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266 posts categorized "Latin"

27 March 2019

Initial impressions: the Noyon Sacramentary

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Digitisation can lead to new discoveries, and allow us to make previously unnoticed connections. Recently, a manuscript digitised as part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project, known as the Noyon Sacramentary (Add MS 82956), caught my attention. More precisely, the specific style of its two large unfinished initials made me do a double take.

Thanks to my AHRC-funded PhD studentship, which the England and France Project inspired, I was ideally placed to make an art-historical connection that does not appear to have been made before. I noticed that the line-drawn initials of the Noyon Sacramentary are remarkably similar to the initials of some of the most famous manuscripts decorated in the so-called Franco-Saxon style.

FIG. 1 - add_ms_82956_f006v

An unfinished initial V (for the Vere dignum opening) at the beginning of the Canon of the Mass (Noyon, 4th quarter of the 10th century): Add MS 82956, f. 6v. Add MS 86956 was allocated to the British Library by HM Government in lieu of Inheritance Tax under the Acceptance in Lieu (AIL) Scheme, 2007.

Despite developing on the Continent, this style integrates typically Anglo-Saxon or Insular decorative motifs (such as abstract animal decorations and interlace) with Carolingian elements. It was usually reserved for high-grade liturgical or biblical manuscripts and it flourished in mid-to-late 9th-century Francia (roughly modern-day France and parts of western Germany).

FIG. 2 - add_ms_82956_f007v

Unfinished initial ligature TE (for the Te igitur opening) at the beginning of the Canon of the Mass: Add MS 82956, f. 7v

A sacramentary contains the prayers that the celebrant, usually a bishop, needed to perform Mass and other liturgical ceremonies. The Noyon Sacramentary was made in the late 10th century for the use of Noyon Cathedral. It has mainly been studied for its liturgical content and its unusual dimensions. Its leaves are two and a half times as tall as they are wide: this unusual format perhaps made it a highly portable 'saddle-book', making it easier for the bishop to travel to and consecrate churches far away from the seat of his bishopric.

FIG. 3 - IRHT_Cambrai  BM  MS 162  ff. 1v-2r

Illuminated initial V for the Vere dignum opening (Saint-Vaast, 3rd quarter of the 9th century): Cambrai, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 162, ff. 1v–2r

Another sacramentary with similar 'saddle-book' dimensions, but at least a century older, is now Cambrai, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 162. It was made at the Benedictine abbey of Saint-Vaast, one of the three centres in north-eastern France that excelled at the Franco-Saxon style. This manuscript has clear similarities with the Noyon Sacramentary, both in their unusual dimensions and their respective initial ‘V’ of the page with the words Vere dignum ('It is truly fitting'), a page that is marked with a large initial because it introduces the preface to the Canon of the Mass. Apart from the overall shape, this is seen in the stylised animal heads at the top of the two diagonal strokes of the ‘V’, and the roundels halfway down those strokes.

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Illuminated initial V in the Noyon Sacramentary: Add MS 82956, f. 6v (detail)

Can we speculate how this style came to inspire the makers of the Noyon Sacramentary in the 10th century? A possible model is another surviving sacramentary, now known as Reims, Bibliothèque Municipale, MS 213. This manuscript was also made for the use of Noyon Cathedral in the last quarter of the 9th century. However, it was made not at Noyon itself but as an export or commission at the Benedictine monastery of Saint-Amand, also in north-eastern France, another important centre associated with the Franco-Saxon style.

FIG. 5 - Gallica  Reims  BM  213  f. 13v

Initial ligature TE (for the Te igitur opening) (Saint-Amand, 4th quarter of the 9th century): Reims, Bibliothèque Municipale, MS 213, f. 13v

The words ‘Te igitur’ ('You, therefore') are the first words of the Canon of the Mass. The overall shape of the word ‘TE’ in the Noyon Sacramentary and in the Reims manuscript are very similar. This is shown, for example, by the intricate composition of overlapping interlace that unites the outer ribbons of the ‘T’ and the ‘E’. But there are differences in the details, if not in the overall style. The arm of the ‘T’ in the Noyon Sacramentary ends in small, dog-like animal heads, whereas the top of the ‘T’ in the Reims manuscript is dominated by the heads of birds with long beaks. It seems highly likely that the Reims sacramentary was still in the cathedral library in the 10th century and inspired the makers of the Noyon Sacramentary, even if it was not the direct model for it.

Why did the 10th-century makers of this manuscript adopt a style of decoration associated with a century-old manuscript? The Noyon Sacramentary was made during a period when the bishops of Noyon were closely affiliated with the first kings of the Capetian dynasty of the kingdom of Francia. The first Capetian ruler, Hugh Capet (reigned 987–996), was crowned at Noyon in 987, succeeding the last Carolingian king of West Francia, Louis V (reigned 986–987).

FIG. 6 - add_ms_82956_f007v detail

A TE ligature in the Noyon Sacramentatry: Add MS 82956, f. 7v

Noyon was probably chosen as the site of Hugh’s coronation to emphasise the connection to his distant ancestor, Charlemagne (reigned 768–814), whose first coronation was held there in 768. The older sacramentary (Reims, Bibliothèque Municipale, MS 213) was made around the reign of Charlemagne’s grandson, Charles the Bald (843–877). Charles the Bald was keen to promote favourable comparisons to his illustrious grandfather, for instance as a patron of manuscript art.

These political circumstances suggest that the use of Franco-Saxon style initials in the Noyon Sacramentary may have been part of a deliberate attempt to evoke continuity with the previous Carolingian period, in the history of both the cathedral and the kingdom.

You can discover more about 800 illuminated manuscripts from the collections of the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, all newly digitised, on our dedicated webspace: Medieval England and France: 700-1200.

 

Emilia Henderson

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#PolonskyPre1200

 

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

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Supported by

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20 March 2019

What's the language?

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Bonjour à tous!

International Francophonie Day highlights the global spread of French language and culture. It is the perfect day to celebrate our great collaboration with our French colleagues in The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700–1200.  

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An animation inspired by the Sirius constellation (Canis major) in British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius C I, f. 28r

As part of our ambitious collaborative project, we’ve digitised 800 medieval manuscripts from the two national libraries. In November 2018 we launched not one but two new project websites. One allows users to search and view all 800 project manuscripts through an innovative new viewer. We applied the International Image Interoperabitility Framework (or IIIF, as it is commonly known) standards to our images and descriptions. As a result, it is now possible to share, annotate, manipulate and download images from our 800 project manuscripts. You can also compare manuscripts side-by-side (up to four at a time!).

SideBySideView

Two manuscripts from each institution, presented side-by-side

We are happy to offer our readers this massive list of manuscript identifiers, or shelfmarks, titles and URL links to the IIIF images on the new website. All of these manuscripts can be viewed in their full glory on the project website hosted by the BnF.

Excel spreadsheet of the 800 project manuscripts

PDF of the 800 project manuscripts

 

What is new with the project and the curated website?

On a website hosted by the British Library, we are offering our readers articles, descriptions, films and more interpreting these manuscripts: Medieval England and France, 700–1200. Everything is available in two languages, English and French – just choose your preferred language at any point of the visit.

LandingPageEnglish

LandingPageFrench

There are six broad themes covering art, history, science, religion, making manuscripts and the medieval manuscript collections today. We chose a selection of manuscripts to explore through various articles in each theme. Since the initial launch in November 2018 with 24 articles, we have added six new articles, 33 new collection items, and created new pages with biographies and maps. Did we mention the animation of the crane, inspired by a tale in an illustrated bestiary? Medieval manuscripts offer us the greatest collection of surviving medieval artwork in any media. Often, the colours are still as vibrant and the gold as glittering as at the time they were made, over 800 years ago. These books offer us wonderful glimpses of medieval culture, ideas and even individual people.

There are famous thinkers and authors, like Alcuin or Anselm, who exemplify the movement of people, texts and ideas across Europe in the early Middle Ages. For example, Queen Emma’s achievements are celebrated in a work that is the earliest surviving account dedicated to a female political figure from England (excluding saints’ Lives).

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A seal of Anselm of Canterbury, containing one of the earliest surviving representations of the archbishop, attached to the charter British Library, LFC Ch VII 5

For anyone interested in medieval manuscript culture in the Middle Ages, this site is a treasure-trove. It is easy to spend hours wondering around, or you can dip in for 5 minutes at a time. With 30 articles on various aspects on manuscript culture, over 140 highlighted collection items, 10 people pages and 10 short videos, you will be sure to find something intriguing.

 

French language, modern and medieval

It was clear from the start of the project that whatever we were to do, it would all be available in both English and French.  The medieval world was multilingual. Latin was the main written language, but it was by no means the only one. Old English and different variants of written French, like Anglo-Norman or Old Occitan, were also written down.  

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The beginning of St John’s Gospel, Chapter 13 in Old Occitan, preceded by a Latin rubric: British Library, Harley MS 2928, f. 187v

To mark today’s theme, International Francophonie Day, we took a closer look at a copy of a poem by the earliest known French poet, Philippe de Thaon (active during the first half of the 12th century). One of his works called Comput is a verse explanation of the metrics of the medieval calendar and gives instructions about how to calculate the date of Easter. In the poem’s opening lines, Philippe tells the reader he has decided to compose his text in Anglo-Norman French: Ne nest griu ne latins (it isn't Greek or Latin), but the language De la nostre cuntree (of our country), so that the users Ben poënt retenir (are able to remember well).

… Në est pas juglerie,

Ne nest griu ne latins,

Ne ne nest angevins,

Ainz est raisun mustree

De la nostre cuntree:

Ben poënt retenir

Çoe dum ges voil garner

Së il volent entendre

E bone garde prendre.

 

('… [It] is not entertainment,

nor is it Greek, Latin,

or the Angevin dialect.

Rather [it] is the spoken discourse of our country:

[in it they] are able to remember well

what I want to teach them,

if they want to listen

and pay good attention.')

 

(translation by Dr Hannah Morcos, King’s College London)

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Philippe de Thaon explains why he has chosen Anglo-Norman French to write his poem Comput: British Library, Cotton MS Nero A V, f. 2r

 

To find out more about languages present in medieval manuscripts, visit the History and Learning section of Medieval England and France, 700-1200.

 

Tuija Ainonen and Calum Cockburn

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval, #PolonskyPre1200

 

 

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Supported by

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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.

Archbishop

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.

Pap 115

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

PCA

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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Harley pater noster

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

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