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258 posts categorized "Latin"

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.

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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.  

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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. 

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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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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

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

23 October 2018

Fire in the library

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Our new exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, has been receiving rave reviews. Don't just take our word for it, read here why The Guardian and the Evening Standard have both given it a coveted 5 stars. The show features outstanding archaeological finds alongside incredible illuminated manuscripts and literary treasures, from Sutton Hoo and the Staffordshire Hoard to Beowulf and Codex Amiatinus.

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The Old English epic poem Beowulf survives uniquely in a manuscript from the Cotton collection: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 169r

Approximately a quarter of the manuscripts on display come from one collection alone, namely that of the 17th-century politician and antiquary, Sir Robert Cotton. They include books such as the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Vespasian Psalter, and documents such as the oldest surviving charter written in England. We are incredibly lucky to have them in our show, but even more so because they escaped near-total destruction in one of the most devastating events in modern library history: the Cotton fire, which broke out on the night of 23 October 1731.

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The manuscript of Gildas' The Ruin of Britain was almost ruined by fire in 1731: Cotton MS Vitellius A VI, f. 15r

A quick look at the pages of the unique surviving manuscripts of Beowulf and Gildas' The Ruin of Britain gives some idea of the damage they sustained in that fire. Their parchment pages started to warp in the heat of the flames, and the edges began to crumble. In some sad cases, the manuscripts were blackened and rendered almost useless, and in a handful of instances — such as that of the only medieval copy of Asser's Life of King Alfred — the volume was destroyed for ever.

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A page from the London portion of the Otho-Corpus Gospels, showing the severe damage this manuscript sustained in the 1731 Cotton fire: Cotton MS Otho C V, f. 27r

The story of the Cotton library fire has been told elsewhere. Essentially, the Cotton collection was  presented to the British nation in 1702, upon the death of Sir John Cotton, Sir Robert's grandson. It had ultimately been taken for safekeeping to the (inappropriately named) Ashburnham House, located near Westminster School in London. When the fire took hold, desperate efforts were made to save the books from the flames. The next morning, the Westminster schoolboys were reported to have collected scraps of burnt parchment, which were blowing in the breeze.

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The Marvels of the East: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 82r

A miraculous and pioneering programme of restoration, carried out at the British Museum in the 19th century, managed to preserve the burnt Cotton volumes for posterity. The manuscripts seem to have been soaked in a 'solution of wine', enabling their pages to be separated, and then they were often inlaid (like Beowulf and Gildas) in paper mounts. This whole process has been documented meticulously in Andrew Prescott's seminal article, ‘“Their present miserable state of cremation”: the restoration of the Cotton library’, in C. J. Wright (ed.), Sir Robert Cotton as Collector: Essays on an Early Stuart Courtier and his Legacy (London, 1997), pp. 391–454.

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The Æthelstan Psalter was singed in the Cotton fire: Cotton MS Galba A XVIII, f. 21r

Below is a full list of the Cotton manuscripts and charters on display in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. To their number, we could also add the magnificent Utrecht Psalter, which was alienated from Cotton's collection in the 1620s, and which ultimately made its way to the Universiteitsbibliotheek in Utrecht in the 18th century.

The Cotton collection was recently added to the UNESCO Memory of the World UK register. We feel sure that you would agree that, without the enterprise of Sir Robert Cotton himself, and without the endeavours of those who salvaged the damaged manuscripts in the 18th and 19th centuries, our knowledge of the Anglo-Saxon period — as well as our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition — would be much the poorer.

Cotton Charter VIII 16 (grant of King Æthelstan and the will of Wulfgar)
Cotton Charter VIII 38 (will of Wynflæd)
Cotton MS Augustus II 2 (grant of King Hlothhere of Kent, AD 679)
Cotton MS Augustus II 3 (grant of King Æthelbald of the Mercians)
Cotton MS Augustus II 18 (letter of Bishop Wealdhere of London)
Cotton MS Augustus II 20 (Council of Kingston)
Cotton MS Augustus II 61 (decree of a synod of Clofesho, 803)
Cotton MS Caligula A VIII (Libellus de primo Saxonum uel Normannorum aduentu)
Cotton MS Caligula A XIV (Caligula Troper)
Cotton MS Claudius B IV (Old English Hexateuch)
Cotton MS Cleopatra B XIII (Old English coronation oath)
Cotton MS Domitian A I (Isidore, De natura rerum)
Cotton MS Domitian A VII (Durham Liber Vitae)
Cotton MS Faustina A X (Ælfric's Grammar)
Cotton MS Galba A XVIII (Æthelstan Psalter)
Cotton MS Julius A VI (Julius Work Calendar)
Cotton MS Julius E VII (Ælfric's Lives of Saints)
Cotton MS Nero A I (law-code of King Cnut)
Cotton MS Nero D IV (Lindisfarne Gospels)
Cotton MS Otho A VI (Boethius)
Cotton MS Otho C I/1 (Old English gospel-book)
Cotton MS Otho C V (Otho-Corpus Gospels)
Cotton MS Tiberius A II (Æthelstan or Coronation Gospels)
Cotton MS Tiberius A III (Regularis concordia)
Cotton MS Tiberius A VI (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle B)
Cotton MS Tiberius A XIII (Liber Wigorniensis)
Cotton MS Tiberius B I (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle C)
Cotton MS Tiberius B IV (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D)
Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1 (Marvels of the East)
Cotton MS Tiberius C II (Tiberius Bede)
Cotton MS Tiberius C VI (Tiberius Psalter)
Cotton MS Titus D XXVII (Ælfwine’s Prayer Book)
Cotton MS Vespasian A I (Vespasian Psalter)
Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII (New Minster Charter)
Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV (letter-book of Archbishop Wulfstan)
Cotton MS Vespasian A XIX (Libellus Æthelwoldi)
Cotton MS Vitellius A VI (Gildas)
Cotton MS Vitellius A XV (Beowulf)
Cotton MS Vitellius C III (Old English herbal)
Cotton MS Vitellius C XII/1 (St Augustine's martyrology)

Our once-in-a-generation exhibition Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms is on at the British Library until 19 February 2019.

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Julian Harrison

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

20 October 2018

Golden oldies

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When we say the early medieval period was a golden age of art, we mean that literally. Skilled craftsmen made intricate golden jewellery, belt buckles and sword fittings. Kings such as Offa and Coenwulf of Mercia issued gold coins. Books, too, were covered with gold, inside and out: some of the most precious books were given jewelled treasure bindings. You can find examples of all of this at the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the British Library (on until 19 February 2019), including two manuscripts written entirely in gold, as well as objects from the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found.

Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII  f. 2v shiny
Detail of King Edgar from a charter for the New Minster, Winchester, 966: Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII, f. 2v

Gold was used in highly illuminated manuscripts relatively early in the Anglo-Saxon period, as in Ezra's golden halo in the Codex Amiatinus, and the names written in gold and silver in a Northumbrian monastery's book of benefactors. Indeed, one 8th-century gospel-book is known as the 'Codex Aureus' because of the lavish gold writing and gold backgrounds on some of its pages. Its pages alternate purple-plain-purple-plain. According to an inscription on one of the gilded pages, this book was seized by a viking army in the 9th century, but the nobleman Ælfred and his wife Werburg 'acquired these books from the heathen army with our pure gold'. 

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Page with inscription about Ælfred and his wife Werburg: National Library of Sweden, MS, A 135, f. 11r

Gold was very heavily used in illuminations from the 10th and 11th centuries, as artists and their patrons demonstrated their devotion to God. 

  Cambridge  Trinity College  MS B.10.4  f. 60r
Opening of the Gospel of St Mark, Cambridge: Trinity College, MS B.10.4, f. 60r; image courtesy of the Master and Fellows of Trinity College Cambridge 

One surviving manuscript from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms was written entirely in gold. This is an unusual charter for the New Minster, Winchester, issued in 966. It begins with an image of King Edgar, flanked by St Peter and the Virgin Mary, offering a golden book to Christ. You may recognise this manuscript from the exhibition poster. This is followed by 60 pages of text, all in gold.

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Beginning of the list of witnesses: Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII, f. 30r 

This dramatic document was made in the aftermath of a dramatic event. When the reformer Æthelwold became bishop of Winchester in 963, he expelled those clerics who refused to become monks from the two biggest churches in Winchester: the Old Minster (now Winchester Cathedral) and the New Minster, which later became Hyde Abbey. The expulsion was controversial, and some disgruntled clerics even tried to poison Æthelwold. The situation in Winchester may have still been unstable in 966, when King Edgar — Æthelwold’s former pupil — issued this charter. Æthelwold himself probably composed the text. The lavish use of gold underlined the monks’ sophistication and their connections to powerful supporters such as the king.

Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII Lea
Detail of 
Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII, f. 12r (Photo credit Lea Havelock) 

Gold could be applied to parchment in two main ways. The first involved writing/drawing in gesso (a type of glue or light cement) and then applying gold leaf to the gesso. The second way involved using powdered gold mixed with liquids to create a sort of gold ink. In the case of the New Minster Charter, the way the letters and golden details are slightly raised off the page might suggest a layer of gesso underneath (or very globby gold 'ink'). Gesso was certainly used in the lavish artwork and illuminations in other manuscripts from this period. 

The other manuscript in the exhibition that is written entirely in gold — known as the Harley Golden Gospels — used powdered gold mixed with glair or gum. The decoration and text on its pages therefore appears flat. The Harley Golden Gospels were made in the Carolingian Empire in the first quarter of the 9th century. Elements of the decoration and layout of some initials in this book show connections to the art from Ireland and England. In turn, the lavish use of gold in Carolingian manuscripts may have inspired artists working in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. 

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Beginning of St Matthew’s Gospel, from the Harley Golden Gospels, E Francia (Aachen), first quarter of the 9th century: Harley MS 2788, f. 14r

Some precious books were covered with gold on the outside as well as within. These jewelled 'treasure bindings' are recorded in inscriptions, but very few survive intact to this day. Thanks to a generous loan from the Morgan Library in New York, there is a rare example of an early medieval treasure-binding in the exhibition. This covers one of the gospel-books owned by a noblewoman called Judith. Judith was born in Flanders, and she married Tostig, the brother of King Harold II (who was killed at Hastings). Her book  is covered in silver-gilt and jewels, with cast, 3-D figures depicting Christ in glory and the Crucifixion. 

Morgan Library  MS M 708
Treasure binding from a gospel-book owned by Judith of Flanders, New York, Morgan Library, MS M 708, upper cover

In addition to books, the exhibition contains golden objects, including the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found: the Staffordshire Hoard. This was found in 2009 and it seems to have been deposited before 675. Most of the pieces are associated with military equipment, including pommels from at least 74 swords. Some of these were made from gold and some were encrusted with garnets, like the cross pendant that was also found in the hoard.  The exhibition also includes golden sword hilts and two snake-or eel-like decorations, also crafted from gold.

Staffordshire Hoard K88
Golden sword hilt from the Staffordshire Hoard; Photo © Birmingham Museums Trust

The exhibition also features gold and jewellery found at other sites. The Alfred Jewel, found near Alfred's fortress at Athelney, has a golden beast's head and the inscription 'Alfred had me made' in wrought gold around the side.

Alfred Jewel
The Alfred Jewel
; © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford  

Perhaps the most amazing example of goldsmithing from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms is the belt buckle found at the Sutton Hoo ship burial of a 7th-century warrior. The buckle doubles as a hinged box with a triple-lock mechanism. It is decorated with 13 biting beasts that twist around each other. Each creature is stamped with a different pattern to give it a different texture. How practical it would have been to wear is another matter: it weighs just under half a kilogram! 

Sutton Hoo Belt Buckle
Sutton Hoo Belt Buckle
; © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.

The Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition is a literal treasure-trove of amazing art, as well as unique historical documents and literary masterpieces. It's on until 19 February 2019, and you can book your tickets here.

 

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

18 October 2018

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: a once-in-a-generation exhibition

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Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, the largest ever exhibition on the history, literature and culture of Anglo-Saxon England, opens at the British Library on 19 October.

We are delighted to give you a brief glimpse here of some of the stunning exhibits that will be on show. They range from outstanding archaeological objects to unique literary texts, alongside intricately illuminated manuscripts, some of which are returning to England for the first time. The exhibition highlights the key role manuscripts played in the transmission of ideas, literature and art across political and geographical boundaries, spanning all six centuries from the eclipse of Roman Britain to the Norman Conquest.

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The Utrecht Psalter, on loan from Universiteitsbibliotheek, Utrecht

 

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Spong Man, on loan from Norwich Museums Service

 

The exhibition presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to encounter original evidence from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, a time when the English language was used and written for the first time and the foundations of the kingdom of England were laid down.

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms is on display at the British Library in London from 19 October 2018 to 19 February 2019. You can buy your tickets here. A book accompanying the exhibition, edited by Lead Curator Dr Claire Breay (The British Library) and Professor Joanna Story (University of Leicester), is available to buy from the Library's online shop.

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Don't forget that the British Library has made its outstanding collection of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts and charters available online in full, allowing people around the world to explore them in detail, and to support future research in the field.

Regular stories about the exhibition will be published on the Medieval Manuscripts Blog. You can also follow us on Twitter, @BLMedieval, using the hashtag #BLAngloSaxons. We'd love you to tell us which is your favourite exhibit, from the selection published here. 

 

Codex Amiatinus, the earliest surviving complete Bible in Latin, was made at the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in the north-east of England in the early 8th century and taken to Italy in 716 as a gift for the Pope. It has returned to England for the first time in more than 1300 years, on loan from the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence.

Codex Amiatinus  MS MAD Amiatino  f.1v (c) Firenze  Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana

Codex Amiatinus, on loan from Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence

 

Here is a small selection of some of the outstanding illuminated manuscripts on display. They include the St Augustine Gospels, the Book of Durrow, the Echternach Gospels, the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Durham Cassiodorus, the Codex Aureus, the MacDurnan Gospels and the Boulogne Gospels.

St Augustine Gospels (c) The Parker Library  Corpus Christi College  Cambridge

 The St Augustine Gospels, on loan from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

Book of Durrow (Ms.57  ff.85v-86r) (c) The Board of Trinity College  Dublin

The Book of Durrow, on loan from Trinity College Dublin

 

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The Echternach Gospels, on loan from Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris

 

Lindisfarne Gospels p.2 (c) British Library Board

The Lindisfarne Gospels (The British Library)

 

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The Durham Cassiodorus, on loan from Durham Cathedral Library

 

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The Codex Aureus, on loan from Kungliga Biblioteket, Stockholm

 

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The MacDurnan Gospels, on loan from Lambeth Palace Library

 

129. Boulogne-sur-mer MS 11

The Boulogne Gospels, on loan from Bibliothèque municipale, Boulogne-sur-mer

 

The exhibition also presents an opportunity to compare side-by-side the Utrecht Psalter with its later descendants, the Harley Psalter and the Eadwine Psalter. 

Utrecht Psalter (MS 32  ff. 8r) (c) Universiteitsbibliothek  Utrech

The Utrecht Psalter, on loan from Universiteitsbibliotheek, Utrecht

 

Harley Psalter (Harley MS 603  f. 7v) (c) British Library Board

The Harley Psalter (The British Library)

 

Eadwine Psalter (MS R.17.1  ff. 24r) (c) the Master and Fellows of Trinity College Cambridge

The Eadwine Psalter, on loan from Trinity College, Cambridge

 

Also on display is the magnificent treasure binding on the Judith of Flanders Gospels.

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The Judith of Flanders Gospels, on loan from The Morgan Library, New York

 

The four principal manuscripts of Old English poetry are on display together for the first time. The British Library’s unique manuscript of Beowulf is on show alongside the Vercelli Book, returning to England for the first time from the Biblioteca Capitolare in Vercelli; the Exeter Book, on loan from Exeter Cathedral Library; and the Junius Manuscript, on loan from the Bodleian Library.

Beowulf (c) British Library Board

Beowulf (The British Library)

 

Exeter Book ff. 112v (c) University of Exeter  Digital Humanities and the Dean & Chapter  Exeter Cathedral

The Exeter Book, on loan from Exeter Cathedral Library

 

Vercelli Book (c) Biblioteca Capitolare de Vercelli (Italy)

The Vercelli Book, on loan from Biblioteca e Archivio Capitolare, Vercelli

 

Junius Manuscript p.35 (c) The Bodleian Library  Unviersity of Oxford

The Junius Manuscript, on loan from the Bodleian Libraries, Oxford

 

Domesday Book, the most famous book in English history and earliest surviving public record, is on loan from The National Archives. It provides unrivalled evidence for the landscape and administration of late Anglo-Saxon England.

Domesday (c) The National Archives

Domesday Book, on loan from The National Archives

 

Also on display are a number of recently discovered archaeological objects including the Binham Hoard, the largest collection of gold from 6th century Britain, on loan from the Norfolk Museums Service; the Lichfield Angel, which has never been displayed outside of Lichfield since it was excavated in 2003, on loan from Lichfield Cathedral; and key objects from the Staffordshire Hoard, discovered in 2009, the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found, on loan from Birmingham Museums Trust and the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent.

Binham Hoard (c) Norwich Castle Museum

The Binham Hoard, on loan from Norwich Museum Service

 

Lichfield Angel (c) Lichfield Cathedral

The Lichfield Angel, on loan from Lichfield Cathedral

 

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The Staffordshire Hoard, on loan from Birmingham Museums Trust and the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent

 

Other objects on display (did we say that this is a once-in-a-generation exhibition?) include the Sutton Hoo gold buckle on loan from the British Museum, and the Alfred Jewel, on loan from the Ashmolean Museum.

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The Sutton Hoo gold buckle, on loan from the British Museum

 

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The Alfred Jewel, on loan from the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

 

The River Erne horn, a wooden trumpet from the 8th century discovered in the river in the 1950s, is displayed for the first time alongside the Vespasian Psalter, which includes the oldest translation of part of the Bible into English and depicts two musicians playing very similar instruments.

River Erne horn © National Museum NI

The River Erne Horn, on loan from National Museums Northern Ireland

 

Vespasian Psalter (c) British Library Board

The Vespasian Psalter (The British Library)

 

A number of important documents are on display in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. They include the earliest surviving English charter, issued in 679 and granting land to the Abbot of Reculver; the oldest original letter written in England, from the Bishop of London to the Archbishop of Canterbury, dating from early 8th century; and the earliest surviving letter in English, the Fonthill letter, from the early 10th century on loan from Canterbury Cathedral.

Earliest surviving English charter (c) British Library Board

The earliest surviving charter (The British Library)

 

Earliest surviving original letter from England (c) British Library Board

The oldest letter written in England (The British Library)

 

Fonthill letter  earliest surviving letter in English (c) Reproduced courtesy of the Chapter  Canterbury Cathedral

The Fonthill Letter, on loan from Canterbury Cathedral Archives

 

The St Cuthbert Gospel, the oldest intact European book with its original binding, was made at the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in the north-east of England in the early 8th century. It was acquired by the British Library in 2012 following the Library’s most ambitious and successful fundraising campaign for an acquisition.

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The St Cuthbert Gospel (The British Library)

 

Last, and certainly not least, the exhibition has on display a number of significant historical manuscripts from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, such as the Moore Bede, Textus Roffensis, the New Minster Liber Vitae, and the will of Wynflæd, a 10th-century English noblewoman.

 

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The Moore Bede, on loan from Cambridge University Library

  

 

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Textus Roffensis, on loan from Rochester Cathedral

 

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The New Minster Liber Vitae (The British Library)

Wynflaed Will (c) British Library Board

 Wynflæd's will (The British Library)

 

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War

The British Library, London

19 October 2018–19 February 2019

 

 

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17 October 2018

Manuscripts from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms online

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The British Library holds the world’s most important collections of books made or owned in England between the eclipse of Roman Britain and the Norman Conquest of 1066. These books and documents contain crucial evidence for the development of society, economy, literature, government, art and religion during the transformative period between the 7th and the 11th centuries. Ahead of the Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, we are delighted to announce that over 200 manuscripts made or owned in England before 1100 can now be viewed in full online on our Digitised Manuscripts website, along with the surviving single-sheet documents produced before the Norman Conquest. We’ve produced a list of manuscripts digitised as of October 2018 that appear in Helmut Gneuss and Michael Lapidge, Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts: A Bibliographical Handlist of Manuscripts and Manuscript Fragments Written or Owned in England up to 1100 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014): Download Digitised Manuscripts from the AngloSaxon Kingdoms. The list is available here as a spreadsheet (this format does not work with all web browsers): Download Digitised Manuscripts from the AngloSaxon Kingdoms

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Miniature of David surrounded by musicians and scribes, from the Vespasian Psalter, made in Kent in the 8th century with later additions: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 30v

Many of these manuscripts were digitised in 2015 and 2016 in memory of Melvin R. Seiden. Others have been digitised thanks to the generosity of a variety of other funders. These books and documents demonstrate the range of writing produced by early English speakers, including the oldest intact European book; epic poems; short riddles; mesmerising illuminated Gospel-books; even rough notes on 200 cheeses. The list includes not only books that were made in England, but works whose annotations show they were owned in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. For example, the oldest book known to have been owned in England in this period was made in Africa. 

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Detail of Biblical quotations from the letters of Cyprian, made in North Africa in the 4th century, with annotations added in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms around the 8th century: Add MS 40165a, f. 3v

Still more Anglo-Saxon manuscripts are being digitised all the time under The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200. Stay tuned to the #PolonskyPre1200 hashtag on Twitter for the latest updates. 

Other early manuscripts could not be photographed in the traditional way due to historic damage, such as burning and erasures. However, Christina Duffy and the British Library's Conservation Centre have been doing pioneering work with new forms of imaging. Come to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition to learn more, and to see some of these manuscripts in person, as well as online. 

 
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13 October 2018

The last Anglo-Saxon kings

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This weekend marks two important anniversaries. 13 October is the feast-day of King Edward the Confessor, who ruled England from 1042 until his death in January 1066. His successor, King Harold II, was killed 952 years ago at the Battle of Hastings, on 14 October 1066. In the week that our major exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, opens at the British Library, here is some of the manuscript evidence for these last kings of Anglo-Saxon England.

Hastings is often cited as ‘the end of Anglo-Saxon England’. But how ‘English’ were these last Anglo-Saxon kings? Harold had a Norse name, and his parents were closely linked to King Cnut, who ruled England and Scandinavia; while Edward the Confessor spent most of his formative years in exile in Normandy.

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Seal of Edward the Confessor: LFC Ch XXI 5

Although Edward the Confessor died in January 1066, his saint’s day was eventually set for 13 October: the last day England was ruled by an ‘English’ king, as opposed to a Norman. (A handy tip: you can enter Westminster Abbey for free on this day, since Edward’s shrine is there.) But Edward had many close connections to Normandy. His parents were Æthelred the Unready and Emma of Normandy, the daughter of Richard I, duke of Normandy. During Edward’s childhood, England was repeatedly attacked by Scandinavian forces.When he was about 10, he fled to Normandy wih his mother, his brother Alfred and his sister Godgifu. After Æthelred died, Emma returned to England to marry the conquering King Cnut, but Edward and his siblings remained in Normandy, probably living with their relatives.

When King Cnut died in 1035, Alfred and Edward, now in his 30s, invaded England in order to claim the throne. They were probably supported by Norman forces and possibly encouraged by Emma. After being defeated, Edward escaped but Alfred was captured, blinded and killed by Cnut’s son, Harald Harefoot. Edward seems never to have forgiven his mother for marrying Cnut or for her role in their failed coup.

Harald Harefoot died in 1040 and Emma’s son by Cnut, Harthacnut, succeeded to the throne. Harthacnut and Emma had trouble retaining power, so Emma invited Edward to return from Normandy and rule as king alongside Harthacnut. Harthacnut choked at a wedding feast and died, and Edward was crowned as sole king of England in 1043, when he was around 40 years old. Up to that point, he had spent three-quarters of his life outside England.

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Portrait of Emma being presented with the Encomium Emmae Reginae, while Harthacnut and Edward look on, c. 1041: Add MS 33241, f. 1v

One of Edward’s first actions within a few months of becoming king was to deprive Emma of her property. He still had many Continental connections. His inner circle included his relative Ralph of Mantes, who stationed troops in England. Edward also promoted the interests of the Norman abbot Robert of Jumièges, who was eventually made archbishop of Canterbury. He also promoted Leofric, a Cornishman educated in Liège, to be his bishop of St Germans and Crediton (Exeter). In 1051, Edward even hosted a visit from his cousin, William, duke of Normandy.

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The only record of William the Conqueror visiting England before the Conquest, from Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D: Cotton MS Tiberius B IV, f. 74r

Another close advisor to Edward was his father-in-law, Earl Godwine. Godwine was an English noble, but he had risen through the ranks of Cnut’s regime and had married a Scandinavian woman. A sign of these connections is the Norse names he gave some of his sons: Swein (Sven), Tostig and Harold. While Harold may not have grown up outside England, he still travelled widely and his family relied on the support of Continental powers.

In 1051, after Earl Godwine had a dispute with Eustace of Boulogne and Edward's other Continental advisors, his family fled to Bruges. His sons travelled to Flanders and Scandinavia to raise a fleet to force Edward to allow them to return, and Harold travelled to Ireland, also seeking support. The family succeeded in being reinstated. Harold also travelled much further afield, to Flanders, the German lands and Rome, where he collected relics.

Further evidence of connections on both sides of the English Channel, even before the Norman Conquest, is that Harold had probably stayed at the court of William of Normandy. In 1064, two years before they faced off across the battlefield at Hastings, William and Harold may have even fought together during William’s campaigns in Brittany. Later Norman sources made much of this meeting, claiming that Harold swore on relics to allow William to succeed Edward as king of England. These claims seem slightly too convenient in light of the later Norman Conquest. However, The Life of King Edward commissioned by Harold’s sister mentioned that ‘Harold had a tendency to be too generous with his promises. Alas!’

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Opening page from the Vita Ædwardi Regis: Harley MS 526, f. 38r

Whatever happened between Harold and William, when Edward died in 1066, Harold was swiftly elected king by the English nobility, who claimed that Edward has nominated Harold on his deathbed. Harold’s 10-month reign was dominated by warfare, first with the Welsh kings and then with challengers for his own throne. England was attacked from the sea by the Scandinavian leader Harald Hardrada, who was supported by Harold Godwinson’s own brother, Tostig. Harold defeated Harald Hardrada and Tostig was killed at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September 1066. The English king then immediately marched South, since William of Normandy had landed on the coast and was devastating the surrounding countryside.

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Account of Harold Hardrada's and Tostig’s attacks, from Anglo-Saxon Chronicle C: Cotton MS Tiberius B I, f. 162v

On 13 October 1066, as Harold marched to confront William's invading forces, few could have predicted the sweeping changes that would occur when William won the Battle of Hastings. English government, the aristocracy, architecture and the English language would undergo radical change in the following decades. But some things did not change. English rulers, nobles and tradespeople had close links to the Continent before the Norman Conquest, and there was already cultural and artistic exchange between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and the wider world.

You can discover more about these connections in the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition (19 October 2018–19 February 2019).

Alison Hudson

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09 October 2018

Jim Carter meets Bede

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The second series of the Sky Arts documentary Treasures of the British Library concludes tonight with an episode following Jim Carter, the actor, as he explores items in the British Library’s collections. Since childhood, Jim has been fascinated by the early history of the British Isles, and particularly the history of Roman Britain. Jim was eager to discover what Julius Caesar found when he landed in Britain, and how this period of Roman rule left its mark on the British landscape. 

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Jim Carter of Downton Abbey fame at the British Library

A fascinating resource for the history of Roman Britain is the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed by the Anglo-Saxon monk Bede in 731. Although Bede was a scholar with many strings to his bow, the Ecclesiastical History is undoubtedly his most famous work, earning him the unofficial title the ‘Father of English History’. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History is written in five books, beginning with an account of Roman Britain and ending with a summary of events in Bede’s own day.

Bede Yates Thompson

Late 12th-century image of a scribe, possibly representing Bede himself, from the Lives of St Cuthbert, Durham, 4th quarter of the 12th century: Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 2r

During his visit to the British Library, Jim was able to view one of the earliest surviving copies of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. This manuscript was copied in the first half of the 9th century in a southern English scriptorium, most likely Canterbury. The manuscript features a distinct style of insular interlace decoration, cleverly interwoven with the heads of small beasts, which is used to write the first letter of each of the five books in Bede’s narrative. This wonderfully decorated letter ‘B’ begins the opening passage of the whole text, Brittania Oceani insula ('Britain, an island of the Ocean').

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The beginning of Book I of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History: Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 5v

The first book of the Ecclesiastical History begins with the arrival of Julius Caesar, and charts the successes and failures of the Roman campaigns in Britain. Bede vividly described the advancement of Caesar’s cavalry as they marched north. Upon reaching the River Thames, they encountered the sharp, wooden defensive stakes which the native Britons had laid into the riverbank. According to Bede, traces of these stakes were still visible in his own day, and he compared them to the thickness of a man’s thigh.

Bede also described the construction of Hadrian’s Wall. Bede stated that the Wall was 8 feet wide and 12 feet high, and marvelled that it, too, was still standing in his own day. Bede’s knowledge may have been drawn from first-hand observation, since he was writing from his monastery at Wearmouth-Jarrow, located a few miles from the Wall itself. The two Roman walls in the north of Britain would later be depicted in the map of Britain produced by Matthew Paris in the 13th century.

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Matthew Paris’ map of Britain: Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1, f. 12v

When speaking of his visit to the British Library, Jim was amazed by what he had learned from the venerable Bede. This lavishly decorated copy of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History will be on display in the Library's forthcoming Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. Visitors may be able to discover, just as Jim did, what Bede and this splendid manuscript can reveal about the early history of Britain. The Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition runs from 19 October 2018 to 19 February 2019, and you can book tickets here.

 

Becky Lawton

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