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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

11 October 2019

The Nine Worthy Women

In the late medieval and early modern eras, heraldic collections often contained, alongside contemporary examples, the imaginary coats of arms of men from medieval romance and legend or of kings who lived before the age of heraldry. Prominent among these attributed coats of arms were those of the so-called ‘Nine Worthies’ (Les Neuf Preux), a group of three pagan (Classical), three Jewish, and three Christian leaders first described in the early 14th-century French poem Les Voeux du Paon by Jacques du Languon (found, for example, in Harley MS 3992). The Nine Worthies personified the ideals of chivalry and military excellence. At the beginning of one late 15th-century book of heraldry (Harley MS 2169), they were introduced as ‘The IX Worthy Conqwerourys’, and were identified (from left to right) as Hector of Troy, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar; David, Joshua and Judas Maccabeus; and King Arthur, Charlemagne and Godfrey of Bouillon (one of the leaders of the First Crusade).

Image 1 - Nine Male Worthies

The arms of the Nine Worthies (4th quarter of the 15th century): Harley MS 2169, f. 5v

In the late 14th century, a group of female worthies joined their male counterparts. The Nine Worthy Women (Les Neuf Preuses) consisted of queens and female leaders who were also associated with military prowess. This grouping was much less fixed than that of the male worthies. For instance, the majority of the Nine Worthy Women who were part of the pageant for the coronation of King Henry VI at Paris in 1431 were queens of the Amazons, a tribe of warrior women from Greek mythology who, according to medieval sources such as the legendary travel memoir of John Mandeville, governed the land of Amozoyne where ‘dwellyth no man’. Other versions included female British leaders such as Boudica, queen of the Iceni (a British Celtic tribe), who led an uprising against Roman occupying forces; Æthelflæd, daughter of King Alfred, who fought off various Viking attacks; and Margaret of York, wife of King Henry VI, who led the Lancastrians in battle against Edward IV.

Image 2 - Amazons

The Amazons in Mandeville’s Travels (1st half of the 15th century): Harley MS 3954, f. 30r

Another version of the Nine Worthy Women features at the beginning Harley MS 6070, a late 16th- or early 17th-century English heraldic collection. In that manuscript the three Classical queens and female leaders are: Minerva, the Roman goddess of war, whose arms feature the ‘Aegis’ (a shield with the head of the gorgon Medusa) of her Greek equivalent Athena; Semiramis, a mythical queen of Babylon; and Tomyris, a legendary ruler of the Massagetae, who defeated Cyrus the Great. 

Image 3 - Nine Worthy Women [1]

The arms of Minerva, Semiramis and Tomyris (late 16th or early 17th century): Harley 6090, f. 3v

The three Jewish queens and female leaders are Deborah, a prophetess and judge of the Israelites; Jael, who killed the commander of an enemy Canaanite army by hammering a tent peg (of which six are displayed on her arms) into his temple; and Judith, who decapitated Holofernes (his head is displayed on her arms), the leader of an Assyrian army that occupied Israel.

Image 4 - Nine Worthy Women [2]

The arms of Deborah, Jael, and Judith (late 16th or early 17th century): Harley 6090, f. 4r

The three Christian queens and female leaders are Empress Matilda (1102–1167), daughter of King Henry I, who initiated a war against her cousin, Stephen of Blois, after he usurped the throne; Isabel I of Castile [also known as Elizabeth I of Spain] (1451–1504), under whose rule Spain was united and the Emirate of Granada conquered; and Joanna II (1371–1435), Queen of Naples, who managed to re-establish herself as Queen after she had been imprisoned by her husband, James of Bourbon.

Image 5 - Nine Worthy Women [3]

The arms of Deborah, Jael, and Judith (late 16th or early 17th century): Harley 6090, f. 4v

The arms of the Nine Worthy Women in Harley MS 6090 were most likely copied from John Ferne’s The Blazon of Gentrie, first printed in 1586. Their audience would have been familiar with these women through contemporary and medieval works that praised their achievements, such as De Mulieribus Claris (About Famous Women) by Giovanni Boccaccio (as in Harley MS 4923) and the works of Christine de Pizan (for example, Harley MS 4431).

Image 6 - Minerva

Minerva giving arms to her followers in Christine de Pizan’s L'Épître Othéa (c. 1410–1414): Harley MS 4431, f. 102v

Why are the female worthies so prominent in Harley MS 6090, while and the absence of the male worthies are absent? Perhaps they were particularly popular among English authors. In an article published in 1946, Celeste Turner Wright pointed out that, during and following the reigns of Queen Mary I (1553–1558), and Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603), English authors often cited the Nine Worthy Women to justify female governance, to prove women's ability in national affairs, and to attack the Salic Law of France that excluded women from succession to the throne ('The Elizabethan Female Worthies', Studies in Philology, 43 (1946), 628–43).

 

Clarck Drieshen

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05 October 2019

Medieval saints as protectors of animals

St Francis of Assisi (1181/82–1225) is traditionally known as the patron saint of animals and the natural environment. During the Middle Ages, however, other saints were sometimes associated with protecting animals, particularly in magical texts or ‘charms’.

One such charm is found in an 11th-century Psalter from Winchester (Cotton MS Vitellius E XVIII), recently digitised as part of The Polonsky England and France Project. This manuscript features a number of magical remedies for healing animals, written in Old English. The book also contains instructions for making a magical device known as 'St Columcille’s Circle', used to protect bees and keep them in a bee-enclosure (‘apiary’) when they were swarming. The text advised that you should use the point of a knife to draw a circle on a malmstone, and to inscribe Roman numerals and a Latin text inside the circle: ‘contra apes ut salui sint et in corda eorum scribam hanc’ (‘[This circle is] in case of a swarm of bees so that they may be safe, and in their hearts I will write my law’). One should then drive a stake into the ground at the centre of the apiary, and place the stone on top of the stake, so that the stone disappeared into the ground while its surface with the magical circle remained visible. You can read more about this in Martha Dana Rust's article, 'The Art of Beekeeping Meets the Arts of Grammar: A Gloss of "Columcille's Circle"', Philological Quarterly, 78 (1999), 359–87.

St Columcille’s Circle

St Columcille’s Circle (3rd quarter of the 11th century): Cotton MS Vitellius E XVIII, f. 15v

It is not clear why the charm associates St Columcille (521–597), also known as Columba — one of Ireland’s three patron saints — with the protection of bees. Martha Dana Rust has suggested that the author of 'St Columcille’s Circle' may have been influenced by the Ecclesiastical History of the English People written by Bede (673/4–735). Bede interpreted the name ‘Columcille’ as a compound of the name Columba and the Latin cella (‘cell’), which could refer both to the monastic cell or the wax cell of a honeycomb. For example, in one 12th-century English bestiary, Add MS 11283, it is noted that bees use flowers to create ‘small and rounded cells’ ('minutae atque rotundae cellulae').

A swarm of bees in an English bestiary

A swarm of bees in an English bestiary (4th quarter of the 12th century): Add MS 11283, f. 23v

Another saint associated with the protection of animals is named in a 12th-century scientific and magical manuscript from southern France (Egerton MS 821). This collection contains various charms for healing cattle, including a charm for protecting an animal that invokes a certain ‘St Silvanus’. The text includes prayers to Christ and the Virgin Mary for support, but also instructs the reader to give three sticks to three men, and then say to them: ‘I appeal to you, [?named] men, that you should defend this animal from thieves or malign animals’ (‘apello homines nom[?ine] ut cum baculos defendatis hanc bestia a latronibus vel a malis bestiis’). Finally, the reader was instructed to invoke St Silvanus himself to protect the animal in question from thieves, dangerous animals and all ‘evil things’ (‘malos omnes’).  

St Silvanus charm

An ‘animal-charm’ invoking St Silvanus (12th century): Egerton MS 821, f. 56r

The Silvanus who is invoked in the charm has not been identified. He may represent a Christianised version of the Roman wood deity, Silvanus, who was venerated as a protector of animals and a patron of shepherds and their herds in the pre-Christian Roman Empire. The cult of Silvanus may have been recast into Christian form by missionaries during the Middle Ages, while retaining aspects of its pre-Christian identity. (You can read more about this in Peter F. Dorcey's book, The Cult of Silvanus: A Study of Roman Folk Religion (Leiden: Brill, 1992)). It is possible that Silvanus, whose cult flourished particularly in southern France, continued to be invoked as a protector of animals during the Middle Ages alongside other saints who were closely linked with the natural world.

We have digitised 800 manuscripts dating from pre-1200, in partnership with the Bibliothèque nationale de France. You can see some of the highlights on this dedicated webspace, including articles, videos and links to all the manuscripts in the project.

 

Clarck Drieshen

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03 October 2019

Off to a good start: exploring decorated initials

Decorated initials are one of the most distinctive features of medieval manuscript illumination. Enlarging the letters at the beginning of texts was a practical way to help readers find their place in a manuscript. But it also provided an opportunity for scribes and artists to beautify the page and explore the relationship between text and image. In this blogpost we’re pondering the development and meaning of decorated initials in some of the manuscripts digitised as part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project.

Page from a medieval manuscript showing a the opening of a text with a decorated initial
The opening to Bede, Ecclesiastical History, 9th century, England, the Midlands: Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 5v

In the 7-9th centuries, initial letters in English manuscripts were decorated like prestige metalwork. This letter ‘b’ from the opening of a 9th-century manuscript of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History looks similar to the silver disc brooches that were popular among elites of the period.

An Anglo-Saxon silver disc brooch, decorated with animal and foliage motifs and a cross design
Disc brooch from the Pentney Hoard, Norfolk, early 9th century: British Museum 1980,1008.3

They share the same round shape, with an outer border divided into panels of decoration, and a central field divided into a cross-shape. Within this rigid geometry, animal and plant forms twist and intertwine, set against a dark background. Using the forms of metalwork connects the decorated letters to a visual language of prestige usually associated with kings and queens. It signifies that the words are precious and powerful.

In the case of the Tiberius Bede, the design also echoes some of the ideas that are expressed in the text. The Ecclesiastical History begins, ‘Britain, an island of the ocean, which once was called Albion, lies to the north-west, being opposite Germany, France and Spain, which form the greater part of Europe.' In the context of this geographic description, the circular bowl of the letter ‘b’ looks similar to a medieval map, divided into the four cardinal points.

A page from a medieval manuscript with a large letter Q formed from interlace animals and plants
The opening to Psalm 51, the Bosworth Psalter, Southern England (Canterbury?), 3rd quarter of the 10th century: Add MS 37517, f. 33r

In the 10th century, decorated initials moved away from the appearance of metalwork. In manuscripts such as the Bosworth Psalter, the tangled animals and vegetation took over. Whereas in the earlier image the plants and animals were confined to fixed panels within the body of the letter, here they are the letter. The letter ‘Q’ is entirely made up of looping strands that sprout indiscriminately into bunches of leaves and beast heads, which spew out more foliage from their gaping mouths. The endless twisting, transforming and re-generating of forms makes the letter seem alive. This might suggest the life-giving properties of the Psalms, which were central to medieval worship, or it might comment more broadly on the organic qualities of writing in which letters create language and generate ideas.

Page from a medieval manuscript showing a large letter D containing a picture of a man beheading another man with a sword
Psalm 101, the Eadui Psalter, Canterbury, c. 1012-23: Arundel MS 155, f. 93r

Historiated initials are letters that contain a picture inside. They first appeared in English manuscripts of the 8th century and became an important feature of illuminated manuscripts throughout the Middle Ages. Here in the Eadui Psalter, the initial ‘D’ contains an image of the young David defeating the giant Goliath, aided by God who is represented by a hand reaching down from the sky in blessing. The image encourages the reader to connect the opening words of the Psalm, ‘Hear, O Lord, my prayer: and let my cry come to thee’, to the account of David and Goliath’s combat in 1 Samuel 17, and to consider the ways in which the texts of the Bible interrelate.

In historiated initials, the letter becomes a frame through which readers can glimpse an insight into the text. But the shape of the letter might also add to the effect of the image. Here the upper bowl of the ‘D’ appears to trace the arc of David’s sword swing, vividly creating a sense of the force that David brings smashing down on Goliath’s neck.

It's clear that decorated initials were much more than decorative page markers. If you’re curious to learn more, check out our article on English manuscript illumination on The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project website.

 

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