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34 posts categorized "Literature"

09 April 2019

The languages of history in the Middle Ages

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Which languages were used to write history in medieval Europe? Who wrote history, for whom, and the history of what? Robert Bartlett will explore these questions in a lecture at the British Library in the Knowledge Centre on Friday 14 June, from 19:30 to 21:00. To find out more information and to book your tickets please visit this page.

Historical chronicles often recall and illustrate the account of the building of the Tower of Babel from the book of Genesis to explain the origins of multilingualism. According to chapter 11, the sons of Adam decided to ‘make a city and a tower, the top whereof may reach to heaven’ in order that they would become famous. But God decided to put a stop to their plans, and ‘there confound their tongue, that they may not understand one another's speech’. As a result, the place was called Babel (confusion), ‘because there the language of the whole Earth was confounded: and from thence the Lord scattered them abroad upon the face of all countries.’

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The Tower of Babel, in Histoire ancienne jusqu’à Cesar: Add MS 25884, f. 80v

The Histoire ancienne jusqu’à Cesar is the earliest compilation of universal history written in French, initially dating from the first decades of the 13th century. At this time French was used in many areas outside France, such as Flanders, England and Italy, and across the Mediterranean (for more on the Histoire ancienne, see our previous blog posts here and here). In a 14th-century Parisian copy of the Histoire ancienne (Add MS 25884), the Tower of Babel is presented as a complex technological achievement. In the image, the tower is almost complete. Its incredible height and elegant form could be seen to celebrate the collective achievement of the community of builders, before the confusion of languages caused them to abandon the construction.

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Pyrrus's army with elephants, in Histoire ancienne jusqu’à Cesar:  Add MS 15268, f. 266r

As Latin had long been the language of learning and textual authority, the choice of French prose for writing history suggests that lay aristocratic audiences were increasingly engaged in understanding the past. French language and culture reached all the way to the Holy Land, where it was imported by crusaders and merchants. One of our copies of the Histoire ancienne is from the city of Acre in the eastern Mediterranean (Add MS 15268), where French chronicles were read eagerly by the multicultural and multilingual communities brought together in this cosmopolitan port.

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The Tower of Babel, above, and Zoroaster with two demons, below, in Il Tesoro: Yates Thompson MS 28, f. 51r

Influenced by the flourishing tradition of 13th-century French historical narratives, the Italian notary Brunetto Latini included an historical section in his encyclopedic Livre dou Tresor. His chapter on the Tower of Babel is derived from the version found in the Histoire ancienne. In 1260, Brunetto was exiled in France, where he composed the Tresor in French in order to reach a wider public. This vast encyclopedia is formed of three books, covering a variety of disciplines including theology, physics, astronomy and ethics.

Brunetto’s Tresor was extremely successful, and copies circulated widely across the Mediterranean. By the 14th century, it was translated into other vernaculars, notably Catalan and Castilian. However, one of the earliest translations of the Tresor was made in Brunetto’s home city, Florence, where he returned in 1267. The Italian Tesoro dates back to the 13th century, when the French version was available widely in Italy. This translation illustrates how French works fed into the multilingual literary culture of Italy, in the city of Brunetto’s student Dante, where the language that will be eventually called ‘Italian’ was emerging. A 15th-century Florentine manuscript of the Tesoro (Yates Thompson 28) was copied in 1425 by the scribe Bartolomeo di Lorenzo of Fighine.

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Opening page of Guido delle Colonne, Historia destructionis Troiae: Harley MS 176, f. 1r

Guido delle Colonne’s Historia destructionis Troiae (‘History of the Destruction of Troy’) offers a different example of the movement of historical texts between languages. In 1287, the Sicilian judge and poet composed his Latin prose account of the Trojan War, which is a translation of the 12th-century French Roman de Troie, by Benoît de Sainte-Maure. The Historia Destructionis Troiae was enormously popular across Europe and demonstrates how vernacular culture revitalised contemporary Latin historical writing.

Over 90 copies of Guido’s Historia survive. The success of Guido’s translation also suggests a preference in some circles for Latin as opposed to local languages, even as the local language (in this instance Italian) emerges as a literary language. The work was even popular beyond Italy, as demonstrated in an English copy made around 1400 (Harley MS 176).

Around this time, John Lydgate translated the Historia into English verse. He completed his version in 1420 and gave it the title ‘Troy Book’. This 15th-century illuminated English manuscript contains a particularly fine copy of Lydgate’s Troy Book, compiled with other works by the same author.

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The Trojan Horse, in John Lydgate, Troy Book: Royal MS 18 D II, f. 75r

Professor Bartlett’s talk is presented in conjunction with the ‘Narrating History Across Languages in Medieval Europe’ conference at Kings College London, 14-15 June, organised by The Values of French, a research project funded by the European Research Council at King’s College London. The conference will cover a range of geographic and linguistic traditions, including Catalan, Castilian, French, German, Greek, Latin and Sicilian. To book tickets, please visit this site.

Robert Bartlett, 'The Languages of History in the Middle Ages', The British Library, Friday 14 June, 19:30–21:00.

Kathleen Doyle, Hannah Morcos and Maria Teresa Rachetta (King's College London)

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You can learn more about the use of French in the Middle Ages in The Polonsky Foundation England and France article on the subject, in partnership with

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18 December 2018

A literary giant

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The Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César (‘Ancient History until Caesar’) is a giant of a text. This universal chronicle, originally composed in medieval Flanders at the beginning of the 13th century, covers the ‘history’ of the world from the biblical Creation to Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul. There are over 90 manuscripts that contain the Histoire ancienne, including nine at the British Library, making it one of the most popular French texts of the Middle Ages. We do not know for certain the original author, but some have suggested it could be the prolific writer and translator Wauchier de Denain (fl. 1190–1210).

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A marginal illustration depicting the duel of Hercules and Antaeus, c. 1330–1340: Royal MS 20 D I, f. 26r

Two exquisite manuscripts of the Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César are now on display in the Library's Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery: a copy made in Acre (in the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem) in the late 13th century, now Additional MS 15268; and an Italian copy made in Naples in the 1330s, now Royal MS 20 D I. Both are full of fascinating and lavish illuminations, and are gigantic in scope and ambition, containing over 300 folios (or 600 pages). Both of these manuscripts are available to explore on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website, in addition to two other important copies of the Histoire ancienne, Additional MS 19669 and Stowe MS 54.

In the Gallery, you can see the episode where Hercules wrestles the fearsome Antaeus, a mythological giant who could only be defeated once lifted off the ground and strangled in mid-air. While modern observers might think of Hercules as a purely mythological figure, medieval writers and audiences treated him as a historical one. Hercules was viewed as an exemplar of military prowess and superhuman strength, as his marvellous victory over the giant shows. Along with Theseus, the mythical founder of Athens, he was, so the text claims, one of the ‘two best knights in the world’.

In the Naples manuscript, we see Hercules grappling with his opponent against a mountainous backdrop, while a crowd of excited onlookers watch fervently from the sidelines. The image in the Acre manuscript stages the scene in two parts. On the left, the two opponents engage in battle; on the right, the moment of Hercules’ victory is captured as he finally succeeds in strangling the giant.

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The duel of Hercules and Antaeus, and Hercules’ victory, last quarter of the 13th century: Additional MS 15268, f. 104v

Riotous battles and bloody duels account for a large proportion of the images in both manuscripts. The part that recounts the story of the Amazons, a legendary group of formidable warrior women who kill all their male offspring and let only their daughters survive, is often abundantly illustrated. These women come to the aid of the Trojans in the Trojan War, the ancient conflict between the Greeks and the inhabitants of Troy. In the Acre manuscript we see Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons, who charges her female fighters into the Greek soldiers, but is later slain in a one-to-one encounter with Achilles’ son, Pyrrhus. Two other Amazon queens, Marpesia and Lampedo, are described in the text as ‘young women, with beautiful bodies and faces, and courageous hearts’. In the Naples manuscript we see them leading their troops whilst swinging their weapons in a visual cacophony of colour and movement.

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The battle between the Greeks and the Amazons (Queen Penthesilea wears the crown): Additional MS 15268, f. 123r

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The army of Queens Marpesia and Lampedo in battle: Royal MS 20 D I, f. 23v

The visual appeal of these extraordinary illuminations may well be part of the reason why the Histoire ancienne became so popular the Mediterranean. Not only were copies made in Acre and Naples, but these two manuscripts themselves travelled widely. In an unexpected turn of events, the Naples manuscript probably was sent to Spain by Joanna of Anjou (1326–1382) as part of a ransom payment to secure the release of her third husband, James IV of Majorca (c. 1336–1375). By 1380, the manuscript had arrived in Paris, where its revised version of the text — the so-called ‘Second Redaction’ — would go on to be copied in at least eight different 15th-century manuscripts.

The Naples manuscript contains the earliest known copy of the Second Redaction, which is believed to have originated in this Angevin capital. The Second Redaction fundamentally changes the nature of the historical vision of the Histoire ancienne. In this version of the text, the section based on the Old Testament is omitted, and a much lengthier account of the Trojan war is included instead. This gives it a more secular focus: instead of having biblical figures and divine creation as the starting point for a history of humankind, the Second Redaction places the pagan heroes of the Greek and Roman worlds centre stage.

The fact that this major innovation of the Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César took place outside of what is now known as France should lead us to think more carefully about how texts crossed borders and shaped communities in the medieval world. While French was a language of administration, it was also a language of cultural prestige. There were people proficient in French across Europe — in the Holy Land, in Italy, in Spain and elsewhere — who looked back to a shared European past that was communicated through a shared ‘Frankish’ tongue, in a lingua franca. This literary giant may well be a French text, but it was also a distinctly European one.

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Half-page miniature depicting a Greek fleet: Royal MS 20 D I, f. 66v

Both manuscripts are described in more detail on a new website created as part of the European Research Council–funded project, The Values of French Language and Literature in the European Middle Ages. This website also provides the first complete transcription of the Naples manuscript, Royal MS D 20 I.

As part of the project, there will be an international conference on 14–15 June 2019, exploring how history was told in different languages of the European Middle Ages. To find out more, click here. The keynote lecture, open to the public, will be given at the British Library by Robert Bartlett, Professor Emeritus at the University of St Andrews. More information will be available on the British Library Events page next spring.

For more information about these manuscripts and other copies of the Histoire ancienne, see our previous blogpost. There is a useful introduction to the text on the website of the research project Medieval Francophone Literary Culture Outside of France (2011–2015).

 

With thanks to Melek Karataş, Matt Lampitt and Henry Ravenhall (King's College London)

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27 August 2018

Anglo-Saxon elephants

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My favourite Old English word — for the moment — is ‘ylp’. It means ‘elephant’. I was discussing this over lunch with my colleagues at the British Library, when someone asked a fair question: why was there a specific Old English word for elephant, when writers such as Ælfric (d. c. 1010) acknowledged, ‘Some people will think it wondrous to hear [about these animals], because elephants have never come to England’? The short answer is: elephants did not have to physically come to the British Isles to influence early medieval culture. They are a good example of the links that existed between Anglo-Saxon England and the wider world, through the exchange of books.

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An elephant, from the Marvels of the East, in a mid-11th century scientific collection: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 81r

Some people in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had travelled long distances, and if they had visited the southern Mediterranean, they may have seen elephants there. One elephant had also reportedly been given to the Emperor Charlemagne (d. 814). However, many Anglo-Saxon people had never seen an elephant, as is evident from their attempts to illustrate them. But literate people who had never left England could still encounter elephants in their books. Elephants appear in several of the classical and Late Antique texts which were available in early medieval Britain. Church fathers such as Augustine used elephants as metaphors, since their large size and apparently calm demeanour suggested stability and chastity. Such beliefs led to the motif of the noble elephant fighting the demonic dragon in later medieval art.

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An elephant and a monkey, from an illustrated Old English translation of medical remedies, England (? Christ Church Canterbury or Winchester), c. 1000–1025: Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 82r

Mediterranean medical texts that circulated in the British Isles also mentioned elephants. For example, an Old English translation of the group of remedies known as the Pseudo-Apuleius complex recommended that elephants be used as a beauty product: to remove ‘disfiguring marks’ on the body, ‘take elephant bone [possibly ivory] and point with honey and apply it. It removes the marks wonderfully.’ Don't try this at home!

Other classical and Late Antique texts described elephants being used in military campaigns. Some of these works were translated into Old English, including Orosius’s History Against the Pagans. The earliest surviving manuscript of this translation includes a passage which described how Hasdrubal, king of Carthage, set out with 30 elephants (‘mid xxx elpenda’). The scribe of a later copy of this text mistakenly changed the passage to 30 helpers ('helpenda'). 

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Detail of a passage discussing elephants, from the Tollemache Orosius, England (Winchester?), late 9th or early 10th century: Add MS 47967, f. 55v

Based on these texts, many Old English writers understood elephants as war animals. In his sermon on the Book of Maccabees, Ælfric described how:

‘Five hundred mounted men went with every elephant, and a war-house (wighus) was built on each of the elephants, and in each war-house were thirty men … An elephant is an immense animal, larger than a house, completely surrounded with bones within its hide, except at the navel, and it never lies down. The mother carries the foal for 24 months, and they live for 300 years … and man can tame them wonderfully for battle’ (translated by Joe Allard & Richard North, Beowulf and Other Stories, 2nd ednLondon: Pearson, 2012).

As a sidenote, if for some reason you ever need to ask for directions to the Elephant and Castle Underground station in Old English, according to Ælfric you should ask for ‘Ylp ond Wighus’.

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Start of a riddle about an elephant, from a copy of Aldhelm's riddles, England (Canterbury), c. 1000: Royal MS 12 C XXIII, f. 100v 

Elephants were also characterised by their military role in war in a Latin riddle composed by Aldhelm (d. 709/10), bishop of Sherborne:

‘As armoured troops and soldiers pack in tight

(Wretches who with vain lust incite a fight

While arms taint sacred civil loyalties),

A trumpet sucks in air with bursts of breeze

And raucous, clanging battle horns resound;

Fierce, bold, I’ve come to know their savage sound…’

(translated by A.M. Juster, St Aldhelm’s Riddles, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, p. 59).

Aldhelm’s riddle also shows that elephants were known for more than just their skills in battle. They were also prized for their ivory. The riddle continues:

‘Although God made me ugly at my start, I picked up gifts of life once I debuted ...

I can’t be beaten by fine sheets of gold,

Although the precious polished metal’s decked

With gleaming gems and stylish luxuries.

Nature won’t let me kneel when I feel old

Or rest my eyelids while on bended knees.

Indeed, I have to spend my life erect.’

Elephant ivory may have been known in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. It has been detected in some 6th-century bag frames, although walrus ivory is more common. 

Beyond copying texts that mentioned elephants as metaphors or resources, many Old English writers were fascinated by them out of a sense of wonder that such creatures could exist. Ælfric marvelled at their size, and both he and Aldhelm believed that elephants never sat down.

A text that exists in both Latin and Old English versions, known as the Marvels of the East, similarly presents elephants as a wonder. It claims that elephants stand 15 feet high with a ‘long nose’ covered in black hair. It also states that they are plentiful in India. The artists who illustrated two copies of this text did not pay much heed to this description. One artist portrayed a pink-skinned elephant with a long tongue and tusks, instead of a long nose, as shown at the start of this blogpost. Meanwhile, the artist of the Marvels of the East in the Nowell Codex (which also contains Beowulf) drew elephants in a way that is suspiciously reminiscent of the way they also illustrated camels.

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Elephants, from the Marvels of the East, England, late 10th century or early 11th century: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 101v

Elephants probably did not arrive in England for several more centuries. The earliest recorded elephant in England is the gift that King Louis IX of France presented to King Henry III of England in 1255. The chronicler Matthew Paris was on hand to illustrate and to describe it, claiming that ‘we believe [it was] the only elephant ever seen in England …’ But even before that, elephants had already had a significant impact on English literature and culture.

Would you like to learn more about the earliest English literature and its connections to the wider world? You can find out more on our Discovering Literature: Medieval site. And don't miss our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, on show at the British Library from 19 October 2018 to 19 February 2019.

 

Alison Hudson

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22 August 2018

A bumper crop of manuscripts (part 2)

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We recently reported that we have added several new manuscripts to our Digitised Manuscripts site. We're delighted to say that many more can now be found online. Here are some of our favourites.

The elegaic Livre des Quatre Dames

In this poem by Alain Chartier (d. c. 1433), an ambassador for King Charles VII of France, the poet meets four ladies, who tell of the fates of their four lovers who were lost at the battle of Agincourt. One lover was killed, one lost, one taken prisoner and one fled. This manuscript is believed to have been commissioned by Anne de Laval (d. 1466) of the Montmorency-Laval family of Brittany and Maine, supporters of the French king. Their coat of arms can be found in the initial on f. 1r.

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The poet with the four ladies, from the Livre des Quatre Dames, France, c. 1425: Add MS 21247, f. 1r

 

The romantic Guiron le Courtois

The legend of Guiron is part of the Arthurian cycle, dealing with the exploits of earlier generations of heroes, the ancestors of Tristan, Erec and the knights of the Round Table (including Palamedes and Meliadus). On this page, a historiated initial signals the beginning of the adventures of ‘Brehus sans pitie’, who meets Guiron’s grandfather in a cave. From him he hears the whole history of Guiron’s lineage, and of his exploits at the castle of Malaonc, where he befriended Lord Danyn the Red and fell in love with his wife, the Lady of Malaonc, the most beautiful woman in Britain. Later, they both fell in love with the Lady Bloye and Guiron first defeated Danyn, then rescued him from a dragon.

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Brehus finds a knight lying dead in a beautiful chamber, from Guiron le Courtois, northern Italy, 14th century: Add MS 36880, f. 40v

 

The gruesome German Missal

This early 15th-century Missal was produced for the Use of Cologne, as is indicated by the calendar and the offices in honour of St Severin, archbishop of Cologne. It contains 7 full-page miniatures of Rhenish execution, and added on single folios, seemingly inserted at random in relation to the text. This image of the 10,000 martyrs probably illustrates the medieval legend of the Roman soldiers, led by St Acacius, who converted to Christianity and were crucified on Mount Ararat by the King of Persia by order of the Roman emperor. They appear to be males, but the calendar of saints includes the feast of the 11,000 virgin-martyrs of Cologne, legendary companions of St Ursula, who, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth writing in the 12th century, was the daughter of the ruler of Cornwall.

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The Ten Thousand Martyrs, from a Missal, Cologne, 1st quarter of the 15th century: Egerton MS 3018, f. 43r

 

The mysterious Biblia Pauperum

This manuscript consists of a series of black outline drawings. Every second page has a large drawing of a subject relating to Christ’s Passion at the top; below this are two drawings, usually of subjects from the Old Testament; and beneath are two further drawings of the habits of animals, including snakes, birds, dogs, wild boars, fish, an owl, an elephant and a peacock, based on classical authors. Surrounding them are busts of human figures, including prophets. On the facing pages are corresponding texts and quotations in Latin, with explanatory comments.

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Christ is scourged, with other images including a figure tied to a tree, a wild boar being slaughtered, and a figure harvesting acorns, from the Biblia Pauperum, ?Germany, 2nd half of the 15th century: Add MS 15705, f. 10r

 

The horticultural Carrara Herbal

This herbal is a luxury copy created for Francesco Carrara II, Lord of Padua, rather than a practical, medicinal manual. Based on Arabic compilations that were translated into Latin, this treatise written in the Paduan dialect describes the medicinal properties of plants, animals, and minerals. It is accompanied by numerous illustrations of plants that appear more decorative than scientific.

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Illuminated initial and a plant illustration from the Carrara Herbal, northern Italy (Padua), c. 1400: Egerton MS 2020, f. 11v

 

The historical Chronicles of Matthew Paris

This mid-13th century St Albans’ manuscript contains a collection of chronicles and historical material, including the Abbreviatio compendiosa chronicorum Anglie, compiled and copied in part by Matthew Paris himself. At its beginning is a collection of 32 portraits of English monarchs and other historial figures from Britain. It once included Matthew Paris’s full-page map of Britain, now kept separately as Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1.

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Utherpendragon, Æthelberht, Arthur and St Oswald, in the chronicles of Matthew Paris, St Albans, c. 1255–1259: Cotton MS Claudius D VI, f. 218v

 

For the other manuscripts recently added to Digitised Manuscripts, please see our previous blogpost, A bumper crop of manuscripts (part 1).

 

Chantry Westwell

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17 August 2018

A bumper crop of manuscripts (part 1)

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The summer holidays may be here but we have been busy at the British Library, adding more items to our Digitised Manuscripts site. Here are some of the highlights.

 

The beautiful: a Spanish Book of Hours

This gorgeous Book of Hours, about the size of a modern paperback, contains 10 full-page miniatures — attributed to Juan de Carrion, an artist associated with Toledo — and 14 illuminated initials, with full borders in glorious pinks, blues and greens. They are decorated with an amazing variety of flowers, birds and all manner of creatures. This is one of eight stunning illuminated manuscripts acquired from the collector and philanthropist, Charles William Dyson Perrins (1864–1958) of Lee and Perrins, the makers of Worcester sauce. They include the Gorleston Psalter, the de Brailles Hours and the Hours of Elizabeth the Queen.

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The Circumcision of Christ, from a Book of Hours, Spain, 4th quarter of the 15th century: Add MS 50004, f. 41v

 

The bejewelled: Isocratis de Regno

These two works by Isocrates and Lucian were translated by Johannes Boerius or Giovanni Battista Boerio (d. before 1530), for Prince Henry, the future Henry VIII. Boerio was astrologist and physician to Henry VII, and this copy was made for him in Italy by Pierantonio Sallando. It contains gold borders with jewelled decoration at the beginning of each text. Lucian’s work, usually known as De calumnia, is titled Non facile credendum esse calumniate (‘On not believing rashly in slander’), good advice for a young monarch, but not necessarily followed by Henry VIII later in his reign, particularly with regard to the treatment of his wives.

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The opening page of Lucian, De calumnia, with a border incorporating the arms of Henry VII and Henry VIII, supported by the dragon and greyhound, and in the border, phoenixes and leopards, and numerous all'antica elements such as vases, cornucopia, and jewels with foliate motifs, northern Italy (Bologna), c. 1505: Add MS 19553, f. 19r

 

The fabulous: the Spalding manuscript

This collection of Old French texts contains a rare copy of Le Songe Vert, accompanied by a chanson de geste, two classical romances and the Ordene de Chivalrie, a set of instructions on chivalry allegedly given by Hue de Tabarie to Saladin. Le Songe Vert is a 14th-century allegorical poem, written in the Picard dialect and described by its early editor, Leopold Constans, as a ‘curieux poeme’. At the end of the plague of 1347–48, the author dons a black mourning dress and wanders into an orchard. He is consoled by a vision of love and returns with his dress a bright green. You may wonder why this volume is known as the 'Spalding manuscript': its name refers to a previous owner, Maurice Johnson (1815–1861) of Ayscoughfee Hall, Spalding, in Lincolnshire.

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The opening page of Le Songe Vert, from the Spalding manuscript, France, 14th century: Add MS 34114, f. 227r

 

The weird: Liber Belial

The Liber Belial or Processus Luciferi contra Jesum Christum takes the form of a lawsuit between Lucifer and Jesus Christ, with Solomon presiding. The Devil sues Christ for trespass by descending into Hell. A note on f. 2v states that the text was written on 30 October 1382 at Aversa, near Naples; it is dedicated to Angellus de Castellone of Arezzo, archpriest of Padua.

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The opening page of the Liber Belial, Naples, 1382: Harley MS 3134, f. 3r

 

The boastful: the life and genealogy of Edward IV

For any aspiring medieval ruler intent on vaunting their prowess and legitimate claim to the throne, a connection to biblical antecedents was an absolute must. In this roll five pairs of large coloured miniatures each show an event in the career of King Edward IV on the right, with its biblical type or precedent on the left. It provides an allegorical representation of Edward's success and the fulfilment of the prophecies that he would attain the throne. To crown it all, his genealogical tree below is in the form of a biblical tree of Jesse (traditionally portraying Christ’s descent from King David), and shows Henry III reclining at the bottom, with Edward IV and Henry VI emerging as opponents at the top.

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The life and genealogical tree of King Edward IV, England, 1461–c. 1470: Harley MS 7353, f. 1r

 

The wonderful: Ovide moralise and other French texts

In this French translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is illustrated the legend of the ill-fated lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe. Here they are shown at their secret meeting place under a mulberry tree. Pyramus, believing Thisbe to have been killed by a lion, has fallen on his sword and lies dead. Thisbe is about to plunge his sword into her throat. As a result, the gods changed the colour of mulberries to red to honour their forbidden love. This manuscript also contains Christine de Pizan's L'Epistre Othea, in which Hector, prince of Troy, is tutored in statecraft and political morality by Othea, the goddess of wisdom.

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Pyramus and Thisbe beside a fountain, from Ovid's Metamorphoses, southern Netherlands, 4th quarter of the 15th century: Royal MS 17 E IV, f. 55r

 

We are adding new content to Digitised Manuscripts every week. A second blogpost will describe some of the other recent additions: keep your eyes peeled!

 

Chantry Westwell

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09 June 2018

Sir Robert Cotton's manuscripts added to Memory of the World register

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We are delighted that Sir Robert Cotton's collection of manuscripts, held at the British Library, has been added to the UNESCO Memory of the World UK Register. Cotton's library contains many historical and literary treasures of national and international significance, such as Magna Carta, the Lindisfarne Gospels, the only surviving copies of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the autograph papers of a number of British monarchs. Collectively they form a key part of the intellectual heritage of the nation. 

Vespasian Psalter (Cotton MS Vespasian A I  f31r)

A page from the Vespasian Psalter, known as Cotton MS Vespasian A I following Robert Cotton's system of arranging his manuscripts in presses named after Roman emperors and imperial ladies. This manuscript, made in Kent in the 8th century, contains an interlinear Old English gloss of the Psalter text: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 31r

Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631) was a politician and antiquarian scholar, who began to assemble his collection of manuscripts as early as 1588, aged just seventeen. Cotton's collecting interests focused on works central to the study of British history, such as chronicles, cartularies, maps and state papers.

Matthew Paris Map of Britain (Cotton MS Claudius D VI 1)

A map of Britain by Matthew Paris, monk and chronicler of St Albans (d. 1259). Scotland is joined to the mainland by a bridge at Stirling, while Kent is located due South of London: Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1

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The Cotton library contains a nationally significant collection of medieval chronicles. The manuscript of the Chronicle of Melrose Abbey, shown here recording (in red ink) the foundation of the monasteries of Rievaulx in 1132 and Melrose in 1136, is the oldest surviving annalistic chronicle from Scotland: Cotton MS Faustina B IX, f. 18r

The importance of these manuscripts for our knowledge of the past cannot be overstated. For example, Robert Cotton brought together the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in the world, including two early copies of Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum and five manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, as well as the earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon charter, dating from AD 679. Many of these manuscripts will be on display later this year in the Library's major Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition (19 October 2018–19 February 2019).

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The earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon charter, a grant of land by King Hlothhere of Kent to Abbot Beorhtwald and his monastery, dated 679. This document is also sometimes known as the 'Reculver charter' after the place where it was issued: Cotton MS Augustus II 2

After Robert Cotton's death, the library passed in turn to his son, Sir Thomas Cotton (d. 1662), and grandson, Sir John Cotton (d. 1702). In 1702, the Cotton library was acquired by the British government, the first occasion that any library passed into national ownership in Britain – an important step in the creation of a national, public library.

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Some of the greatest works of medieval English literature are preserved uniquely in the Cotton library, among them the only surviving copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Cotton MS Nero A X/2, ff. 94v–95r

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The Cotton library is integral to our knowledge of early modern British history. This document, written by King Edward VI of England in January 1551/2, is headed 'Certein pointes of weighty matters to be immediatly concluded on by my counsell': Cotton MS Vespasian F XIII, f. 273r. Edward's diary is also held in the Cotton collection: Cotton MS Nero C X, ff. 10–83

Most of the collection survived a major fire in 1731, which formed part of the impetus for the creation of the British Museum in 1753. Some of the manuscripts were damaged significantly in that fire, with a small number being completely destroyed. The volumes in question were restored in the 19th century and they continue to support scientific research into the preservation and digitisation of fire-damaged artefacts.

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In October 1731, the Cotton library narrowly escaped near-total destruction when a fire broke out at Ashburnham House in London. In the 19th century, it was discovered that the fire-damaged parchment leaves could be inlaid in modern paper mounts, as shown here in a page from Bede's Ecclesiastical History: Cotton MS Tiberius A XIV, f. 39r

Ever since the library's formation, the Cotton manuscripts have been made available for consultation by scholars worldwide. You can read more about the Cotton manuscripts in our collection guide here.

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The Cotton library is particularly rich in illuminated manuscripts from Britain and beyond. Here is the opening page of the Coronation Book of King Charles V of France, commissioned in 1365: Cotton MS Tiberius B VIII/2, f. 35r 

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Many of the manuscripts are written in Latin or in English (including Old English, Middle English and Scots English). Other European languages represented in the collection include Cornish, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Irish, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Welsh. Non-European languages include Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew, Inuit, Persian and Turkish. Here is page from a Latin-Old Cornish glossary, copied in South-East Wales in the 12th century: Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV, f. 8v

You can view many of the Cotton manuscripts on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site. We recommend that, on the homepage, you type into the Manuscripts search box 'Cotton MS' or 'Cotton Ch' in order to see those currently available; more are being added all the time.

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Sir Robert Cotton was closely acquainted with many of the leading scholars and collectors of his day. In this letter, Sir Edward Dering (d. 1644) sent him the charter of King John dated at Runnymede, now known as Magna Carta, and preserved as Cotton Charter XIII 31A: Cotton MS Julius C III, f. 143r

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Cotton was renowned for rearranging his manuscripts and for preserving pages from other books and documents. Prefacing a gospelbook is this cutting from the Breviary of Margaret of York, which in turn incorporates a mounted papyrus fragment of Gregory the Great, Homiliae XL in Evangelia, dating from the late 6th or 7th century: Cotton MS Titus C XV, f. 1r

The British Library's two manuscripts of Magna Carta, issued by King John in 1215 and both forming part of Sir Robert Cotton's library, were inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World International Register in 2009. We are thrilled that this whole manuscript collection of national and international importance has now been recognised by UNESCO. We hope that the Cotton library will continue to inspire research into the rich cultural and historical heritage of the British Isles. The full list of inscriptions on the UNESCO Memory of the World UK Register can be accessed here.

Tickets for the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, featuring a number of the Cotton manuscripts, can be purchased online.

 

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17 May 2018

The legends of King Arthur

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Have you ever wondered who King Arthur really was? The British Library's Discovering Literature: Medieval site features a fascinating essay on this very subject, written by Dr Hetta Elizabeth Howes of City, University of London. Howes traces and contextualises the evolution of the Arthurian legend, based on the historical and literary sources, and illustrated with images of manuscripts in our collections, from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Thomas Malory. As the essay pertinently asks, 'Will the real King Arthur please stand up?'

Among the manuscripts featured in The legends of King Arthur is Wace's Roman de Brut, a poem written in Anglo-Norman French. In the copy shown here, made in England in the 14th century (Egerton MS 3028), Arthur's exploits are described in a series of narrative images.

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The coronation of King Arthur, in Wace's Roman de Brut: Egerton MS 3028, f. 37r

 

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The opening page of Wace's Roman de Brut: Egerton MS 3028, f. 1r

 

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Another page from Wace's Roman de Brut, showing the building of Stonehenge: Egerton MS 3028, f. 30r

 

Wace's work was translated in turn by Laȝamon into Middle English, known as Laȝamon's Brut. This manuscript (Cotton MS Caligula A IX) was made probably in the last quarter of the 13th century. It is one of two surviving copies of Laȝamon's work, but the second (Cotton MS Otho C XIII) was damaged by fire in 1731.

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The opening page of Laȝamon's Brut: Cotton MS Caligula A IX, f. 3r

 

Medieval manuscripts such as these helped to popularise the legend of Arthur. As Howes fittingly concludes, 'King Arthur may not have returned from the dead, as the myths promise, [but] he has certainly enjoyed a number of afterlives in popular culture.'

The legends of King Arthur is one of many essays found on our Discovery Literature website. Other include Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: an introduction by Simon Armitage, Old English by David Crystal and Dream visions by Mary Wellesley.

 

Julian Harrison

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12 April 2018

Juggling with fire: the poetry of the Gawain-manuscript

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Manuscripts, one of my colleagues once observed, are often like dumplings — plain on the outside, but delicious in the middle. Arguably the best dumpling-manuscript is the sole surviving copy of four famous Middle English poems: Sir Gawain and the Green KnightPearl, Patience and Cleanness. These anonymous poems, which are almost baffling in their complexity, are masterpieces of their genres. Yet the manuscript which contains them, now known as Cotton MS Nero A X/2, is a bit of a dumpling. It’s rather plain: the scribal hand is functional and, when originally written, there was little decoration apart from a few coloured penwork initials. Some time afterwards, a cycle of images was added in the spaces between the poems; but you could not, in good conscience, call them the work of a great artist, unless your definition of ‘great artist’ includes someone with a rudimentary knowledge of perspective and a tendency to inflate the size of the human head.

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The first illustration preceding Pearl: Cotton MS Nero A X/2, f. 41r

That said, the appearance of the manuscript is not why generations of scholars have been captivated by this book. It is the linguistic finesse and metrical dexterity of the poems that makes this manuscript one of the most important in the British Library’s medieval collections.

Pearl the first item in the manuscript — is a poem of grief and loss, in which an anguished father searches for a lost pearl in a beautiful garden. His search reveals more than just the lost jewel. Pearl has an astoundingly complicated structure and makes use of the symbolism of numbers, or ‘numerology’. The poem is 1,212 lines long and is composed of 12-line stanzas. This is in homage to the heavenly Jerusalem which is described in the poem’s final section. The heavenly Jerusalem is 12 furlongs long, and has 12 gates, each of which are set with pearls. The stanzas are grouped into sets of five, but the fifteenth set contains an extra stanza, which brings the total number of stanzas to 101 — the same number of stanzas contained in Gawain.

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The opening page of Pearl: Cotton MS Nero A X/2, f. 43r

As well as veining the poem with complex numerological references, the poet’s choice of rhyme schemes is also highly sophisticated. The poet uses a number of rhyme-schemes in the poem. Pearl is end-rhymed, but also contains internal, alliterative rhymes within the unit of the lines themselves. As well as this, it has a concatenating rhyme scheme, whereby each stanza-set is held together by a ‘concatenation’ word or phrase appearing at the beginning and end of each stanza. In simple terms, the first line of each section picks up and dismisses the concatenation word from the previous one — the final line of the poem echoes the first, and this connection between the first and last lines creates a circular, round structure — reflecting the poem’s subject. Simon Armitage, who translated the poem into modern English in 2016, writes that this is ‘a sort of poetic passing of the baton’.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a tale of wild landscapes, knightly deeds and sexual temptation. It begins when a Christmas feast at Camelot — the court of the legendary King Arthur — is interrupted by the arrival of a mysterious green knight with green skin and green hair, riding a green horse. He challenges the assembled company to a bizarre game which sets off a chain of events culminating in a meeting between Gawain and the Green Knight in a strange, green chapel.

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The mysterious Green Knight arrives at King Arthur's court: Cotton MS Nero A X/2, f. 94v

Like Pearl, Gawain also has a complicated structure. It uses alliteration but as well as this, it uses a metrical form called the ‘bob and wheel’, where each stanza ends with a short half-line of only two syllables (the bob), followed by a mini-stanza of longer lines which rhyme internally (the wheel). The use of this complicated form over 2,500 lines of verse is a showy demonstration of the poet’s skill. If writing good prose is a tightrope walk, and writing good poetry is a tightrope walk while juggling, then the Gawain-poet is tightrope walking while juggling with fire.

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The first page of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Cotton MS Nero A X/2, f. 95r 

The manuscript was part of the collection of Sir Robert Cotton, which in the 18th century was stored in the ominously named Ashburnham House in London. In 1731, a terrible fire ripped through the library and many of the manuscripts were lost or irreparably damaged. The fact that this manuscript, which contains the sole surviving examples of these bewitching texts, might also have been lost makes the book especially precious.

Both Pearl and Gawain feature on the British Library’s Discovering Literature: Medieval website. On the site you can find an article on Gawain by the poet Simon Armitage, and the whole manuscript can be viewed on Digitised Manuscripts.

 

Mary Wellesley

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