Medieval manuscripts blog

265 posts categorized "Medieval history"

29 November 2022

The Lady of Las Huelgas

On 31 December 1313, infanta doña Blanca of Portugal (b. 1259, d. 1321), the first-born daughter of Alfonso III, King of Portugal (r. 1238–1248), and granddaughter of Alfonso X the Wise, King of Castile (r. 1252–1284), made charitable donations to various religious houses, churches and hospitals in Castile. Collectively, her donations amounted to over 20,000 maravedís (the currency of the Castilian Kingdom), a small fortune at the time. The details of Blanca’s grants are recorded in a document housed at the British Library (Add Ch 24806), written in Spanish and affixed with her personal seal. This is one of three original charters made at the time. The others are now in the Archivo de la Catedral de Burgos and the Archivo del Monasterio de Las Huelgas respectively. The charter held at the British Library has recently been digitised as part of our Medieval and Renaissance Women project and it can now be viewed online for the first time.

The charter of Blanca of Portugal

Grant of Doña Blanca of Portugal: Add Ch 24806

The principal beneficiary listed in the charter is the Cistercian abbey of Las Huelgas de Burgos, a royal foundation established by the Castilian king, Alfonso VIII (r. 1158–1214), and Leonor Plantagenet (b. 1160, d. 1214), his wife. From its foundation, Las Huelgas was known as a female convent with strong ties to royal women. Many members of the Castilian royal family professed there as nuns, and some of them performed the role of the Lady or señora of the Abbey.

The particularities of this role changed throughout the centuries, but fundamentally it allowed royal women to hold influence over the abbey and to ensure its preeminent position as a religious and economic centre in the kingdom. The responsibility for the abbey’s religious rule and day-to-day running remained with the abbess. Blanca became the Lady of Las Huelgas in 1295, after professing as a nun at the monastery at the request of her uncle, King Sancho IV (r. 1284–1295).

Blanca

A portrait of Blanca (her name is spelled 'BRANCA') in the ‘Portuguese Genealogies’ (16th century): Add MS 12531/3, f. 9r

Blanca gave generous sums of money to the women of Las Huelgas. Her charter includes detailed instructions of how much money each woman was to receive yearly:

A la abbadesa, dozientos maravedís; a cada una de las monjas, çient maravedís, a cada una de las que fueren para monjas, setenta marevedís; a cada una de las freyras, quarenta maravedís; a cada una de las que fueren para freyras, veynte e çinco marevedís. E mando que den cada anno a tres para ser monjas a cada una trezientos maravedís.

‘To the abbess, 200 maravedís; to each nun, 100 maravedís; to each novice, 70 maravedís; to each freyra [a type of nun], 40 maravedís; to each woman preparing to be a freyra, 25 maravedís. And I order that every year they give to three women who want to join the convent as nuns 300 maravedís’.

Photograph of the abbey of Las Huelgas de Burgos

The abbey of Santa María la Real de Las Huelgas, Burgos, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The other significant beneficiary of Blanca’s donations was the nearby Hospital del Rey. Like the abbey of Las Huelgas, the Hospital del Rey had been founded in the 12th century by King Alfonso VIII and Queen Leonor, and its connection with the royal family continued throughout the medieval period. The hospital received 6,000 maravedís in Blanca’s bequests, to be spent on the care and nursing of the poor, as well as to buy livestock to feed them. Many other religious institutions also benefited from Blanca's grant, including the church of Santa María in Burgos, the church of Santa María in Briviesca, the monastery of Santa Clara of Alcocer in Guadalajara, the monastery of Santo Domingo de Caleruega in Burgos, as well as the lepers of San Lázaro and the ‘emparedadas’ (anchorites) in Burgos.

A map of the beneficiaries of Blanca’s donations

A map of the beneficiaries of Blanca’s donations, courtesy of ArcGIS StoryMaps

Blanca’s donations were an attempt to guarantee her personal legacy and spiritual salvation. Alongside her grants, she provided specific instructions about how she wanted to be remembered by the religious community of Las Huelgas, where she was buried after her death in 1321. Most notably, she arranged for the sisters to commemorate the vigil and the anniversary of her death with 12 wax candles every year, which were to weigh exactly 10 pounds (‘cada çirio de diez libras de cera’). On the anniversary itself, the monastery had to distribute food-alms to the poor, made up of bread, wine and meat. During the year, eight chaplains had to give prayers for Blanca’s soul every day.

Tomb

The tomb of Blanca of Portugal at Las Huelgas, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Blanca’s grant functioned as a display of the piety and patronage expected from a royal infanta and the Lady of Las Huelgas. It also demonstrates how, through their donations, women were able to change the social and economic landscape of the territories over which they ruled.

The seal of Blanca of Portugal

Blanca of Portugal’s fragmentary seal: Add Ch 24806

We are extremely grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for their generous funding of Medieval and Renaissance Women. We will publish more updates about the project on this Blog over the coming months.

 

Paula Del Val Vales

@BLMedieval

08 November 2022

The expenses of Queen Eleanor of Castile

A Psalter, a silver belt, brooches and clasps, Parisian jewels, brown bread from Cologne, nuts and pears: these are all items that Queen Eleanor of Castile (r. 1272–1290) bought between September 1289 and December 1290. Eleanor was the queen consort of the English king, Edward I (r. 1272–1307), and her wardrobe account (Add MS 35294), compiled by her treasurer, John of Berewyk (fl. 1279–1312), contains a set of her receipts and expenses from the final year of her life.

This manuscript has recently been digitised as part of our Medieval and Renaissance Women project and it can now be viewed online.

The opening page of the wardrobe account

The first page of Eleanor’s wardrobe account: Add MS 35294, f. 3r

This account may seem humble in appearance, but it opens a window into the world of Eleanor’s court, her household, and her day-to-day life. The expenses listed range from the most mundane and everyday items, such as her food, payments to her messengers, and the maintenance of her horses, to the incredibly lavish and luxurious, including purchases of jewels, pearls and Venetian glasses. The payments are expressed in pounds, shillings and pence. Here is a typical entry, in this case recording the queen’s purchase of writing materials:

An excerpt from the wardrobe account of Eleanor of Castile

Parcamenum. xvj die Februarii ibidem pro parcameno empto ad letteras Regine et ad libros Garderobe. xxd.

'Parchment. 16 February [1290], in the same place. For parchment bought for the letters and wardrobe books of the queen, 20 pence.'

Entry from 16 February 1290 recording expenses on parchment: Add MS 35294, f. 6v

Between 1289 and 1290, Eleanor bought ink and several rolls of parchment for her letters and wardrobe accounts, as well as red wax to seal her letters, and gold for illuminating her manuscripts. The queen even had an illuminator in her retinue, Godfrey ‘pictor’, who was responsible for decorating her books and is also mentioned in the accounts. All these purchases demonstrate that Queen Eleanor was an avid reader and writer, a woman interested in the patronage of illuminated manuscripts, and that she was in frequent contact with her networks through the exchange of letters.

A number of Eleanor’s letters have survived to the present day. They include another letter digitised and catalogued as part of our Medieval and Renaissance Women project, dating from 1280, in which Eleanor granted power to William de Verges, yeoman, to do fealty in her name to Guy, Count of Flanders, for the land that had fallen to her by hereditary right.

A letter of Eleanor of Castile

Letter of Eleanor of Castile with her seal, sent to Guy, Count of Flanders: Add Ch 8129

Eleanor’s wardrobe account also provides insight into her personal interests. Her treasurer recorded payments that relate to the queen’s homeland — the kingdom of Castile — and that show Eleanor’s longstanding connection to her native kingdom. For example, one entry indicates that the queen bought vestments and tunics of Spanish cloth (‘de panno Ispannie’), while another shows that Eleanor bought gum for the illumination of her manuscripts from the Iberian Peninsula (‘gumma alba de Ispannia’). The wardrobe account also records payments made to the queen’s own fowler (or bird hunter), as well as the purchase of birds (avibus, volucres). This shows the queen’s interest in hunting, which she continued to practise until the end of her life.

Image from an illuminated manuscript showing a woman hunting deer

Bas-de-page of the Alphonso Psalter (c 1284–1316), depicting a crowned woman hunting, suggested to be Eleanor of Castile: Add MS 24686, f. 13v

The final entries from Eleanor’s wardrobe account include several payments relating to the queen’s death on 28 November 1290, when she was 49 years old, as well as the arrangements made for her funeral between November and December 1290. Eleanor’s treasurer notably paid 7 pence to buy a bushel of barley, used as part of the procedure of embalming the queen’s body (‘pro uno bussello ardei empto ad ponendum in corpus Regine’). This was a common practice for English medieval monarchs. The wardrobe account even records Eleanor's death, with a small marginal note in Latin that reads ‘decessus regine’.

Eleanor's tomb effigy at Westminster Abbey, showing her head and shoulders

The queen’s effigy from her tomb: courtesy of Westminster Abbey

We are extremely grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for their generous funding of Medieval and Renaissance Women. We will publish regular updates about the project on this Blog over the coming months.

 

Paula Del Val Vales

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

13 October 2022

A Pardoner’s Tale

Purgatory weighed heavily on the minds of many medieval Christians. Each sin they committed in life meant they would spend longer in Purgatory before ascending to Heaven. For the famous poet Dante Alighieri (c. 1265–1321), Purgatory could involve great suffering, with the prideful crushed under stones and the envious having their eyes sewn up.

A detail from a highly decorated manuscript of the Divine Comedy, showing Dante and Virgil before the Gates of Purgatory.

Dante and Virgil at the gates of Purgatory (left); Dante speaking with one of the Proud, who are punished in Purgatory by carrying heavy stones (right): Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 84r

A whole industry grew up around minimising one’s time in Purgatory. Monasteries and chantries prayed for the dead, in the hopes that this would speed their journey to Heaven. But another method was to get an indulgence. These could be earned through certain acts, like making a pilgrimage to a particular shrine, or simply buying one from various collectors appointed by the Church. In return, people believed that the indulgence gave certain spiritual benefits, such as absolution from part of a person’s sins, which meant a shorter time in Purgatory. The funds from the sale of indulgences sometimes went towards specific projects, like the construction of a cathedral, or to support particular monasteries, hospitals or religious orders.

One of the manuscripts digitised as part of the Library’s Medieval and Renaissance Women project is just such a document. Stowe Ch 607 is an indulgence issued in 1439 to two sisters, Margery and Anna Dicks, which allowed them to choose their own confessor who could offer a full remission of sins. Although hand-written, this indulgence was mass produced, with blank spaces left for the names of whoever bought it. The text states that their money would go towards the conversion of the Greeks (that is, from Greek Orthodox to Roman Catholic Christianity) and the defence of Christendom’s frontiers.

A manuscript leaf with a fragmentary red seal showing the torso of a robed man and a knotwork border.

An indulgence of Pope Eugenius IV, issued by Peter de Monte to Margery and Anna Dicks, 1439: Stowe Ch 607

This particular indulgence was issued in the name of Pope Eugenius IV (r. 1431–1447) by Peter de Monte (c. 1400–1457), the controversial papal collector for England from 1435 to 1441. At the time of the Reformation, indulgence collectors were often accused of corruption by Protestants like Martin Luther, whose Ninety-Five Theses (1517) was written in response to the collector Johann Tetzel, but such men also came in for criticism in the 1400s. The Pardoner of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales carried several fake relics, from a collection of pig bones to a pillowcase which he claimed was the Virgin Mary’s veil, selling them to gullible village priests. Dissidents like the Lollards and many church reformers also criticised indulgences and those who sold them. Thomas Gascoigne (1404–1458), who was chancellor of Oxford University in the 1440s, wrote that people could buy indulgences ‘for an offering of ale, and others for a loathsome act of sin; and others had baskets full of letters of indulgence to sell them throughout the country to whoever wanted to buy them.’

A portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer inside a capital ‘T’, holding an open book in his hands and wearing a grey robe with red hose and shoes.

A portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer in a manuscript of The Canterbury Tales: Lansdowne MS 851, f. 2r

In 1444, Peter de Monte was to be investigated by the archbishop of Canterbury and two other churchmen, following rumours that he had received huge sums of money from these indulgences, but had sent only a small amount to the papal coffers. Later, Gascoigne named de Monte as one of the corrupt sellers of indulgences, calling him a ‘very arrogant Lombard’ (he was actually Venetian). Gascoigne alleged that some people had received indulgences from de Monte in return for ‘false carnal pleasure’, and he claimed that when de Monte lost a game of football, he would give the winner a sealed indulgence instead of money.

A letter from Peter de Monte to William Buggy, vicar of Soham, Cambridgeshire, bound into The Book of Margery Kempe.

A letter from Peter de Monte in the Book of Margery Kempe: Add MS 61823, f. vii recto

We know little about Margery and Anna, not even the amount they paid for their indulgence (which would have been based on their wealth and status). A partial indulgence, that remitted only certain sins, could easily cost a skilled tradesman a week's salary. The type purchased by Margery and Anna (known as a plenary indulgence) would have cost considerably more. We can only assume that they believed in its effectiveness of shortening the time they would spend in Purgatory. As this indulgence was issued in support of the Crusades, and in unifying the Latin and Greek churches, the sisters may have held an interest in supporting the defence and expansion of Latin Christendom, a cause that was widespread in late medieval England.

Although Peter de Monte was investigated by the papacy, he seems to have escaped punishment for his corrupt activities. He was nominated bishop of Brescia, in northern Italy, in 1442, taking up his post in 1445. He withdrew from secular politics following the death of Eugenius IV in 1447, focusing on his bishopric until he died in 1457.

The British Library's Medieval and Renaissance Women digitisation project is in full swing. We are publishing regular updates about the project's progress, and about the manuscripts, rolls and charters that we are digitising, and that will be shared online with you over the coming months. See this blogpost for our most recent report.

 

Rory MacLellan

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

25 August 2022

Hildegard-go!

Earlier this year we announced our major Medieval and Renaissance Women project (you can read more about it in this blogpost.) Thanks to generous funding from Joanna and Graham Barker, the British Library is digitising many of its manuscripts, rolls and charters connected with women from Britain and across Europe, and made between 1100 and 1600.

A page from a medieval manuscript of Hildegard von Bingen's collected works, featuring a decorated border and initials in gold.

The prologue of Hildegard von Bingen’s Liber divinorum operum (Add MS 15418, f. 7r)

We have some great news to report: the first batch of ten manuscript volumes is now available to view online. They include copies of the works of Hildegard von Bingen and Christine de Pizan; a manuscript illuminated by the German nun Sibilla von Bondorf; two witnesses of Le Sacre de Claude de France; a Dutch prayer-book designed to support young women's literacy; and two cartularies (one secular, the other religious). 

A page from a manuscript of The Rule of the Minorite Order of Sisters of St Clare, featuring an illustration of the Virgin Mary and Child, and a bishop, painted by Sibilla von Bondorff.

The Virgin Mary and Child with a bishop, perhaps St Giles, painted by Sibilla von Bondorf, a German nun and artist (Add MS 15686, f. 1r)

A page from a medieval manuscript of a work of Christine de Pizan, showing an illustration of Christine writing at her desk and the armoured goddess Minerva outside.

Christine de Pizan writing in her study and the goddess Minerva, at the beginning of Christine’s Le livre des faits d'armes et de chevalerie (Harley MS 4605, f. 3r)

A full list of the published manuscripts is provided at the end of this post. We'll reveal more on the Blog in the coming months. Hopefully this initial selection whets your appetite for the treats in store!

An illustration from a Middle Dutch prayer-book, showing a group of girls learning in a classroom, with a teacher holding a wooden paddle.

An illustration of girls learning to read in a classroom, from a Middle Dutch prayer-book (Harley MS 3828, f. 27v)

A brief word about how we've chosen the manuscripts. In February, we asked readers of the Medieval Manuscripts Blog to recommend items that were most relevant to their research and to the themes of our project, such as female health, education and spirituality. The feedback was astonishing — we received over 60 suggestions of manuscripts from nearly 30 researchers and other members of the public — and we'd like to take this opportunity to thank each and every one of you for your enthusiastic responses. We then compared these nominations with other collection items held at the Library, taking into consideration factors such as the contents and date of each manuscript, its direct relevance to the lives of medieval and Renaissance women, and whether the manuscript's condition makes it suitable for digitisation. We've also strived to be as representative as possible by including manuscripts from different regions of Europe (and in different languages), as well as from the whole period 1100–1600.

Add MS 15418

Hildegard von Bingen, Liber divinorum operum

England, 15th century

Add MS 15686

Rule of the Minorite Order of Sisters of St Clare, illuminated by Sibilla von Bondorf

Swabia, c. 1480

Add MS 29986

Le Miroir des Dames (an anonymous French translation of Durand de Champagne's Speculum dominarum)    

France, 1407–1410

Cotton MS Titus A XVII

Le Sacre, Couronnement, et Entrée de Claude de France

Paris, 1517

Harley MS 3828

Middle Dutch prayer-book

Southern Netherlands, c. 1440-c. 1500

Harley MS 4605

Christine de Pizan, Le Livre des faits d'armes et de chevalerie

London, 1434

Harley MS 6670

Cartulary of Coldstream Priory

Coldstream, 1434

Royal MS 19 B XVI

Le Miroir des Dames (an anonymous French translation of Durand de Champagne's Speculum dominarum)    

Northern France, 1428

Stowe MS 582

Le Sacre, Couronnement, et Entrée de Claude de France

Paris, 1517

Stowe MS 776

Cartulary of the estates of John de Vaux and his daughter and co-heiress Petronilla de Narford

England, 14th century

 

A page from a manuscript of Le Sacre de Claude de France, showing an illustration of the French Queen's coronation.

The Coronation of Claude de France at St Denis in 1517 (Stowe MS 582, f. 18v)

A page from the Cartulary of Coldstream Priory, showing the text of a charter, with a marginal drawing of a lion in red and black ink.

The cartulary of Coldstream Priory (Harley MS 6670, f. 22r)

 

Julian Harrison and Calum Cockburn

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

18 August 2022

The man with the golden bulla

Our current Gold exhibition includes a number of the Library’s most famous treasures, but it also contains some little-known gems. One of the objects that was most fun to research is also one of the least familiar: the golden bulla of Baldwin II, Latin Emperor of Constantinople, attached to a land grant from May 1269. When I first came across this item while scoping for the exhibition, I had never seen a golden bulla before, nor had I heard of the Latin Emperors of Constantinople. But a bit of digging turned up the fascinating story of a failed emperor and his golden self-promotion.

A medieval charter with a gold seal attached to the bottom by red cords
Charter and golden bulla of Baldwin II, Latin Emperor of Constantinople (Biervliet, May 1269): Add Ch 14365

What is a golden bulla?

In medieval Europe people authenticated documents by attaching a seal impressed with their unique design. Usually these seals were made from wax, but occasionally they were made from metals such as lead or gold. These metal seals were known as bullae (from the Latin for ‘bubble’) and were generally reserved for the most prestigious papal and imperial documents.

The use of golden bullae to seal documents is associated most closely with the Byzantine Emperors. The Byzantine Empire was the Greek-speaking eastern half of the Roman Empire which continued as a major power until 1453, when its capital, Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), fell to the Ottoman Empire. The golden seal, or chrysobull in Greek, was an effective emblem of Byzantine government, used by the emperor to authorise formal documents such as diplomatic correspondence, decrees of law and grants of privileges. The earliest surviving examples are from the Byzantine Emperor Basil I (r. 866-86).

A Byzantine gold seal, showing two figures holding a military standard, with inscriptions round the edges
Gold seal of the Byzantine Emperor Basil I, depicted with his eldest son Constantine (Constantinople, 866-86) (Source: The British Museum © The Trustees of the British Museum)

Some western rulers imitated the Byzantine practice of sealing important documents in gold, especially the Holy Roman Emperors. The British Library holds just one other medieval golden bulla, that of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III (r. 1440-1493).

A gold seal showing a enthroned emperor, with inscriptions around the edges
Gold seal of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III (Germany, 1440-1493): Seal XLIII.161

The high material value of golden bullae meant that they were frequently melted down and reused. For example, in the 11th century the Holy Roman Emperor Henry III gave a letter from the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX to the church at Goslar, where the gold bulla was melted down to make a chalice (as recorded in the Chronicon Sanctorum Simonis et Judae Goslariense). With their restricted use and low survival rate, medieval gold bullae are extremely rare today.

Who was Baldwin II, Latin Emperor of Constantinople?

The golden bulla that features in the Gold exhibition is particularly fascinating because it was not issued by a Byzantine emperor, but by a man who was pretending to be one. In 1204, during the Fourth Crusade, a crusader army from western Europe captured the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. The crusaders founded a new Latin Empire of Constantinople with one of their leaders, Baldwin of Flanders, as emperor. His Flemish family ruled Constantinople for the next 57 years until the city was retaken by the Byzantine Greeks in 1261. The final Latin Emperor of Constantinople was Baldwin II, nephew of the first emperor and issuer of our golden bulla.

Baldwin II was born in Constantinople in 1217 and became Latin Emperor in 1228 at the age of eleven. He spent his reign struggling to hold onto power and desperately attempting to raise funds from western rulers. Perhaps his most notable legacy is that he sold one of the most holy Christian relics, the Crown of Thorns, formerly kept in Constantinople, to King Louis IX of France, who built the royal chapel of Sainte-Chapelle to receive it. The relic was preserved at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris until the fire of 2019, when it was rescued from the blaze and moved to the Louvre.

Medieval miniature showing King Louis receiving the Crown of Thorns and other relics from a group of churchmen
Louis IX receiving the Crown of Thorns and other relics from Constantinople, Les Grandes chroniques de France (Paris, 1332-1350): Royal MS 16 G VI, f. 395r

 

The Crown of Thorns
The Crown of Thorns, encased in a circular crystal reliquary of 1896, the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris (Source: Wikimedia / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Baldwin’s reign came to an end on the night of 24 July 1261 when Greek Byzantine soldiers launched a surprise attack and recaptured Constantinople. Luckily, Baldwin and many other inhabitants were rescued by the Venetian fleet. Although he spent the rest of his life in exile in western Europe, Baldwin never gave up his claim to the throne of Constantinople nor stopped using the title of emperor.

Decoding Baldwin’s golden bulla

The golden bulla at the British Library dates from after Baldwin was deposed and fled west. The charter to which it is attached was issued in May 1269 at Biervliet, a small town in the Netherlands. In it, Baldwin confirmed the grant of lands at Biervliet by his uncle, Philip I, Marquis of Namur, to the church of St Bavo in Ghent. The seal is made from two thin gold plates, each stamped with a different design, then joined together, rather like the foil on a chocolate coin. It is affixed to the document with red silk cords which pass through the interior of the bulla between the two plates.

Although the charter deals with the administration of Baldwin’s ancestral lands in Flanders, its gold seal speaks of his pretensions in Constantinople. The rare use of the golden bulla emulates Byzantine imperial practice, and the images and inscriptions reinforce Baldwin’s claim to be emperor.

The front of the seal shows Baldwin seated on a throne in full Byzantine regalia. He wears a Byzantine-style crown with pendilia (hanging ornaments) and holds the imperial sceptre and globe. He also wears a loros, an embroidered cloth wrapped around the torso and draped over the left arm. The Latin inscription reads:

‘BALDUINUS DEI : GRATIA : IMPERATOR ROMANIAE SEMPER: AVGUSTUS’

(Baldwin Augustus, by the grace of God, Emperor of Romania forever).

Romania (‘the land of the Romans’) was one of the contemporary names given to the Latin Empire of Constantinople, which was claimed to be the second Rome and the legitimate heir of the Roman Empire.

The front of the golden bulla, showing Baldwin seated on a throne, holding the orb and sceptre and weating a crown and loros, with a Latin inscription around the edge
The golden bulla of Baldwin II (Biervliet, May 1269): Add Ch 14365, obverse

The reverse of the bulla shows Baldwin on horseback bearing the Byzantine crown and sceptre, perhaps as a reference to the famous equestrian statue of Emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565) that stood in the main square of Constantinople in the Middle Ages. Remarkably for a seal issued in the Netherlands, the inscription on this side is in Greek. It reads:

‘BAΛΔOINOC ΔECΠOTHC . ΠOPΦIPOΓENNHTOC ΦΛANΔPAC’

(Baldoinos despotes Porphyrogennetos Phlandras / Baldwin the Ruler, purple-born, from Flanders).

The term Porphyrogennetos (‘born in the purple’) was used to refer to individuals born legitimately to a reigning emperor. The term was said to refer to the porphyry chamber in the imperial palace of Constantinople where empresses traditionally gave birth. Baldwin’s description of himself as Porphyrogennetos emphasises his birth-right as a Byzantine emperor as well as his birth location in the imperial palace in Constantinople.

The reverse of the golden bulla, showing Baldwin on horseback with the crown and sceptre, with a Greek inscription round the edge
The golden bulla of Baldwin II (Biervliet, May 1269): Add Ch 14365, reverse

They say that all that glisters is not gold. Baldwin’s bulla is certainly golden, but the message of imperial power it conveys is illusory. By the time it was issued, the crown of Constantinople was firmly planted on another man's head. Still, this rare object is fascinating for its cross-cultural mix of features and its insight into one man’s construction of a public persona at odds with reality.

The British Library’s Gold exhibition runs until 2 October 2022. You can book tickets online now. An accompanying book Gold: Spectacular Manuscripts from Around the World is available from the British Library shop.

Eleanor Jackson
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Supported by:

BullionVault logo

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.

09 August 2022

Breaking the news of the fall of Richard II

The oldest item in the British Library’s current Breaking the News exhibition (open until 21 August 2022) is an account of the Battle of Flodden in 1513. This small pamphlet is the earliest surviving example of printed news in Britain, but of course written records of contemporary events and experiences survive from ancient times, and from many parts of the world.

Page with printed image of an army with spears behind a hill, and a soldier handing a message to a king in front of a pavilion
An illustrated account of the Battle of Flodden, ‘Hereafter ensue the trewe encountre of batayle lately don betwene Engla[n]de and Scotlande etc’., Richard Fa[w]ques [1513].

A key focus of the current exhibition is the biases revealed in the way news is reported. Though they may not have been as immediate, or intended for circulation in the same way that news is today, medieval historical chronicles are evidence of the way events were seen and recorded by eyewitnesses at the time or shortly afterwards. The material that writers of chronicles chose to include or omit can tell us as much about their viewpoints and opinions as the contents themselves. An example of this is the story of capture of King Richard II of England (r. 1377 – 1399) in 1399, his mysterious death soon afterwards, and the usurpation of the throne by Henry Bolingbroke, who then became Henry IV of England (r. 1399 – 1413).

In the later Middle Ages, those in power in England and on the Continent were keen to own books about the history of their dynasties, and some of these include reports of near-contemporary events. The fall of Richard II is recorded and illustrated in a number of histories and chronicles produced shortly after the event. One of these is a work by Jean Creton in rhyming French, the La Prinse et mort du roy Richart (Book of the Capture and Death of King Richard II), devoted purely to the subject.

A group of noblemen in a castle with turrets, with one kneeling holding a sceptre before a figure in a red robe; knights guard the gate; text beneath
Richard II meets Henry Bolingbroke at Flint Castle, from La Prinse et mort du roy Richart (Paris, 1401-1420), Harley MS 1319, f. 50r

Jean Creton, a historian and poet who was sent in April 1399 by King Charles VI of France to accompany Richard II on a military expedition to Ireland, gave an eyewitness account of the capture of the king at Flint Castle in August 1399 and was commissioned by Philip the Bold, duke of Burgundy, to write this record. In his account, Jean condemns Henry’s treasonous acts, and those of his supporters, and calls for a response from the French, Flemish, Germans and Bretons.

Seven copies survive, of which only this one (Harley MS 1319), formerly owned by the Duc de Berry, brother of the French king, is illustrated. The dramatic miniatures provide an eyewitness perspective and guide the audience’s interpretation. For example, bright costumes are used to identify the key characters and their ranks.

A figure in a red robe is led by a bearded figure in a tall hat and spurs towards a group of figures with swords in front of a city gate; knights with pikes stand behind
Richard II is delivered to the citizens of London, from La Prinse et mort du roy Richart (Paris, 1401-1420), Harley MS 1319, f. 53v

 

Seated robed men and women on either side of a red throne are presented to a man in a blue and gold garment
Henry IV is recognized as king by parliament, from La Prinse et mort du roy Richart (Paris, 1401-1420), Harley MS 1319, f. 57r

A comprehensive account of events surrounding the deposition of Richard II was also recorded by Jean Froissart (c.1337- c.1405), a courtier and historian who worked in England and the Low Countries. His Chroniques deal mainly with events in England, France and Burgundy during the Hundred Years War. Froissart, perhaps wary of alienating the new king, does not take sides by attributing the murder to Henry IV.

A king in ermine receives a sceptre from a man in a grey garment before a throne in a palace; courtiers watch and two seated men read from scrolls
Richard resigning the crown; the funeral of Richard II, from Jean Froissart, Chroniques, vol 4 (Bruges, c. 1480): Royal MS 18 E ii, f. 401v

Froissart’s Chroniques end in 1400 and the last episode illustrated in this copy is Richard II’s funeral, though the text itself ends with a dispute in 1400 between the Pope, the king of France and the citizens of Liege, in which Froissart tells how the latter threatened to throw any further messengers sent by the Pope into the River Meuse! At this point, aged around 63, he ended his chronicle but it remained a popular historical work, with copies like this one being made in the late 15th century and beyond.

This copy of Froissart’s Chroniques (Royal MS 18 E ii) was made for King Edward IV (r. 1461 – 1470), who had also gained the throne of England after deposing the previous king, who died mysteriously thereafter. In this case the deposed king was Henry VI, grandson of Henry IV who had deposed Richard II. Perhaps Edward pondered on this striking parallel as he read his finely illuminated chronicle manuscript.

A funeral cortage in a city, with a carriage containing a body pulled by two horses and mourners in black robes riding beside it; citizens watch from behind
The funeral of Richard II, from Jean Froissart, Chroniques, vol 4 (Bruges, c. 1480), Royal MS 18 E ii, f. 416v

You can find out about news in modern and contemporary times in the British Library’s Breaking the News exhibition, which runs to Sunday 21 August. For more on French chronicles in British Library manuscripts, see our virtual exhibition on Writing and Picturing History, Historical Manuscripts from the Royal collection.

Chantry Westwell

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30 July 2022

A tour of the Tower

Begun by William the Conqueror in the late 11th century, the Tower of London became the premier royal castle of medieval England. Besieged many times, the Tower was also home to elaborate royal apartments built by Edward I, while in the Tudor period many famous prisoners passed through its infamous Traitor’s Gate, including Anne Boleyn and the future Elizabeth I. But did you know that the British Library holds the earliest detailed image of this imposing fortress, extravagant palace, and notorious prison, dating from the 1400s?

Miniature of Charles, duke of Orléans, imprisoned in the Tower of London, with the city and London Bridge in the background

The oldest realistic view of the Tower of London, dating from the 1480s: Royal MS 16 F II, f. 73r

The very first surviving image of the Tower can be seen below. It is a drawing of London made around 1252 by Matthew Paris, monk and chronicler of St Albans Abbey. Part of an illustrated itinerary of the journey from London to Jerusalem, Paris’s drawing of the Tower shows the castle’s central keep, called the White Tower, as well as an outer wall, but very little other detail. We cannot see any of the fortress’s many other towers, and the castle is also placed on the wrong side of the river. It was not for over two centuries later that a French artist would create the first detailed image of the Tower.

Drawing of medieval London, including the Tower, St Paul’s Cathedral, and Westminster Abbey, enclosed by the city wall

London in the 1250s, as drawn by Matthew Paris. The Tower is in the top left quarter: Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 2r

The miniature below is from a collection of poems by Charles, duke of Orléans (1394–1465). The manuscript was created around 1483, the year Edward V and Richard, duke of York, the famous Princes in the Tower, were imprisoned there and soon disappeared, probably murdered on the orders of their uncle, King Richard III. Duke Charles had been captured by Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, and he was then imprisoned at the Tower where he wrote many of his poems until his release in 1440. The image shows four simultaneous scenes, (1) of Charles writing poetry, (2) gazing out of a window in the White Tower, (3) greeting a man outside the White Tower, and (4) riding towards the castle gate and freedom. Although the illustrator used some artistic licence to stretch the castle’s outer wall, as a result of depicting several simultaneous scenes in different parts of the castle, we can still identify many of the locations shown here.

Annotated image of the Tower of London and London Bridge in the background, from an illuminated manuscript made c. 1483

The Tower of London, where Charles, duke of Orléans, was imprisoned: Royal MS 16 F II, f. 73r

At the centre of the image we can see the St Thomas Tower, built under Edward I, and the infamous Traitor’s Gate beneath it. This was the private water-gate of the king, leading to the royal bedchamber in the tower above. In front of the gate is the wharf that runs along the Thames outside the castle. Behind the St Thomas Tower are the battlements of the Wakefield Tower, which contained the royal apartments of Henry III.

To the right of the St Thomas Tower we can see the brown roof of the great hall, no longer standing. Next to it, just on the edge of the frame, is the Lanthorn Tower. Originally the queen’s lodgings, this was later used by Edward II, rather than the king’s apartments in the St Thomas Tower, which were then used by one of his favourites. Beyond these, we can see the rounded Bell Tower, a wall along the entrance to Mint Street, and finally the Byward Tower, which Charles and his entourage are passing through to leave the Tower. Behind the castle we can see the city of London with London Bridge and its drawbridge. However, none of the various spires in the distance beyond the bridge can be linked to one of the city’s many medieval churches. Between the Tower and the bridge is the old medieval custom house and the edge of Tower Hill.

The artistic style suggests that the illustrator was Dutch. The detail in their depiction of the Tower and the city suggests that they either used another illustration of the Tower as a model, or they may have even been resident in London, using first-hand knowledge to depict the city and its castle. This would explain how their depiction of the Tower can be so accurate in its detail, such as the White Tower’s three square and one round turrets being correctly positioned as if one was indeed viewing the castle from the south bank of the river.

The White Tower of the Tower of London today

The White Tower of the Tower of London: image from Wikimedia

For more about early images of London, see our blogpost on London in medieval manuscripts, and to read more about Charles D'Orléans manuscripts at the British Library, see our blogpost Charles d'Orléans, earliest known Valentine? You can also read about one of the Tower’s more unusual residents, Henry III's elephant.

 

Rory MacLellan

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14 July 2022

African kings on medieval and Renaissance maps

One of the questions that we consider in our current Gold exhibition is ‘where did the gold come from?’ In medieval Europe, natural deposits of gold were limited so most gold had to be either recycled by melting down older objects or imported by long-distance trade. From the 8th to 16th centuries, the kingdoms of West Africa were major suppliers and traders of gold, which was carried by camel caravans across the Sahara Desert to North Africa. From there, the gold travelled with merchants into the Middle East and Europe. Some of it ended up illuminating manuscripts thousands of miles away. 

Medieval Europeans had little reliable information about West Africa, but they did know that it was an abundant source of gold. One account that made it all the way to medieval Europe was of the phenomenally wealthy Mansa Musa (r. 1312 to 1337), emperor of Mali, whose empire covered an area larger than Western Europe. In 1324 Mansa Musa made a pilgrimage to Mecca, bringing so much gold with him that it devalued the price of gold in Egypt, where he stopped on the way, for years afterwards. He is sometimes said to have been the richest person in history. In Europe, tales of this gold-drenched ruler made such an impression that he was portrayed on luxurious illustrated maps from the 14th to 16th centuries.

Detail from a map showing two people travelling on camels surrounded by palm trees
Detail of people travelling across Africa on camels, from a map probably produced in Messina, Sicily, (between 1520 and 1588): Add MS 31318 B

The earliest surviving map to depict Mansa Musa is the famous Catalan Atlas of 1375 (Paris, BnF, MS. Espagnol 30). This manuscript is attributed to Abraham Cresques, a 14th-century Jewish cartographer from Majorca. It includes a picture of Mansa Musa seated on a throne, wearing a gold crown and holding a sceptre and a round gold object, perhaps an orb, coin or nugget of gold. An accompanying caption in Catalan explains:

‘This Black ruler is named Musse Melly (Musa of Mali), lord of Guinea. This king is the richest and noblest ruler of this whole region because of the abundance of gold that is found in his lands’.

Illustration of Mansa Musa as a seated king holding a round gold object
Illustration of Mansa Musa from the Catalan Atlas (around 1375): Paris, BnF, MS. Espagnol 30 (Source gallica.bnf.fr / BnF)

From then on, the figure of Mansa Musa sometimes appears on luxurious illustrated maps, always with emphasis on his vast riches of gold. In the Gold exhibition, you can see an example from the Queen Mary Atlas. This impressive volume, probably made for Queen Mary I of England and her husband Philip II of Spain, was completed by Portuguese cartographer Diogo Homem in 1558. You can read more about it in a previous blogpost.

A map of the Southern Atlantic
A map of the Southern Atlantic, showing the western coast of Africa with the eastern coast of South America, from the Queen Mary Atlas (completed 1558): Add MS 5415 A, f. 14r

While the detailed outlines and place names along the coasts reveal the extent of Portuguese exploration of Africa by sea, the interior of the continent is depicted more vaguely. Some of the information is based on centuries-old traditions, including the pictures of African rulers, labelled in Latin: ‘Emperor of Mali’, ‘King of Nubia’ and ‘Manicongo’ (ruler of the kingdom of Kongo). Although not specifically named, the ‘Emperor of Mali’ is probably intended as Mansa Musa, given the long tradition of portraying him on illustrated maps. The depictions emphasise the wealth and power of the African rulers, with their prominent golden crowns, sceptres and jewellery.  

Three detail images of African Kings
Details of African rulers, the ‘Emperor of Mali’, ‘King of Nubia’ and ‘Manicongo’, from the Queen Mary Atlas (completed 1558): Add MS 5415 A, f. 14r

Another example is on a map showing Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, made around 1529 by cartographer Conte di Ottomanno Freducci, who was based in Ancona, Italy (active 1497-1539). Unusually Mansa Musa is represented with white skin, wearing European-style clothing and playing a stringed musical instrument.

A map of Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa
A map of Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, made in Ancona, Italy (around 1529): Add MS 11548

 

Detail of Mansa Musa as a seated figure with white skin, playing a stringed instrument
Detail of Mansa Musa, from a map made in Ancona, Italy (around 1529): Add MS 11548

The image of Mansa Musa on this map is accompanied by a caption in Latin which praises him as a ruler and emphasises his great wealth in gold:

‘This king Mansa Musa rules the province of Guinea and is no less prudent and knowledgeable than powerful. He has with him excellent mathematicians and men versed in the liberal arts, and he has great riches, as he is near the branch of the Nile which is called the Gulf of Gold. From this is brought a great quantity of gold dust or tibr, and this is a passage through his kingdom, and these regions abound in all the things that there are above the ground, particularly in dates and manna, and the best of all other things that can be had — they only lack salt’.

(Translation from Chet Van Duzer, 'Nautical Charts, Texts, and Transmission', eBLJ 2017, p. 32, available online)

Despite the whitewashing of the image of Mansa Musa on this map, the caption does seem to contain some authentic information about the trans-Saharan trade in gold. It refers to the Arabic word for gold dust ‘tibr’, and correctly identifies salt as one of the major commodities exchanged for gold in West Africa. 

A further example is on a map attributed to Jacobo Russo, a cartographer who was active from 1520 to 1588 in Messina, Sicily. On this map, the rulers are not captioned but their identities are implied by the cities they are pictured beside. The figure of a Black ruler holding two large gold rings next to a city labelled ‘Guinea’ is most likely intended as Mansa Musa. The large gold rings suggest his wealth in gold, while the camels and camel-riders pictured nearby hint at the importance of this region for trading caravans. 

A map of Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa
A map probably produced in Messina, Sicily (between 1520 and 1588): Add MS 31318 B

 

Detail of a map, showing a seated king holding two gold rings, beside him two camels
Detail of the ruler of Guinea, next to camels, from a map probably produced in Messina, Sicily (between 1520 and 1588): Add MS 31318 B

These 16th-century maps stand at a turning point in the history of relations between Europe and West Africa. On the one hand, they illustrate the trans-Saharan trade in gold which had flourished for centuries. On the other, they show that Europeans had already managed to bypass the caravan routes by establishing direct overseas trade with West Africa. Initially their main goal was to obtain gold, but increasingly also people to enslave. In the following centuries, West African gold would become marginalised and the region devastated by the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Yet these depictions of medieval African rulers are a vivid reminder of an earlier time when West Africa was a centre of wealth, power and global connections, celebrated the world over for its glorious gold. 

If you would like to find out more about medieval West Africa, we recommend the article Building West Africa on the British Library’s West Africa webspace, and the companion website for the past exhibition Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time by the Block Museum of Art. 

The British Library’s Gold exhibition runs from 20 May to 2 October 2022 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.

Eleanor Jackson

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Supported by: 

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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. 

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