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264 posts categorized "Latin"

23 January 2019

Cambridge loans in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms  

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What do the St Augustine Gospels, the Eadwine Psalter and the Moore Bede have in common? They have all been kindly loaned to our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition by institutions in Cambridge. On display in the exhibition are a host of manuscripts from Corpus Christi College, Trinity College and the University Library. Read on to find out more about some of these fantastic loans.

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The St Augustine Gospels: Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 286, f. 129v

The St Augustine Gospels is one of the great treasures on loan from Corpus Christi College. This gospel-book dates from the late-6th to the early-7th century and is thought to have been made in Italy, possibly at Rome. This manuscript likely came to England soon after its creation, perhaps with the mission of Augustine of Canterbury. The St Augustine Gospels is still used today at every inauguration of a new archbishop of Canterbury, travelling from Cambridge for the occasion. This splendid manuscript provides a tangible link to the very early days of the Anglo-Saxon Church.

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The Dean of Canterbury holds the “Canterbury Gospels”, as Archbishop Rowan Williams kisses the ancient book (by permission of James Rosenthal/Anglican World)

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The Otho-Corpus Gospels: Cotton MS Otho C V, f. 27r

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The Cotton-Otho Gospels: Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 197B, p. 245

In the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition are displayed two portions of the Otho-Corpus Gospels. One fragment is from the British Library’s own collections, and was badly damaged in the Cotton Library fire in 1731; the other part has been loaned by Corpus Christi College. This is a rare opportunity to view these two portions together and to compare the illustrations of John’s eagle and Mark’s lion.

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The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, manuscript A: Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 173, f. 13v

Another manuscripts on loan from Corpus Christi College is the A-text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, otherwise known as the ‘Parker Chronicle’. This is a 9th-century copy of the original compilation of the Chronicle, one of the most important narrative sources for the Anglo-Saxon period, and the earliest surviving witness of this text. Later versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle are also on display in the exhibition, namely manuscript B, manuscript C and manuscript D.

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Asser’s Life of King Alfred: Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 100, p. 325

Corpus Christi has also loaned a 16th-century transcript of Asser’s Life of King Alfred. This is a biography of the 9th-century King Alfred the Great of Wessex, written during the king’s lifetime by the Welsh monk Asser. The only medieval manuscript of the ‘Life of King Alfred’ that survived into modern times was destroyed in the Cotton Library fire in October 1731. Although Alfred is commonly remembered as the Anglo-Saxon king who defeated the Vikings, Asser’s work barely mentions this, instead giving a more personal account of Alfred’s life.

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The Eadwine Psalter: Cambridge, Trinity College, MS R.17.1, f. 24r

The Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition also features a selection of manuscripts on loan from Trinity College, Cambridge. Among them is the Eadwine Psalter, a mid-12th century manuscript made in England. This Psalter is the second copy made of the 9th-century Utrecht Psalter, which was revolutionary for its inclusion of drawings outside the confines of decorative initials and borders. The Eadwine Psalter is extraordinary because of its elaborate illustrations, and also its inclusion of all three of Jerome’s translations of the Psalms, an Anglo-Norman French translation and a translation into Old English.

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The Trinity Gospels: Cambridge, Trinity College, MS B.10.4, ff. 59v–60r

The Trinity Gospels, also on loan from Trinity College, is one of the most elaborately decorated of all surviving 11th-century gospel-books. This manuscript is notable for containing all four of the full-page decorated ‘incipit’ pages at the beginning of the gospels. They are decorated with gold and painted haloed figures holding books and scrolls.

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Hrabanus Maurus, De laudibus sanctae crucis: Cambridge, Trinity College, MS B.16.3, f. 30v

A copy of Hrabanus Maurus’s fascinating text, ‘In Praise of the Holy Cross’, is also on loan to the exhibition from Trinity College. This is one of only two copies of this text to be made in Anglo-Saxon England. Hrabanus Maurus was a renowned Carolingian scholar whose works were popular throughout medieval Europe. This particular work contains poems where both word and metre are embedded into a grid, with concealed phrases revealed only by superimposed images and shapes, in this instance a cross.

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The ‘Moore Bede’: Cambridge University Library MS Kk.5.16, f. 22r

One of the manuscripts on loan from Cambridge University Library is known as the ‘Moore Bede’. This is perhaps the earliest surviving copy of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed in 731. This well-known text is the first narrative historical account of the origins of the English. The manuscript is copied in Insular minuscule, which was faster to write than the more elaborate uncial script, allowing scribes to meet the exceptional demand for Bede’s work.

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The Book of Cerne: Cambridge University Library MS Ll.1.10, f. 32r

Finally, Cambridge University Library has loaned us The Book of Cerne, a beautifully decorated 9th-century prayer-book. It contains extracts from the four Gospels, 74 prayers, a selection of Psalms and the earliest surviving liturgical drama in England, the Harrowing of Hell. The illustrations in this manuscript are very sophisticated, with each gospel proceeded by a portrait of the evangelist and his symbol.

We are incredibly grateful to our Cambridge friends for lending these manuscripts to Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. The exhibition runs until Tuesday, 19 February. Tickets are available here. Hurry… they’re selling fast!

Eleanor Stinson

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21 January 2019

Cataloguing Greek papyri at the British Library: new PhD placement position

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According to conventional estimates, the British Library holds some 3,136 glazed Greek and Latin papyri. This may well convey the exact number, but the actual figure is potentially much more, given that certain glass frames may contain several unrelated papyrus fragments (for example, Papyrus 113(9)).

The Library's papyri cover all phases of the ‘Greek millennium’ of Egypt’s history and many areas of the country. They were digitised in 2016–2017, thanks to the joint efforts of staff from Western Heritage Collections, the Library's Conservation Centre and and our Imaging Studios, producing images of extremely high resolution. The project itself might be compared to one of the labours of Heracles, given the number of papyri and the size of some of them. This first stage was presented at the ‘Third Papyrus Curatorial and Conservation Meeting’ held at Cambridge University Library in 2017.

Following digitisation, the papyri are now being catalogued: this phase started exactly one year ago and since then the Library's online catalogue has already been enriched with some 300 records. The high resolution images have been added to our Digitised Manuscripts site, while some of the papyri have been published in a new viewer, as the example below shows.

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Hyperides' Pro Lycophrone and Pro Euxenippo (P.Lond.Lit. 132): Papyrus 115

Many important papyri held at the Library are now available online. They include literary texts such as Pindar’s Paeans (Papyrus 1842); the Hellenica Oxyrhynchia (Papyrus 1843); and Bacchylides’ Epinician Odes and Dithyrambs (Papyrus 733), as well as interesting documents that shed light on administration and everyday life in Egypt during the Ptolemaic, Roman and Byzantine periods.

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Columns 8-10 of Bacchylides: Papyrus 733(1)

The first results of this cataloguing project were presented at the ‘Fourth Papyrus Curatorial and Conservation Meeting’, which took place at the British Library in June 2018. If you want to read more about this gathering of scholars and specialists from all over the world, read our blogpost Reunion and reunification.

Collaborations with other institutions have contributed to enriching the British Library's online catalogue. Attendees of the ‘2018 Heidelberg Research Webinar on BL Greek Papyri’ have studied and produced metadata for a number of published and unpublished texts, now available on Digitised Manuscripts. The PLATINUM project (Papyri and LAtin Texts: INsights and Updated Methodologies) has also contributed to the cataloguing of our Latin papyri, recently discovering a unique piece written in Arabic but with Roman characters (Papyrus 3124).

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A drawing in Papyrus 123, catalogued by the participants of the Heidelberg Webinar

These achievements combine with exciting projects in the near future. A new training and development opportunity as part of the British Library's PhD research placement scheme has arisen for doctoral students focusing on Greek papyri. The student will join a lively team for three months (or part-time equivalent), gaining first-hand experience in working with the Library's papyri. They will contribute towards the cataloguing associated with this project, enabling the digitised images to be described and published on the Library’s online catalogue and viewer. The placement student will also contribute to blogposts, and will support other Library activities to promote the collection and its international importance.

The deadline for applications is Monday, 18 February 2019. Full details on how to apply and the placement profile are available here.

 

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23 December 2018

Discovered in a stable: the Anderson Pontifical

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Considering that all Anglo-Saxon manuscripts are over a thousand years old, a remarkable number have survived until the present day. They have endured Viking invasions, wars and the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Some manuscripts have unlikely survival stories. We know, for example, that the Lichfield Gospels was hidden by a canon of Lichfield Cathedral during the English Civil War, while the Codex Aureus was ransomed by a noble family from a ‘heathen’ war band in the 9th century.

The Anderson Pontifical is another manuscript with an extraordinary survival story. It was discovered as recently as June 1970 in the stables at Brodie Castle in North-East Scotland.

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Brodie Castle, Scotland. Photo courtesy of the National Trust for Scotland

It is not clear how the Anderson Pontifical ended up in Scotland. The script of the manuscript suggests that it was made around the year 1000 in southern England, possibly at Canterbury. The Anderson Pontifical includes some Old English words which are spelled in the Kentish rather than West Saxon dialect. For instance, storcellan (a censer) is spelled in this manuscript with an 'e', not 'y' as in West Saxon.

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The beginning of texts for various exorcisms, consecration ceremonies and absolutions in the Anderson Pontifical: Add MS 57337 f. 103r

The Anderson Pontifical contains prayers and liturgical texts for a variety of services, including for the coronation of an Anglo-Saxon king. While it is impossible to tell whether this book was actually used at a late 10th- or early 11th-century coronation ceremony, it is certainly a finely-produced volume, with decorated initials and different sections of text written in different colours.

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Fragment of a 17th-century letter mentioning a harbour at ‘Peeterhead’: Add MS 57337/1, f. 2v

Despite its possible connection to kings and bishops, the later history of this manuscript is obscure. Some clues are perhaps found in its limp vellum binding and fragments of early modern papers that were found with the manuscript in 1970. A note on part of these wrapping papers in a 14th-century hand reads, 'benedictionale [et] po[n]tificale; s[an]c[tu]m Barth[olomaeum]’. Among these wrapping papers were fragments of early modern printed books and a letter which mentions the harbour at 'Peeterhead'. This suggests that the manuscript was at Peterhead in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, by the 16th century.

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Ownership inscription written in the name of Rev. Hugh Anderson, in the right-hand margin: Add MS 57337 f.1r

By 1700, the manuscript was owned by Rev. Hugh Anderson (d. 1749), minister of the parish of Drainie, near Elgin, Morayshire. We know this because he helpfully inscribed 'Ex libriis Hugonis Anderson, anno Christogonias ducentesimo supra sesquimillesimum'  on the opening folio. Anderson evidently prized the pontifical and was very particular about who would own it next. In a note dated 5 May 1741, he bequeathed it to one William Mercer and his son Hugh Mercer (Add MS 57337/1, f. 13v). However, he later crossed out that note; on 6 October 1741 the manuscript was left instead to the local laird, Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstoun (1696–1772), 4th baronet. What happened next is uncertain, until the Pontifical's fateful rediscovery in 1970.

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Note explaining that the Pontifical was to be bequeathed to Willliam Mercer and his son Hugh Mercer: Add MS 57337/1, f. 13v

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Note explaining that Anderson had bequeathed the manuscript to Sir Robert Gordonstoun on 6 October 1741: Add MS 57337 f. 144r

Given its eventful history, the Anderson Pontifical is in remarkable condition. Its coloured text is, for the most part, bright and legible. Until 19 February 2019, you can see for yourself as the manuscript is on display at the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. Tickets are available here.

 

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12 December 2018

A useless letter?

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Have you ever wondered, if you lived in Anglo-Saxon England, how would you communicate with distant friends and colleagues? Before the days of email and WhatsApp, letters were written onto pieces of parchment, and could take weeks or even months to arrive at their destination.

A very small number of Anglo-Saxon letters survive in their original form. Letters were often practical documents, sent with a purpose or key message in mind. Many clerks saw little reason for preserving the originals unless they had important historical or theological content, or were sent by or addressed to an important person. Somewhat inevitably, Letters written on single sheets of parchment were more prone to wear and damage than manuscripts. Original Anglo-Saxon letters are exceedingly rare, and the majority of letters from this period are preserved in later copies.

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Ep[isto]la inutil[is] (‘A useless letter'): Cotton MS Augustus II 18

In 12th-century Canterbury, a clerk sorting through a collection of Anglo-Saxon charters and letters wrote the words epistola inutilis ('useless letter') on the back of an Anglo-Saxon letter sent in the year 704 or 705. We would certainly not refer to this letter as ‘useless’ today, as it is now well-known as the earliest surviving letter written on parchment from the Latin West. The letter was written by Bishop Wealdhere of London and addressed to Archbishop Berhtwald of Canterbury. Wealdhere wrote to ask Berhtwald’s permission to attend a meeting of bishops that aimed to resolve recent disputes between the kingdom of the East Saxons and the neighbouring kingdom of the West Saxons.

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Wealdhere’s letter to Archbishop Berhtwald: Cotton MS Augustus II 18

The letter is in Insular minuscule script, which was quick to write and so perfect for letter writing. On the back, it is possible to see impressions left from when the letter was folded for delivery. Once folded, the scribe wrote the address inscription. Although faded, this inscription becomes a lot clearer with the assistance of multi-spectral imaging.

A possible transcription of the inscription is as follows:

A UALDH[ARIO] d[omino]    ad berhtualdo.

FROM WEALDHERE            to Berhtwald

Address

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The address inscription on Weadhere’s letter before and after multispectral imaging: Cotton MS Augustus II 18

Another original Anglo-Saxon letter that was dubbed ‘useless’ in 12th-century Canterbury is the Fonthill Letter, now well-known for being the earliest surviving letter in the English language. In it ltter, Ordlaf, an ealdorman of Wiltshire, wrote to King Edward the Elder (899–924) to explain how he had acquired some disputed land in Fonthill, Wiltshire. This letter is also written in a minuscule script and retains impressions from where it was folded for delivery.

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The Fonthill Letter: Canterbury, Dean and Chapter, Chart. Ant. C. 1282

Many letters written by Alcuin of York (d. 804) survive in letter collections. Letter writing was a skill, influenced by convention and classical rhetoric, and students often consulted letter collections to learn their craft. One particular collection of Alcuin’s letters bears marginal notes made when the manuscript was used in the schoolroom.

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Annotations in the margin of a letter collection of Alcuin’s letters: Harley MS 208, ff. 87v–88r

The manuscript was copied in 9th-century Francia, but was in an Anglo-Saxon England by around the year 1000. In the upper margin of one page, a student copied the alphabet (but inverted the letter 'b'), followed by 4 Old English letters and the first line of the Lord’s Prayer. In the bottom margin, the scribe wrote a line of Old English, Hwæt ic eall feala ealde sæge (‘Listen, I [have heard] many ancient tales’) which is reminiscent of a line from the epic poem Beowulf. Maybe the scribe felt that the collection of letters found in this manuscript were indeed ‘ancient tales’?

Listen I have heard many ancient tales

Old English annotation in the margin of a letter collection of Alcuin’s letters: Harley MS 208, f. 88r

Alcuin spent the early years of his life at York, before moving to the Frankish court in the early 780s. He regularly wrote letters to Charlemagne, king of the Franks, and members of his court, discussing practical matters or engaging in theological discussion. Although Alcuin remained in Francia until his death in 804, he maintained regular contact with friends back in Anglo-Saxon England. When long distance travel was time-consuming and often dangerous, writing or receiving a letter must have been a special, emotive experience.

In his letters, Alcuin often acknowledged the joy of receiving a letter from a distant friend. In a letter to Higbald, bishop of Lindisfarne, he wrote:

“Let my speedy letter show in writing what my tongue cannot say in your ears, that the eyes may replace the ears in communicating the secret of the heart.”

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Decorated capitals beginning a letter from Alcuin to Charlemagne: London, Lambeth Palace Library MS 218, f. 191v

Although letter collections were often utilitarian manuscripts, some were clearly aimed at high-status audiences. The manuscript illustrated above was copied in 10th-century England, and it includes many of Alcuin’s letters to Charlemagne. The first two lines of every letter were copied in lavishly coloured display capitals, suggesting that the letter collection was compiled for a high status patron, perhaps a king given the focus of many of the letters.

You can see these original letters for yourself in our landmark exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, on at the British Library until 19 February 2019. Tickets are available here.

 

Rebecca Lawton

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01 December 2018

A calendar page for December 2018

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It’s December! Hard to believe that 2018 is almost over. But before the year comes to an end, we’ve got a few things to thresh out, literally …

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Calendar page for December, made in southern England in the first half of the 11th century: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 8v

This is the page for December in a 1000-year-old calendar made in southern England. You can currently see the calendar on display in the British Library’s once-in-a-generation Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.

The page for December is accompanied by an image of men threshing and winnowing grain. Grain was harvested in ears. To separate the kernels out from the husks, the ears of grain were beaten with flails, as seen on the left of the image.

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Detail of threshers: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 8v

There was then a second process, winnowing, to ensure the edible parts of grain were separated out. Traditionally, winnowers toss the kernels in a basket or winnowing-fan. The heavy, edible kernels fall back down, while the undesirable chaff blows away.

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Detail of man with a marked stick: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 8v

In the middle of the image, there is a man with stick which is not a flail. It has a serrated edge near the top, and horizontal lines all the way down. Another depiction of it can be found in a related calendar (Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, shown below). This might be another farm implement, but Debby Banham and Ros Faith have suggested that this man might be an overseer with a tally stick, counting how much grain had been prepared.

This gives a precious insight into the organisation of farming and landscape in 11th-century England. Very few notes on day-to-day farm work survive: the only exception seems to be the Ely Farming Memoranda (also on display in our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition). The organisation and records of English farming were part of the reason England became such a wealthy kingdom, and this organisation underpinned the impressive administrative achievement of Domesday Book. (At the risk of sounding like broken record, you can even see Domesday Book in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.)

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Detail of man with a marked stick: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 8v

In the Julius Work Calendar, two men carry off an enormous basket, presumably filled with useable grain. In the Tiberius Work Calendar, the two men with a basket seem to be approaching the threshers, perhaps bringing the ears of grain to be threshed.

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Detail of men winnowing and threshing: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 8v

As with earlier tasks featured in this calendar, threshing might not have been the most seasonal activity for December. However, it might have been linked to December because threshing was a major Biblical metaphor. Since threshing is the process that separates useful, edible grain from inedible husks, it was used in both the Old and New Testaments as a metaphor for judgement, for separating the good from the bad. This metaphor might have been particularly appropriate for Advent, which starts in December. Advent is the period before Christmas in the Christian liturgical year. Today it is associated with chocolate calendars, but in Anglo-Saxon England it was a time of fasting and penance, like Lent, as people prepared themselves for the holy feasts.

There are a number of feasts highlighted with a gold cross in this calendar, all grouped towards the end of the month. The first of these falls on 21 December, the feast of St Thomas the Apostle which was also, the calendar notes, the Winter Solstice. Thomas was a popular saint in Anglo-Saxon England, and several Old English accounts were made of his life. Even the writer Ælfric was obliged to write an account of St Thomas’s life: he initially refused because other versions existed and because he and St Augustine had some doubts about some of the miracles attributed to Thomas. Their objection was not to the idea a miracle would happen, but because these stories portrayed Thomas as vengeful, taking delivery of a severed hand after its owner had slapped him.

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Christmas and the following feast days marked out with a gold crosses: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 8v

The next major holiday marked in the calendar is one we still celebrate today: Christmas. Learn more about how Christmas was celebrated in 11th-century English monasteries here. Then as now, Christmas kicked off a whole series of festivities: the next three days in the calendar are also marked out in gold. On 26 December is the feast of St Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Rather luridly, the verse in the calendar describes him ‘swimming in blood’. This is followed by the feast of St John the Evangelist and then the feast of the Holy Innocents, the massacre of children in Bethlehem.

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Detail of Sagittarius: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 8v

At the top of the page, there is information about astrological changes in December, including a roundel depicting the constellation Sagittarius. Sagittarius is here depicted as a centaur, with his cape billowing out elegantly behind him.

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Detail of Sagittarius, from a copy of Cicero's Aratea in a collection of astronomical texts made in Fleury in the 990s, with drawings added a few years later by an English artist: Harley MS 2506, f. 39v

Whatever is on your own calendar for December, we hope you have a great month. And if you are looking for something to do over the winter holidays, the British Library has an interesting exhibition on at the moment …

Alison Hudson

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17 November 2018

Fantastic books and where to see them

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This weekend is a special moment for Harry Potter fans in the United Kingdom. The latest instalment of the Fantastic Beasts film franchise is released in cinemas nationwide, starring Johnny Depp, Eddie Redmayne and Ezra Miller (all of whom have visited the British Library). Many of us in the Library's Medieval Manuscripts team are huge fans of the world of Harry Potter, but it has to be said that our day-to-day activities are more concerned with the care of fantastic manuscripts rather than fantastic beasts!

So where can you find some absolutely jaw-dropping manuscripts? Look no further than our sensational Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, which has been drawing in the crowds (and is open until 19 February 2019).

Here is a selection of some of the outstanding books on display in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, in the order that you will find them in the gallery. Which are your favourites?

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The St Augustine Gospels (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 286, f. 129v): made in late 6th century Italy, this gospel-book may have been brought to Anglo-Saxon England by some of the Christian missionaries who arrived from Rome in 597.

 

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The Moore Bede (Cambridge, University Library, MS Kk.5.16, f. 94r): Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People is a critical source for the conversion of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to Christianity. The Moore Bede is probably the oldest surviving copy, made around the year 737.

 

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The Book of Durrow (Dublin, Trinity College Library, MS 57, f. 85v): the earliest of the fully decorated insular gospel books, drawing on sources and inspiration from Ireland, Anglo-Saxon England, Pictland and the Mediterranean.

 

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The Lindisfarne Gospels (British Library Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 27r): the work of a single scribe and artist, and often acclaimed as one of the most spectacular manuscripts to survive from Anglo-Saxon England.

 

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The St Cuthbert Gospel (British Library Additional MS 89000): discovered in St Cuthbert’s tomb in 1104, this small copy of the Gospel of St John is the earliest surviving European book with an intact binding.

 

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Codex Amiatinus (Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Amiatino 1): this colossal manuscript is one of three single-volume copies of the Bible made at Wearmouth-Jarrow in the early 8th century. It was taken to Rome in 716, and has returned temporarily to England (for our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition) for the first time in 1302 years.

 

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The Book of Nunnaminster (British Library Harley MS 2965, f. 16v): one of a group of 9th-century prayer books whose contents, script and decoration are all linked to Mercia. It may have been used by Mercian noblewomen, as two of its prayers include words written in the feminine form.

 

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King Alfred’s translation of the Pastoral Care (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Hatton 20, f. 1r): this translation of Gregory the Great’s Dialogues is attributed to King Alfred of Wessex (871–899), who is known to have encouraged the translation of Latin texts into English to aid learning and education in his kingdom.

 

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The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: Manuscript B (British Library Cotton MS Tiberius A VI, f. 30v): this version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle preserves an account of the campaigns of Æthelred, ealdorman of Mercia, and his wife Æthelflæd, ‘Lady of the Mercians’ (d. 918), against the Viking invaders.

 

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Bede's Lives of St Cuthbert (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 183, f. 1v): this famous image of King Æthelstan (924–939) presenting a book to the Community of St Cuthbert is the earliest surviving manuscript ‘portrait’ of an Anglo-Saxon king.

 

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The Coronation Gospels (British Library Cotton MS Tiberius A II, f. 74v): a gospel-book presented to the monks of Christ Church, Canterbury, by Æthelstan, the first king of the English (924–939).

 

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Beowulf (British Library Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 169r): the only medieval copy of what is widely regarded as the greatest surviving piece of Anglo-Saxon literature.

 

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The Old English Hexateuch (British Library Cotton MS Claudius B IV, f. 19r): the earliest example of an Old English translation of the Hexateuch, the first six books of the Old Testament.

 

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The Marvels of the East (British Library Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 81v): fantastic illustrations accompany these descriptions of 37 ‘marvels’. This manuscript also contains lists of popes, Anglo-Saxon kings and Roman emperors, and a map of the world.

 

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Dunstan’s Classbook (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Auct. F.4.32, f. 1r): Dunstan was archbishop of Canterbury (959–988) and leader of the Benedictine reform movement, and the ‘Classbook’ contains annotations in his own hand.

 

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The Trinity Gospels (Cambridge, Trinity College, MS B.10.4, ff. 59v–60r): one of the most sumptuous of all 11th-century gospel books, featuring extensive use of gold and beautifully painted images.

 

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The Judith of Flanders Gospels (New York, Morgan Library, MS M 708, upper cover): a splendidly decorated gospel-book which is associated with Judith of Flanders, wife of Tostig, earl of Northumbria (d. 1066). Many Anglo-Saxon gospel-books are known to have had treasure bindings such as this, but very few of them survive.

 

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Encomium of Queen Emma (British Library Additional MS 33241, f. 1v): a fascinating text in praise of Queen Emma, wife successively of two kings of England, Æthelred the Unready (978–1016) and Cnut (1016–1035).

 

161_E31-2-2 f304v Great Domesday Book Yorkshire

Great Domesday (The National Archives, E 31/2/2, f. 304v): one of the most significant manuscripts in English history, preserving a major portion of the survey commissioned by William the Conqueror at Christmas 1085.

 

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The Utrecht Psalter (Utrecht, Universiteitsbibliothek, MS 32, f. 8r): made in northern France during the reign of Louis the Pious (814–840), this revolutionary manuscript was in Canterbury by the 11th century, when it was used as the model for another fantastic manuscript on display in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, the Harley Psalter (British Library Harley MS 603).

 

All of these books are testament to the creativity and skill of their Anglo-Saxon scribes, artists and makers and to the care of their subsequent owners. We are particularly grateful to all our lenders credited here (from Cambridge, Dublin, Florence, London, New York, Oxford and Utrecht), without whom our exhibition would not have been so FANTASTIC.

You can book your tickets to see the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War at the British Library (19 October 2018–19 February 2019) here.

 

Rebecca Lawton

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

03 November 2018

The real Lake of Grendel

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What if we told you that Grendel’s lake — the scene of the epic underwater battle in the epic poem Beowulf was a real place? Well, it was, according to a charter written in 931.

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Charter of Æthelstan for Wulfgar, England (Lifton, Devon), 931, with Wulfgar's will attached: Cotton Ch VIII 16

This charter is a grant of land in Ham from Æthelstan (d. 939), the first king of England, to his ‘faithful official’ Wulfgar. The amount of land involved is considerable: 9 hides, or roughly the size of 9 Hyde Parks. In order to be clear about exactly which pieces of land were being transferred, this charter, like many other Anglo-Saxon documents, included a boundary clause in Old English, describing the path you would walk around the edges of the gift.  

'First, [go] to the east ... Then westward to the mossy bank. Then down to the hedge/boundary of Beow’s home, eastward to the blackberry thicket. Then to the black pit/cave. Then north by the head to where the short dyke [is]. [Take] out of this one acre, then [go] to the bird’s pond (mere) to the path ... After that to the long meadow. Then to Grendel’s lake (mere). Then to the hidden gate, then back east ... '

Since the landscape includes Beow’s home and Grendel’s lake, it is tempting to think that these names were inspired by the poem Beowulf (although Beowulf is set in Scandinavia, not Wiltshire). At least three other Anglo-Saxon documents mention ‘Grendel’: there is another instance of ‘Grendel’s lake’, there’s a reference to ‘Grendel’s gate’, and on charter has an added boundary clause referring to ‘Grendeles pytte.’

Stowe Ch 32
‘Grendeles gatan’ (line 2), from a record of Archbishop Dunstan purchasing land to give to St Peter’s Westminster, England, second half of the 10th century: Stowe Ch 32

Of course, some people have suggested that these Grendels aren’t ‘Grendels at all, but rather a ‘green delf’ (green quarry) or even Greendales. However, the association with pits and swamps does link these names to some sinister places from Old English literature. Alternatively, a ‘grendel’ could have been a generic term for 'monster', and these 'grendels' could have inspired the poem, and not the other way around. Whichever way, this charter provides a vivid account of one corner of the landscape of early 10th-century Wiltshire, as well as offering some intriguing possibilities about the mental associations and myths that overlaid that landscape in the minds of its early medieval inhabitants.

Ham today
A road near Ham today, courtesy of Google Street View

Beyond the shades of Beowulf, this document is interesting for a number of reasons. It is a work of literature in and of itself. It begins with a dramatic preface, lamenting the costly sins of the ‘tottering’ world and ‘filthy and dreadful mortality’. It urges the audience to flee the ‘wearisome nausea of melancholy’ and instead hold to the Gospels’ promise: ‘Give and it will be given to you.’ This purple prose was drafted by the same scholar who composed many of King Æthelstan’s early charters. Æthelstan’s court was a cosmopolitan centre of learning that attracted scholars from all over the British Isles and Europe. The drafter of this charter was clearly highly educated, with a particularly intricate knowledge of Latin and frequently using Latin words so obscure that they only appear in one or two other sources.  

This charter also touches on major political developments in the British Isles, even though it is ostensibly concerned with land in Wiltshire. In the text of the charter, Æthelstan is described not only as ‘king of the English’ (rex Anglorum), but as ‘king with sole rule of flowering Britain’. This language reflects Æthelstan’s military and political ambitions. Six years later, Æthelstan would win a major battle at Brunanburh against the massed forces of the king of the Scots, the king in Dublin, the king of Strathclyde, and others.

Cotton_ch_viii_16_f001r Welsh kings
Detail of the names of the Welsh sub-kings, Hywel (Howael) and Idwal (Iudwal): Cotton Ch VIII 16

The charter suggests that, in 931, Æthelstan already had control over a fairly substantial portion of the British Isles. The charter was witnessed by, among others, two Welsh ‘sub-kings’: Hywel Dda of Deheubarth (d. 949/950) and Idwal Foel of Gwynedd. Hywel was later credited with codifying Welsh law and he may be the only early medieval Welsh ruler who issued surviving coins. He also frequently visited England and even called one of his sons Edwin, an English name (whether out of taste or political expediency). Idwal allegedly died fighting the English in 942. However, he witnessed several of Æthelstan’s charters and there is no evidence he fought against Æthelstan at Brunanburh.

From Beowulf to bramble thickets to British kings, this charter is a good example of the wealth of material that single-sheet documents can contain. Today, the charter is even attached to the will of the recipient, Wulfgar, which reveals how he bequeathed his land and offers further insight into his social networks.

You can come and see this remarkable document in person at the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition (on until 19 February 2018). Additionally, all of the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon single-sheet charters are now on Digitised Manuscripts, where you can explore them for monsters, meres and more!

 

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

31 October 2018

Pumpkins and pagans

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A few years ago, an American historian was contacted by the creators of a quiz show who were doing some fact-checking for their Halloween episode. Were pumpkins used in pagan rituals in the British Isles, they asked, and did early medieval paganism inspire pumpkins' role in modern-day Halloween celebrations? The historian had to break it to them pumpkins are native to North America and were not introduced to Europe for another thousand years, so that Anglo-Saxons could not have invented pumpkin carving.

There are few reliable sources about early Anglo-Saxon pagan practices. We cannot be sure which holidays they celebrated or how they celebrated them. But Anglo-Saxon pagans did influence some aspects of modern culture, from the days of the week to ideas about supernatural sprites.  

BM Loveden Hill Urn
The Loveden Hill Urn, a 6th-century pagan funerary urn with a runic inscription found in a cremation cemetery in Lincolnshire, on loan to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition from the British Museum. © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.

The earliest English speakers — the Germanic-speaking migrants who settled in southern and eastern Britain between the 4th and 6th centuries — were pagans. Very little written evidence survives from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in that period, apart from runic inscriptions that are only a few words long. You can see some examples in our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition (open until 19 February 2019).

Evidence of pagan practices has to be pieced together from place names (such as Wednesbury, Woden's burg and Tyesmere, Tiw's lake) and burials. For example, tombs that contain objects such as weapons, pots, combs, jewellery and other ‘grave goods’ are often believed to be associated with pagans. The most famous burial of this kind was excavated at Sutton Hoo in the 1930s, although it also included items associated with Christianity. There, archaeologists discovered the tomb of a rich warrior buried in a 27-metre-long ship along with weapons, a helmet, jewellery, objects used in feasts, and silver from Byzantium. Cremation cemeteries are also associated with pagans, since Christians did not tend to be cremated at this time. 

Spong Man
Portrait of a pagan? Lid of a 6th-century pagan funerary urn from Norfolk, known as Spong Man: Norwich Castle Museum, 1994.192.1, image courtesy of Norwich Castle Museum

Archaeological evidence suggests that there was no one, monolithic ‘Anglo-Saxon paganism’: practices could vary widely across regions, time periods, and even within individual communities. 

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Image of Woden and five early kings allegedly descended from him, from a 12th-century historical text: Cotton MS Caligula A VIII, f. 29r

Indirect evidence about early Anglo-Saxons’ beliefs may also be derived from the impact of pagan traditions on sources made after they converted to Christianity. Some pagan gods, such as Woden, continued to appear in the genealogies of Anglo-Saxon kings, sometimes alongside figures like Adam and Eve.

The names of certain modern English days of the week may also preserve the names of gods worshipped by pagan Anglo-Saxons, as well as a Roman god (Saturn), the Sun and the Moon.

Old English

Modern English

Meaning

sunnandæg

Sunday

Sun day

monandæg

Monday

Moon day

tiwesdæg

Tuesday

Tiw’s day

wodnesdæg

Wednesday

Woden’s day

þunresdæg

Thursday

Thunder’s day

frigedæg

Friday

Frig’s Day

sæterndæg

Saturday

Saturn’s day

Belief in pagan gods gave way to belief in a single, Christian god in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Nevertheless, later Anglo-Saxons may have retained beliefs from pagan lore. For example, elves appear in the writings of Anglo-Saxons long after the conversion to Christianity. Indeed, the earliest written reference to an elf appears in a 9th-century, Christian prayerbook, in a prayer that compared Satan to an elf. 

Royal MS 2 A XX  f. 45v
Earliest written reference to an elf: from the Royal Prayerbook, Mercia, late 8th or early 9th century, Royal MS 2 A XX, f. 45v

Later writers were not always reliable when describing the pagan past. These writers were churchmen and churchwomen who had never met a pagan and whose primary knowledge of paganism came from sources that described Roman religions. This is true even in the case of someone like Bede, who lived only a few decades after the last major Anglo-Saxon kings converted to Christianity. In his Ecclesiastical History, Bede appears to offer a detailed account of a pagan priest called Coifi, right down to very specific rules about pagan priestly attire: ‘it was not lawful before for the high priest either to carry arms, or to ride on any animal but a mare’ (translated here). Bede claimed that, in his day, you could still visit the place where Coifi’s temple had stood before Coifi converted to Christianity. However, scholars have pointed out that Bede seemingly copied his descriptions from the Roman and ancient Near Eastern religions he had read about, rather than from any knowledge of 7th-century religious practices. Similarly, there are doubts about Bede's claims that 'Easter' was the name of a pagan goddess. 

Later writers, including Ælfric, abbot of Eynsham, explicitly set out to prove that the Roman, 'Danish' and Germanic gods were the same. Ælfric claimed that the days of the week were essentially named after the same pagan gods in Latin and Old English. He argued that gods with similar characteristics gave their names to the same days in the Latin and English weeks, like the fertility goddesses Venus and Frigg. However, Ælfric deliberately conflated these different religions in order to condemn them all. 

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Ælfric explains the names of the days of the week in Latin and English in his 'Sermon on False Gods': Cotton MS Julius E VII, f. 240v

Ælfric mentioned 'Danish' as well as Roman gods because many Viking raiders were pagan, especially in the 9th century. Some who came to and settled in England were pagan. Small amulets in the shape of Thor's hammer have been found in parts of England. That said, the surviving texts from this period were all written by Christians, who did not offer any details about these pagans' practices; Alfred the Great's biographer, Asser, used 'paganus' as a derogatory term for all Scandinavians, even a Christian Scandinavian who had become a monk. 

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Cotton_ms_caligula_a_xv_f124r

Charm invoking Thor to prevent gangrene: Cotton MS Caligula A XV, ff. 123v–124r

Nevertheless, knowledge of Scandinavian paganism existed in some circles. Shortly after 1073, at Christ Church Cathedral, Canterbury, a manuscript was made which included information about timekeeping, prognostics and some medical texts. At the bottom of one of its tables, someone added a medical charm which invoked the pagan god Thor. The charm is written in Old Norse runes, translated as:

‘Gyril, wound-stirrer, go now! You are found! May Thor ‘hallow’ you, lord of ogres, (G)yril wound-stirrer. Against rushing (infection?) in the veins.’ (translated here).

There remains a mystery about who added the runes, and why someone who knew pagan charms and Old Norse runes was present at Canterbury in the late 11th or early 12th century.

So what do we know about paganism in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms? We know the names of certain gods; we can see different burial practices; and we know that traces of Anglo-Saxon paganism remain in modern English culture. But we can be sure of one thing: they did not have pumpkins.

Alison Hudson

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