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.
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval
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!
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval
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
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval
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?
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval
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.
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval
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. You can read more about Dante and his amazing Divine Comedy in our blogpost on the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante.
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval
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).
Medieval manuscripts blog recent posts
- Alexander the Great exhibition at the British Library
- Discovering Boccaccio manuscripts online
- Irish voyage tales for the holiday of a lifetime
- Merlin the magician: from devil’s son to King Arthur’s trusted advisor
- 700th anniversary of the death of Dante
- Dante in the British Library online event
- Charles d'Orléans, earliest known Valentine?
- The show must go on! Putting on a play in the 16th century
- Byland Abbey ghost stories: a guide to medieval ghosts
- Shakespeare's only surviving playscript now online