Medieval manuscripts blog

257 posts categorized "Medieval history"

30 March 2022

Deciphering an English exorcism manual

We recently encountered a mysterious medieval manuscript during our current Harley cataloguing project. In the three centuries that it has been in the Harley collection, no one realised the true identity of the manuscript with the shelf-mark Harley MS 2874. Contributing to this may be the fact that its main contents start with a string of illegible and unpronounceable words: ‘Cpnkxratkp malkgnprum spkrkxxm’.

Title of the manuscript written in code
The words ‘Cpnkxratkp malkgnprum spkrkxxm’ written in red ink: Harley MS 2874, f. 1v

What to make of these strange words? The fact that they are written in red ink suggests that they are part of a title. So what does this manuscript contain? When we turn to the old catalogue of the Harleian manuscripts published in the year 1808, we find the manuscript described as a fragmentary Breviary–a common prayer book used in Christian liturgy–that was written in the 14th century.

Harley MS 2874 is described in the old 1808 Catalogue of the Harleian Manuscripts as an imperfect Breviary, a parchment codex in duodecimo (small-size) format, and dating to the 14th century
The description of Harley MS 2874 in the old Catalogue of the Harleian Manuscripts (1808), II, p. 717

But the 1808 catalogue must be incorrect. The manuscript does not contain any texts that one expects to find in a Breviary. Instead, the illegible words appear to be a form of secret writing. They employ a known encryption method in which vowels are replaced with their successive letters in the alphabet. With this method and some knowledge of the Latin language in mind, the title can be deciphered as: ‘Coniuratio malignorum spirituum’. In English, this means: ‘The Conjuration of Evil Spirits’. The manuscript is clearly not a fragmentary Breviary, but a complete copy of an exorcism manual that claims to describe the rituals used to drive out demons from possessed persons in St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, Rome.

An opening from the manuscript
An opening containing formulas for exorcising demons: ‘I exorcise you unclean spirit’ (Exorziso te immunde spiritus): Harley MS 2874, ff. 5v-6r

The Coniuratio malignorum spirituum survives in about 30 printed editions. All of these were published in Rome or Venice in the late 15th and early 16th century. Our Harley manuscript is almost certainly a handwritten copy of one of these printed books, and, based on its script, was copied around the year 1500.

A woodcut print of a man exorcising demons
A woodcut print of a man exorcising demons from a printed copy of the Coniuratio malignorum spirituum (Rome: Stephan Plannck, about 1500): British Library, IA.18786

The Harley manuscript differs greatly from the printed versions in that it not only encrypts the text’s title, but also encrypts or abbreviates any further references to the act of conjuring and invoking demons throughout the manuscript. For example, ‘Coniuro te diabole’ (I conjure you Devil) has become ‘Cpnkxrp tf dibbplf’ in code, or ‘9o te diabole’ in abbreviated form, and ‘Memento lucifer’ (I hold Lucifer in mind) has become ‘Mfmfntp lxckffr’.

‘Coniuro te diabole’ encrypted ‘Cpnkxrp tf dibbplf’. The text is written in black ink with a capital ‘C’ in red ink
‘Cpnkxrp tf dibbplf’ (Coniuro te diabole): Harley MS 2874, f. 21r
The word 'Coniuro' abbreviated
‘9o’ (Coniuro): Harley Ms 2874, f. 23r
‘Memento lucifer’ encrypted as ‘Mfmfntp lxckffr’.The text is written in black ink with a capital ‘M’ in red ink
‘Mfmfntp lxckffr’ (Memento lucifer): Harley MS 2874, f. 10v

Since none of the Italian versions contains secret writing, the Harley manuscript was almost certainly encrypted by the scribe who copied it. But why did they do this? For an answer to this question, we need to look into the scribe’s background. An important clue to their identity can be found on the manuscript’s first page. This page is not part of the Coniuratio malignorum spirituum, but rather it contains a text in a different script that is both fragmentary and faded. With the aid of Ultraviolet light it can be identified as a royal pardon from King Henry VI to William Babington (d. 1453), who was abbot of the Benedictine abbey of Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk between 1446 and 1453. It may be the same pardon of debts owed to the Exchequer that Babington and his monastery are known to have received on 23 December 1451.

Importantly, the royal pardon is not a later addition but original to Harley MS 2874. Whoever made the manuscript cut a fragment from the pardon and used the blank parchment on its reverse side for writing the first page of the exorcism manual. This suggests that the scribe was quite possibly a monk of Bury St Edmunds, and certainly based in England.

A faded text in black ink highlighted with UV light, revealing the name of William Babington
Ultraviolet image of a royal pardon for William Babington and Bury St Edmunds: Harley MS 2874, f. 1r

The English origin of the manuscript is significant because the historian Francis Young argues that there is no evidence for the popularity of Continental exorcism manuals in England at this time (A History of Exorcism in Catholic Christianity (2016), pp. 94-95). This means that the English scribe was probably unfamiliar with the genre of exorcism manuals. Perhaps this made them uneasy about the text’s contents, contributing to their decision to encrypt key parts of the manual. Moreover, they might have been particularly concerned about how future owners could use the manuscript. As Francis Young (p. 103) points out, the Coniuratio malignorum spirituum could be readily used for illicit magical rituals in which communication with demons is sought not to exorcise them but to control and employ them for one’s own purposes.

Its repeated use of the term ‘conjuration’ would have made the exorcism manual especially suitable for the dark arts, as in the instruction ‘I conjure you devil and unclean spirit’ (Coniuro te diabole et spiritus immunde).

The opening words of a conjuration
The opening words of a conjuration in a printed copy of the Coniuratio malignorum spirituum (Rome: Stephan Plannck, about 1500): British Library, IA.18786

Conjurations are often found in magical texts that present formulas for invoking and commanding spirits. According to a 17th-century English magical treatise you should say the following:

‘I conjure and constrain you to fulfil my will in everything faithfully without hurt of my body or soul and to be ready at my call as often as I shall call you’.

An English text for conjuring demons
A conjuration for invoking and commanding spirits (England, 17th century): Sloane MS 3847, f. 120r

In using secret writing, the scribe may have wanted to limit the number of readers of the manuscript to a select and trusted few, perhaps a circle of monks at Bury St Edmunds. If that was their intention, then they seem to have been successful. Since the manuscript was acquired for the Harleian Library on 17 May 1715, cataloguers have not identified its contents, preventing magical practitioners from using it ever since.

This is just one of our many discoveries from the Harley cataloguing project. To read about some of the others, see our previous blogposts about a newly discovered manuscript from Byland Abbey and the lost miracles of St Wulfsige of Evesham. We will keep posting our findings, so keep a close eye on this blog!

Clarck Drieshen

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26 March 2022

The secret of a silver clasp

The British Library is home to a huge array of beautiful bookbindings: from velvet and sheepskin chemises, to bejewelled covers, gold-tooled and patterned leather, and ivory friezes. Clasped bindings are a particular favourite of mine. This binding method is intended to protect a book from the effects of dust and light by an element (typically leather or metal) that secures its upper and lower covers. Clasped bindings have been in use for hundreds of years and many beautiful and elaborate examples survive from the Middle Ages.

One manuscript housed at the Library has a particularly special clasped binding. Attached to its green and gold-tooled covers, its small silver clasp is shaped in the form of a lion, with a coiled tail and a curly mane, and its right forepaw raised.

The upper cover and fore-edge of an early 16th-century Book of Hours, with its silver lion-shaped clasp

The upper cover and fore-edge of an early 16th-century Book of Hours, with its silver lion-shaped clasp: Egerton MS 1147

The silver clasp in the shape of a lion

The lion-shaped silver clasp: Egerton MS 1147, clasp

The lion alone is a beautiful addition to the manuscript, but it also hides a tantalising secret. On the reverse of the clasp, enclosed within the space directly behind the lion’s head and upper body, an artist has added a delicate engraving. It depicts a female figure, draped in robes, with long flowing hair. Who is this mysterious woman? What is her connection to the silver lion, and why has her portrait been added to the back?

The reverse of the silver clasp, with an engraving of a woman

The reverse of the clasp, showing an engraving of a female figure: Egerton MS 1147, clasp

Possible answers to these questions can be found within the pages of the manuscript itself (Egerton MS 1147), recently digitised and available to view in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site. The volume is a Book of Hours — a type of devotional book that was very popular during the Middle Ages — written and illuminated in the Flemish city of Bruges between 1500 and 1515. It contains numerous beautiful illustrations and decorative borders that accompany its calendar and collection of prayers and liturgical and devotional readings.

A full-page miniature of Christ as Salvator Mundi

Christ as Salvator Mundi, at the opening of the Latin Prayer to the Holy Face, ‘Salva sancta facies’: Egerton MS 1147, f. 12r (Image by Isabelle Reynolds-Logue)

One such illustration appears in the lower margin of the opening page of the Latin ‘Salva sancta facies’, or Prayer to the Holy Face. The image shows a woman sitting in an enclosed garden, the outline of a cityscape with numerous turrets and crenellations visible in the background. Before her appears a lion with silver fur wearing a golden crown and collar, its paw outstretched to the woman’s hand. In short, the image displays unmistakeable parallels to the design of the lion-shaped clasp attached to the book’s covers.

A miniature of the Maid of Ghent with a crowned lion placing its paw in her lap

A marginal portrait of the ‘Maid of Ghent’ and her lion: Egerton MS 1147, f. 12r detail

The elusive female subject of both the clasp and the marginal illustration can be identified with a symbolic medieval figure known as the ‘Maid of Ghent’. Her story originates in a 14th-century Middle Dutch poem, written by the Flemish author Baudouin van der Lore. It was written at a time when the city of Ghent (in modern-day Belgium) was threatened by the invading army of Louis II, Count of Flanders. Baudouin’s poem details a vision of the Maid stranded in a wood, and relates how she is protected from the machinations of an evil prince by Christ who appears to her in the form of a lion. The poem’s symbolism evidently resonated with the citizens of Ghent and their struggle, and by the beginning of the 15th century, the Maid and her lion had been adopted as the emblem of the city itself.

Numerous examples of the ‘Maid of Ghent’ appear in surviving medieval metalwork, armorial plates and illuminated books produced in the city. The most notable of these is a large military standard, probably painted by a female Flemish artist called Agnes van den Bossche — one of only a few known women artisans from this time — some 40 years before our Book of Hours was made. The banner adopts the same design as the clasp and the illustration above: the Maid holding the crowned lion’s outstretched paw. The lion now appears in an almost burnished gold, but microscopic analysis of the banner and its pigments has revealed it would have originally been silver.

A banner with the Maid of Ghent on the left with her lion

A military standard, depicting the ‘Maid of Ghent’ and her lion, probably painted by Agnes van der Bossche, 1481–1482: courtesy of STAM Museum Ghent

Our Book of Hours is known to have originated in the city of Bruges, where it was worked on by a succession of Flemish artists, but the recurring presence of the figure of the Maid and her lion suggests it may have been intended for a Ghentish owner, for whom this emblem would have had special significance. Moreover, the book remained in Ghent for many centuries after its production. A marginal inscription on one page displays the letters ‘IR’ linked by a lover’s knot: the monogram of a renowned bookbinder, Jan Ryckaert (b. 1516, d. 1573) whose workshop was based in the city. Eventually, it had become part of the collection of the Ghentish bibliophile Pierre Joseph Versturme-Roegiers (b. 1777, d. 1846).

The monogram of the Ghentish bookbinder Jan Ryckaert in the lower margin of the page

The monogram of the Ghentish bookbinder Jan Ryckaert, showing the letters IR linked by a lover’s knot: Egerton MS 1147, f. 13v


Calum Cockburn

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20 February 2022

Mapping Scotland

The earliest surviving detailed map of Scotland is now on display at the Wardlaw Museum in St Andrews, as part of the British Library’s Treasures on Tour programme. The map was compiled by John Hardyng, who was born in 1377 or 1378, probably in Northumberland, and lived most of his life during the Hundred Years’ War between England and France. He joined the household of Henry Percy (‘Hotspur’) when he was 12 years old, and fought for the Percys in Anglo-Scottish border battles. He also served in France during the reign of Henry V, who sent him on a spying mission to Scotland in 1418. Hardyng is best known for his verse Chronicle of the history of Britain, in which he set out his fervent belief in the right of English kings to rule over Scotland. He was so determined to prove his case that he forged a series of documents purporting to provide corroborating historical evidence.

John Hardyng’s map of Scotland

John Hardyng’s map of Scotland: Lansdowne MS 204, ff. 226v–227r

In 1457, Hardyng presented the first version of his Chronicle to King Henry VI of England, as part of his failed attempt to instigate an invasion of Scotland. The Chronicle is accompanied by this colourful map, spread across two pages, which depicts a very rectangular Scotland with west at the top. Hardyng doubtless drew on his earlier years of reconnaissance in Scotland in compiling his map. It includes much more topographical information and many more towns right across Scotland than in earlier surviving maps. The castles and walls of the towns are remarkably varied, while at Glasgow and Dunfermline the churches are drawn instead. The rivers are very clearly marked, with the River Forth, bridged at Stirling, running from top to bottom, and almost cutting the kingdom in two.

Detail of John Hardyng’s map of Scotland, showing Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dunfermline and St Andrews

Detail of John Hardyng’s map of Scotland, showing Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dunfermline and St Andrews: Lansdowne MS 204, f. 226v

The level of detail, which Hardyng hoped would help an invading army, is strikingly different from earlier maps of Scotland. There is very little detail relating to Scotland in the small map of the world that was copied in 11th-century England and preserved in the collection of Sir Robert Cotton. East is at the top in this map, and the prominent islands to the north (on the left) are labelled ‘Orkney islands’ in Latin.

Detail of the 11th-century map of the world showing Britain and Ireland

Detail of the 11th-century map of the world showing Britain and Ireland: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 56v

Matthew Paris (d. 1259) produced several maps of Britain from his monastery at St Albans in Hertfordshire. In this map, included in his Abbreviatio Chronicorum, Scotland is shown in two parts, joined by a bridge at Stirling. Rivers are prominent and many places are labelled, including Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dunfermline, Dundee, Arbroath and Aberdeen, as well as Galloway, Caithness, Sutherland and Orkney.

Detail of a map of Britain by Matthew Paris showing Scotland

Detail of a map of Britain by Matthew Paris showing Scotland: Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1, f. 12v

In the mid-1560s, just over a century after John Hardyng compiled his map, the antiquary Laurence Nowell was producing new maps of Scotland. Like Hardyng, Nowell put west at the top in this small map, but he included far more detailed information, making this the most accurate map of Scotland at that time. It has recently been on display at the British Library in the exhibition Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens.

Map of Scotland by Laurence Nowell

Map of Scotland by Laurence Nowell: Cotton MS Domitian A XVIII, ff. 98v–99r

John Hardyng’s map is on display at the Wardlaw Museum in St Andrews from 20 February until 3 July 2022. The museum is open seven days a week and entry is free. You can find out more about Hardyng’s life, his Chronicle and his map in James Simpson and Sarah Peverley’s book.

The Treasures on Tour programme is generously supported by the Helen Hamlyn Trust. The British Library is working with other libraries, museums and galleries to share our collections across the UK. Last year we loaned the Gospels of Máel Brigte to the Ulster Museum, as well as the Bodmin Gospels and Pascon Agan Arluth (a Cornish Passion poem) to Kresen Kernow in Redruth, Cornwall, as part of this programme, and we will be announcing additional loans as part of ‘Treasures on Tour’ over the coming months.


Claire Breay

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17 December 2021

Collating Cicero in Cologne

Our work on revising the online descriptions of manuscripts in the Harley collection continues apace. One manuscript that has recently had its online description updated is Harley MS 2682, an 11th-century volume known as the ‘Cologne Cicero’. It has been recognised for centuries as an important witness to a number of the works of the famous Roman statesman, lawyer, scholar and orator, Marcus Tullius Cicero (d. 43 BCE).

Manuscript page showing the beginning of Cicero's Orationes in Catilinam

The beginning of Cicero's Orationes in Catilinam (western Germany, 2nd half of the 11th century): Harley MS 2682, f. 115r

The first person to collate the text of the ‘Cologne Cicero’ — the process of comparing different manuscripts of a work in order to establish its correct text — was François Modius (1556–1597), a Flemish jurist and humanist classical scholar. With the help of the Cologne theologian, Melchior Hittorp (c. 1525–1584), Modius was given access to the manuscript before 1584 when he published some of his collations. At that point, it was in the library at Cologne Cathedral, and it seems that it was originally made in the scriptorium there. The next scholar to collate the text of the ‘Cologne Cicero’ was Janus Gulielmus, or Johann Wilhelm (1555–1584), who called it the optimus (‘best', 'most useful’) of the three manuscripts he was using. In 1688, the manuscript was taken from Cologne Cathedral by the German classical scholar, Johann Georg Graevius (1632–1703). Graevius’s library, including our manuscript, was bought in 1703 by Johann Wilhelm II, Elector Palatine (1658–1716). The Wilhelm library was bought in turn by the merchant and diplomat Giovanni Giacomo Zamboni (d. 1753), sometime before 1724, from whom the 'Cologne Cicero' was purchased on 20 October 1725 by Humfrey Wanley (1672–1726), librarian to Edward Harley, 2nd Earl of Oxford (1689-1741).

As well as being collated intensively in the 1500s and 1600s, Harley MS 2682 is testament to the interest in studying Cicero’s works in the 11th century. It seems to represent the oldest attempt at bringing together all of Cicero’s works in one volume. What is more, it is an example of medieval textual criticism since the three so-called ‘Caesarian speeches’ were copied twice, in two different versions. The first version seems to have been imperfect, only containing the first half of the third speech, Pro rege Deiotaro (On behalf of King Deiotarus before Caesar). It seems that the compiler(s) of the ‘Cologne Cicero’ realised this shortcoming of the first exemplar for the ‘Caesarian speeches’, and found another manuscript — with the full text — from which to copy the three speeches once again.

Medieval manuscript page with a nota mark in dark ink extending down the entire outer margin

The beginning of Cicero's De petitione consulatus, with a nota mark extending down the entire outer margin: Harley MS 2682, f. 53r

The pages of the ‘Cologne Cicero’ also show marks of continued use during its medieval history. There are numerous marginal annotations and so-called nota marks, drawing attention to a particular sentence or paragraph. Some common forms of nota marks are little pointing hands, manicules, or monograms of the word nota itself. On one page marking the beginning of De petitione consulatus (On running for the consulship) (f. 53r), the nota monogram runs down the entire outer margin. Someone must have found this page especially important!

To read more about the attention that medieval scholars and readers paid to the texts of the Latin classics, see our article on ‘The Latin Middle Ages’.


Emilia Henderson

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22 August 2021

Richard III: fact and fiction

On 22 August 1485, the last English king to be killed in combat died at the Battle of Bosworth Field. He was none other than Richard III, a monarch whose reputation is still debated, known variously as the King under the Carpark, Shakespeare's hunchback ruler, and the (alleged) murderer of his young nephews, Edward V and Richard, Duke of York. In this blogpost, we set out some of the manuscript evidence for the reign of this controversial sovereign.

One of the earliest notices of the Battle of Bosworth is found in the calendar of an early 15th-century Book of Hours known as the 'Beaufort/Beauchamp Hours'. This calendar contains a number of added notices of births, deaths and other notable occurrences, extending as far as the deaths of Queen Jane Seymour in 1536 and Elizabeth Lucar in 1537. In the margin of the calendar page for August, the same scribe has made retrospective notes of two significant events:

7 August: 'This day landed King Harry the viith at Milfoord Haven, the yere of our Lord m.cccc.lxxxv.'

22 August: 'This day King Harri the viith wan the feeld wher was slayn King Richard the third. Anno domini 1485.' 

A calendar page in a Book of Hours, with added notices in the left-hand margin

The calendar page for August in the 'Beaufort/Beauchamp Hours', with added notices of the landing of Henry Tudor at Milford Haven and the death of Richard III at Bosworth: Royal MS 2 A XVIII, f. 31v

We can tell immediately that these notes were made after the Battle of Bosworth Field, since Henry Tudor is described prematurely at his landing as 'King Harry the 7th'. Richard is styled 'king' in the notice of his death, which does at least acknowledge the legitimacy of his rule. The lack of space in the margins of this calendar doubtless prevented the annotator from recording a more detailed description of Richard's personality and achievements.

Another posthumous report of Richard III's reign is found in an early 16th-century chronicle that extended originally as far as the rule of Henry VII. This chronicle supplies a dispassionate account of Richard's life, set out as part of a genealogical tree of the English rulers:

'Richard that was sonne to Richard Dewke of Yorke and brother unto Kyng Edward the iiiith was Kyng after hys brother and raynyd .ii. yeres and lyth buryd at Lecitor.'

A page from a geneaological chronicle, with coloured roundels containing illustrations of members of the English royal family

A genealogical chronicle of the rulers of England, including an account of the reign of Richard III: King's MS 395, f. 33r

Richard is also illustrated in a roundel that accompanies the text, wearing a crown and carrying a sceptre in his right hand. This cannot be considered a realistic likeness, since all the portraits in this manuscript are similar in style and have the same palette of colours. But it is an antidote to the conventional image of King Richard, represented in the more famous painting held at the National Portrait Gallery. What is also noteworthy in the same manuscript is that no mention is made of the succession and brief reign of Edward V, Richard's nephew, or of the mysterious disappearance of the young princes.

A manuscript portrait of King Richard III, wearing a crown and with the English coat of arms to his right

The portrait of Richard III in the genealogical chronicle: King's MS 395, f. 33r

So what can we glean about Richard III from other manuscript sources? Like his predecessors, Richard was renowned as a law-giver. In one English statute book made in 1488 or 1489, just a few years after his death, Richard is shown in an historiated initial crowned and robed, holding a sceptre and orb, and surrounded by leading clerics and other courtiers. There is nothing to suggest here that his rule was considered illegitimate in any way. Indeed, at the time that this manuscript was produced, Henry VII's position on the throne was still precarious, since he was being challenged first by Lambert Simnel and then, in the 1490s, by Perkin Warbeck. Henry is illustrated in the same volume in exactly the same way as Richard III (f. 339v). You could not tell from this book alone that one of these kings had overthrown the other in battle.

A page from an illuminated lawbook, with a decorated initial R enclosing Richard III surrounded by his courtiers, and a decorated border

The statutes issued by King Richard III in a legal manuscript made in London: Hargrave MS 274, f. 328v

A detail of the portrait of King Richard III, throned and crowned

Detail of the portrait of Richard III in this legal manuscript: Hargrave MS 274, f. 328v

Another visual statement of the legitimacy of Richard III's rule, this time dating from his own reign, is found in a manuscript of the English translation of De re militari by Vegetius. The decorated initial that opens this volume contains the royal coat of arms supported by two boars (Richard's emblem) and surmounted by a crown. At the foot of the same page is the griffin of Salisbury, perhaps to denote that the book was made for Edward of Middleham, prince of Wales and earl of Salisbury, Richard's son and heir apparent until his untimely death in 1484. On another page of the same manuscript is the coat of arms of Anne Neville, Richard's wife and queen of England (f. 49r).

A page from an illuminated manuscript, with a decorated initial H containing two boars and the English coat of arms, a griffin in the lower border, and a decorated border enclosing the text

The royal arms of King Richard III in a manuscript of De re militari: Royal MS 18 A XII, f. 1r

A final and contemporary indication of Richard's own personality is provided by books that belonged to him, including before he became king. One manuscript of the Romance of Tristan bears the inscription 'Iste liber constat Ricardo Duci Gloucestre'. After his death it passed into the hands of his niece, Elizabeth of York, who was married to Henry VII in order to unite the two dynasties. Her inscription, 'sans remevyr Elyzabeth', is found at the bottom of the page. This evidence reminds us that Richard was styled 'duke of Gloucester': in the wake of the discovery of his skeleton, York and Leicester waged claims to being the appropriate home for his reburial, while Gloucester was largely overlooked. It also suggests that he may have had an interest in courtly literature, some indication of the circles in which he moved and what was required of a Renaissance prince. This would also have extended to having knowledge of ancient and more recent history. Among the other manuscripts known to have been owned by Richard is a copy of the Chroniques de France, from 1270 to 1380, which is inscribed part-way down one page 'Richard Gloucestre'.

A manuscript page containing the ownership inscription of Richard, Duke of Gloucester

'This book belongs to Richard, duke of Gloucester', in a manuscript of Roman de Tristan: Harley MS 49, f. 155r

A page from an illuminated manuscript, in 2 columns, with a miniature of knights fighting in the right-hand column, and the name Richard Gloucester added part-way down the left-hand column

A manuscript of the Chroniques de France owned by 'Richard Gloucestre': Royal MS 20 C VII, f. 134r

The name 'Richard Gloucestre' added to a medieval manuscript

Detail of Richard's name in Royal MS 20 C VII, f. 134r

Of course, there are other aspects of Richard's rule that we have not considered here. One of these is the sinister removal from power of his nephew, King Edward V, and the subsequent (assumed) deaths of the two princes in the Tower. To be accused of regicide and infanticide, even in an era when rulers were prepared to do anything to secure their position, is a massive stain on Richard III's reputation. The fate of Edward and his younger brother must always be set against attempts to rehabilitate Richard, and cannot be easily argued away. Equally, we are lacking a full understanding of Bosworth Field itself, and of how Richard's fortunes swayed on the battlefield. It is sometimes difficult to dislodge Shakespeare's account of the battle, and of Richard himself, from the popular memory. But the surviving manuscripts from his lifetime do at least provide us with a much more rounded vision of this most disputed of English monarchs.


Julian Harrison

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30 July 2021

Chroniclers of History at St Albans Museum

During the medieval period, the monastery of St Albans was recognised throughout England for the quality of its chroniclers. Between the 12th and 15th centuries, monks from the foundation recorded the events of English history, especially those that affected the Abbey and its holdings in the surrounding area. They included such figures as Roger of Wendover (d. 1236), William Rishanger (b. 1250), Matthew Paris (d. 1259), Thomas Walsingham (d. c. 1422).

A new exhibition, Chroniclers of History, has opened at St Albans Museum, which explores the lives and works of these men and the importance of their monastery. The British Library is delighted to be one of the major lenders to the exhibition, and the following six books from our collections will all be on display at the museum’s Weston Gallery from 30 July - 31 Oct 2021.

A detail from a medieval manuscript, showing a pen-and-ink drawing depicting the construction of St Albans Abbey.
The construction of St Albans.s Abbey, from Matthew Paris’ Liber additamentorum: Cotton MS Nero D I, f. 23v (detail)

The Benefactors’ Book

One of the highlights is a work known as the Benefactors’ Book of St Albans (Cotton MS Nero D VII). In a previous blogpost, we described the manuscript as a who’s who of medieval England. It represents an invaluable source for our understanding of the history of the monastery and its influence throughout the country. Initially compiled by the Abbey’s precentor, Thomas Walsingham, the book is a register of all the people who made gifts to St Albans throughout the Middle Ages, as well as the abbots, monks and laypeople who made up its vibrant community. The manuscript preserves their names, details about their lives and occupations, and for many even their portraits, which might otherwise have been lost to us. The page on display shows the artist, Alan Strayler, who is responsible for these portraits. 

A page from the Benefactors’ Book of St Albans, showing three portraits of figures recorded in the manuscript.
Portraits of benefactors, including the artist Alan Strayer (the lowermost figure), from the Benefactors’ Book of St Albans: Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 108r

A St Albans Calendar

St Albans was responsible for the production of hundreds of manuscripts between its foundation and dissolution in the 16th century. This copy of the Latin work De Trinitate (On the Trinity) by St Augustine, for example, was made at the monastery during the second half of the 12th century (Egerton MS 3721). It is prefaced by a calendar, commemorating the feast days of important saints throughout the year. Feast days for local saints connected with the Abbey are also recorded here, most notably St Alban himself, as well as several of the monastery’s former abbots.

A page from a medieval manuscript of St Augustine’s De Trinitate, showing a calendar page for June, arranged in a table, with important feast days marked in red and green ink.
A calendar page for June, from a manuscript of St Augustine’s De Trinitate (On the Trinity), made at the monastery of St Albans: Egerton MS 3721, f. 4v


A detail from a medieval manuscript, showing part of a calendar page for June, with feast days for saints marked.
Feast days for two abbots and St Alban recorded in the calendar: Egerton MS 3721, f. 4v (detail)

The Collectanea of John of Wallingford

Among the many chroniclers represented in the exhibition is the monk John of Wallingford (d. 1258). John was the infirmarer of St Albans (responsible for looking after the Abbey’s sick) and a friend and contemporary of Matthew Paris, another chronicler based at the Abbey. John is mostly known to us because of his Collectanea, surviving in a single manuscript, which comprises a huge variety of material, some written in his own hand (Cotton MS Julius D VII). Medical recipes in Middle English, copies of charters and documentary texts, John’s own chronicle of English history, and even a table for predicting the time of high tide at London Bridge, all appear in the collection. In addition to these works, the manuscript features a map of Britain and several drawings made by Matthew Paris, including a portrait of John of Wallingford himself, sitting before an open copy of the Book of Psalms. You can read more about the manuscript and Paris’ map in our previous blogpost, The Maps of Matthew Paris.

A page from the Collectanea of the chronicler and monk John of Wallingford, showing a portrait of him sat before an open book on a stand.
A portrait of the chronicler John of Wallingford, made by Matthew Paris, from a copy of Wallingford’s Collectanea: Cotton MS Julius D VII, f. 42v

Matthew Paris’ Liber additamentorum

Matthew Paris was renowned for his work as a chronicler, cartographer, artist, and scribe, both during his lifetime and for centuries after his death. Numerous surviving books show evidence of his hand and the influence of his distinctive style of drawing and painting, many of which are now housed at the British Library. His notable works include the Chronica Maiora, a universal history of the world, and Historia Anglorum, a history of England, both of which he copied and illuminated himself.

Paris’ Liber additamentorum (Book of Additions) is one of the manuscripts that can be found on display at the exhibition at St Albans Museum. The volume (now Cotton MS Nero D I) is a collection of original literary treatises and documents he assembled to support his research. Among the various texts, notes, tracts, and drawings it contains is his Gesta abbatum monasterii sancti Albani, a record of the lives and deeds of the abbots of St Albans. Paris drew a portrait of each of the subjects of his work, which appear as illustrations in the margins beside each of their respective entries. The page below, for example, features a portrait of Leofric, who served as abbot towards the end of the 10th century, and whom Paris identifies in an accompanying inscription in red ink, written in his own distinctive hand.

A page from Matthew Paris’ Books of Additions, showing his work on the deeds of the abbots of the monastery of St Albans, arranged in two columns, with marginal illustrations and a portrait of Abbot Leofric.
Matthew Paris’ Gesta abbatum monasterii Sancti Albani (Deeds of the Abbots of the Monastery of St Albans), with a marginal portrait of Abbot Leofric, also painted by Paris: Cotton MS Nero D I, f. 32v

Ralph of Diceto’s Chronicles

Another of Paris’ contemporaries was Ralph of Diceto (d. c. 1200), a chronicler and dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Ralph was particularly known for a Latin chronicle, written and arranged in two parts. The first is called the Abbreviationes chronicorum (Abbreviations of chronicles) and it constitutes a summary of existing chronicles already circulating in England during the 12th century. It covers the history of the world from the birth of Christ to around 1147. The second part, meanwhile, is entitled the Imagines historiarum (Images of History) and records events that occurred during Ralph’s own lifetime .

A page from a medieval manuscript, showing the opening of a chronicle by Ralph of Diceto, arranged in three columns, with two large decorated initials in gold.
The opening of Ralph of Diceto’s chronicle Imagines historiarum (Images of History): Royal MS 13 E VI, f. 49r

One manuscript in the British Library (Royal MS 13 E VI), made between 1199 and 1209, contains copies of both these chronicles, complete with an innovative pictorial indexing system that Ralph invented. It has been suggested that this volume was made for the Abbey of St Albans and that it was copied from an original housed in St Paul’s, believed to have been Ralph’s personal copy of his works. Numerous additions related to St Albans have been inscribed in the margins of the text: a shelfmark identifying that it was part of the Abbey’s monastic library, marginal notes concerning important events in the Abbey’s history, the obits (or dates of death) of some of its abbots, and even notes and a drawing made by Paris himself.

A detail from a medieval manuscript, showing a marginal illustration of King Lucius being baptised in a tub, identified by an inscription in red ink.
A marginal illustration of Lucius, a legendary King of the Britons, added into a manuscript of Ralph of Diceto’s chronicles, made by Matthew Paris: Royal MS 13 E VI, f. 11r (detail)

The Chronicles of England, printed by the Schoolmaster Printer

While the monastery of St Albans was known for its production of handwritten books and manuscripts, in the later medieval period the city also housed a printing press, notable for being one of the first to operate in England outside of Westminster and London. The name of the printer remains unknown, and many have speculated about his true identity. One of the only hints we have originates from the famous English printer Wynkyn de Worde (d. 1534), who once described him as a ‘Sometime schoolmaster’. Since then, he has typically been referred to as the ‘Schoolmaster Printer’.

This particular volume was made by the St Albans press around 1486 and contains the Chronicles of England, written in Middle English and one of the very first chronicles to be printed in the country (C.11.b.1*). It features a number of woodcut illustrations throughout the text, and on the final page, there appears a printer’s device (or emblem), bearing the arms of the Abbey and the town of St Albans, in red ink.

The final page of a printed copy of the Chronicles of England, made by the Schoolmaster Printer, showing a device in red ink, of a saltire cross on a shield.
The Chronicles of England, made by the ‘Schoolmaster Printer’, showing the printer’s device with the arms of the abbey and town of St Albans: C.11.b.1*, p. 575

The records of the chroniclers featured in this exhibition are the basis for much of our understanding of England during the Middle Ages, and without their work, our knowledge of early English history would be far poorer. Their texts and manuscripts provide an insight not only into the major events that affected the Church and the Crown in this period, but also how these events affected people at a local level.

You can visit Chroniclers of History at The Weston Gallery, St Albans Museum, from 30 July until 31 October 2021. The exhibition catalogue Chroniclers of History: The Medieval Monks of St Albans and their Books. An Exhibition is edited by James Clarke and published by St Albans Council.

Calum Cockburn

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15 July 2021

The lost miracles of Wulfsige of Evesham

Little is known about Wulfsige (d. 1104 or 1105), also known as ‘Wulsinus’, an important figure of the Benedictine abbey of St Mary the Virgin and St Egwin at Evesham (Worcestershire). Wulfsige reputedly lived at the abbey for 75 years, and was venerated as a saint after his death. According to the Peterborough Chronicle, an Evesham monk named Thomas of Northwich (d. 1206 or 1207) wrote three books about the miracles that had taken place at Wulfsige’s tomb. Until now, no trace of Northwich’s work has been found. However, while cataloguing the Harley manuscripts, we have discovered what seems to be a fragment of this lost miracle collection. 

An entry from the Peterborough Chronicle, written in brown ink, about the three books that Thomas of Northwich wrote about Wulfsige

Wulfsige’s miracles in the Peterborough Chronicle: ‘[Wulfsige] at whose tomb many miracles are made by the Lord, which Master Thomas of Northwich wrote down in three books’ (‘ad cujus tumbam multa miracula a domino facta sunt que iij libris scripsit magister Thomas Norwicensis’): Cotton MS Claudius A V, f. 19r (England, 2nd half of the 14th century)

Wulfsige lived at Evesham Abbey as an ‘anchorite’, a recluse who separated himself from the monks in an enclosure. This was either a cell or, according to one source, an underground cavity. Despite his secluded lifestyle, Wulfsige engaged actively with worldly affairs. He allegedly wrote to King Edward the Confessor (1042–1066) urging him to re-found Westminster Abbey, provided spiritual advice to Leofric (d. 1057), Earl of Mercia, and his wife Godgifu (d. ?1067), better known as ‘Lady Godiva’, and persuaded St Wulfstan (c. 1000–1095) to accept the bishopric of Worcester in 1062. Wulfsige’s importance to Evesham is evident from the fact that he was buried in the middle of the choir of the abbey church. The monks celebrated his feast on 24 February.

A text written in early modern script and red ink, recording the feast of Wulfsige

The feast of Wulfsige in an early 18th-century transcript of a 14th-century Evesham Calendar in Cotton MS Vitellius E XVII, that is now illegible due to fire damage: ‘Wulfsige, a monk and anchorite of this place’ (‘Wlsinus Monachus et Anachorita istius loci’): Lansdowne MS 427, f. 4r

We can now get a glimpse of Wulfsige’s miracles through the discovery of two fragmentary parchment leaves in a 13th-century English manuscript — Harley MS 4242. The leaves record the miracles of a certain ‘Wlsinus’. The old printed catalogue of the Harley manuscripts published in 1808 calls him ‘Walsinus’, but closer examination makes clear that he is none other than Wulfsige. All the miracles are set in or close to the Vale of Evesham. Moreover, in one of them a woman from the village of Wick, who was suffering from a severe headache, identified him as an anchorite: ‘St Wulsinus, anchorite, help me’ (‘Sancte Wlsine anachorita adiuva me’).

A text beginning with a large blue initial and written in black ink in which a woman of Wick calls Wulfsige an anchorite (‘anachorita’) in line 10

Wulfsige heals a woman of Wick who invokes him as an anchorite: Harley MS 4242, f. 65v

Wulfsige’s miracles typically involved supernatural healing. One tells of a certain Helewisa of Badsey whose entire body was seized by pain. When she was brought to Wulfsige’s tomb to ask for his help, her husband forced her to return to their village. She complied reluctantly, regretting that she had not dared to stay at the tomb for longer. But Wulfsige clearly heard her prayers as she was completely relieved of her pain.

A text beginning with a large initial in red and written in black ink in which Wulfsige heals Helewisa of Badsey

Wulfsige heals Helewisa of Badsey: Harley MS 4242, f. 65v

Another miracle concerned a boy of Evesham who suffered from bloody diarrhoea and constantly had to go to the latrine, day and night. When his mother took holy water and dedicated it to Wulfsige, the boy was cured within the same hour.

A text beginning with a large blue initial and written in black ink in which a woman dedicates holy water (‘aqua benedicta’) to Wulfsige in lines 8 and 9

Wulfsige heals a boy of Evesham from bloody diarrhoea: Harley MS 4242, f. 65v

Wulfsige also aided those who prayed for their animals. One miracle tells of a man of Evesham who had been searching for his sow and her piglets for a long time. After he vowed to venerate Wulfsige if his pigs would reappear, he found them the next day.

A text beginning with a large blue initial and written in black ink in which Wulfsige returns a sow with piglets (‘Sus cum porcellis’ in line 1) to a man of Evesham

Wulfsige reunites a man of Evesham with his sow and her piglets: Harley MS 4242, f. 66r

In other miracles, the diseased recovered when their bodies were measured in dedication of Wulfsige. One woman was unable to breast-feed her baby, but when she used a cord to measure her breasts in veneration of Wulfsige, they started to lactate. Similarly, a calf of Hugh of Ullington did not eat or walk for two days, but when Hugh used a cord to measure it in Wulfsige's honour it suddenly revived.

A text beginning with a large red initial and written in black ink in which a calf is healed by measuring it in dedication to Wulfsige in lines 6 and 7: ‘ad honorem sancti Wlsini mensuratus’ (‘having been measured to the honour of Saint Wulsinus’)

A calf in Ullington is healed after it is measured in dedication to Wulfsige: Harley MS 4242, f. 66r

After measuring, these cords were typically used as wicks for votive candles that were offered at a saint’s shrine, in this case Wulfsige’s tomb. An example is featured on the 800-year old ‘Miracles Windows’ of Canterbury Cathedral that are currently on display at the British Museum’s exhibition Thomas Becket: Murder and the Making of a Saint. They show a woman who had recovered from abdominal problems at the tomb of Thomas Becket (d. 1170), archbishop of Canterbury. She offers Becket a coiled wick, known as a ‘trindle’, which she had probably used to measure herself in his honour. 

A woman in a white robe and a green mantle kneels before the tomb of St Thomas of Canterbury to place a coiled wick on top of the tomb

A woman offers a coiled wick to St Thomas of Canterbury on the Miracle Windows, 1200s: © The Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral & Trustees of the British Museum

Wulfsige was also associated with Becket by an owner of Harley MS 4242. The leaves with his miracles are later additions to the manuscript. Originally, it only contained a 13th-century copy of the Quadrilogus, an account of Becket’s life and martyrdom that was compiled by an Evesham monk in 1198–1199. Whoever added the fragments of Wulfsige’s miracles to the manuscript — an Evesham monk perhaps — may have linked the anchorite with the archbishop because of the many healing miracles that were performed at their tombs.

A marginal drawing showing Thomas Becket bowing his head and lifting his hands in prayer with a cross behind him and a bishop’s mitre to his right. The drawing shows how the bishop was given a fatal blow to the head with a sword while he was in prayer

A marginal drawing of the murder of Thomas Becket: Harley MS 4242, f. 6v

While hundreds of Becket’s miracles survive, the leaves with Wulfsige’s miracles only contain seventeen complete stories. However, the fragments clearly originate from a larger collection, and their compiler suggests that there were many more miracles that they did not write about: ‘These are a few of the many things that Christ performed for his saint Wulfsige’ (‘Hec pauca de multis que pro sancto suo Wlsino est operatus Christus’).

A text beginning with a large blue initial and written in black ink in which the compiler of Wulfsige’s miracles comments on their multitude. The Latin quotation in the main text above starts on line 1: ‘Hec pauca de multis que pro sancto suo Wlsino est operatus Christus’ (‘These are but a few of the many things that Christ performed for his saint Wulsinus’).

The compiler refers to the multitude of Wulfsige’s miracles: Harley MS 4242, f. 66r

Do the leaves with Wulfsige’s miracles come from the original books compiled by Thomas of Northwich? Possibly. First, the script is datable to the early 13th century, which corresponds with the time when Northwich was active. Moreover, Wulfsige was venerated primarily at Evesham and his miracles may not been widely distributed.

Our fragments add to the small number of surviving books attributable to Evesham Abbey. The MLGB3 website lists twenty-seven surviving manuscripts and fragments from that abbey, which is only a fraction of the library at the monastery until it was dissolved in 1540. Whether or not the fragments originated from Northwich’s manuscript, they shed new light on the miracles that enhanced Evesham’s reputation as a site of sanctity and wonder during the Middle Ages.

Keep an eye on this Blog for more discoveries from the Harley collection.


Clarck Drieshen

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20 May 2021

Thomas Becket: manuscripts showing the making of a saint

Having seen all of the five-star reviews, like many of you we are looking forward to seeing the new exhibition at the British Museum, Thomas Becket: Murder and the Making of a Saint, which opens on 20 May for three months to 22 August. If you visit, you’ll see five British Library manuscripts in various sections (these are some five-star items too!). In the words of Naomi Speakman, co-curator of the exhibition: ‘The British Library manuscripts are some of the highlights of the exhibition, and help to illuminate the Becket story’. 

Thomas Becket (1120–1170) was an archbishop of Canterbury who came into conflict with King Henry II of England over the rights of the Church. In The Rise and Fall of Thomas Becket section, a 14th-century English manuscript depicts Becket, wearing his bishop’s mitre and holding the staff of office, in conversation with King Henry II, above a genealogical table. In the caption, Henry is called ‘the son of Queen Matilda’, indicating his right to the throne through his mother. 

A medieval manuscript page showing Thomas Becket in conversation with King Henry II, above a genealogical table
Thomas Becket in conversation with King Henry II, above a genealogical table: Royal MS 20 A II, ff. 7v-8r

On 29 December 1170, a group of Henry’s knights murdered Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, causing great outrage across Europe. For more on why they were there, and whether they were acting on the King’s orders, read the British Museum’s blogpost: Who killed Thomas Becket? After his death, Becket was honoured as a saint and Canterbury became a major pilgrimage centre.

One of the most famous images of the murder itself is featured in the Murder in the Cathedral section of the exhibition. In a 12th-century collection of Becket’s letters, the story of Becket’s murder is told in four scenes, beginning with a messenger announcing the knights’ arrival while Becket is at table, with the knights conversing outside. In the register below is the murder itself, with one of the knights slicing through the bishop’s skull with his sword. A bear on this knight’s shield may indicate that this is Reginald Fitzurse (ursus is ‘bear’ in Latin). Finally pilgrims kneel before Becket’s shrine, seeking to get as close to the saint as possible. This image accompanies a letter of John of Salisbury (d. 1180), who was one of the eye-witnesses to the murder.

This manuscript was digitised recently as part of the Polonsky Foundation England and France 700-1200 project, and you can read more about it on the project website.

Medieval manuscript page with the story of Becket’s murder told in four scenes
The story of Becket’s murder told in four scenes, in a 12th-century collection of Becket’s letters: Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 341r

Another well-known image features in the Making of a Saint section, in which Becket is laid in his tomb. It is one of five full-page miniatures (another is a scene of his murder) inserted into a Latin Psalter, to which a translation in Anglo-Norman French was added above the Latin to the first part of the Psalms. In the exhibition, the pages on display show the entombment of Becket opposite the beginning of Psalm 18, with the French added above the text.

Medieval manuscript double-page showing the Psalter text and a picture of the entombment of Becket
Becket being laid in his tomb, in a Psalter: Harley MS 5102, ff. 16v-17r

The 14th-century Stowe Breviary, a service book adapted for use in Norwich, is also displayed in this section. The Sanctorale section of the book includes images of saints next to their relevant feasts. It is imperfect, so the feast of Becket’s martyrdom on 29 December is lacking, but the feast celebrating the translation (or transfer) of Becket’s body to the new Trinity Chapel in July 1220 is illustrated with monks lowering his body into the new shrine.

Detail of the initial letter containing a scene of the translation of Becket’s body to the Trinity Chapel
Initial letter containing a scene of the translation of Becket’s body to the Trinity Chapel, in the Stowe Breviary: Stowe MS 12, f. 270r (detail)

However, Becket’s cult was eventually suppressed by King Henry VIII of England. A Royal Proclamation of 16 November 1538 issued jointly by Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell denied that Becket was a saint and ordered that his images should be removed from churches, that his feast should not be observed, and that his name should be ‘rased and put out of all [of] the books’. This proclamation has been applied to the text (but not the image) of the July feast in the Stowe Breviary, with the name of the saint ‘Thomas’ erased in the red rubric right next to the initial and throughout the text, although it is still visible as light brown letters.

The page for the feast of Becket’s translation, with his name erased, from the Stowe Breviary
The page for the feast of Becket’s translation, with his name erased, from the Stowe Breviary: Stowe MS 12, f. 270r

The fifth British Library manuscript reflects this edict even more vividly, appearing in the Becket and the Tudors section. In this 15th-century Book of Hours, the full-page image of Becket has survived, but the facing prayers to the saint have been more than erased, and instead were cut out completely to remove them from the book.

Medieval manuscript double-page with a picture of the martyrdom of Becket on the left and the parchment cut away at the right
Image of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket with prayers cut out, from a Book of Hours: Harley MS 2985, ff. 29v-30r

Together, these manuscripts show how Becket rose to prominence as a major saint during the Middle Ages and then fell from favour during the reforms of the Tudor period. You can view them in full on our Digitised Manuscripts website. If you can make it to London, we hope you enjoy the wonderful exhibition!

Kathleen Doyle

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