23 May 2022
The British Library is currently digitising some of its manuscripts, rolls and charters connected with women from Britain and across Europe, from the period between 1100 and 1600. You can read more about the project on the Medieval Manuscripts Blog.
The opening page of the Book of Margery Kempe, the oldest autobiography in English: Add MS 61823, f. 1r
As part of the Medieval and Renaissance Women project, the funders, Joanna and Graham Barker, are providing financial support for a six-month PhD placement, starting in summer 2022. The successful candidate will be based for the duration of the placement with the Library’s Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section at St Pancras, London. They will gain experience of cataloguing pre-1600 western manuscripts, and they will promote the Library’s collections by writing blogposts and text for the British Library website.
This placement will provide the successful candidate with a broader understanding of curatorial roles in a major research library, as well as experience of working with manuscripts (including rolls and charters) in a variety of genres and languages. They will gain insight into the Library’s digitisation processes, and they will benefit from day-to-day contact with the curators and hands-on access to the Library’s collection of pre-1600 manuscripts. During their time at the Library, the placement student will also have access to a wide range of workshops, talks and training.
The Medieval and Renaissance Women PhD placement is intended to support early career development and is suitable for students who may wish to pursue further academic research or are considering a career in a library, museum or similar heritage organisation. Students who have undertaken previous doctoral placements or internships with the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts team at the British Library have subsequently gone on to hold academic positions at universities in the UK and USA, to become curators, cataloguers and researchers in major libraries, or to work in heritage organisations.
Applicants for this position should be engaged in doctoral research at a university or higher education institution in the United Kingdom. International students are eligible to apply, subject to meeting any UK visa residency requirements. Their field of research should be in a discipline related to the study of medieval and early modern manuscripts, such as history of art, history, languages and literature. The ability to read Latin and other western languages is an advantage, as is knowledge of medieval and/or early modern palaeography and codicology. The Library will provide training in cataloguing western manuscripts, and in writing blogposts and other interpretative text.
The seal of the Empress Matilda (1140s): Add Ch 75724
Prospective applicants should submit the attached form, in which they are asked to answer the following questions:
- Title of your PhD
- Please provide a brief summary of your research for a non-specialist audience (maximum 100 words)
- Please explain why you are interested in a placement at the British Library in particular (maximum (100 words)
- Please describe why this placement appeals to you, and what skills you will gain from it (maximum 400 words)
- Please outline any relevant skills, experience and interests you would bring to this placement (maximum 300 words)
- Please provide any additional information that you think would strengthen your application (maximum 200 words)
You should obtain approval from your PhD supervisor before submitting the application. The placement is for a maximum 6 months and should be undertaken before 31 March 2023. This is a funded placement (£1,600 per month, to a maximum £9,600).
How to apply
Please ensure that you have carefully read the Application Guidelines before completing and submitting the Application Form.
The deadline for applications is 11.59pm on Monday 13 June 2022. Online interviews for the shortlisted candidates will take place in the second half of June.
17 May 2022
Our new exhibition Gold opens this week. It explores the use of gold in books and documents across twenty countries, seventeen languages, and five major world religions. We show how people have used gold to communicate profound value, both worldly and spiritual, across cultures and time periods. All 50 of the objects in the exhibition are star items. But to whet your appetite, here are some of our highlights:
The Harley Golden Gospels
The exhibition begins with three sacred texts from different world religions written entirely in gold. Writing in gold ink was expensive and required great scribal skill, so entire books written in gold are very rare. One of these is the Harley Golden Gospels, made at the court of Charlemagne, who ruled over the majority of western and central Europe as Holy Roman Emperor at the beginning of the 8th century. In addition to the elegant gold script, every text page has a different elaborate gold border.
Sultan Baybars’ Qur’an
Sharing the case with the Gospels is another sacred manuscript written entirely in gold, one of the volumes of Sultan Baybars’ Qur’an. This splendid manuscript is named after the ruler who commissioned it, Rukn al-Din Baybars al-Jashnagir, who later became the Mamluk Sultan Baybars II. The Mamluk Sultanate was the greatest Islamic empire of the Middle Ages, occupying lands from Egypt to Syria and across the Red Sea. This seven-volume Qur’an was copied in Cairo by the calligrapher Muhammad ibn al-Wahid, and the golden rosettes and marginal ornaments were the work of a team of artists headed by the master illuminator, Abu Bakr, also known as Sandal.
Malayalam treaty on gold
There is a long tradition in South Asia of using durable metals for the recording of important legal and political texts. This treaty, written in Malayalam, details a defensive alliance between the powerful Zamorin or ruler of Calicut, on the southern Indian Malabar coast, and the Dutch. It is inscribed in eight lines on a strip of gold over two metres long.
Maunggan gold plates
Dating to the 5th–6th centuries, these two inscribed gold plates are amongst the oldest items in the exhibition. The plates start with a well-known chant, Ye dhamma, which refers to the core teachings of Buddhism: suffering, what causes it, and how to end it. They were originally rolled and placed at the base of a stupa, symbolising the presence of the Buddha and endowing the monument with sacredness.
The Queen Mary Psalter
Gold was also used for illuminating pictures in luxury manuscripts. The Queen Mary Psalter is one of the most extensively illustrated biblical manuscripts ever produced, containing over 1000 images. Many of its beautiful illuminations are set against backgrounds of gold leaf decorated with intricate incised and painted patterns. The manuscript is known after Queen Mary I, to whom it was presented in the 16th century after a customs official prevented its export from England.
The Benedictional of Æthelwold
When St Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester, commissioned this book, he specified that it should be ‘well adorned and filled with various figures decorated with manifold beautiful colours and with gold’. True to Æthelwold’s instruction, the manuscript is richly decorated with images of biblical scenes and saints, such as St Æthelthryth of Ely here, clothed in gold and set in an opulent golden frame.
The Golden Haggadah
Haggadah is the text for Passover Eve telling the story of the Jews’ exodus from slavery in Egypt. Because of the tooled gold-leaf backgrounds of the illustrations, this lavish manuscript is known as the Golden Haggadah. It contains 14 full pages devoted to scenes from Genesis and Exodus. For example, in the top left Joseph dreams of his brothers’ sheaves of wheat bowing to his upright central sheaf, all set against the intricate cross-hatched golden background.
The Psalter of Queen Melisende
Another manuscript that features impressive gold illumination is the Melisende Psalter. It was probably made for Queen Melisende (died 1161), who reigned in the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem jointly with her husband Fulk of Anjou, and then with her son. Unusually, the initial ‘B’ (for Beatus, meaning blessed) at the beginning of the first Psalm is decorated entirely in gold with black line drawing.
These amazing manuscripts are only a small sample of the fifty golden books and documents that you can see on display in the exhibition. We hope you are as excited for the opening as we are!
Our Gold exhibition is open from Friday 20 May - Sunday 2 October 2022. You can read more about the exhibition in our previous blogpost and you can book your tickets online now. An accompanying book Gold: Spectacular Manuscripts from Around the World is available from the British Library shop.
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval
The exhibition is supported by the Goldhammer Foundation and the American Trust for the British Library, with thanks to The John S Cohen Foundation, The Finnis Scott Foundation, the Owen Family Trust and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous.
11 May 2022
We are pleased to announce the availability of a fully-funded collaborative doctoral studentship from October 2022, in partnership with the University of East Anglia (UEA), under the AHRC’s Collaborative Doctoral Partnership Scheme.
The library of Robert Cotton (1571–1631) has been described as 'the most important collection of manuscripts ever assembled in Britain by a private individual'. This CDP offers a unique opportunity to produce an original piece of research on the origins and/or 17th-century development of Cotton's extraordinary collection.
A portrait of Sir Robert Cotton, commissioned in 1626 and attributed to Cornelius Johnson, reproduced from the collection of The Rt. Hon. Lord Clinton, D.L.
This project will be supervised by Dr Thomas Roebuck and Dr Katherine Hunt, University of East Anglia, who are experts in early modern scholarship and collecting practices; and Julian Harrison and Dr Andrea Clarke, curators of Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts at the British Library. The award holder will be based at UEA, and will also be based at the Library for a significant proportion of the studentship. At UEA, they will join a thriving Medieval and Early Modern research community and have access to a host of training opportunities, and at the British Library they will benefit from behind-the-scenes access, learning from other professionals across the Library, and an extensive internal training offer. They will also join the wider cohort of CDP-funded students across the UK, and will be eligible to participate in CDP Cohort Development Events. This studentship can be studied either full- or part-time.
The Cotton library contains more than 1,400 medieval and early modern manuscripts and over 1,500 charters, rolls and seals, among them items of international heritage significance, such as the Lindisfarne Gospels, Beowulf and two engrossments of the 1215 Magna Carta. This collection was perhaps the most important single means by which pre-Reformation textual culture was preserved: it became a repository of memory and a site of nation-making. But the origins of the library — how and why it was assembled — remain tantalisingly obscure. Its development and usage over the course of the 17th century also offers huge opportunities for fresh research into the history of antiquarian scholarship and its religio-political ramifications. This CDP offers the successful applicant a unique opportunity to produce a ground-breaking piece of research into the origins or development of the Cotton collection which is rooted in close study of Cotton's manuscripts themselves.
Research questions might include:
- Where, when, and how did Robert Cotton (and his descendants) acquire the manuscripts that make up the Cotton collection?
- How did Robert Cotton shape his collection? How did the coins, stones and printed books he collected complement his manuscripts?
- To what extent is the Cotton library distinctive, compared to other libraries assembled in Europe at the same time, and what characteristics does it share with similar contemporary collections?
- Is there any evidence that women had access to the Cotton library or made donations to it?
- How was the library used in Robert Cotton's lifetime, and how did its usage change and develop over the course of the 17th century? What kinds of scholarly projects did it inspire?
- How was the library used to intervene in contemporary political debates? How was the library itself shaped by the political and religious controversies of the 17th century?
- How did the collection come to be regarded as a national library?
- What role did Cotton's library play in the development of the idea of Britain's 'middle ages' or its national identity?
We encourage the widest range of potential students to study for this CDP studentship and are committed to welcoming students from different backgrounds to apply. We particularly welcome applications from Black, Asian, Minority, Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds as they are currently underrepresented at this level in this area.
Applicants should ideally have or expect to receive a relevant Masters-level qualification, or be able to demonstrate equivalent experience in a professional setting. Suitable disciplines may include, but are not limited to, English Literature, History, Art History, Classics, Modern Languages, and Library and Information Science. All applicants must meet UKRI terms and conditions for funding.
The deadline for applications is 8 June 2022. More details can be found on the UEA website.
05 May 2022
It's not every day you recognise a bear in the Library. But in a Book of Hours we recently catalogued as part of the Harley cataloguing project, we came across a furry figure who seemed strangely familiar. He is a rather plump little bear, clambering with some determination up a stalk of foliage in one of the richly decorated margins. He reaches up with one paw, his belly towards us, his head raised to reveal the underside of his snout. Once seen, such a cute bear is hard to forget.
And we had seen him before. We recognised the bear from an engraved playing card by an anonymous artist known as the Master of the Playing Cards. So how did he end up in this manuscript margin, and what can he tell us about this Book of Hours?
The Master of the Playing Cards
The Master of the Playing Cards was an early printmaker active in southwestern Germany from the 1430s to the 1450s. This artist seems to have specialised in engravings (prints made from metal plates), as opposed to the more common woodcut prints of the period. Although their real name is no longer known, the artist is known after their most famous work: a set of finely engraved playing cards.
Playing cards were introduced into Europe from Asia in the 14th century. In the Middle Ages, the suits in a deck of cards were not fixed as hearts, diamonds, clubs and spades as today, but came in all kinds of designs. The surviving cards from the Master’s deck are suits of flowers, birds, deer, beasts of prey and wild men. Each card is printed with beautifully studied illustrations of the subject in a variety of inventive poses.
Playing cards as manuscript models
Almost as soon as they were printed, artists saw the potential of the Master’s playing cards for book illumination. It was common practice to speed up the process of decorating books by copying designs from models. With their appealing subjects, skilful drawing and small size, the playing card figures were perfect for adorning the margins of books. Figures based on the Master’s playing cards have been identified in over twenty manuscripts from the 1430s onwards, originating in centres across Europe.
One example in the British Library’s collection is the Saluces Hours, made in the duchy of Savoy (modern-day southeast France and northwest Italy) in several stages between the 1440s and 1460s. You can read more in our previous blogpost, Antoine de Lonhy and the Saluces Hours. The playing card figures in this manuscript are from the wild man and deer suits, and they date from the earliest campaign of work, attributed to the artist Peronet Lamy in the 1440s.
The playing card figures were not only copied onto the pages of manuscripts. Some copies of the Gutenberg Bible, the earliest full-scale work printed in Europe using moveable type, were hand-painted with figures based on the Master of the Playing Cards. Both the printing and illumination were done in Mainz, Germany. Here is an example with our climbing bear:
The bear moves to Flanders
Our Book of Hours (Harley MS 2433) is another instance of a book decorated with figures from the Master of the Playing Cards. Testament to the wide geographic influence of the playing cards, this manuscript was not made in Savoy or Germany, but in Flanders. We do not know who the original owners were because the coats of arms which appear in the manuscript’s margins remain unidentified. Yet there are several clues which suggest that it was probably made for use around Ghent. The Hours of the Virgin are a variant version for the Use of Tournai, a diocese which in the Middle Ages included Ghent. Several of the texts are in Middle Dutch, the main language of Ghent (but not of French-speaking Tournai). The calendar and litany contain a host of Flemish saints, including several especially associated with Ghent, such as Sts Pharaildis, Amand, Amalbergha and Bavo.
A series of luxurious illuminated initials and borders are all that remain of the manuscript’s decorative scheme. Originally it probably also contained full-page miniatures, but sadly these have been cut out leaving visible stubs of parchment in some margins. Yet the remaining decoration provides plenty to admire. As well as the climbing bear, several other animals roaming in the manuscript’s lush margins are recognisable from the Master of the Playing Cards’ deck:
These creatures can provide further clues about the origins and connections of our Book of Hours. If we look up other manuscripts from Ghent-Tournai that are known to feature designs from the Master of the Playing Cards, we soon come across a close match. An illuminated manuscript recording the Privileges and Statutes of Ghent (Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Cod. 2583) contains borders similar to those in the Harley Book of Hours. It was probably begun as a commission for some of the leading citizens of Ghent and then completed for Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, after he defeated the city of Ghent at the Battle of Gavere in 1453. The illumination is attributed to an artist known as the Master of the Ghent Privileges. The borders include familiar faces from the Master of the Playing Cards, including our friend the climbing bear:
Yet the Harley Book of Hours and the Ghent Privileges also share marginal designs that are not based on the Master of the Playing Cards:
This combination of shared motifs suggests that the designs in the Harley Book of Hours and the Ghent Privileges were probably not copied directly from the playing cards. Instead, it is likely that they were copied from an intermediary source, such as a model book containing designs gathered from a variety of sources, including the playing card deck.
Although the Ghent Privileges is on a grander scale than the Harley Book of Hours, the margins of the two manuscripts have enough in common that they may have been made by the same or a closely related workshop. The climbing bear also appears in other manuscripts attributed to the Master of the Ghent Privileges, such as the Missal of Jean de Lannoy (Lille, Médiathèque Municipale Jean Lévy, MS 626, f. 174v, image here), and a leaf from a Book of Hours in a private collection (image here).
Previously, no one had noticed that the Book of Hours with the shelfmark Harley MS 2433 had marginal decorations based on the Master of the Playing Cards, or that it shares models with the Ghent Privileges. Who would have thought that one little bear could lead us such a long way?
You can read about some of the other discoveries from the Harley Cataloguing Project in our previous blogposts: deciphering an English exorcism manual, a newly discovered manuscript from Byland Abbey and the lost miracles of St Wulfsige of Evesham.
Anne H. van Buren and Sheila Edmunds, 'Playing Cards and Manuscripts: Some Widely Disseminated Fifteenth-Century Model Sheets', The Art Bulletin, 56: 1 (March 1974), pp. 12-30.
Gregory Clark, Made in Flanders: The Master of the Ghent Privileges and Manuscript Painting in the Southern Netherlands in the Time of Philip the Good (Turnhout, 2000).
23 April 2022
Sending greetings to friends and family from places we visit has always been popular. Whether we text, call or just post something on social media, we love to let others know about where we travel and what we see there. Although we may associate tourism with modern or postmodern society, there are some fascinating documents surviving to prove that people were also interested in travel and sightseeing thousands of years ago.
The British Library has a fragment of a Greek letter that is the ancient equivalent of a postcard from a sightseeing trip, written on papyrus in the 1st or 2nd century AD in Middle Egypt. A man called Nearchus is writing to his friend Heliodorus to tell him about his trip on the River Nile. After the short greeting, Nearchus tells his friend why he started to travel:
‘As many people embark on ships today to travel and see the excellent works of human hands, I have also decided to follow their example and sailed downstream on the Nile towards Syene'.
From what Nearchus tells us, it seems like there was an extensive market for tourism to Upper Egypt. His first destination, Syene, is a town by the Nile near today’s Aswan. It is a picturesque place with an island in the river that has the great temple of Isis, famous for its architecture and miracles, which Nearchus probably visited.
His next stop, the Siwa Oasis, is quite a distance away: it is in the Western Desert near the Libyan border. Siwa had a famous sanctuary where the ram-headed god Amon gave oracles to his visitors, which Nearchus was keen to visit:
‘I went to Libya where Amon chants his oracles to everyone. I have received very promising words and I scratched the names of all my friends on the wall of the sanctuary for eternal memory…’
Just like Alexander the Great, who visited the same site some 500 years earlier and was proclaimed the son of Amon by the oracle there, Nearchus also received good news from the god. He also tells us that he scratched his friends’ names on the temple wall. Although this may sound very alarming today, putting names on the temple wall was considered pious at that time. It was to ensure that the absent friends would be present at the holy place forever – exactly as Nearchus assures his friend.
Unfortunately, the last two lines of Nearchus’s postcard have been washed off the papyrus and are missing, so his story remains unfinished. But there is still hope his graffiti of his friends’ names may survive somewhere in the ruins of Amon’s Temple in Siwa. You can read more fascinating stories from our ancient papyri on our Greek Manuscripts webspace.
13 April 2022
The Italian writer, poet and humanist, Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75) is probably most familiar in the English-speaking world for his Decameron, a collection of one hundred short stories that were adapted by Chaucer and Shakespeare and inspired works by Swift, Tennyson and Keats. He was a key literary figure in late-medieval and Renaissance Europe whose considerable output included love poetry, courtly tales, a genealogy of the gods, and the first collection of biographies devoted solely to women in Western literature.
Towards the end of his life, disillusioned with love and suffering from a variety of ailments, he was only dissuaded from burning much of his own material by the intervention of Petrarch, a close colleague and mentor. Fortunately his works survived, and the many translations and extant manuscripts are testament to their popularity. In the 15th century numerous illustrated copies were produced for the courts of Europe.
Twenty seven British Library manuscripts containing works of Boccaccio are either fully or partially digitised in our online catalogues. An advanced search in the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts using the field ‘Author’: ‘Boccaccio’ produces a list of all of these with a selection of images from each one. Six are also fully digitised on our Digitised Manuscripts website. Here are just some of these fascinating manuscripts.
Concerning Famous Women
Most impressive of all are two grand volumes of Boccaccio’s ground-breaking collection of biographies of famous women, De claris mulieribus (Concerning Famous Women) in a French translation by Laurent de Premierfait. Both contain magnificent illustrations of the characters and their deeds. Boccaccio’s purpose in this work is to encourage virtuous behaviour among women, but the examples he chooses from among biblical, classical, mythological and historical characters are both good and bad. All the well-known female figures are present, each one accompanied by a portrait, from Eve to Medusa, and from Sappho to Cleopatra, alongside less familiar examples such as Hypsicratea, Queen of Pontus, and Faustina Augusta, wife of Marcus Aurelius. Christine de Pizan based many of her biographies of women in the famous Cite des Dames on this work.
The Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts also features copies of the original Latin text of Boccaccio’s De claris mulieribus. One of these, Harley MS 6348, is an early copy made in Italy in the 14th century, not long after Boccaccio’s death. The opening page of De claris mulieribus contains the dedication beginning with the words: ‘Pridie, mulierum egregia...’ The first sentence translates as:
‘Some time ago, illustrious lady, while away from the crude multitudes and almost free of other concerns, I wrote a little book in praise of women, more for the pleasure of my friends than as a service to humanity’ (trans. Guarino).
Concerning Noble Men and Women
In addition to his biographies of women, Boccaccio produced a collection of biographies of both men and women, De casibus virorum illustrium, also translated into French by Premierfait. Some of these are very large volumes, each containing over fifty biographies with numerous miniatures. For example, Royal MS 14 E V, a Bruges manuscript owned by Edward IV, is almost half a metre tall and has 513 folios – the size of a small suitcase – so you need to be strong just to lift it off the shelf! the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts has images of all the pages with illustrations from this manuscript. For example, a historical event known as the Sicilian Vespers, the Easter rebellion by the Sicilians against French rule in 1282 when thousands of French civilians were murdered, is the subject of one illustration.
The theme of the biographies is the changeability of fortune. Boccaccio focuses on the downfall of famous people, all of whom are subject to the will of Lady Fortune. In book 6 the two meet and speak about the fates of the unlucky nobles who are destined to fall from dizzy heights of power and wealth.
Another manuscript of his work, Harley MS 621, has a miniature at the beginning of each of the major sections or books into which the work is divided. In this one, Boccaccio watches Fortune turn her wheel. Note the cockerel in the border!
The Fall of Princes
The English poet, John Lydgate, produced an abridged version of De Casibus in a Middle English translation, known as The Fall of Princes. Three copies are fully digitised on Digitised Manuscripts. One of these, which was probably made at Bury St Edmunds, contains a series of illustrations of key scenes in the margins. One gruesome example is of King Cyrus of the Persians who subdued all the nations from Syria to the Red Sea. According to the Boccaccio/Lydgate version of his life, Tomyrus, Queen of the Scythians defeated his army, severing his head from his body, and throwing it into a bowl of blood with these words, ‘Thou that hast all thy time thirsted for blood, now drink thy fill, and satiate thy self with it’.
There are also Boccaccio manuscripts on the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts containing a variety of his other works, including three of his most well-known work, the Decameron. This copy of the Decameron, translated into French by Laurent de Premierfait, is decorated with borders containing the royal arms of England. This is because it was part of the collection of manuscripts owned by King Edward IV of England.
Other Boccaccio texts include Elegia di Madonna Fiammetta, a quasi autobiographical novel about a love affair set in Naples.
This overview of Boccaccio manuscripts helps to demonstrate that our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, though not providing full digital coverage, remains a key source for images of our manuscript collections. We continue to maintain it and make updates and corrections to the records. We hope you enjoy exploring!
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval
05 April 2022
Our medieval manuscripts will soon feature on the major new documentary series, Art That Made Us, for BBC Two and BBC iPlayer. The series explores how pivotal works of art, literature, design and music have helped shape the history of Britain. Featuring very detailed, close-up filming of some of our manuscripts, it will be an opportunity to see them on screen in more detail than ever before.
The first episode, which will go out on 7 April, begins with the withdrawal of the Roman troops from Britain in the 4th century and the following period of migration, warfare, the rise of the English language and the spread of Christianity. In this episode, speakers will discuss the superb illuminated Gospel-book, the Lindisfarne Gospels, and the Old English epic poem Beowulf. It will also feature one of the earliest surviving maps of the world and the only example that originates from England before the 12th century.
The second episode, airing on 14 April, explores the trauma of the Black Death in the 14th century and some of the creative works that came afterwards. There will be discussion of major Middle English poems including Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, William Langland’s The Vision of Piers Plowman and the anonymous meditation on grief, Pearl. The episode will feature the earliest manuscript of the Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich, an account of the spiritual visions witnessed by Julian, an anchoress in Norwich, when she was suffering from a near-fatal illness. It is also the first known work in English to be authored by a woman.
This episode will also include the only surviving manuscript of The Book of Margery Kempe. This is an account by Margery Kempe, a mystic from King’s Lynn, of her visions and experiences, and the earliest known autobiography in English.
The Old Hall Manuscript will also feature on this episode. This collection of sacred music is the most important source for our knowledge of early harmony music in England. It contains one of the oldest surviving collections of English part music (music written in parts for separate players or singers). Works by numerous English composers are included, such as the beautiful motet Veni Sancte Spiritus by John Dunstaple.
Later episodes of the programme will feature other British Library collection items, including John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, poetry by John Donne, Paradise Lost by John Milton, Teares of Ireland by James Cranford and Micrographia by Robert Hooke.
Art that Made Us will be broadcast on Thursdays at 9pm from 7 April 2022 on BBC Two and it will also be available to view on iPlayer. We hope you enjoy seeing our amazing manuscripts on screen. You can also view all these manuscript in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site.
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval
30 March 2022
We recently encountered a mysterious medieval manuscript during our current Harley cataloguing project. In the three centuries that it has been in the Harley collection, no one realised the true identity of the manuscript with the shelf-mark Harley MS 2874. Contributing to this may be the fact that its main contents start with a string of illegible and unpronounceable words: ‘Cpnkxratkp malkgnprum spkrkxxm’.
What to make of these strange words? The fact that they are written in red ink suggests that they are part of a title. So what does this manuscript contain? When we turn to the old catalogue of the Harleian manuscripts published in the year 1808, we find the manuscript described as a fragmentary Breviary–a common prayer book used in Christian liturgy–that was written in the 14th century.
But the 1808 catalogue must be incorrect. The manuscript does not contain any texts that one expects to find in a Breviary. Instead, the illegible words appear to be a form of secret writing. They employ a known encryption method in which vowels are replaced with their successive letters in the alphabet. With this method and some knowledge of the Latin language in mind, the title can be deciphered as: ‘Coniuratio malignorum spirituum’. In English, this means: ‘The Conjuration of Evil Spirits’. The manuscript is clearly not a fragmentary Breviary, but a complete copy of an exorcism manual that claims to describe the rituals used to drive out demons from possessed persons in St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, Rome.
The Coniuratio malignorum spirituum survives in about 30 printed editions. All of these were published in Rome or Venice in the late 15th and early 16th century. Our Harley manuscript is almost certainly a handwritten copy of one of these printed books, and, based on its script, was copied around the year 1500.
The Harley manuscript differs greatly from the printed versions in that it not only encrypts the text’s title, but also encrypts or abbreviates any further references to the act of conjuring and invoking demons throughout the manuscript. For example, ‘Coniuro te diabole’ (I conjure you Devil) has become ‘Cpnkxrp tf dibbplf’ in code, or ‘9o te diabole’ in abbreviated form, and ‘Memento lucifer’ (I hold Lucifer in mind) has become ‘Mfmfntp lxckffr’.
Since none of the Italian versions contains secret writing, the Harley manuscript was almost certainly encrypted by the scribe who copied it. But why did they do this? For an answer to this question, we need to look into the scribe’s background. An important clue to their identity can be found on the manuscript’s first page. This page is not part of the Coniuratio malignorum spirituum, but rather it contains a text in a different script that is both fragmentary and faded. With the aid of Ultraviolet light it can be identified as a royal pardon from King Henry VI to William Babington (d. 1453), who was abbot of the Benedictine abbey of Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk between 1446 and 1453. It may be the same pardon of debts owed to the Exchequer that Babington and his monastery are known to have received on 23 December 1451.
Importantly, the royal pardon is not a later addition but original to Harley MS 2874. Whoever made the manuscript cut a fragment from the pardon and used the blank parchment on its reverse side for writing the first page of the exorcism manual. This suggests that the scribe was quite possibly a monk of Bury St Edmunds, and certainly based in England.
The English origin of the manuscript is significant because the historian Francis Young argues that there is no evidence for the popularity of Continental exorcism manuals in England at this time (A History of Exorcism in Catholic Christianity (2016), pp. 94-95). This means that the English scribe was probably unfamiliar with the genre of exorcism manuals. Perhaps this made them uneasy about the text’s contents, contributing to their decision to encrypt key parts of the manual. Moreover, they might have been particularly concerned about how future owners could use the manuscript. As Francis Young (p. 103) points out, the Coniuratio malignorum spirituum could be readily used for illicit magical rituals in which communication with demons is sought not to exorcise them but to control and employ them for one’s own purposes.
Its repeated use of the term ‘conjuration’ would have made the exorcism manual especially suitable for the dark arts, as in the instruction ‘I conjure you devil and unclean spirit’ (Coniuro te diabole et spiritus immunde).
Conjurations are often found in magical texts that present formulas for invoking and commanding spirits. According to a 17th-century English magical treatise you should say the following:
‘I conjure and constrain you to fulfil my will in everything faithfully without hurt of my body or soul and to be ready at my call as often as I shall call you’.
In using secret writing, the scribe may have wanted to limit the number of readers of the manuscript to a select and trusted few, perhaps a circle of monks at Bury St Edmunds. If that was their intention, then they seem to have been successful. Since the manuscript was acquired for the Harleian Library on 17 May 1715, cataloguers have not identified its contents, preventing magical practitioners from using it ever since.
This is just one of our many discoveries from the Harley cataloguing project. To read about some of the others, see our previous blogposts about a newly discovered manuscript from Byland Abbey and the lost miracles of St Wulfsige of Evesham. We will keep posting our findings, so keep a close eye on this blog!
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval
Medieval manuscripts blog recent posts
- Medieval and Renaissance Women: PhD placement
- Highlights from our Gold exhibition
- Collaborative doctoral studentship: The origins and development of the Cotton collection
- We’re going on a bear hunt
- A 2000-year-old postcard
- Discovering Boccaccio manuscripts online
- Medieval manuscripts and the Art That Made Us
- Deciphering an English exorcism manual
- The secret of a silver clasp
- Medieval and Renaissance Women — thank you