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06 October 2018

A female doctor

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A few months ago, when it was announced that Jodie Whitaker would be the new ‘Doctor Who’, we tweeted an image of a 1000-year-old school-book that anticipated this situation. It included a word for a female doctor: ‘doctrix’.

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Detail of ‘Doctrix’, from a copy of Priscian’s Grammar, possibly made at Abingdon, 11th century: Add MS 32246, f. 11r

The main text of this manuscript contains excerpts from a Latin grammar by the North African scholar Priscian (fl. c. 500). This was one of the standard textbooks for teaching Latin in the Middle Ages. The passage that mentions ‘doctrix’ shows how to make the feminine equivalent of masculine words. For example, rex (king) becomes regina (queen), leo (lion) becomes leona (lioness). A different ending is needed for a female doctor (teacher) or medicus (medical doctor), because doctrina means teaching and medicina means medicine. And so a female doctor is a doctrix.

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Passage on making masculine nouns feminine: Add MS 32246, f. 11r

This school-book was made around AD 1000. It belonged to the monastery at Abingdon, which was a major intellectual centre. Around the edges of its pages, a student or teacher has added in vocabulary lists and even a schoolroom exercise: a dialogue designed to help young students practice their Latin.

Priscian’s Grammar was very influential in early England, and it was used by the writer Ælfric to create an English-Latin textbook and glossary. Ælfric was the most prolific Old English writer and extremely influential. You can learn more about him in the British Library's upcoming Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. Ælfric's Grammar and Glossary is the earliest surviving textbook written in English. It includes a list of feminine forms of masculine nouns:

Modern English

Latin (m)

Latin (f)

Old English (m)

Old English (f)

Teacher

Doctor

Doctrix

Lareow

Victorious ruler

Victor rex

Victrix  regina

Sigefaesta cyning

Sigefaeste cwen

Reader

Lector

Lectrix

Raedere

Raedestre

Singer

Cantor

Cantrix

Sangere

Sangestre

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How to make masculine nouns feminine, from Ælfric’s Grammar, England, late 11th century: Cotton MS Faustina A X, f. 17v

Ælfric was hardly a feminist: he probably included all these female equivalents just to show off his Latin. However, in his other works he did write about female saints who instructed or taught, such as St Cecilia. Female leaders and teachers were prominent figures in Old English epic poetry as well: hopefully the new Doctor will get to meet some of them on her new adventures.

This 1000-year-old school-book has had its own adventures. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century, it seems to have been sold, with part of the manuscript ending up in the possession of Jan Moretus, a printer in Antwerp. Moretus worked for his father-in-law, Christoffel Plantin, and their manuscript collections show what sorts of script they were interested in, as they commissioned new typefaces from the French designer Robert Granjon. One of these typefaces — which resembles the Caroline-style script of 11th-century English manuscripts — became the basis for the Plantin typeface. A modified version, known as Times New Roman, was used by the Times of London from the 1930s. Times New Roman was then turned into a computer font, and it was the default font in many Microsoft programmes until 2007.

The monks of Abingdon would probably would have recognized this font. They might have been astonished by the concept of computers and televisions but, to judge by this school-book, they would not have been surprised by the idea that a Doctor could be a woman.

Alison Hudson

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02 October 2018

The Harley Bible moralisée on display in New York

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During the reigns of Louis VIII (1223–1226), his formidable wife Blanche of Castile (d. 1252) and their son, Louis IX (1226–1270), Paris was the artistic centre of Europe. Among the most spectacular artistic creations of their reigns were moralized picture Bibles known as Bibles moralisées. Each contains literally thousands of richly painted and gilded images, designed (in the words of Professor John Lowden) to ‘create an impression of unsurpassed magnificence’.

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The One seated on the throne, in Revelation 4:6–5:8: Harley 1527, f. 120v

These books are known as moralized Bibles because biblical scenes in roundels are paired with their symbolic or theological interpretation or ‘moralizations’ below, with a short biblical extract or explanatory moralisation added next to each picture. Each was made as a royal commission for a member of the French royal family or a close relative. 

Two of the manuscripts include an image of a king and queen, or a king, as well as an artist at work on a book with roundels like those in the Bibles moralisées. It has been suggested that the first two copies, now both in Vienna, were made for Blanche and Louis’s own use (one in French, and the second latinized from French).

(i) Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, MS 1179

(ii) Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, MS 2554

The other two early copies, one now split between Oxford, Paris and the Harley collection at the British Library, and its twin, now in Toledo (with a small portion in New York), are even more ambitious undertakings. They were perhaps commissioned by Blanche as wedding presents for her son, Louis IX, and his bride Margaret of Provence (1221–1295) on their marriage in 1234.

(iii) Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 270B + Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS lat. 11560 + London, British Library Harley MS 1527

(iv) Toledo, Tesoro del Catedral + New York, The Morgan Library & Museum, MS M.240

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The book of Seven Seals with the four living creatures and the twenty-four Elders with moralisations, in Revelation 4:6–5:8: Harley 1527, f. 121r

These moralized Bibles are indeed extraordinary creations in every way. Their production in a workshop in Paris must have been a massive and extremely expensive undertaking, as the books appear to have been made in rapid succession, within a period of about ten years, from around 1225 to 1235. Each illustrated page has eight roundels, and faces another page with the same layout, so that the viewer is confronted with sixteen images on each illustrated opening. The astonishing complexity of the images, their moralisations and the accompanying texts suggests that the royal recipients of the Bibles moralisées would have viewed and/or read them in the company of their personal chaplains or priests.

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The Wise and Foolish Virgins: Harley MS 1527, f. 46r

One volume of the British Library's Harley Bible moralisée is now on display at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, as part of the Armenia! exhibition, which opened on 22 September. The exhibition is the first to examine the remarkable artistic contribution of the Armenians in a global context.

An important aspect of the exhibition is the exploration of the connections between the arts of the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia and the court of Louis IX. The Franciscan friar William of Rubruck (Willem van Ruysbroeck) (c. 1210–c. 1270) took illuminated manuscripts with him on his mission to the Mongols in 1253, including a Bible given to him by Louis IX and a Psalter given by Queen Margaret of Provence (d. 1295). It may be that these manuscripts influenced the style and compositions of one of the most accomplished of Armenian painters, T‘oros Roslin (active 1256–1268).

To see the Harley manuscript in New York, visit the Armenia! Exhibition, open until 13 January 2019. To view it online, please visit the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site. We also discussed this manuscript in a previous blogpost.

 

Kathleen Doyle

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Further Reading

John Lowden, The Making of the Bibles Moralisées, 2 vols (University Park, Pennsylvania, 2000), I, The Manuscripts, esp. pp. 139–87.

John Lowden, ‘The Apocalypse in the Early-Thirteenth-Century Bibles Moralisées: A Re-Assessment’, in Prophecy, Apocalypse and the Day of Doom, Proceedings of the 2000 Harlaxton Symposium, ed. by Nigel Morgan, Harlaxton Medieval Studies, 12 (Donington, 2004), pp. 195–217 (pp. 198, 207–212, 216, pls 20, 26–28, 31).

Scot McKendrick & Kathleen Doyle, The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World (London: Thames & Hudson, 2016), no. 26.  

Armenia: Art, Religion, and Trade in the Middle Ages, ed. by Helen C. Evans (New York, 2018).

01 October 2018

A calendar page for October 2018

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It's October! That means it is only 19 days until the British Library's ­Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition opens. Visitors will see a treasure trove of manuscripts, from spectacular art to early examples of English literature. Book your tickets now!

You’ll also be able to see this calendar, made in England over 1000 years ago. Of course, the makers of this manuscript did not anticipate that — a millennium later — the opening of an exhibition in London would be important, and so they didn’t mention ‘exhibition viewing’ as the ultimate October activity. Instead, hawking and falconry are depicted on the page for October.

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A calendar page for October, made in England in the mid-11th century: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 7v

Falconry was a popular pastime throughout the Middle Ages, and has been illustrated in most of the previous calendars featured on this blog, albeit at different months. 11th-century English noblemen who enjoyed hawking may have included King Harold II, who was depicted with a hawk on the Bayeux Tapestry. After the Norman Conquest, Earl Hugh of Chester may have arranged his entire property portfolio around hawking: records of his lands in Domesday Book include an above-average number of hawks and deer parks. (Did we mention that Domesday Book will also be on display in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition?)

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Detail of a man with a bird, Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 7v

A striking feature of the hawking scene in Cotton MS Julius A VI is how recognisable the birds are to a modern eye. While the artist(s) of this calendar depicted plants and trees in a highly stylized manner, the birds in these images look very similar to ducks and cranes today. This parallels are even clearer in the colourful image of the same scene found in another illustrated 11th-century calendar, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1.

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Detail of men hawking on foot and on horseback, from a calendar in a scientific miscellany from 11th-century England: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 7v

The rest of the calendar contains the usual astronomical, astrological and time-keeping information. Libra is portrayed as a man wearing a cloak and holding scales in a roundel at the top of the page. There is only one feast-day marked out with a gold cross: the feast of St Simon and St Jude on 28 October. Today these saints are considered to be the patrons of lost causes.

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Alfred mentioned in the calendar (first line in the image) that was added to a Psalter in England in the early 10th century: Cotton MS Galba A XVIII, f. 12v

There is someone missing from this calendar and its poem that describes every day of the year. The earliest surviving manuscript of this poem commemorates the death of King Alfred of Wessex (871–899) on 26 October. The calendar in Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, which was made in the 11th century, also commemorates Alfred. But the mid-11th century Julius Work Calendar does not, nor does it commemorate the death of Alfred’s wife, Ealhswith, on December 5.

There are several possible explanations for this omission. First, the scribe of this calendar could have been copying an earlier version of the poem, perhaps composed before Alfred and Ealhswith died. Alternatively, Alfred and Ealhswith could have been replaced in later versions of the poem. While Alfred the Great is arguably the best known Anglo-Saxon king today, he was not necessarily so well remembered in the centuries after his death. In the mid-11th century, his grandson Æthelstan and his great-grandson Edgar were the kings who were fondly remembered in speeches and chronicles. Moreover, these calendars were probably made at monasteries, and specific monasteries took different views of Alfred. While Alfred and his wife were well-remembered in the history of the New Minster, Winchester (where they were buried), the monks of Abingdon in Oxfordshire believed that he had stolen from them.

Instead of Alfred, on 26 October this calendar commemorates the deaths of Maximian and St Amand (Amandus). Amand (d. 675) was a bishop who founded monasteries in Ghent and elsewhere in Flanders, and these churches had close links to English houses in the 10th and 11th centuries. Amand is also remembered today as the patron saint of beer, brewers and bartenders.

To learn more about all these people — and to see some of the books associated with Alfred, Ealhswith and Æthelstan — please come to the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition between 19 October and 19 February. It promises to be a once-in-1302-years experience.

 

Alison Hudson 

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29 September 2018

Memory of the World award ceremony

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On 19 September, at an official award ceremony in London, the Cotton collection of manuscripts held at the British Library was formally admitted on to the UNESCO UK Memory of the World register. We are thrilled that the Cotton library has received this recognition, alongside treasures from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the British Antarctic Survey and other institutions. 

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Dr Claire Breay, Head of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts at the British Library, receiving the inscription certificate for the Cotton collection from UNESCO Ambassador Matthew Lodge (©Simon O’Connor)

The Memory of the World programme serves to preserve significant documentary heritage from across the globe for future generations. The UK Register recognises documentary heritage deemed by a panel of experts on behalf of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to be of outstanding significance to the United Kingdom. As we reported earlier this year, the British Library nominated Sir Robert Cotton's collection of manuscripts for such recognition, on account of its importance as the first library to pass into national ownership in 1702. The Cotton library contains many manuscripts and charters of global and national significance, including two of the original copies of Magna Carta issued by King John in 1215, the Lindisfarne Gospels, and the state papers of several British monarchs.

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The opening page of the Psychomachia, with Sir Robert Cotton's signature: Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII, f. 4r

The Cotton collection contains the largest surviving number of manuscripts written or owned in Anglo-Saxon England. They include volumes such as the oldest English cartulary (Cotton MS Tiberius A XIII), made in 11th-century Worcester; the Coronation Gospels, presented to King Æthelstan in the 10th century and taken by Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631) to the coronation ceremony of Charles I in 1625 (Cotton MS Tiberius A II); and a beautifully illustrated copy of the Psychomachia (Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII).

Vespasian Psalter (Cotton MS Vespasian A I  f31r)

Another Anglo-Saxon manuscript owned by Sir Robert Cotton is the Vespasian Psalter: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 31r

At any given time, several of the Cotton manuscripts can usually be found on display in the Treasures Gallery at the British Library. Many of the Anglo-Saxon volumes in Sir Robert Cotton's collection will be displayed in the Library's forthcoming major exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, which opens on 19 October.

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The Coronation Gospels, made in the 9th century and later owned by Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631): Cotton MS Tiberius A II, f. 3r

 

 

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28 September 2018

Breaking news ...

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It is always exciting to announce acquisitions of new manuscripts by the British Library, but in this case the relevance is doubled: the title of the newly-acquired piece is itself “Breaking News”.

At a recent auction, the British Library was successful in acquiring an 18th-century Greek manuscript. Written in a neat hand on paper, this thin volume bears its title on the first page: “Breaking news from Europe – October 1740”.

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Title page of “Breaking News”: Add MS 89320, f. 2r

This manuscript is a collection of political reports from various parts of Europe, submitted possibly to the patriarch of Constantinople, Paisius II, perhaps by his agents and spies. The main focus is reports on Russia and the Hapsburg Empire, but the volume contains material from many parts of the world, including Germany, London and India.

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A report from London, 15 September 1740: Add MS 89320, f. 3r

Having been under Ottoman Rule for almost 300 years, the patriarchal court in 18th-century Constantinople was very keen to secure foreign support for its endeavours against the Ottoman Empire. Its main attention was directed towards Russia, from where they hoped to gain financial and military support to liberate Constantinople from the Ottomans, by relying on their shared orthodox faith.

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A report from St Petersburg: Add MS 89320, f. 14v

It is no wonder that the “breaking news” collected in this little volume includes detailed reports from St Petersburg. The Russian political situation at this time was rather complicated. The ruler, the Tsaritsa Anna, had died in 1740, leaving a two-month-old baby, Ivan VI, as her legitimate heir. Ivan was enthroned in October of the same year as this manuscript was made.

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“Copy of the report of the Longobard Imperial Surgeon" on the Death of Empress Anna of Russia

The patriarch of Constantinople was obviously interested in these events. “Breaking News” contains a fresh Greek translation of the medical report on the Empress’s death and a copy of the new Emperor’s manifest, followed by a short evaluation of the current political situation of the Empire.

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Armorial bookplate of Sir Frederick North on the inner side of the front board with "No 20" inscribed in ink

Reports by spies are always fun to read. Doubtless Patriarch Paisius II of Constantinople himself enjoyed flipping through this booklet in 1740, but so did others. Early in the 19th century, the manuscript was already in the collection of one of the most famous English collectors of Greek books and manuscripts, Frederick North, later Earl of Guilford.

Sir Frederick was an obsessed philihellenic: he read, collected and lived the Hellenic culture. He was the founder of the Ionian Academy in 1817 and later converted to Greek orthodoxy. His main interest was not only in ancient and Byzantine culture but even more in contemporary Greek literature, politics and religion. He collected an extraordinary amount of primary sources in Greek and Turkish alike for the history of the Greek Orthodox Church under the Ottomans, of which this manuscript was a part. “Breaking News” is already listed in the hand-written catalogue of his Greek manuscripts.

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The “Breaking News” in Sir Thomas Phillipps’s collection (Catalogus librorum manuscriptorum in bibliotheca D. Thomae Phillipps, Typis Medio-Montanis, 1837, p. 109. No. 7242)

His collection was so large that, after his death in 1827 it was sold at a series of auctions held in London. More than 600 of these manuscripts were purchased by the British Museum in 1830, one of its largest early purchases. “Breaking News”, however, was not amongst them, since it had been acquired by another even grander collector of manuscripts, Sir Thomas Phillipps, as MS 7242 in his collection.

After the dispersal of the Phillipps manuscripts through a century of various sales, “Breaking News” has finally found its way back to its original collection. It is now part of the largest single holding of Lord Guilford’s Greek manuscripts. Acquisitioned, catalogued, digitised and published online as Add MS 89320, the “Breaking News” from 1740 has made it into the news again.

21 September 2018

Cataloguer and Researcher, Early modern English manuscripts

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The British Library is undertaking a new project to digitise many of its most important English manuscripts from the period 1500 to 1650. We are recruiting three Cataloguer/Researchers to work on this project, who will use their specialist knowledge of original sources from this period to research and catalogue the manuscripts, to prepare the content for online publication and to promote the digitised collection to a wide audience.

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The speech supposedly delivered by Queen Elizabeth I in 1588 at Tilbury Camp, assembled to defend England against the Spanish Armada, and featuring the poignant lines, "I know I have the body butt of a weake and feble woman, butt I have the harte and stomack of a king, and of a king of England too": Harley MS 6798, f. 87r

Successful candidates will have a post-graduate degree, or its equivalent, in early modern English/British history or literature, or another directly relevant field. They will have specialist knowledge of early modern manuscripts, and a strong knowledge of early modern palaeography, with the ability to read early modern English handwriting fluently. Experience of cataloguing or describing early modern manuscripts is essential, as is a high level of time-management and organisational skills.

The duties of this role are as follows:

  • To undertake research on and catalogue English manuscripts dating from c. 1500–1650
  • To input information into the Library’s manuscripts cataloguing system
  • To review and update existing catalogue descriptions to reflect recent research, checking details against other international databases and publications and adding bibliographies to the records
  • To add authority-controlled data, for example for people, places or subjects
  • To assist and answer queries from staff undertaking quality control of digital images
  • To assist in preparing the digital images for online publication, ensuring that all requisite metadata is captured accurately
  • To write blog posts and tweets and undertake other promotional activities to raise the profile of the digitised collections with specialist and non-specialist audiences
  • To demonstrate a willingness to take on a range of tasks and to develop new skills, as appropriate, in own or other departments/directorates to support the delivery of the Library's services

These are full time, fixed term contract roles, funded until 31 March 2020. There are three positions available.

Full details of the position and how to apply are available here. The reference is 02315.

The closing date is 30 September. Interviews will be held on 15 October.

 

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20 September 2018

The Book of Durrow to be displayed at the British Library

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It is now less than one month until the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition opens at the British Library on 19 October. Today, we are delighted to announce that the Book of Durrow will be on display in the exhibition, on loan from the Library of Trinity College Dublin. This manuscript, dated to the late 7th or turn of the 8th century, is believed to be the earliest fully decorated gospel-book to survive from Ireland or Britain.

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Elaborated initial at the opening of the gospel of Mark

The carpet page and opening of the Gospel of Mark, in the Book of Durrow (Trinity College Library, Dublin, MS 57, ff. 85v–86r). © The Board of Trinity College, Dublin.

The date and origin of the manuscript have long been debated. Strong parallels with early Anglo-Saxon metalwork, including objects from the Sutton Hoo ship burial, encouraged former attributions to Northumbria. A sword pommel from the Staffordshire Hoard, discovered in 2009, also closely resembles some aspects of the decoration in the Book of Durrow and will be on display in the exhibition. However these similarities seem to reflect the dispersal and durability of Anglo-Saxon metalwork, and the strong cultural and artistic connections between Ireland and the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The Book of Durrow is now generally considered to have been produced in the monastery of Durrow, Co. Offaly, or to have arrived there from Iona.

Our forthcoming exhibition will be the first opportunity to see the Book of Durrow in Britain since it was displayed at the Royal Academy in the ‘Treasures of Trinity College Dublin’ exhibition in 1961. The only loan to that exhibition was the Lindisfarne Gospels. Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms will be the first occasion on which the two manuscripts have been exhibited together for nearly 60 years. As we announced in November last year, the exhibition will also include Codex Amiatinus, which was made in Northumbria in the early 8th century and is returning to Britain for the first time since it was taken to Italy in 716.

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The opening of the Gospel of Matthew, in the Lindisfarne Gospels (British Library Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 27r).

The Book of Durrow contains the text of the four Gospels, adorned with spectacular decoration. Its artists drew inspiration from Ireland, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, Pictland and as far away as the Mediterranean. Its designs are outstanding for their precise geometry, harmonious compositions and bold style of drawing. One of the most striking features of the manuscript is its ‘carpet pages’, so-called because they are completely covered with complex geometric designs. Putting abstract ornament centre stage was new to manuscript illumination, and went on to play an important role in Anglo-Saxon gospel-books such as the Lindisfarne Gospels.

Page showing twisted anmals of Anglo-Saxon or germanic influence

The carpet page preceding the Gospel of John, in the Book of Durrow (Trinity College Library, Dublin, MS 57, f. 192v). © The Board of Trinity College, Dublin.

 Other important elements of the manuscript’s artwork are the images of the evangelist symbols, the creatures that symbolise the gospel-writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Early Christian writers assigned the evangelists the symbols of the man, the lion, the ox/calf and the eagle based on the visions of Ezekiel and John the Evangelist in the Bible. The Book of Durrow is the first surviving manuscript in which each Gospel opens with a picture of the evangelist symbol instead of a portrait of the human evangelist. It is also the first surviving instance of a ‘four-symbols page’ in a manuscript, an image of all four evangelist symbols arranged in a cross shape. The linear style and flat blocks of colour suggest that the creatures were inspired by metalwork objects.

Eagle symbol at teh start of the gospel of Mark

The eagle, acting as the evangelist symbol of St Mark, in the Book of Durrow (Trinity College Library, Dublin, MS 57, f. 84v). © The Board of Trinity College, Dublin.

The Book of Durrow is one of the most spectacular surviving works of early medieval art and we are very grateful to Trinity College Dublin for loaning this manuscript to the exhibition. If you haven’t already booked tickets to see the Book of Durrow — along with the earliest surviving complete Latin Bible, Old English poetry, Domesday Book and more early art — you can book them here. The Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition runs from 19 October 2018 to 19 February 2019.

 

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17 September 2018

Two new charters from Ramsey Abbey

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In 2017, we were delighted to receive the gift of two 12th-century charters from Ramsey Abbey, generously donated to the British Library by Abbey College, Ramsey. These two charters have been conserved and photographed, and they can now be viewed on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

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The charters were presented on behalf of the Trustees of the Ramsey Foundation by Robert Heal, Gordon Mather and a group of students from Ramsey Abbey College, pictured here with 
Andrea Clarke and Andrew Dunning of the British Library

Ramsey Abbey was one of the wealthiest and most influential monasteries in medieval England. It was founded by Oswald, bishop of Worcester and later archbishop of York, probably in the late 960s. With help from his benefactor, the nobleman Æthelwine, Oswald turned Ramsey into a major economic force and intellectual centre. It was even briefly home to Abbo of Fleury, one of the leading intellectuals in western Europe, who taught there for two years in the late 980s.

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Detail from the earliest account of the foundation of Ramsey (Ramsege), in Byrhtferth of Ramsey’s Vita sancti Oswaldi, written c. 996–1002 and preserved uniquely in the Cotton-Corpus Legendary, Worcester, 3rd quarter of the 11th century: Cotton MS Nero E/1, f. 11v

Most of our information about Ramsey's early years comes from one of Abbo’s students, Byrhtferth, a talented mathematician, author and teacher in his own right. The British Library has the only surviving copies of Byrhtferth’s Lives of St Oswald and St Ecgwine, as well as parts of three manuscripts that seem to have been based on the handbook he used in his teaching: Cotton MS Nero C VII, ff. 80–84; Harley MS 3667 + Cotton MS Tiberius C I, ff. 2–17; and Cotton MS Tiberius E IV. Ramsey remained an important intellectual centre throughout the Middle Ages, particularly for the study of Hebrew. 

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Byrhtferth’s diagram of the groups of four elements he believed made up the universe, copied at Peterborough, c. 1120–1140: Harley MS 3667, f. 7r

These artistic and intellectual achievements were financed by careful estate management, land acquisitions, protection of the abbey’s rights, record keeping and accounting. The monks kept track of their income and accounts by making charters and other documents, ensuring that the texts could be easily located. The large amounts of documentation surviving from Ramsey make it one of the best places to study life in medieval England, as shown in Ramsey: The Lives of an English Fenland Town, 1200–1600.

The first charter presented to the British Library (Add Ch 77736) is a notification of King Henry I of England (1100–1135), issued at Falaise between 1133 and 1135. It states that William de Houghton, Henry’s chamberlain, has restored to Ramsey Abbey the estate of ‘Bradenache’ (presumably Brandish Wood), along with land at Gidding. This charter features an impression of Henry's Great Seal, in white wax. Its text was also copied into one of the surviving Ramsey Abbey cartularies, Cotton MS Vespasian E II, f. 12r.

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Notification by King Henry I: Add Ch 77736

The second charter (Add Ch 77737) is King Henry II's confirmation of this same grant, issued at Lincoln. Among the witnesses is Thomas Becket, the king’s chancellor (a position he held from 1155 until 1162).

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Confirmation by King Henry II: Add Ch 77737

Until now, these charters had probably remained within a single hectare for the better part of a millennium. Most of Ramsey Abbey’s archives and library were dispersed at the abbey's dissolution in 1539. The British Library now holds the largest segment of their remnants, among which are many charters and cartularies and nineteen manuscripts, including the famous Ramsey Psalter. These two charters seem to have remained on the site, and were owned beyond living memory by Ramsey Abbey School, a grammar school first documented in 1656.

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The Great Seal of King Henry I: Add Ch 77736

We are extremely grateful to Abbey College for its splendid gift to the nation.

 

Alison Hudson and Andrew Dunning

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