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15 April 2021

A newly discovered manuscript from Byland Abbey

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In 1538, the Cistercian abbey of St Mary at Byland in Yorkshire surrendered its house to King Henry VIII (r. 1509–1547), who was dissolving all of England’s religious houses around this time. The abbey was founded in 1153 in a remote area of the North Yorkshire Moors. This location was particularly suitable for Cistercian monks, since their order encouraged them to seek solitude at desolate and wild locations. The abbey grew to become one of England’s largest Cistercian monasteries and amassed a magnificent library of most likely hundreds of books. With Byland Abbey’s dissolution, however, its library became forever dispersed. Until now, only a small number of its manuscripts have been rediscovered. However, in our ongoing Harley cataloguing project, we have identified a previously unknown Byland Abbey manuscript. In this blogpost, we will explore this discovery further.

A watercolour, showing a gateway, with behind it the ruins of an abbey, representing Byland.
A watercolour of Byland Abbey, as seen through its gateway, by John Chessell Buckler (1793–1894): Add MS 37120/9

The MLGB3 website records twenty-six manuscripts and manuscript fragments that have been identified from the library of Byland Abbey. Many of these manuscripts are now kept at the British Library. Most famous among these is a theological manuscript (Royal MS 15 A XX) which features ghost stories that were written by one of the abbey’s monks in the early 15th century. You can read about these spine-chilling tales in our previous blogpost.

Other Byland Abbey manuscripts include religious works such as a 13th-century copy of the Verbum Abbreviatum [Abridged Word] (Add MS 35180), a manual on moral theology by the French theologian Peter Cantor (d. 1197); a late 12th- or early 13th-century copy of the Historica Scolastica (Arundel MS 368), a work on biblical history by the French theologian Petrus Comestor (d. 1178); and a 12th-century copy of the Gesta Pontificum Anglorum [Deeds of the Bishops of the English] (Harley MS 3641) by the Benedictine monk and historian William of Malmesbury (b. c. 1090, d. in or after 1142).

A large red initial ‘P’ with penwork decoration in the same colour at the beginning of William of Malmesbury’s history of the deeds of English bishops.
The opening of William of Malmesbury Gesta Pontificum Anglorum (Byland, 2nd half of the 12th century): Harley MS 3641, f. 1r

To these identified manuscripts from Byland Abbey, we can now add a Bible from the second quarter of the 13th century (Harley MS 2807). The manuscript of almost 340 parchment leaves is ornamented with decorated initials throughout. Strikingly for a manuscript from a Cistercian house from this period, some of these initials also contain illustrations. Cistercian manuscripts, in line with the order’s ideals of austerity and simplicity, typically only feature restricted forms of decoration at this date. The order issued statutes between 1145 and 1151, and in 1202, which stipulated that letters should be made of one colour and contain no figurative images. Only one of Byland’s identified manuscripts features figurative images. This is a 12th-century Psalter (York, Minster Library, MS XVI.I.7) with two initials containing dragons that combat human figures. The Harley manuscript, in contrast, has three decorated initials, of which two are elaborate and depict identifiable historical and biblical figures.

The first of the decorated letters in the Harley manuscript appears at the beginning of a prefatory letter by St Jerome (c. 342–420), known for his work on the translation of the Latin Vulgate Bible. Here an initial ‘F’ features a depiction of St Jerome at his writing desk.

A blue and red initial with a tonsured figure in a dark blue habit seated at a writing desk, holding a scroll in one hand and a quill in the other
St Jerome at his writing desk in a decorated initial ‘F’ (? Byland, 2nd quarter of the 13th century): Harley MS 2807, f. 3r

Another example of the manuscript’s illustrations can be found at the beginning of the Book of Genesis, where the initial ‘I’ features scenes from the Creation, with, below that, a depiction of the Crucifixion.

A green initial ‘I’ with six panels that represent scenes from the Creation, and in the lower margin, a seventh panel of the Crucifixion, with the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist next to Christ on the Cross.
Scenes from the Creation and Crucifixion in a decorated initial ‘I’ (? Byland, 2nd quarter of the 13th century): Harley MS 2807, f. 5v

Further, an initial ‘I’ at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark features a horned mask at the top and a three-faced crowned head upside-down at the bottom.

A blue and red initial ‘I’ with a horned grotesque on top of the letter, and below the letter, upside down, a three-faced crowned head that seems to be breathing fire out of two of its mouths.
An initial decorated ‘I’ with grotesques at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark (? Byland, 2nd quarter of the 13th century): Harley MS 2807, f. 283v

Until now, little was known about the manuscript’s origin and ownership before it reached the library of Robert Harley (1661–1724) and his son Edward Harley (1689–1741). Its only known owner was William Petyt (1636–1707), antiquary of Middle Temple and Keeper of the Tower Records, who added his coat of arms and a title-page in 1665.

The heraldic achievement of William Petyt, including his coat of arms, mantle, helmet, crest, and motto, coloured with red, pink, and gold.
The heraldic achievement of William Petyt, added in 1665 to f. 1r of Harley MS 2807

In re-cataloguing the Bible manuscript, however, we have found two previously unnoticed erased inscriptions written on empty pages at the end of the volume. More importantly, with the help of UV light, we have been able to decipher both of these.

One inscription is written in a 13th-century script and confirms Byland Abbey’s ownership in a Latin formula that can be found in various of its other manuscripts: ‘Liber Sancte Marie de Bellalanda’ [The Book of St Mary of Byland]. You can compare this inscription with the nearly identical ownership inscription that is visible in the second image of this blogpost (at the top of f. 1r of William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Pontificum Anglorum in Harley MS 3641).

13th-century inscription under UV light
UV light image of an erased 13th-century ownership inscription by Byland Abbey in Harley MS 2807, f. 339r

The other inscription also confirms Byland’s ownership, but it is written in a 15th-century script and gives the monastery’s location in English: ‘Liber Beate Marie de Byland’. This ownership formula can only be found in one other manuscript (now Manchester, John Rylands Library, Lat. 153). Both inscriptions may have been added by the same 15th-century librarian at the abbey.

15th-century inscription under UV light
UV light image of an erased 15th-century ownership inscription by Byland Abbey in Harley MS 2807, f. 338v

These inscriptions leave little doubt that Harley MS 2807 was present at Byland Abbey soon after its production, and was kept there for hundreds of years, probably until the monastery’s dissolution. The identification of the manuscript’s provenance contributes to the efforts of scholars to reconstruct the monastic libraries that were dispersed in King Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries. Further research into the manuscript may shed new light on book production by Cistercian monasteries in Northern England, and on their changing views on the use of decoration in the books they preserved.

We will keep posting on the findings that we are making in our Harley cataloguing project, so keep a close eye on this blog!

Clarck Drieshen
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

30 March 2021

Great medieval bake off: Lent edition

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You are probably familiar with the Christian tradition of giving up something for Lent, the forty-day period before Easter. In the Middle Ages, however, the rules of Lent were much stricter: it was a period of obligatory fasting for all but the very old, very young or very sick. People were only allowed one meal per day and were forbidden from eating all meat, dairy and eggs, with the exception of fish. Many medieval people found these rules very challenging, so cooks tried to find creative ways to make the most of the few cheering foods that were still allowed – especially wine, ale, nuts, fruit, sugar and spice.

The great medieval bake off team are taking up the challenge of medieval Lenten baking by recreating three recipes for Lent or fast days from a Middle English recipe book from the 1430s, Harley MS 279. On your marks, get set, bake!

Medieval drawing of fasting nuns at the refectory table being served by skeletons
Fasting nuns at the refectory table being served by skeletons (an allegory of abstinence), from Cotton MS Tiberius A VII/1, f. 97v

Clarck’s recipe: Flathouns in Lente

Flathouns recipe in a medieval manuscript
Recipe for ‘Flathouns in lente’, from Harley MS 279, f. 43v

Take an drawe a þrifty Milke of Almandes temper with Sugre Water . þan take hardid cofyns and pore þin comad þer on . blaunche Almaundis hol and caste þer on Pouder Gyngere Canelle Sugre Salt and Safroun bake hem and serve forth

Take and blend a rich milk of almonds, mix it with sugar water, then take hardened pastry crusts and pour your filling on them, blanch whole almonds and sprinkle ginger powder, cinnamon, sugar, salt, and saffron on them, bake them and serve them forth.

Flat pies, known as ‘Flathouns’, were evidently a popular delicacy in 15th-century England. Our Harley manuscript has two recipes for them. One version contains a sweet custard filling made with dairy milk, eggs, and butter. The other one is almond-based and specifically made for Lent.

Almonds were a popular ingredient in recipes for medieval days of fast. People thought that they were good for your health as well. In her book Physica, a work on natural medicine, the German abbess and polymath Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179) recommended almonds for remedying headaches, restoring a healthy colour to one’s face, and strengthening the lungs and liver.

I first filled a muffin tray with vegan puff pastry that I blind baked for 15 to 20 minutes in a preheated fan oven at 200°C. To make the filling, I mixed 500 grams of powdered sugar with 4 to 5 tablespoons of almond milk and vegan butter, which, after some whipping, essentially created a frosting. I poured the filling into the crusts and sprinkled them with blanched almonds, a few pinches of cinnamon, ginger, and salt, and drops of saffron water. Finally, I returned them to the oven for another 5 minutes of baking. The resulting ‘Flathouns’ tasted delicious both hot and cold. I suspect that they were the highlight of many a medieval Lenten fast.

Photo of a modern recreation of flathouns
A plate with ‘Flathouns in lente’, photo by Clarck Drieshen

Ellie’s recipe: A potage on ffysdaye / a pottage on a fishday

Recipe for pottage on a fishday
Recipe for a pottage on a fishday, from Harley MS 279, f. 23r

Take an sethe an .ij. or .iij. Applys y pede . and strayne hem þorw a straynoure . and fflowre of Rys þer with . þan take þat whyte Wyne and strayne it with alle . þan loke þat it be nowt y bounde to moche with þe ffloure of Rys . þan ȝif it a boyle . þen caste þer to Saunderys and Safroun and loke it be marbylle . þen take Roysonys of corauns and caste þer on . and Almaundys y schredyd þer on y nowe . and mynce Datys Smale and caste þer on . and a lytil Hony to make it dowcet or ellys Sugre . þenne caste þer to Maces and Clowys Pepir Canelle Gyngere and oþer spycery y now . þen take Perys and sethe hem a lytil . þen reke hem on þe colys . tyl þey ben tendyr . þan smale schrede hem rounde . and a lytil or þou serve it in . þrow hem on þe potage . and so serve hem in almost flatte noȝt ffullyche.

Take and boil 2 or 3 pared apples and strain them through a strainer with rice flour; then take white wine and strain it with everything; then make sure that it isn't too thick from the rice flour, then give it a boil; then add sandalwood and saffron and check that it is marbled; then take currants and add them in, and enough shredded almonds; and mince dates finely and add them in, and a little honey to make it sweet, or else sugar. Then add mace, cloves, pepper, cinnamon, ginger and enough other spices. Then take pears and boil them a little; then rake them on the coals till they are tender; then chop them into round pieces, and a little before you serve it, put them on the pottage, and so serve them almost flat and not heaped.

In medieval England, fast days were known as ‘fishdays’ because fish was the only animal product that could be eaten. So this recipe is called ‘pottage on a fishday’ not because it contains fish, but rather because it meets the rules for fasting. Pottage, meaning a soup or stew, was a staple medieval meal for rich and poor alike. This, however, is a rather indulgent example packed full of fruit, wine and spices.

I wasn’t sure whether medieval people would have access to fresh apples in Lent, around six months after the apple harvest in late summer. But searching online, I found various websites claiming that many varieties of apple can keep until the spring if properly stored, and the fact that several medieval Lenten recipes call for apples suggests that this was also true in the Middle Ages.

To make the recipe, I peeled, cored and chopped 3 small apples and boiled them till soft, then puréed them. I added to the pan a cup of rice flour and a cup of wine, gradually mixing to avoid lumps, and brought the mixture to the boil. Then I added a pinch of saffron strands (sadly I couldn’t find any sandalwood). I added a handful each of currants, flaked almonds and chopped medjool dates, as well as a teaspoon of honey and a pinch each of mace, cloves, pepper, cinnamon and ginger. The same question about seasonal availability also applies to pears, so in this case I added chopped dried pears, a common method of food preservation in the Middle Ages (although the poached and grilled fresh pears that this recipe calls for would also be delicious). I simmered everything for around 10 minutes, stirring and adding water to prevent it getting too thick.

The finished result was a thick fruity stew which could satisfy even the sweetest sweet tooth. It reminds me of the filling for an apple strudel, although the velvety rice flour and the rich flavours of the wine and the different fruits make it much heartier and more complex.

Photo of pottage on a fishday
Modern recreation of a pottage on a fishday, photo by Eleanor Jackson

Calum’s recipe: Eyroun in lentyn

Recipe for eyroun in lentyn
Recipe for Eyroun in Lentyn, from Harley MS 279, f. 32v

Take Eyroun and blow owt þat ys with ynne atte oþer ende . þan waysshe þe schulle clene in warme Water . þan take gode mylke of Almaundys and sette it on þe fyre . þan take a fayre canvas and pore þe mylke þer on . and lat renne owt þe Water . þen take it owt on þe cloþe . and gader it to gedere with a platere . þen putte sugre y now þer to . þan take þe halvyn dele and colour it with Safroun . a lytil . and do þer to pouder Canelle þan take and do of þe Whyte in the neþer ende of þe schulle . and in þe myddel þe ȝolke . and fylle it uppe with þe whyte . but noȝt to fulle for goyng over . þan sette it in þe fyre and roste it and serve forth

Take eggs and blow out the insides, then wash the shell clean in warm water, then take good almond milk and set it on the fire. Take a fair piece of muslin (or any fine cloth) and then pour the milk through it and let the excess liquid run out. Then put it on the cloth and gather it together on a dish and mix with sugar. Take half of the mixture and colour it [yellow] with saffron a little and add a little cinnamon and put the white mix at the far end of the egg shell and put the yolk in the middle and then fill the rest up with the white mix, but not too full in case it spills out. Then set it on the fire and roast it and serve it forth.

Many recipes from surviving medieval cookery books express a real playfulness and sense of theatre around food, comparable to the delights of modern gastronomy and Michelin-starred cuisine. During Lent this creativity became particularly heightened as medieval cooks tried to overcome the restrictions of the fasting period. The recipe for ‘Eyroun in lentyn’ above describes a simple way to make a set of imitation eggs out of almonds for the dinner table.

For my version, I took blanched almonds and blended them in a food processor to create a fine powder. I added this to water, mixed it together to create my almond milk and then added sugar and heated the mixture until the sugar dissolved. Then I strained the mix through a sieve (you could also use a piece of fine muslin), leaving behind a moist and quite sweet almond mixture, similar to a pastry cream or frangipane. I imagine you could vary the amount to suit your tastes. I took a third of the mix and added yellow colouring to it (instead of saffron) to create my ‘yolk’. Then I gathered together the remaining mixture for the ‘white’ of the egg, piped it into a half shell and then put the yolk on top to complete the illusion. I put the half eggs in a casserole dish filled with ground almonds, so that they could stand up straight and then dried them out in the oven for about 10 to 15 minutes. Overall, the recipe was a lot of fun to make, but I think I may prefer the taste of a chocolate egg for my Easter treat this year…

Photo of eyroun in lentyn
Modern recreation of eyroun in lentyn, photo by Calum Cockburn

Many a medieval faster was surely glad when the austerity of Lent ended and Easter, one of the great feasts of the Church’s year, began. Nevertheless, after making and tasting our recipes, we believe that little delicacies such as ours brightened up people’s fasts and gave them a foretaste of the more festive times ahead.

If you're enjoying our medieval bake off blogposts, we recommend checking out the events in the British Library's Food Season, especially the talk on historical food manuscripts, Food Scribes, Food Lives.


Ellie Jackson, Clarck Drieshen and Calum Cockburn

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

***disclaimer: these recipes were made in the authors' own time and at their own expense. No Library resources were used in the making of these medieval treats! ***

01 March 2021

Rhygyfarch: poetry and protest in medieval Wales

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To mark St David’s Day this year, we are looking at the life and work of a medieval Welsh poet, clerk, and biographer, and one of the most renowned scholars of his time.

His name was Rhygyfarch (b. 1057, d. 1099) and he was born the eldest son of Sulien the Wise (b. 1011, d. 1090/1), a learned teacher who served two terms as bishop of the city of St Davids in Pembrokeshire. Named after Wales’ patron saint (its Welsh name Tyddewi means ‘David’s house’), the city of St Davids was regarded as an important place of learning during the medieval period and the ecclesiastical centre of the Welsh Church. Its cathedral was the resting place of St David’s body and his relics, and was later declared a pilgrimage destination by Pope Calixtus II (r. 1119-1124). By the mid-11th century, the city had also become home to a highly influential monastic school overseen and maintained by Sulien and members of his family.

A view of St David's Cathedral and the Bishop's Palace.
The cathedral of St Davids and the Bishop’s Palace (mattbuck / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-2.0

Rhygyfarch’s early life was evidently devoted to learning. He appears to have spent much of this time in St Davids, where he and his brothers were personally taught by their father. Their education most likely involved an intensive study of major Classical authors including Ovid, Virgil, Boethius, and Macrobius, and Anglo-Latin writers such as Bede and Aldhelm of Sherborne. Subsequently, Rhygyfarch became the clerk of the ecclesiastic community of St Padarn at Llanbadarn Fawr, situated further up the coast near Aberystwyth, which housed an important scriptorium (a place where manuscripts were made) and a well-stocked monastic library, though few of its manuscripts now survive.

It was there that Rhygyfarch gained a reputation amongst his contemporaries as a foremost scholar and teacher, which persisted for centuries after his death. In fact, he was so widely regarded throughout the country that the Brut y Tywysogion (Chronicle of Princes), a historical work that informs much of our understanding of the history of early medieval Wales, described him as ‘y doethaf o doethon y Brytanyeit’ (one of the most learned of the learned men of the Britons).

An illustration from a medieval manuscript, showing a scribe writing in a book.
A scribe writing in a medieval manuscript, from Gerald of Wales’ Topographica Hibernica (Royal MS 13 B VIII, f. 22r)

Rhygyfarch composed a number of Latin prose and poetic texts during his lifetime. Most notably, he was the author of the oldest surviving biography of St David, who lived in the 6th century. His Vita sancti Davidis episcopi appears in a single complete copy in a 12th-century manuscript that ultimately became part of the collection of Sir Robert Cotton (Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV). Rhygyfarch wrote the prose work in Latin but by the later medieval period it had also been translated and adapted into a Middle Welsh version known as the Buchedd Dewi.

A page from a medieval manuscript, featuring the opening of the Life of St David by the Welsh poet Rhygyfarch.
The opening of Rhygyfarch’s Life of St David, 2nd half of the 12th century, possibly south-east Wales (Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV, f. 61r)

Rhygyfarch’s Life of St David was written during the final decade of the 11th century, when Wales was suffering in the aftermath of successive Norman invasions undertaken by William I (r. 1066-1087) and his son William Rufus (r. 1087-1100). Rhygyfarch expressed his own feelings about the Norman occupation and the subjugation of his people in an emotional elegy now known as Rhygyfarch’s Lament, which he wrote not long after his biography of Wales’ patron saint. The Latin poem is attested in only a single manuscript (now Cotton MS Faustina C I), which was copied at the priory of Llanbadarn Fawr in the half century after the Welsh author’s death.

A page from a medieval manuscript, featuring the text of Rhygyfarch's Lament.
Rhygyfarch’s Lament, 1st half of the 12th century, Llanbadarn Fawr (Cotton MS Faustina C I, f. 66r)

In the course of his Lament, Rhygyfarch mourns Wales’ present plight and calls attention to the Norman oppression of the country, which has caused the apparent decline of all parts of Welsh society. He writes that ‘the people and the priest are despised by the word, heart, and work of the Normans’, that ‘there are continual sorrows and fears’, that ‘the courts are sad’ and ‘there is no pleasure in hearing the songs of poets’. Rhygyfarch’s depiction of Wales is of a country trapped by its grief, from where ‘it is not possible to leave, nor even possible to stay’.

Rhygyfarch also turns his focus to the Welsh people themselves, and in an extended passage denounces their lack of courage, urging them to take action against their oppressors in increasingly emotive language:

non audes humero ferre faretram,
arcum nec tenso tendere neruo,
ilia nec gladio cingere lato,
armo nec peltam tollere leuo,
nec vibrat patulo lancea pugno...
o moribunda doles, o tremebunda!
concidis, heu, misera tristibus armis.
nil tibi (nunc) letum nilque uenustum.
tristis barba cadit, tristis ocellus;
nam te aliena canit turba perosum.
et ignominia complet apertam
peccatis faciem. heu, mala pestis!
pingit enim affectus mens mala carni
ut bona mens campo gaudia monstrat
        (ll. 51-67; Lapidge. ‘Welsh-Latin Poetry’ (1973/4), pp. 90-92)

[Wales], you do not dare to carry the quiver of arrows on your shoulder, nor stretch the bow with a tight bow-string, nor gird your guts with the broadsword, nor raise the shield on your left shoulder... [Wales], you are struck down and dying, you tremble in fear, you collapse, alas, miserable in your sad defences. Nothing is joyful to you now, nothing pleasant. Your beard sags, your eye is sad; for a hostile crowd speaks of you as hateful. Disgrace fills your open face with blemishes. Alas for the evil plague: for the diseased mind reflects its condition in the flesh, just as the healthy mind shows its joys to the field.

Rhygyfarch’s Lament captured the frustration of many of the Welsh in their captivity and it also seems to have foreshadowed a call to arms against the Norman invaders that would soon spread throughout the country. In 1094, soon after the poem’s composition, the Welsh rose up against the Norman occupation in an open revolt that ultimately led them to reclaim many of the kingdoms they had previously lost by the end of the century.

Cotton MS Faustina C I is notable for featuring another of Rhygyfarch’s Latin poems, entitled De messe infelici (On the Unhappy Harvest). The work consists of a single four-line stanza written in the upper margin of one of the manuscript’s pages. The poem is noticeably more playful than his Lament and takes the form of a proverb that warns of the potential danger posed by mice to a harvest:

Longa fluit pluuiis tempestas noxia nimbis,
nam nequit in segites messor committere falces:
quamuis ipse suis maturis parcat aristis,
turba tamen muris nescit iam parcere campis.
        (ll. 1-4; Lapidge, ‘Welsh-Latin Poetry’ (1973/4, p. 92)

The endless rain pours down, destructive (to the harvest) with its violent downfall,
for the reaper cannot commit scythes to the crops:
although he spares his mature crops,
an army of mice nevertheless refuses to spare the fields.

A detail from a medieval manuscript, featuring a four-line Latin poem by Rhygyfarch, written in the upper margin of the page.
Rhygyfarch’s De messe infelici (On the Unhappy Harvest), 1st half of the 12th century, Llanbadarn Fawr (Cotton MS Faustina C I, f. 80r detail)

Both Cotton MS Faustina C I and Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV have been digitised in their entirety by the British Library and are available to view online on our Digitised Manuscripts site. We hope you enjoy reading Rhygyfarch’s writings and wish you a Happy St David’s Day!

 

Calum Cockburn
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Further Reading

David Howlett, ‘Rhygyfarch ap Sulien and Ieuan ap Sulien’, in The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, Volume 1: c. 400-1100, ed. by Richard Gameson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 701-706.

Michael Lapidge, ‘The Welsh-Latin poetry of Sulien’s family’, Studia Celtica (1973/4), 68-106.

St David of Wales: Cult, Church and Nation, ed. by J. Wyn Evans and Jonathan M. Wooding (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2007) [Includes an edition of Rhygyfarch’s Life of St David].

 

29 January 2021

Bede, The Dig and Sutton Hoo

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This weekend has seen the release on Netflix of The Dig, a fictionalised account of the excavation at Sutton Hoo of an Anglo-Saxon ship-burial. Starring Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown, a self-taught archaeologist, and Carey Mulligan as a very youthful Edith Pretty, the landowner, The Dig is based on real events. The Sutton Hoo finds are among the most extraordinary from early medieval England — we displayed this gold belt buckle and part of the sword-belt in the British Library's recent Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition — but the identity of the person buried with the ship remains unresolved. In this blogpost we review some of the oldest written evidence connected to Sutton Hoo, as recorded in Bede's Ecclesiastical History.

Basil Brown in the Sutton Hoo ship-burial

A photograph of Basil Brown in the ship-burial, from the website of the Sutton Hoo Ship's Company

The mound containing the ship-burial at Sutton Hoo, on the banks of the River Debden in Suffolk, was opened in the summer of 1939, on the eve of World War II. At first, Basil Brown was digging with the assistance of Mrs Pretty's gardener, her gamekeeper and an estate worker, until archaeologists from Cambridge University and the Ordnance Survey intervened. Together they uncovered not only the outline of an early medieval ship, revealed by the rivets left in the sandy soil, but a number of grave goods including precious jewellery, silver bowls from the Mediterranean, and the remains of the famous Sutton Hoo helmet.

After the war the finds were examined by a young researcher, Rupert Bruce-Mitford, who spent the rest of his career analysing the site. Although much of the context for the discoveries had already disappeared by the late 1940s (Sutton Hoo had been commandeered by the British military during wartime), Bruce-Mitford recognised that the combination of 'pagan' and 'Christian' artefacts most likely dated the burial to the period of the conversion of the kingdom of the East Angles to Christianity, in the 7th century.

The Sutton Hoo helmet

The Sutton Hoo helmet, courtesy of the British Museum

Over the years a number of candidates have been put forward as the person buried in the ship-mound. They include Rædwald, king of the East Angles from around 600 to perhaps the 620s, and his sons and successors Earpwald and Sigeberht. Some historians and archaeologists have been less circumspect than others in naming Rædwald, the most famous of the three, as the king commemorated at Sutton Hoo. This is based, in turn, on the account of the East Anglian kingdom provided by Bede approximately 100 years after the burial.

Bede (died 735), a monk at Wearmouth in Northumbria, completed his Ecclesiastical History, or Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, in 731. Much of its focus is on the conversion period, from the mission of Augustine from Rome to Canterbury in 597 to the time when the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms first adopted Christian customs.

The British Library holds two of the oldest surviving manuscripts of Bede's History, both of which can be viewed in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site. One of them (Cotton MS Tiberius A XIV) was probably made in Northumbria in the late 700s or the early decades of the 800s. The other (Cotton MS Tiberius C II) is characterised by the decorated initials which mark the beginning of each book, and it was most likely made in Kent sometime in the middle of the 9th century. (Another important early copy of the Historia ecclesiastica, known as the Moore Bede, was also displayed in our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.) The two manuscripts which formerly belonged to Sir Robert Cotton (died 1631) were damaged by a fire at Ashburnham House, London, in 1731. You will notice that their parchment pages were blackened and warped by the heat of the flames, with the occasional loss of parts of their text.

A decorated initial B in a manuscript of Bede's Ecclesiastical History

The opening page of the first book of Bede's Ecclesiastical History, in Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 5v

According to Bede (Historia ecclesiastica, II.5), Rædwald was for a while the most powerful king to rule South of the Humber. He was described as the fourth such king to hold 'imperium' over the southern Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, a phrase later translated into Old English as 'bretwalda' ('Britain-ruler'). Rædwald's candidacy as occupant of the Sutton Hoo ship-burial is based furthermore on his being the first king of the East Angles to be baptised as a Christian (Historia ecclesiastica, II.15). But Bede did not hold him in the greatest esteem. Rædwald was said to have been perverted by his wife and other evil counsellors into maintaining a temple with one altar for the Christian sacrifice and another for pagan worship. This would align with the combination of Christian and non-Christian grave-goods discovered at Sutton Hoo. In Bede's words, 'rex Reduald natu nobilis quamlibet actu ignobilis' ('King Rædwald was of noble birth but ignoble in his deeds').

A text-page from Bede's Ecclesiastical History

The chapter of Bede's Ecclesiastical History in which he records that Rædwald was a lapsed Christian, of noble birth but ignoble in his deeds (lines 1-2 of the 2nd column): Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 54v

But Rædwald isn't the only candidate for the ship-burial. He was succeeded as king by his pagan son, Earpwald, who later converted to Christianity under the influence of King Edwin of Northumbria. Bede reports that Earpwald was assassinated by a pagan not long after his conversion, thereby becoming the first Anglo-Saxon king to be martyred on account of his Christian faith (Historia ecclesiastica, II.15). Sigeberht, another son (or step-son) of Rædwald, ruled East Anglia in the aftermath of Earpwald's death. He was a devout Christian, who had been converted in Gaul while fleeing from the enmity of Rædwald (Historia ecclesiastica, III.18). Sigeberht eventually abdicated and retired to a monastery, until an army led by the pagan King Penda of Mercia invaded around the 640s. Sigeberht was dragged to the battlefield in order to inspire the East Angles, but he refused to carry anything but a staff and was killed. The whole East Anglian army was either slain with him or scattered.

A still from the Netflix production of The Dig

A still from The Dig (Netflix)

The complicated dynastic history of the East Anglians, combined with the lack of firm dates for the reigns of these kings, makes it well-nigh impossible to conclude with any certainty who was buried at Sutton Hoo. As we have seen, Rædwald, Earpwald and Sigeberht alike all adopted the Christian faith, but Rædwald effectively renounced it while Earpwald was murdered soon after he had converted. Assigning the ship-burial to any of these men depends in large part on our subjective opinion of what constitutes a 'pagan' or 'Christian' grave-good at this period. But this does not detract from our romantic notions of the burial site, as exemplified by The Dig itself.

The book which accompanied the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition is available to purchase from the British Library online shop. You can also read more about the background to Sutton Hoo and the conversion period on our dedicated Anglo-Saxons webspace, including this article by Alison Hudson on the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. We would also heartily recommend the blogpost Inside 'The Dig' by the British Museum's curator, Sue Brunning, which analyses the historical accuracy of the new film.

 

Julian Harrison

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

13 January 2021

Over 4,500 manuscripts now online

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Long-term readers of our blog may know that we periodically publish lists of our digitised manuscripts, the last of which was published in July 2020. With the arrival of the New Year and the beginning of a new lockdown in the UK, we are releasing an update to our lists of manuscript hyperlinks. We hope this makes it easier for readers and researchers to explore our amazing digitised treasures online.

A detail from a 16th-century grant of arms, showing a portrait of Sir Gilbert Dethick within a letter O.
A historiated initial ‘O’(mnibus) containing a portrait of Sir Gilbert Dethick (b. c. 1510, d. 1584), Officer of Arms of the College of Arms, London: Add MS 89166, f. 1r detail

There are now over 4,500 Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern manuscripts on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts website. Here is a full list of all the items currently available, as of January 2021:

PDF: Full-list-digitised-mss-jan-2021
Excel: Full-list-digitised-mss-jan-2021 (this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers).

The upper cover of the Basikilon Doron, an autograph manuscript of the text with a purple velvet binding.
The velvet binding of the autograph manuscript of the Basilikon Doron, handwritten by King James I: Royal MS 18 B XV, upper cover.

During this period of terrible uncertainty, the Library's Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern team has been busy as ever, working to make more manuscripts available for our readers online. Over the last 6 months alone, we have published over 850 items, from medieval and early modern codices and rolls to Greek papyri and ostraca. All the images featured in this blogpost are from collection items that we have digitised since June 2020. Here is a list of our most recent additions:

PDF: Digitised_mss_july2020_jan_2021
Excel: Digitised_mss_july2020_jan_2021(this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers).

A text page from a 14th-century book of hours, with marginal decoration including a dog with a bone, a hybrid and a coat of arms
A text page from a 14th-century book of hours, with marginal decoration including a dog with a bone, a hybrid and a coat of arms: Harley MS 6563, f. 53v

Over the last months, some 620 Greek papyri have been published online, spanning from the 3rd century BC to the early 8th century. These include pieces of Greek literature, such as the famous ‘Harris Homer Codex’, an 1800-year-old manuscript preserving portions of Homer’s Iliad, as well as hundreds of fascinating documents, such as letters of parents to their children, managers and employees, magical charms and shopping lists. You can view this video for a short introduction to cataloguing the Greek papyri.

Thanks to a collaboration with the Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung of the Staatliche Museen in Berlin, more than 250 inscribed pottery sherds (ostraca) from the 3rd century BC to 3rd century AD are now available online for the first time. A short overview is presented in our previous blogpost on ostraca.

A framed papyrus, featuring the text of Book II of Homer's Iliad.
The first frame of the ‘Harris Homer Codex’, containing Homer’s Iliad, Bk. II, ll. 101-149: Papyrus 126 (1) recto.

In September, we reported on the progress of a major digitisation programme, Heritage Made Digital: Tudor and Stuart manuscripts. This collaborative project, involving teams across the British Library, intends to publish approximately 600 Tudor and Stuart manuscripts online. The selection encompasses original letters by members of the Elizabethan court; literary manuscripts of the works of important Elizabeth and Jacobean poets such as John Donne and Sir Philip Sidney; notes by the alchemist and astronomer John Dee; and collections of state papers that highlight numerous aspects of the political and social history of this period, particularly the relationship between Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. As of the start of this year, over a quarter of these manuscripts have now been published.

A letter from Queen Elizabeth I to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, bearing her signature.
An original letter from Elizabeth I to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, her ambassador in Scotland, concerning the imprisonment of Mary Queen of Scots, dated 27 July 1567: Add MS 88966, f. 1r

Since this summer, two particularly significant manuscripts have been digitised, both of which can be explored in their entirety on the British Library’s new Universal Viewer. The Sherborne Missal, acquired by the British Library in 1998, has been called the ‘unrivalled masterpiece of English book production in the fifteenth century' (Kathleen Scott), with each of its hundreds of pages replete with astonishing illumination. Readers can learn more about the Sherborne Missal in our previous blogpost. The volume was also recently featured on BBC Radio 4’s Moving Pictures programme.

A miniature of the Crucifixion from the Sherborne Missal
The Crucifixion, from the Sherborne Missal: Add MS 74236, p. 380

Meanwhile in November, the British Library acquired and digitised the most important surviving manuscript of the works of Lewis of Caerleon, a highly influential mathematician, theologian and astronomer, who was imprisoned in the Tower of London towards the end of the reign of Richard III (r. 1483-1485). The volume contains the most complete collection of his astronomical and mathematical works, including texts that are unattested elsewhere, as well as its original medieval binding and an unparalleled series of astronomical tables and diagrams. Learn more in our earlier blogpost on the Lewis of Caerleon manuscript.

Astronomical tables and diagrams from the Lewis of Caerleon manuscript
Astronomical tables and diagrams from an autograph manuscript of the works of Lewis of Caerleon: Add MS 89442, pp. 30-31.

Many images of our manuscripts are also available to view and download from our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts which is searchable by keywords, dates, scribes and languages.

A map of China and the southern half of Japan, from an atlas of sea charts made by the Italian cartographer Joan Martines
A map of China and the southern half of Japan, from an atlas of sea charts made by the Italian cartographer Joan Martines: Harley MS 3450, ff. 5v-6r

Enormous thanks to all the members of staff across the Library whose hard work has made these achievements possible despite the difficult circumstances this year.

We wish all our readers a Happy New Year and hope you enjoy exploring our digitised collections!

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21 December 2020

Great medieval bake off: Christmas edition

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In the medieval and early modern periods, people celebrated Christmas with twelve days of extravagant feasting and merriment. Following the success of our Great medieval bake off in September, we’re getting into the spirit of the season by recreating some festive treats using authentic recipes from manuscripts held in the Library.

On your marks, get set, bake!

A scene from a medieval manuscript of people feasting at a table
A medieval feast, France, 1290-1300: Add MS 28162, f. 10v

Ellie’s recipe: a dish of snowe

A recipe for 'a dish of snowe' in an early 17th-century manuscript
Recipe for ‘a dish of snowe’, England, early 17th century: Add MS 28319, f. 17v (detail)

To make a dish of Snowe / Take a potte of sweete thicke creme and the white of eight egges and beate them altogether with a spoone then putte them into your creame with a dish full of Rose Water and a dishfull of Sugar withall then take a sticke and make it cleane and then cutt it in the ende fowre square and therewith beate all the aforesayd thinges together and ever as it ariseth take it of and putte it into a Cullander thys done take a platter and set an aple in the middest of it and sticke a thicke bush of Rosemarye in the apple then cast your snowe upon the rosemarye and fill your platter therewith and if you have wafers cast some withall and thus serve them forth

To make a dish of snow, take a pot of sweet thick cream and the whites of eight eggs and beat them together with a spoon, then put them into your cream with a dishful of rosewater and a dishful of sugar withal. Then take a stick and make it clean and then cut it in the end foursquare and therewith beat all the aforesaid things together and ever as it arises take it off and put it in a colander. This done, take a platter and set an apple in the middle of it and stick a thick bush of rosemary in the apple. Then cast your snow upon the rosemary and fill your platter therewith and if you have wafers cast some withal and thus serve them forth.

Some of the highlights of medieval and early modern feasts were novelty foods made to look like something else for the delight of the diners—the historical equivalents of an illusion bake. This recipe for ‘a dish of snowe’, made to resemble a snowy little tree on a hilltop, is a lovely example of this. This version of the recipe comes from an early 17th-century manuscript, but a similar version also appears in the printed book A proper newe booke of cokerye, which was published in several editions with the earliest dating from 1545. Modern editions of the recipe, which are based on these early printed editions, don’t explain that you should stick the rosemary into the apple, meaning that modern commentators have missed its identity as an illusion dessert. The extra detail provided in the manuscript version allows us to rediscover the original presentation of the dish. 

To make this recipe I mixed together a 300 ml pot of double cream, the whites of 2 eggs (the 8 eggs specified in the recipe would make enough snowe for a considerable feast!), 2 tablespoons of rosewater and 2 tablespoons of caster sugar, then whipped them together with a whisk until they formed a firm foamy consistency (about 15 minutes by hand). I love that this recipe gives you instructions to make your own whisk, but boringly I already had one. I placed a small apple in a bowl, made a hole in it with a skewer, and then stuck a sprig of rosemary into the hole so that it stood upright. With a spoon, I gently spread the snowe over the rosemary leaves and apple and put the rest in the bowl. Not having any wafers to hand, I decorated the dish with some cinnamon thins. The finished product looks more exciting than it tastes, which is pleasantly sweet and creamy but a little bland. I think it would work better as a topping, perhaps on something tart and fruity. But the recipe definitely succeeds in what was probably its main purpose, making an eye-catching winter wonderland of a centrepiece.

A photo of a modern recreation of 'a dish of snowe'
A dish of snowe, photo by Ellie Jackson

Calum’s recipe: gingerbread

A recipe for gingerbread in a 16th/17th-century manuscript
A recipe for gingerbread, England, late 16th-early 17th century: Add MS 46139, f. 48r (detail)

To make ginger breade / ffirste take fayre clarified honye, sinnamon, ginger, and a quantitie of pepper and graynes and a great quantitite of liccoras, anniseede, lett all theis seeth together, till they eate like ginger breade, as the taste pleaseth or offendeth you, so mende the aforesaid amixtures, and when you like yt well put in the breade and stirre yt well together, and worke yt forthwith, as hott as may be suffered

To make gingerbread, first take clarified honey, cinnamon, ginger, and a quantity of pepper and grains, and a large amount of liquorice and aniseed. Let all this sit together, until it tastes like gingerbread, as the taste pleases or offends you. Stir the previously mentioned mixtures, and when you like it well add the breadcrumbs and stir them together well, and then work the mixture, as hot as it can take.

Gingerbread is a common feature of surviving medieval cookbooks (this blog has previously featured a gingerbread recipe from an English cookery book made c. 1430). The example above can be found in an early modern collection of medical, alchemical and cookery recipes, partly written by Alexander Gill the Elder (b. 1565, d. 1635), the High Master of St Paul’s School in London, whose pupils notably included the famous English poet John Milton. Readers might have gathered that Gill’s recipe for gingerbread is unlike the biscuit or cookie we all know and love. In fact, this ‘gingerbread’ is not a biscuit at all. It is more similar to a piece of modern confectionary, a soft shaped sweet like marzipan or nougat, and ginger is only one of a number of spices that can be added to the mix.

For my version, I poured a jar of honey into a pan and brought it to a boil, skimmed the scum that formed on the surface and flavoured it with small amounts of cinnamon, ground ginger, white pepper and aniseed. To this, I added plain white breadcrumbs, incorporating them into the liquid a little at a time until the mixture began to grow firm and stick to the pan. I then turned it out on a parchment sheet, placed another parchment sheet on top and rolled it out thinly. Once the gingerbread had cooled, I cut it into squares. Some variants of this recipe mention that you can dye the gingerbread by adding sandalwood. In this case, I used a modern food colouring and shaped the resulting mixture into balls. The recipe resulted in a sweet, quite sickly treat, which tasted much like the filling in a treacle tart.

A photo of a modern recreation of gingerbread
A plate of gingerbread, based on the recipe in Add MS 46139, photo by Calum Cockburn

Clarck’s recipe: mulled wine

A recipe for mulled wine in a medieval manuscript
A recipe for mulled wine, England, 15th century: Harley MS 2868, f. 4v

Take an unce of gode treacle half an unce of tormentile rotes a sponfull of columbyn sedes vj nutkyrnels bray al þies sam except the treacle to þai be small þan putte iij sponefull of Juse of rewe and ij unce of sugar and medle all wele to gedder and put it into a closebox . and take of þat fastand þe quantite of an hesill nutt with a littill wyne or ayle warmyd

Take an ounce of good treacle, half an ounce of tormentil roots, a spoonful of ‘columbine’ [vervain] seeds, and six nut kernels. Grind all these together (except for the treacle) until they are a powder. Then add three spoonfuls of the juice of rue and two ounces of sugar, mix it well together, and put it in a jar. Then take of that solid matter the size of a hazelnut with a bit of warmed wine or ale.

Mulled or spiced wine was commonly consumed in the Middle Ages, but I was surprised to find a 15th-century Middle English recipe for this popular wintry drink in a Latin prayer book that is part of our ongoing cataloguing project on the Harley collection. An owner of the manuscript wrote the recipe below a prayer to St Giles, probably because they considered both the prayer and the recipe as forms of protection against plague: while the saint was often invoked against the disease, the recipe’s main ingredients (treacle, vervain, and tormentil) were considered highly potent plague remedies. Coincidentally, the saint’s feast day on 1 September also marks the beginning of the cold season—the time of the year which we nowadays associate with mulled wine.

I first simmered an ounce of lemon vervain (‘columbyn’ refers to verbena, not the poisonous columbine aquilegia!), common rue, and tormentil rhizome in a litre of water for half an hour. After sieving the resulting ‘herbal tea’, I added half an ounce of molasses (black treacle), two ounces of sugar, and a handful of finely crushed hazelnuts. I bottled the mixture, let it cool down, and then mixed half of it with 750 ml of warmed-up fruity red wine. The resulting flavour was tasty, but mostly dominated by the treacle. For those who want to try this for themselves, I would recommend adding traditional mulled wine spices such as cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg.

A photo of the ingredients for medicinal mulled wine
Ingredients for a medieval medicinal mulled wine, photo by Clarck Drieshen

We hope that our recipes can inspire your own culinary creations over this holiday season!

Ellie Jackson, Clarck Drieshen and Calum Cockburn
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval


***disclaimer: these recipes were made in the authors' own time and at their own expense. No Library resources were used in the making of these medieval treats! ***

19 December 2020

The medieval Christmas weather forecast

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Are you wondering if we'll have a white Christmas? If so, forget about new-fangled weather forecasts: medieval manuscripts at the British Library may hold the answer!

One of these, a collection of Middle English texts compiled by John Colyns (d. c. 1542), a mercer of the parish of St Mary Woolchurch Haw in London, includes a series of weather predictions based on the phases of the Moon. It tells us that the weather is determined by the ‘prime of the Moon’, the day of the month on which you can see the first appearance of the ‘New Moon’ (when the Moon is invisible to the naked eye).

A snowy winter scene, including a man chopping wood for a woman to gather, and a domestic interior with a man, woman, and a baby, with, in the border below, men pulling a companion on a sledge.

A snowy winter scene (Bruges, c. 1540): Add MS 24098, f. 18v

The manuscript compiled by John Colyns, Harley MS 2252, gives us the following predictions:

Sunday: When the prime falls on a Sunday, in that Moon you shall have drought.
Monday: When the prime falls on a Monday, in that Moon you shall have wetness.
Tuesday: When the prime falls on a Tuesday, it means wind and coldness.
Wednesday: When the prime falls on Wednesday, you shall hear marvellously in that Moon.
Thursday: When the prime falls on a Thursday, it means a bright Moon.
Friday: When the prime falls on a Friday, you will have a moderate Moon.
Saturday: When the prime falls on a Saturday, you will have plenty of rain.

('Sonday: When the prime fallythe uppon Sonday in þat mone ye shall have drowghte
Monday: When the prime fallyth on the Monday in þat mone ye shall have moyste
Tuysday: When the prime fallyth on Tuysday hyt betokenythe wynde and colde.
Wenysday: When þe prime fallythe on Wednysday ye shall here marvelous in that mone
Thursday: When the prime fallythe on Thursday hyt betokenyt a clere mone
Fryday: When the prime fallythe on Frydaye ye shall have a mean mone
Saturday: When the prime fallythe on Saturday ye shall have plenty of rayne')

A set of weather predictions in John Colyns commonplace book, organised according to the days of the week (Sunday to Saturday), written in brown ink.

Weather predictions in John Colyns’ commonplace book (England, c. 1520c. 1540): Harley MS 2252, f. 159v

Since the New Moon fell this month on Monday, 14 December, this means that Christmas this year is bound to be wet! You heard it here first!

A wintry scene with a man and a woman seated in front of a fire and sheltering from the snow to the left, and in the foreground, a woman walking her dog and warming her hands with her breath.

A wintry scene in the margins of a calendar page for the month of January (Bruges, c. 1500): Egerton MS 1147, f. 6v

Wherever you are, there is a good chance of snow as well. Middle English weather predictions in a 15th-century medical manuscript (Add MS 4898) tell us that if 1 January falls on a Wednesday, which was the case this year, winter shall be ‘cold, hard and good, and [see] great snowfalls versus ferocious winds’ (‘Ȝyf þe ferste day of genever be wednysday . wynter schal be coold hard and good and grete snowys ver wykkyd wyndy’).

Weather predictions for a year in which 1 January falls on a Wednesday, written in black ink, and starting with a large blue initial that features penwork and pen-flourishing in red ink.

Weather predictions for a year in which 1 January falls on a Wednesday (England, 15th century): Add MS 4898, f. 130r

Although we might see wind and snow, the weather will not be too harsh. This is indicated by an English farmer’s almanac (Add MS 17367) that dates to the 1530s, as Dr Eleanor Jackson (Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts at the British Library) has determined. She points out that the almanac features weather predictions that are based on a year’s ‘Sunday letter’ or ‘dominical letter’. This refers to a method in which the letters 'A' to 'G' are assigned to the days of the week in an alphabetical order, with the letter 'A' always starting on 1 January. The year is then associated with the letter that corresponds with its first Sunday. In 2020, the first Sunday was on 5 January, which means that we live in an ‘E’ year. Our almanac’s weather predictions for such years are mostly illegible, but seem to predict ‘A good [winter]’.

An English almanac with predictions according to the Sunday letter of a year. The Sunday letters are written in red ink on the left side of the page.

Weather predictions in an English farmer’s almanac (England, 1530s): Add MS 17367

If we do get snow, the weather may be similar to a Christmas period sometime in the 15th century. An English almanac from 1420 (Royal MS 17 A XVI) features a weather report for the Twelve Days of Christmas that says, ‘last Christmas was of three conditions: rain in the morning, fair weather at ten and eleven, and dark and overcast weather in the afternoon’ (‘Crystynmes day laste past was off iij condycions in þe mornyng rayn at x and xj fayr weddur at aftur none dark and lowring’). During the next Twelve Days of Christmas, mist and clouds alternated with bright weather. However, on 30 December, ‘it began to snow and it snowed until the night’ (‘yt be gan to snaw and snew to nyght’). This weather returned on New Year’s Day when ‘it snowed until 10 in the morning and at noon it began again and it snowed all day until it was night’ (‘att þe mornyng yt snew to x of þe cloke and at xij yt be began agayn and snew all þe day to yt was nyght’).

A weather report for the Twelve Days of Christmas written in brown ink.

A weather report for the Twelve Days of Christmas (England, 1420): Royal MS 17 A XVI, f. 1v

But if snow fails to appear, the Christmas period may be more like a Twelvetide in 16th-century England. A weather report from that period, which was added to a 12th-century biblical manuscript from the Benedictine abbey of St Mary and St Rumon at Tavistock in Devon (Add MS 62122), tells us, ‘Christmas was fair and dry without any sunshine’ (‘Chrystynmas was fayre and drye with owt enye sunne shynyng’). The next days were mostly dry, but ‘New Year’s Day was full of rain all day long’ (‘new yeres day was full of rayne all daye lange’).

A weather report for the Twelve Days of Christmas written in brown ink.

A weather report for the Twelve Days of Christmas (England, 16th century): Add MS 62122, f. 2v

Just in case you question the authority of our sources — the practice of weather forecasting was well established in the Middle Ages, and supported by Classical sources such as the Meteorologica (Meteorology) of the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BC), whose works on natural philosophy were well-known in late medieval Europe.

A seated philosopher pointing up to a cloud above from which snowflakes fall down and from which emerges an animal’s head with a fiery breath, probably representing lightning.

An initial in Aristotle’s Libri Naturales (Books on Natural Philosophy) with a philosopher pointing up to lightning and snow coming from a cloud above (?Oxford, 3rd quarter of the 13th century): Harley MS 3487, f. 140v

We trust that our 'reliable' weather predictions will help you prepare for the Christmas period. You can explore the weather predictions of John Colyns and related writings in the fully digitised version of his commonplace book (Harley MS 2252) that is now available on our Digitised Manuscripts website. It is part of our Heritage Made Digital: Tudor and Stuart manuscripts project, and it's also one of the 3,000 manuscripts from the Harley collection that we have now described online.


Clarck Drieshen
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

11 December 2020

New Prophecies of the Ancient Sibyls

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The British Library's major project to provide online catalogue records of manuscripts in the Harley collection has made significant progress in 2020. We have now enhanced the descriptions of some 3,000 Harley manuscripts, and more are being added every month to our Archives & Manuscripts Catalogue. Along the way, we are continuing to make new identifications and to unearth hitherto unknown texts. In this blogpost, Clarck Drieshen describes the recent discovery of a 14th-century Latin manuscript from France (Harley MS 3723) that contains previously unknown copies of the universal chronicle of the French Dominican friar Gerald of Frachet (1205–1271) (a history of the world from the Creation up to his own time) and a text on the ancient female oracles known as The Prophecy of the Tenth Sibyl.

The beginning of the Prophecy of the Tenth Sibyl in Harley MS 3723, with a large red initial ‘D’

The Prophecy of the Tenth Sibyl (France, 2nd half of the 14th century): Harley MS 3723, f. 123r

The Prophecy of the Tenth Sibyl tells of ten female oracles, known as Sibyls, who prophesied from sacred locations in regions around the Mediterranean Sea. Except for reporting that the Sibyls at Delphi and Erythraea had predicted the Trojan War, this work has little to say about the first nine oracles. As its modern title suggests, the focus is on the tenth Sibyl, named Tibultina in Greek and Albunea in Latin. She was also known as the 'Tiburtine Sibyl', after Tibur (modern-day Tivoli in Italy), from where she was believed to have made her prophecies. The work identifies her as the daughter of Priam and Hecuba, the legendary last king and queen of Troy, making her the sister of the Trojan princes Hector and Paris and the cursed prophet Cassandra.

Twelve women with dresses in different colours sitting on a circular bench with a golden pillar in the middle. The women, who represent the Sibyls, prophesise the birth of Christ.

Twelve Sibyls prophesising the birth of Christ (Bruges, c. 1497): Add MS 18851, f. 8v

In the Middle Ages, the Tiburtine Sibyl was known especially for predicting the birth of Christ. One legend told that she showed Emperor Augustus (r. 27 BC–14 CE) a vision of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child, which stopped him from declaring himself divine.

The Roman Emperor Augustus in a grey gown kneeling down and with his crown beside him with the Sibyl Tiburtina in a red dress standing behind him and showing him a vision of the Virgin Mary with Christ (who are visible elsewhere on the page).

The Tiburtine Sibyl with the Emperor Augustus (Northern Netherlands, 1486): Harley MS 2943, f. 11r

In The Prophecy of the Tenth Sibyl, a Roman emperor summons her after one hundred senators had experienced the same dream on the same night. In this dream, nine different suns had appeared in the sky. Asked to interpret the dream, the Tiburtine Sibyl explained that the suns represented nine future eras. She prophesied that one sun, which the senators described as having a blood-red colour, signified an era in which a virgin named Mary would bear a child named Jesus, the son of God. She also foretold that the last sun to appear in the dream, which had been very gloomy, represented the end time in which the son of God would return for a final judgement over humankind.

The Sibyl Tiburtina depicted as a woman with a white veil and a blue mantle unfurling a scroll.

The Tiburtine Sibyl (Catalonia, 1273): Add MS 50003, f. 221r

The Prophecy of the Tenth Sibyl concludes with a poem about the end of the world that contains a ‘hidden’ reference to the birth of Christ and his return at the world's end. In the original Greek version of the poem, reading the first letter of each line downwards spells out the words: ‘Iesous Chreistos Theou Uios Soter’ (‘Jesus Christ the Son of God, the Saviour’). The Latin translator tried to preserve this vertical text (acrostic), but was not always able to find a meaningful Latin word starting with the required letter.

Tiburtina’s poem on the end of the world, with the initials of each new line highlighted in red and forming an acrostic text in Greek about Christ.

The Tiburtine Sibyl's poem on the end of the world (France, 2nd half of the 14th century): Harley MS 3723, f. 126v

Although we now know that The Prophecy of the Tenth Sibyl originated from a Greek text composed by a 4th-century Christian writer, that in turn was translated into Latin and expanded around the year 1000, medieval authors believed that the Tiburtine Sibyl's prophecies were authentic, and they considered her an important witness to the truth of the Gospels. Her prophecies were circulated widely and today survive in over 100 manuscripts. You can read more about the manuscript tradition in Anke Holdenried, The Sibyl and Her Scribes: Manuscripts and Interpretation of the Latin Sibylla Tiburtina c. 1050-1500 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006).

Another copy of The Prophecy of the Tenth Sibyl, opening with a large purple initial ‘S’ with decoration in blue, green, purple, and red inside the letter

The Prophecy of the Tenth Sibyl (? Canterbury, 1st quarter of the 12th century): Cotton MS Vespasian B XXV, f. 117v

The 13th-century Dominican friar Gerald of Frachet would undoubtedly have been interested in the Tiburtine Sibyl's predictions about Christ, but probably also in her prophecies about the kings involved with the events leading up to the end time. Since she referred to these important kings only by their first initials, medieval authors were able to identify rulers living in their own times with these prophesied kings. Gerald himself felt a strong allegiance to Charles of Anjou (1226/1227–1285), the youngest son of Louis VIII of France and founder of the Capetian House of Anjou. In his universal chronicle, he stressed that Charles was a descendant of Charlemagne (748–814), King of the Franks and Emperor of the Romans, and compared his victory over Manfred, King of Sicily, in 1266 to Charlemagne’s victory over the Lombards. The Tenth Prophecy of the Sibyl predicted a powerful Frankish king whose name began with the letter ‘K’ and was clearly identifiable with Charlemagne (‘Karolus Magnus’). By adding her prophecies to his chronicle, Gerald may have wanted to emphasise Charles of Anjou’s ancestry and attribute an important role to him — a new Charlemagne — on the world stage. You can read more about the relationship between the chronicle and the prophecies in Régis Rech, ‘Charles d'Anjou et le Limousin: la conquête du royaume de Naples chez Hélie Autenc et Géraud de Frachet’, Bibliothèque de l'Ecole des Chartes, 158 (2000), 443-73.

The pope crowns Charles of Anjou, who sits in the middle, wears a blue cloak and holds two gold-coloured sceptres with a fleur-de-lis.

Charles of Anjou is crowned King of Sicily (Paris, 1332–1350): Royal MS 16 G VI, f. 429v

Harley MS 3723 is an important witness to Gerald of Frachet’s work. Of the roughly 25 manuscripts of his universal chronicle known previously to scholars, only three others contain the The Tenth Prophecy of the Sibyl. This arrangement of texts may also have been part of the manuscript that Gerald is thought to have presented to Charles of Anjou. Harley MS 3723 is also the only copy of Gerald’s work that reached England in the Late Middle Ages. Although English readers may have been less keen to identify the kings in the Tiburtine Sibyl's prophecies with French rulers, her predictions about disease and warfare may have strongly resonated with their experiences of the bubonic plague and Hundred Years War.

Containing more than 7500 manuscripts, the Harley collection is one of the largest intact 18th-century libraries in the world. Watch this Blog for more news about our discoveries as we continue to catalogue the Harley collection.  

 

Clarck Drieshen

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