THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

42 posts categorized "Literature"

30 September 2019

Middle English manuscripts online

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The British Library holds one of the most significant collections of manuscripts written in Middle English. Thanks to a very generous grant by The American Trust for the British Library, we have recently been able to digitize a sizeable number of them, the first batch of which can now be viewed on our Digitised Manuscripts site. They range from copies of the works of Geoffrey Chaucer to William Langland's Piers Plowman, and from texts relating to veterinary medicine to the Chronicle of London. We hope that our readers enjoy exploring them online; there are more to come, so keep an eye on this Blog and on our Twitter feed (@BLMedieval) for further announcements.

We are extremely grateful to our friends at the ATBL for supporting this project. We know that it will make a major difference to everyone who works on these texts, and on medieval literary culture in general. Please let us know if this has inspired you, or if you have made notable findings as a result of this digitisation.

A monk kneels before a bishop

A monk kneeling before a bishop, in The Weye of Paradys: Harley MS 1671, f. 1r 

 

Here is a list of the manuscripts we have recently made available online.

Harley MS 172: Devotional manuscript written by the 'Winchester scribe', principal scribe of the 'Winchester Anthology' (Add MS 60577), including Peter Idley, Instructions to His Son; Benedict Burgh, English translation of Cato Major; John Lydgate, Ryght as a Rammes Horne; Thomas Hoccleve, Ars Sciendi Mori

Harley MS 271: The true processe of Englysh polecie; Benedict Burgh, Parvus Cato, Cato Maior

Harley MS 372: John Lydgate, The Life of St Edmund and St Fremund; Advice to an old gentleman who wished for a young wife; John Lydgate, The Kings of England; John Lydgate, Complaint þat Crist maketh of his Passioun; A prayer to the Virgin Mary; A prayer to St Sebastian; Geoffrey Chaucer, Anelida and Arcite; Sir Richard Roos, La Belle Dame sans Mercy; John Lydgate, Prayer on the Five Joys of the Virgin Mary; Thomas Hoccleve, Regiment of Princes; Poem against excess in apparel; Latin tract about the qualities necessary for a priest

Harley MS 525: Miscellany of Middle English romances containing The Seege of Troy, Robert of Cisyle, and Speculum Gy de Warewyke

The beginning of the Chronicle of London

Chronicle of London, from the coronation of Richard I in 1189 to 1443, in the reign of Henry VI: Harley MS 565, f. 10r

Harley MS 565: Chronicle of London; 'The Expedition of Henry V into France'; John Lydgate, 'King Henry VI's Triumphal Entry into London'

Harley MS 629: John Lydgate, Life of Our Lady

Harley MS 875: William Langland, Vision of Piers Plowman

Harley MS 913: The Kildare Lyrics (in Latin, English and French), including the Land of Cokaygne

Geoffrey Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde

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

lHarley MS 1239: Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, The Knight's Tale, The Man of Law's Prologue and Tale, The Wife of Bath's Tale, The Clerk's Tale and The Franklin's Tale

Harley MS 1671: The Weye of Paradys (unfinished)

Harley MS 1701: Robert Mannyng of Brunne, King Robert of Sicily, 'Handlyng Synne'; 'Medytacyouns of the soper of oure Lorde'; King Robert's romance in couplets

Harley MS 2338: Thomas Breus, Religious text in verse, mainly on the Passion

Harley MS 2382: John Lydgate, Life of Our Lady; The Assumption of Our Lady; Prayer to the Virgin from the Speculum Christiani; John Lydgate, Testament; Geoffrey Chaucer, The Prioress’s Tale; Geoffrey Chaucer, The Second Nun’s Tale; Life of Saint Erasmus; Long Charter of Christ; Childe of Bristowe; an animal prophecy of Merlin

A decorated page in Lydgate's Life of Our Lady

John Lydgate's Life of Our Lady, in a manuscript which belonged to John de Vere, 13th earl of Oxford (1442–1513): Harley MS 3862, f. 1r

Harley MS 3862: John Lydgate, Life of Our Lady

Harley MS 3943: Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde

Harley MS 4912: Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde

A treatise on equine medicine

A treatise on equine medicine with the added title ‘The boke of medycen for horsses and to know of what Cuntrey the best horses be bredin contaynyng 30 leves’: Harley MS 5086, f. 99r

Harley MS 5086: Miscellany of verse and prose treatises relating to hunting, manners, medicine and veterinary medicine, including a translation of Gaston Phebus's 'Livre de Chasse', in the Middle English translation by Edward of Norwich entitled 'Master of the Game', a dietary for King Henry V and a treatise on equine medicine

Harley MS 6041: William Langland, Vision of Piers Plowman; form of confession in Middle English prose

 

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08 September 2019

The art of the alphabet poem

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On International Literacy Day (8 September), we look at how medieval and early modern scribes and artists celebrated the Latin alphabet through art and poetry. Decorated alphabets were central to medieval ‘alphabet books’. These are ‘pattern books’ that feature alphabets written or drawn in different fonts and featuring various styles of decoration. Their purpose is debated, but one explanation is that artists used them for promoting their skills among potential clients, or for recording interesting designs they found in other manuscripts. For example, the 'Macclesfield Alphabet Book' (Add MS 88887) ─ one of two surviving English alphabet books (the other one is Sloane MS 1448A) ─ contains fourteen different types of decorative alphabets.

Image 1 - Macclesfield Alphabet Book-min

An alphabet featuring human faces (England, 1475–1525): Add MS 88887, ff. 3v–4r

Similar alphabets were known to or designed by the German artist and scribe Johann Holtman, who produced an alphabet book (Add MS 31845) in 1529.

Image 2- German Alphabet Book-min

An alphabet featuring human faces and animals (Germany, 1529): Add MS 31845, ff. 9v–10r

Decorated alphabets could also be combined with poetry. The ‘abecedarium’, a poem in which the first letters of each line or stanza together form the letters of the alphabet, was a form often used by medieval poets. Geoffrey Chaucer, the most renowned medieval English poet, himself wrote an ‘ABC hymn to the Virgin’ (see Harley MS 2251). Early modern artist-scribes also used this form, but put more emphasis on the alphabet poem’s visual display. First of all, they drew their initials at an enormous size, dedicating an entire page to each initial. Secondly, they decorated them extravagantly using a great variety of patterns and figures. Another distinct feature of their poems is that they are unique: only originals – no copies – survive. One example is a 16th-century Dutch alphabet poem (Add MS 24898):

Image 3 - Dutch poem [1]-min

Image 4 - Dutch poem [2]-min

Image 5 - Dutch poem [3]-min

Poems for the letters ‘A’, ‘B’, and ‘C’ (The Hague, 1560): Add MS 24898, ff. 1r, 2r, 4r

The initials reflect the poem’s religious themes. For example, its often-repeated motif of a stork eating a snake draws its meaning from medieval bestiaries. These use the stork’s enmity towards the snake as an example for the righteous who, likewise, should be the enemies of evil thoughts (‘snakes’). The poem was created by an artist-scribe who identifies himself on the page that is dedicated to the letter ‘D’. In the initial, he inscribed his name (‘Marcus van Yperen’) with the date 25 August 1560 in a banderole that is suitably wrapped around two quills and a quill knife.  

Image 6 - Dutch poem [4]-min

Poem for the letter ‘D’ (The Hague, 1560): Add MS 24898, f. 5r

Another alphabet poem entitled Pennarum Nitor or The Pens Excellency (Add MS 36991) was created by Joseph Lawson in 1608. Here, each page presents two versions of the same letter of the alphabet, each with its own ‘poem’. The upper one is decorated in the style of a medieval manuscript, whereas the lower one is in a typographical style. The texts on these pages have no apparent connection with one another. For example, the two texts for the letter ‘A’ are legal and religious:

‘All men shall knowe by these presentes that I Robert Watersonne of ffelmingham in the Countie of Norffolk am indebted and doe owe unto L. Maine […]’.

‘A man of might if that thou bee give not thy minde I say unto a whore of no degree marke this I doe thee pray, for in the scripture thou shalt read if that thou marke it well the whordome is the ready way to lead the into hell’.

Image 7 - Lawson's alphabet poem [1]-min

Image 8 - Lawson's alphabet poem [2]-min

Image 9 - Lawson's alphabet poem [3]-min

Poems for the letters ‘A’, ‘B’, and ‘C’ (England, 1609): Add MS 36991, ff. 17r, 18r, 19r

A final example of a decorated alphabet poem comes from a mid 17th-century English manuscript (Harley MS 1704). The artist-scribe may have created it for a ‘Robert Clare’ of Uttoxeter in Staffordshire: the latter’s name features in the ‘poem’ — which is more like a draft for a legal document — for the letter ‘B’. The manuscript also features inscriptions by Robert Clare himself, indicating that he came to own the poem after it was finished. The first one begins:

‘All men are wormes, but this no man in silk / twas brought to taugt first wrapt and white as milk / where afterwards it grew a butterfli which was a caterpiller [...]’.

Image 10- HarleyAlphabet Poem [1]-min

Image 11 - Harley Alphabet Poem [2]-min

Image 12 - Harley-Alphabet Poem [3]-min

An English alphabet poem (England, c. 1650): Harley MS 1704, ff. 144r, 145r, 146r

Medieval alphabet books and early modern alphabet poems may have fulfilled a similar purpose. Christopher de Hamel has suggested that alphabet books may not be practical books created by artists for their own use after all. Perhaps, he argues, they represent a way of analysing and visually displaying the world that is inherent to the ‘genre’ of alphabet books. Likewise, decorated alphabet poems encapsulate various aspects of the world, covering, for example, literary, religious, and legal subjects. Their initials reflect this in the multitude of human figures, animals and hybrid figures that inhabit them.

 

Clarck Drieshen

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29 August 2019

Tweet, tweet

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Does Twitter have its origins in the medieval period? Well, in a literal sense, no. As far as we are aware, no medieval ships came close to being named BoatyMcBoatFace as a result of a ‘campaign’ of parchment scraps. Medieval people did not write 280-character messages on pieces of parchment or paper, send them to each other or re-send the messages of others. But the imagery of ‘twitter’ and ‘tweet’ does have its origins in the Middle Ages. The modern name ‘Twitter’ was clearly chosen because there is something joyous about chattering birdsong. It implies something playful and social, and perhaps also lively, raucous debate. We can only speculate on whether Twitter’s creators knew that there is a now obsolete meaning of the word ‘twitter’ in English, which means a person who ‘reproaches or upbraids’.

Cropped bas de page from Howard Psalter
Here an owl is being used by a bird catcher to capture other birds, as referred to in The Owl and the Nightingale’, from the Howard Psalter (England, 14th century): Arundel MS 83, f. 14r

With their restless desire to anthropomorphise, humans have long heard birdsong and understood its rhythms and patterns to be akin to human speech. The idea that birds like to get into lively debates is very old. The early Middle English poem, The Owl and the Nightingale, tells the story of a bad-tempered debate between an owl and a nightingale. Each bird is horrified by the other, pouring scorn on their counterpart's song, nesting habits and appearance. But the poem is also a meditation on how to debate. In a revealing passage, the nightingale pauses before she speaks:

An sat sumdel & heo bi þohte

An wiste wel on hire þohte

Þe wraþþe binimeþ monnes red.

('She sat awhile and thought,

Reflecting on her thoughts,

Knowing that wrath robs a man of reason. ') [ll. 939–41]

This poem was written at some point between 1189 and 1216. Although it is anonymous, in the poem the birds resolve to seek the counsel of ‘Maister Nichole of Guldeforde’ (Master Nicholas of Guildford). This little in-joke may indicate that Guildford was the author or was known to them.

The Owl and the Nightingale
The Owl and the Nightingale (England, c. 1250–1300, possibly after 1275): Cotton MS Caligula A IX, f. 239v

While The Owl and the Nightingale imagines the birds as tetchy and sometimes downright rude, they are not always depicted in this way in medieval poetry. At around the time that the Owl and the Nightingale was composed, Farīd al-Dīn Aṭṭār (d. c. 1230) was at work thousands of miles away on The Conference of the Birds منطق الطیر‎, (Maniq-u-ayr). This poem is a work of Sufi mysticism and has a contemplative tone by comparison with The Owl and the Nightingale. It tells the story of a group of birds who gather together to choose a new sovereign. The hoopoe is the wisest of the birds and acts as their leader and guide. He tells them that they must travel on an arduous journey through seven valleys to find their new king. The conclusion of the poem (which we won’t give away) is a moment of realisation for the birds, and it involves a pun ... (You can read more about this manuscript on our Asian and African Studies Blog.)

The Conference of the Birds
The Conference of the Birds (late 15th or early 16th century): Add MS 7735, f. 30v

Perhaps one of the most delightful descriptions of avian debate is Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls, which was written in the late 14th century. It describes a group of birds gathering together in the early spring — on ‘seynt valentynes day’ — to choose their mates for the year. The poem appears to be the beginning of the tradition that associates Valentine’s Day with lovers. There is nothing in the hagiography (the Life) of St Valentine to suggest an association with lovers. The narrator describes the riot of sound made by the birds:

For this was on Saint Valentines day,

Whan every brid [bird] cometh ther to chese [choose] his make [mate],

Of every kinde that men thinke may;

And that so huge a noise [did] they make,

That erthe and air and tree and every lake

So ful was that unnethe [hardly] was ther space

For me to stonde, so ful was al the place.  [ll. 316–22]

The noble birds — the eagles — are allowed to make their selections first. Three male eagles (tercels) eagerly vie for the hand of the formel (female) eagle, but the other birds soon interrupt, complaining that this is all taking too long. A cacophonous semi-debate ensues.

The Parliament of Fowls
Geoffrey Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls (English, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 15th century): Harley MS 7333, f. 129v

If you’re interested in learning more about medieval avian debates, or in Middle English literature more generally, there are a very small number of places remaining on our adult learning course, Discovering Middle English, which starts on 11 September. You’ll get to encounter Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Arthurian legends of Thomas Malory and, of course, Geoffrey Chaucer.

 

Mary Wellesley

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Manuscripts mentioned in this blogpost

Arundel MS 83 (De Lisle Psalter)

Cotton MS Caligula A IX (The Owl and the Nightingale)

Add MS 7735 (The Conference of the Birds)

Harley MS 7333 (Geoffrey Chaucer, Parliament of Fowls)

28 August 2019

The Joyful Ballad of the Taverners

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Diluting wine with water, also known as baptising wine, was a common medieval practice. Taverners (innkeepers) and vintners (wine merchants) were especially associated with this custom. Literary accounts sometimes depicted them as nefarious figures who mixed wine with water in order to maximize their profit. Ironically, at the same period drinking diluted wine was associated with the virtue of temperance; in contrast, the excessive drinking of wine was associated with the deadly sin of gluttony (gula).

Bacchus and his followers
Bacchus and his followers as examples of gluttony, in Christine de Pizan’s L'Épître Othéa (France, c. 1410–c. 1414): Harley 4431, f. 106r

While cataloguing the Harley manuscripts, we recently discovered a previously unknown copy of a remarkable Middle French poem that responds to the practice of diluting wine. This poem, known as The Joyful Ballad of the Taverners (Ballade joyeuse des Taverniers), survives only in a few French manuscripts and early printed books. Our copy was added to a flyleaf of a manuscript (Harley MS 512) containing De Proprietatibus Rerum ('On the Properties of Things'), an encyclopedia of natural knowledge compiled by the Parisian scholar Bartholomaeus Anglicus (d. 1272).

The manuscript of The Joyful Ballad
The Joyful Ballad of the Taverners (France, 15th century): Harley MS 512, f. 1r

The Joyful Ballad is essentially a catalogue of curses that the poet wished upon taverners who diluted their wine. Although its author is unknown, it has long been associated with François Villon (c. 1431–after 1463), one of the most renowned French poets of the late Middle Ages, but also a murderer, thief and vagabond. Here is a translated stanza in order to give you a taste of the poem:

'Let some great gunshot blow their heads off sheer;

Let thunders catch them in the market-place;

Let rend their limbs and cast them far and near,

For dogs to batten on their bodies base;

Or let the lightning-stroke their sight efface.

Frost, hail and snow let still upon them bite;

Strip off their clothes and leave them naked quite,

For rain to drench them in the open air;

Lard them with knives and poniards and then bear

Their carrion forth and soak it in the Rhine;

Break all their bones with mauls and do not spare

The vintners [or ‘taverners’] that put water into our wine.'

[translation from John Payne, The Poems of Master François Villon of Paris (London, 1892), p. 137].

The Joyful Ballad is perhaps the most vitriolic poem to challenge the practice of mixing wine with water. But this subject was also central to medieval debate poetry, in which personifications of Water and Wine were pitted against each other. In the Goliae Dialogus inter Aquam et Vinum ('Goliardic Dialogue between Water and Wine'), they are represented by Thetis, goddess of the sea, and Dionysus, god of winemaking and wine. Dionysus argued that God created the grape without mixing it with water, for which reason it was heresy to drink diluted wine.

Manuscript of the Goliardic Dialogue
Goliae Dialogus inter Aquam et Vinum, (England, 14th century): Cotton MS Titus A XX, f. 66r

Diluted wine was not only disliked by medieval poets. The Roman poet Gaius Valerius Catullus (d. 54 BC) dedicated one of his poems to the subject. (This was well-known in the Middle Ages: the copy in Burney MS 133 is a good example.) Catullus's poem is suitably addressed to his cup-bearer (Ad Pincernam Suum). Here’s a translated extract:

'And get lost, water; off to drier lands,

Wine-spoiler. Fill the cups of prudish hands.

Thyonian [Bacchic] is the only wine for me.'

[translation by Len Krisak from Gaius Valerius Catullus Carmina (Manchester, Carcanet Press, 2014), p. 19]

The poem of Catullus
Catullus, Ad Pincernam (Italy, 1460): Add MS 11915, f. 13r

This is a lesson you may wish to bear in mind the next time you visit your local hostelry. We are sure that your friends may be amused if you recite The Joyful Ballad to them, although we cannot guarantee that the innkeeper or bartender may react in the same fashion.

 

Clarck Drieshen

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Manuscripts cited in this blogpost

Harley 4431 (Christine de Pizan’s L'Épître Othéa)

Harley MS 512 (The Joyful Ballad of the Taverners)

Cotton MS Titus A XX (Goliae Dialogus inter Aquam et Vinum)

Burney MS 133 (Catullus, Ad Pincernam)

Add MS 11915 (Catullus, Ad Pincernam)

17 August 2019

In August, in a high season: the wondrous Pearl

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You may be forgiven (especially if you're currently in London) that it's August, traditionally the time of the harvest and school summer holidays. This also happens to be the moment when Pearl, one of the masterpieces of Middle English literature, is set: 'in Augoste, in a hy seysone'.

The text of Pearl
The opening page of the Pearl poem (f. 43r)

Pearl was composed in the West Midlands region of England at the end of the 14th century. It survives in a single manuscript, held at the British Library, which also contains the unique copies of Patience, Cleanness and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Cotton MS Nero A X/2). You can view all four poems in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site, and you can also read about Pearl on Discovering Literature: Medieval.

Pearl is a moving work about grief and loss. The narrator, distraught at the loss of his ‘perle’, falls asleep and wakes in a garden with a jewelled stream. Looking across the stream he sees a beautiful maiden in white robes stitched with pearls. After a time, he realises that this woman is his dead two-year-old daughter. They engage in a discussion, as he attempts to reconcile his grief for her. The poem culminates in a vision of the heavenly Jerusalem, derived from the Book of Revelation, in which the dreamer sees his daughter as a bride of Christ.

The dreamer
The dreamer in the garden by the stream (f. 41r)
The dreamer
The dreamer beside the stream (f. 41v)

One of the most distinctive features of the manuscript is its cycle of illustrations, which were added to pages which had previously been left blank. The quality of this imagery has often been the subject of adverse comment, since they are not the work of an outstanding artist. We often feel, however, that they lend the poems their own idiosyncratic character, since every person has the same facial features and hairstyle, and the same simple palette of red, green, blue, yellow and white is used throughout.

The dreamer and Pearl
The dreamer sees a vision of Pearl as a grown woman (f. 42r)
The dreamer and Pearl in the garden
The vision of the heavenly Jerusalem (f. 42v)

The Pearl-manuscript is undeniably one of the jewels in the Library's medieval collections. We'd like to think that you might wish to read and re-read it, gazing upon the original handwriting and images, while sitting in your garden, sipping a cool drink, or else (more likely) sheltering indoors from the August rain. A high season indeed!

A text page of Pearl
The second page of the poem (f. 43v)
The text of Pearl
'In Augoste, in a hy seysone' (f. 43v)

Pearl and the other poems are available on Digitised Manuscripts (Cotton MS Nero A X/2).

 

Julian Harrison

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27 July 2019

Writing Wyatt

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Have you ever wondered how a 16th-century poet gathered their works together? A writer with an eye to posterity might have followed the example of Sir Thomas Wyatt (c. 1503–1542), poet, ambassador and rumoured lover of Anne Boleyn. In the 1530s, Wyatt arranged for clear and authoritative copies of his verse to be transcribed into an album under his own supervision. The resulting manuscript, Egerton MS 2711, has stood the test of time. It is one of the earliest examples of an English poet’s collection of their own poems.

800px-Sir_Thomas_Wyatt_by_Hans_Holbein_the_Younger_(2)

Portrait of Sir Thomas Wyatt after Hans Holbein, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery (NPG 1035)

But Wyatt’s collection did not stay tidy for long. Changes in handwriting reveal that the poet himself took over from his scribes (or amanuenses), first to correct and alter some of the poems, and later to compose new works directly into the album. It is thus the only surviving example of Wyatt’s poetry in his own handwriting. Because the manuscript's purpose evolved during his lifetime, Egerton MS 2711 offers a fascinating glimpse of a Tudor poet at work.

Egerton_ms_2711_f054v

The poet Thomas Wyatt's own hand: Egerton MS 2711, f. 54v

The manuscript reveals that Wyatt sometimes had trouble making up his mind. He often tweaked lines in some of his finished poems, and he experimented with alternative rhyme-words when composing new ones. One of the revised poems is the sonnet ‘If waker care, if sudden pale colour’, in which Wyatt imitated six lines of Petrarch’s Sonnet 188. Wyatt’s alterations to the poem can be read in light of his rumoured relationship with Anne Boleyn: the poem contains a reference to a ‘Brunet’ who ‘set my wealth in such a roar’, but the manuscript shows that the line originally read, ‘her that did set our country in a roar’.

Egerton_ms_2711_f066v

‘If waker care, if sudden pale colour’: Egerton MS 2711, f. 66v

Wyatt’s decision to begin composing poems into the volume may have been related to a journey he made to mainland Europe, as English ambassador to the Spanish court from 1537 to 1539. A satirical poem in the manuscript describes the busy life of a diplomat, who ‘trots still up and down / and never rests but running day and night / From Realm to Realm from city street and town’. When the volume became a working notebook for Wyatt, it also began to reflect his evolving network of colleagues: the handwriting of one scribe who copied verses into the volume has been identified as that of John Brereton, one of Wyatt’s diplomatic secretaries.

As well as providing a place for Wyatt’s poetry to be recorded during his lifetime, the manuscript also became a space for later readers to engage with his work. After Wyatt’s death, the poet Nicholas Grimald made several annotations in the manuscript, such as simple headings like ‘a Sonnett’. Meanwhile, Wyatt’s own son, Thomas, added more of his father’s poems to the collection, and even copied out two letters of paternal advice he had received during his father’s Spanish embassy. (Thomas Wyatt did not necessarily heed his father's advice, since he led an infamous rebellion against Queen Mary, and ended his life on the block at the Tower of London in 1554.)

Egerton_ms_2711_f071r

A letter copied into the manuscript by Thomas Wyatt the Younger: Egerton MS 2711, f. 71r

Despite the many hands involved in the creation of this manuscript, early owners and readers were careful to include material that would shed more light on Wyatt’s life and work, and solidify his reputation. As a result, Egerton MS 2711 very much remains a collection of Wyatt’s poems rather than a multi-authored anthology like the Devonshire manuscript (Add MS 17492).

A later owner of the manuscript, John Harington the elder, decided to include a categorisation of the poems by genre, while John Harington the younger entered some of his own paraphrases of the psalms following those made by Wyatt. Also thanks to the Harington family, many of the early pages of the manuscript are covered with copious mathematical notes and diagrams, which sometimes render Wyatt’s words all but illegible.

Egerton_ms_2711_f010r

Some pages are less easy to read since they are now covered with mathematical notes: Egerton MS 2711, f. 10r

Of course, nowadays we would discourage any further scribbles appearing in Thomas Wyatt's manuscript. But that doesn't mean that you can no longer interact with this important collection of poems. We are delighted to say that Egerton MS 2711 has been digitised, so that modern readers can explore Wyatt's handwriting for themselves. This manuscript can be accessed in full and for free on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.

 

Amy Bowles

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21 July 2019

The first man on the Moon

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This weekend, the world is remembering Apollo 11, the first Moon landing, and the two astronauts who first stepped unto the lunar surface on 21 July 1969. Commander Neil Armstrong and lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin were the first humans to walk on another astronomical body, in what was to become one of the most earth-shaking events of the 20th century.

While Armstrong and Aldrin were the first humans on the Moon, there is a figure in medieval literature who may have got there first, around Easter 1300.* In the Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri describes his fantastical journey down into the nine circles of Hell, upwards on the Mount of Purgatory, and away through the spheres of Heaven: from Inferno to Purgatorio and into Paradiso. Written in Italian in the early 14th century, Dante’s Comedy is one of the most influential poems of all time, a synthesis of medieval culture, science, philosophy, theology, scholarship and political science.

[* Nor should we forget Chang'e 嫦娥, the Chinese goddess of the Moon, who, according to legend, has been living there for some 4,000 years.]

In the Comedy, Dante-the-pilgrim travels through the afterworlds in search of self-knowledge and truth, driven by the desire for union with the divine. Passing through Hell and Purgatory, he is ready to ascend to the stars in Heaven, guided and instructed by the fascinating figure of Beatrice. Dante’s complex Heaven is made out of concentric spheres, each corresponding to a heavenly body in the cosmological system inherited from classical antiquity and modified by Christian thought. Outside the seven planetary spheres (including the Sun in this geocentric model), there is the sphere of the fixed stars, the first mover and the Empyrean, enclosing all the others but lying beyond time and space. To arrive there, the pilgrim must first pass through the sphere of the Moon, located closest to Earth.

Figure1

This diagram shows the structure of the Universe according to the Ptolemaic geocentric model. Earth is surrounded by the nine heavenly circles: Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Fixed Stars and First Mover: Harley MS 3647, f. 22v

Dante’s launch from the Earth’s atmosphere opens Paradiso, the third and last section of the Divine Comedy. Comparing his journey upwards to sailing a little ship into the unknown, he explains in classicizing language that he is the first on this kind of mission. In Allen Mandelbaum’s translation:

The waves I take were never sailed before;
Minerva breathes, Apollo pilots me,
and the nine Muses show to me the Bears.
(Paradiso, 2.7–9)

Figure2

Fly me to the Moon: Dante and Beatrice launch towards the Moon in this Tuscan manuscript of the Divine Comedy from around 1444: Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 131r

Dante is on his own Apollo mission to the stars. Illustrated manuscripts of the Divine Comedy typically depict his journey as a flight upwards. The Moon is usually identified by its colour and partial phase, to distinguish it from other celestial bodies. In a manuscript painted in Florence in the 1440s (Yates Thompson MS 36), Dante’s lunar mission is remarkably faithful to the poetic text quoted above: the illustration depicts the boat sailing away from familiar, agricultural shores, while Minerva blows from a cloud. The pilgrim is being led by the figure of Apollo, as the chorus-like group of Muses point towards a star (presumably the Northern Star).

Dante’s first stop on the Moon is a giant leap of imagination, but a small step in the traveller’s consciousness, as he instantanously makes a landing:

Beatrice gazed upward. I watched her.
But in a span perhaps no longer than
an arrow takes to strike, to fly, to leave

the bow, I reached a place where I could see
that something wonderful drew me; and she
from whom my need could not be hidden, turned

to me (her gladness matched her loveliness):
“Direct your mind to God in gratefulness,”
she said; “He has brought us to the first star.” (Paradiso 2.22–30)

Propelled by love, Dante’s imaginative mind-capsule lands on the surface of the Moon, whereupon he starts inquiring about the nature of the ‘dark spots’ on the lunar surface. In his own, inquisitive way, Dante-the-traveller is collecting information about the Moon. Armstrong and Aldrin brought 21kg of lunar material back to Earth. Dante gathered information which he took with him to Mercury, his next stop.

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Beatrice teaches Dante about moonspots; the landscape looks strangely lunar: Egerton MS 943, f. 131r

Figure4

Burning with the desire to know more, Dante reaches the Moon, where the blessed can answer his questions: Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 132r

The year before Apollo 11, three astronauts travelled to the Moon, orbited it, and returned safely to Earth. One of them, William Anders, took a famous photograph of the Earth from the lunar orbit known as Earthrise. Dante took no photographs on his interstellar voyage, but he left us a poetic description of Earth from the heaven of the fixed stars, outside the planetary spheres:

And all the seven heavens showed to me
their magnitudes, their speeds, the distances
of each from each. The little threshing floor

that so incites our savagery was all —
from hills to river mouths — revealed to me
while I wheeled with eternal Gemini. (Paradiso 21.148–153)

‘The little threshing floor’, the insignificant dot in the immensity of the cosmos, evokes in the reader of the Divine Comedy the same thoughts as Anders’ Earthrise photograph. The onward and upward quest of discovery and knowledge, whether medieval or modern, concludes with a gaze on ourselves and with an affirmation of responsibility for the future.

 

Cristian Ispir

12 July 2019

Underwater adventures

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The British Library’s current exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion (7 June–8 September 2019), investigates the great thinker’s fascination with water. But Leonardo was not the first to send his imagination plunging beneath the waves. Here are some of the ways that medieval people imagined being able to explore underwater.

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Leonardo’s studies of the River Arno: British Library, Arundel MS 263, f. 149r 

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Beowulf dives into the mere, Beowulf, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 166r

In the Anglo-Saxon period, underwater exploration belonged to the world of heroic poetry rather than human technology. In the Old English epic poem Beowulf, the hero journeys to the bottom of a horrifying mere to fight Grendel’s Mother in her watery lair. He dresses in full war-gear, a mail-shirt and a gold boar-embellished helmet, and arms himself with a precious sword named Hrunting. Then after briefly settling his affairs in case of his death, he dives into the lake:

The man of the Weder-Geats moved briskly, would hardly wait for an answer; the surging water took possession of the war-maker. It was then a good part of the day before he could make out the level bottom (Translation by R. D. Fulk).

In a hall in the depths of the lake, Beowulf and Grendel’s Mother engage in a ferocious fight. For a long time the adversaries seem to be evenly matched, but the decisive moment comes when Beowulf notices an enormous sword that was made by giants in ancient times. He grabs the sword and swings it at the lake-woman, slicing off her head.

The poem makes no attempt to explain how Beowulf is able to survive underwater—he just can. His status as a legendary hero and the strongest man alive places him outside the ordinary limits of human ability. In a world of giants, dragons, magical swords and cursed treasure, the hero is a supernatural figure. Beowulf is up to any challenge, no diving apparatus required.

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Alexander is lowered into the sea, Le Livre et le vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 77v

Another of medieval literature’s most memorable underwater adventures is that of Alexander the Great. The ancient Macedonian king and formidable military commander was one of the greatest heroes of medieval romance. One episode associated with Alexander in the romance tradition describes how he travels to the bottom of the sea to explore its wonders.

Unlike Beowulf, Alexander is hampered by the real-world necessity of having to breathe. To solve this, he designs an air-tight barrel made from glass which is lowered on chains from a boat. Inside his proto-submarine, Alexander takes lamps to light his way and two animal companions, a cockerel to tell the time and a cat whose breath purifies the air.

Alexander’s underwater journey shows that medieval people were thinking creatively about how a person could venture safely underwater. That’s not to say that the design would work: for one thing, the barrel would float without ballast; for another, a cat’s breath does not purify air so Alexander would have a very limited air supply.

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Alexander is lowered into the sea, Roman d'Alexandre, Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 20v

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Design for diving equipment, a mechanical sketchbook, Add MS 34113, f. 180v

Is not until the 15th-century that people began to design diving apparatus with a view to practical use. This sketchbook, compiled in the 15th-century by an unknown Italian engineer, contains designs for diving suits that might have inspired Leonardo's (you can also see this manuscript in the exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion, displaying a design for a water wheel).

The diving suits would allow a person freer movement than the barrel, so that the divers can carry out tasks underwater such as loading these baskets with rocks. With the figure on the left, the engineer has attempted to solve the problem of air supply by feeding air through a hose, connected at one end to a float on the surface and at the other to the diver’s mask. This is close to the design that was finally employed in the first successful diving suits, but with one major difference. The Renaissance engineer had not realised that the air supplied to the diver would have to be pressurised to account for the increased pressure underwater.

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Leonardo’s design for Diving Apparatus, Arundel MS 263, f. 24v

Leonardo’s diving apparatus from the early 16th century follows roughly the same design as the anonymous sketchbook, but adds some improved features. His diving mask is provided with two hoses, one to bring fresh air in and the other to take old air out. He has realised that the hoses will need to be reinforced with metal rings to stop the water pressure from closing them up. The float is also modified to prevent water accidentally spilling into the air supply. But crucially, Leonardo did not think to add an air compressor to the design so in practice the diver would not be able to breathe in deep water.

It was not until the 18th century that the first successful diving suits were made. But from Beowulf to Leonardo, people had long been coming up with creative ways to explore the world beneath the waves. To admire Leonardo’s design for diving apparatus in person, don’t miss the exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion, at the British Library from 7 June–8 September 2019.

Eleanor Jackson

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