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22 September 2020

Great medieval bake off

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With the return of the Great British Bake Off to our screens, it’s the perfect time to crack out the baking skills! We’ve explored before how baking skills were highly valued in the Middle Ages, so this time we thought we’d put some medieval recipes to the test. Using authentic recipes from manuscripts held in the Library, amateur bakers from the BLMedieval team are battling it out to be crowned the Medieval Bake Off Champion. Who will triumph?

On your marks, get set, bake!

A feast scene in the Smithfield Decretals
A feast scene in the Smithfield Decretals: Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 236r

Ellie's recipe: sambocade

Recipe for sambocade in a medieval manuscript
Recipe for sambocade from Add MS 5016, membrane 2d (image 'f. 10v')

Take and make a crust in a trap, and take cruddes and wryng out þe wheyze, and drawe hem þurgh a straynour, and put in þe straynour crustes. Do þerto sugar the þridde part and somdel whyte of ayren, and shake þerin blomes of elren, and bake it up with eurose, and messe it forth.

Take and make a crust in a dish and take curds and wring out the whey and draw them through a strainer and put in the crust. Add a third part of sugar and some egg whites and shake in elderflowers and bake it up with rose water and serve it up.

Named after the Latin for the common elder tree (sambucus nigra), sambocade is a curd tart flavoured with elderflowers. I mixed 550g curd cheese (I used a Polish variety called twaróg) with 1/3 of a cup of unrefined demerara sugar, 3 egg whites, the flowers from 5 heads of fresh elderflowers (picked when they were in season in May), and a dash of rosewater. I also departed from the recipe by adding a dash of elderflower cordial. I made a shortcrust pastry shell in a 9-inch tart dish, blind-baked it at 160° for 10 minutes in a fan oven, then added the filling and baked it for about 50 minutes. By then, the tart was golden on top and the filling had set to a springy consistency which rippled satisfyingly when I tapped it with the back of a spoon.

I 'messed it forth' and was surprised to find that the filling tastes powerfully floral, with the elderflower and rose combining into a glorious bouquet of flavour. The curd is rich and slightly tangy with a crumbly and juicy texture, contrasting with the crisp pastry. It reminds me of Yorkshire curd tarts, fragrant hedgerows and long summer days in the countryside.

Photo of a slice of sambocade
A slice of sambocade, photo by Eleanor Jackson

Clarck’s recipe: comadre

Comadre recipe in a medieval manuscript
Recipe for comradre from Harley MS 1605/3, f. 117r

Take figus reysingus, pyke hem clene, and scalde hem in wyne, and grynde hem smal. Cast sugur in þo self wyne, and founde hem to gedre, and drawe hit up þorow a straynour, and alye up þi frute þerwyt. Take peres and apples, pare hem, take þe best and grynde small, and do þerto. Set a potte on þe fyre, with oyle, and cast al þis þerin, and styre hyt and hepe hit wel fro brennyng. Wen hit his ifoundede, cast þerto poudur gynger, canel, galinga, clowes hole, and maces hole. Cast þerto pines a lytel fryede in oyle, and salt. Wen hit is ifryede, take hit up anon, and do hit in a vessel, and let hit cole, wene hit is colde kerve hit oute with a kynne [sic] on smale peces, as myche as þi lytel fyngur, and close hit in gode paste, and fry hem in oyle harde, and serve hem forth.

Take figs and raisins, pick them clean, scald them in wine, and grind them small. Add sugar to the same wine and mix them together. Push it [the wine] through a strainer and mix your fruit with it. Take pears and apples, peel them, take the best pieces and grind them small. Set a pot with oil on the fire and put everything in it, stir it, and prevent it from burning. When it is mixed, add ginger powder, cinnamon, galingale, whole cloves, and whole nutmeg seeds. Add pine nuts briefly fried in oil and salt. When it is fried, take it out and put it in a vessel and let it cool. When it is cold, cut out with a knife small pieces that are the size of your little finger. Roll the pieces in good pastry, fry them hard in oil, and serve them forth.

Comadre is a pastry filling that, as its possible Latin source comedere (to devour) suggests, is gobble-worthy indeed. After cutting up and boiling about half a kilo of figs and raisins in red wine with a few teaspoons of sugar, I mashed the figs and raisins up with peeled and cored apples and pears (5 of each). I left the fruit mixture to simmer in an open pan for about 20 minutes while stirring and adding the required spices —using galangal paste for ‘galinga’— and fried and salted pine nuts to my own liking. After leaving the filling in the fridge for a couple of hours, I took finger-sized portions and wrapped them in dairy-free pastry dough. Instead of frying the pastries in oil, I baked them in the oven for about 15 minutes at 220°C. Rich in flavour and with a long and refreshing aftertaste, comadre, also known as ‘comedie’, put a smile to my face.

Photo of a bowl of comadre
A bowl of comadre, photo by Clarck Drieshen

Calum’s recipe: crispis

Crispis recipe in a medieval manscript
Recipe for crispis from Harley MS 1605/3, f. 113r

Take floure of payndemayne and medle hyt with wyte of eyren. Set wyte gres on þo fyre in a chaufer and do þi batur þerin coyntely with þo fyngurus, and bake hyt a lytel. If þow wolt colour hyt with alkenet ifoundede. take hem up, and cast on sugur, and serve hyt forth.

Take flour of pandemain (a fine white bread) and mix it with egg white. Put white grease (fat or lard) in a pan and add the batter carefully with your fingers and bake it a little. If you wish, colour it with alkenet (a herb used as a red colorant). Take them out, sprinkle with sugar and serve it up.

The recipe for crispis (the Middle English word for ‘curly’ or ‘wrinkled’) from the Forme of Cury is one of the simplest in the collection, only requiring a few ingredients to make. Perhaps this is the reason why versions of the dish are common to almost all major recipe collections that survive from the late medieval period. The recipe appears to describe a type of battered fritter – a cross between a pancake and doughnut, but without a filling.

For my interpretation of the recipe, I whisked three egg whites together with a small amount of water and about two tablespoons of honey. Then I took 50g of plain flour, made a well in the top and folded in the wet ingredients to create the batter. The mixture fell apart rather quickly when I added it to the oil, so I incorporated more flour to thicken. The batter eventually came together and gained a smooth consistency. I dropped a tablespoon of the mix into a pan of oil about 2 inches deep and fried it on a medium heat, flipping it over so that both sides would colour equally. The cooking time was short, no more than 3 minutes. The edges of the fritters crimped as they puffed up, so that they resembled a kind of Yorkshire pudding. I topped the finished plate of crispis with a few dollops of honey and a thick dusting of icing sugar. The result was a delicious bite-size snack with a soft crumb and a light texture that was not overly sweet, but dangerously moreish!

Photo of a plate of crispis
A plate of crispis, photo by Calum Cockburn

In the absence of Paul and Prue, we asked the public to decide who will be the winner of Great Medieval Bake Off. Voting via our online poll has now closed and we can confirm that the winner is Ellie with her delicious sambocade! Her prize: a medieval handshake and a copy of the Library's renowned unicorn cookbook. Thanks to all who took part!

And if this blogpost has whetted your appetite, take a look at the delicious line-up of digital events celebrating, exploring and debating food as part of the British Library’s food season (14 September-20 October 2020).

Ellie Jackson, Clarck Drieshen and Calum Cockburn

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

***disclaimer: these recipes were made in the authors' own time and at their own expense. No Library resources were used in the making of these medieval treats! ***

17 September 2020

Heritage Made Digital: Tudor and Stuart manuscripts go online

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The British Library is home to a world-class collection of manuscripts dating from the time of the Tudors and Stuarts. Over the past few years, we have been undertaking a major programme, known as Heritage Made Digital, with the intention of publishing online more treasures from the Library's collections. This includes approximately 600 of these Tudor and Stuart manuscripts. Today, we're very pleased to let you know that the first batch are available to view on our Digitised Manuscripts site — a list is published below. We hope that this will help to promote new research into this invaluable resource, especially at a time when it hasn't been easy to access the original items in person.

A page from an Early Modern friendship album, featuring a painted portrait of Prince Charles alongside his coat of arms.

The portrait and arms of Prince Charles (later King Charles I), from the Friendship Album of Sir Thomas Cuming of Scotland: Add MS 17083, f. 4v

Publishing these manuscripts is the culmination of a huge amount of work by many teams across the Library. Each item has been assessed and prepared by our conservators prior to its digitisation. Our Imaging Studio has taken high-resolution photographs of every page, creating thousands of images in the process. The cataloguers (Amy, Jessica and Tim, with the assistance of other colleagues) have created new descriptions of each manuscript, and have made some intriguing discoveries and identifications along the way. The Heritage Made Digital team have overseen the whole process, and have been responsible in particular for checking the quality of the images and publishing them online.

The reverse of a letter from Elizabeth I to James VI, featuring the queen’s signature.

A letter from Elizabeth I to James VI of Scotland, dated May 1590 and bearing her signature: Add MS 23240, f. 90

A quick glance at the list of the first thirty manuscripts that have gone online indicates the importance of this material. There are original letters of Queen Elizabeth I, King Charles I and James VI of Scotland, alongside the literary works of Robert Southwell and Sir John Harington, and Edmund Spenser's A View of the Present State of Ireland. One manuscript contains the plots of five Elizabethan plays; another is the friendship album of Sir Thomas Cuming. Their contents relate to state affairs in England, Scotland, Ireland and the Netherlands, and to numerous aspects of political and social history.

A page from a collection of stage plots for 5 Early Modern plays, showing the directions for ‘The Dead Man’s Fortune’.

The stage plot for the late 16th-century play, ‘The Dead Man’s Fortune’, possibly performed by the Admiral’s Men: Add MS 10449, f. 1r

In 2021, some of these newly-digitised manuscripts will also feature in a major exhibition at the British Library, devoted to Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. This exhibition will focus on the intertwined relationship between these two queens, viewed through the manuscripts and printed books that are associated with them. More information about this exhibition will be announced in due course.

The opening page from a 15th-century manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, featuring a decorated border and initial with a coat of arms in the lower margin.

The prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: Add MS 5140, f. 2r

More updates about this digitisation project will be published at regular intervals on this Blog, as well as the Library's Untold Lives and English and Drama Blogs. We hope that you enjoy exploring this initial selection of our Tudor and Stuart manuscripts, and that this whets your appetite for future additions. Please let us know via Twitter (@BLMedieval) how this impacts upon your own research, and whether it leads to new discoveries of your own.

The opening page from a manuscript featuring a compilation of extracts from the household accounts of King Henry VIII, arranged in a table.

The opening of a compilation of extracts from the household accounts of King Henry VII: Add MS 7099, f. 2r

 

Add MS 4107: State papers, 1598–1745

Add MS 4155: Political and diplomatic papers, 1587-1689

Add MS 5140: Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales

Add MS 7099: Extracts from household books of Henry VII

Add MS 10422: Robert Southwell's poetry and prose

Add MS 10449: Stage plots of five Elizabethan plays

Add MS 11252: Letters of King Charles I etc

Add MS 12049: Sir John Harington's poetry and prose

Add MS 14028: Robert Beale's diplomatic papers

Add MS 15225: Religious poems and songs

Add MS 15891: Letters received by Sir Christopher Hatton

Add MS 17083: Friendship album of Sir Thomas Cuming

Add MS 18920: Sir John Harington's translation of Orlando Furioso

Add MS 19969: Letters and papers relating to Ferdinand of Boisschot

Add MS 21432: George Peele, Anglorum Feriæ

Add MS 22022: Edmund Spenser, A View of the Present State of Ireland

Add MS 22924: Household accounts of Queen Elizabeth I, 1590–92

Add MS 23240: Letters of Elizabeth I to James VI of Scotland

Add MS 23241: Letter of King James VI of Scotland and others

Add MS 29431: State letters. 1472–1538

 

Update (21 September): we're delighted to have added another ten manuscripts to our original list:

Add MS 15736: Friendship album of George Andrew, Freiherr von Herberstein

Sloane MS 3188: John Dee's Conferences with Angels

Sloane MS 3191: John Dee's notes on ceremonial magic

Sloane MS 3651: William Bourne's mathematical manuscript dedicated to William Cecil

Sloane MS 3809: alchemical treatises and verses

Stowe MS 162: 'Walsingham's Table Book', 1588

Stowe MS 174: State papers of Sir Thomas Edmondes

Stowe MS 272: John Leslie, A treatise touching the right and title of Princess Marie, Queene of Scotland

Stowe MS 273: Robert Glover(?), An answer to John Leslie

Stowe MS 574: Miscellaneous collections from the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I

 

Andrea Clarke & Sandra Tuppen

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

03 September 2020

The Holy Kinship

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The brief references to the family of the Virgin Mary and Christ in the Bible inspired the development of extra-biblical traditions that were popular in the Middle Ages. In his account of the birth of the Virgin Mary in The Golden Legend, the Dominican Jacobus de Voragine described the Virgin’s immediate family in some detail, in relationships that have come to be known as the Holy Kinship.

One of the most intriguing and rare depictions of these connections occurs in the extensive prefatory material to the Queen Mary Psalter (Royal MS 2 B VII). In a recent study, only four other Gothic manuscript images of the Kinship were identified (Stanton 1996). This lavish manuscript was made probably in London in the first quarter of the 14th century, and illustrated by one very talented artist.

A page from the Queen Mary Psalter, featuring an illustration of the Holy Kinship on multiple registers.
The Holy Kinship in the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 68r

According to Voragine’s account, the Virgin Mary’s mother, St Anne, had three husbands, Joachim, Cleophas and Salome, and had a daughter with each of them, all called Mary. In the Psalter, Anne with each of her husbands appears in the lowest register of the image.

A detail from the Holy Kinship miniature in the Queen Mary Psalter, showing St Anne and her husbands.
Detail of St Anne and her husbands, Holy Kinship miniature in the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 68r (detail)

Directly above are the daughters of each marriage together with their husbands, in this case identified with their names written in the bar below that separates the two registers. Here St Joseph and the Virgin Mary are on the left, Alphaeus and the second daughter Mary (known as Mary Cleophas) in the centre, and Zebedee and the third Mary (known as Mary Salome) are the right.

A detail from the Holy Kinship miniature in the Queen Mary Psalter, showing the daughters of St Anne and their husbands.
Detail of the daughters of St Anne and their husbands, Holy Kinship miniature in the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 68r (detail)

The figures in the top two registers are the sons of these unions. In the second, the Virgin is shown again, holding the Christ Child on her lap. Next to them is St James the Less, one of the four sons of Mary Cleophas, and next to him St James the Great, the son of Mary Salome.

A detail from the Holy Kinship miniature in the Queen Mary Psalter, showing the figures of the Virgin and Child, St James the Less and St James the Great.
Detail of the Virgin and Child, St James the Less and St James the Great, Holy Kinship miniature in the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 68r (detail)

In the top register Christ appears on his own to the left, here in Majesty, holding a globe of the world. Next to him are Sts Simon and Jude, two further sons of Mary Cleophas who became apostles, and St John the Evangelist, the other son of Mary Salome.

A detail from the Holy Kinship miniature in the Queen Mary Psalter, showing the figures of Christ and Sts Simon, Jude, and John the Evangelist.
Detail of Christ, Sts Simon, Jude, and John the Evangelist, Holy Kinship miniature in the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 68r (detail)

The caption written in Anglo-Norman French below confirms the relationships:

Seint anne fu mariez a iii mariz a Joachim a Cleophe a Salomee. E ele enfaunta les iii maries. Joseph out la p[ri]mère. Alpheus la ii Zebedeus la iii. La p[ri]mère marie aporta ih[esu] c[ri]st. La secu[n]de porta seint Jake alphei e sent symo[n]. e seint Jude la iii porta seint Jake de galice Zebedeie seint Johan evvangeliste.

Saint Anne was married to three husbands: to Joachim, to Cleophas and to Salome. And she bore children, the three Marys. Joseph married the first [Mary], Alpheus the second, Zebedee the third. The first Mary carried Jesus Christ. The second carried St James the son of Alphaeus [the Less] and St Simon and St Jude. The third carried St James of Galicia [the Great] by Zebedee and St John the Evangelist.

(Transcription and translation by Chantry Westwell)

This French summary is similar to a Latin poem given in the Golden Legend:

Anna solet dici tres concepisse Marias,
Quas genuere viri Joachim, Cleophas, Salomeque.
Has duxere viri Joseph, Alpheus, Zebedeus.
Prima parit Christum, Jacobum secunda minorem,
Et Joseph justum peperit cum Simone Judam,
Tertia majorem Jacobum volucremque Johannem.

Anna is usually said to have conceived three Marys,
Whom her husbands Joachim, Cleophas, and Salome begot.
These [Marys] the men Joseph, Alpheus, and Zebedee took in marriage.
The first bore Christ; the second bore James the Less,
Joseph the Just, with Simon [and] Jude;
The third, James the Greater and the winged John.

(Translation by Ryan 1993, II, chapter 131, p. 150)

An opening from the Queen Mary Psalter, featuring illustrations of the Tree of Jesse and the Holy Kinship.
The Tree of Jesse and the Holy Kinsip miniature, the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, ff. 67v-68r

This diagrammatic presentation emphasises the importance of the Virgin and Christ by picturing each twice. Perhaps this also relates to the image on the facing page, which is a large Tree of Jesse. The four registers of the Holy Kinship correspond with the levels of the Tree. At the bottom the recumbent Jesse, the ancestor of David, is at the same level as Anne, the ancestor of the Virgin. Unlike most representations of the Tree of Jesse, this one doesn’t feature the Virgin or Christ who appear instead in the Kinship diagram.

A page from a 12th-century English miscellany, featuring he earliest known account of the Holy Kinship written in Old English.
The earliest known Old English account of the Holy Kinship: Cotton MS Vespasian D XIV, f. 157v

The text of the Golden Legend as it relates to the Holy Kinship is derived from earlier commentaries. The earliest known account in Old English is included in a 12th-century copy, now Cotton MS Vespasian D XIV:

Anna 7 Emeria wæron gesustre. Of Emeria wæs geboren Elisabeth, Johannes moder þæs fulhteres. Of Anna wæs geboren Maria Cr[is]tes moder. 7 þa þa hire were Joachim wæs forðfaren, þa genam Anna æfter Moyses æ oðerne were, þe wæs genæmd Cleophas. Of þan heo hæfde an oðre dohter, seo wæs eac genæmd Maria æfter þære ærre dohter, þas man cleopeð Maria Cleophe for heo wæs his dohter. Ða beweddede Cleophas Iosephe his broðre Marian þæs hælendes moder þe wæs his steopdohter. 7 his age ne dohter Mariæn he geaf Alpheon, of þære wæs geboren Jacob se læsse, 7 se oðer Joseph. Ðes Jacob wæs geclypod Jacobus Alphei for he wæs Alphees sune. Ðaget æfter Cleophas deaðe Anna æft[er] þære lage genam þone þridde were, þan wæs to name Salomas, of him heo hæfde þa þridde dohter, 7 þa heo genæmden eac Marien, for þære deorewurðnysse of þære forme dohter, 7 forþan þe se ængel brohte þone name. Seo wæs bewedded Zebedeo, of þære wæron geborene Jacob se mycele, 7 Joh[ann]es se godspellere. Maria wæs læsse Jacobes moder, 7 Maria wæs mare Jacobes moder 7 Joh[ann]es þæs gospelleres, 7 Maria seo Magdalenissce sohton urne Drihten mid smerigeles inne his þruge þa þa he bebyriged wæs.

Anna and Emeria were sisters. Of Emeria was born Elisabeth, mother of John the Baptist. Of Anna was born Mary, mother of Christ. And when her husband Joachim had passed on, then Anna according to the law of Moses, took another husband, who was named Cleophas. From him she had another daughter, who was also named Mary after the older daughter, whom her husband called Mary Cleophas because she was his daughter. Then Cleophas married Mary, mother of the Saviour, who was his step-daughter, to his brother Joseph. And he gave his own daughter Mary to Alpheus, from whom was born James the Less, and another Joseph. This James was called James Alpheus, because he was Alpheus’ son. After the death of Cleophas, Anne following the law took a third husband, who was named Salome, from whom she had a third daughter, and she was also named Mary, because of the preciousness of her first daughter, and because an angel brought her the name. She was married to Zebedee, from whom were born James the Great and John the Evangelist. Mary was the mother of James the Less, and Mary was the mother of James the Greater and John the Evangelist, and Mary Magdalene sought our Lord with ointment inside his tomb when he had been buried.

(Transcription and translation by Calum Cockburn)

A page from a 12th-century commentary, featuring marginal drawings of three pairs of busts of the Holy Kinship.
Busts of the Holy Kinship, Arundel MS 36, f. 13r

The earliest English depiction of the Kinship has been identified by Park and Naydenova-Slade as marginal drawings in a 12th-century commentary from Kirkham Priory in Yorkshire, now Arundel MS 36. This manuscript was digitised as part of the Polonsky Foundation England and France 800-1200 project, available on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site, and on the Bibliothèque nationale de France project website.

Here the images are limited to busts of three couples, each labelled with their names below: at the top, Joachim and St Anne, in the centre, St Joseph and the Virgin with the dove of the Holy Spirit, and at the bottom, Alpheus and Mary Cleophas. The images appear in the margins of a prologue to the following text entitled De Nativitate Sanctae Mariae. This letter or prologue does not describe the Holy Kinship. Instead, Park and Naydenova-Slade suggest that its inclusion is a visual commentary on a passage in the Nativitate on the children of St Joseph.

Kathleen Doyle

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Further reading

Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints, trans. by William Granger Ryan, 2 vols (Princeton: University Press, 1993), II, chapter 131.

Anne Rudloff Stanton, 'La Genealogye Comence: Kinship and Difference in the Queen Mary Psalter', Studies in Iconography, 17 (1996), 177-214.

David Park and Mellie Naydenova-Slade, ‘The earliest Holy Kinship image, the Salomite controversy, and a little-known centre of Learning in northern England in the twelfth century’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 71 (2008), 95-119.

 

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30 August 2020

Elizabeth Elstob, Old English scholar, and the Harleian Library

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Elizabeth Elstob (1683–1758) is considered to be the first female scholar of Old English and one of the earliest advocates of women’s education. She was supported in her scholarly pursuits by Robert Harley (1661–1724), 1st Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer, the founder of the Harley collection, and his Library-Keeper Humfrey Wanley (1672–1726), another renowned scholar of Old English. 

The youngest of eight siblings born to a merchant family in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Elizabeth initially received private education under her mother’s tutelage. When her mother died in 1691, she was sent to her uncle Charles Elstob, Prebendary of Canterbury, who was opposed to the education of women. Despite his disapproval, Elizabeth began studying ancient and modern languages. She subsequently moved in with her brother William, a clergyman and scholar in Oxford, who introduced her to the leading Old English scholars of their day. In 1702, they moved to London where she began publishing major works on the Old English language.

An engraving of a woman’s portrait representing Elizabeth Elstob

An engraved portrait of Elizabeth Elstob: Add MS 29300, f. 39r

Among Elizabeth’s publications were an edition of the Latin Athanasian Creed with an Old English interlinear gloss (1708); an edition and translation of the Old English Life of Pope Gregory the Great by the Benedictine monk Ælfric of Eynsham (1709); and The Rudiments of Grammar for the English-Saxon Tongue (1715). The latter was the first grammar of Old English published in modern English. Up to that point, scholarship on Old English had been mostly in Latin, so this was an important publication for making the study of Old English more accessible to students and amateur female scholars alike. While preparing a complete edition of Ælfric’s Homilies, she worked with her brother William on his editions of the Old English adaptation of Orosius’s History of the World and Old English legal texts.  

The initials ‘W. E.’ and ‘E. E.’ drawn in and decorated with penwork in red ink

The initials of William Elstob and Elizabeth Elstob from a transcript of Textus Roffensis which they collated with the original manuscript in 1712: Stowe MS 960, f. 3r

During her career, Elizabeth received the support of Robert Harley at a time when he practically was Prime Minister and enjoyed great proximity to Queen Anne (1665–1714). On two occasions, she petitioned Harley for financial support from Queen Anne in order to publishing her edition of Ælfric’s Homilies. She was successful in her second attempt, as evidenced from a letter in which she thanked him ‘for so great a Favour’.

A letter written in brown ink in the hand of Elizabeth Elstob

Elizabeth Elstob’s letter to Robert Harley: Harley MS 7524, f. 30r

During her career, Elizabeth was in close contact with Humfrey Wanley, Library-Keeper of the Harleian collection. Aside from consulting manuscripts herself at the Bodleian Library and the Cottonian Library, she made ample use of Wanley’s catalogue of Old English manuscripts that he had published in 1705 with the support of Robert Harley. Her respect for his work is clear from a letter dated 1709, in which she explained that she abandoned her plan to make an edition of the Psalms in Old English after learning that Wanley was already working on an edition of the Bible in Old English:

‘I had a design upon the Psalms, but since that, Mr. Wanley tells me he is preparing the whole Bible: of which the Psalms make a part, I cannot allow myself to interfere with so excellent a person, tho’ he has been so generous as to offer me, all the assistance he can give’

A letter written in brown ink in the hand of Elizabeth Elstob

Elizabeth Elstob on Humfrey Wanley: Add MS 29300, f. 40r

Wanley also greatly valued Elizabeth’s scholarly work. He transcribed a manuscript at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, for her publication on the Old English Life of St Gregory, and he incorporated a number of her works into the Harleian Library. Elizabeth sent him a genealogy of the Elstob family to the year 1710, and a separate descent of her mother’s family, which traced her ancestry back to Brochwel Ysgithrog, a 6th-century king of Powys. Wanley was clearly impressed with the genealogies that she had expanded by researching and citing Old English and Latin sources. He inserted them into a 17th-century manuscript with pedigrees from the Palatinate of Durham; in cataloguing the manuscript, he attributed them to ‘that ingenious virgin gentlewoman Mrs Elstob’ (A Catalogue of the Harleian Manuscripts in the British Museum, London, 1808–12), II, p. 29).

A drawing of a Roman pillar, including roundels with the names of Elizabeth Elstob’s mother’s ancestors. Next to the pillar are citations from historical sources in Latin and Old English, and a coat of arms in colours

The ancestry of Elizabeth Elstob’s mother Jane Hall, drawn up by her for Humfrey Wanley: Harley MS 1397, f. 238r

Wanley also expressed his appreciation when, in 1712, Elizabeth presented him a facsimile reproduction on parchment of an early 12th-century manuscript containing the 'Annals of Rochester' (Textus Roffensis), an important source for the study of law in early medieval England. Wanley paid her five guineas and catalogued the manuscript, noting that 'Mrs Elstob hath finely imitated the Hand-writing of the [...] Textus Roffensis' (Catalogue of the Harleian Manuscripts, II, p. 272).

A page with a medieval script copied by Elizabeth Elstob, featuring an introduction in red, initials in green and red, and a decorated initial featuring Christ and a dragon in green, purple, and red against a yellow background.

Elizabeth Elstob’s facsimile of Textus Roffensis, featuring an initial decorated with Christ and a dragon: Harley MS 1866, f. 9r

The Harleian Library also obtained a second parchment manuscript with a facsimile of Textus Roffensis written and decorated by Elizabeth Elstob.

Elizabeth Elstob’s reproduction of King Alfred’s law texts, written in minuscule script, organised in two columns, and featuring numerals in red ink, and initials in red and purple

Elizabeth Elstob’s facsimile of King Alfred’s laws: Harley MS 6523, f. 9r

In 1715, Elizabeth’s scholarly career came to an abrupt end when her brother died suddenly. She was left with financial debts from their joint publishing projects and without any support, since Queen Anne had died before sending her the funding secured by Robert Harley. Perhaps in an attempt to flee her creditors, Elizabeth left London for Evesham (Worcestershire) where she lived in relative anonymity as a teacher at an elementary school for girls. She never returned to her scholarship and left her magnum opus, the complete edition of Ælfric’s Homilies, unfinished: her manuscript volumes survive at the British Library as Lansdowne MSS 370–374 and Egerton MS 838. However, Elizabeth Elstob did remain attached to the Harley collection in some small way. From 1739 until her death in 1758, she was governess to the children of Margaret Cavendish Bentinck (1715–1785), duchess of Portland, who, as granddaughter of Robert Harley, had inherited the Harley collection. Perhaps Elizabeth felt some comfort in returning to the family who had supported her scholarly pursuits, and whose collection, formed under her friend Wanley's direction, preserved her work.

 

Mechtild Gretsch, 'Elizabeth Elstob: A Scholar's Fight for Anglo-Saxon Studies', Anglia, 117 (199), 163–300, 481–524.

Jacqueline Way, '"Our Mother-Tongue": The Politics of Elizabeth Elstob's Antiquarian Scholarship', Huntington Library Quarterly, 78:3 (2015), 417-440.

 

Clarck Drieshen

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27 August 2020

Digitisation of the Sherborne Missal

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Weighing as much as the average 5-year-old child and containing more paintings than most art galleries, the Sherborne Missal is a titan of a manuscript. The breath-taking quality of its artwork has inspired art historians to declare it, 'the unrivalled masterpiece of English book production in the fifteenth century' (Kathleen Scott), and 'beyond question the most spectacular service book of English execution to have come down to us from the later Middle Ages' (Janet Backhouse).

It is particularly exciting, then, to announce that this exceptional manuscript is now available to view in full as a pilot project in our Universal Viewer.

Feast day of the Assumption of the Virgin, with miniatures of the Virgin Mary and Benedictine monks
Feast day of the Assumption of the Virgin, with miniatures of the Virgin Mary and Benedictine monks: Add MS 74236, p. 524

The Sherborne Missal (Add MS 74236) is a service book containing all the texts required for celebrating Mass on the different feasts, holidays and saints’ days throughout the year. It was made for the Benedictine abbey of St Mary in Sherborne, Dorset, between approximately 1399 and 1407.

We know a surprising amount about the people responsible for creating the Sherborne Missal, largely because it calls attention to its patrons and makers at every opportunity. The book was probably commissioned by Robert Brunyng, the abbot of Sherborne from 1385–1415, whose image appears in the manuscript about a hundred times. It is hard to think of another medieval person for whom such a remarkable number of portraits survive. These portraits may also provide some insight into Brunyng’s tastes and personality. In two instances he is depicted with a group of small hunting dogs, which scholars have suggested may be his personal hounds. On many of the feast days he is shown wearing exceptionally fine vestments of brocade, embroidery and jewels.

A collage of detail pictures of Abbot Brunyng with his dogs (left) and in a selection of fine vestments
Portraits of Abbot Brunyng with dogs, p. 492 (left), and wearing a selection of fine vestments, pp. 220, 266, 279 (upper), pp. 262, 264, 51 (lower) (details)

On a number of occasions Brunyng is depicted together with Richard Mitford, bishop of Salisbury from 1396–1407, who may also have played a role in the patronage of the manuscript or was perhaps included to emphasise Sherborne Abbey’s close relationship with the bishopric.

Portraits of Richard Mitford, bishop of Salisbury, with his personal arms, and Robert Brunyng, the abbot of Sherborne, with the arms of Sherborne Abbey, on the page for Christmas Day
Portraits of Richard Mitford, bishop of Salisbury, with his personal arms, and Robert Brunyng, the abbot of Sherborne, with the arms of Sherborne Abbey, on the page for Christmas Day: Add MS 74236, p. 36 (detail)

The principal artist, a Dominican friar named John Siferwas, included his portrait and coat of arms several times in the manuscript. In one extraordinary instance, he depicted himself floating in the lower margin, his habit entwined around the branch of a rose bush which forms the lower border to the page, in the same way that angels are represented throughout the manuscript. Another of his surviving works is the Lovell Lectionary (Harley MS 7026), commissioned by John, Lord Lovell, for presentation to Salisbury Cathedral.

Self-portrait of John Siferwas, the artist of the manuscript, floating in the lower margin, his habit entwined around the border of roses
Self-portrait of John Siferwas, the artist of the manuscript, floating or kneeling in the lower margin, his habit entwined around the border of roses: Add MS 74236, p. 225 (detail)

The Sherborne Missal also provides portraits of the master scribe, John Whas, who was probably a monk of Sherborne Abbey. Whas recorded his name in several colophons, for example, emphasising the physical effort of scribal work: 'John Whas the monk has worked to write this book, and rose early, his body becoming much wasted in the process' (Librum scribendo Ion Whas monachus laborat, Et mane surgendo corpus multum macerabat, p. 661).

Colophon of John Whas the scribe
Colophon of John Whas the scribe: Add MS 74236, p. 661 (detail)
Portraits of John Whas, the scribe, and John Siferwas, the artist, on the page for Easter Day
Portraits of John Whas, the scribe, and John Siferwas, the artist, on the page for Easter Day: Add MS 74236, p. 216 (detail)

With decoration on nearly all of its 694 pages, the Sherborne Missal contains thousands of images. It is particularly famous for its series of 48 highly illusionistic depictions of British birds in the margins of the Ordinary and Canon of the Mass, most of them inscribed with their names in Middle English. These birds are unique in medieval manuscript illumination both for their ornithological accuracy and for the rich variety of species shown.

Details of birds: kingfisher, robin, skylark, female house sparrow, starling, spotted woodpecker
Kingfisher (kyngefystere), robin (roddock), skylark (larke), female house sparrow (sparwe hen), starling (stare), spotted woodpecker (wodewale): Add MS 74236, pp. 383, 382, 369, 377, 385, 373 (details)

Local pride in Sherborne and its venerable history is a running theme throughout the manuscript. The Preface of the Mass features a series of portraits of 25 bishops of Sherborne from the creation of the diocese in 705 to the transfer of the bishopric to Salisbury in 1075. Clearly the Abbey was eager to emphasise its historic significance as the original site of the bishop’s seat.

Details of bishops: St Aldhelm, Forthere and Asser
St Aldhelm and Forthere, the 1st and 2nd bishops of Sherborne, and Asser, 11th bishop of Sherborne, from the Preface of the Mass: Add MS 74236, pp. 363 and 366 (details)

There is also a series of roundels in the lower borders of the Ordinary and Canon of the Mass that contain portraits of historic benefactors of the Abbey. They hold charters recording their gifts, the large seals hanging down into the margins.

Details of kings Cenwalh and Cynewulf holding charters
Benefactions of kings Cenwalh and Cynewulf, from the opening of the Canon of the Mass: Add MS 74236, p. 381 (detail)

Local Dorset saints are similarly prominent in the manuscript, such as St Juthwara, a pious virgin of the 6th century whose relics were housed at Sherborne Abbey. It is said that after being beheaded by her stepbrother, St Juthwara picked up her head and put it back on.

The martyrdom of St Juthwara, with a praying Benedictine
The martyrdom of St Juthwara, with a praying Benedictine: Add MS 74236, p. 489 (detail)

Select pages of the Sherborne Missal were previously published online as part of the Library's Turning the Pages project in 2002. We are now delighted to make the entire manuscript available to view through a pilot project on the Library’s Universal Viewer, a new viewer which offers a range of improved features. This pilot will be extended to include further collection items in due course.

The Sherborne Missal was purchased by the British Library in 1998 with generous support from the National Heritage Memorial Fund.

Eleanor Jackson

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21 August 2020

Online resources for medieval manuscripts

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In November 2018, we launched The Polonsky Foundation England and France 800-1200 Project. This ground-breaking collaboration between the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France digitised a total of 800 medieval manuscripts from our two collections. The British Library’s curated website, Medieval England and France, 700–1200 now includes its own downloadable list of all 400 British Library manuscripts that were featured in the project, in spreadsheet format and as a PDF. This list can be accessed from the website’s About page.

An author portrait of St Dunstan writing at a desk, holding a quill pen and knife, with a background made of gold leaf
An author portrait of St Dunstan: Royal MS 10 A XIII/1, f. 2v

The bilingual site (available in both English and French) also offers our readers a wealth of resources on the early medieval period, including:

  • Six broad themes covering art, history, science, religion, making manuscripts, and medieval manuscript collections today.
  • 30 articles on a variety of subjects, from medieval science and maths to early medical knowledge, bindings, and monastic libraries.
  • 148 collection items, providing short introductions to some of the most stunning manuscripts digitised during the project.
  • Ten people pages, focusing on a selection of the major figures and authors active in England and France during the Middle Ages, from Bede and Anselm of Canterbury, to Emma of Normandy and William of Malmesbury.
  • A video series that explores all the steps needed to make a manuscript, narrated by Patricia Lovett MBE, as well as two additional videos discussing scribal culture and the role of law in early medieval England, featuring Professors Julia Crick and Nick Vincent.
  • Two animations based on accounts of the crane and the whale from an early medieval bestiary (Harley MS 4751).
  • A glossary that defines important terms relating to medieval culture and art.
  • An overview of the project itself and the collaboration between the British Library and Bibliothèque nationale de France.
A detail from a medieval collection of texts on computus and astronomy, featuring diagrams that demonstrate the technique of finger-counting
Diagrams used to demonstrate the technique of finger-counting: Egerton MS 3314, f. 73r

We hope you enjoy exploring the Medieval England and France 800-1200 site and all the manuscripts digitised in the project!


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18 August 2020

How did the Cotton library grow?

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How, when and from whom did Sir Robert Cotton acquire his manuscripts? These are questions which, in some cases, remain unanswered. But there is a substantial body of material which provides clues to the growth of the Cotton collection. Some of that evidence can now be viewed online on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.

A portrait of Sir Robert Cotton

A portait of Sir Robert Cotton attributed to Cornelius Janssen (1626)

One important resource for understanding the evolution of the Cotton library is supplied by the correspondence bound in Cotton MS Julius C III. This volume contains around 360 original letters addressed to Robert Cotton (1571–1631), dating from 1592 onwards. Many of these letters relate to the acquisition of manuscripts or to loans from the library; the correspondents read like a roll-call of the famous men of the day. Among them are the poet John Donne (d. 1631) — who thanked Cotton for lending him books during his imprisonment for his secret marriage — the playwright Ben Jonson (d. 1637), the historian William Camden (d. 1623), and the astrologer John Dee (d. 1609). Many of the letters were written in England, but we have also identified correspondence sent to Cotton in French, Italian, Hebrew and Greek, and from destinations in Europe (Amiens, Antwerp, Bremen, Cambrai, Delft, Douai, Dublin, Florence, Paris and Venice) and in northern Africa (Algiers and Tunis). If it was not already appreciated, here is indication that Cotton's manuscript-collecting and sphere of influence was international in its scope.

So what do the letters tell us? Much remains to be done in identifying the books to which they refer, but here is one well-known example. On 10 May 1630, Sir Edward Dering (d. 1644), lieutenant of Dover Castle, wrote to Robert Cotton as follows:

'I have sent up two of your books, which have much pleasured me: I have here the charter of K. John dated att Running Meade: by the first safe and sure messenger it is your’s. So are the Saxon charters, as fast as I can coppy them: but in the meane time I will close K. John in a boxe and send him.'

A letter written by Edward Dering to Robert Cotton, dated 10 May 1630

Dering's letter sending Magna Carta to Robert Cotton: Cotton MS Julius C III, f. 143r

The charter of King John was none other than an original copy of the 1215 Magna Carta, which is now Cotton Ch XIII 31A (sadly, it was badly damaged by fire in 1731 and is now mostly illegible). We should note that Dering, one of the leading antiquarian scholars of the day, described himself as Cotton's ‘affectionate freind and servant’. Clearly, he considered the Cotton library as a suitable home for a document which now has such global appeal.

The first page of the catalogue of Cotton charters

The first catalogue of the Cotton manuscripts: Harley MS 6018, f. 3r

What other evidence can tell us when Sir Robert Cotton acquired his manuscripts? Important in this context is his first handwritten catalogue, Harley MS 6018, which has also been recently digitised. A significant amount of research into this catalogue was conducted by the late Colin Tite, and is published in his book The Early Records of Sir Robert Cotton's Library (London, 2003). The first portion of Harley MS 6018 (ff. 3r–146r) contains the catalogue of Cotton's manuscripts, dated 1621 but with subsequent additions; the heading and a number of later entries are in Robert Cotton's own hand. A further section of this volume (ff. 147r–151v, 152v–190r) contains notes on printed books and manuscripts that had been loaned to others by Sir Robert and his son, Sir Thomas Cotton (1594–1662), sometimes with confirmations of receipt, and dated between 1606 and 1653. Tite used this evidence to piece together who was consulting works in the Cotton library in the 17th century (his edition of the loan lists is found on pp. 31–73 of The Early Records).

A page from the Cotton catalogue recording Asser's Life of King Alfred

 

A page from the Cotton catalogue, with Asser's Life of Alfred the Great (Otho MS A XII) recorded under no. 29: Harley MS 6018, f. 21r

In time, we hope that Tite's work is built upon in order to establish further who was using the Cotton library, and which manuscripts were in circulation. Sir Robert Cotton had been one of the petitioners to Queen Elizabeth I in 1602, requesting permission to form an 'Academy for the study of Antiquity and History', which would establish a library containing 'ancient books and rare monuments of antiquity, which otherwise might perish' (Cotton MS Faustina E V, f. 89). The queen did not grant their request, but Cotton himself made much of his collection available to other scholars, to the extent that certain manuscripts were loaned and never returned, such as the Utrecht Psalter (Cotton MS Claudius C VII, now Utrecht, Universiteitsbiliothek, MS 32), or were not returned until after Robert's death in 1631, such as the Cotton Genesis (Cotton MS Otho B VI).

What is equally interesting is that this catalogue of the manuscripts was itself alienated from the Cotton library. It somehow made its way into the collection of Robert Harley (1661–1724), 1st earl of Oxford and Mortimer, and Edward Harley (1689–1741), the 2nd earl, and thence into the collections of the British Museum Library in 1753. This shows that the Harleys would have had good understanding of what the Cotton library once contained, and may have been able to instruct their own librarian, Humfrey Wanley (d. 1726), to track down any manuscripts that had gone missing.

The opening page of Humfrey Wanley's catalogue of the Cotton charters

Humfrey Wanley's catalogue of the Cotton charters (1703): Harley MS 7647, f. 2r 

The name of Wanley is also significant for the third original resource for the Cotton collection that has now been digitised. This one is much less known, but has equally great potential for learning more about the contents of that library. It contains two catalogues of the Cotton charters, one in Latin made by Humfrey Wanley in 1703 (ff. 2r–12v), and the other in English made by Richard Widmore (d. 1764) sometime after 1750 (ff. 13r–52r). Although now classified as part of the Harley collection, Harley MS 7647, the volume in question was formerly known as Add MS 4998, and it is not listed in the printed catalogue of the Harley manuscripts (published in 1808). Colin Tite makes mention of it in The Early Records (p. 102), observing that Wanley's listing in this manuscript is near-identical to that recorded in his 1703 Report on the contents of the Cotton library, on the occasion of its passing into the hands of the nation.

The final page from Wanley's catalogue of the Cotton charters

 

The final page from the catalogue of Cotton charters, for the Faustina press: Harley MS 7647, f. 12r

Unlike today, the Cotton charters as noted by Wanley are classified by emperors rather than arranged in numerical series. Wanley's ordering is as follows:

  • Julius: 13 charters
  • Augustus: 18 boxes (capsae) of charters, plus coins and other royal charters
  • Tiberius: 42 charters
  • Caligula: 8 charters and 1 seal
  • Claudius: 32 charters
  • Nero: 21 charters
  • Galba: 33 charters
  • Otho: 9 papal bulls, 6 rolls, 1 letter and 'a small parcel of little loose papers' 
  • Vitellius: 53 charters, 2 seals and 3 rolls
  • Vespasian: a number of medallions, wax seals, metal antiquities and other items
  • Titus: 1 charter, 5 rolls, 4 brass seals, 1 wax seal 'with some other things of no value'
  • Cleopatra: 6 rolls etc
  • Faustina: 44 charters plus other maps and miscellaneous materials, including 'Dr Dees Conjuring Table', 'A Sword with Inscription HUGO COMES CESTRIÆ', 3 'small pikes or lances' and various pictures of Robert Cotton and others

It will take some time, inevitably, to identify everything in Wanley's catalogue of the charters and other antiquities, many of which remain at the British Museum. By digitising this manuscript, along with Robert Cotton's own catalogue of his manuscripts and the correspondence addressed to him, we nonetheless hope to have made it easier to understand how the great Cotton collection developed.

 

Julian Harrison

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14 August 2020

“Collect the fragments – they should not perish!”

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The old saying calling for careful preservation of fragments originally comes from the Bible and refers to the collection of the breadcrumbs remaining after the miraculous multiplication of loaves (John 6:12). Renaissance scholars reinterpreted it as a call to search for and rescue remnants of the past, especially of classical literature and scholarship. The saying could equally apply to fragments of ancient manuscripts which, carefully collected and preserved, are still providing new discoveries.

A detail from the Bristol Psalter, featuring a marginal illustration of the miracle of the manna.
Collecting fragments of the heavenly food (mannah) from the Bristol Psalter, Constantinople, 11th century: Add MS 40731, f. 128r (detail)

Written heritage can become fragmented for multiple reasons. Sometimes disasters such as fire and wars devastated collections of books. A well-known and sad case is the 1731 fire in Ashburnham House, near Westminster school, where Robert Cotton’s extraordinary collection of manuscripts was held. Although the efforts of librarians and many others saved a large number of manuscripts from the fire, there are some sorrowful and often-lamented losses. The remarkable 5th-century illuminated copy of the Book of Genesis, for example, which was still complete in Robert Cotton’s time, came out of the fire in a handful of charred fragments.

A burnt fragment from the Cotton Genesis, featuring an illustration of Abraham receiving three angels.
Abraham receiving three angels, fragment of an illuminated copy of the Greek text of the Book of Genesis, known as the Cotton Genesis, Egypt, 5th/6th century: Cotton MS Otho B VI, f. 26v

Apart from such disasters, the most common reasons for the fragmentation of books were age and obsolescence. As decades and centuries passed, books fell out of use. There were new copies of the same text, easier to read and handier to use. Previous copies, often worn, damaged or even unbound, were left on library shelves to disintegrate further.

In exceptional cases librarians did recognise the inherent value in ancient manuscripts and saved and treasured them in various ways. A fragment of a 6th-century copy of Pope Gregory the Great’s homilies on papyrus was found and framed in a beautifully illuminated parchment sheet in the 15th century.

A detail of a mounted papyrus fragment added to a leaf from the Breviary of Margaret of York.
Detail of a papyrus fragment surrounded by a border from the 15th century, Ghent, c. 1480: Cotton MS Titus C XV, f. 1r (detail)

Similarly, it was probably a librarian in a monastery on Mount Athos who found these astonishing fragments of a 6th-century Greek gospel-book illuminated with gold. In order to rescue the treasure, he bound them in a later manuscript, which resulted in trimming the originally much larger sheets to the size of the volume. Nevertheless, his actions preserved three remarkable survivals of early Byzantine book illumination.

One of the Golden Canon Tables, written on gold paint, with elaborate floral decoration and a small portrait of a haloed man.
"The Golden Canon Tables", a fragment of a luxury gospel-book in Greek, trimmed and bound in a 12th-century volume, Constantinople, 6th century: Add MS 5111/1, f. 1r

The majority of the forgotten volumes, however, were not this lucky: their sheets were usually reused either for flyleaves or binding supports in later volumes.

Studying and collecting such fragments from manuscript and printed volumes started as early as the 17th century. Flyleaves and pastedowns were often removed from books, mounted on paper sheets and bound together in large volumes to serve as palaeographical specimens to illustrate script and writing in various times and traditions. We have blogged about one of the most famous and prolific producers of such collections, John Bagford (1650-1715) previously.

A fragment from a 13th-century Greek liturgical manuscript, showing evidence of folding and handwritten notes.
Fragment from a 13th-century Greek liturgical manuscript, showing signs of folding and handwritten notes: Add MS 70516, f. 2v.

Cataloguing such collections is a fascinating challenge. One can easily come up with no result and unable to identify the fragmented pieces, but sometimes an unexpected find emerges from the fragmentary sheets. Add MS 70516 was such an endeavour. The volume, which may have been part of the personal collection of the learned librarian of the Harley Collection, Humphrey Wanley (1672-1726), contains 90 fragments in various languages and scripts. The earliest are probably the two thin Greek fragments, foliated as folios 84-85 today, whose characteristic script can be dated to the early 9th century.

A fragment from a 9th-century copy of the Greek Life of St Pachomius, featuring a marginal illustration.
Fragment from a 9th-century copy of the Greek Life of St Pachomius: Add MS 70516, f. 84r.

The fragments are from the lower part of a double-sheet (bifolium) from a lost-9th century manuscript. As shown by their folding marks, they were reused as binding support in an unknown volume. The sheets were previously described as containing remnants of a Greek monastic text. Further research has now confirmed this hypothesis and identified the text as the life of the 4th-century founder of monastic communities, St Pachomius of Egypt.

A detail from the Eadui Psalter, showing an illustration of St Pachomius receiving the monastic rule from an angel.
St Pachomius receiving the monastic rule from an angel in the The Eadui Psalter, Canterbury, 1st half of the 11th century-mid 12th century: Arundel MS 155, f. 9v (detail)

Despite his significance as the inventor of monasteries around 323 in Upper Egypt, exact details of the life of St Pachomius are unclear. One of the most important sources, the earliest version of his Greek biography, a text written in rather clumsy and unpolished Greek, came down to us in one single copy, a truncated 11th-century Greek manuscript now in Florence.

A detail from an 11th-century manuscript, featuring the earliest version of the Greek Life of St Pachomius.
The only other existing manuscript of the earliest version of St Pachomius’s Greek Life showing the same text (cf. line 5) as the British Library Fragment presented above (cf. line 5 from bottom of the fragment), Apiro, Italy 11th century: Florence, Biblioteca Laurenziana Plut. 11.09, f. 170v

Closer inspection has confirmed that the 9th-century fragments contain portions of this particular text – the earliest version of the Greek Life of St Pachomius, hitherto known from only one much later manuscript. What this new find means for the history of the text and how it complements the information about the earliest abbot still awaits exploration, but the identification of the two sheets neatly confirms the old axiom that such “fragments should be collected and not be allowed to perish”.

Peter Toth

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For a detailed presentation, see P. Toth, “Wisdom in Fragments: The Earliest Manuscript of the First Greek Life of St Pachomius”, in Susan Ashbrook Harvey, Thomas Arentzen, Henrik Rydell Johnsén and Andreas Westergren (eds.), Wisdom on the Move: Late Antique Traditions in Multicultural Conversation (Leiden: Brill, 2010), pp. 13-34.