibus armis.
nil tibi (nunc) letum nilque uenustum.
tristis barba cadit, tristis ocellus;
nam te aliena canit turba perosum.
et ignominia complet apertam
peccatis faciem. heu, mala pestis!
pingit enim affectus mens mala carni
ut bona mens campo gaudia monstrat
        (ll. 51-67; Lapidge. ‘Welsh-Latin Poetry’ (1973/4), pp. 90-92)

[Wales], you do not dare to carry the quiver of arrows on your shoulder, nor stretch the bow with a tight bow-string, nor gird your guts with the broadsword, nor raise the shield on your left shoulder... [Wales], you are struck down and dying, you tremble in fear, you collapse, alas, miserable in your sad defences. Nothing is joyful to you now, nothing pleasant. Your beard sags, your eye is sad; for a hostile crowd speaks of you as hateful. Disgrace fills your open face with blemishes. Alas for the evil plague: for the diseased mind reflects its condition in the flesh, just as the healthy mind shows its joys to the field.

Rhygyfarch’s Lament captured the frustration of many of the Welsh in their captivity and it also seems to have foreshadowed a call to arms against the Norman invaders that would soon spread throughout the country. In 1094, soon after the poem’s composition, the Welsh rose up against the Norman occupation in an open revolt that ultimately led them to reclaim many of the kingdoms they had previously lost by the end of the century.

Cotton MS Faustina C I is notable for featuring another of Rhygyfarch’s Latin poems, entitled De messe infelici (On the Unhappy Harvest). The work consists of a single four-line stanza written in the upper margin of one of the manuscript’s pages. The poem is noticeably more playful than his Lament and takes the form of a proverb that warns of the potential danger posed by mice to a harvest:

Longa fluit pluuiis tempestas noxia nimbis,
nam nequit in segites messor committere falces:
quamuis ipse suis maturis parcat aristis,
turba tamen muris nescit iam parcere campis.
        (ll. 1-4; Lapidge, ‘Welsh-Latin Poetry’ (1973/4, p. 92)

The endless rain pours down, destructive (to the harvest) with its violent downfall,
for the reaper cannot commit scythes to the crops:
although he spares his mature crops,
an army of mice nevertheless refuses to spare the fields.

A detail from a medieval manuscript, featuring a four-line Latin poem by Rhygyfarch, written in the upper margin of the page.
Rhygyfarch’s De messe infelici (On the Unhappy Harvest), 1st half of the 12th century, Llanbadarn Fawr (Cotton MS Faustina C I, f. 80r detail)

Both Cotton MS Faustina C I and Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV have been digitised in their entirety by the British Library and are available to view online on our Digitised Manuscripts site. We hope you enjoy reading Rhygyfarch’s writings and wish you a Happy St David’s Day!

 

Calum Cockburn
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Further Reading

David Howlett, ‘Rhygyfarch ap Sulien and Ieuan ap Sulien’, in The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, Volume 1: c. 400-1100, ed. by Richard Gameson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 701-706.

Michael Lapidge, ‘The Welsh-Latin poetry of Sulien’s family’, Studia Celtica (1973/4), 68-106.

St David of Wales: Cult, Church and Nation, ed. by J. Wyn Evans and Jonathan M. Wooding (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2007) [Includes an edition of Rhygyfarch’s Life of St David].

 

23 February 2021

Illuminated Canon Tables

Canon tables are ubiquitous and fundamental to Christian copies of Scripture over many centuries, in both Greek and Latin. Devised by the early Church Father Eusebius (d. c. 340), bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, the tables present a unifying gateway to the Gospels, the four biblical accounts of the life of Christ written by the Evangelists, Sts Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The tables contain numbered lists of passages that are either shared in two or more Gospel accounts, or are unique to a particular Gospel. As Eusebius explains in a letter to his friend Carpianus, he compiled the ten tables (or canons, in Greek) to help the reader ‘know where each of the Evangelists was led by the love of truth to speak about the same things’.

In deluxe copies of the Gospels, the canon tables offered an opportunity for artists to explore a different type of decoration from pictorial illustration and narrative initials. Typically the tables are presented in micro-architectural frames, sometimes complete with faux marble or porphyry columns under elaborate arched pediments.

Perhaps the most well-known canon table in the British Library is also the earliest: a sophisticated 6th- or 7th-century example in Greek made in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). These canons are now fragmentary, comprising only two leaves that were added to a 12th-century manuscript of the Gospels in Greek. The fragments give a glimpse of what must have been a truly splendid book, as they are written on gold, and embellished with bust portraits above the arches.

The Golden Canon tables, written on gold parchment with rich decoration
The Golden Canon tables, Constantinople, 6th-7th century: Add MS 5111/1, f. 11r

In an elegant 9th-century Latin example the decoration is enhanced by the presence of an archer who prepares to shoot an arrow across the pediment at another man, who is preparing to launch his spear.

Canon table 2, decorated with an archer and spear-thrower
The Eller Gospels, canon table 2, with an archer and spear-thrower, northeastern France, 2nd quarter of the 9th century: Harley MS 2826, f. 5r

In a later, 12th-century Latin version of the tables from the Benedictine abbey of St Pierre in Préaux in Normandy, the columns feature lush foliage topped by elaborated capitals, with twisted winged creatures embedded in the design. The first canon is set out as seven groups of five passages identified by Roman numerals (the Ammonian section references), divided by horizontal lines and presented in four columns. Each column is headed by the name of the relevant Evangelist (Math[eu]s), Marcus, Lucas and Joh[ann]es). At top, the Abbey’s patron saint St Peter sits above the central column, identified by the key held in his right hand. This attribute was derived from Christ’s statement that ‘That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church . . . And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 16:18-19). 

The Préaux Gospels, canon table 1, with St Peter
The Préaux Gospels, canon table 1, with St Peter, northwestern France, 1st quarter of the 12th century: Add MS 11850, f. 10r

The other nine canons all include a central nimbed figure holding a gold book, presumably representing an Evangelist and the Gospels themselves, which are to come following the elegant correlation of their contents.

The Préaux Gospels, canon table 6, with a nimbed figure
The Préaux Gospels, canon table 6, with a nimbed figure, northwestern France, 1st quarter of the 12th century, Add MS 11850, f. 14r

To find out more, you can also explore our articles on Manuscripts of the Christian Bible, Illuminated Byzantine Gospel-books, and Biblical Illumination, as well as our earlier blogpost on the Golden Canon Tables.

Kathleen Doyle

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20 February 2021

Lady Jane Grey’s letters from the Tower of London

On 12 February 1554, the 16-year-old Lady Jane Grey (1537–1554) approached the scaffold at the Tower of London, to be beheaded for committing high treason against Mary I of England. According to a contemporary diary, known as the Chronicle of Queen Jane, she held ‘a boke in hir hande, wheron she praied all the way till she cam to the saide scaffolde’. Containing prayers that should be read for ‘adversity and grievous distress’ and ‘strength of mind’, this manuscript, identifiable as the pocket-sized prayer book Harley MS 2342, may have comforted her in her final hours. But Jane also used it to comfort others. In its empty margins she had scribbled farewell messages to her father, also imprisoned at the Tower, and to Sir John Brydges, Lieutenant of the Tower of London, who may have passed it on after her death.

A portrait of Lady Jane Grey wearing a red dress and various jewels and holding a small book in her left hand.

Lady Jane Grey by an unknown artist (c. 1590–1600) © National Portrait Gallery, London; reproduced under a Creative Commons image licence

Some abrupt events took place in the final year of Jane’s short life. In 1553, a dying King Edward VI, aged just 15, removed his Catholic half-sister Mary Tudor, his legitimate successor, from the line to the throne. Instead, he instructed that Jane, his Protestant cousin, should inherit the crown. On 10 July, she was proclaimed Queen of England, but only nine days later, Mary seized the throne with the aid of her supporters. Although Jane’s life was cut short, her messages in Harley MS 2342 and other writings associated with her imprisonment at the Tower of London helped create a long-lasting legacy.

The opening page of the Chronicle of Queen Jane, entitled ‘An Annale of Queen Marie her Raigne or a great part of it ab Anonymo’, written in brown ink.

The opening page of the Chronicle of Queen Jane (England, July 1553 to October 1554): Harley MS 194, f. 1r

Most of Jane’s surviving writings from the Tower concern spiritual advice. In her message to John Brydges, she encouraged him to live in stillness (without succumbing to the temptations of the world) by reminding him of the much greater spiritual joy that can be gained in the afterlife:

‘I shalle as a frende desyre you, and as a Christian require you, to call uppon God, to encline youre harte to his lawes, to quicken you in his waye, and not to take the worde of trewethe utterlye oute of youre mouthe. Lyve styll to dye, that by deathe you may purchase eternall life [...] for as the Precher sayethe there is a tyme to be borne and a tyme to dye and the daye of deathe is better then the daye of oure byrthe - youres as the lord knowethe, as a frende Jane Duddeley’

Jane’s signature below her message to Sir John Brydges written in brown ink that has now faded in the lower margin of a page of her prayer book.

Jane’s signature below her message to Sir John Brydges in her prayer book (England, 1539–1554): Harley MS 2342, f. 77r

A Latin poem that Jane is said to have scratched with a pin into the wall of her cell at the Tower of London contains further advice. One manuscript version of the poem, which adds an English translation and opens with an English verse from one of her letters, claims that she wrote it for her husband, Lord Guildford Dudley (c. 1535–1554), who had been awaiting execution elsewhere in the castle. Her purported message offers words of advice, consolation and a caution against the vicissitudes of life that seem appropriate for a wider audience:

‘Certen verses written by the said Lady Jane before hir deathe unto the Lorde Guylford Dudley hir husband who was executed apon the Scaffold at Tower hill [...] a litle before the death of the said Lady Jane:

Bee constant, bee constant, feare not for payne,

Christe hath redeamed thee, and heaven is thy gayn.

Non aliena putes homini, qui obtingere possunt,

Sors hodierna mihi, tunc erit illa tibi.

Do never thincke it straunge,

Though nowe I have misfortune

ffor if that fortune chaunge:

The same to the may happen.

Post tenebras spero lucem

Deo Juvante, nil nocet Livor malus.

Et non Juvante, nil invat Labor gravis.

Yf God do helpe thee: Hate shall not hurte thee,

Yf god do fayle thee: Then shall not Labor prevayle thee’

A poem that Jane purportedly inscribed in her cell at the Tower of London written in black ink with punctuation highlighted in red ink.

A poem that Jane purportedly inscribed in her cell at the Tower of London (Cheshire, late 16th- and early 17th-century): Egerton MS 2642, f. 213v

Although these writings may have been relatively unknown in the 16th century, several of Jane’s prison letters were published in print shortly after death. One is a letter to her younger sister Lady Katherine Grey (1540–1568), written on the night before her execution on the pages of a New Testament in Greek. A copy of this printed letter was subsequently entered onto the empty leaves of a 15th-century English manuscript (Harley 2370) containing a treatise known as the Ars moriendi (‘Art of dying’). Like the latter work, Jane’s letter reminds the reader of the importance of leading a virtuous life while hoping for salvation in death:

‘Lyve styll to dey, that you by deth may purchas eternal lyfe [...] And trust not that the tendernes of your age shall lengthen your liffe; for as sone (if God call) goith the yowng as the old: and laborre alway to lerne to dey, deney the world, defey the devell, and disspyse the flesh, delite yourselfe onely in the lord.’

Jane’s letter to her sister Katherine written in blue ink below the Latin text Ars moriendi, which is written in brown ink

Jane’s letter (‘exhortacyon’) to her sister Katherine on ‘the night bef[ore] she suffred’ (England, 16th century): Harley MS 2370, f. 39v

But Jane did not only write spiritual advice. In two other letters published together with that to her sister, she eloquently defended the Protestant faith against the Catholic Church. One of these is a letter addressed to an anonymous man who had recently converted from Protestantism to Catholicism. A handwritten copy of it can be found in one of the volumes of the Protestant historian John Foxe (1516/1517–1587) that he used for his account of the persecution of Protestants under the Catholic Church, entitled Actes and Monuments and known as his Book of Martyrs, published in 1563.

The title of Jane’s letter to a Protestant who has converted to Catholicism, written in brown ink.

An Epistle of the Lady Iane, a righte vertuwes woman, to a lerned man of late fallen from the truth of Gods word for feare off the worlde (England, c. 1560): Harley MS 416, f. 25r

In the other letter, Jane recounted her debate with John Feckenham (c. 1515–1584), a Benedictine monk sent by Mary Tudor a few days before the execution in order to convert her to Catholicism. In it, Jane details how she remained unmoved by and refuted Feckenham’s attacks on her Protestant ideas. For example, she retorted to him, ‘I grounde my faith uppon goddes word and not uppon the Churche for if the Churche be a good Churche the faith of the Churche must be tried by goddes worde and not goddes worde by the Churche’. The dialogue was published in pamphlet form as early as 1554, but gained further circulation by its inclusion in Foxe’s Actes and Monuments.

Jane’s debate with John Feckenham written in brown ink.

Jane’s debate with John Feckenham, entitled ‘Perswasyons of Fecknam to turne the Lady Jane Dudley agaynst she shulde suffer deathe’ (England, c. 1570) Harley MS 425, f. 83r

When Jane was writing, she cannot have expected her letters to reach an audience beyond their intended recipients. However, during Mary Tudor’s restoration of Catholicism and persecution of Protestants, her letters found a different audience among printers and readers. These publications made her the first female author whose spiritual letters were printed in England, and ensured that her letters survived into modern times.

 

Clarck Drieshen

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