Medieval manuscripts blog

732 posts categorized "Manuscripts"

29 January 2023

Locating the earthly paradise

Where exactly was the Garden of Eden? Does it still exist? These are questions medieval scholars tried to answer by attempting to map Eden as a physical place on earth. In the Book of Genesis, the Garden of Eden (also known as the ‘earthly paradise’) is a place in which God creates the first humans, Adam and Eve. Their stay in Eden is short-lived, since Adam and Eve fled from the earthly paradise after they yielded to the serpent’s temptation to eat the forbidden fruit, and hid themselves in shame after their fall from grace.

Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, tempted by the serpent with a female torso; in the architectonic border is a scene of the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise.
Miniature of the Fall, with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Southern Netherlands, 1486–1506): Add MS 18852, f.14v

As well as being a popular subject for illuminations in medieval Biblical manuscripts, the Garden of Eden also appears in medieval Alexander romances, Dante’s Purgatorio, and in medieval maps of the world known as mappae mundi. On maps, the Garden of Eden is usually represented by figures of Adam and Eve, the Tree of Knowledge, and the four rivers at the top of the world, as shown in the ‘Map Psalter’.

Detail of Adam and Eve and the four rivers drawn on the central upper part of the Psalter Map.

Detail of Adam and Eve and the four rivers (England, 1262–1300): Add MS 28681 (‘The Map Psalter’), f. 9r

The upper part of medieval world maps typically represents Asia or the ‘East’, whereas Europe is drawn on the lower left and Africa on the lower right. This is part of a stylistic convention known as the ‘T-O map’. Isidore of Seville, an influential early medieval theologian, affirmed in his Etymologies that the earthly paradise could be located in Asia.

Latin text of Isidore of Seville's Etymologies with a diagram of the T.O map: Asia at the top, 'Europa' on the lower left and Africa on the lower right.

Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies (Canterbury, 4th quarter of the 11th century): Royal MS 6 C I, f. 108v

Certain medieval texts claimed that some individuals had even managed to rediscover the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve’s expulsion. According to some of the romance legends of Alexander the Great’s world conquest, which contain interpolations of Alexandri Magni iter ad paradisum and the Voyage au paradis terrestre, the Macedonian king eventually reached the gates of the earthly paradise, near India, arriving by boat at the furthest point of his world conquest. However, when Alexander got to the gates of paradise, an angel forbade him from entering there. An old man is said to have appeared, giving the Macedonian conqueror a special item as a tribute. This episode is illustrated in a beautifully-decorated manuscript in our Alexander exhibition, on loan from the Bodleian Library.

Alexander visiting the gates of earthly paradise receiving a golden apple as a tribute.

Alexander visits paradise and is given an apple (Flanders, 1338–1344): Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 264, f. 186r

According to these medieval legends, the tribute Alexander received (sometimes an apple, a pearl or a polished stone) usually has a strange property. If you put it on a scale, it is always heavier than anything else you weigh, but if you cover it with soil, the scale's balance is restored. When Alexander asked the significance of this tribute, the old man would explain that the stone (or apple) represents Alexander himself: as long as Alexander is alive, no one can equal his power, but when he dies, and is therefore covered in soil, he will lose his power. This is a premonition of Alexander’s approaching death at Babylon, where he was tragically poisoned at his own coronation feast, according to the romance legends based on the Greek Alexander Romance by Pseudo-Callisthenes.

An extended version of this episode is also found in Gilbert the Hay’s The Buike off King Allexander the Conqueroure, written in medieval Scots in the 15th century. In this version, an angel gives Alexander an apple:

‘With that ane angell to the wall couth cum,

Said, “Alexander, here art þow richt welcum –

For thai tribute ane apill here I the gif’

(ll.16296-8, edited by John Cartwright, 1990)

Three lines from the Buik off King Allexander the Conqueroure, quoted in the blogpost text above in Scots.

Detail from The Buike off King Allexander the Conqueroure (Scotland, early 16th century): Add MS 40732, f. 228r

Dante was another famous traveller to the earthly paradise during the Middle Ages, appearing as his own protagonist in La Divina Commedia as a pilgrim of the Christian realms of the afterlife. Dante ascended Mount Purgatory with his mentor, Virgil, and encountered the earthly paradise at the top of the mountain in Canto XXVIII of Purgatorio, before travelling to Heaven guided by Beatrice. Dante witnessed the lush landscape as he wandered around Eden for the first time. He described the beauty of ‘that forest—dense, alive with green, divine— / which tempered the new day before my eyes’ (‘la divina foresta spessa e viva, / ch’a li occhi temperava il novo giorno’) (Purgatorio 28.2-3, translated by Allen Mandelbaum, Digital Dante).

Dante and Virgil with others within the forest of the earthly paradise, an angel flies overhead.
Dante and Virgil with others within the forest of the earthly paradise (Tuscany, 1444– c. 1450): Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 116v

Although Dante may have surpassed Alexander’s unsuccessful attempt at entering gates the verdant Garden of Eden, both texts have undoubtedly inspired beautiful and imaginative illuminations of the earthly paradise.

Our major exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, is on show at the British Library until 19 February 2023. Tickets can be bought in advance or on the day, subject to availability. 

We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for their support towards the exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors.

 

Giulia Gilmore

Follow us on @BLMedieval

24 January 2023

PhD placement on Medieval Women

Are you a PhD student working on topic relating to medieval women? We are now advertising an opportunity to do a placement with us in the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section at the British Library in 2023.

The student will assist us with preparing for the British Library's Medieval Women exhibition. The exhibition, scheduled for October 2024–February 2025, will focus on recovering medieval women’s voices, visions and experiences. It will tell their history through their own words, show them through their own images, and uncover their lives through original manuscripts, documents and objects.

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

The student will be supervised by the lead curator of the exhibition and will assist with key tasks in its development. These will include researching particular themes, exhibits and historical figures within the exhibition, assisting with the production of the exhibition book (e.g. assembling images, proof-reading), producing promotional materials (e.g. writing blogposts and content for the Library’s website) and helping to liaise with other teams at the British Library (such as Publishing, Conservation, Marketing).

This opportunity is offered as part of the annual British Library PhD Placement Scheme. Placements must take place between June 2023 and March 2024, and are offered for 3 months full-time or up to 6 months part-time.

The scheme is open to all current PhD students registered with a UK university. International PhD students are eligible to apply, subject to meeting any UK visa/residency requirements. Please visit our call for applications page for more information and details on how to apply.

The deadline for applications is 5pm on Monday 20 February 2023.

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15 January 2023

Wheel of approval

Medieval rulers often issued documents, such as privileges, grants and mercies, to assert their sovereignty. Castile was no exception to this rule. The most solemn type of document produced by the medieval Castilian chancery was known as the ‘privilegio rodado’ (literally, ‘privilege with a wheel’). One such charter is a confirmation of a grant of lands issued on 30 December 1254 by the Castilian royal couple Alfonso X of Castile (r. 1252–1284) and Violante of Aragon (b. 1236, d. 1300/1). This charter (Add Ch 24804) has recently been digitised as part of our Medieval and Renaissance Women project and it can now be viewed online for the first time.

The confirmation grant by Alfonso X of Castile and Violante of Aragon, with the wheel at its centre and with a leaden seal affixed at the bottom

The confirmation grant by Alfonso X of Castile and Violante of Aragon: Add Ch 24804

Alfonso X’s interest in books, scholarship and the promotion of arts, history, law and literature was well known by his contemporaries, so much so that his patronage earned him the moniker ‘The Learned’ or ‘The Wise’. He had married Violante of Aragon, the daughter of King Jaume I of Aragon and Violante of Hungary, in 1246, when he was still heir to the throne. Together, Alfonso and Violante ruled for over thirty years, although their marriage became strained after the death of their heir, Fernando de la Cerda, in 1275.

An illuminated image showing Alfonso X on the left, Violante of Aragon in the middle, and their son, Fernando de la Cerda, all sitting on thrones

Alfonso X and Violante of Aragon with their son, Fernando de la Cerda: Archivo Histórico Nacional, Códices, L. 1002, f. 23r

The recently digitized ‘privilegio rodado’ was co-issued by both monarchs, which means that they granted it jointly. Both their names, Alfonso and Violante, are highlighted equally in the charter. Moreover, the use of the diplomatic formula ‘reigning as one’ (‘regnante en uno’) emphasised the importance of the female members of the royal family, including Violante and the royal daughters in the issuing clause of the charter. Hence, the use of the phrase ‘reigning as one’ reflected the participation of both members of the royal couple in the affairs of the kingdom.

A detail from the charter issued by Alfonso and Violante

‘Rey don Alfonso regnante en uno con la Reyna doña Yoland mi mugier et con mis ffijas’ ('King Don Alfonso reigning as one with Queen doña Violante, my wife, and my daughters'): detail of Add Ch 24804

King Alfonso X regulated extensively the structure of the ‘privilegio’ and how it needed to be granted, as described in the ‘Siete Partidas’, one of several legal codes produced throughout his reign. (You can read more about this treatise in our blogpost on the law-code of Alfonso.)

Detail from an illuminated manuscript, showing King Alfonso, sitting on a throne on the left, dictating to a scribe, the middle of three figures on the right

King Alfonso dictates to a scribe: Add MS 20787, f. 1v

In the ‘Siete Partidas’, Alfonso X established the various elements that ensured the legal validity of the ‘privilegio’, and which bestowed it with an impressive appearance. The most striking element was the ‘signo rodado’, a wheel at the very centre of the charter. King Alfonso details in the ‘Siete Partidas’ that this should be ‘a flourish, in the shape of a circle’, which ought to include in the middle ‘the name of the king who bestows the grant, and outside of the latter should be signed by the name of the standard-bearer and of the royal steward’ (Siete Partidas, Partida III, Title XVIII, Law II).

In the inner circle of our charter we can read: ‘SIGNO DEL REY DON ALFONSO’, that is, the sign of King Don Alfonso.

In the outer circle: ‘DON IVAN GARCIA MAYORDOMO DE LA CORTE DEL REY LA CONFIRMA + EL ALFEREZIA DEL REY VAGA’, that is, the steward and the standard-bearer of the King confirm it.

Alfonso X’s ‘signo rodado’ confirming the charter

Alfonso X’s ‘signo rodado’ confirming the charter: Add Ch 24804

Other elements that bestowed the ‘privilegio’ with legal validity were the ‘chi-ro’ or ‘christogram’ at the beginning of the charter, as well as the extensive witness list of lay nobles and ecclesiastical magnates. In this instance they included the Moorish kings of Granada, Murcia and Niebla. Once written, the charter was sealed with a leaden seal, affixed by a silken cord. The original silk threats have survived on our document, together with the seal that shows the arms of Castile and Leon, namely a castle and a lion.

Obverse and reverse of the leaden seal attached to the grant

Obverse and reverse of the leaden seal attached to the grant: Add Ch 24804

Throughout the Middle Ages, charters, grants and documents were dated using different dating systems, In Castile, the customary system was the ‘Era Hispánica’ or Spanish Era. However, the dating clause could also include a reference to an extraordinary or unusual event which happened in that year. In this case, the charter is also dated ‘in the year in which Edward, first-born son and heir of King Henry III of England (r. 1216–1272), was knighted by King Alfonso X in Burgos’, that is, in 1254. Lord Edward, son of Henry III (and the future King Edward I), had travelled to Burgos to be knighted before his wedding to Eleanor of Castile, half-sister of Alfonso X, King of Castile. Hundreds of people gathered in Burgos for that occasion.

The dating clause of the charter

The dating clause of the charter, which reads: ‘en el anno que don Odoart ffijo primero et heredero del Rey Henrric de Anglatierra recebió cavallería en Burgos del rey don Alfonso’: Add Ch 24804

The striking wheel, the magnificently preserved seal and the original silk threads make this charter a particularly fine example of a ‘privilegio rodado’, and a rare survival within the British Library’s collections.

We are extremely grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for their generous funding of Medieval and Renaissance Women.

 

Paula Del Val Vales

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13 January 2023

Alexander the Great: an ancient horse whisperer

How do you tame a wild horse?

The average medieval reader would have been familiar with horses both on the page and in real life. Horses have served humans throughout history, particularly for warfare or transportation. They are also faithful companions to many heroes in ancient and medieval literature. Taming a feral horse, on the other hand, is no easy feat. Only the most skilled warrior would be capable of undertaking such a difficult task. According to legend, this was none other than Alexander the Great, the subject of our current major exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth.

Alexander and Bucephalus, chained in shackles, being brought in by two attendants.

Alexander and his horse, Bucephalus, in Le livre et la vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre (Paris, c. 1420–c. 1425): Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 12r

Alexander the Great’s horse is one of the most famous equine figures in ancient and medieval literature. His name ‘Bucephalus’ derives from the Greek ‘Βουκεφάλας’ meaning ‘ox-head’. He was no ordinary horse, as his name indicates, for he is often depicted in medieval versions of Alexander’s legends as an untamed hybrid with three horns on his head. He was also notorious for eating human beings.

When Alexander was a teenager, his father, King Philip of Macedonia, enclosed Bucephalus in a dungeon for safekeeping, but he would send traitors to the horse’s enclosure to be devoured as punishment. Illuminations from some of our manuscripts portray Bucephalus in a cage or chained with shackles. Later, King Philip heard a prophecy that predicted that only the one who could tame and mount the wild horse would be the future king.

Bucephalus with three horns inside a cage being tamed by Alexander.
Alexander taming Bucephalus, in Roman d'Alexandre in prose (Southern Netherlands, c. 1290–1300): Harley MS 4979, f. 15r

According to an earlier version of the episode in Plutarch’s Life of Alexander, no one was able to mount the horse or tame him, until Alexander noticed that the horse became distressed from the movements of his own shadow. To calm the animal, Alexander turned the horse towards the Sun, so that his shadow no longer frightened him. At last, Alexander was able to mount Bucephalus and claimed him as his own charger, ready for his destined conquests.

Bucephalus in a cage being tamed and brought to the king

Alexander and Bucephalus, in the Talbot Shrewsbury Book (Rouen, c.1445): Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 7r

In some medieval texts, such as Thomas of Kent’s Le roman de toute chevalerie, Bucephalus’s ferocity was used to Alexander’s advantage in battle. The horse is described as tearing violently through the enemy cavalry, since Bucephalus often preferred human flesh over grass.

In an earlier version of the Alexander legends, known as the Greek Alexander Romance, Bucephalus outlived Alexander, and wept for his master on his deathbed after Alexander was poisoned during his coronation feast at Babylon. On the subject of grieving horses, Isidore of Seville, a 7th-century scholar, claimed that horses ‘shed tears when their master dies or is killed, for only the horse weeps and feels grief over humans’ (Etymologies, book 12, 1:41: translated in The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, ed. Stephen A. Barney et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 249). Perhaps Isidore had heard of the loyalty and grief shown by Bucephalus’s towards his master, Alexander the Great, or that of other loyal horses throughout history and literature.

In later medieval versions of the story, Bucephalus is killed prematurely in battle by Alexander’s arch-enemy, King Porrus, before Alexander’s coronation at Babylon. In one manuscript illuminated in 15th-century Paris (Royal MS 20 B XX), this occurs soon after Alexander had successfully unhorsed Porrus during a joust.

Alexander unhorses Porrus. Knights and trumpeters observe on both sides

Alexander unhorsing Porrus: Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 53r

Tragically, for Bucephalus, Porrus got his own back when he managed to kill Alexander’s beloved horse in battle. Alexander, distraught at the loss of his loyal companion, buried Bucephalus with his soldiers by his side.

Alexander watches his three-horned horse, Bucephalus, being buried with his soldiers behind him

The burial of Bucephalus: Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 81r

In honour of his heroic horse, Alexander dedicated a city in his name, so that the memory of Bucephalus was not forgotten. And so, from a ferocious caged beast to a most loyal royal companion, Bucephalus lives on in the legends of Alexander that we continue to read today.

Alexander observes three stonemasons building a city.

Alexander building a city as a memorial to his horse, Bucephalus: Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 82r

Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth at the British Library runs until 19 February 2023. Tickets can be bought in advance or on the day, subject to availability.

We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for their support towards the exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors. You can discover more about the legends of Alexander the Great on our website

 

Giulia Gilmore

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

10 January 2023

Jane Segar, an artist at the Elizabethan court

For modern readers, New Year is a time of reflection and resolution, as we bask in the aftermath of the Christmas celebrations and look ahead to the work of the coming months. But for the Elizabethans, New Year was also a time for gift-giving. Throughout her reign, Queen Elizabeth presided over 45 New Years gift-giving ceremonies, where she was the recipient of numerous extravagant gifts from her courtiers and admirers. This blogpost looks back over 400 years to the New Year period of 1589 and a particularly special present intended for the Tudor Queen herself. This gift is a beautiful slim volume (now Add MS 10037) called ‘The Divine Prophecies of the Ten Sibylls’, made by the hand of a woman called Jane Segar. The manuscript has recently been digitised as part of our Medieval and Renaissance Women project thanks to the generous funding of Joanna and Graham Barker.

The upper cover of Jane Segar's gift volume, embroidered in red velvet and gold and silver lace, featuring painted enamel panels.

The upper cover of Jane Segar’s ‘Divine Prophecies of the Ten Sibylls’: Add MS 10037

Little is known about the identity of Jane Segar, except that she seems to have been part of a family of artists and creatives active around the turn of the 17th century. Her brothers were the painter Francis Segar (b. 1563, d. 1615), and the herald and officer of arms Sir William Segar (b. c. 1554, d. 1633), who painted a number of surviving portraits of high-profile members of the Elizabethan court. William walked in the Queen’s funeral procession upon her death in 1603.

A portrait of William Segar from an illustrated depiction of the funeral procession of Elizabeth I.

A portrait of William Segar in the funeral procession of Elizabeth I: Add MS 35324, f. 36v

Although Jane herself is almost wholly absent from the historical record, it is clear she was an accomplished artist in her own right. Not only was she the scribe of Add MS 10037, she was most likely responsible for its illumination, as well as its beautiful embroidered binding.

Four details from the upper and lower covers of Jane Segar's embroidered and painted volume.

Details within the binding of Jane Segar’s ‘Divine Prophecies of the Ten Sibylls’: Add MS 10037

The binding itself is made from red velvet, handstitched in gold and silver lace, together with enamelled and gilt glass panels that enclose inset illuminated paintings. The paintings teem with decorative elements: laurel wreaths and golden foliage; Roman soldiers sat beneath green pavilions; a nude woman and a satyr (a mythological woodland spirit with goat's ears, legs and a tail, but a human torso), as well as pairs of leopards, small dogs and putti (nude male children, conventionally depicted with wings). The lower cover (whose panel is now unfortunately damaged) also features the date of the manuscript’s production, ‘1589’. Meanwhile, at the very centre of each panel appears a large cartouche, inscribed with a cluster of strange symbols painted in gold, whose appearance is closer to that of runic or Arabic characters than Roman letters. (For a description and discussion of the iconography, see Susan Frye, Pens and Needles: Women's Textualities in Early Modern England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), pp. 90-92.)

The central cartouche of the upper cover of Jane Segar's gift, featuring mottos written in Charactery.

The symbols of Charactery painted in the central cartouche on the upper cover of Jane’s book: Add MS 10037

The meaning of these symbols is revealed at the very beginning of the book, in a prose preface to the main text written and signed by Jane herself and dedicated to Queen Elizabeth. Jane explains that her gift to the Queen is her own work, ‘the handyworke of a maiden your majesty’s most faithful servant … graced with my pen and pencell’, and that it is written in a script she has only recently learnt, which she describes as ‘that rare Arte of Charactery’.

The opening dedication to Jane Segar's Prophecies of the Divine Sibylls.

Jane Segar’s Prologue to ‘The Divine Prophecies of the Ten Sibylls’: Add MS 10037, f. 1r

‘Charactery’ was a system of scribal shorthand (the ancestor of our own modern-day shorthand), a method of writing rapidly that substitutes characters, abbreviations or symbols for sounds, words and phrases. It was invented by Timothie Bright (b. 1551, d. 1615), a physician and clergyman. Bright published a treatise on the subject called Characterie. An Arte of shorte, swifte, and secrete writing by charactere in 1588, only a year before Jane made her own gift; like her, he also dedicated his work to the Elizabethan monarch. Bright's treatise seems to have been popular at Elizabeth’s court, at a time when ciphers and coded language were standard elements of diplomatic communications and spycraft.

A contemporary letter by Mary, Queen of Scots, written in cipher.

A contemporary letter by Mary, Queen of Scots, written in cipher: Cotton MS Caligula C II, f. 67r

Evidently, Bright’s shorthand had enough of a recognisable audience at the royal court for Jane to use it in her own work. The cartouches on the enamelled panels of her gift to the Queen use the symbols of his treatise to encode a pair of mottoes — ‘God and my right’ and ‘Evil be to him that evil thinks’ — as well as the initials of the Queen’s royal title ‘E.R.’ (Elizabeth Regina). Although the enamel panel on the book’s lower cover is now damaged and its cartouche obscured, similar encoded mottoes must once have been painted there as well.

The appearance of Bright’s shorthand is not limited to the volume’s decorative covers alone. It also forms an integral element of the text. Segar’s ‘Divine Prophecies of the Ten Sibylls’ consists of a set of 11 poems written in English. Ten of these poems purport to be verse 'translations' of prophecies concerning the Virgin Mary and the birth of Christ, each attributed to one of the Sibyls, legendary prophetesses from Greek and Roman legend and literature. The subject of prophecy (or divination) was one particularly favoured by Queen Elizabeth, who often consulted with astronomers, alchemists and occultists, most prominent among them her advisor John Dee (b. 1527, d. 1608/09).

One of the 'Divine Prophecies of the Ten Sibylls', transliterated into Charactery.

One of the ‘Divine Prophecies of the Ten Sibylls’ written in Charactery: Add MS 10037, f. 5r

In her volume, Jane provides the English text for each verse prophecy alongside a facing transliteration in Charactery, the initial letters and symbols of both versions lined with gold ink, along with the purported date each prophecy was made (for a further discussion of the poems, see Deirdre Serjeantson, 'Translation, Authorship, and Gender: The Case of Jane Seager’s Divine Prophecies of the Ten Sibills', in Elizabethan Translation and Literary Culture, ed. by Gabriela Schmidt (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2013), pp. 227–54). The ‘prophecy’ below, for example, is attributed to the Sibyll Cimmeria and details elements of the reception of Christ’s birth. It specifically mentions the Adoration of the Magi, who came to Bethlehem and lay before Christ gifts of frankincense, gold and myrrh, the theme of gift-giving an appropriate one for a book itself intended as a gift by its maker. 

An opening from the Divine Prophecies of the Ten Sibylls, showing the prophecy for Cimmeria in English and Charactery.

The prophecy of the Sibyll ‘Cimmeria’ in English and Charactery: Add MS 10037, ff. 4v-5r

The final poem in the volume is an address from Jane directed to Elizabeth herself. It similarly features the two versions of the verse text in English and Charactery side-by-side, but here Jane expresses her admiration for the Queen and wishes that she could divine for her a happy future:

    Lo thus in breife (most sacred Maiestye)
    I haue sett downe whence all theis Sibells weare:
    what they foretold, or saw, wee see, and heare,
    and profett reape by all their prophesy.
    Would God I weare a Sibell to divine
    in worthy vearse your lasting happynes:
    then only I should be Characteres
    of that, which worlds with wounder might desyne
    but what need I to wish, when you are such,
    of whose perfections none can write to much.

(Edited in Jessica L. Malay, 'Jane Seagar's Sibylline Poems: Maidenly Negotiations through Elizabethan Gift Exchange', English Literary Renaissance, 36 (2006), 173-93)

The final poem in the manuscript, written in English and a facing transliteration in Charactery.

The final poem in the manuscript, dedicated to Queen Elizabeth by Jane and dated 1589: Add MS 10037, ff. 11v–12r

We know little of what happened to Jane Segar after 1589 or whether her embroidered book ever reached Elizabeth. But it remains a remarkable testament to the skill of a female artist and scribe on the fringes of the Elizabethan court, and a gift that we would all be lucky to receive. We hope you enjoy reading through its pages online.

 

Calum Cockburn

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21 December 2022

Chi-rho pages for Christmas

It’s not something you’ll find on your average Christmas card, but the Chi-rho is a Christmas symbol that appears in some of the oldest surviving gospel-books. One of the most spectacular examples is the Chi-rho page in the Lindisfarne Gospels, which is now on display in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery. But this is far from the only Chi-rho page in the Library’s collection. With Christmas just around the corner, we think it’s the perfect time to celebrate some of our festive Chi-rhos and their rich meanings.

Chi-rho page in the Lindisfarne Gospels, with large decorated letters 'XPI'
Chi-rho page in the Lindisfarne Gospels, Northumbria, c. 700: Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 29r

What is a Chi-Rho page?

Chi-rho pages are a feature of Insular gospel-books. These are copies of the biblical accounts of the life of Christ in Latin, produced within the monastic culture that developed in Ireland, Britain and closely connected centres in the 7th-8th centuries (known as Insular in reference to ‘the Isles’).

The Chi-rho is the abbreviated name of Christ in Greek, spelled chi-rho-iota and written with the capital letters ‘X-P-I’. In Insular gospel-books there is a large decorated Chi-rho at the beginning of the account of the Incarnation at Matthew 1:18, ‘Christi autem generatio sic erat’ (Now the birth of Jesus Christ was in this way). In the most magnificent examples like the Lindisfarne Gospels, made in Northumbria in the early 8th century, the letters fill almost the entire page with brilliant pattern.

Detail of the Chi-rho page in the Lindisfarne Gospels, showing the intricately decorated letter 'X'
Detail of the Chi-rho page in the Lindisfarne Gospels, Northumbria, c. 700: Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 29r

History of the Chi-rho page

The practice of abbreviating divine names, or nomina sacra, goes back to at least the 2nd century, when letters representing the name of Christ were employed as Christian symbols. Nomina sacra were commonly abbreviated in early Greek bibles as a way of showing reverence and making them stand out visually. For example, in the 6th-century Greek gospel-book the Codex Purpureus Petropolitanus (Cotton MS Titus C XV), the main text is written in silver ink while the nomina sacra are abbreviated and written in gold. Insular Chi-rho pages took this much older practice and expanded it to make the sacred name a major focus of decoration.

Detail of a Greek gospel-book written in silver and gold ink on purple parchment
Abbreviated nomina sacra written in gold ink, including ‘XC’ (Christ), ‘YC’ (Son), ‘ΘΥ’ (God) and ‘IC’ (Jesus), from a Greek gospel-book, the Codex Purpureus Petropolitanus, 2nd half of the 6th century: Cotton MS Titus C XV, f. 2v (detail)

The earliest surviving Chi-rho pages date from around 700, and they appear in gospel-books from Ireland, England and areas where Insular scribes were working or had strong influence. By contrast, most gospel-books produced in continental Europe followed the late antique practice of placing no or very little emphasis on the text of Matthew 1:18.

An interesting example of a continental gospel-book which has a Chi-rho page is the Schuttern Gospels (Add MS 47673), made at the Benedictine abbey of Schuttern in southwest Germany in the early 9th century. Schuttern was one of many monasteries in the Upper Rhine and Lake Constance area founded by Irish monks in the 7th century. Liutharius, the deacon who wrote the Schuttern Gospels, was probably a local judging by his name, and he wrote in a Carolingian minuscule script. Nevertheless, the decoration of the manuscript is strongly Insular, suggesting that the monastery’s early history still held major influence in its scriptorium.

Chi-rho page in the Schuttern Gospels, with the letter 'X' decorated with interlace
Chi-rho page in the Schuttern Gospels, Schuttern in southwest Germany, early 9th century: Add MS 47673, f. 19v

Although Chi-rho pages stopped appearing in English gospel-books after about the 8th century, they continued in other areas until much later. One of the latest surviving Chi-rho pages is in the Gospels of Máel Brigte (Harley MS 1802), made in Armagh, Northern Ireland, in 1138. You can read more about this fascinating manuscript, written by the 28-year-old scribe Máel Brigte and illuminated in an Irish-Scandinavian style, in our previous blogpost.

Chi-rho page in the Gospels of Máel Brigte, with the 'X' decorated with brightly coloured animal interlace
Chi-rho page in the Gospels of Máel Brigte, Armagh, 1138: Harley MS 1802, f. 10r

Symbolism of the Chi-rho page

Coming at the beginning of the narrative about Christ’s birth in the Gospel of Matthew, the Chi-rho is generally seen as a symbol of Christ’s Incarnation, or human conception and birth. In the Gospel of John the Incarnation of Christ is mystically described as the moment when ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14). By emphasising the word ‘Christ’ at the beginning of the Nativity account, the Chi-rho can be seen to literally illustrate the idea of the Word becoming flesh, especially since Insular gospel-books were written on parchment made from animal skin.

Yet the Chi-rho is also particularly evocative because the letter chi is in the shape of a cross, so it could signify both Christ’s name as well as his Crucifixion and its redemptive power. For Christians, the human birth of Christ is significant because it meant that he could die a human death and so save humanity from sin. Through its shape the letter chi poignantly connects these two important events.

Chi-rho page in the Bodmin Gospels, with a modestly decorated letter 'X'
Chi-rho page in the Bodmin Gospels, Brittany, late 9th century: Add MS 9381, f. 14v

The idea that the Chi-rho symbolises the living Word and the life-giving Cross perhaps explains why Insular Chi-rhos are often teeming with life. For example, in this gospel-book, made in Brittany in the early 10th-century and digitised by the Polonsky Foundation England and France Project (Royal MS 1 A XVIII), animal heads with foliage sprouting from their mouths emerge from the end of each stroke of the letter chi. This gives the impression that the letter is bursting with life and abundance.

Chi-rho page with animal heads emerging from the ends of the strokes on the 'X'
Chi-rho page in a gospel-book from Brittany, early 10th century: Royal MS 1 A XVIII, f. 13r

A cryptic symbol

Greek was not widely known in western Europe in the early Middle Ages. Both the use of Greek letters and abbreviation made the Chi-rho difficult to understand. This cryptic quality was probably part of its appeal, suggesting the mysterious nature of God. The Chi-rho was not simply a word but a symbol of something inexpressible.

Nevertheless, the Chi-rho proved too enigmatic for some scribes and readers, as shown by the garbled Chi-rho in a gospel-book made in Northumbria in the first half of the 8th century (Royal MS 1 B VII). Here it seems that the scribe mistook the Greek letter rho for a Latin letter ‘P’, and transliterated it to the Greek letter pi (Π). They also wrote the letter ‘H’ instead of ‘A’ at the beginning of the Latin word autem, perhaps misunderstanding the Irish convention of spelling the word with an added ‘h’ at the beginning, as hautem. The result is that instead of ‘XPI AU/tem’, the scribe has written ‘XΠI HU/tem’ – a string of letters that make no sense.

Chi-rho page in the Royal Athelstan Gospels
Chi-rho page in the Royal Athelstan Gospels, Northumbria, first half of the 8th century: Royal MS 1 B VII, f. 15v
The garbled Chi-rho in the Royal Athelstan Gospels
The garbled Chi-rho in the Royal Athelstan Gospels, Northumbria, first half of the 8th century: Royal MS 1 B VII, f. 15v (detail)

Discover more

The Chi-rho page also stars on the front cover of the newly published book about the Lindisfarne Gospels: Eleanor Jackson, The Lindisfarne Gospels: Art, History and Inspiration (London: British Library, 2022). Written by the British Library’s Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts, the book is an accessible introduction to the production, decoration and history of the manuscript. It is fully illustrated in colour and is available from the British Library Shop.

Lindisfarne Gospels book display
Display of the newly published book on the Lindisfarne Gospels in the Laing Art Gallery shop

Looking at these majestic Chi-rho pages, we can get a sense of some of the awe, mystery and joy with which monastic scribes and readers regarded the birth of Christ many centuries ago. From everyone in the Medieval Manuscripts team, we wish you a very Happy Christmas!

Eleanor Jackson

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15 December 2022

The Lindisfarne Gospels back at the British Library

The Lindisfarne Gospels is back on display in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery at the British Library, following its loan to the Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle from 17 September to 3 December 2022. The exhibition in Newcastle, which was the culmination of a year-long programme of cultural events across the North East, attracted over 56,000 visitors. You can read more about the exhibition in our previous blogpost.

The Chi-rho page in the Lindisfarne Gospels, featuring the large decorated letters 'XPI'
Chi-rho page in the Lindisfarne Gospels: Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 29r

The Lindisfarne Gospels is now on exhibition at the British Library showing the Chi-rho page, a particularly appropriate display for Christmastime. The Chi-rho is the abbreviated Greek name of Christ, spelled Chi-rho-iota, or ‘XPI’. In some early Latin gospel-books, including the Lindisfarne Gospels, there is a large decorated Chi-rho at the beginning of the account of the Incarnation at Matthew 1:18, Christi autem generatio sic erat (‘Now the birth of Jesus Christ was in this way’).

In the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Chi-rho fills up almost the entire page. The insides of the letters are dense with knotted birds and interlace, while the outsides spin with an almost cosmic display of swirls. The letter chi looks as though it is leaping across the page on lithe legs, leaving trails of spirals in its wake – a jump for joy in honour of Christ’s birth.

Detail of the Chi-rho page showing the letter 'X' filled with intricate animal interlace pattern
Detail of the Chi-rho page in the Lindisfarne Gospels: Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 29r

The Chi-rho page also stars on the front cover of the newly published book about the Lindisfarne Gospels: Eleanor Jackson, The Lindisfarne Gospels: Art, History and Inspiration (London: British Library, 2022). Written by the British Library’s Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts, the book is an accessible introduction to the production, decoration and history of the manuscript. It is fully illustrated in colour and is available from the British Library Shop.

Display of books featuring the Chi-rho page on the cover
Display of the newly published book on the Lindisfarne Gospels in the Laing Art Gallery shop

You can also view the Lindisfarne Gospels online on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website, and keep an eye on the blog for more Christmassy Chi-rho content coming soon!

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07 December 2022

From Julian of Norwich to Eleanor Cobham: more magnificent manuscripts online

Readers of this Blog may know about out ambitious project to digitise a selection of manuscripts, rolls and charters connected with Medieval and Renaissance Women. Here we reveal another ten volumes that are now available online, including important literary manuscripts, a guide for female recluses, obituary calendars, and a volume with its own embroidered bookbinding.

The opening page of the obituary calendar of the abbey of St Quirinus

The obituary calendar of the abbey of St Quirinus: Add MS 15456, f. 2r

This selection notably includes two complete copies of the Long Text of The Revelations of Divine Love by the English mystic Julian of Norwich (d. after 1416). Julian's work is an account of her reflections on a sequence of visions of the Crucified Christ, experienced while lying on her sickbed with a near-fatal illness in 1373. It survives in both a short and long version and represents one of the earliest known works in English by a named woman. Very few copies of Julian’s work now remain, and the only complete copies of the Long Text date from after the end of the medieval period. This includes both of our manuscripts (Sloane MS 2499 and Sloane MS 3705), which were made by English recusant nuns living in France in the 17th and 18th centuries.

A page of the manuscript of the Revelations of Divine Love

The Revelations of Divine Love (Long Text) by Julian of Norwich: Sloane MS 3705, f. 2v

Julian of Norwich was an anchoress, one of a number of medieval women who for religious reasons withdrew from secular society. Another manuscript included in the project is a work known as the Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous monastic rule (or manual) written for anchoresses. This work was originally composed in Middle English in the early 13th century, apparently for three sisters who chose to enter the contemplative life, but the text was also copied and translated into many languages, including Anglo-Norman French. One of the earliest translations survives as Cotton MS Vitellius F VII, where it appears as part of a compendium of devotional works and prayers. An inscription at the back of the volume indicates that it was once owned by Eleanor Cobham (b. c. 1400, d. 1452), Duchess of Gloucester, who was infamously sentenced to life imprisonment after she was charged with necromancy.

The fire-damaged manuscript of Ancrene Wisse

The opening of the Anglo-Norman version of Ancrene Wisse, damaged in the Ashburnham House fire of 1731: Cotton MS Vitellius F VII, f. 2r

Another significant manuscript now online is the Felbrigge Psalter (Sloane MS 2400). This 13th-century Psalter is named after one of its later owners, Anne Felbrigge, a nun from the Franciscan abbey of the Annunciation of St Mary, Bruisyard (Suffolk), who signed her name in the book and added the obits (death-days) of her mother and father in the Psalter’s calendar. Anne may also have been responsible for the manuscript’s beautiful embroidered binding (dated c. 1300–1330), handstitched in coloured silks and silver gilt thread, with panels depicting scenes of the Annunciation and Crucifixion on the upper and lower covers. This binding is one of the earliest embroidered examples known to survive.

The upper cover of the Felbrigge Psalter

The upper cover of the ‘Felbrigge Psalter’, featuring an embroidered panel depicting the Annunciation: Sloane MS 2400

Many of the manuscripts in the project were made by female scribes. One is a copy of the Vitae Patrum et Verbis Seniorum (Lives and Sayings of the Fathers), an encyclopaedic work comprised of writings on the Desert Fathers and Desert Mothers of early Christianity. This manuscript (Add MS 22562) was written in 1449 by two scribes, Ava Trici and Gheeza Ysenoud, nuns of the convent of St Margaret at Gouda, who identify themselves in a closing note at the end of the text. In a delightful detail, the two sisters explain that they were given the parchment for the volume by a certain Nicolaus de Wyt, prior of the nearby Augustinian convent of St Michael in Schoonhaven.

The opening page of a manuscript written by two nuns at Gouda

The opening of the Vitae Patrum et Verbis Seniorum, written by Ava Trici and Gheeza Ysenoud: Add MS 22562, f. 2r

This volume was one of at least 70 housed at St Margaret’s by the end of the medieval period. Another manuscript digitised in our project is the convent’s chapter book (Harley MS 2939). The manuscript opens with a necrology, or obituary calendar, inscribed with the names of many of the community’s members, and to be consulted at the convent's daily chapter meetings.

The obituary calendar of the abbey of Gouda

A page from the obituary calendar of the chapter book of St Margaret’s, Gouda: Harley MS 2939, f. 5r

At the beginning of the project, we invited our readers to suggest manuscripts they were keen to be digitised. Among the requests were for us to include items relating to the economic management of female religious houses. Two such items are a census and a list of rents and payments (Add MS 21072 and Add MS 21177) owed to St Mary Magdalene’s Abbey in Cologne, a house of sisters of the Penitential Order of Mary Magdalene. This Order was established as a refuge for former sex-workers, an act that caused outrage at the time.

A page from the Cologne census

A page from the census of St Mary Magdalene’s Abbey in Cologne: Add MS 21072, f. 8r

Here is a list of the most recent items to have gone online:

Add MS 15456

Obituary calendar of the Abbey of St Quirinus, Neuss

Neuss (Germany), 1421–17th century

Add MS 21072

Census of St Mary Magdalene’s Abbey, Cologne

Cologne (Germany), 2nd half of the 14th century–1st half of the 15th century

Add MS 21177

Revenues and expenses of St Mary Magdalene’s Abbey, Cologne

Cologne (Germany), late 13th century

Add MS 22562

Vitae Patrum et Verbis Seniorum, written by Ava Trici and Gheeza Ysenoud

Gouda (Netherlands), 1449

Cotton MS Vitellius F VII

Ancrene Riwle and other texts

England, 1st quarter of the 14th century

Harley MS 2939

Chapter book of the convent of St Margaret in Gouda

Gouda (Netherlands), 3rd quarter of the 15th century

Royal MS 19 C VII

Geoffroy de la Tour-Landry, Le Livre du Chevalier de la Tour-Landry

Northern France, middle of the 15th century

Sloane MS 2400

'The Felbrigge Psalter'

Northern France, 2nd quarter of the 13th century–3rd quarter of the 13th century

Sloane MS 2499

Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love (Long Text)

Cambrai or Paris (France), c. 1650

Sloane MS 3705

Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love (Long Text)

Cambrai or Paris (France), 1st half of the 18th century

The opening page of Le Livre du Chevalier de la Tour Landry

The decorated opening of Le Livre du Chevalier de la Tour Landry: Royal MS 19 C VII, f. 1r

Stay tuned for more updates from our project as we continue to digitise more manuscripts. We are very grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for supporting Medieval and Renaissance Women.

 

Calum Cockburn

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