14 September 2021
14 September 2021 is the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri (14 September 1321), author of one of the greatest works of medieval poetry, the Divine Comedy. This epic poem in Italian narrates the poet's spiritual journey from the frozen depths of hell to the cosmic heights of heaven, while exploring themes such as sin, virtue and transcendent love.
The British Library holds outstanding Dante collections, dating from the Middle Ages right up to the present day, which you can find out about in the following video made especially to celebrate this anniversary. The video has been made by European and American Collections in collaboration with Western Heritage Collections.
Who was Dante?
Dante Alighieri was born in around 1265 into a prominent family in Florence. 13th-century Florence was an up-and-coming metropolis, with a growing economy based largely on the textile trade and banking. Yet the politics of the city was torn apart by conflict between two rival factions, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. Dante’s family sided with the Guelphs. This political setting played an important part in shaping both Dante’s life and poetry.
Dante encountered another of his great influences when, at the age of nine, he went to a party at the house of an eight-year-old Florentine girl, Beatrice Portinari. By his own later account, Dante instantly fell in love with her. But Dante’s love for Beatrice could never be realised: both were placed in arranged marriages by their families, and Beatrice died when she was only twenty-five. Although they only met a few times, Beatrice held a tremendous power over Dante’s imagination. His love for her would remain a central theme in his poetry throughout his life.
As a young man, Dante started writing poetry. His first collection of poems, the Vita Nuova (New Life), completed around 1293, narrates the story of his love for Beatrice. He also became involved in Florentine politics, serving as a soldier, public office holder and ambassador in support of the Guelph cause. However, in 1302 he fell foul of the city’s political intrigues and was sentenced to exile from Florence. Banished from his home city, Dante began writing the Divine Comedy, an epic poem in Italian in which he wove together his ideas about philosophy, theology, politics and love into an incredible cosmic journey.
What is the Divine Comedy about?
The Divine Comedy recounts Dante’s visionary journey through the realms of hell, purgatory and heaven to reach God. The poem is divided into three books, one for each of these afterlife realms. It begins with Dante wandering lost and downhearted in a forest, a metaphor for his exile. There he encounters the spirit of the Roman poet Virgil, who reveals that he has been sent by Beatrice to help Dante by guiding him on a spiritual journey.
First Virgil takes Dante through the nine circles of hell, where they see all kinds of gruesome punishments inflicted on sinners. Many of the sinners are identified as real people. For example, in the second circle of hell, Dante and Virgil witness the whirlwind of lovers, people guilty of the sin of lust being battered around by a ferocious wind. There Dante speaks to Francesca da Rimini, a woman who had an adulterous affair with her lover Paulo before they were both murdered by her jealous husband in around 1285. Dante is so moved by Francesca’s story that he faints with pity.
Many of the souls that they encounter belong to people who Dante regarded as corrupt political figures. For example, in the ninth circle of hell, where treacherous souls are imprisoned in a lake of ice, Dante and Virgil witnesses Count Ugolino gnawing on the head of Archbishop Ruggieri. Both were major political players in 13th-century Pisa. After Ruggieri seized power in 1289, he imprisoned Ugolino with his children and grandchildren in a tower where they starved to death. Dante regarded both men’s abuse of power as leading to this horrific event, for which they now suffer eternal torment.
At the centre of hell, Dante and Virgil encounter Satan, a three-headed speechless monster. In his three mouths he chews on the three greatest traitors of human history who, according to Dante, are Brutus and Cassius, assassins of Julius Caesar, and Judas Iscariot, betrayor of Christ.
After they leave hell, Dante and Virgil move on to purgatory, which is represented as a mountain which souls must climb. Here, the souls work to purge themselves of the sins they have committed in life so that they can enter heaven. The mountain of purgatory is divided into seven terraces, one for each of the Seven Deadly Sins.
At the top of the mountain they reach the earthly paradise, or Garden of Eden. Here Dante witnesses a procession of biblical figures and a chariot drawn by griffins, in which Beatrice rides. She and Dante have an emotional reunion and she chastises him for letting his life go off course.
From here, Beatrice takes over from Virgil as Dante’s guide and together they ascend into heaven. Following the classical and medieval astronomic model, Dante’s heaven is divided into concentric spheres with the earth at the centre. The first seven spheres are each governed by one of the seven classical ‘planets’, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. In each of these spheres, Dante and Beatrice meet blessed souls and learn about different kinds of virtue.
After making their way through the spheres of the planets, Beatrice and Dante come to the sphere of the fixed stars, followed by the sphere of the moving stars or Primum Mobile, and then the highest heaven, the Empyrean. Here they leave the physical world behind and enter a heaven of pure radiant light, filled with intellect, love and happiness. The Empyrean contains a huge celestial rose, where all the blessed souls reside, and where Dante witnesses a vision of the Virgin Mary.
Finally, Dante is able to witness the eternal light of God, the ultimate goal of his journey. He feels himself powerfully moved by God’s love, the same love that moves the sun and the other stars.
Dante completed the Divine Comedy in 1320, and died only about a year later in 1321. His work quickly gained popularity and survives in hundreds of medieval manuscripts, some of which are richly illustrated like the ones pictured in this blogpost. The tradition of illustrating the Divine Comedy continued into the modern period as you can discover on the British Library’s European Collections blog.
If this has whetted your appetite, you can read The Divine Comedy in both the original Italian and in English translation on the Digital Dante website. You can also find out more about our amazing holdings of Dante material at the online event Dante in the British Library: Hell, Purgatory and Heaven (Tuesday 14 September 2021, 19:30 - 20:30). And you can come to the British Library to see the Divine Comedy manuscript Yates Thompson MS 36, which is currently on display in The Sir John Ritblat: Treasures Gallery.
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09 September 2021
The 14 September 2021 will be the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri, author of one of the greatest works of medieval poetry, the Divine Comedy. This epic poem in Italian recounts Dante’s visionary journey through the realms of hell, purgatory and heaven to reach God.
The British Library holds outstanding Dante collections, dating from the 14th century right up to the present day. To discover more about these fascinating items and celebrate the anniversary, join us for our online event, Dante in the British Library: Hell, Purgatory and Heaven on Tuesday 14 September 2021, 19:30 - 20:30. The event will feature two lectures by leading Dante scholars Alessandro Scafi (Warburg Institute; who has previously blogged for the British Library about Maps of Paradise) and Elisabeth Trischler (University of Leeds). Their original research focuses on the cartographic and architectural aspects of the Divine Comedy and is inspired by our medieval manuscripts and early printed editions.
You can also come to the British Library to see the Divine Comedy manuscript Yates Thompson MS 36, which is currently on display in The Sir John Ritblat: Treasures Gallery. And we will be blogging more about Dante and his amazing Divine Comedy on the big day, so watch this space.
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14 February 2021
Around this time of year, the British Library’s reference team are often asked about the earliest known Valentine, supposedly a poem in our collection which was sent by the 15th-century prince Charles d'Orléans to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. If you search online for ‘earliest known Valentine’ you will see this claim appearing on various websites. As you might be able to guess, the story doesn’t fully check out. But it’s certainly true that Charles was partial to poetic musings on the theme of Valentine’s Day, so this year, we thought we’d set the record straight by exploring the truth of Charles’ Valentine’s Day poetry.
Who was Charles d'Orléans?
Born in 1394, Charles d'Orléans was a member of the French royal family, the grandson of King Charles V of France (r. 1364–1380) and nephew of King Charles VI (r. 1380-1422). He became Duke of Orléans at the age of fourteen after the assassination of his father. On 25 October 1415, Charles fought at the Battle of Agincourt when France was catastrophically defeated by England. The twenty-one-year-old was captured on the battlefield and brought back to England where he remained as a political prisoner for the next twenty-five years. He was finally released in 1440 and spent the last years of his life in France, dying in 1465.
Despite the political turmoil that surrounded his life, Charles is best remembered as a gifted writer of romantic, witty and sometimes wistful poetry. He wrote over 500 poems in the course of his life, with a particularly prolific period during his years of captivity. Charles wrote in both Middle French and Middle English, the latter of which he learned to speak fluently while in England. The British Library holds several important manuscripts of Charles’ work: a unique collection of his English poetry thought to have been made under his personal supervision (Harley MS 682), an exceptionally lavish illuminated copy of 166 of his French poems owned by King Henry VII of England (Royal MS 16 F II), a 15th-century copy of Charles' personal poetry manuscript (Harley MS 6916), as well as an early 16th-century copy of some of his French poems (Lansdowne MS 380).
Earliest known Valentine?
The poem that is sometimes referred to as the earliest known Valentine begins ‘Je suis desja d'amour tanné / Ma tresdoulce Valentinee’ (I’m already wearied by love, my very sweet Valentine). Yet the romantic story attached to the poem doesn’t stand up to fact-checking. Charles did not compose this poem while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London, but in around 1443-60 after he had returned to France. It is not included in Harley MS 682 or Royal MS 16 F II, both manuscripts which consist mainly of poems composed during Charles’ time in England. The only British Library manuscript which includes the poem is Harley MS 6916, a copy of Charles' personal poetry manuscript which he began in England then brought back to France and to which he continued adding until the end of his life (now Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Français 25458).
Despite being addressed to ‘my very sweet Valentine’, the poem is not a personal message of affection like today’s Valentine’s cards. It actually refers to the courtly practice of holding a lottery on St Valentine’s Day in which everyone was assigned a partner, generally not their husband or wife, who was supposed to be their ‘Valentine’ for the year. This was a rather artificial enactment of the concept of courtly love, in which knights were supposed to devote themselves to the service of a married lady. In the poem, Charles excuses himself from the custom, apologetically telling his allotted Valentine that he’s too old and tired.
By Charles’ time, Valentine’s Day poetry was already a well-established genre with examples by Geoffrey Chaucer, Oton de Grandson, John Gower, Christine de Pizan and John Lydgate, among others. It was the fact that such poems were already well-known that meant Charles could play with the audience’s expectations by writing what is essentially an anti-Valentine.
Charles’s Valentine’s Day poetry
Although he can’t qualify as having written the first Valentine, Charles d'Orléans was still an important figure in the development of Valentine’s Day. About fourteen of his poems explore the subject of Valentine’s Day, a surprisingly high number, many of which can be found in British Library manuscripts.
One poem, beginning ‘Dieu Cupido, et Venus la Deese’ (The god Cupid and goddess Venus), was written when Charles was still a young man in France. It takes the form of a mock contract placing Charles in the service of Cupid and Venus. The poem ends by stating that the contract is granted on St Valentine’s Day:
Donné le jour saint Valentin martir,
En la cité de gracieux desir,
Où avons fait nostre conseil tenir
Par Cupido et Venus souverains,
A ce presens plusieurs plaisirs mondains.
(Granted the day of Saint Valentine, martyr,
In the city of Gracious Desire,
Where we had our council convened.
On behalf of sovereign Cupid and Venus,
Several worldly pleasures to this man present).
(Poetry of Charles D’Orléans and His Circle, ed. Fox and Arn, trans. Barton Palmer, pp. 22-23).
The poem demonstrates the close association of St Valentine’s Day with love and desire. Its optimistic and playful tone makes a striking contrast with Charles’ later more sombre poetry on the theme of Valentine’s Day.
In a later poem set on St Valentine’s Day, written during his captivity in England, Charles sadly reflects on the death of his partner, perhaps his wife Bonne d’Armagnac (d. 1430/35). Beginning ‘Le beau souleil, le jour saint Valentin’ (On St Valentine's day, the beautiful sun), Charles tells how he wakes up and hears the birds singing and choosing their mates. The idea that birds pick their partners on Valentine’s Day had been a major theme in Valentine’s poetry since Chaucer's Parlement of Foules. This prompts the bereaved Charles to lament:
Saint Valentin choisissent ceste annee
Ceulx et celles de l'amoureux party.
Seul me tendray, de confort desgarny,
Sur le dur lit d'ennuieuse pensee.
(Let men and women of Love's party
Choose their St. Valentine this year!
I remain alone, comfort stolen from me
On the hard bed of painful thought).
(Poetry of Charles D’Orléans and His Circle, ed. Fox and Arn, trans. Barton Palmer, pp. 134-35).
Both of these poems were also adapted into Middle English versions which can be found in Harley MS 682 (ff. 1r-v, 47v-48r). For example, the above passage about Charles' grief on Valentine's Day appears in English as:
Als wele is him this day that hath him kaught
A valentyne that louyth him, a y gesse,
Where as this comfort sole y here me dresse
Upon my bed so hard of noyous thought.
(As he is well this day that has caught
A Valentine that loves him, as I guess,
Whereas this comfort addresses me here alone
Upon my bed so hard of painful thought).
So while the claims that Charles wrote the first Valentine aren’t true, he was certainly a prolific writer of Valentine’s Day poetry, drawing on earlier poetic traditions and developing them in new ways. His poems on feeling alienated or cynical about the amorous pursuits of St Valentine’s Day provide a novel and, for many, highly relatable perspective on the genre of Valentine’s poetry. Charles’ poetry was very popular in the 15th and 16th centuries, making it likely that he helped to further popularise the romantic associations of St Valentine’s Day. This makes him a particularly important Valentine’s poet.
If, however, you do want to find out about the earliest surviving Valentine’s love letter, take a look at our previous blogpost on the letter written by Margery Brews to her future husband John Paston in 1477.
Editions and translations of Charles’ French poetry from: Poetry of Charles D’Orléans and His Circle: A Critical Edition of BnF MS. Fr. 25458, Charles D’Orléan’s Personal Manuscript, ed. by John Fox and Mary-Jo Arn, trans. by R. Barton Palmer (Turnhout: Brepols, 2010).
For Charles’ English poetry, see: Fortunes Stabilnes: Charles of Orleans's English Book of Love: A Critical Edition, ed. Mary-Jo Arn (Binghampton, New York: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1994).
03 November 2020
The 16th century witnessed a huge revival of popular theatre, as playwrights and acting companies experimented with existing dramatic traditions, new literary techniques, and different approaches to performance. This artistic revival included the work of English writers such as William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and Ben Jonson, as well as playwrights throughout Europe, particularly in Germany, Italy, and France. Surviving manuscripts from this period can give us a real insight into not just how these plays were written, but also how they were performed.
One such volume, now housed in the Harley Collection of the British Library, contains a rare eye-witness account of the premier performance of a French play that took place in the city of Montbrison on 25 February 1588.
The work was written by Loÿs Papon (b. 1533, d. 1599), the canon of the Church of Notre-Dame-d'Espérance and later abbot of Marcilly, and is entitled Pastorelle sur la victoire obtenue contre les Allemands, Reytres, Lansquenets, Souysses et Francoys rebelles a Dieu et au Roy treschretien l'an 1587 (Pastoral on the victory won against the Germans, the Reiters, the Landsknecht, the Swiss, and the French Rebels by God and our most Christian King in the year 1587).
Written in five acts, the play is a celebration of the victories of Henry I (b. 1550, d. 1588), Duke of Guise, against the combined Huguenot, or Protestant, forces at Vimory on 26 October and Auneau on 24 November 1587, two major battles fought during the French Wars of Religion (1562-1598).
The plot of Papon’s play is simple. Rather than depict the conflict between the Catholic and Huguenot armies on stage, Papon’s narrative focuses on a small group of shepherds, whose lives in the French countryside have been in turmoil since the start of the war. In the first half of the play, the audience hears how the war has affected the shepherds during that time – how their crops have been blighted and their lands and possessions looted by invading armies – as they recount their struggles and voice their fears of new dangers that might affect them in the future.
During the third act, however, the shepherds learn about what has taken place during the battles at Vimory and Auneau, and in the course of Acts IV and V, buoyant at the news of Henry’s victories, they celebrate that their once peaceful lives will now be restored.
The manuscript (now Harley MS 4325) was written and illustrated by Loÿs Papon himself, who probably intended it as a presentation copy of the text. The work begins with a dedication from the author addressed to a certain ‘M[onsieur] le duc de Mayne’, who can be identified as Charles de Lorraine (b. 1544, d. 1611), Duke of Mayenne and brother of Henry, Duke of Guise, who led the victorious French army.
The volume also survives with its original 16th-century binding intact. Its red velvet covers feature a collection of different symbols, delicately embroidered with silver, gold and coloured thread, including two hands grasping a sword, a pair of chalices, a crown of thorns, and a single eye appearing above a cloud.
The account of the play’s first performance appears directly after the main text of the work in the manuscript and was also written by Papon. The ‘discours’ or account states that this took place on 25 February 1588 at the Salle de la Diana, in the city of Montbrison, the historic capital of the French region of Forez (now part of Central France), and the playwright’s birthplace.
Papon’s account provides details about all aspects of the production, from the actors and musicians, to the set and the props, and even the composition of the audience. He tells us, for example, that:
- The windows of the Salle were completely covered over, so that the only light came from a collection of 90 torches, made from white wax, which were positioned around the hall.
- The backdrop was split up by three pieces of tapestry, decorated with 10 large paintings at the top, portraits of the French king and queen, and the princes of Guise, and below them another collection of smaller portraits of other important figures of the time: popes, princes and princesses, and members of the nobility.
- The play’s musicians were placed on a scaffold constructed on the right hand side of the stage, and set above a doorway that the actors used to make their entrances and exits.
- The shepherds were dressed in costumes made of taffeta and satin, wore straw hats, and carried shepherds’ crooks. The manuscript also features a series of painted portraits, showing how the central characters looked, dressed in full costume.
- The audience was supposedly composed of between 1300-1400 people (though from the size of the hall that’s slightly hard to believe): ‘gentishomes, que Dames, demoyzelles, gens de Justice, d’Eglise, magistrats, bourgeois, Capitaines, marchandz, et touts pesonnes de qualité’ (gentlemen, ladies, young ladies, Justices, people of the Church, magistrates, the bourgeois, captains, merchants, and all people of quality).
In addition, the volume includes a paper fold-out inserted at the end of Papon’s account, which opens to reveal a watercolour illustration of Act IV, Scene II of the Pastorelle, showing how this scene was staged in the Salle de la Diana. The image suggests that despite the simplicity of the narrative, the production itself was a real spectacle, ambitious in its scale. In the scene, the assembled shepherds, having learnt of the defeat of the Huguenot forces, decide to construct a pyramid on stage, light a fire at its base, sing songs, and dance around it to express their joy at the news.
One of the most significant features of the watercolour is the Salle’s vaulted and vibrantly coloured ‘plafond’ or ceiling, tall enough to accommodate the pyramid’s spire (standing 18 feet high according to Papon’s account), and which is shown adorned with numerous compartments, each one bearing a small coat of arms.
Fortunately, the Salle de la Diana in Montbrison has survived to the present day and is now home to a library that holds over 30,000 books. Its elaborately decorated heraldic ceiling (featuring a total of 1728 coats of arms) was restored during the 19th century, and appears nearly identical to the design reflected in Papon’s illustration of the Pastorelle’s first performance.
This manuscript’s catalogue record has recently been revised as part of the Harley Cataloguing Project. For more information about the project and other recent discoveries, check out our blogpost on cataloguing the Harley manuscripts.
Loys Papon, Pastorelle sur la victoire obtenue contra les Alemands, Reytres, Lansquenets, Souysses et Françoys rebelles à Dieu et au Roy treschr etien l'an 1587, texte établi, présenté et commenté par Claude Longeon (Saint-Etienne: Centre d'Études Foréziennes, 1976).
Frank Dobbins, 'Music in French Theatre of the Late Sixteenth Century', Early Music History, 13 (1994), 85-122 (pp. 115-21 with plates).
Margaret M. McGowan, 'The Arts Conjoined: A Context for the Study of Music', Early Music History, 13 (1994), 171-98 (pp. 179-80, especially n. 26).
29 October 2020
On an overcast day in October, the ruins of Byland Abbey in North Yorkshire seem just the place to meet a medieval ghost. Nestled beneath the towering crags of Sutton Bank, the crumbled walls are pensive with memories and secrets. The dramatic outline of a rose window gapes into the sky as though crying out from a past long distant but not wholly dead. Fittingly enough, it was here that a monk wrote down one of the most important collections of ghost stories to survive from medieval Europe.
The stories, twelve in total, were written in the early 15th century on the blank pages of a manuscript containing a collection of rhetorical and theological works, now British Library Royal MS 15 A XX (ff. 140v-143 and ff. 163v-164v). Despite being written in Latin, the language of the Church, the stories are mostly set among the rural communities of North Yorkshire. They are full of references to real local places, names of people and everyday details. Their clear local roots and lack of narrative structure gives them the feeling of folktales and hearsay.
A Latin edition of the stories was published by the great manuscript scholar and horror writer M.R. James in 1922, and English translations are available by A.J. Grant (1924), and Saint Anselm College (2014). But for anyone who hasn’t time to read the stories in full (or doesn’t dare), we’ve condensed the key points into this helpful guide to medieval ghosts. Perhaps it will come in handy this Halloween...
What are medieval ghosts?
The ghosts in the Byland stories are not the evil forces which seek to harm humanity in many modern horror tales. They are mostly people from the community who have died without confessing sins, righting wrongs or otherwise preparing for a ‘good death’. The ghosts cannot get to heaven until these issues have been resolved, so they rise from their graves to seek help from the living.
The sins in question tend to be relatively mundane. Story IX tells of a ghost whose crime is ‘a matter of a sixpence’. In Story VI, the ghost of a canon of Newburgh Priory is tormented for stealing silver spoons. In Story VII, a hired hand is punished for overindulging his oxen, feeding them on his master’s corn and letting them plough the land too shallowly.
The ghosts try a variety of tactics for persuading people to help. Story I tells of an enterprising ghost in the area of Rievaulx who helps carry a sack of beans in return for absolution. In Story III, the rather forlorn ghost of Robert of Kilburn wanders around the village at night, standing at windows and doors, waiting to see if anyone would come out and help. Eventually the priest hears his confession and he is able to rest in peace.
What do ghosts look like?
The Byland ghost stories include some wonderfully gruesome descriptions of the ghosts' appearances. They are clearly envisioned as decaying corpses, rather like modern zombies. In Story III, the ghost speaks not with his tongue but from the inside of his bowels, which are hollow and echoing like an empty cask. The shortest tale, Story V, tells of a man who witnesses a woman carrying a ghost on her back, when ‘he saw the hands of the woman sink deeply into the flesh of the ghost as though the flesh were rotten and not solid but phantom flesh’.
The appearance of these ghosts was clearly influenced by the art of the period. In Story II, the ghost appears ‘in the likeness of a man of great stature, horrible and thin, like one of the dead kings in pictures’—a reference to the popular imagery of the Three Living and the Three Dead Kings.
However, the Byland ghosts are also able to shape-shift and they appear in such assorted forms as: a horse, a revolving hay-cock with a light in the middle, a raven with sparks of fire shooting from its sides, a dog, a she-goat, a bullock without a mouth or eyes or ears, and a revolving piece of canvas (perhaps a precursor to the classic white sheet?).
What should you do if you meet a ghost?
The best thing to do in this situation is to talk to the ghost and find out what it wants. Ghosts aren’t able to speak to living people unless someone conjures them, which involves calling them to speak in the name of God. But if you are planning on meeting with ghosts, you may wish to bring protection. In Story II, when Snowball the tailor goes to keep an appointment with a ghost, he draws a magic circle around himself and uses an array of amulets.
The worst thing you can do if you meet a ghost is to try to resist it. Snowball the tailor finds that his attempts to repel the ghost with his sword are completely ineffectual: it just feels like he’s striking a peat-stack. In Story IX, a ghost follows a man for 80 miles, throws him over a hedge and catches him on the other side. When the man finally speaks to the ghost, it tells him ‘If you’d conjured me in the first place, I wouldn’t have hurt you’.
How do you get rid of a ghost?
The best way to get rid of a ghost is to help it out. In most of the stories, the ghosts will quietly rest in peace once their unfinished business has been resolved. However, some ghosts are more troublesome. Story IV tells of the particularly malevolent ghost of James Tankerlay, rector of Cold Kirby, who walks from his grave at night and blows out the eye of his former mistress. The monks of Byland Abbey take action by having his corpse exhumed and cast into the present-day popular wild swimming spot, Lake Gormire.
Several other stories also hint that ghosts are averse to water: in Story I, the ghost will not cross the river, and in Story II, the ghost screams at the suggestion of meeting by Hodge Beck. This trope of supernatural creatures being unable to cross water has persisted into modern literature such as Dracula and Lord of the Rings.
The Byland ghost stories give us a glimpse of the kinds of tales that were probably once widespread but were rarely written down. They reveal medieval people’s very real fear of death and the uncertainties of what lay beyond, but also a surprising compassion for the undead.
So next time you hear something go bump in the night, don’t be afraid. Chances are the ghost won’t try to throw you over a hedge or do anything more sinister—it just needs a willing ear and a helping hand.
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For the Latin text, see:
For English translations, see:
09 July 2020
One of the most iconic literary manuscripts by one of the world's most famous playwrights, William Shakespeare (1564–1616), can now be viewed in full online on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.
The Booke of Sir Thomas Moore does not immediately spring to mind as among Shakespeare's masterpieces. This late 16th or early 17th-century play is not always included among the Shakespearean canon, and it was not until the 1800s that it was even associated with the Bard of Avon. So what is the connection with William Shakespeare, the author of the more distinguished Hamlet, Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet?
In 1871, William Shakespeare's handwriting was identified on this page of The Booke of Sir Thomas Moore: Harley MS 7368, f. 9r
A clue is presented by the handwriting of the surviving manuscript (Harley MS 7368). There are 22 leaves in question, 13 of which are original, 7 are inserted leaves, and 2 are pasted slips. What is immediately apparent is that Thomas Moore was the work of several dramatists. The primary hand is that of Anthony Munday (d. 1633), and he was possibly assisted by the printer, Henry Chettle (d. 1603–07), with further contributions by Thomas Dekker (d. 1632), and perhaps by Thomas Heywood (d. 1641). The handwriting of yet another scribe in the manuscript, known by scholars as the unspectacularly named 'Hand D', is possibly none other than Shakespeare himself. Finally, the manuscript is known to have been censored in turn by Edmund Tilney (d. 1610), Master of the Revels.
The division of the handwriting can be set out as follows. 'Hand D' (probably Shakespeare) contributed an addition on ff. 8r–9v, supplying lines 1–165 of Scene 6.
- ‘Hand S’: Anthony Munday
- ‘Hand A’: probably Henry Chettle
- ‘Hand B’: probably Thomas Heywood
- ‘Hand C’: an unidentified professional scribe
- ‘Hand D’: probably William Shakespeare
- ‘Hand E’: probably Thomas Dekker
It was not at all unusual for early modern dramatists to collaborate in this way. William Shakespeare is known to have written in partnership with John Fletcher (d. 1625) and others, and it would have been logical for Munday to have turned to his fellow playwrights to advise and assist him when revising his play about Sir Thomas More (1478–1535), the early Tudor Lord Chancellor, humanist and martyr. What is exceptional here, of course, is that Harley MS 7368 is the only identifiable example of Shakespeare's contribution to a playscript surviving in manuscript. None of his other plays have been transmitted to us in this way. What is more, in these pages we can perhaps see the master playwright at work, musing, composing and correcting his text: a window into Shakespeare's dramatic art, as it were.
Another page from Shakespeare's probable contribution to The Booke of Sir Thomas Moore: Harley MS 7368, f. 8v
There is a remarkable sub-text to William Shakespeare's contribution to Thomas Moore. Andrew Dickson, in an article ('Wretched Strangers') for the British Library's Discovering Literature site, has noted how William Shakespeare was presumably called upon by Munday to write the most emotional passage in the play, known as the 'insurrection scene'. Drawing upon events in 1517, when rioting Londoners demanded that immigrants be expelled from England, Shakespeare portrayed Sir Thomas More, as mayor of London, pleading with the crowd to accept the asylum seekers.
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs, with their poor luggage,
Plodding to th’ ports and coasts for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silenced by your brawl ...
This was all the more remarkable when one realises that similar xenophobic riots had occurred in London in the 1590s and 1600s. Was Shakespeare making a case in The Book of Thomas Moore for racial tolerance? By putting words into Thomas More's mouth, was he making a barbed attack upon the prejudice of his own day?
The Book of Thomas Moore was probably never performed in the time of its authors. The Elizabethan censor, Edmund Tilney, took serious dislike to the playscript, and it seems to have been banned from public performance. The manuscript instead passed into the Harley library and was then sold to the British nation in 1753; it might have remained in oblivion were it not that Shakespeare's style, and hence his own handwriting, was first recognised in the 'insurrection scene' in 1871. The playscript is now extraordinarily brittle, and it is difficult to put on display; but we are delighted to be able to make it available online for everyone to read and enjoy, and for you to determine for yourselves if was indeed William Shakespeare who wrote these lines, in his very own hand. You can gaze in wonder at it on our Digitised Manuscripts site.
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18 May 2020
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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06 May 2020
The legend of Alexander in late Antique and medieval literary culture: PhD studentship at the British Library
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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