Medieval manuscripts blog

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

09 July 2020

Shakespeare's only surviving playscript now online

One of the most iconic literary manuscripts by one of the world's most famous playwrights, William Shakespeare (1564–1616), can now be viewed in full online on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.

The Booke of Sir Thomas Moore does not immediately spring to mind as among Shakespeare's masterpieces. This late 16th or early 17th-century play is not always included among the Shakespearean canon, and it was not until the 1800s that it was even associated with the Bard of Avon. So what is the connection with William Shakespeare, the author of the more distinguished Hamlet, Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet?

A page of The Booke of Sir Thomas Moore, arguably in Shakespeare's handwriting

In 1871, William Shakespeare's handwriting was identified on this page of The Booke of Sir Thomas Moore: Harley MS 7368, f. 9r

A clue is presented by the handwriting of the surviving manuscript (Harley MS 7368). There are 22 leaves in question, 13 of which are original, 7 are inserted leaves, and 2 are pasted slips. What is immediately apparent is that Thomas Moore was the work of several dramatists. The primary hand is that of Anthony Munday (d. 1633), and he was possibly assisted by the printer, Henry Chettle (d. 1603–07), with further contributions by Thomas Dekker (d. 1632), and perhaps by Thomas Heywood (d. 1641). The handwriting of yet another scribe in the manuscript, known by scholars as the unspectacularly named 'Hand D', is possibly none other than Shakespeare himself. Finally, the manuscript is known to have been censored in turn by Edmund Tilney (d. 1610), Master of the Revels.

The division of the handwriting can be set out as follows. 'Hand D' (probably Shakespeare) contributed an addition on ff. 8r–9v, supplying lines 1–165 of Scene 6. 

  • ‘Hand S’: Anthony Munday
  • ‘Hand A’: probably Henry Chettle
  • ‘Hand B’: probably Thomas Heywood
  • ‘Hand C’: an unidentified professional scribe
  • ‘Hand D’: probably William Shakespeare
  • ‘Hand E’: probably Thomas Dekker

It was not at all unusual for early modern dramatists to collaborate in this way. William Shakespeare is known to have written in partnership with John Fletcher (d. 1625) and others, and it would have been logical for Munday to have turned to his fellow playwrights to advise and assist him when revising his play about Sir Thomas More (1478–1535), the early Tudor Lord Chancellor, humanist and martyr. What is exceptional here, of course, is that Harley MS 7368 is the only identifiable example of Shakespeare's contribution to a playscript surviving in manuscript. None of his other plays have been transmitted to us in this way. What is more, in these pages we can perhaps see the master playwright at work, musing, composing and correcting his text: a window into Shakespeare's dramatic art, as it were. 

Shakespeares-handwriting-in-The- harley_ms_7368_f008v

Another page from Shakespeare's probable contribution to The Booke of Sir Thomas Moore: Harley MS 7368, f. 8v

There is a remarkable sub-text to William Shakespeare's contribution to Thomas Moore. Andrew Dickson, in an article ('Wretched Strangers') for the British Library's Discovering Literature site, has noted how William Shakespeare was presumably called upon by Munday to write the most emotional passage in the play, known as the 'insurrection scene'. Drawing upon events in 1517, when rioting Londoners demanded that immigrants be expelled from England, Shakespeare portrayed Sir Thomas More, as mayor of London, pleading with the crowd to accept the asylum seekers.

Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,

Their babies at their backs, with their poor luggage,

Plodding to th’ ports and coasts for transportation,

And that you sit as kings in your desires,

Authority quite silenced by your brawl ... 

This was all the more remarkable when one realises that similar xenophobic riots had occurred in London in the 1590s and 1600s. Was Shakespeare making a case in The Book of Thomas Moore for racial tolerance? By putting words into Thomas More's mouth, was he making a barbed attack upon the prejudice of his own day?

The Book of Thomas Moore was probably never performed in the time of its authors. The Elizabethan censor, Edmund Tilney, took serious dislike to the playscript, and it seems to have been banned from public performance. The manuscript instead passed into the Harley library and was then sold to the British nation in 1753; it might have remained in oblivion were it not that Shakespeare's style, and hence his own handwriting, was first recognised in the 'insurrection scene' in 1871. The playscript is now extraordinarily brittle, and it is difficult to put on display; but we are delighted to be able to make it available online for everyone to read and enjoy, and for you to determine for yourselves if was indeed William Shakespeare who wrote these lines, in his very own hand. You can gaze in wonder at it on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

 

Julian Harrison

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

07 July 2020

The 800th anniversary of the translation of Thomas Becket

On 29 December 1170, Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral. The event shocked Christendom, and Becket was canonised as a martyr just three years later. On this day 800 years ago his body was translated (moved) from the crypt in Canterbury Cathedral to a new shrine in the Trinity Chapel.

Medieval manuscript illustrated with the earliest known representation of the murder of St Thomas Becket
The earliest known representation of the murder of St Thomas Becket: Cotton MS Claudius B ii, f. 341r

Becket’s murder was recorded in a letter written by John of Salisbury (d. 1180), who was an eyewitness to the event. A copy of this letter is included in an early collection of letters assembled by Alan, the prior of the Cathedral from 1179 –1186 and later abbot of Tewkesbury (d. 1202), where it is illustrated by the earliest known representation of the murder (Cotton MS Claudius B ii).

Becket rose from relatively humble beginnings as the son of a London merchant to serve as chancellor to Henry II (r. 1154–89) from 1154, before becoming archbishop in 1162. Thereafter, he clashed with the King in defence of the autonomy of the Church. Thomas fled into exile in France in 1164, returning to England in early December 1170. Upon his return, tensions with the King still were unresolved, and a few weeks later, four knights left Henry’s court in Normandy and forced themselves into the Archbishop’s presence.

Detail of the earliest known representation of the murder of St Thomas Becket
Detail of the earliest known representation of the murder of St Thomas Becket: Cotton MS Claudius B ii, f. 341r

The images included in this manuscript narrate the sequence of events. In the upper register the Archbishop is at table when a messenger announces the arrival of the four knights, outside the door to the right. Below, having taken up arms, the knights enter the cathedral and attack Becket while he is kneeling before an altar. The knight wielding the sword may be Reginald Fitzurse, if the small animal head on his shield can be identified as a bear (ursus is ‘bear’ in Latin). To the right are four prostrated figures who venerate St Thomas at his tomb, perhaps representing the later penitence of the knights.

Calendar entry for ‘the translation of St Thomas, martyr’ in the Luttrell Psalter
Calendar entry for ‘the translation of St Thomas, martyr’ in the Luttrell Psalter: Add MS 42130, f. 7r

In many English medieval calendars this translation date is included as a feast day. For example, the Luttrell Psalter made for Sir Geoffrey Luttrell features an entry for ‘the translation of St Thomas, martyr’. This entry escaped later censorship following the November 1538 Proclamation issued jointly by Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell by which Becket was characterised as a ‘rebel and traitor to his prince’ rather than a saint, and accordingly that ‘his name, shall not be observed, nor the service, office, antiphons, collects, and prayers in his name read, but rased and put out of all the books.’ The date of Becket’s martyrdom on 29 December in the Luttrell Psalter, however, was struck out by a single, rather discreet, line.

Calendar entry for ‘St Thomas, archbishop and martyr’ struck out in the Luttrell Psalter
Calendar entry for ‘St Thomas, archbishop and martyr’ struck out in the Luttrell Psalter: Add MS 42130, f. 12v

Another calendar in which the translation survives on 7 July is an early 15th-century example from the diocese of Norwich. Here the image is of Becket as a young man in a bishop’s mitre, holding a sword representing the weapon of his martyrdom together with a cross-topped staff.

 Represtation of St Thomas Becket in a calendar
Representation of St Thomas Becket from a folding calendar: Egerton MS 2724, f. 1r

To discover more about Thomas Becket, you can read our earlier blogposts about Becket’s translation, Becket's martyrdom and erasing references to Becket in manuscripts. The letter collection (Cotton MS Claudius B ii) was digitised thanks to funding from The Polonsky Foundation England and France 800-1200 project, and you can view the manuscript's collection item page or read more about medieval saints in manuscripts on the project website.

Kathleen Doyle

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project
Supported by

The Polonsky Foundation Logo

04 July 2020

Our latest list of digitised manuscripts

Long-term readers of our Blog may know that we periodically publish lists of our digitised manuscripts, the last of which was published in January 2020. With the arrival of summer, we are releasing a new update to our lists of manuscript hyperlinks. We hope this makes it easier for you to explore our amazing digitised treasures online.

A detail from a 13th-century Book of Hours, showing an historiated initial of a man watching the sunrise from an open doorway.

An historiated initial 'D'(eus) with a man watching the sunrise, from a Book of Hours, c. 1260-70 (England, Oxford or West Midlands?): Egerton MS 1151, f. 38r (detail)

There are now over 3,600 Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern manuscripts on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts website. Here is a full list of all the items currently available, as of July 2020:

PDF:  Download Full-list-digitised-mss-jun-2020

Excel: Download Full-list-digitised-mss-jun-2020 (this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers).

A page from the Prayer-book of Archbishop Arnulph II of Milan, featuring an illustration of St Michael impaling a dragon and pulling a soul from its mouth.

St Michael the Archangel defeats the dragon and rescues a soul from its mouth, from the Prayer-book of Archbishop Arnulph II of Milan (998–1018): Egerton MS 3763, f. 104v

During this period of Covid-19 lockdown, the Library's Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern team has been busy as ever, working to make more manuscripts available online. All the images included in this blogpost are from manuscripts that we have digitised since January 2020. Here is a list of our most recent additions published over the last 6 months:

PDF: Download Digitised_mss_jan2020_june_2020

Excel: Download Digitised_mss_jan2020_june_2020

A fragment of a papyrus made in the 2nd century BC, featuring a petition in Ancient Greek from a group of soldiers complaining about low pay.

A petition of soldiers, complaining to their commander about pay (Diospolis Parva (Hiou), Egypt, 169–168 BC): Papyrus 638, f. 1r

A 16th-century print of the Colosseum in Rome, featuring a cross-section of the oval amphitheatre, with a winged figure in the clouds holding a banner with a Latin inscription.

A print of the Colosseum in Rome from the Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae (Italy, 1538): Cotton MS Augustus III/2, f. 53r

You can also read about some of the most significant items that have been published online in the following blogposts:

Many images of our manuscripts are also available to download from our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts which is searchable by keywords, dates, scribes and languages.

A page from a 15th-century manuscript of Statius’ Thebais and Achilleis, featuring an illustration of the arrival of Ulysses and Diomedes at Scyros, with decorated borders and an initial with ivy leaves in gold, red and blue.

The arrival of Ulysses and Diomedes at Scyros, from an illustrated manuscript of Statius’ Thebais and Achilleis (Paris, 1st quarter of the 15th century): Burney MS 257, f. 239v

We hope you enjoy exploring our digitised manuscripts!

 

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval