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09 December 2018

Women and books in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

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Whenever I talk to members of the public who have visited the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, one of the most common reactions is, ‘I didn’t expect there to be so much about women!’ As Claire Breay recently discussed on Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4, more evidence survives about early medieval women than many people realise. Our exhibition includes a prayerbook connected to the wife of Alfred the Great; chronicle accounts of the victories of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians; the oldest substantial woman’s will that survives from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms; the first surviving political tract written for (and about) a woman in England; and one of the fabulously jewelled gospel-books of Judith of Flanders.   

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The jewelled cover of one of Judith’s gospel-books, made in Northern Europe in the 2nd half of the 11th century: New York, Morgan Library, MS M 708, upper cover

The majority of the population in Anglo-Saxon England — including the majority of women — probably couldn’t read or write. That said, women made up a sizeable proportion of the part of the population that was literate. In Anglo-Saxon times, literacy was highest among monks, nuns, priests and other clergy, who had committed to a religious life. Religious women, such as abbesses, were at the forefront of several literary developments. Additionally, we have evidence that some lay noblewomen owned books.

Literacy among nuns and women religious

Female religious in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were probably able to read. Regardless of which rule of life they followed, reading scriptures and saints’ Lives was essential at most monasteries. There is also direct evidence of book ownership among female religious. For example, four out of the six  surviving early English prayerbooks use female forms and may have been written by or for women. Of the two originally made for men, one (Ælfwine’s prayerbook) was subsequently used and modified at the Nunnaminster, Winchester. 

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Aldhelm addresses Abbess Hildelith and others, from a copy of his De Virginitate made in southern England c. 1000: Royal MS 6 A VI, f. 13r

In the early part of the period, religious houses led by women, including Whitby, Hartlepool, Ely and Barking were major intellectual centres. Hilda, abbess of Whitby, was the patron of the first English poet whose name we know, Caedmon. Meanwhile, Aldhelm’s De Virginitate, one of the most advanced works ever produced in Anglo-Latin, was dedicated to a group of women: Hildelith, abbess of Barking, Justina, Cuthburh, Osburh, Aldegethe, Scholastica, Eadburh, Byrngithe, Eulalia and Thecla.

Literacy among lay noblewomen

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms also includes evidence of noblewomen owning or commissioning books. The Book of Nunnaminster may have been owned by Ealhswith, wife of Alfred the Great, before it was given to the Nunnaminster. According to Asser, Alfred’s mother owned a finely illuminated book of English poetry, while Queens Emma and Edith both commissioned texts in the 11th century.

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Opening of ‘In Praise of Queen Emma’, depicting the author presenting his work to Emma while her sons Edward the Confessor and Harthacnut look on: Add MS 33241, f. 1v

It wasn’t just queens who had access to books and writing. The exhibition also displays Wynflaed’s will, the earliest substantial will of an Englishwoman. One third of all surviving Anglo-Saxon wills are in the name of women. This will shows Wynflaed using writing to conduct her affairs and it also reveals that she owned books. Wynflaed herself was a widow associated with a religious house, but she gave her books to her (apparently) lay daughter rather than to the nuns.

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Will of Wynflæd, copied out in England in the late 10th or early 11th century: Cotton Ch VIII 38

Perhaps the most spectacular example of female book-ownership is one of the Judith Gospels, generously on loan from the Morgan Library in New York, with its fabulous silver-gilt cover with jewels. Four of these de luxe books owned by Judith of Flanders survive. Judith’s Gospels are incredibly unusual for having survived with their jewelled covers intact. However, Judith was not unusual in 11th-century Britain in being a noblewoman with an interest in books. Books also survive that belonged to Margaret of Scotland and Edward the Confessor’s sister, Godgifu.

Female scribes and artists

Just as there were women readers, there were also female scribes. We know the name of at least one female scribe from the Anglo-Saxon period: Eadburh, abbess of Minster-in-Thanet. Around 735, St Boniface wrote to her, noting that she had sent him books and asking her to copy the epistles of Paul in golden letters for him. Another correspondent, Lull, sent her a silver stylus ('graphium argenteum').  

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End of excerpts from Matthew’s Gospel and beginning of excerpts from John’s Gospel, from the Book of Nunnaminster: Harley MS 2965, f. 16v

At least one manuscript in the exhibition has traditionally been attributed to female scribes: the Book of Nunnaminster, a 9th-century Mercian prayerbook possibly owned by Ealhswith. Some of its text uses certain female forms. Later, someone added a record of the lands which Ealhswith, wife of Alfred the Great, gave to the Nunnaminster, as well as a prayer that uses female forms.

You can learn more in our article Women in Anglo-Saxon England. All these manuscripts can be seen in our once-in-a-generation exhibition Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, which is on at the British Library until 19 February 2019.

Alison Hudson

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07 December 2018

From the Tower the day before my death

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On 21 January 1552, Edward Seymour, 1st duke of Somerset, took some time from his prison cell in the Tower of London to compose his thoughts in a small almanac (British Library, Stowe MS 1066). Bound in crimson velvet, the book contained a calendar and tables for finding movable feasts (religious feast days which do not occur on the same date each year), the duration of moonshine and sunshine, and the ebb and flow of the tides.

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The Duke of Somerset's almanac: Stowe MS 1066, ff. 3v–4r

The almanac was a useful thing to have to hand but, on this occasion, it was its small size (measuring just 3.75 by 3 inches) that made it particularly valuable. It could be easily concealed.

In it, Somerset wrote the following words on the fly-leaf:

               Fere of the lord is the b[e]genning of wisdume

               Put thi trust in the lord w[i]t[h] all thine hart

               Be not wise in thyne owne conseyte but fere the lord and fle frome euele [evil]

                              frome the toware

                              the day before my deth

                                             1551 [1552]

               E: Somerset

 

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Somerset's inscription on the first page of the almanac.

At the end of the book, on the inside cover, is written in a minute italic hand, ‘Katerine Hartford Caterine Seamoar’.

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The note found at the end of the book

Somerset was the eldest brother of Jane Seymour, the third wife of King Henry VIII (1509–1547) and mother of Edward VI (1547–1553). Edward was only nine when he succeeded his father as king in January 1547, and authority passed to a privy council headed by his uncle Somerset as lord protector of England and Ireland and governor of his person. But Somerset fell from power in the aftermath of the 1549 rebellions: some of his colleagues blamed him for entering into open communication with the rebel leaders about political and social reform in the upcoming parliament. He was released from the Tower in February 1550 and restored to the privy council in the spring but not to his former offices as lord protector and governor.

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A portrait of Edward Seymour, 1st duke of Somerset, by an unknown artist, from the collection of the Marquess of Bath, Longleat House, Wiltshire

Somerset was rearrested at court on 16 October 1551, after attending a meeting of the privy council and dining with his nephew. Two days previously, he had ‘sent for the secretary [Sir William] Cicel to tell him he suspected some ill’, but made no effort to escape (Cotton MS Nero C X, f. 44v). A number of his servants and clients were taken at the same time, who were all charged with him of conspiring ‘against the state of the realme and gouuernaunce of the King[e]s Ma[ies]te … and to the destruction of diuerse of the nobilite’ (The National Archives, SP 10/13/57, M. f. 113r). He was tried at Westminster Hall on 1 December on trumped up charges of treason and felony, accused of gathering his supporters together to ‘compass and imagine’ seizing the king ‘at [his] will … to rule and treat’, plotting to make himself lord protector again, and inciting the citizens of London into rebellion ‘with cries and exclamations, … shout[ing] … “liberty, liberty”’ (TNA, KB 8/19, mm. 24, 27).

Surprisingly, Somerset was acquitted of treason but found guilty of felony (for unlawful assembly), and condemned to death. The real reason for his fall was his estrangement from the man who replaced him as head of Edward VI’s government, John Dudley, duke of Northumberland, and fear over his popularity with the common people. Where once they were allies and close friends, Northumberland had played a key role in deposing Somerset in October 1549, and they had argued bitterly and openly at privy council meetings over religious and state policy ever since the latter’s restoration in spring 1550. Northumberland, a careful and a ruthless man, had decided that it was time to destroy the former lord protector.

On 18 January 1552, the government took the decision to execute Somerset (featured in a previous blogpost) the day before parliament was recalled. On being informed of his fate, the duke composed his mind in the small almanac he had concealed on his person during his arrest. He turned for comfort and instruction, ‘the day before my deth’, to three verses from Miles Coverdale’s 1535 translation of the Bible (Proverbs 9:10; Proverbs 3:5; Proverbs 3:7). These verses warned against the danger of pride and commanded obedience to and faith in God. In writing them, Somerset demonstrated his piety in the face of death.

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An engraving showing the execution of Edward Seymour

Despite a government curfew, a huge crowd gathered on Tower Hill the next morning, 22 January, to witness his execution. He addressed them ‘w[i]t[h] … alacrity, & cherefulnesse of minde & countenance’, saying he had always served the crown loyally but ‘am by a law condemned to die’, while rejoicing in the part he had played in the reformation of religion (John Foxe, Actes and Monuments (London, 1563), sigs. 3K2v–3K3v). Lastly, he implored them to obey the king and privy council and asked forgiveness from any person he had ever wronged, offering forgiveness in turn, before laying his neck on the block and praying three times. His head was struck off midway through uttering ‘Iesus’.

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The almanac is incredibly small, and can easily be held in the palm of the hand

This almanac, Stowe MS 1066, somehow found its way after Somerset’s death to his son, Edward Seymour, first earl of Hertford. He too ended up in the Tower, for his clandestine marriage late in 1560 to Elizabeth I’s cousin and heir presumptive, Lady Katherine Grey. At some point Katherine, who was Lady Jane Grey’s younger sister, inscribed the back inside cover of the almanac, ‘Katerine Hartford Caterine Seamoar’. She gave birth to two sons in the Tower, one of them conceived during illicit conjugal visits. Queen Elizabeth was furious and kept her prisoner for the rest of her life. Katherine died, perhaps as a result of anorexia, in January 1568.

 

Alan Bryson

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04 December 2018

Spong Man and friends

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In early Anglo-Saxon times, East Anglia was an important kingdom, occupying most of what is now Norfolk and Suffolk. Over the years, archaeologists and antiquarians have unearthed objects which illuminate the lives of those who lived in or passed through East Anglia between the 5th and 9th centuries.

A stunning selection of objects from Anglo-Saxon East Anglia have been kindly loaned to the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition by Norfolk Museums Service. These objects provide an invaluable insight into early burial practices, cultural habits and social structures among the East Angles.

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Spong Man: Norwich Castle Museum 1994.192.1

One such item currently on display in London is Spong Man, which was once the lid to a 5th-century cremation urn. This lid was excavated at Spong Hill, North Elmham, which is the largest known Anglo-Saxon cremation cemetery. Spong Man is one of very few three-dimensional anthropomorphic representations from the entire Anglo-Saxon period.

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Lead sheet with runic inscription: Norwich Castle Museum 2004.37

Another object on loan from Norwich Castle Museum is this lead sheet with a runic inscription. It is one of several similar Anglo-Saxon lead sheets inscribed with runes. This particular sheet was discovered in Norfolk in 2004, and attempts to decipher the inscription suggest that it may have once been a memorial plate or fixed to a coffin.

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Knife handle with an ogham inscription: Norwich Castle Museum 1950.24

Also featuring in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms is this knife handle made from a red deer antler, which also has an inscription in ogham script. Ogham script uses straight or angled lines and was developed to write inscriptions in the early Irish language. Although this handle was discovered at Weeting in East Norfolk, it was most likely made far away in what is now Ireland or Scotland. It demonstrates that East Anglia had far-reaching connections with other parts of the British Isles.

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Stylus: Norwich Castle Museum L2003.4

Bronze styli such as this were common in Anglo-Saxon England. The wider side was used to smooth  the wax flat, ready for use, while the pointed side was used to inscribe text on wax-filled tablets made of wood or bone.

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The Binham Hoard: Norwich Castle Museum 

Norfolk Museums Service has also kindly loaned us some sensational gold and silver items. They include a selection from the Binham Hoard, a collection of 6th-century bracelets, brooches and bracteates (neck pendants that copy the designs of Roman coins and incorporate mythological imagery). The design of these bracteates derived from the practice of wearing pierced Roman coins as jewellery.

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The Harford Farm Brooch (front): Norwich Castle Museum 1994.5.78

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The Harford Farm Brooch (back): Norwich Castle Museum 1994.5.78

Another item of jewellery is the Harford Farm Brooch. This 7th-century gold and garnet brooch was found in a female grave at Harford Farm cemetery, near Norfolk, but it is typical of brooches made in Kent. A runic inscription on the back reads, ‘Luda repaired this brooch’. 

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Pendant from Winfarthing, Norfolk: Norwich Castle Museum 2017.519.6

This exquisitely decorated pendant was also found in the grave of a woman. She was buried in the first half of the 7th century in a cemetery near Winfarthing, south Norfolk.

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Enamelled mounts from Hockwold, Norfolk: Norwich Castle Museum 2010.292.1, 2010.292.2

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The opening of the Gospel of Mark, in the Book of Durrow: Trinity College Library, Dublin, MS 57, f. 86r © The Board of Trinity College, Dublin

In the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, it is often possible to compare manuscripts and metalwork side by side. The design of a pair of enamelled mounts from East Anglia bears similarities to the intricate insular designs found in the Book of Durrow (on loan from Trinity College, Dublin). This suggests that certain designs, and in some cases the artists who made them, could travel large distances during the early Middle Ages. The rivets on the edges of the mounts suggest that they were once affixed to a larger item, perhaps a hanging bowl.

All of these fascinating objects from Norfolk Museums Service can be viewed until 19 February 2019 in the Library's magnificent Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.

 

Becky Lawton

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01 December 2018

A calendar page for December 2018

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It’s December! Hard to believe that 2018 is almost over. But before the year comes to an end, we’ve got a few things to thresh out, literally …

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Calendar page for December, made in southern England in the first half of the 11th century: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 8v

This is the page for December in a 1000-year-old calendar made in southern England. You can currently see the calendar on display in the British Library’s once-in-a-generation Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.

The page for December is accompanied by an image of men threshing and winnowing grain. Grain was harvested in ears. To separate the kernels out from the husks, the ears of grain were beaten with flails, as seen on the left of the image.

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Detail of threshers: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 8v

There was then a second process, winnowing, to ensure the edible parts of grain were separated out. Traditionally, winnowers toss the kernels in a basket or winnowing-fan. The heavy, edible kernels fall back down, while the undesirable chaff blows away.

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Detail of man with a marked stick: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 8v

In the middle of the image, there is a man with stick which is not a flail. It has a serrated edge near the top, and horizontal lines all the way down. Another depiction of it can be found in a related calendar (Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, shown below). This might be another farm implement, but Debby Banham and Ros Faith have suggested that this man might be an overseer with a tally stick, counting how much grain had been prepared.

This gives a precious insight into the organisation of farming and landscape in 11th-century England. Very few notes on day-to-day farm work survive: the only exception seems to be the Ely Farming Memoranda (also on display in our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition). The organisation and records of English farming were part of the reason England became such a wealthy kingdom, and this organisation underpinned the impressive administrative achievement of Domesday Book. (At the risk of sounding like broken record, you can even see Domesday Book in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.)

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Detail of man with a marked stick: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 8v

In the Julius Work Calendar, two men carry off an enormous basket, presumably filled with useable grain. In the Tiberius Work Calendar, the two men with a basket seem to be approaching the threshers, perhaps bringing the ears of grain to be threshed.

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Detail of men winnowing and threshing: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 8v

As with earlier tasks featured in this calendar, threshing might not have been the most seasonal activity for December. However, it might have been linked to December because threshing was a major Biblical metaphor. Since threshing is the process that separates useful, edible grain from inedible husks, it was used in both the Old and New Testaments as a metaphor for judgement, for separating the good from the bad. This metaphor might have been particularly appropriate for Advent, which starts in December. Advent is the period before Christmas in the Christian liturgical year. Today it is associated with chocolate calendars, but in Anglo-Saxon England it was a time of fasting and penance, like Lent, as people prepared themselves for the holy feasts.

There are a number of feasts highlighted with a gold cross in this calendar, all grouped towards the end of the month. The first of these falls on 21 December, the feast of St Thomas the Apostle which was also, the calendar notes, the Winter Solstice. Thomas was a popular saint in Anglo-Saxon England, and several Old English accounts were made of his life. Even the writer Ælfric was obliged to write an account of St Thomas’s life: he initially refused because other versions existed and because he and St Augustine had some doubts about some of the miracles attributed to Thomas. Their objection was not to the idea a miracle would happen, but because these stories portrayed Thomas as vengeful, taking delivery of a severed hand after its owner had slapped him.

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Christmas and the following feast days marked out with a gold crosses: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 8v

The next major holiday marked in the calendar is one we still celebrate today: Christmas. Learn more about how Christmas was celebrated in 11th-century English monasteries here. Then as now, Christmas kicked off a whole series of festivities: the next three days in the calendar are also marked out in gold. On 26 December is the feast of St Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Rather luridly, the verse in the calendar describes him ‘swimming in blood’. This is followed by the feast of St John the Evangelist and then the feast of the Holy Innocents, the massacre of children in Bethlehem.

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Detail of Sagittarius: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 8v

At the top of the page, there is information about astrological changes in December, including a roundel depicting the constellation Sagittarius. Sagittarius is here depicted as a centaur, with his cape billowing out elegantly behind him.

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Detail of Sagittarius, from a copy of Cicero's Aratea in a collection of astronomical texts made in Fleury in the 990s, with drawings added a few years later by an English artist: Harley MS 2506, f. 39v

Whatever is on your own calendar for December, we hope you have a great month. And if you are looking for something to do over the winter holidays, the British Library has an interesting exhibition on at the moment …

Alison Hudson

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28 November 2018

A spoonful of sugar

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Today, the mention of sugar evokes reports about the harmful health effects of increased sugar consumption, and counter-actions such as the recently introduced UK ‘sugar tax’. But sugar is also a universally used inactive ingredient in many medications. As Mary Poppins was aware, it helps less pleasant ingredients go down. When sugar was first introduced to Europe, and for several centuries afterwards, it was regarded as an active — and curative — medical ingredient in its own right.

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Illustration of a sugarcane plant in a collection of medical texts, Italy (Salerno), c. 1280–1350: Egerton MS 747, f. 106r

One of the earliest mentions of sugar in England is found in a manuscript containing a collection of medical recipes, written in the mid-to-late 11th century (Sloane MS 1621). Although made in what is now the Low Countries or northern France, this manuscript was brought soon afterwards to the abbey of Bury St Edmunds in England. Perhaps it came with Baldwin (d. c. 1097), originally from Chartres in France and physician to King Edward the Confessor (1042–1066), who was made abbot of Bury St Edmunds in 1065.

At Bury, numerous scribes added medical recipes to the book throughout the later decades of the century, suggesting it was valued and frequently consulted. Sugar is found in the ingredients lists of two of these added recipes, showing that Bury St Edmunds had access to the most current medical literature available in Latin. The close study of this manuscript, which led to the discovery of the recipes mentioning sugar, has been facilitated by its digitisation for The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project.

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Starting on line 6, the Rosatum tertiani febris ('A conserve of roses for tertian fever') lists zuccari and siruppo albo (white syrup) as its ingredients, England (Bury St Edmunds), c. 1075–1100: Sloane MS 1621, f. 63r

Sugar is one of several exotic ingredients from the Far East that were largely unknown to the authors of the Greco-Roman sources that formed the core of medieval medical texts. These ingredients were not brought to Europe until the rise of the Arab-Muslim empire from the 7th to the 12th centuries. The Persian Sasanid Empire was among the first territories to be conquered, along with knowledge of cultivating sugarcane. This is demonstrated by the history of the word sugar itself, which reached English via the Medieval Latin zuccarum/saccarum derived from Arabic sukkar, which in turn stems from Persian šakar.

Sugar seems to have been among the later Arabic medical ingredients to reach Europe, as it is hardly ever mentioned in pre-11th century sources. Other Far Eastern ingredients brought to Europe by Arab merchants were definitely known sooner. Some were so well-known to the writers of Anglo-Saxon medical texts that they were adapted into Old English. For instance, two recipes in the work known as Lacnunga (Healings) list sideware (zedoary, from Persian zadwār) and gallengar (galangal, from Arabic ḵalanjān). The Latin versions of the words are zedoaria and galinga/galangal respectively. For more on exotic ingredients in Anglo-Saxon medicine, have a look at the illustrated Old English Herbal.

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Lacnunga, remedy 30, To wensealfe (To [make] a wen-salve) with sideware and gallengar four lines down on the right, England, c. 975–1025: Harley MS 585, ff. 138r–v

What is so significant about the addition of recipes mentioning sugar in Sloane MS 1621, at a monastery in England, is the specific time at which it occurred. The closing decades of the 11th century witnessed exciting new developments in the history of medicine in Europe. The earliest translations of Arabic medical texts into Latin were made in central and southern Italy in the last quarter of the 11th century. It was through Arabic textual sources, as opposed to trade, that knowledge of sugar seemingly reached Europe. A key figure in this process may have been Constantine the African (d. c. 1087). Originally from Carthage (in modern-day Tunisia), he had moved to Italy and entered the Benedictine abbey of Monte Cassino by 1077.

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Beginning on line 12, Antidotum ad stomachum calidum faciendum: Sloane MS 1621, f. 52r.

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Antidotum ad stomachum calidum faciendum, beginning on line 12 of the recto, and with the list of ingredients on the verso including ten drams each of zuccari and penidi (rock candy): Sloane MS 1621, ff. 52r–52v.

Unfortunately, Constantine did not reference his Arabic sources, so it is hard to know exactly to which works he had access. Yet descriptions of sugar by Arabic writers, such as Ibn Māsawayh (d. 875) and Al-Rāzī (d. 925 or 935), closely parallel the way sugar is used in the recipes of Sloane MS 1621. In Arabic texts, sugar is described as having warming effects and being beneficial for the stomach and intestines. The recipe on ff. 52r–v opens with Antidotum ad stomachum calidum faciendum ('A remedy to make the stomach warm'). It also claims to be efficient against a painful stomach and for ‘anyone who cannot digest’.

Whether Abbot Baldwin and the monks of Bury St Edmunds had stomach troubles or merely a sweet tooth, it is clear that they had acquired the latest medical texts available in Europe, only decades after they had first been translated. Indeed, they might have gained knowledge of sugar before the saccharine substance itself had made it to England.

Thanks to funding from The Polonsky Foundation, and in conjunction with our partners at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, you can now see the whole of Sloane MS 1621 on our new viewer, using International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) technology. This enables you to compare manuscripts side-by-side, to annotate images or to share them on social media, and to download them either as an individual image or as a PDF of an entire manuscript. You may also like to read Taylor McCall's article, Medical knowledge in the early medieval period, which discusses this and other manuscripts.

 

Emilia Henderson

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25 November 2018

Name that place

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If you are an Anglo-Saxonist, you may have heard of two significant places: Brunanburh and Clofesho. The former is remembered as the site of a momentous battle, and the latter was the meeting place for a series of influential Church councils. But both places are enigmatic. Their locations have never been identified with any certainty, and have puzzled scholars for hundreds of years.

Today we ask you to help us name that place: we welcome suggestions at the foot of this blogpost or via our @BLMedieval Twitter account. To assist you, here are some clues from manuscripts currently on display in our once-in-a-generation exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War.

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Did the battle of Brunanburh take place in Bromborough, near the site of this market cross?

 

Brunanburh

Brunanburh was the site of a significant battle in 937, fought between King Æthelstan of England and an alliance of kings from northern Britain: King Olaf of Dublin, King Constantine of Alba (now Scotland), and King Owain of Strathclyde, a British kingdom in the North-West.

One of the earliest sources for the battle is the Old English heroic poem The Battle of Brunanburh, as preserved in some manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The opening of the poem describes Æthelstan’s ‘long-lasting glory forged at the fighting with swords’ edges around Brunanburh’.

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The beginning of the battle of Brunanburh in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: Cotton MS Tiberius B I, f. 141r

Other medieval accounts of the battle provide alternative spellings of its name. The oldest manuscript of Annales Cambriae records the battle as Bellum brune; while Symeon of Durham, writing in the 12th century, said it was fought at ‘Wendun, which is called by another name et Brunnanwerc or Brunnanbyrig’.

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The entry for 937 in Annales Cambriae, in the middle column: Harley MS 3859, f. 193r

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Account of the battle in Symeon of Durham’s Libellus de exordio ecclesiae Dunelmensis: Cotton MS Faustina A V, f. 61v

Brun-, the recurring element in all these place-names, is perhaps a personal name, a river name or the Old English or Old Norse word for spring or stream. The suffixes –burh/-wec and -dun are the Old English words for fortification and a low hill.

More than 30 different places have been suggested for the battle of Brunanburh. Considering that some of the forces that engaged King Æthelstan came from Dublin, Scotland and Strathclyde, most suggestions have been located in northern England or southern Scotland. There are also plenty of references in the poem to warriors arriving or departing by ship. Here the poet paints a graphic image of the chief fleeing the battle:

There was put to flight

The Northmen’s chief, driven by need

To the ship’s prow with a little band.

(Michael Livingston, The Battle of Brunanburh: A Casebook, Exeter, 2001)

It would make sense for the site to have had easy access to the coast or a riverbank. Some places proposed as the site of this famous battle include:

  • Bromborough on the Wirral
  • Burnswick, southern Scotland
  • Lanchester, County Durham

If you were to choose the site for a climactic Anglo-Saxon battle, where would it be?

 

Clofesho

If you're unable to identify Brunanburh, perhaps you might turn your attentions to identifying Clofesho. In Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed in 731, he described an important synod organised by Archbishop Theodore in 670. One outcome of this meeting was the decision to hold a council once a year at a place known as Clofesho. These councils provided the opportunities for bishops from distant locations to gather and make important decisions about the Anglo-Saxon Church.

Cotton_ms_tiberius_c_ii_f100r

Cotton_ms_tiberius_c_ii_f100r

Bede’s account of the origin of the tradition of holding a synod at Clofesho. ‘Clofaeshooh’ is mentioned in lines 2–3 in the left-hand column: Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 100r

Over the next 150 years, Clofesho became a meeting place of great symbolic importance in the Anglo-Saxon Church. One of the most significant councils at Clofesho was held in 803, when it was confirmed that the archiepiscopal see of Lichfield would once again be classed as a bishopric. Lichfield had been promoted to the status of an archbishopric in 787, at the request of King Offa of Mercia. The charter produced at the council of Clofesho in 803 confirmed that Lichfield once again fell under the authority of Canterbury. This charter is currently on display in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.

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Decree of the council of Clofesho, 803: Cotton MS Augustus II 61

Despite its clear importance, scholars have not been able to identify Clofesho. Bede described the very first council held there, but he did not tell us anything about its location. Since it was used as a meeting place for the entire Anglo-Saxon Church, it makes sense for it to have been sited in a central location, perhaps in the kingdom of Mercia.

Modern places out forward as the site of Clofesho include Cliffe-at-Hoo, Abingdon, Tewkesbury and Hitchin. Another candidate is All Saints Church at Brixworth, Northamptonshire.

Brixworth

All Saints Church, Brixworth

Many elements of the Anglo-Saxon building of All Saints Church, Brixworth, survive intact. Its size suggests that it must have been a place of great importance in the Anglo-Saxon period, but there is no mention of Brixworth in any early sources. The old version of the place-name, Briclesworda, is first recorded in the Domesday survey, commissioned by William the Conqueror at Christmas 1085. In Domesday Book, Brixworth occupied 9.5 hides with land for 35 ploughs, 2 mills and a meadow.

Brixwortrh

Breclesworda, Northamptonshire, in Great Domesday: The National Archives, E 31/2/2

One possibility is that, at some point during the period of Danish invasions, Clofesho was renamed Breclesworda. There are other examples of place-names changing in the Anglo-Saxon period. For example, Streaneshalch became Whitby and Medeshamstede became Peterborough. Did the same happen to Clofesho? Or are you able to suggest a different place for it?

 

Hitchin

Was Hitchin the original site of Clofesho? This panel, featuring King Offa and the Hwicce, now stands outside the town's library

 

The British Library's exhibition Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, featuring glorious manuscripts and extraordinary artefacts, is on display in London until 19 February 2019.

 

Rebecca Lawton

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

23 November 2018

Manuscripts à la mode: Nabil Nayal's new collection

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Manuscripts are hot in the fashion world right now! Attendees of the 2018 Met Gala drew inspiration from medieval manuscripts. The actor Ezra Miller recently caused a stir at the UK première of the new Fantastic beasts film (was it inspired by this manuscript in our Harry Potter exhibition?). And this September, the British Library itself hosted a London Fashion Week event: Nabil Nayal’s presentation of his Spring 2019 collection.

Dr Nayal is no stranger to the Library. He did his research here for his PhD in Elizabethan dress, and Elizabeth I and the British Library’s manuscripts were major inspirations for his recent collection. As he said at the launch, he hoped his collection will inspire modern women to ‘stand up for what you believe and be your true self, unleash your inner queen’.

Here are the stories of just a few of the manuscripts that inspired Nabil Nayal.

Hours Dress
Nabil Nayal SS19 dress and the page from a 15th-century Book of Hours that inspired it: Harley MS 2971, f. 13r

One of the earliest manuscripts that was featured in Nayal's collection was a Book of Hours made in Paris around the 1450s. This manuscript was possibly made for a woman: a prayer on f. 20v uses the female form 'famule tue' (‘your female servant’), although a prayer a few pages later uses the common masculine form 'miserrimo paccatori' (‘most miserable sinner’). The fine illuminations have been associated with the workshop that produced the Bedford Hours. Nayal’s dress is based on a page that shows St John the Evangelist writing while in exile on Patmos.

Hours suit
Nabil Nayal SS19 dress and a page from the calendar in the Beaufort Hours: Royal MS 2 A XVIII, f. 30v

Meanwhile, Nayal transformed a calendar owned by Margaret Beaufort into a chic suit. The suit is based on the page for June. Notes in the margin record victories won by Margaret’s son, Henry VII, at the battles of Blackheath and Stoke. These notes were not made by Margaret herself — she had dreadful handwriting — but were probably added by members of her household. There are also notes on the birth of her grandson, the future King Henry VIII, on 28 June. A later hand has added a note about Margaret’s own death on 29 June 1509. We love the way Nabil Nayal laid out the jacket so that one side is dominated by the Gothic script of a fine scribe working in the first half of the 15th century, while the other side has the quicker, cursive scripts of the added notes from the late 15th and early 16th century.


Tilbury Ruffle
Nabil Nayal SS19 outfit and a page from the Tilbury Speech: Harley MS 6798

The manuscript that inspired the most outfits was Harley MS 6798. It records the Tilbury Speech, which Queen Elizabeth I supposedly delivered in 1588 at Tilbury Camp ahead of the defeat of the Spanish Armada. It includes such memorable lines as 'Let tyrants fear!' and 'I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm …' You can read the whole speech here.

Nayal has said he used this manuscript repeatedly in his collection because it ‘was so important for me to remind people of this speech. It's the moment she revealed herself to be a strong, defiant woman who was going to overcome the obstacles she faced.'

Funeral coat
Nabil Nayal SS19 coat, that has both a similar design to garments worn in depictions of Elizabeth I's funeral and also reproduces a contemporary image of part of Elizabeth's funeral procession: Add MS 35324

Elizabeth I remained in remarkably good health into old age, but even the most powerful of queens had to contend with mortality. Depressed after the death of her second cousin and chief gentlewoman of the privy chamber, Katherine Howard, countess of Nottingham, Elizabeth stopped eating and lost the ability to speak. She died in the early of hours of 24 March 1603 at Richmond Palace in Surrey. Her funeral took place at Westminster Abbey on 28 April. The total cost of her funeral and burial was about £3,000. 

Nayal’s collection included a coat inspired by drawings of Elizabeth I’s elaborate funeral procession, now in Add MS 35324. The coat features the part of the manuscript that depicts Elizabeth’s coffin draped in purple velvet, carried by six knights and surrounded by twelve barons, who bore banners displaying her pedigree. Atop the coffin is her funeral effigy, constructed of wax, wood and straw, which in turn was based on her death mask. She wore her parliament robes, with a crown on her head and a sceptre in her hand. We can get a sense of what that effigy looked like from other sources. Between 1605-7 her successor, James I, employed the Frenchman Maximilian Colt to construct Elizabeth a tomb and effigy at a cost of £965. The effigy in white marble was based on her funeral effigy, which survived until the mid-18th-century, when a reconstruction was made (still housed at Westminster Abbey). The original corset worn by the effigy also survives, and was probably one worn by the queen in life.

If you're feeling inspired, the British Library has launched a new Fashion web resource. In collaboration with the British Fashion Council and its Council of Colleges, we hope to encourage design students to use our unique collections.

 

Alison Ray, Alan Bryson, Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

21 November 2018

Launch of The Polonsky Foundation Pre-1200 Project

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Today we are celebrating with our esteemed colleagues from the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Together we have digitised and re-catalogued 800 medieval manuscripts from England and France. We have also created two bilingual web resources making these manuscripts available freely and interpreting their significance.

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The Adoration of the Magi from an illuminated Psalter, London, 1220s: British Library Lansdowne MS 420, f. 8v.

In the summer of 2016 we began the The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200. The project was funded by The Polonsky Foundation, which is committed to promoting access to and dissemination of cultural heritage.  

This project brings together riches of these great institutions and makes them available to researchers and the wider public in innovative and attractive ways, benefiting from the extraordinary opportunities opened up by the technological advances of digitisation.

Our Foundation promotes the preservation and transmission of cultural heritage, and is proud to support this collaboration, which continues the cultural exchange and profound mutual influence that have characterised the history of these two nations over many centuries.”

Dr Leonard S. Polonsky CBE, Founding Chairman, The Polonsky Foundation

 

The collections of medieval manuscripts in the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France rank amongst the finest and most important in the world. Together we have particularly strong holdings of manuscripts made in France and England before 1200. From these we chose 400 manuscripts from each Library in order to transform the availability of these primary sources. The manuscripts comprise a wide range of texts, including biblical, liturgical and theological works, reflecting the interest of monks, abbots and clerics, who were responsible for much of book production in the period before 1200. Other topics include science, music and medicine, Classical and contemporary literature and works on history and law.

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Themes in the curated website Medieval England and France, 700-1200, made in The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200.

 

Two web resources

All 800 manuscripts are now available on an innovative website hosted by the BnF: France et Angleterre : manuscrits médiévaux entre 700 et 1200 / France and England: medieval manuscripts between 700 and 1200. The website allows users to search manuscripts in English, French and Italian, and to view and compare manuscripts side-by-side using International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) technology. Images may also be annotated or shared on social media, and may be downloaded either as an individual image or as a PDF of an entire manuscript. Searches by author, date and place of origin may also be made.

Image 3 (BnFWebsite)

New website developed by the BnF to present the 800 manuscripts digitised in The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200.

The British Library-hosted website presents a curated selection of these manuscripts highlighting various topics and manuscripts. Readers may explore themes, such as history, illumination, science and manuscript making. There are over twenty articles written by experts presenting and interpreting these manuscripts, in both English and French, together with individual descriptions and images of over 100 manuscripts. The website also features several videos exploring the context for these manuscripts and describing in detail how they were made. The site is an online exhibition to some of the amazing legacy that survives in hand-written medieval books.

Image 4 (BLWebsite 2 logos)

New curated website developed by the British Library to explore the illuminated manuscripts digitised in The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700–1200.

Professor Julia Crick from King’s College London remarks that, “Yet again, we are indebted to The Polonsky Foundation for an act of generosity which allows scholars, students and the general public at large to encounter new aspects of the world of medieval manuscripts. This project spans crucial centuries of cultural contact and political rivalry between England and the European continent. The manuscripts in this collection display the aspirations of the elite, the glitter of and competition for the classical past and, most excitingly, the material remains of a burgeoning culture of books and learning which was multilingual, culturally variegated and which is still open to exploration and discovery. The two new websites significantly widen and enhance access to these manuscripts and will inspire future research and learning.

We have also produced a short film highlighting the background for the project and its achievements.

 

Cataloguing, Exhibition and a Book

All of the manuscripts have been re-catalogued to include up-to-date bibliography, identification of texts and descriptions of the artwork. These descriptions can be viewed on Explore our Archives and Manuscripts for British Library manuscripts; and on Archives et manuscrits for Bibliothèque nationale de France manuscripts.

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The opening of Psalm 51 from the Bosworth Psalter, Canterbury or Westminster, Southern England, 3rd quarter of the 10th century: British Library Add MS 37517, f. 33r.

If online access to this amazing selection does not satisfy a desire for stunning images, there are also other ways in which to get guided access to the highlights. Several of the project manuscripts can be seen in person in the British Library’s exhibition Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War (until 19 February 2019).

We have also brought together some of the project highlights in a book by Kathleen Doyle and Charlotte Denoël, Medieval Illumination: Manuscript Art in England and France 700-1200 (London: British Library, 2018), also published in French as Enluminures Médiévales: Chefs-d'oeuvre de la Bibliothèque nationale de France et de la British Library, 700-1200 (Paris: BnF Éditions, 2018).

Image 6 (BL Medieval Illuminations Cover)

Medieval Illumination: Manuscript Art in England and France 700-1200, Kathleen Doyle and Charlotte Denoël (Front Cover).

We hope that the easy and convenient availability of this material will inspire researchers, teachers, students, artists and others to explore our shared history and heritage. We invite all our readers to immerse themselves in the stories these manuscripts tell and browse through the online articles and collection items. We are delighted to have opened digitally 800 medieval books for you to discover, research and enjoy.

 

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval and @laBnF

#PolonskyPre1200

 

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

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