16 October 2018
One of the British Library's illuminated manuscripts is now on display, with a selection of other stunning objects, at a new exhibition exploring the life and times of the powerful bibliophile duchess, Mary of Guelders (1378–1427). You can visit the exhibition, I, Mary of Guelders: The Duchess and her extraordinary prayer book, at the Museum Het Valkhof in Nijmegen, from now until 6 January 2019. Our manuscript, Egerton MS 3018, reveals the cosmopolitan connections and rich book culture of the Lower Rhine area in Mary’s day.
The opening of the Canon of the Mass, facing a miniature of the Virgin and Child with a patron portrait: Egerton MS 3018, ff. 23v–24r
The manuscript on loan from the Library is a missal, a service book containing the texts needed for the performance of the Mass. A close look through its pages reveals a fascinating meeting of scribal cultures. The main part of the manuscript was written and illustrated in the late 14th century by a scribe working in an Italian style, using the rounded script and smooth white parchment that were common in Italian manuscripts. It could have been made in Italy, or by Italian artisans working in the Lower Rhine area.
In the year 1400, a different scribe added a calendar focusing on saints related to Cologne, featuring ‘red letter days’ for the Three Kings (their deaths on 11 January and their translation on 23 July), the 11,000 Virgins (21 October), and St Severin, archbishop of Cologne (23 October), all of whom had their major shrines in Cologne. They also added an office for St Severin and a Mass dedicated to all angels. This scribe used thicker parchment, wrote in a pointed gothic script typical of northern Europe, and decorated their initial letters with a Dutch type of penwork.
At a similar time or perhaps slightly later, an artist added seven Rhenish-style full-page miniatures depicting various saints. With their full-length figures, flat backgrounds and minimal narrative, these miniatures closely resemble the types of devotional panel paintings commonly displayed in churches at this time. They were probably added at the request of a new owner, probably the man pictured in the image above, praying before the Virgin and Child at the opening of the Canon of the Mass.
Probably St Severin of Cologne: Egerton MS 3018, f. 7r
Some of the saints included were widely venerated while others were local to the Lower Rhine area. This miniature shows a saint holding a church, identified as a bishop by his mitre and crosier. He is probably intended to represent St Severin, the 4th-century bishop of Cologne whose feast day is prominently marked in the manuscript’s calendar and commemorated with an office in the manuscript’s sanctorale section. The church he carries most likely represents his foundation and shrine site, the Basilica of St Severin in Cologne. It was the city’s second major cult focus after the Shrine of the Three Kings at the Cathedral.
St Cornelius and St Cyprian: Egerton MS 3018, f. 92r
The saints portrayed in this miniature also point to a connection with the Basilica of St Severin in Cologne. They are St Cornelius and St Cyprian, a pope and a bishop who were martyred together in the 3rd century. St Cornelius is identified by his papal tiara and horn, while St Cyprian wears a bishop’s mitre and carries a crosier and book. When St Severin first founded his Basilica, he dedicated it to Cornelius and Cyprian. Severin was later added to the dedication and the Basilica was re-named in his honour. Nevertheless, devotion to Cornelius and Cyprian continued, and a relic known as the Horn of St Cornelius has been one of the principal treasures housed at the Basilica since c. 1500. The miniatures of Saints Severin, Cornelius and Cyprian, three unusual subjects who were all patron saints of the Basilica of St Severin in Cologne, suggests that the manuscript’s owner had close ties with this church.
The Ten Thousand Martyrs: Egerton MS 3018, f. 43r
Another unusual image in this manuscript depicts the Ten Thousand Martyrs, said to have been a group of Roman soldiers led by St Achatius, and who were impaled to death by a pagan army. This relatively obscure cult is particularly associated with Switzerland and Germany, and relics were claimed by Cologne, Prague and other towns. According to legend, whoever venerated their memory would enjoy health of mind and body. Perhaps to emphasise their powers over bodily health, this gruesome miniature focuses on the martyrs’ bodily suffering, showing them as a mass of contorted naked bodies, violently impaled and pouring with blood.
We are delighted to be a lender to the Mary of Guelders exhibition, which is on in Nijmegen from 13 October 2018 to 6 January 2019.
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05 July 2018
Football is an ancient sport. It is not clear when or where it was first played, but we do know that football was banned twice in England during the 14th century. On 13 April 1314, King Edward II forbade 'hustling over large balls' (‘rageries de grosses pelotes’) at the behest of some disgruntled London merchants (who clearly didn't realise the sport's potential for selling flags, alcohol and other merchandise). Then, in 1349, Edward III ordered that archery practice should supersede the playing of football ("Arrows coming home," anyone?). Later that century, the controversial churchman John Wyclif (d. 1384) cited in one of his sermons, suggesting it was a common sight: ‘Christian people have been kicked around, now by popes, now by bishops … as they would kick a football’ (‘Cristene men ben chullid, now wiþ popis, and now wiþ bishopis … as who shulde chulle a foot-balle’).
Medieval imagery continues to permeate ‘the beautiful game'. For example, the kit worn by the England team uses medieval symbolism, which is the subject of this blogpost.
Image of Richard the Lionheart from Sir Thomas Holme's Book of Arms, made in England, c. 1445–1524, Harley MS 4205, f. 3v
The nickname of the England football team is the ‘Three Lions’. This refers to the team’s crest, which is in turn based on the royal arms of England. Originally, the kings’ coats of arms had a variable number of lions, usually one or two, in different poses. After Henry II married Eleanor of Acquitaine — whose coat of arms also involved a lion — three lions appeared on some English royal symbols. The three lions are particularly associated with Henry’s and Eleanor’s son, Richard the Lionheart. His Great Seal is the first seal of an English monarch in which the coat of arms, including the three lions, can clearly be seen.
Richard the Lionheart’s association with the three lions was remembered decades after his death. When Matthew Paris abbreviated his accounts of the reigns of the English kings in the middle of the 13th century, he depicted Richard holding a shield with a three lions as his defining feature.
Image of Richard the Lionheart carrying a shield with three roughly drawn lions, from Matthew Paris's Abbreviated Chronicles of England, made in St Albans c. 1255–1259, Cotton MS Claudius D VI, f. 9v
Today, the three lions are joined by another royal heraldic symbol: ten Tudor roses, symbolising the different divisions of the English Football Association. These roses are red and white, combining symbols of the two opposing sides from the Wars of the Roses.
The Tudor rose entwined with the pomegranate motif of Katherine of Aragon, from Thomas More's Coronation Suite, Cotton MS Titus D IV, f. 12v
Nor is England the only team in the World Cup with medieval or even older iconography emblazoned on their kits. The Japan side’s symbol is the three-legged crow Yatagarasu. The three-legged bird is a figure in many East Asian mythologies, stretching back perhaps thousands of years BCE. When Sweden play England on Saturday, their players will be wearing blue and yellow: these colours have been associated with Sweden perhaps since the late 13th century, when King Magnus III used them on his coat of arms.
Now, if only we could persuade the England football team to actually play like lions ...
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09 June 2018
We are delighted that Sir Robert Cotton's collection of manuscripts, held at the British Library, has been added to the UNESCO Memory of the World UK Register. Cotton's library contains many historical and literary treasures of national and international significance, such as Magna Carta, the Lindisfarne Gospels, the only surviving copies of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the autograph papers of a number of British monarchs. Collectively they form a key part of the intellectual heritage of the nation.
A page from the Vespasian Psalter, known as Cotton MS Vespasian A I following Robert Cotton's system of arranging his manuscripts in presses named after Roman emperors and imperial ladies. This manuscript, made in Kent in the 8th century, contains an interlinear Old English gloss of the Psalter text: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 31r
Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631) was a politician and antiquarian scholar, who began to assemble his collection of manuscripts as early as 1588, aged just seventeen. Cotton's collecting interests focused on works central to the study of British history, such as chronicles, cartularies, maps and state papers.
A map of Britain by Matthew Paris, monk and chronicler of St Albans (d. 1259). Scotland is joined to the mainland by a bridge at Stirling, while Kent is located due South of London: Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1
The Cotton library contains a nationally significant collection of medieval chronicles. The manuscript of the Chronicle of Melrose Abbey, shown here recording (in red ink) the foundation of the monasteries of Rievaulx in 1132 and Melrose in 1136, is the oldest surviving annalistic chronicle from Scotland: Cotton MS Faustina B IX, f. 18r
The importance of these manuscripts for our knowledge of the past cannot be overstated. For example, Robert Cotton brought together the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in the world, including two early copies of Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum and five manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, as well as the earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon charter, dating from AD 679. Many of these manuscripts will be on display later this year in the Library's major Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition (19 October 2018–19 February 2019).
The earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon charter, a grant of land by King Hlothhere of Kent to Abbot Beorhtwald and his monastery, dated 679. This document is also sometimes known as the 'Reculver charter' after the place where it was issued: Cotton MS Augustus II 2
After Robert Cotton's death, the library passed in turn to his son, Sir Thomas Cotton (d. 1662), and grandson, Sir John Cotton (d. 1702). In 1702, the Cotton library was acquired by the British government, the first occasion that any library passed into national ownership in Britain – an important step in the creation of a national, public library.
Some of the greatest works of medieval English literature are preserved uniquely in the Cotton library, among them the only surviving copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Cotton MS Nero A X/2, ff. 94v–95r
The Cotton library is integral to our knowledge of early modern British history. This document, written by King Edward VI of England in January 1551/2, is headed 'Certein pointes of weighty matters to be immediatly concluded on by my counsell': Cotton MS Vespasian F XIII, f. 273r. Edward's diary is also held in the Cotton collection: Cotton MS Nero C X, ff. 10–83
Most of the collection survived a major fire in 1731, which formed part of the impetus for the creation of the British Museum in 1753. Some of the manuscripts were damaged significantly in that fire, with a small number being completely destroyed. The volumes in question were restored in the 19th century and they continue to support scientific research into the preservation and digitisation of fire-damaged artefacts.
In October 1731, the Cotton library narrowly escaped near-total destruction when a fire broke out at Ashburnham House in London. In the 19th century, it was discovered that the fire-damaged parchment leaves could be inlaid in modern paper mounts, as shown here in a page from Bede's Ecclesiastical History: Cotton MS Tiberius A XIV, f. 39r
Ever since the library's formation, the Cotton manuscripts have been made available for consultation by scholars worldwide. Read more about the Cotton manuscripts in our collection guide.
The Cotton library is particularly rich in illuminated manuscripts from Britain and beyond. Here is the opening page of the Coronation Book of King Charles V of France, commissioned in 1365: Cotton MS Tiberius B VIII/2, f. 35r
Many of the manuscripts are written in Latin or in English (including Old English, Middle English and Scots English). Other European languages represented in the collection include Cornish, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Irish, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Welsh. Non-European languages include Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew, Inuit, Persian and Turkish. Here is page from a Latin-Old Cornish glossary, copied in South-East Wales in the 12th century: Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV, f. 8v
You can view many of the Cotton manuscripts on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site. We recommend that, on the homepage, you type into the Manuscripts search box 'Cotton MS' or 'Cotton Ch' in order to see those currently available; more are being added all the time.
Sir Robert Cotton was closely acquainted with many of the leading scholars and collectors of his day. In this letter, Sir Edward Dering (d. 1644) sent him the charter of King John dated at Runnymede, now known as Magna Carta, and preserved as Cotton Charter XIII 31A: Cotton MS Julius C III, f. 143r
Cotton was renowned for rearranging his manuscripts and for preserving pages from other books and documents. Prefacing a gospelbook is this cutting from the Breviary of Margaret of York, which in turn incorporates a mounted papyrus fragment of Gregory the Great, Homiliae XL in Evangelia, dating from the late 6th or 7th century: Cotton MS Titus C XV, f. 1r
The British Library's two manuscripts of Magna Carta, issued by King John in 1215 and both forming part of Sir Robert Cotton's library, were inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World International Register in 2009. We are thrilled that this whole manuscript collection of national and international importance has now been recognised by UNESCO. We hope that the Cotton library will continue to inspire research into the rich cultural and historical heritage of the British Isles. Access the full list of inscriptions on the UNESCO Memory of the World UK Register.
Tickets for the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, featuring a number of the Cotton manuscripts, can be purchased online.
08 March 2018
When many people think of Old English epics, they tend to think of Beowulf: an almost all-male story of warriors doing battle against monsters. However, did you know that some of the longest heroic poems in Old English have female central characters? Three epic Old English poems are named after and centre on women: Judith, Juliana and Elene. These poems are preserved in three of the four major Old English poetic codices, which will be displayed together for the first time during the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the British Library (19 October 2018–19 February 2019).
Page from Judith, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 205r
Perhaps the most action-packed story is Judith. Only one, fragmentary copy of the poem survives, in the same manuscript that contains the only surviving copy of Beowulf. The surviving copy begins when Judith, a beautiful Jewish heroine, is summoned to the bedroom of the enemy general Holofernes. She finds Holofernes drunk and beheads him with a sword. She and her maid then sneak out of the camp with his severed head, which Judith then presents in front of the walls of her city while giving a rousing speech to the troops:
‘Here, you heroes renowned in victory, leaders of men, you can gaze unobstructed at the head of the most despicable heathen war-maker, lifeless Holofernes, who of all people caused us the most loss of life, bitter pain ... I drove the life out of him through God’s help. Now I want to request of every man of this citizenry, every shield-bearer, that you prepare yourselves without delay for battle after the God of origins, that compassionate king, send from the east his bright light. Bear forth your linden shields before your breast, garments of mail and bright helmets into the crowd of attackers …’ (translated by R. D. Fulk, The Beowulf Manuscript (Harvard, 2010), pp. 311–13).
Part of Judith’s speech, quoted above, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 206v
Two more lengthy Old English poems are named after women: Juliana and Elene, both of which were written by Cynewulf. Judging by the form of Old English he used, Cynewulf probably came from Mercia, and he lived during the 9th century. Unusually for an Old English poet, he ‘signed’ his works with puns based on the runes used to spell his name. Juliana survives only in the Exeter Book (Exeter Cathedral MS 3501) and Elene survives only in the Vercelli Book (Vercelli, Biblioteca Capitolare, CXVII).
Juliana is the story of a beautiful Roman from Nicomedia, who catches the eye of Eleusias, ‘a rich man of noble lineage, a mighty prefect’ (translated by Charles W. Kennedy, Juliana (Cambridge, Ontario, 2000), p. 2). Juliana’s father, Africanus of Nicomedia, is delighted when Eleusias wants to marry Juliana, but Juliana herself is less thrilled: she publicly refuses to marry him unless he converts to Christianity. Furious and humiliated, Eleusias has Juliana tortured and thrown in prison. While in prison, Juliana encounters a demon in disguise. She catches the demon and beats it up. Although the pages which describe Juliana’s fight with the demon are missing (the text breaks after the words, ‘she seized upon that devil’), when the text resumes it is clear that Juliana has physically and intellectually bested the demon, who is forced to confess all his plans and crimes, crying out:
‘Behold, thou hast afflicted me with painful blows, and in truth I know that, before or since, never did I meet, in all the kingdoms of the world, a woman like to thee, of more courageous heart, or more perverse … Clear it is to me that thou wouldest be in all things unashamed in thy wise heart’ (translated by Kennedy, Juliana, p. 12).
A demon and souls in Hell, from the New Minster Liber Vitae, England (New Minster, Winchester), c. 1031, Stowe MS 944, f. 7r
Juliana eventually releases the demon, who encourages Eleusias to order Judith’s death. When he fails to kill her with boiling lead (which does not even harm her clothes), he eventually has her beheaded. Cynewulf notes that Eleusias eventually dies in a shipwreck, while Juliana’s memory endures.
Cynewulf also wrote a poem about Elene, or Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, who allegedly rediscovered the True Cross in Jerusalem. Cynewulf portrays Elene debating, browbeating (and eventually torturing) whole committees of Jews and Christians to tell her the location of the True Cross.
Opening of Elene, Vercelli, Biblioteca Capitolare CXVII, f. 121r
Of course, there are female characters in other epics, such as Grendel’s mother in Beowulf and Eve in the Genesis poems. Women's voices also appear in shorter Old English poems and elegies, like The Wife’s Lament. We might also draw attention to Prudentius’s Psychomachia, a Latin text written in northern Spain that became popular in early medieval England. The Psychomachia features an all-female cast, who are personifications of feminine abstract nouns. To learn more about the role of women in medieval literature, please have a look at the British Library’s new Discovering Medieval Literature site.
Hope and Lowliness behead Pride, from Prudentius’s Psychomachia, England, late 10th and early 11th century, Add MS 24199, f. 15v
We should also admit that there is no such thing as gender equality (or other types of equality) in Old English literature. For example, it may not be to modern audiences' tastes that both Judith and Juliana fixate on their subject’s virginity. But it is still worth noting that, over a thousand years ago, women had a starring role in some of the earliest English epics.
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16 March 2017
The first 100 manuscripts are up! The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700–1200 is celebrating its first digitisation milestone. 100 manuscripts from the British Library have now been added to our Digitised Manuscripts site for you to explore! A full list of the 100 digitised manuscripts with links to the viewer can be found here: 100 MSS Online.
These manuscripts cover a wide variety of topics and images from the Project’s focus of AD 700–1200 (you can read more about the Project or listen to the French interview of Matthieu Bonicel, Head of Innovation at the BnF). Some of the highlights include lavishly illuminated Gospels, like the Préaux Gospels from early 12th-century Normandy, with its amazing miniatures of the Evangelists and luxurious canon tables.
Canon table with Evangelist surrounded by dragons and overgrown vines. The Préaux Gospels, Add MS 11850 f. 10v
A Rule of St Benedict datable to 1129 from the Benedictine abbey of St Gilles, in the diocese of Nîmes, opens with a gilded image of four tonsured men. The marginal letters in gold leave no doubt that this is St Benedict presenting a book (undoubtedly the Rule) to his disciple St Maurus. According to the account in the Life of St Maurus, St Maurus was responsible for establishing the Benedictine order in Francia (modern-day France).
The opening folio of the Rule of St Benedict, Add MS 16979, f. 21v
The manuscripts now fully digitised also include plenty of material that requires a certain level of specialist knowledge to interpret. For example, a table similar to a graph sheet from a turn of the 12th century manuscript from Canterbury provides information for calculating the correct date of Easter and other movable feasts, in addition to scientific observations related to calendars, meteorology, astronomy and the keeping of time. Added material shows that the tables were still in use in the 15th century!
Table for calculating the date of Easter, from Egerton MS 3314, f. 31v
Another fascinating manuscript is a 9th-century text on the liberal arts: grammar, rhetoric, music and astronomy from Lotharingia (covering modern day Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, some eastern areas of France and western areas of Germany). How many students has this Lady Rhetoric seen with her wide eyes; how many readers have been intimidated (or amused) by her unimpressed expression?
A diagram of rhetorical argument, Harley MS 2637, f. 12r
We hope you enjoy exploring these exciting manuscripts. Happy discoveries!
Partez à la découverte de 100 manuscrits antérieurs à 1200 grâce au projet The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200.
Nous sommes ravis de vous annoncer l’achèvement de cette première étape, qui consiste en la publication des 100 premiers manuscrits entièrement numérisés, sélectionnés par la British Library. Ceux-ci seront disponibles en ligne, sur notre site internet Digitised Manuscripts. Une liste complète de ces volumes pourvue d’un lien vers l’interface est fournie ici: 100 MSS Online.
Venez découvrir l’extraordinaire richesse de ces manuscrits, couvrant une période de 5 siècles (entre 700 et 1200). Ces derniers présentent une importante variété d’œuvres et d’enluminures. Voyagez dans diverses régions et époques au travers de ces manuscrits. Vous apprécierez ainsi l’Evangéliaire des Préaux (XIIe siècle), somptueusement décoré, ou la règle de saint Benoît, provenant de l’abbaye de Saint-Gilles, près de Nîmes (1129), et sa représentation magistrale de saint Benoît et son disciple saint Maur. Les collections ayant trait aux arts libéraux ainsi que les manuels pédagogiques fournissent également de précieux témoins de l’enseignement et du renouveau de ces disciplines. Un manuscrit du IXe siècle originaire de Lotharingie est ainsi représentatif de l’instruction à l’époque carolingienne. Nous espérons que vous apprécierez cette sélection et qu’elle vous mènera à de nombreuses découvertes. Bonne visite !
Laure Miolo (French summary)
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