05 May 2023
What was the food like at a medieval coronation banquet? As the coronation of King Charles III approaches, we look back over 500 years to an account of the coronation banquet served before the young Henry VI (r. 1422-1461, 1470-1471) on 5 November 1429 when he was only 7 years old.
The account is featured in an episode of The Food Programme that will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 7 May 2023 at 12.30pm, in which Jaega Wise and Head of the Eccles Centre and food historian Dr Polly Russell explore the history of coronation eating from the 1400s to the present day.
The coronation of the child Henry VI as King of England at Westminster, from the Pageants of Richard Beauchamp: Cotton MS Julius E IV/3, f. 23v
The details of Henry’s coronation banquet are recorded in a work by John Lydgate (d. c. 1451), a prolific writer of Middle English verse often seen as a successor to Geoffrey Chaucer (d. 1400). Lydgate was well connected at the royal court throughout his literary career, and in 1429 he was commissioned to write a number of works to mark the coronation of Henry VI, including a text now known as the ‘Soteltes for the coronation banquet of Henry VI’.
The text is a Middle English poem in three stanzas, designed to accompany each of the banquet’s courses as they arrived into the hall (probably Westminster Hall, the traditional venue for such occasions during this period). One surviving manuscript at the British Library (Egerton MS 1995) incorporates the poem as part of a medieval chronicle of the city of London. Most notably, the chronicle also preserves notes about the dishes served at the banquet itself.
The first and second courses of the coronation banquet feast of Henry VI, recorded in a medieval chronicle of London: Egerton MS 1995, ff. 176v-177r
The banquet was lavish in both its scale and the sheer variety of dishes served across its three courses. The dishes included:
- All kinds of meat and fish, including roasted beef, mutton, pigs, rabbits, chickens, swan, heron stuffed with capons, quails, curlew, larks, partridge, carp, crab, chopped eels, pike.
- Boars heads encased in pastry castles decorated with gold.
- Slices of red jelly carved with white lions.
- A ‘custade rooial’ (a type of pastry) enclosing a golden leopard.
- A fritter shaped like a sun with a fleur-de-lis.
- A fritter shaped like a leopard’s head with ostrich feathers.
- A jelly sculpture containing a red antelope, wearing a crown around its neck with a golden chain.
- A roasted peacock served in its plumage.
- A ‘flampayne’, a pork pie ornamented with leopards and gold fleur-de-lis.
- A cold ‘bakemete’, a meat pie shaped like the royal coat of arms.
The third course of the coronation banquet of Henry VI: Egerton MS 1995, f. 177v
At the heart of the banquet were its ‘subtleties’. A subtlety was a special type of medieval dish that served as theatrical tableside entertainment. Subtleties typically took the form of lavish tableau, with scenes and models depicting emblematic subjects, often made entirely out of confectionary, such as marzipan or other foodstuffs.
The account of the coronation banquet of Henry VI records that each course had its own subtlety that was brought in with the dishes. The subtleties and the accompanying verses were highly symbolic, emphasising Henry’s dual role as King of England and of France and the unity between the two countries, and this message was of immense political import. At the time the young king was crowned, the Hundred Years War was raging between England and France, as the two countries made opposing claims to the French throne.
The subtlety for the first course depicted St Edward the Confessor and St Louis of France wearing their coats of arms with Henry VI between them. The accompanying stanza written by Lydgate emphasises Henry’s role as heir to these two saintly kings:
Loo here been ii kyngys right profytabylle and right goode
Holy Synt Edwarde and Synt Lowys
Also the braunche borne of hyr blode
Lyyvynge a monge Crystyn most soverayne of pryse
Enherytoure to the flowredelysse.
God graunte he may thoroughe grace of Cryste Jesu
The VIte Harry to raygne, and be as wyse
And hym resemble in kynghode and verte.
Look here are two kings beneficent and good
Holy St Edward and St Louis
As well as the descendants born of their blood
Living among Christendom most sovereign of princes
Inheritor of the fleur-de-lis.
God grant that he may through the grace of Jesus Christ
The sixth Harry to reign and be as wise
And resemble him in kinghood and virtue.
The subtlety for the second course depicted the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund and Henry V, King of England, together holding aloft Henry VI, with Lydgate’s second stanza focusing on the military achievements of the two kings against rebellious factions in their respective kingdoms. The final subtlety, meanwhile, depicted the Virgin Mary and infant Christ in her lap holding a crown, with St George and St Denis presenting Henry to her. Lydgate’s closing stanza links the two patron saints of England and France explicitly to the king’s right to rule both countries:
O blessyd lady, Crystys modyr dyre
And Syn Gorge called hyr owne knight;
Hooly Syn Denys, O martyr, moste entere,
To the here vi Harry we present to the in youre syghte.
Schechythe youre grace on hym,
Thys tendyr and whythe vertu hym avaunce,
Borne by dyscent and tytylle of right
Justely to raygne in Ingelonde and yn Fraunce.
O blessed lady, Christ’s dear mother
And St George, called her own knight;
Holy St Denis, O martyr, most perfect
To you here Harry VI we present to you in your sight.
Showing your grace on him,
This tender (youth) and with virtue him advance,
Born by descent title of right
Justly to reign in England and in France.
This was not the only time St George would make an appearance at the feast. The London chronicle records that the King’s Champion, a man called Sir Philip Dymoke, rode into the banqueting hall dressed in full armour as the English patron saint, declaring to the crowd that the king was rightful heir to the throne.
The description of the entrance of Sir Philip Dymoke to the banqueting hall: Egerton MS 1995, f. 176v
The effect of the entrance of these tableaus and performances must have been striking to the assembled onlookers. Not only would they have contributed to the visual extravagance of the occasion alongside the numerous tables of food on display, they would also have impressed upon the king’s subjects the strength of his claim to the thrones of England and France, even as the ensuing political strife and the ongoing war loomed large on the continent.
Henry VI enthroned in front of the joint arms of France and England, from the Talbot Shrewsbury Book: Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 405r
To learn more about Henry VI’s coronation feast, tune in to The Food Programme on BBC Radio 4, 7 May 2023 at 12.30pm, or listen on the BBC Sounds website afterwards!
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29 April 2023
We recently blogged about our exciting project to bring the burnt volumes of the Cotton collection back to life, following the extensive damage they sustained in the Ashburnham House fire of 1731. Thanks to generous funding from the Goldhammer Foundation, the British Library has used multi-spectral imaging to photograph a selection of the damaged manuscripts, making them available to our readers online for the first time.
One major benefit of multi-spectral imaging is that it has allowed us to read and identify many of the fire-damaged texts, making some incredible discoveries in the process. One of these discoveries is a Latin praise work (or ‘panegyric) addressed by John Leland (b. c. 1503, d. 1552) to his patron, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (b. 1470/71, d. 1530). We can now reveal that this text known as the ‘Panegyricon ad Cardinalem Eboracensem’, and for centuries believed to have been completely lost, has survived in Cotton MS Fragments XXIII.
Portrait of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey: courtesy of Trinity College, Cambridge
Perhaps best known as the mastermind behind the restoration of Hampton Court Palace, Wolsey rose from the son of a butcher’s boy to become Archbishop of York and Chancellor of England. In 1515, he was appointed Cardinal by Pope Leo X (r. 1513–1521), giving him pre-eminence over the rest of the English clergy. He was a major figure in European political and religious life for much of the early decades of the 16th century, until his failure to secure the divorce of Henry VIII (r. 1509-1547) from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon (b. 1485, d. 1536) in 1529, caused his downfall. Wolsey was subsequently arrested by the King for treason and travelled to London to await trial, but famously died on route, avoiding the more violent fates of other figures at Henry’s court, such as Thomas More, Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell.
Fundamental to Wolsey’s power and influence during his career was his role as a patron of culture and education. Wolsey was responsible for the patronage of many artists and writers at the Tudor court. One of these figures was John Leland, a poet and Humanist scholar, and one of the very first early modern antiquarians, an advocate for the gathering of knowledge. Leland is best known for his extensive travels around England in the 1530s, when he toured and examined the libraries of many of the country’s religious houses in the years leading up to the Dissolution of the Monasteries. During this time, he compiled numerous lists of significant or unusual books, many of which would subsequently become part of the Royal library. Unfortunately, his life ultimately ended in tragedy: Leland went mad following the death of Henry VIII in 1547 and never recovered.
A list of the religious houses of Wales, written in Leland’s hand: Add MS 38132, f. 39r
Leland was a prolific writer. In his early career, he cultivated a strong circle of literary friends, patrons, and sponsors throughout England and Renaissance Europe, with whom he frequently corresponded and for whom he would write Latin praise works as gifts. As one of his patrons, Wolsey was a particularly strong advocate for Leland at the Tudor Court, securing him a number of positions during this time. This support would continue until the Cardinal’s fall from favour in 1529, at which point Leland gained the patronage of Thomas Cromwell (b. 1485, d. 1540), Wolsey’s successor.
Leland’s work in praise of Wolsey is attested in an important volume of English literary history known as the Illustrium majoris Britanniae scriptorum. This text is a chronological catalogue of British authors, compiled by John Bale (b. 1495, d. 1563), a contemporary and correspondent of Leland. Leland is one of the authors represented in the second edition of the text, published in 1557-1558. Under a list of his recorded writings, Bale includes the following title and Latin incipit (the opening line of a particular work), as well as a note indicating that his source for this information was a copy of the text consulted in Leland’s own library:
Panegyricon ad Cardinalem, Lib. 1. Dicturo de tuis laudibus ampliss.
The entry for John Leland and his ‘Panegyricon ad Cardinalem’ in John Bale’s Illustrium majoris Britanniae scriptorium, published in 1557-1558: C.28.m.6, p. 671
Another important piece of evidence for the text’s existence is presented by the 1542 inventory of the Royal Library at Westminster Palace. This inventory records a work known as the ‘Panegyricon ad Cardinalem’, which was identified by James Carley as a possible copy of Leland’s lost work in his edition and study of the inventory (H2. 243; The Libraries of Henry VIII (2000), p. 92). However, while many of Leland’s other recorded works have survived in numerous manuscripts and printed editions, until now, no copies of Leland’s panegyric to Cardinal Wolsey have ever been found.
Cotton MS Fragments XXIII
We can now turn our attention to Cotton MS Fragments XXIII, a small volume that consists of twelve fragmentary parchment leaves. Like many of the volumes that were heavily burnt in the Ashburnham House fire, these leaves were subsequently mounted on paper guards and rebound.
The opening of Leland’s Panegyricon ad Cardinalem, burnt in 1731: Cotton MS Fragments XXIII, f. 2r
The main text in the manuscript is a Latin prose work, written in a neat italic hand, which begins on f. 2r and ends on f. 12v. The opening of the text features the title ‘PANEGYRICVS’, enclosed within a decorative red border. A blank space within a red frame has been left by the scribe, or potentially created because of the fire damage sustained by the manuscript, and would presumably have held a decorated initial. Much of the rest of the first line remains visible. Its opening words read ‘[D]icturo mihi de laudibus tuis…’ (I am about to speak your praises…), unmistakeably a variant closely resembling the opening line that Bale quotes in his catalogue of Leland’s writings.
The opening of the ‘Panegyricus’, photographed with multi-spectral imaging: Cotton MS Fragments XXIII, f. 2r
Additional evidence that this work was addressed to Cardinal Wolsey appears on the first leaf of the volume. The verso features a short Latin dedicatory poem, only nine lines long, written beneath a coat of arms decorated in colours and gold. The coat of arms has been heavily warped because of the damage sustained in the 1731 fire, and is now barely visible to the naked eye. However, thanks to the multi-spectral imaging, the arms can now be identified as belonging to Wolsey himself.
The coat of arms of Cardinal Wolsey above a Latin dedicatory poem: Cotton MS Fragments XXIII, f. 1v
Notably, the arms in the burnt manuscript show a number of similarities with a contemporary image of Wolsey’s arms painted at the beginning of a Latin encomium (another type of praise work), which is also dedicated to him (Harley MS 1197, ff. 402–413). In Cotton MS Fragments XXIII, most of the embellishments and decorative elements on this heraldic device have burned away, but the central features remain: red tassels descending from a cardinal’s hat now obscured at the top; a golden ‘chief’ (or band) below it; and the ends of two cross-staves emerging from a black shield. In the centre, the shield’s silver cross is still visible, with the faintest impression of the red lion and four blue leopard faces it once held.
The burnt arms of Cardinal Wolsey: Cotton MS Fragments XXIII, f. 1v
The arms of Cardinal Wolsey, painted at the beginning of an Encomium dedicated to him: Harley MS 1197, f. 402r
The discovery of Leland’s lost praise poem for Wolsey highlights the tremendous power that the Cardinal wielded in England and across the Continent during this period. Most importantly, it reinforces how art and literary patronage was a significant part of his influence. By supporting and surrounding himself with a coterie of artists, writers, and scholars, he was reinforcing his position, controlling the dissemination of his image and ensuring his own legacy. The centrality of his role at the Tudor Court was reflected in the paintings, literary compositions, and (in the case of Hampton Court Palace) buildings created in his name. Although that legacy was ultimately tarnished by his fall from favour, his impact on the cultural life of England persisted.
There are many more questions to be asked about Cotton MS Fragments XXIII, its origins, the circumstances around its production and its text of Leland’s panegyric, but multi-spectral imaging means that for the first time in 500 years, we are in a position to uncover the answers.
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24 January 2023
Are you a PhD student working on topic relating to medieval women? We are now advertising an opportunity to do a placement with us in the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section at the British Library in 2023.
The student will assist us with preparing for the British Library's Medieval Women exhibition. The exhibition, scheduled for October 2024–February 2025, will focus on recovering medieval women’s voices, visions and experiences. It will tell their history through their own words, show them through their own images, and uncover their lives through original manuscripts, documents and objects.
The student will be supervised by the lead curator of the exhibition and will assist with key tasks in its development. These will include researching particular themes, exhibits and historical figures within the exhibition, assisting with the production of the exhibition book (e.g. assembling images, proof-reading), producing promotional materials (e.g. writing blogposts and content for the Library’s website) and helping to liaise with other teams at the British Library (such as Publishing, Conservation, Marketing).
This opportunity is offered as part of the annual British Library PhD Placement Scheme. Placements must take place between June 2023 and March 2024, and are offered for 3 months full-time or up to 6 months part-time.
The scheme is open to all current PhD students registered with a UK university. International PhD students are eligible to apply, subject to meeting any UK visa/residency requirements. Please visit our call for applications page for more information and details on how to apply.
The deadline for applications is 5pm on Monday 20 February 2023.
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23 September 2022
On 21 October 2022 the British Library opens a new exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth. Bringing together a spectacular selection of treasures from across more than 2000 years, 25 countries and 22 languages, the show presents the amazingly varied afterlife of one of the Ancient World’s best-known figures: Alexander the Great.
Born in ancient Macedonia more than 2350 years ago, Alexander created an empire of unprecedented size during his short life. Setting out from the Balkans, he conquered the entire Eastern Mediterranean including today’s Greece, Turkey, Iran and Egypt and beyond as far as India. Although his empire crumbled soon after his early death at the age of 32, Alexander’s legacy continued and his legendary figure is still transforming.
The British Library’s new exhibition explores the myths and stories of Alexander’s life and deeds in a wide range of media spanning more than twenty centuries and a huge geographical spread. Unfolding the narrative from his early years, through his conquests and personal relationships to his death, the objects on display represent the fabulous network of legends that surround almost every detail of Alexander’s life and achievements.
We show how Alexander became a Pharaoh in Egypt, a prophet in Islam, a saint in Christianity, an all-knowing philosopher, a magician of obscure secrets, even attempting flight and inventing the first submarine. A stunning selection of objects including ancient and medieval manuscripts from around the world alongside printed books, music, artwork, and contemporary digital installations illustrating the unparalleled afterlife of the young king of ancient Macedon.
Book your tickets now and join us for an amazing journey through space, time and across cultures to explore how Alexander in his legendary life failed to gain eternal life, but ultimately achieved immortality through his stories.
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We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for their support towards the exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors.
13 April 2022
The Italian writer, poet and humanist, Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75) is probably most familiar in the English-speaking world for his Decameron, a collection of one hundred short stories that were adapted by Chaucer and Shakespeare and inspired works by Swift, Tennyson and Keats. He was a key literary figure in late-medieval and Renaissance Europe whose considerable output included love poetry, courtly tales, a genealogy of the gods, and the first collection of biographies devoted solely to women in Western literature.
Towards the end of his life, disillusioned with love and suffering from a variety of ailments, he was only dissuaded from burning much of his own material by the intervention of Petrarch, a close colleague and mentor. Fortunately his works survived, and the many translations and extant manuscripts are testament to their popularity. In the 15th century numerous illustrated copies were produced for the courts of Europe.
Twenty seven British Library manuscripts containing works of Boccaccio are either fully or partially digitised in our online catalogues. An advanced search in the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts using the field ‘Author’: ‘Boccaccio’ produces a list of all of these with a selection of images from each one. Six are also fully digitised on our Digitised Manuscripts website. Here are just some of these fascinating manuscripts.
Concerning Famous Women
Most impressive of all are two grand volumes of Boccaccio’s ground-breaking collection of biographies of famous women, De claris mulieribus (Concerning Famous Women) in a French translation by Laurent de Premierfait. Both contain magnificent illustrations of the characters and their deeds. Boccaccio’s purpose in this work is to encourage virtuous behaviour among women, but the examples he chooses from among biblical, classical, mythological and historical characters are both good and bad. All the well-known female figures are present, each one accompanied by a portrait, from Eve to Medusa, and from Sappho to Cleopatra, alongside less familiar examples such as Hypsicratea, Queen of Pontus, and Faustina Augusta, wife of Marcus Aurelius. Christine de Pizan based many of her biographies of women in the famous Cite des Dames on this work.
The Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts also features copies of the original Latin text of Boccaccio’s De claris mulieribus. One of these, Harley MS 6348, is an early copy made in Italy in the 14th century, not long after Boccaccio’s death. The opening page of De claris mulieribus contains the dedication beginning with the words: ‘Pridie, mulierum egregia...’ The first sentence translates as:
‘Some time ago, illustrious lady, while away from the crude multitudes and almost free of other concerns, I wrote a little book in praise of women, more for the pleasure of my friends than as a service to humanity’ (trans. Guarino).
Concerning Noble Men and Women
In addition to his biographies of women, Boccaccio produced a collection of biographies of both men and women, De casibus virorum illustrium, also translated into French by Premierfait. Some of these are very large volumes, each containing over fifty biographies with numerous miniatures. For example, Royal MS 14 E V, a Bruges manuscript owned by Edward IV, is almost half a metre tall and has 513 folios – the size of a small suitcase – so you need to be strong just to lift it off the shelf! the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts has images of all the pages with illustrations from this manuscript. For example, a historical event known as the Sicilian Vespers, the Easter rebellion by the Sicilians against French rule in 1282 when thousands of French civilians were murdered, is the subject of one illustration.
The theme of the biographies is the changeability of fortune. Boccaccio focuses on the downfall of famous people, all of whom are subject to the will of Lady Fortune. In book 6 the two meet and speak about the fates of the unlucky nobles who are destined to fall from dizzy heights of power and wealth.
Another manuscript of his work, Harley MS 621, has a miniature at the beginning of each of the major sections or books into which the work is divided. In this one, Boccaccio watches Fortune turn her wheel. Note the cockerel in the border!
The Fall of Princes
The English poet, John Lydgate, produced an abridged version of De Casibus in a Middle English translation, known as The Fall of Princes. Three copies are fully digitised on Digitised Manuscripts. One of these, which was probably made at Bury St Edmunds, contains a series of illustrations of key scenes in the margins. One gruesome example is of King Cyrus of the Persians who subdued all the nations from Syria to the Red Sea. According to the Boccaccio/Lydgate version of his life, Tomyrus, Queen of the Scythians defeated his army, severing his head from his body, and throwing it into a bowl of blood with these words, ‘Thou that hast all thy time thirsted for blood, now drink thy fill, and satiate thy self with it’.
There are also Boccaccio manuscripts on the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts containing a variety of his other works, including three of his most well-known work, the Decameron. This copy of the Decameron, translated into French by Laurent de Premierfait, is decorated with borders containing the royal arms of England. This is because it was part of the collection of manuscripts owned by King Edward IV of England.
Other Boccaccio texts include Elegia di Madonna Fiammetta, a quasi autobiographical novel about a love affair set in Naples.
This overview of Boccaccio manuscripts helps to demonstrate that our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, though not providing full digital coverage, remains a key source for images of our manuscript collections. We continue to maintain it and make updates and corrections to the records. We hope you enjoy exploring!
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17 March 2022
After the last two years of lockdowns and travel restrictions, many of us are dreaming about travelling abroad, for rest or adventure. But where to go? Worry not, dear readers, for help can be found in some of our medieval manuscripts. The medieval Irish also imagined journeys to foreign shores, and there is an entire genre of such voyage tales called immrama, in which explorers travelled West to fantastic islands. There are a number of these immrama among the British Library's Irish manuscripts. Here we pick some of our top island destinations for your consideration.
The recently digitised Harley MS 5280 contains two tales of island-hopping Irishmen: The Voyage of Maeldúin’s Curach (‘Immram curaig Mail Dúin’) and The Voyage of Bran mac Febail (‘Immram Brain Meic Febail’). Maeldúin visited a number of islands after being blown off-course on his quest to avenge his father (you can read more in a previous blog post). The first island that the disoriented sailors came across was full of giant ants, each the size of a foal. They swarmed the beach trying to eat the travellers before they ever made it ashore. Even the most enthusiastic entomologist would have a tough time on this island. If you're determined to visit, we'd recommend looking from a distance as you search for friendlier shores.
Maeldúin and his friends were chased off another island by a horse-like creature, with the legs of a hound, sharp nails and an appetite for sailors. Even after fleeing to their ship, the creature dug up the beach and pelted them with the rubble. For animal lovers, the safest option is the island of birds, which, as the name suggests, is an island full of birds. They do not seem to mind visitors and it is only a few days away by curach to the land of monsters, should you insist on going.
If you want something more relaxing, perhaps try an island divided into four parts by fences of gold, silver, brass and crystal. The inhabitants of this island are excellent hosts, treating their guests to food and drink. But be warned, they take check-out very seriously. When Maeldúin and his friends woke on their third day on this island, they found themselves already back on the curach and the island nowhere in sight.
If you prefer self-catering, a small island containing a fort, some white houses and a playful cat jumping on pillars could be the one for you. Food, drink and comfortable beds will be provided, but you're advised not to take any of the jewellery. One of Maeldúin’s companions tried this and did not make it halfway across the courtyard before the little cat jumped through him like a flaming arrow, reducing him to ash. This is a great destination for lovers of fine food and drink (and cats). We would recommend bringing some cat treats, just in case.
Some of you may be seeking a total escape, a chance to leave all your worries behind. No need to fret, since both Maeldúin and Bran visited islands where you can forget all your troubles (and everything else). Maeldúin encountered an island full of constantly wailing people dressed in black. When one of his companions alighted on the island to investigate, he joined the islanders in their weeping. Two others who went to rescue him were unable to recognise him and also succumbed to the wailing. A further four were successful in their mission to rescue their friends, but had to cover their mouths with their clothes and to avoid looking at the island so as not to succumb to the same fate.
If being surrounded by sobbing strangers is not your idea of a good time, then you might prefer the Island of Joy, the only island Bran visited on his journey. Everyone there will greet you with a smile, or at least they will stare at you in silence. When one of Bran’s crewmembers set foot on the island, he broke out in a grin. If you think this island is for you, prepare for an extended trip. Bran was forced to leave that crewmember behind when he responded to their calls only with more smiling and staring.
The wandering of the clerics of Colum Cille (‘Merugud cléirech Choluim Chille’), found in Add MS 30512, contains a number of ideal locations for foodies. One of the first islands visited by Snedgus and Mac Riagla had a river flowing through it which tasted of milk. While staying with an Irish cleric on an island of cat-headed people, they were treated to their fill of wheat, fish and wine.
There is also the option of an educational trip. On a later island, Snedgus and Mac Riagla found trees covered in birds with golden breasts and silver wings. A large bird in the middle sang the story of Creation, of Christ’s life, and of Doomsday. But make sure to bring an umbrella, as the other birds shook their wings after hearing the story, causing blood to gush from them.
Wildlife, comfort, education, fiery cats — there is an island for everyone. If you want to see more travellers’ tales, check out our previous blogpost Dragons, heroes, myths and magic for more tales of adventure.
Seosamh Mac Cárthaigh
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25 November 2021
Merlin is the central mythical character in the world of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table. A shadowy and untameable figure who seldom takes a single form for long enough to show us his true nature, he eludes definition today, just as he did a millennium ago, and his origins and fate remain mysterious. His character was probably an amalgam of Myrddin Wyllt, a bard and wild man of the Caledonian forest in Welsh tradition, Ambrosius Aurelianus, a warrior-prophet who was among the last of the Romans in Britain, and possibly a local pagan god whose cult was associated with the Welsh town of Carmarthon (from Caer Myrddin, meaning Merlin’s fort or castle).
As a fortune-teller and shape-shifter, Merlin became associated with necromancy and the dark arts in the imagination of medieval Christians. The story of his birth was founded in the religious legend of the Harrowing of Hell. The demons of Hell, annoyed by Christ’s interference and his rescuing of souls from their domain, plot their revenge through the birth of an Antichrist.
They send a devil to impregnate an innocent princess of Dyfed in Wales, but when the child is born, their evil plans miscarry as the devout mother finds a priest to baptise him before he is pulled into their evil orbit. This is Merlin, a child prodigy with magical powers and the ability to foretell the future, attributes that he decides to use on the side of good rather than evil.
The earliest of the Arthurian texts to include Merlin was Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account in his Historia regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain). For more information on this work and the surviving manuscripts of early legends, see, our article on Early Latin Versions of the Legend of King Arthur published on the Polonsky Medieval France and England, 700-1200 website.
Merlin first appears when, following the massacre of the British chieftains by the Saxon leader, Hengist, in the treacherous ‘Night of the Long Knives’, the British King Vortigern flees to Wales where he tries to build a strong tower to protect himself. But every night, the progress made by his builders is mysteriously undone when the foundations crumble. His wizards claim that only by mixing in the blood of a child who has no mortal father will he make the foundations sound. Merlin is found and brought to Vortigern for his purpose, but he is able to see a pool beneath the tower, in which lie two sleeping dragons, one white and one red, and he explains that the white dragon (i.e. the Saxons) will triumph over the red (i.e. the British). He then enters a trance and foretells the future of the Britons to the end of time, predicting the coming of a great king by the name of Arthur.
Perhaps Merlin’s most remarkable achievement is single-handedly transporting a ring of magical stones known as ‘the Giant’s Dance’ from Ireland to Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire to build Stonehenge. The earliest surviving picture of Stonehenge, showing Merlin helping to place the huge stones, is in a copy of the Roman de Brut, a verse chronicle of British history by a poet from Jersey named Wace, written in Anglo-Norman French.
Merlin’s next undertaking is to orchestrate the marvellous conception, birth and education of the future King Arthur. As he foretells, the young boy pulls the sword from the stone and inherits his rightful kingdom and - with Merlin’s help and guidance - achieves greatness. But though Merlin uses his powers to warn his young protégé about the future, he is powerless to change events that have been ordained. One day he appears in the form of a young boy to Arthur, who is out hunting in the forest, revealing that Arthur is son of King Uther and of Igraine. Later, changing into an old man, he prophesies that Mordred, the son who Arthur has conceived with his half-sister Morgause, will one day destroy his father and the court at Camelot.
Though he is a trusted adviser to kings, Merlin remains an unpredictable character with strange habits and a menacing laugh that announces his sometimes-macabre intentions. In one episode, he changes into a deer and is served up as Caesar’s dinner, later returning as a wild man to interpret the Emperor’s dreams.
When he becomes obsessed with the fairy huntress, Niniane, he performs bizarre stunts for her that include setting two harpists alight with sulphur, saying they are evil sorcerers.
In the end Niniane brings about Merlin’s downfall. Having tricked him into revealing all his magical knowledge to her, she uses one of his spells to seal him in a stone tomb in the forest of Broceliande, or in some versions in an oak tree, until the end of time.
Stories of King Arthur and Camelot, alongside some of the most celebrated tales in medieval manuscripts, are featured in my recently published book, Dragons, Heroes, Myths & Magic: The Medieval Art of Storytelling, now on sale now in the British Library shop. Perhaps it would make the perfect Christmas gift for a medieval story-lover?
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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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