Medieval manuscripts blog

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65 posts categorized "Literature"

25 October 2023

Chaucer’s works go online

Geoffrey Chaucer (b. c. 1340s, d. 1400): poet, courtier, diplomat, Member of Parliament and royal administrator, and often called the ‘father of English poetry’. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is one of the greatest works of medieval literature. This Middle English poem has transfixed generations of readers, who have delighted in its poetic beauty, its larger-than-life characters, and its combination of poignant tragedy and tongue-in-cheek humour. But Chaucer was a prolific writer who composed many other works, which continue to be read long after his death. Among them are his Trojan epic Troilus and Criseyde, the dream vision The Legend of Good Women, his translations of the Roman de la Rose and The Consolation of Philosophy, his instructional manual on the astrolabe, and a whole host of minor poems.

The British Library holds the world’s largest surviving collection of Chaucer manuscripts, and this year we have reached a major milestone. Thanks to generous funding provided by The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, the Peck Stacpoole Foundation, and the American Trust for the British Library, we have completed the digitisation of all of our pre-1600 manuscripts containing Chaucer’s works, over 60 collection items in total. We have digitised not only complete copies of Chaucer’s poems, but also unique survivals, including fragmentary texts found in Middle English anthologies or inscribed in printed editions and incunabula.

A 16th-century portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer, holding a stylus and rosary.

A 16th-century portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer, holding a rosary and stylus: Add MS 5141, f. 1r

You can download the full list of pre-1600 manuscripts containing Chaucer’s works here, together with accompanying links to the digitised versions on our Universal Viewer. There you can view the manuscripts in full, study them in detail, and download the images for your own use. Thanks to the IIIF-compatible viewer, you can also view these manuscripts side-by-side in digital form, allowing close comparison between the volumes, their texts, and scribal hands:

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Excel: Download Chaucer_digitised_vols_Oct_2023 (this format cannot be downloaded on all browsers).

Here are some of the works you can find in our digitised collection of Chaucer manuscripts:

The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales comprises a collection of stories presented in the form of a storytelling contest by a group of memorable characters on a pilgrimage from London to Canterbury, among their number the Knight, the Miller, the Reeve, the Wife of Bath and the Prioress.

We hold 23 manuscripts of Chaucer’s most famous poem at the British Library, the earliest of which (Lansdowne MS 851) was written only a few years after the author’s death. This particular copy opens with his portrait, showing Chaucer writing with an open book in hand, framed within the initial ‘W’ at the start of the General Prologue.

The opening of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, showing a portrait of Chaucer.

The opening of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, with a portrait of the author: Lansdowne MS 851, f. 2r

In addition to the surviving manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales, the British Library also houses some of the earliest printed versions of Chaucer’s poem. These include rare copies of the 1476 and 1483 editions of the text made by William Caxton (d. c. 1491), the 1491/1492 edition by Richard Pynson (d. c. 1529), and the 1498 edition printed by Wynkyn de Worde (d. c. 1534).

A page from Caxton's 1483 printed edition of the Canterbury Tales, showing a woodcut of the pilgrims around a table.

A woodcut of the pilgrims from William Caxton’s 1483 edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: G.11586, f. 20 c4

Almost a century after these editions of The Canterbury Tales were published, the English schoolmaster and editor Thomas Speght (d. 1621) produced his own collection of all of Chaucer’s works (1598), together with a glossary and biography of the author. One surviving copy of Speght’s printed edition (Add MS 42518) notably features handwritten notes by the scholar and writer Gabriel Harvey (d. 1631), infamous for his feud with the Elizabethan playwright Thomas Nashe (b. c. 1601). Harvey’s notes in the manuscript include one of the earliest known references to Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet (on f. 422v).

A page from Thomas Speght's Collected Works of Chaucer, showing a woodcut of the Knight.

 The opening of ‘The Knight’s Tale’, from Thomas Speght’s 1598 edition of the collected works of Geoffrey Chaucer: Add MS 42518, f. 29r

A page from Speght's Collected Works of Chaucer, showing autograph notes by Gabriel Harvey.

Gabriel Harvey’s autograph notes, including one of the earliest references to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, added to Speght’s collected works of Chaucer: Add MS 42518, f. 422v

Troilus and Criseyde

Alongside The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer wrote another significant Middle English epic called Troilus and Criseyde. Set during the Trojan War, it tells the tragic love story of Troilus, a Trojan prince, and Criseyde, the daughter of the seer Calchas, who is separated from her love when her father defects to the Greek army. Like Chaucer’s other major works, Troilus continued to be read after the poet’s lifetime and would go on to influence other English authors, most notably the poet Thomas Hoccleve (d. 1426) for his Testament of Cresseid and William Shakespeare (d. 1616) for his play Troilus and Cressida.

The opening of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, showing a decorated foliate initial.

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

The Legend of Good Women

The Legend of Good Women is one of Chaucer’s four poetic dream visions (the others are The House of Fame, The Parlement of Foules and The Book of the Duchess). In the prologue to this poem, the dreaming narrator is scolded by Queen Alceste, the goddess of love, for the depiction of women in his writing and is commanded by her to author a poem about the virtues and good deeds of women instead.

Chaucer then recounts the often-tragic stories of ten female figures, derived from Classical history, legend and mythology. They include the Egyptian queen Cleopatra; the Babylonian lover Thisbe of Ovid’s Metamorphoses; the sorceress Medea; Queen Phyllis, abandoned by her lover Demophon; Hypsipyle, Queen of Lemnos; Ariadne, saviour of the Greek hero Theseus in Minos’ Labyrinth; the Roman noblewoman Lucretia; Philomela, who suffers terribly at the hands of Tereus; Hypermenestra, daughter of Egiste; and Dido, Queen of Carthage. The British Library is home to three manuscripts of the poem, including one copy that is interspersed with printed leaves of the same text (Add MS 9832).

The opening of Chaucer's Legend of Good Women, showing a printed leaf and the handwritten text.

The opening of Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women, showing printed and handwritten versions of the text side-by-side: Add MS 9832, ff. 3v-4r

Boece

In addition to writing his own original compositions, Chaucer was also a translator. His Boece is a Middle English prose translation of The Consolation of Philosophy by the Roman philosopher Boethius (d. 524). Boethius’ text, itself an example of a dream vision, was hugely popular during the medieval period and had a great influence on Chaucer’s own writing. The British Library holds one of the earliest copies of Chaucer’s translation of the work (Add MS 10340), written in the 1st quarter of the 15th century, only a decade or so after Chaucer’s death.

The opening of Chaucer's Boece, showing a decorative puzzle initial.

The opening of Chaucer’s Boece, a translation of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy: Add MS 10340, f. 3v

Anelida and Arcite

Anelida and Arcite is one of Chaucer’s shorter and lesser-known poetic works, telling the story of Anelida, Queen of Armenia, and her courtship by Arcite, a man from the city of Thebes in Greece. One of the British Library’s copies of the poem is found in an anthology of Middle English poetry written by Chaucer and his contemporary John Lydgate (d. c. 1451). The volume is one of the earliest compilations of John Shirley (d. 1439), a prolific scribe and translator who served as a secretary to Richard Beauchamp (d. 1439), 13th Earl of Warwick, and who was responsible for writing many surviving manuscripts of Chaucer and Lydgate’s works.

The text of Chaucer's Anelida and Arcite, from a Middle English anthology.

A copy of Chaucer’s Anelida and Arcite, in a volume written by the scribe John Shirley: Add MS 16165, f. 243r

Minor Works

Like Shirley’s poetic compilation, other surviving anthologies at the British Library also feature copies of Chaucer’s shorter poems. One such collection (Add MS 34360) was written by a professional London-based scribe, named the ‘Hammond Scribe’ after the Chaucerian scholar Eleanor Hammond (d. 1933), who first identified his hand. Chaucer’s ‘Complaynt to his Empty Purse’ is a notable example of one of these minor works, a witty plea for money from his employer, disguised as a love poem:

To yow, my purse, and to noon other wight
Complaine I, for ye be my lady dere.
I am so sory now that ye be light,
For certes but if ye make me hevy chere,
Me were as leef be leyd upon my bere,
For which unto your mercy thus I crye
Beth hevy ageyn or ells mot I dye.

The text of Chaucer's Complaynt to his Empty Purse, from a Middle English anthology.

Chaucer’s ‘Complaynt to his Empty Purse’ from an anthology of Middle English poetry: Add MS 34360, f. 19r

Other minor works by Chaucer also now digitised include his ‘Gentilesse’, ‘Lak of Steadfastnesse’, ‘Truth’, ‘The Complaynt unto Pity’ and the ‘Balade of Good Fortune’.

The Treatise on the Astrolabe

While Chaucer is now known principally as a poet, he was also responsible for an important medieval instructional manual, called ‘A Treatise on the Astrolabe’, which like his poetry, was written in Middle English rather than Latin. Astrolabes had been in use for hundreds of years by Chaucer’s lifetime and had a wide variety of functions, but their principal purpose was as astronomical and navigational instruments, helping to determine different latitudes by day and night.

An astronomical instrument in brass called an astrolabe.

An example of one of the earliest known European astrolabes, made in 1326: British Museum, 1909,0617.1

In one of the British Library’s medieval copies of the text (Egerton MS 2622), preserved in its original binding, Chaucer’s work appears as part of a collection of treatises on arithmetic, geometry, horticulture and astronomy. 

A collection of scientific treatises with a medieval clasped leather binding.

A copy of Chaucer’s ‘Treatise on the Astrolabe’ in a collection of scientific treatises with its own original medieval clasped binding: Egerton MS 2622

Chaucer’s treatise continued to be read during the Early Modern period. A notable 16th-century manuscript contains a revised edition of the ‘Astrolabe’, undertaken by an otherwise unknown editor called Walter Stevins. Stevins made his own corrections throughout Chaucer’s text, and prefaced it with his own address to the reader and a dedication to Edward Courtenay (d. 1556), 1st Earl of Devon. His manuscript features numerous detailed drawings that accompany the text, illustrating the workings and uses of the astrolabe itself.

The title page of an edited version of Chaucer's 'Astrolabe', with a diagram of the instrument.

The opening of Walter Stevins’ revised edition of Chaucer’s ‘Treatise on the Astrolabe’: Sloane MS 261, f. 1*r

Whether you are experienced scholars of Chaucer’s life and poetry, who know his words off by heart, or only just learning of his collected works for the first time, we hope you enjoy exploring the pages of these digitised manuscripts and engaging with the writing of one of the foundational figures in the history of English literature. We are grateful to The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, the Peck Stacpoole Foundation, and the American Trust for the British Library for their support of the project.

 

Calum Cockburn

Follow us @BLMedieval

09 October 2023

The largest Greek manuscript?

We are always pleased to announce the digitisation of our manuscripts but this blogpost marks a particularly special milestone. Thanks to generous support by Kimberley and David Martin and the Hellenic League, we have been able to digitise one of the largest (and heaviest!) Greek manuscripts in our collections.

A photograph of a very large manuscript of the Greek Octateuch, next to a pencil and pencil sharpener to show the scale.

One of the largest volumes in the British Library’s collection of Greek manuscripts: Add MS 35123

Add MS 35123 comprises more than 600 leaves, almost 1,300 larger-than-A4 pages, bound tightly between heavy medieval wooden boards that weigh almost 10 kilograms. This giant tome is a late-12th century Biblical manuscript, containing the first eight books of the Old Testament: the five from Moses appended by Joshua, Judges and Ruth.

So if this manuscript only contains part of the Bible, what makes it so enormous? A glance at just one of the volume’s pages will provide the answer: the biblical text in the manuscript is actually enclosed by an extensive commentary, which appears on three margins of every single leaf.

A page from a medieval manuscript of the Greek Octateuch with extensive commentary.

Octateuch with Catena: Add MS 35123, f. 84v

Translated from Hebrew in the 3rd century BC, the Greek text of the books of Moses and the other Old Testament scriptures, known as the Septuagint, was not an easy read for an ordinary Greek reader. Some help was needed to understand its grammar, which reflected the original Hebrew text, and, even more importantly, the unique vocabulary used by its translators. New commentaries were also required to highlight the complex relationship between the Old and New Testaments. Unsurprisingly, many of these commentaries were written by the most renowned and learned of the Church Fathers. By the 7th and 8th centuries, the volume of interpretative Biblical material had grown enough to fill entire libraries. Thankfully, an effective and ‘user-friendly’ way of navigating this material had  been invented many centuries before by ancient scholars working on the Greek classics, particularly the work of the poet Homer.

Burney_ms_86_f003v

Homer’s Iliad with marginal commentaries: the Towneley Homer, Burney MS 86, f. 3v

Scholars working in the library of Alexandria between the 3rd and 1st century BC established a way for students and readers to navigate the enormous amount of scholarship on Homer’s epics. They extracted the most important elements from these commentaries and placed them in the margins of the texts they interpreted. They also devised an elaborate system of symbols emphasising the connection between the main text written in the centre of each page and the commentary excerpts placed in the surrounding margins. The commentaries became very popular elements of school education, being named scholia (‘school material’) as a result.

A detail from the Towneley Homer, showing the system of signs used to link the text with the commentary.

Signs written in red ink connecting marginal commentaries to the main text: the Towneley Homer, Burney MS 86, f. 3v (detail)

Christian commentators adopted a  similar system. They placed the Biblical text in the centre of each page, written in larger, more prominent characters, adding the commentary around it in smaller letters, so that as much as possible could fit on the page. These Christian commentators also used symbols to connect a particular item in the marginal commentary with the relevant place or line in the Biblical text.

The source of each commentary was more important for Christian compilers than it had been for the ancients. They placed particular emphasis on recording the source of each extract, usually writing them at the beginning of each paragraph in red ink. This commentary, presented as a series of inter-connected extracts accompanying the Biblical text, was later called ’catena’, after the Latin word meaning ‘chain’.

A detail from a manuscript of the Greek Octateuch, showing numerical signs in red ink, connecting the text and commentary.

Numbers in red ink in the left margin connecting the commentary to the central text: Add MS 35123, f. 83v (detail)

Over time, many of the original texts used by these compilers were lost — in some cases they were condemned explicitly as heretical and were deliberately destroyed. The extracts found in the margins of these ‘Catena-Bibles’ have become increasingly valuable to modern biblical scholars. In many cases, they are the only witnesses for once-celebrated works, such as the Commentary on Genesis by Diodore of Tarsus (d. 394) and Theodore of Mopsuestia (d. 428), both condemned as heretics in the 6th century, and the Commentary on Exodus by Gennadius of Constantinople (d. 471), which is also now lost.

Add_ms_35123_f084v_detail

Excerpts from the lost commentary of Diodorus (upper right-hand corner) and Gennadius of Constantinople (abbreviated in the lower right-hand corner): Add MS 35123, f. 84v (detail)

These are just a few of the many exciting sources preserved in this manuscript. A systematic survey of all Catena manuscripts has yet to be completed so there may be more to discover. We invite you to take a look at the online images. If you're lucky, you may be able to spot a new fragment of a lost text.

 

Peter Toth

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11 May 2023

Medieval and Renaissance Women: full list of the charters and rolls

We always say, never start a blogpost with the words, 'We are delighted to announce that'.

So, in true time-honoured fashion, we are thrilled to release a list of all the rolls and charters digitised as part of our Medieval and Renaissance Women project. There are 25 rolls and 219 charters in total, in addition to the 93 manuscript volumes that we announced in a previous blogpost. The Medieval and Renaissance Women project has been made possible thanks to generous funding by Joanna and Graham Barker.

The seal of the Empress Matilda

The seal of the Empress Matilda, between 1141 and 1142: Add Ch 75724

Here begins the list. This may take some time, but it's worth it, we promise. From the top... The will of Sibylla Frances of Dunwich. A confirmation by Sybilla of Kaversfeld, widow of Hugh Gargate, to Bicester Priory of land in Stratton. An acknowledgement by Marie, abbess of St Stephen’s Abbey, Soissons, to the Knights Templar of Mont-de-Soissons. A sale by Katherine von Solmesse and Salentin, lord of Isenburg, her husband, to Baldwin, archbishop of Trier. A letter of attorney from Ismania, widow of Laurence Berkerolles. A certificate for the safe delivery of Margaret of Anjou to Louis XI of France. A chirograph of Fredescendis, abbess of Maubeuge, granting land to Guarin, abbot of Vicogne…

Actually, why don't you simply peruse the list for yourself? It's great fun, we promise (again)!

A confirmation by Sybillia of Kaverfield, featuring her seal.

Confirmation by Sybilla of Kaversfeld, widow of Hugh Gargate, to Bicester Priory of land in Stratton, early 13th century: Add Ch 10608

You can download the full list of charters and rolls here, with links to the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site and the Universal Viewer. There, you'll be able to read these manuscripts in full and for free from the comfort of your own living room. 

PDF: Download Medieval_and_renaissance_women_digitised_charters_rolls_may_2023

Excel: Download Medieval_and_renaissance_women_digitised_charters_rolls_may_2023 (this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers)

A mortmain license by Joan, Princess of Wales, featuring her seal.

Mortmain licence by Joan of Kent, princess of Wales, for Michael de la Pole, Lord Chancellor, to grant property to the Maison Dieu of Myton, 1383: Egerton Ch 2130

An acquittance by Abbess Tomasina.

Acquittance by Tomasina de Damis, abbess of the monastery of Santa Giulia, Brescia, to Mafeus de Monte, 1409: Stowe Ch 565

The documents included in the project represent women from all levels of medieval society, from merchants and landowners to nuns and abbesses, from nurses and shopkeepers to noblewomen and queens. They also span a huge variety of different types of documents including grants and confirmations, chirographs and letters with original signatures, leases and genealogies, indentures and religious statutes, licenses for marriages and acknowledgments of divorce, and wills in which women passed on their property and determined their legacy after their deaths. Most importantly, all these manuscripts show medieval and early modern women exerting their own agency and making decisions that influenced not only their own day-to-day lives but also the communities to which they belonged.  

The opening membrane of the will of Margaret Paston.

The opening of the will of Margaret Paston, 1482: Add Roll 17253

A portrait of Helena Snackenborg, enclosed in a roundel, from her genealogy.

A portrait of Helena Snackenborg, Marchioness of Northampton, from her genealogy, c. 1640: Lansdowne Roll 9

A petition by Joan Astley written on a small piece of parchment.

Petition by Joan Astley, nurse of Henry VI, for an increase in salary, 1424: Stowe Ch 643

Over 100 of the documents contain seals that belonged to women or women-run institutions, with many featuring portraits or emblematic images relating to their owners. Some, such as the foundation charter of Bordesley Abbey by Empress Matilda (Add Ch 75724) have even survived with their own seal bags, delicately woven in different coloured silks.

A composite image showing over one hundred seals belonging to women and women-run institutions.

The seals of over 100 women and women-run institutions digitised as part of the Medieval and Renaissance Women project 

The seal bag of Empress Matilda, woven in blue and yellow silk threads.

Seal bag enclosing the seal of Empress Matilda, between 1141 and 1142: Add Ch 75724

Our senior imaging technicians photographed all the seals in the project using an imaging technique called raking light (where light is directed at an object from an angle parallel to the surface) to ensure that all their fine details, legends and sculptural reliefs could be captured.

The green oval seal of Liece of Rouen.

Seal of Liece, daughter of Ralph of Rouen, 2nd half of the 12th century: Harley Ch 50 B 23

The brown seal of Idonia of Hurst.

Seal of Idonia of Hurst, 4th quarter of 12th century to 1st quarter of 13th century: LFC Ch XXV 20

We hope you enjoy reading about the stories and lives of the women featured in these incredible items.

 

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05 May 2023

The Coronation Banquet of Henry VI

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.

A pen-drawing of the Coronation of Henry VI in 1429.

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.

An opening from a 15th-century manuscript, containing an account of the coronation feast of Henry VI.

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 account of the third course of the coronation banquet of Henry VI.

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 entrance of Sir Philip Dymoke to the banqueting hall.

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 giving the Earl of Shrewsbury the sword as constable of France.

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!

Calum Cockburn

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

29 April 2023

Lost and found: in praise of Cardinal Wolsey

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.

A portrait of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, now at Trinity College, Cambridge

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 hands and with his annotations

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.

A page from Bale's Catalogue of British authors, showing his entry for John Leland.

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 Leland's Panegyricus, damaged in the Ashburnham House fire of 1731.

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.

Cotton_ms_fragments_xxiii_f002r_MSI_detail

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.

Cotton_ms_fragments_xxiii_f001v_MSI

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 in Cotton MS Fragments XXIII

The burnt arms of Cardinal Wolsey: Cotton MS Fragments XXIII, f. 1v

The arms of Cardinal Wolsey painted in an Encomium dedicated to him.

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.

Calum Cockburn

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24 January 2023

PhD placement on Medieval Women

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.

A medieval manuscript page, with a large miniature, text and a floral border
Christine de Pizan writing in her study, with the goddess Minerva standing outside, from Christine de Pisan, Le livre des faits d'armes et de chevalerie: Harley MS 4605, f. 3r

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

Alexander the Great exhibition at the British Library

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.

Alexander and Aristotle discussing the spheres of heaven
Alexander and Aristotle discussing the spheres of heaven, Pseudo-Aristotle, Secreta Secretorum (London, between 1326 and 1327): Add MS 47680, f. 51v.

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.

Alexander kneeling under the oracular trees of the Sun and the Moon with a hair-robed priest
Alexander kneeling under the oracular trees of the Sun and the Moon with a hair-robed priest in the centre. Histoire Ancienne jusqu’ au Cesar (Acre, 13th century): Add MS 15268, f. 214v (detail)

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.

Alexander rising in the sky in a cage pulled by four griffins
Alexander rising in the sky in a cage pulled by four griffins, Old French Prose Alexandre Romance (France, 1444-1445): Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 20v (detail)

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.

Peter Toth

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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

Discovering Boccaccio manuscripts online

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.

Illuminated manuscript showing Petrarch approaching Boccaccio, who is lying in bed
Petrarch appears to Boccaccio who is ill in bed, in a building decorated with the coat of arms of the French royal family, from Des cas de nobles hommes et femmes, a French translation of Boccacio's De mulieribus Claris (France, 3rd quarter of the 15th century), Add MS 35321, f. 247v

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.

An illumination of Cleopatra being bitten by asps
Cleopatra is bitten by two dragon-like ‘asps’ and blood pours from her arms, from Des cleres et nobles femmes, a French translation of Boccacio's De mulieribus Claris (Rouen, c. 1440): Royal MS 16 G V, f. 101r

 

Hypsicratea cutting her hair, surrounded by an army
Hypsicratea cutting her hair and joining her husband King Mithridates VI in battle, from Des cleres et nobles femmes, a French translation of Boccacio's De mulieribus Claris (Paris, 1st quarter of the 15th century): Royal MS 20 C V, f. 119r

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).

The opening page of a 14th-century copy of De claris mulieribus, beginning with a decorated initial letter 'P'
The opening page of Boccaccio's De claris mulieribus (Italy, last quarter of the 14th century): Harley MS 6348, f. 24r

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. 

Illustration of the Sicilian Vespers, with a soldier stabbing a man with a spear while he is in bed
The Sicilian Vespers, from Des Cas des nobles hommes et femmes, a French translation of Boccacio's De casibus virorum illustrium (Bruges c. 1480): Royal MS 14 E V, f. 488r

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.

Bocaccio in his study, with his vision of Fortune as a crowned lady with many arms
Boccaccio in his study, with his vision of Fortune as a crowned lady with many arms, from Des Cas des nobles hommes et femmes, a French translation of Boccacio's De casibus virorum illustrium (Paris, 1st quarter of the 15th century): Royal MS 20 C IV, f. 198r

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!

Boccaccio watching Fortune turn her wheel
Boccaccio watching Fortune turn her wheel, with an old king seated on top, a pile of fallen persons below, and a violent battle between two armies in the background, from Des Cas des nobles hommes et femmes, a French translation of Boccacio's De casibus virorum illustrium (France, 3rd quarter of the 15th century): Harley MS 621, f. 217r

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’.

The remains of King Cyrus floating in tub of blood
The remains of King Cyrus floating in tub of blood, The Fall of Princes (England, perhaps Bury St Edmunds, 1450-1460): Harley MS 1766, f. 135r

The Decameron

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. 

A presentation miniature of Jean, duke of Berry, receiving the book from the translator, Laurent de Premierfait
Jean, duke of Berry, receiving the book from the translator, Laurent de Premierfait, with the border containing the royal arms of England, from the beginning of Les cent Nouvelles, a French translation of Boccaccio’s Decameron (Bruges, 1473-83): Royal MS 19 E I, f. 1r

Other Boccaccio texts include Elegia di Madonna Fiammetta, a quasi autobiographical novel about a love affair set in Naples. 

An open manuscript with illuminated initials in gold, on red, green or blue grounds
Illuminated initials in Boccaccio's Elegia di Madonna Fiammetta (Italy, c. 1500), Harley MS 5427, ff. 19v-20r

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!


Chantry Westwell

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