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48 posts categorized "Literature"

18 May 2020

Fabulous Mr Fox and other wise tales

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Early in the 1400s, Ulrich von Pottenstein (c. 1360–1417), a clerk and chaplain to Duke Albert IV of Austria, translated into German a collection of Latin fables. Known in their expanded version as Das Buch der natürlichen Weisheit ('The Book of Natural Wisdom'), these fables describe the interactions between animals, humans, plants and the natural elements in order to teach moral lessons to their readers. One of the finest illustrated copies of this work, found in Egerton MS 1121, has recently been digitised. This manuscript, containing more than 70 fables, can teach us much about wisdom, beginning with:

(1) Listen to your sense of reason.

When the animals gather to choose the wisest, they divide into two factions. The land animals nominate the Fox and the birds elect the Raven. But the Monkey intervenes, explaining that they have chosen not with reason but with carelessness and poor judgement. They have allowed themselves to be misled, mistaking the cunning of the Fox and Raven for wisdom.

The land animals gather around the brown Fox (left), and the birds around the black Raven (right).

The Fox and Raven are chosen as the wisest animals: Egerton MS 1121, f. 4v

(2) Question things that appear to be certain.

The Fox plays dead in order to catch the Raven, who is sitting in a tree. The scavenging bird comes closer but, knowing the Fox’s cunning, inspects the ‘carcass’ from a safe distance. When the Raven notices that the Fox’s heart is beating, he drops a stone on his head and calls him out as a deceiver. The Fox, in turn, drops his charade.

he brown Fox plays dead under the tree in which the Raven sits.

The Fox and the Raven: Egerton MS 1121, f. 7v

(3) Choose your company carefully.

The Fox has remorse for his sins and decides to go on a pilgrimage. En route, the Dog, Donkey, Bear, Lion, Wolf, Swine and Peacock try to join him, but the Fox considers them imprudent and shakes them off. Instead, he chooses wiser animals as his fellow pilgrims: the Ant, Tracking Dog, Ox, Hedgehog, Hare, Lamb, Monkey and (multi-coloured) Panther. The Fox explains that, if you keep company with the wise and holy, you will become wise and holy as well.

On the left, the Fox rejects animals as fellow pilgrims. From bottom to top they are: the Dog, Donkey, Bear, Lion, Wolf, Swine, and Peackock. On the right, the Fox invites other animals to join him on his pilgrimage. From bottom to top they are: the Ant, Weasel, Ox, Hedgehog, Hare, Lamb, Monkey, and Panther with multi-coloured spots.

The Pilgrim Fox chooses his company: Egerton MS 1121, f. 36r

(4) Listen to good advice.

The Monkey decides to follow a sailor into the mast of a ship. The Raven warns against it, but the Monkey ignores the advice, falls down and hurts himself. He then sits on a king's throne, ignoring the warning of the Fox. Only when he is thrown off and bitten by dogs does he realise that he should listen to sound advice.

On the left, the Monkey climbs into the mast of a ship while the Raven, to his left, warns him. On the right, the Monkey holds a golden sceptre and sits on the throne of a king while the Fox, below him (in the right lower corner), warns him. Below the boat and throne, the Monkey is being bitten by two white dogs.

The Monkey ignores the advice of the Raven and the Fox: Egerton MS 1121, f. 48v

(5) Don’t put yourself above others.

A Cloud, newly born from the Earth, leaps high up into the air. Her mother, Earth, implores her to return. But the Cloud answers that she wants to raise herself above all the things in the natural world. The Earth then teaches her that those who exalt themselves will fall deep. Even the Sun, which raises itself high into the sky, goes down. It is better to be humble. As a reminder of this, Nature has placed the human heart and feet, that keep the entire body going, below the head. The Cloud is persuaded and lets herself fall back to Earth.  

A blue undulating beam, representing the new-born Cloud, leaps up into the air from a green field with flowers, representing the Earth.

The new-born Cloud leaps up from the Earth: Egerton MS 1121, f. 58v

(6) Use your powers wisely.

A fish with razor-sharp teeth tells the Swordfish that he would like to have a sword as well, in order to rob others. The Swordfish replies that it would be best if the other fish doesn’t have a sword or even teeth: corrupted hearts always take the opportunity to use the good things they have for evil purposes, turning their own luck into unhappiness.

Two blue-grey fish with scales in a small pond. The fish on the left has razor sharp teeth (Toothfish), while the fish on the right holds a sword in its mouth (Swordfish).

The ‘Toothfish’ and the Swordfish: Egerton MS 1121, f. 67r

(7) Greed leads to more loss than gain.

Having devoured yet another prey, the gluttonous Crocodile lies sleeping with its jaws open. The bird ‘Scrofilus’ seizes its opportunity, crawls inside the Crocodile’s mouth, and mortally wounds him from the inside. The Crocodile wakes up and asks why the bird has injured him. Scrofilus explains that those who always desire more always lose more than they gain. Alexander the Great, who conquered the whole world, always wanted to possess more lands; he was never satisfied and became poor in heart as a result.

A green crocodile with a large curled tail sleeps with its jaws open. A grey bird that sits in a tree above him flies down and wounds him inside his mouth.

Scrofilus mortally wounds the sleeping Crocodile: Egerton MS 1121, f. 97v

(8) Wealth always comes with a price.

The Monkey wants to grow a long tail like that of the Fox. But he then meets the Elephant who has removed his tusks to avoid being used in battle; the Swallow whose stomach has been cut open for the precious ‘swallow stone’ (Chelidonius); the Beaver who has removed his testicles to escape hunters looking for his castoreum; and the Peacock whose shiny tail has been cut off. The Monkey realises that wealth always comes with suffering and forgets about the tail. 

A brown monk talks with a brown Fox. Behind them stands the Elephant without tasks and with a castle on his back.

The Monkey with the Fox and the tuskless Elephant: Egerton MS 1121, f. 102r

(9) Good things take time.

The Gourd is proud to have reached the same height as the 100-year-old Palm within only a few summer days. The plant thanks Nature for allowing him to grow so quickly. But the Palm hears the Gourd’s boast and replies that what grows quickly will also wither quickly. The Palm gives the example of the quick-growing fish ‘Effimer’ (Ephemeral) that only lives for one day, and the slow-growing elephant that lives for 300 years.

On the left stands a palm tree with green foliage. Next to it, on the right, stands a Gourd with large green fruits and lobed leafs.

The Palm Tree and the Gourd: Egerton MS 1121, f. 121v

(10) Seek treasure inside yourself.

A Youth wants to get rich by visiting the ‘Golden Mountains’ in India. Upon reaching the emerald-covered mountains of pure gold, an Old Man warns him that all visitors are killed by griffins, fabulous creatures with the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle. The Youth is downcast but the Old Man explains that he already carries the greatest treasure inside his own heart. If he listens to his heart — and not greed — he will only seek pure goodness and not gold. Because gold only leads to vice, the peaceful Brahmani (‘Bragmani’) dispose of their gold in deep lakes and Nature hides it from mankind deep inside the Earth. The Youth thanks the Old Man for helping him find true treasure and no longer desires material wealth.

A Youth, wearing a pink robe with blue tights, is warned by an Old Man, with a beard and wearing a purple robe. In the right upper corner are the Golden Mountains with griffins flying around them.

The Old Man warns the Youth about griffins in the Golden Mountains: Egerton MS 1121, f. 114v

Follow your voice of reason, avoid bad company and tricksters, listen to good advice, stay humble, live a measured life, take time to grow, and look inside your own heart. That’s the path to Natural Wisdom.

 

Clarck Drieshen

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06 May 2020

The legend of Alexander in late Antique and medieval literary culture: PhD studentship at the British Library

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The British Library is collaborating with Durham University to offer a fully-funded full-time or part-time PhD studentship via the AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnership scheme. The student’s research will focus on the legend of Alexander the Great, and the successful applicant will be supervised by Dr Venetia Bridges (Durham) and Dr Peter Toth (British Library).

Detail of a miniature of Alexander and the Wheel of Fortune

Alexander the Great on Fortune’s Wheel, in a French chronicle of the ancient world (France, 3rd quarter of the 15th century): Harley MS 4376, f. 271r (detail)

Alexander the Great is one of the most fascinating figures of the ancient world. He conquered the world from Greece to India in less than 10 years. Although he died in 323 BC when he was only 33, Alexander's legacy continues to influence European, Middle Eastern and Asian cultures.

A drawing of Alexander the Great holding an orb and sceptre, with Philosophy holding a pot and brush

Alexander the Great, anointed by the personification of Philosophy, in a Latin version of the Alexander Romance (England, last quarter of the 11th century): Royal MS 13 A I, f. 1v

In the last two millennia, Alexander the Great has been represented as a magician, a scientist, a statesman, a philosopher and as one of the greatest explorers of humankind. The British Library’s collection of materials relating to the legend of Alexander provides an exceptional opportunity for PhD research into his immense impact on European literary culture from a transnational and multilingual perspective. As a student at Durham but working on the British Library’s collections, the successful applicant will have a unique opportunity to study the fascinating Alexander legends in their primary sources. This studentship will coincide with an exhibition about the legends of Alexander to be held at the British Library in late 2022. 

Miniatures of Alexander the Great and his army fighting blemmyae

Alexander the Great fighting the headless blemmyae in a French version of the Alexander Romance (Flanders 1st quarter of the 14th century): Harley MS 4979, f. 72v (detail)

Legends of Alexander’s life and conquests were combined into a narrative, known as the Alexander Romance, soon after his death. This compilation quickly became a ‘best-seller’, with translations in almost every language of the medieval Mediterranean, including Latin, Armenian, Syriac, Ethiopic, Arabic, Persian, English, French and German. Moreover, many of these texts are lavishly decorated with fascinating combinations of ancient and medieval imagery.

Applicants are invited to propose a multilingual and comparative project on Alexander’s reception from Late Antiquity to the close of the Middle Ages in European contexts, with a particular focus on the Alexander Romance. The proposal should focus on texts in more than one language, and include manuscripts in the Library’s collections. Possible topics include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • the Alexander Romance’s influence upon high medieval literature (11th-13th centuries);
  • the Alexander Romance’s influence on travel and scientific literature and geographical exploration;
  • the Alexander Romance’s dissemination in the later Middle Ages (14th-15th centuries) in translations, adaptations and material witnesses;
  • a comparative study of the Alexander Romance in Western (European) and Eastern (Byzantine and Slavonic) versions;
  • the role of Alexander in royal and religious propaganda, including ‘nationalist’ historiographies and Crusader literature;
  • a study of key medieval manuscripts and/or texts related to the Alexander Romance that demonstrate aspects of Alexander’s appropriation in different cultures;
  • the Late Antique beginnings of the Alexander Romance’s textual histories.

Applicants

The successful applicant will have multilingual interests in medieval and/or late Antique literature and culture with reading fluency in at least two European languages. Applicants should have received a first or high upper-second class honours degree and a master’s either achieved or completed by the time of taking up the doctoral study, both in a relevant discipline. Applicants must satisfy the standard UKRI eligibility criteria.

Stipend

For the academic year 2020-21 the student stipend will be £16,885, consisting of £15,285 basic stipend, a maintenance payment of £600 and an additional allowance of £1,000. The British Library will also provide a research allowance to the student for agreed research-related costs of up to £1,000 a year.

Duration

The studentship is fully funded for 3 years and 9 months full-time or part-time equivalent, with the potential to be extended by a further 3 months to provide additional professional development opportunities.

For full details and how to apply, please visit https://www.dur.ac.uk/english.studies/postgrad/support/

The deadline for applications, including references, is 5pm on 29 May 2020.

 

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27 February 2020

Clever cats and other swashbuckling tales

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We have recently published a new selection of manuscripts online. They contain a variety of swashbuckling tales, mischievous furry creatures, and ever more glorious images. Which is your favourite?

 

Petit Jean de Saintré and Floridan and Elvide (Cotton MS Nero D IX)

This book contains two little-known romances. The first, by Antoine de La Sale, tells the adventures of the hero, Jean, at the court of King John of France. His lady, the Dame des Belles Cousines, teaches him how to become the perfect knight. Following this is the tragic story of Floridan et Elvide, a French prose romance about a young couple who elope in order to avoid an arranged marriage. They are waylaid at an inn by a group of rascals, who first murder Floridan, then attack Elvide, who is forced to take her own life to avoid dishonour. A not so happy ending.

A knight kneeling at court, while a group of ladies look on

A knight kneeling at court, from Petit Jean de Saintré: Cotton MS Nero D IX, f. 2r

A miniature showing Floridan being attacked while Elvide watches

Floridan is attacked while Elvide watches, from Floridan and Elvide: Cotton MS Nero D IX, f. 109r

 

Le Roman de Renart (Add MS 15229)

We recently blogged about this collection of tales of one of the world’s most famous tricksters. Tibert the cat is the only one of the animals who is the match of the cunning fox, Renard, and manages to avoid falling victim to his wicked schemes.

enard and Tibert the cat, seated, looking at the moon

Renard and Tibert the cat, seated, looking at the moon: Add MS 15229, f.  53r

 

Dante Alighieri, Divina Commedia (Add MS 19587)

This manuscript, with coloured drawings showing Dante on his remarkable journey, was copied in Naples around 1370. It has the coats of arms of the Rinaldeschi family and the Monforte family, Counts of Biseglia (Naples), with on the final page are found entries of births and deaths in the family between 1449 and 1483.

Dante and Virgil are in a barren wood, with the harpies perched on top of thorny trees, representing the souls of suicides; hounds tear the bodies of the profligates; Virgil breaks off a twig and the wounded tree drips blood

Dante and Virgil are in a barren wood, with the harpies perched on top of thorny trees, representing the souls of suicides; hounds tear the bodies of the profligates; Virgil breaks off a twig and the wounded tree drips blood, from Inferno, Canto 13: Add MS 19587, f.  21r

 

The Pilgrimage of the Soul (Egerton MS 615)

This allegory of life as a pilgrimage was translated from the French work by Guillaume de Deguileville. As in the well-known Pilgrim’s Progress, the protagonist, assisted by his guardian angel, undergoes various trials and overcomes temptation on a long journey that ends in Paradise. This manuscript was copied and illustrated somewhere in eastern England.

The pilgrim and his guardian angel, unbaptized souls in a band of darkness, devils torturing a soul and a mock court scene with Satan and a devil

The pilgrim and his guardian angel, unbaptized souls in a band of darkness, devils torturing a soul and a mock court scene with Satan and a devil: Egerton MS 615, f. 46v

 

The Mirror of Human Salvation, made for a royal owner (Harley MS 2838)

The Mirror of Human Salvation draws parallels between episodes and prophesies in the Old and New Testaments, historical and natural events, and saints' Lives. This copy was made for King Henry VII (1485–1509), founder of the Tudor dynasty. The royal arms of England with the motto 'Honi soit qui mal y pense' are found on the first folio.

The Virgin Mary, holding the instruments of the Passion, banishes the devil; Judith holds the head of Holoferne

The Virgin Mary, holding the instruments of the Passion, banishes the devil; Judith holds the head of Holofernes: Harley MS 2838, f. 32v

 

Aldobrandino of Siena, Le Régime du corps; Gautier of Metz, L'Image du monde (Sloane MS 2435)

This 13th-century volume contains Aldobrandino’s handbook on health, composed for Beatrice of Savoie (1220–1266). Its contents are based mainly on Latin translations of Arabic medical texts. It is followed by a poem by Gautier of Metz about the Earth and the universe. The first text includes a section on sleep as part of a healthy lifestyle, with an illustration of a situation that is all-too-familiar. 

Above, a person is sleeping peacefully; below, two people absorbed in a game that is keeping them awake

Illustration of a treatise on sleeping and waking; above, a person is sleeping peacefully; below, two people absorbed in a game that is keeping them awake: Sloane MS 2435, f. 7r

 

The Romance of the Three Kings’ Sons (Harley MS 326)

This Middle English romance concerns three young princes, Philip of France, Humphrey of England, and David of Scotland, who set off to battle the Turks. The illustrations in this manuscript are unique, as it is a rare surviving illustrated copy of the story.

The coronation of the Emperor

The coronation of the Emperor: Harley MS 326, f. 98v

 

Fribois, Abrege de Croniques de France (Add MS 13961)

This 15th-century manuscript contains an abbreviated chronicle of France, from the destruction of Troy to the death of Louis de Mâle, Count of Flanders, in 1383. It was composed in 1459 by Noel de Fribois, counsellor to King Charles VII of France, and was written and painted for Etienne Chevalier, secretary to the king.

The decorated opening page of the chronicle

The decorated opening page of the chronicle: Add MS 13961, f. 2r

 

You can explore all these manuscripts in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site, alongside other gems from the British Library's collections.

 

Chantry Westwell

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13 February 2020

In Praise of the Psalms

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When we were cataloguing a Psalter manuscript as part of the Polonsky Foundation England and France digitisation project, we identified a previously unrecognised copy of the text known as De laude psalmorum ('In praise of the Psalms'). This short Latin treatise explains why saying the Psalms was considered spiritually beneficial, and which Psalms were good for which purposes. It opens a window onto how medieval people understood one of the most important liturgical and devotional books of the Middle Ages, the Psalter.

A damaged miniature of the Lapidation of St Stephen
A damaged miniature of the Lapidation of St Stephen: Harley MS 2928, f. 13v

Harley MS 2928 was made in 12th-century Aquitaine (now in southern France). The main part of this book is a copy of the book of Psalms, with four now quite damaged miniatures, an exposition of Christian hymns, and a copy of part of the Gospel of John in the Old Occitan language. As was typical for Psalters in this period, a number of prayers and texts related to prayers have been included in the manuscript, including De laude psalmorum on ff. 192v-194r.

This text, which some scholars believe to be the work of Alcuin of York, was extremely popular in medieval Europe. The scholar Jonathan Black has identified 193 copies of De laude psalmorum, or of parts of it, from all over Europe and dating from the 9th to the 16th centuries, including five at the British Library (Add MS 37768, Royal MS 5 E IX, Add MS 36929, Cotton MS Tiberius C VI, and Royal MS 2 A XXII) (Jonathan Black, Mediaeval Studies (2002)). As this work was not an official part of church liturgy, but instead something to be undertaken because the reader him- or herself personally wanted to pray and praise God, its readers and copyists must have believed it to be particularly useful.

A damaged miniature of a three saints including an archbishop
A damaged miniature of a three saints including an archbishop: Harley MS 2928, f. 18r

In its full version, which is found in Harley MS 2928, De laude psalmorum offers eight reasons why the reader might wish to say the Psalms, and a selection of Psalms which are good for those purposes. For example, if you are afflicted by trouble and spiritual temptation, you are told to sing Psalms 21, 63 and 68 . Other reasons for singing the Psalms include the desire to praise God, the confession of sins, and the feeling of having been abandoned by God. Throughout the text, a great deal of importance is placed on the reader's inner state of mind, and his or her own wish to pray: each of the eight sections begins with the words 'si vis' ('if you wish') or similar, and the reader is told to sing the Psalms 'intima mente' ('in your innermost mind') or 'compuncto corde' ('with a goaded heart').

Harley MS 2928 is not an especially high-status manuscript. Folio 193 is a little misshapen, and there is a hole in it, through which – completely coincidentally – we can see the word 'gratiam' ('grace').

A hole in the parchment, through which the word 'gratiam' ('grace') is visible
A hole in the parchment, through which the word 'gratiam' ('grace') is visible: Harley MS 2928, f. 193r

But Harley MS 2928 is not the only manuscript digitised for the Polonsky Foundation England and France project which contains part of De laude psalmorum. Cotton MS Titus D XXVI, half of an 11th-century manuscript known as Ælfwine's Prayerbook, includes a brief list, written in Old English, of devotions to perform first thing in the morning, including singing Psalm 66 (see Kate Thomas, Notes & Queries (2012)). The author of this text comments:

'Ne mæg ænig mann on his agen geþeode þa geswinc 7 þara costnunga nearonessa, þe him onbecumað, Gode swa fulfremedlice areccan, ne his mildheortnesse biddan, swa he mæg mid þillicum sealmum 7 mid oþrum swilcum'

('No man can tell God so effectively, in his own language, of the hardship and oppression of the temptations which come to him, nor ask his mercy, as he can with these psalms and with other such').

This is closely adapted from the advice given in De laude psalmorum:

‘nullatenus potest tua propria lingua nec humano sensu tam perfecte miseriam tuam ac atribulacione angustiamque diversarum tribulacione explicare et illius misericordiam implorare quam in his psalmis et ceteris his similibus’

('You cannot in any way, in your own language, nor in human thought, so perfectly explain your suffering, and the trouble and constriction of various temptations, and ask his mercy as in these psalms and in others similar to them').

Medieval manuscript with text of devotions to perform first thing in the morning
Text of devotions to perform first thing in the morning: Cotton MS Titus D XXVI f. 2v

This quotation, short though it is, shows how a popular text could be copied by scribes in different places, and in different languages, across the centuries. One of the exciting things about the Polonsky Foundation England and France 700-1200 project has been the discovery of new copies of texts and of the common interests which bring manuscripts from England and France together.

Kate Thomas 

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09 February 2020

Middle English manuscripts galore

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What do The Vision of Piers Plowman, The Canterbury Tales and The Master of Game have in common?

They are all found in British Library manuscripts which have recently been digitised and are now available to view online. Thanks to a generous grant by The American Trust for the British Library, forty-one of our priceless Middle English manuscripts have been conserved, digitised and catalogued and uploaded to our Digitised Manuscripts site. You can download the full list of Middle English manuscripts (in the form of an Excel spreadsheet). The full list is also found below.

So which manuscripts can you explore from the comfort of your office/living room/bed [delete as appropriate], thanks to the wonders of modern technology? If the Chester Cycle of plays is your thing, copied by the scribe George Bellin in 1600, why not look up Harley MS 2013? If you're a fan of the poetry of John Lydgate (who isn't?), you have lots of new manuscripts to choose from, including Harley MS 116, Harley MS 629 and Harley MS 1245. It was a difficult task to select which manuscripts to digitise (we estimate that we hold at least 600 volumes containing Middle English, the largest such collection in the world), but we were able to include The Seege of Troy (Harley MS 525), the poems of Charles of Orléans (Harley MS 682) and the South English Legendary (Harley MS 2277). Which are your favourites? A Myrour to Lewde Men and Wymmen, anyone (Harley MS 45)?

A page of Lydgate's Life of Our Lady, with a decorated border

The opening page of John Lydgate's Life of Our Lady, beginning 'This booke was compilid by Iohn lidgate monke of Bury at the excitacion and steryng of oure worshipful Prince kyng herry the fifthe, in the honour glorie and worshippe of the birthe of the most glorious maide wife and moder of oure lord ihesu criste chapitrid and markyd after this table': Harley MS 629, f. 2r

 

The opening page of A Mirror to Lewd Men and Women

This copy of A Myrour to Lewde Men and Wymmen was owned by Margaret Bent in the 15th century: Harley MS 45, f. 1r

 

The opening page of the Chester Cycle

The opening page of the Chester Cycle: Harley MS 2013, f. 4r

 

The Seege of Troye, with Robert Cotton's signature in the upper margin

This manuscript of The Seege of Troye once belonged to the famous collector Sir Robert Cotton: Harley MS 525, f. 1r

 

Drawings of four types of fish

Drawings of four types of fish (a trout, a pike, a minnow, a porpoise) on a formerly blank page of The Vision of Piers Plowman: Harley MS 6041, f. 96v

 

Once again, we are extremely grateful to The American Trust for the British Library for providing the funding that supported this project. We feel a little like Chaucer's pilgrims: there is a long journey ahead of us, but plenty to keep us occupied along the way.

Shelfmark Title Digitised Manuscripts URL
Harley MS 0024 Prose Brut http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?index=0&ref=Harley_MS_24  
Harley MS 0045 A Myrour to Lewde Men and Wymmen http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_45
Harley MS 0116 An English miscellany including Thomas Hoccleve, The Regiment of Princes; The Short Charter of Christ; Benedict Burgh, Parvus Cato and Cato Major; anonymous Middle English poems and poems by John Lydgate; Gottfried von Franken, Godfridus Super Palladium (Middle English translation); Nicholas Bollard, The Book of Planting and Grafting http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_116
Harley MS 0172 A devotional miscellany of Middle English prose and verse http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_172
Harley MS 0271 The true processe of Englysh polecie; Benedict Burgh, Parvus Cato, Cato Maior http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_271
Harley MS 0525 The Seege of Troy; Robert of Cisyle; Speculum Gy de Warewyke http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_525
Harley MS 0565 Chronicle of London; an English poem on the expedition of Henry V into France; John Lydgate, King Henry VI's Triumphal Entry into London http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_565
Harley MS 0614 Bartholomaeus Anglicus, De Proprietatibus Rerum, in the English translation by John Trevisa http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_614 
Harley MS 0629 John Lydgate, Life of Our Lady http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_629
Harley MS 0661 John Hardying, Chronicle in verse (second version) http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?index=0&ref=Harley_MS_661 
Harley MS 0682 Charles of Orléans, Collected poems http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_682
Harley MS 0875 William Langland, Vision of Piers Plowman http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_875
Harley MS 0913 The Kildare Lyrics http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_913
Harley MS 1239 Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde; a selection from The Canterbury Tales http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_1239
Harley MS 1245 John Lydgate, The Fall of Princes; Defence of Holy Church http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_1245
Harley MS 1304 John Lydgate, Life of Our Lady http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_1304
Harley MS 1568 The Prose Brut Chronicle http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_1568
Harley MS 1671  The Weye of Paradys (unfinished) http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_1671
Harley MS 1701 Robert Mannyng, Handlyng Synne; Meditations on the Supper of Our Lord and the Hours of the Passion; King Robert of Sicily; a mass against the plague http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_1701
Harley MS 2013 The Chester Cycle http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?index=0&ref=Harley_MS_2013
Harley MS 2250 Miscellany of Middle English poems on the life of Christ; John Watton, Speculum Christiani; Pseudo-Bonventura, Dieta Salutis (excerpts); catechetical teachings; saints' lives; John Mirk, Festial (extracts); Middle English tracts on the reckoning of time; anonymous theological tract on the Ten Commandments, vices and virtues; Robert of Winchelsey, Constitutio de Juramento ac Obedientia http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_2250
Harley MS 2255 A collection of poems by John Lydgate http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_2255
Harley MS 2277 South English Legendary http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?index=0&ref=Harley_MS_2277 
Harley MS 2280 Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_2280
Harley MS 2338 The Meditations of the Supper of Our Lord (abridged version); a Merlin prophecy (imperfect) http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_2338
Harley MS 2376 William Langland, Piers Plowman http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_2376
Harley MS 2382 Middle English verse collection including Lydgate's Life of Our Lady and Chaucer's Prioress' Tale and Second Nun's Tale http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_2382
Harley MS 2392 Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_2392
Harley MS 372 John Lydgate, The Life of St Edmund and St Fremund; Advice to an old gentleman who wished for a young wife; John Lydgate, The Kings of England; John Lydgate, Complaint þat Crist maketh of his Passioun; Geoffrey Chaucer, Anelida and Arcite; Sir Richard Roos, La Belle Dame sans Mercy; John Lydgate, Prayer on the Five Joys of the Virgin Mary; Thomas Hoccleve, Regiment of Princes; anonymous prayers and poems http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_372
Harley MS 3862 John Lydgate, Life of Our Lady http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_3862
Harley MS 3943 Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_3943
Harley MS 4011 An English miscellany including poems by John Lydgate; Craft of Dying; Duodecim Gradus Humilitatis; Counsels of Isidore; The Libel of English Policy; Osbern Bokenham, Mappula Anglie; John Skelton, Of the Death of the Noble Prince, Kynge Edwarde the Forth; John Russell, Book of Nurture http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_4011
Harley MS 4203 John Lydgate, The Fall of Princes http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_4203
Harley MS 4260 John Lydgate, Life of Our Lady http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_4260
Harley MS 4789 Bartholomaeus Anglicus, De Proprietatibus Rerum, in the English translation by John Trevisa http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?index=0&ref=Harley_MS_4789  
Harley MS 4912 Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_4912
Harley MS 5086 Edward of Norwich, The Master of Game; The Babees’s Book; The ABC of Aristotle; Dietary for King Henry V; Treatise on equine medicine http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_5086
Harley MS 5272 John Lydgate, Life of Our Lady; The Life of St Dorothy; The Abbey of the Holy Ghost http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_5272
Harley MS 6041 William Langland, Vision of Piers Plowman http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_6041
Harley MS 7333 Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, and other Middle English poetic works by Benedict Burgh, John Lydgate, Richard Sellyng, Charles d'Orléans, John Gower and Thomas Hoccleve http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?index=0&ref=Harley_MS_7333 
Harley MS 7335 Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_7335

 

Julian Harrison

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15 December 2019

Troy story 2

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We recently blogged about the Greek manuscripts that tell the tale of the Trojan War, an ancient conflict between the Greeks and the Trojans which ended in the destruction of the great city of Troy. We learned how this relatively unexceptional conflict was elevated to the stuff of legend through Homer’s masterful Greek epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey (if you haven’t already, catch up with Part 1 of this blog post). Today we are following the tale of Troy through Roman and medieval culture, where we will discover that despite losing the war against the Greeks, the Trojans won the more enduring victory as fundamental heroes of western literature.

These blog posts are written to coincide with the British Museum’s current exhibition, Troy: myth and reality (21 November – 8 March 2020‎), which features seven ancient and medieval manuscripts from the British Library. Check out the exhibition to learn more and to see these manuscripts in person.

A Renaissance manuscript with a large initial 'C' containing a picture of Aeneas, in classical-style armour, carrying a elderly man and leading a little boy by the hand.
A historiated initial showing Aeneas fleeing Troy, carrying his father on his back and leading his young son: Virgil, Aeneid, Rome, 1483-1485, Kings Ms 24, f. 73v

In the first century BC, the tale of Troy was reimagined in one of the greatest works of Latin literature—the Aeneid by the Roman poet Virgil. This epic poem forms a sequel to the Iliad that transforms the Trojan legend into an origin myth for the Roman Empire. It tells the story of Aeneas, one of the few Trojan heroes to survive the fall of Troy, who managed to escape the burning city carrying his aged father Anchises on his back and leading his young son Ascanius by the hand (depicted above). Aeneas led a large following of Trojan refugees as they wandered around the Mediterranean, beset by constant hardships, searching for a new home. Eventually the Trojans reached Italy, where they were prophesied to flourish. There they fought a brutal war with the native tribe the Rutuli, culminating in Aeneas killing the Rutulan leader, Turnus.

The Aeneid was tremendously admired in the Roman period and the Middle Ages. It was read in schools as the epitome of great poetry, and widely imitated in Latin literature of all kinds. It also had an important legacy in shaping perceptions of European political heritage. Throughout the poem it is foretold that the Trojan kingdom in Italy will one day form the mighty Roman Empire, and the gods prophesy the birth of Julius Caesar from Aeneas' line. In this way, the Aeneid provided an influential model for adapting the Trojan legend to serve contemporary political ends.

Picture from a Renaissance manuscript showing the fight between Aeneas and Turnus. Turnus is on the ground and Aeneas is impaling him through the throat. They are surrounded by warriors watching the duel.
Aeneas killing Turnus: Virgil, Aeneid, Rome, 1483-1485, Kings Ms 24, f. 227v

Just as Virgil created a sequel to the Iliad that claimed the Trojans as founders of the Roman Empire, so Geoffrey of Monmouth created a sequel to the Aeneid that re-cast the Trojans as founders of Britain. In his enormously popular work, History of the Kings of Britain (c.1136-38), Geoffrey set out to fill the gap in people’s knowledge about Britain's pre-Christian past. The tale he recounted is more mythical than it is historically accurate.

Geoffrey explains that after the Trojans settled in Italy, Aeneas' great-grandson Brutus was exiled for accidentally killing his father. Like Aeneas before him, Brutus led a following of displaced Trojans in search of a new land in which to settle. Following the advice of the goddess Diana, they discovered an island named Albion which was inhabited only by giants. They settled, killed the giants, and re-named the island Britain after Brutus. They also built a city called 'New Troy', which was later renamed London. One of the earliest known representations of the city of London appears beneath Geoffrey’s description of ‘New Troy’ in this 14th-century copy of the History of the Kings of Britain.

A text page from a medieval manuscript with a city scape drawn faintly in the lower margin.
Geoffrey of Monmouth, History Of The Kings Of Britain: Royal Ms 13 A III, f. 14r

New works on the legend of Troy were composed throughout the Middle Ages, not only in Latin but also in vernacular languages. These texts brought the tale to wider audiences and shaped it for new purposes. John Lydgate composed the extensive Middle English poem Troy Book in 1412-1420 at the request of Prince Henry, later King Henry V. In his prologue, Lydgate praises Henry’s excellent qualities, which he links to his supposed descent from the Trojans through Brutus, calling Henry the worthy prince, ‘To whom schal longe by successioun / for to governe Brutys Albyoun’. This luxurious manuscript of the Troy Book was probably made as a presentation gift to Henry V’s son, Henry VI.

Text page from a medieval manuscript with an elaborate border of foliate and a miniature of knights fighting on horseback
John Lydgate, Troy Book, the opening to Book 3 with a miniature of Hector slaying Patroculus: Royal Ms 18 D II, f. 66v

The legend of Troy also appeared in French versions such as the monumental Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César. This universal chronicle, first composed c. 1208-13, blends biblical, ancient and legendary history from the Creation of the world to Caesar’s conquest of Gaul. In the 1330s, a second version of the text was compiled that cut out the sections on Genesis and Alexander the Great and greatly expanded the account of the Troy legend. This firm shift in focus towards the Trojan War as the defining event of ancient history may have been intended to create a clearer link between the Trojans and the Angevin rulers of Naples for whom the second redaction of the Histoire ancienne was created.

Manuscripts of the Histoire ancienne were often beautifully illuminated. This copy of the second redaction features a two-page miniature of the Greeks attacking Troy from the sea, looking strikingly like a scene of medieval warfare.

A medieval manuscript with a double-page miniature of ships attacking a walled city.
Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César (second redaction), the Greeks attacking Troy from the sea: Stowe Ms 54, ff. 82v-83r

From ancient Greece, to ancient Rome, to medieval culture, the epic of Troy has been told countless times. Discover more about this dramatic myth and view these manuscripts in the British Museum’s  exhibition Troy: myth and reality (21 November – 8 March 2020‎).

Eleanor Jackson

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30 September 2019

Middle English manuscripts online

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The British Library holds one of the most significant collections of manuscripts written in Middle English. Thanks to a very generous grant by The American Trust for the British Library, we have recently been able to digitize a sizeable number of them, the first batch of which can now be viewed on our Digitised Manuscripts site. They range from copies of the works of Geoffrey Chaucer to William Langland's Piers Plowman, and from texts relating to veterinary medicine to the Chronicle of London. We hope that our readers enjoy exploring them online; there are more to come, so keep an eye on this Blog and on our Twitter feed (@BLMedieval) for further announcements.

We are extremely grateful to our friends at the ATBL for supporting this project. We know that it will make a major difference to everyone who works on these texts, and on medieval literary culture in general. Please let us know if this has inspired you, or if you have made notable findings as a result of this digitisation.

A monk kneels before a bishop

A monk kneeling before a bishop, in The Weye of Paradys: Harley MS 1671, f. 1r 

 

Here is a list of the manuscripts we have recently made available online.

Harley MS 172: Devotional manuscript written by the 'Winchester scribe', principal scribe of the 'Winchester Anthology' (Add MS 60577), including Peter Idley, Instructions to His Son; Benedict Burgh, English translation of Cato Major; John Lydgate, Ryght as a Rammes Horne; Thomas Hoccleve, Ars Sciendi Mori

Harley MS 271: The true processe of Englysh polecie; Benedict Burgh, Parvus Cato, Cato Maior

Harley MS 372: John Lydgate, The Life of St Edmund and St Fremund; Advice to an old gentleman who wished for a young wife; John Lydgate, The Kings of England; John Lydgate, Complaint þat Crist maketh of his Passioun; A prayer to the Virgin Mary; A prayer to St Sebastian; Geoffrey Chaucer, Anelida and Arcite; Sir Richard Roos, La Belle Dame sans Mercy; John Lydgate, Prayer on the Five Joys of the Virgin Mary; Thomas Hoccleve, Regiment of Princes; Poem against excess in apparel; Latin tract about the qualities necessary for a priest

Harley MS 525: Miscellany of Middle English romances containing The Seege of Troy, Robert of Cisyle, and Speculum Gy de Warewyke

The beginning of the Chronicle of London

Chronicle of London, from the coronation of Richard I in 1189 to 1443, in the reign of Henry VI: Harley MS 565, f. 10r

Harley MS 565: Chronicle of London; 'The Expedition of Henry V into France'; John Lydgate, 'King Henry VI's Triumphal Entry into London'

Harley MS 629: John Lydgate, Life of Our Lady

Harley MS 875: William Langland, Vision of Piers Plowman

Harley MS 913: The Kildare Lyrics (in Latin, English and French), including the Land of Cokaygne

Geoffrey Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde

The opening page of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde: Harley MS 1239, f. 1r

lHarley MS 1239: Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, The Knight's Tale, The Man of Law's Prologue and Tale, The Wife of Bath's Tale, The Clerk's Tale and The Franklin's Tale

Harley MS 1671: The Weye of Paradys (unfinished)

Harley MS 1701: Robert Mannyng of Brunne, King Robert of Sicily, 'Handlyng Synne'; 'Medytacyouns of the soper of oure Lorde'; King Robert's romance in couplets

Harley MS 2338: Thomas Breus, Religious text in verse, mainly on the Passion

Harley MS 2382: John Lydgate, Life of Our Lady; The Assumption of Our Lady; Prayer to the Virgin from the Speculum Christiani; John Lydgate, Testament; Geoffrey Chaucer, The Prioress’s Tale; Geoffrey Chaucer, The Second Nun’s Tale; Life of Saint Erasmus; Long Charter of Christ; Childe of Bristowe; an animal prophecy of Merlin

A decorated page in Lydgate's Life of Our Lady

John Lydgate's Life of Our Lady, in a manuscript which belonged to John de Vere, 13th earl of Oxford (1442–1513): Harley MS 3862, f. 1r

Harley MS 3862: John Lydgate, Life of Our Lady

Harley MS 3943: Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde

Harley MS 4912: Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde

A treatise on equine medicine

A treatise on equine medicine with the added title ‘The boke of medycen for horsses and to know of what Cuntrey the best horses be bredin contaynyng 30 leves’: Harley MS 5086, f. 99r

Harley MS 5086: Miscellany of verse and prose treatises relating to hunting, manners, medicine and veterinary medicine, including a translation of Gaston Phebus's 'Livre de Chasse', in the Middle English translation by Edward of Norwich entitled 'Master of the Game', a dietary for King Henry V and a treatise on equine medicine

Harley MS 6041: William Langland, Vision of Piers Plowman; form of confession in Middle English prose

 

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08 September 2019

The art of the alphabet poem

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On International Literacy Day (8 September), we look at how medieval and early modern scribes and artists celebrated the Latin alphabet through art and poetry. Decorated alphabets were central to medieval ‘alphabet books’. These are ‘pattern books’ that feature alphabets written or drawn in different fonts and featuring various styles of decoration. Their purpose is debated, but one explanation is that artists used them for promoting their skills among potential clients, or for recording interesting designs they found in other manuscripts. For example, the 'Macclesfield Alphabet Book' (Add MS 88887) ─ one of two surviving English alphabet books (the other one is Sloane MS 1448A) ─ contains fourteen different types of decorative alphabets.

Image 1 - Macclesfield Alphabet Book-min

An alphabet featuring human faces (England, 1475–1525): Add MS 88887, ff. 3v–4r

Similar alphabets were known to or designed by the German artist and scribe Johann Holtman, who produced an alphabet book (Add MS 31845) in 1529.

Image 2- German Alphabet Book-min

An alphabet featuring human faces and animals (Germany, 1529): Add MS 31845, ff. 9v–10r

Decorated alphabets could also be combined with poetry. The ‘abecedarium’, a poem in which the first letters of each line or stanza together form the letters of the alphabet, was a form often used by medieval poets. Geoffrey Chaucer, the most renowned medieval English poet, himself wrote an ‘ABC hymn to the Virgin’ (see Harley MS 2251). Early modern artist-scribes also used this form, but put more emphasis on the alphabet poem’s visual display. First of all, they drew their initials at an enormous size, dedicating an entire page to each initial. Secondly, they decorated them extravagantly using a great variety of patterns and figures. Another distinct feature of their poems is that they are unique: only originals – no copies – survive. One example is a 16th-century Dutch alphabet poem (Add MS 24898):

Image 3 - Dutch poem [1]-min

Image 4 - Dutch poem [2]-min

Image 5 - Dutch poem [3]-min

Poems for the letters ‘A’, ‘B’, and ‘C’ (The Hague, 1560): Add MS 24898, ff. 1r, 2r, 4r

The initials reflect the poem’s religious themes. For example, its often-repeated motif of a stork eating a snake draws its meaning from medieval bestiaries. These use the stork’s enmity towards the snake as an example for the righteous who, likewise, should be the enemies of evil thoughts (‘snakes’). The poem was created by an artist-scribe who identifies himself on the page that is dedicated to the letter ‘D’. In the initial, he inscribed his name (‘Marcus van Yperen’) with the date 25 August 1560 in a banderole that is suitably wrapped around two quills and a quill knife.  

Image 6 - Dutch poem [4]-min

Poem for the letter ‘D’ (The Hague, 1560): Add MS 24898, f. 5r

Another alphabet poem entitled Pennarum Nitor or The Pens Excellency (Add MS 36991) was created by Joseph Lawson in 1608. Here, each page presents two versions of the same letter of the alphabet, each with its own ‘poem’. The upper one is decorated in the style of a medieval manuscript, whereas the lower one is in a typographical style. The texts on these pages have no apparent connection with one another. For example, the two texts for the letter ‘A’ are legal and religious:

‘All men shall knowe by these presentes that I Robert Watersonne of ffelmingham in the Countie of Norffolk am indebted and doe owe unto L. Maine […]’.

‘A man of might if that thou bee give not thy minde I say unto a whore of no degree marke this I doe thee pray, for in the scripture thou shalt read if that thou marke it well the whordome is the ready way to lead the into hell’.

Image 7 - Lawson's alphabet poem [1]-min

Image 8 - Lawson's alphabet poem [2]-min

Image 9 - Lawson's alphabet poem [3]-min

Poems for the letters ‘A’, ‘B’, and ‘C’ (England, 1609): Add MS 36991, ff. 17r, 18r, 19r

A final example of a decorated alphabet poem comes from a mid 17th-century English manuscript (Harley MS 1704). The artist-scribe may have created it for a ‘Robert Clare’ of Uttoxeter in Staffordshire: the latter’s name features in the ‘poem’ — which is more like a draft for a legal document — for the letter ‘B’. The manuscript also features inscriptions by Robert Clare himself, indicating that he came to own the poem after it was finished. The first one begins:

‘All men are wormes, but this no man in silk / twas brought to taugt first wrapt and white as milk / where afterwards it grew a butterfli which was a caterpiller [...]’.

Image 10- HarleyAlphabet Poem [1]-min

Image 11 - Harley Alphabet Poem [2]-min

Image 12 - Harley-Alphabet Poem [3]-min

An English alphabet poem (England, c. 1650): Harley MS 1704, ff. 144r, 145r, 146r

Medieval alphabet books and early modern alphabet poems may have fulfilled a similar purpose. Christopher de Hamel has suggested that alphabet books may not be practical books created by artists for their own use after all. Perhaps, he argues, they represent a way of analysing and visually displaying the world that is inherent to the ‘genre’ of alphabet books. Likewise, decorated alphabet poems encapsulate various aspects of the world, covering, for example, literary, religious, and legal subjects. Their initials reflect this in the multitude of human figures, animals and hybrid figures that inhabit them.

 

Clarck Drieshen

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