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289 posts categorized "Medieval history"

18 July 2024

Tickets go on sale for Medieval Women exhibition

Tickets are now on sale for the British Library’s major exhibition Medieval Women: In Their Own Words, which runs from 25 October 2024 to 2 March 2025.

From the courage of Joan of Arc at her trial for heresy, and the visionary experiences of Julian of Norwich, to the artistry of the London silkwoman Alice Claver, the work of female medical practitioners, and the struggles of female rulers like Queen Melisende of Jerusalem, this exhibition explores the challenges, achievements and daily lives of women in Europe from 1100 to 1500. It will tell the history of medieval women through their own words and uncover their lives through manuscripts, documents and artefacts.

The exhibition poster for Medieval Women: In Their Own Words, showing a group of nuns on their way to mass.

To whet your appetite before the exhibition opens in October, here are a few of the incredible items that will be on display:

The Book of Margery Kempe

The opening page of the Book of Margery Kempe, beginning with a large initial in red.

The opening of the only surviving manuscript of The Book of Margery Kempe; Norfolk, c. 1445–1450: Add MS 61823, f. 1r

The earliest autobiography written in English, The Book of Margery Kempe is an extraordinary account of the experiences of a female mystic, her spiritual visions, pilgrimages to Rome, Jerusalem and Santiago de Compostela, and her struggles for recognition in a male-dominated religious world. Margery’s Book was lost for centuries until this copy was discovered in a country house in 1934.

Christine de Pizan’s ‘Book of the Queen’

An illustration of Christine de Pizan building the City of Ladies alongside a personification of Reason.

Christine de Pizan building the ‘City of Ladies’, from ‘The Book of the Queen’; Paris, c. 1410-1414: Harley MS 4431/2, f. 290r

The ‘Book of the Queen’ is the largest and most splendid manuscript of the works of Christine de Pizan, made for Isabeau of Bavaria (d. 1435), queen of France. Christine is often described as the first professional woman author in medieval Europe. Her Book of the City of Ladies recounts tales of exemplary historical, legendary and biblical women, building a metaphorical ‘city’ out of women’s achievements.

The Paston Letters

A letter written in Middle English, from Margaret Paston to her husband John.

Letter from Margaret Paston to John Paston I, asking him to send her a new girdle and cloth for a gown; Norfolk, December 1441: Add MS 43490, f. 34r

The Pastons were a Norfolk family who climbed the social ladder from peasantry to landed gentry during the 15th century. They left behind a cache of around a thousand personal letters, giving unparalleled insight into their everyday lives. The women of the family are some of the most prolific correspondents, recording their joys, sorrows, loves, rivalries, friendships and arguments that span several generations.

The Sekenesse of Wymmen

A page from a copy of a gynaecological treatise, showing a set of anatomical drawings of a baby in the womb.

Anatomical drawings featured in a section on childbirth, from The Sekenesse of Wymmen; England, 15th century: Sloane MS 2463, f. 17v

One of a number of items in the exhibition devoted to women’s health, this manuscript contains the Sekenesse of Wymmen, a widel- read gynaecological treatise. It features instructions to a midwife on how to assist a mother during complications in childbirth, with accompanying anatomical drawings showing the position of the baby in the womb.

The Foundation Charter of Bordesley Abbey

A medieval charter affixed with a seal enclosed in a silk seal bag, made with blue and yellow threads.

The foundation charter of Bordesley Abbey by Empress Matilda; Devizes, 1141–1142: Add Ch 75724

The foundation charter of Bordesley Abbey was made in the 1140s, a period of strife in England as a bitter civil war raged between Matilda and Stephen, rival claimants to the throne after the death of Henry I. This document styles Matilda as ‘Empress’ and ‘Lady of the English’ and features her seal, showing her crowned and holding a sceptre, enclosed within a distinctive silk seal bag.

The seal of Matilda, showing her enthroned, holding a sceptre, with an accompanying Latin legend.

The seal of Matilda: Devizes, 1141-1142: Add Ch 75724

Medieval Women: In Their Own Words is on show at the British Library from 25 October 2024 to 2 March 2025. You can pre-book your tickets online now.

This exhibition is made possible with support from Joanna and Graham Barker, Unwin Charitable Trust, and Cockayne – Grants for the Arts: a donor advised fund held at the London Community Foundation.

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27 October 2023

Garendon cartulary acquired by the British Library

We are pleased to announce that the British Library has acquired a 15th-century cartulary from Garendon Abbey in Leicestershire. 

The cartulary of Garendon Abbey

The cartulary of Garendon Abbey, made around 1450, and purchased by the British Library in September 2023

Garendon was founded for Cistercian monks in 1133, and was dissolved by the commissioners of King Henry VIII in 1536. The cartulary was described first by J.G. Nichols, in The History of the County and Antiquities of Leicester (1804), when it was in the hands of the antiquary Craven Ord (d. 1832). It passed eventually into the collection of the bookseller W.A. Foyle (d. 1963), and was sold at the recent auction of the library of his grandson, Christopher Foyle (d. 2022), held at Dominic Winter Auctioneers on 27 September.

The opening page of the Garendon cartulary

The opening page of the Garendon cartulary

The next step is for this cartulary to be assessed and treated by our conservation team, since it has been exposed to damp over the years. As you will see from these photos, many of its pages are creased, and there is some loss of leaves at the very end of the volume. The cartulary will then be digitised before it can be made available in the Library's Manuscripts Reading Room at St Pancras. We will make a separate announcement when it can be consulted by readers in person.

The Garendon cartulary

The cartulary of Garendon Abbey

The British Library already holds an earlier cartulary from Garendon Abbey (Lansdowne MS 415), compiled at various stages from the late 1100s onwards. The Garendon cartulary also complements other monastic records acquired by the Library in recent years, including the cartulary of Otterton Priory (Add MS 81278), the rental of Worcester Cathedral Priory (Add MS 89137), the Burton cartulary (Add MS 89169), and two cartularies from Lacock Abbey (Add MS 88973. Add MS 88974).

 

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25 October 2023

Chaucer’s works go online

Geoffrey Chaucer (b. c. 1340s, d. 1400): poet, courtier, diplomat, Member of Parliament and royal administrator, and often called the ‘father of English poetry’. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is one of the greatest works of medieval literature. This Middle English poem has transfixed generations of readers, who have delighted in its poetic beauty, its larger-than-life characters, and its combination of poignant tragedy and tongue-in-cheek humour. But Chaucer was a prolific writer who composed many other works, which continue to be read long after his death. Among them are his Trojan epic Troilus and Criseyde, the dream vision The Legend of Good Women, his translations of the Roman de la Rose and The Consolation of Philosophy, his instructional manual on the astrolabe, and a whole host of minor poems.

The British Library holds the world’s largest surviving collection of Chaucer manuscripts, and this year we have reached a major milestone. Thanks to generous funding provided by The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, the Peck Stacpoole Foundation, and the American Trust for the British Library, we have completed the digitisation of all of our pre-1600 manuscripts containing Chaucer’s works, over 60 collection items in total. We have digitised not only complete copies of Chaucer’s poems, but also unique survivals, including fragmentary texts found in Middle English anthologies or inscribed in printed editions and incunabula.

A 16th-century portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer, holding a stylus and rosary.

A 16th-century portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer, holding a rosary and stylus: Add MS 5141, f. 1r

You can download the full list of pre-1600 manuscripts containing Chaucer’s works here, together with accompanying links to the digitised versions on our Universal Viewer. There you can view the manuscripts in full, study them in detail, and download the images for your own use. Thanks to the IIIF-compatible viewer, you can also view these manuscripts side-by-side in digital form, allowing close comparison between the volumes, their texts, and scribal hands:

PDF: Download Chaucer_digitised_vols_Oct_2023

Excel: Download Chaucer_digitised_vols_Oct_2023 (this format cannot be downloaded on all browsers).

Here are some of the works you can find in our digitised collection of Chaucer manuscripts:

The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales comprises a collection of stories presented in the form of a storytelling contest by a group of memorable characters on a pilgrimage from London to Canterbury, among their number the Knight, the Miller, the Reeve, the Wife of Bath and the Prioress.

We hold 23 manuscripts of Chaucer’s most famous poem at the British Library, the earliest of which (Lansdowne MS 851) was written only a few years after the author’s death. This particular copy opens with his portrait, showing Chaucer writing with an open book in hand, framed within the initial ‘W’ at the start of the General Prologue.

The opening of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, showing a portrait of Chaucer.

The opening of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, with a portrait of the author: Lansdowne MS 851, f. 2r

In addition to the surviving manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales, the British Library also houses some of the earliest printed versions of Chaucer’s poem. These include rare copies of the 1476 and 1483 editions of the text made by William Caxton (d. c. 1491), the 1491/1492 edition by Richard Pynson (d. c. 1529), and the 1498 edition printed by Wynkyn de Worde (d. c. 1534).

A page from Caxton's 1483 printed edition of the Canterbury Tales, showing a woodcut of the pilgrims around a table.

A woodcut of the pilgrims from William Caxton’s 1483 edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: G.11586, f. 20 c4

Almost a century after these editions of The Canterbury Tales were published, the English schoolmaster and editor Thomas Speght (d. 1621) produced his own collection of all of Chaucer’s works (1598), together with a glossary and biography of the author. One surviving copy of Speght’s printed edition (Add MS 42518) notably features handwritten notes by the scholar and writer Gabriel Harvey (d. 1631), infamous for his feud with the Elizabethan playwright Thomas Nashe (b. c. 1601). Harvey’s notes in the manuscript include one of the earliest known references to Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet (on f. 422v).

A page from Thomas Speght's Collected Works of Chaucer, showing a woodcut of the Knight.

 The opening of ‘The Knight’s Tale’, from Thomas Speght’s 1598 edition of the collected works of Geoffrey Chaucer: Add MS 42518, f. 29r

A page from Speght's Collected Works of Chaucer, showing autograph notes by Gabriel Harvey.

Gabriel Harvey’s autograph notes, including one of the earliest references to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, added to Speght’s collected works of Chaucer: Add MS 42518, f. 422v

Troilus and Criseyde

Alongside The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer wrote another significant Middle English epic called Troilus and Criseyde. Set during the Trojan War, it tells the tragic love story of Troilus, a Trojan prince, and Criseyde, the daughter of the seer Calchas, who is separated from her love when her father defects to the Greek army. Like Chaucer’s other major works, Troilus continued to be read after the poet’s lifetime and would go on to influence other English authors, most notably the poet Thomas Hoccleve (d. 1426) for his Testament of Cresseid and William Shakespeare (d. 1616) for his play Troilus and Cressida.

The opening of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, showing a decorated foliate initial.

The opening of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde: Harley MS 1239, f. 1r

The Legend of Good Women

The Legend of Good Women is one of Chaucer’s four poetic dream visions (the others are The House of Fame, The Parlement of Foules and The Book of the Duchess). In the prologue to this poem, the dreaming narrator is scolded by Queen Alceste, the goddess of love, for the depiction of women in his writing and is commanded by her to author a poem about the virtues and good deeds of women instead.

Chaucer then recounts the often-tragic stories of ten female figures, derived from Classical history, legend and mythology. They include the Egyptian queen Cleopatra; the Babylonian lover Thisbe of Ovid’s Metamorphoses; the sorceress Medea; Queen Phyllis, abandoned by her lover Demophon; Hypsipyle, Queen of Lemnos; Ariadne, saviour of the Greek hero Theseus in Minos’ Labyrinth; the Roman noblewoman Lucretia; Philomela, who suffers terribly at the hands of Tereus; Hypermenestra, daughter of Egiste; and Dido, Queen of Carthage. The British Library is home to three manuscripts of the poem, including one copy that is interspersed with printed leaves of the same text (Add MS 9832).

The opening of Chaucer's Legend of Good Women, showing a printed leaf and the handwritten text.

The opening of Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women, showing printed and handwritten versions of the text side-by-side: Add MS 9832, ff. 3v-4r

Boece

In addition to writing his own original compositions, Chaucer was also a translator. His Boece is a Middle English prose translation of The Consolation of Philosophy by the Roman philosopher Boethius (d. 524). Boethius’ text, itself an example of a dream vision, was hugely popular during the medieval period and had a great influence on Chaucer’s own writing. The British Library holds one of the earliest copies of Chaucer’s translation of the work (Add MS 10340), written in the 1st quarter of the 15th century, only a decade or so after Chaucer’s death.

The opening of Chaucer's Boece, showing a decorative puzzle initial.

The opening of Chaucer’s Boece, a translation of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy: Add MS 10340, f. 3v

Anelida and Arcite

Anelida and Arcite is one of Chaucer’s shorter and lesser-known poetic works, telling the story of Anelida, Queen of Armenia, and her courtship by Arcite, a man from the city of Thebes in Greece. One of the British Library’s copies of the poem is found in an anthology of Middle English poetry written by Chaucer and his contemporary John Lydgate (d. c. 1451). The volume is one of the earliest compilations of John Shirley (d. 1439), a prolific scribe and translator who served as a secretary to Richard Beauchamp (d. 1439), 13th Earl of Warwick, and who was responsible for writing many surviving manuscripts of Chaucer and Lydgate’s works.

The text of Chaucer's Anelida and Arcite, from a Middle English anthology.

A copy of Chaucer’s Anelida and Arcite, in a volume written by the scribe John Shirley: Add MS 16165, f. 243r

Minor Works

Like Shirley’s poetic compilation, other surviving anthologies at the British Library also feature copies of Chaucer’s shorter poems. One such collection (Add MS 34360) was written by a professional London-based scribe, named the ‘Hammond Scribe’ after the Chaucerian scholar Eleanor Hammond (d. 1933), who first identified his hand. Chaucer’s ‘Complaynt to his Empty Purse’ is a notable example of one of these minor works, a witty plea for money from his employer, disguised as a love poem:

To yow, my purse, and to noon other wight
Complaine I, for ye be my lady dere.
I am so sory now that ye be light,
For certes but if ye make me hevy chere,
Me were as leef be leyd upon my bere,
For which unto your mercy thus I crye
Beth hevy ageyn or ells mot I dye.

The text of Chaucer's Complaynt to his Empty Purse, from a Middle English anthology.

Chaucer’s ‘Complaynt to his Empty Purse’ from an anthology of Middle English poetry: Add MS 34360, f. 19r

Other minor works by Chaucer also now digitised include his ‘Gentilesse’, ‘Lak of Steadfastnesse’, ‘Truth’, ‘The Complaynt unto Pity’ and the ‘Balade of Good Fortune’.

The Treatise on the Astrolabe

While Chaucer is now known principally as a poet, he was also responsible for an important medieval instructional manual, called ‘A Treatise on the Astrolabe’, which like his poetry, was written in Middle English rather than Latin. Astrolabes had been in use for hundreds of years by Chaucer’s lifetime and had a wide variety of functions, but their principal purpose was as astronomical and navigational instruments, helping to determine different latitudes by day and night.

An astronomical instrument in brass called an astrolabe.

An example of one of the earliest known European astrolabes, made in 1326: British Museum, 1909,0617.1

In one of the British Library’s medieval copies of the text (Egerton MS 2622), preserved in its original binding, Chaucer’s work appears as part of a collection of treatises on arithmetic, geometry, horticulture and astronomy. 

A collection of scientific treatises with a medieval clasped leather binding.

A copy of Chaucer’s ‘Treatise on the Astrolabe’ in a collection of scientific treatises with its own original medieval clasped binding: Egerton MS 2622

Chaucer’s treatise continued to be read during the Early Modern period. A notable 16th-century manuscript contains a revised edition of the ‘Astrolabe’, undertaken by an otherwise unknown editor called Walter Stevins. Stevins made his own corrections throughout Chaucer’s text, and prefaced it with his own address to the reader and a dedication to Edward Courtenay (d. 1556), 1st Earl of Devon. His manuscript features numerous detailed drawings that accompany the text, illustrating the workings and uses of the astrolabe itself.

The title page of an edited version of Chaucer's 'Astrolabe', with a diagram of the instrument.

The opening of Walter Stevins’ revised edition of Chaucer’s ‘Treatise on the Astrolabe’: Sloane MS 261, f. 1*r

Whether you are experienced scholars of Chaucer’s life and poetry, who know his words off by heart, or only just learning of his collected works for the first time, we hope you enjoy exploring the pages of these digitised manuscripts and engaging with the writing of one of the foundational figures in the history of English literature. We are grateful to The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, the Peck Stacpoole Foundation, and the American Trust for the British Library for their support of the project.

 

Calum Cockburn

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14 October 2023

Cataloguing the Cotton charters

A new project is underway to examine one of the British Library’s oldest and most important collections. The Cotton charters and rolls are being catalogued as part of the Library’s Hidden Collections initiative. Begun by the antiquarian and politician Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631), and augmented by his son and grandson, the Cotton collection was the first library to be presented to the nation, in 1702, and it has been part of the British Library and its predecessor, the British Museum Library, since the latter’s foundation in 1753. The Cotton manuscripts, which include some of the most famous volumes to survive from medieval Britain, from Beowulf to the Lindisfarne Gospels, are described already on the British Library’s Archives and Manuscripts online catalogue. The whole collection was entered on the UNESCO Memory of the World UK Register in 2018.

A portrait of Robert Cotton with his hand resting on the Cotton Genesis

A portrait of Sir Robert Cotton (1571-1631), 1st baronet, commissioned in 1626 and attributed to Cornelius Johnson: courtesy of a private collection

But it's probably fair to say that the 1,500 Cotton charters and rolls, aside from a handful of items such as an original exemplification of the 1215 Magna Carta, one of just four in existence, have been much less studied. The vast majority of them are not yet part of the online catalogue, which this new project sets out to remedy. A handwritten list from the 19th century is available in the Manuscripts Reading Room at the Library, but this is inadequate for modern needs.

A short passage describing Cotton Ch IV 9 as a receipt for robes delivered to the Tower of London

The handwritten 19th-century catalogue entry for Cotton Ch IV 9

To give one example. Cotton Ch IV 9 is described in the handwritten register as a receipt for delivering robes to the Tower of London for the coronation of King Edward III (1327). This is not in fact correct: the document in question is not a receipt for coronation robes at all but rather for a cup enamelled with the king's arms, a ewer encrusted with pearls, and a golden brooch with pearls and sapphires, each to be used in Edward's coronation.

A small manuscript sheet in French recording the receipt of plate and valuables for the coronation, including a cup enamelled with the king's arms, a ewer encrusted with pearls, and a golden brooch with pearls and sapphires

A receipt that Adam Orleton, bishop of Hereford (1317–1327), has had valuables delivered to the Tower of London for the coronation of Edward III: Cotton Ch IV 9

This project is the first in well over a century to catalogue the entire collection of Cotton charters, rolls and seals to modern standards. It has already uncovered many documents whose significance may have been overlooked. For instance, Cotton Roll IV 61, described in the handwritten register as a historical account of the difficulties faced by Edward II, Richard II and Henry VI, has been identified as a previously-unknown copy of the manifesto of Warwick the Kingmaker and others in their rebellion against Edward IV in 1469.

A manuscript roll in Middle English listing complaints about the counsellors around Edward IV

The manifesto of Richard Neville, 16th earl of Warwick, and others, issued during their rebellion against Edward IV in 1469: Cotton Roll IV 61

Other charters and rolls catalogued for the new project include a set of rules for living in a medieval hospital (Cotton Ch IV 28); a draft set of instructions from Elizabeth I to Sir Francis Drake for his raid upon the Spanish Americas in 1585 (Cotton Ch IV 25); and a seal of William the Conqueror from 1067 (Cotton Ch VI 3/1). There are many discoveries to be made, which we hope will in turn support research into medieval and early modern culture, history, politics and literature. As the project progresses, we will highlight other interesting documents from the collection on this Blog.

A seal, much damaged by fire, showing a king enthroned with a sword in his hand

Seal of William the Conqueror, once attached to a 12th-century copy of a 1067 charter: Cotton Ch VI 3/1

 

Rory MacLellan

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29 May 2023

The last day of Constantinople

This year marks the 570th anniversary of the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire, on 29 May 1453. The city at the Bosporus, on the border between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, bridging Europe, Asia Minor and the Balkans, was originally called Byzantium. The exact date of its foundation is unknown, but according to legend it was founded in 667 BC.

A manuscript illustration of Constantine the Great

 Constantine the Great from the Synopsis of Histories (Eastern Mediterranean, 1574): Harley MS 5632, f. 2v

The city was already an important trading and military centre, but its significance rose when, on 11 May, AD 324, Emperor Constantine the Great selected it to be the new capital of the reunited Roman Empire, and called it the New Rome. Six years later, to honour the emperor, it was renamed Constantinople after him. From the 5th century onwards, Constantinople was enriched with enormous fortifications, churches and monasteries, and the world-renowned imperial library.

A view of Constantinople from Mandeville’s Travels

A view of Constantinople from Mandeville’s Travels (Bohemia; 1st quarter of the 15th century): Add MS 24189, f. 9v

Despite the tumult after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in AD 476, Constantinople remained the seat of the Emperor of the East and the centre of the political, religious and intellectual life of the Byzantine Empire for many centuries. Admired and envied by the West, it was visited by travellers, kings and pilgrims. In 1204, the Crusader army, originally destined for Palestine, turned against the city, occupied and sacked it, and made it the capital of the Western Emperor of Constantinople for the next half century.

A golden bulla of Baldwin II, the last Western Emperor of Constantinople

A golden bulla of Baldwin II, the last Western Emperor of Constantinople (Biervliet, 1269): Add Ch 14365, obverse

Although it was retaken by the Palaeologan dynasty in 1261, Constantinople never regained its previous status. From the 14th century, it faced the rising Ottoman Empire in an ever-weakening state. Sultan Mehmed II arrived at the gates of the city in April 1453 and started besieging the city.

The Emperor Constantine XI tried to secure help from the West, but the timing was very unfortunate. Europe was riven by warfare: the Hundred Year War was consuming France and England, Spain was involved in the last phase of the Reconquista, and the Holy Roman Empire was divided by internal wars. Apart from some volunteers and assistance from Venice, Genoa and the Pope, the Emperor was left on his own against the formidable  army of the Sultan. The British Library holds eye-witness accounts of what happened next, one of which is inserted in a 16th-century chronicle now attributed to Macarius of Melissa.

A page from the chronicle of Macarius of Melissa preserving the final speech of Emperor Constantine XI

A page from the chronicle of Macarius of Melissa preserving the final speech of Emperor Constantine XI (Venice, 16th century: Add MS 36539, f. 79r

This manuscript records the Emperor's final speech to his army on the night of the fateful battle. According to the author, who was present, Constantine declared:

‘My noble peers, illustrious generals, noble fellow-soldiers, you know well that the hour has come and that the enemy of our faith wishes to hem us in more cruelly with every means … Into your hands I give this most illustrious and renowned city, the Queen of Cities and your homeland … There is no time to say more to you. I only entrust my humble sceptre to your hands. Brothers and fellow-soldiers, be prepared for battle in the morning with grace and courage …'

The battle started around midnight on 29 May. The defenders were able to hold the walls for a while but when the general of the Genoan troops was wounded by an arrow, its defence was shaken. Parts of the army started to flee and the emperor was apparently left on his own. Chronicles from both East and West all agree that Constantine fought hard in the battle.

A page from the chronicle of Macarius of Melissa preserving the last words of the Venetian soldiers witnessing the fall of Constantinople

A page from the chronicle of Macarius of Melissa preserving the last words of the Venetian soldiers witnessing the fall of Constantinople (Venice, 16th century): Add MS 36539, f. 85r

Some hours later the defence collapsed completely. Macarius noted the last words of the Venetian soldiers upon seeing the fall of the city: ‘Shudder Sun and groan Earth, the city is taken’. The Sultan then entered the city and a desperate search to find the emperor began. Eventually Constantine who identified under a heap of corpses by the imperial eagle embroidered on his shoes.

Detail of a grant by Sultan Mehmed II to the Genoese inhabitants of Galata

Detail of a grant by Sultan Mehmed II to the Genoese inhabitants of Galata, with the sultan’s monogram and the beginning of the Greek text (1 June 1435): Egerton MS 2817

A few days later, Sultan Mehmed II was in Constantinople when he issued one of his first edicts from his new capital, ensuring the trading rights of the Genoa merchants of Galata. The siege put an end to a long period in the history of this great city. No longer Byzantium or Constantinople, it started a new life as Istanbul.

 

Peter Toth

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28 May 2023

Death of the Wolf

Exactly a thousand years ago, on 28 May 1023, Lupus – ‘The Wolf’ – died in York. Lupus was the punning Latin name used by the prolific writer, cleric and royal adviser, Archbishop Wulfstan.

At the end of his entry on Wulfstan in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Patrick Wormald wrote that research on Wulfstan’s manuscripts in the twentieth century had transformed him ‘from just another doubtless worthy Anglo-Saxon prelate into one of the half dozen most significant figures even in the crowded and dramatic history of eleventh-century England’. Settling on a list of the other five most significant figures is a distracting little game.

The opening of Wulfstan's Sermon to the English.

Wulfstan called himself Lupus (‘The Wolf’): Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV, f. 110r

Wulfstan, who had been bishop of London from 996 to 1002, became bishop of Worcester from 1002 to 1016 and archbishop of York from 1002 until his death in 1023. He had been a leading religious and political figure in the turbulent reign of King Æthelred the Unready (r. 978–1016). Although the Danish conquest of England by Cnut in 1016 saw a turnover in the English nobility, Wulfstan remained both a key royal adviser and archbishop of York under the new regime. He drafted laws for Cnut, as he had for Æthelred, and introduced reforms of both church and lay society.

Wulfstan’s own handwriting survives in a number of manuscripts, and a Latin poem praising him in one such volume (Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV), is thought to be in his own hand. The poem mentions Wulfstan’s name admiringly in each verse. It includes the line, Est laus wulfstano mea pulchritudo benigno pontifici cui sit dominus sine fine serenus ([This poem’s] beauty is praise for the kind Bishop Wulfstan, my Lord be endlessly merciful to him).

A Latin praise poem written by Wulfstan.

A poem praising Wulfstan, apparently written in his own hand: Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV, f. 148v

While no contemporary biographical account of Wulfstan’s life survives to set alongside the poem, we can reconstruct his life and career from his other works and from the manuscripts that he annotated. They show him to be a busy, restless figure, collecting legal, liturgical and instructional texts for use in the many crises of his day.

Wulfstan’s ‘letter-book’ (also Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV), compiled when he was Archbishop of York, includes a collection of letters written around two hundred years previously by the royal adviser and abbot, Alcuin (d. 804). Alcuin had sent advice to the English archbishops and to King Æthelred of Northumbria (r. 774–779, 789–796). He warned of the perils of sin, which he believed had led to Viking raids as divine punishment for the wickedness of the English. As Wulfstan was adviser to his own King Æthelred during another period of Danish invasion, he doubtless recognised the analogies between Alcuin’s times and his own.

The opening of Wulfstan's letterbook.

The opening of Wulfstan’s letter book: Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV, f. 114r

Wulfstan took these lessons to heart in his own time and drew upon Alcuin in his most famous work, Sermo Lupi ad Anglos quando Dani maxime persecuti sunt eos (The Sermon of the Wolf to the English when the Danes were persecuting them most). In this barnstorming speech, he warned the people that they could lose their kingdom unless they repented from sin:

Leofan men, gecnawað þæt soð is. Ðeos worold is on ofste, and hit nealæcð þam ende, and þy hit is on worolde aa swa leng swa wyrse. And swa hit sceal nyde for folces synnan ær antecristes tocyme yfelian swyþe, and huru hit wyrð þænne egeslic and grimlic wide on worolde.

Beloved men, recognise what is true: this world is in haste and approaches its end; and therefore, in this world things always worsen the longer they last. And so, it must by necessity deteriorate greatly before the coming of the Antichrist, because of the people sins, and indeed it will then be terrible and grim widely in the world. 

The opening of Wulfstan's sermon to the English.

The Sermo Lupi ad Anglos (Sermon of the Wolf to the English): Cotton MS Nero A I, f. 110r

This manuscript also contains law-codes, drafted by Wulfstan for Æthelred and Cnut. It includes the earliest surviving copy of laws (known as I–II Cnut) issued in Cnut’s name at a meeting at Winchester around 1020 or 1021. These laws are the most extensive record of law in England before the Norman Conquest. They drew on earlier English kings’ law-codes, and this copy, made in the third quarter of the 11th century, is now bound with copies of earlier law-codes that Wulfstan used and annotated.

An English law-code of King Cnut drafted by Wulfstan.

A law-code of King Cnut drafted by Wulfstan: Cotton MS Nero A I, f. 16r

We can see other aspects of Wulfstan’s activities in one of his own liturgical books (Cotton MS Claudius A III). This is a pontifical, a service book for the rites performed by a bishop. Wulfstan included in it Latin and Old English versions of an Æthelred law code that he had drafted. He seems to have added in his own hand the names of King Æthelred and himself between the lines of the text.

An Old English law-code of King Æthelred with added names written by Wulfstan.

A law-code of King Æthelred drafted by Wulfstan, with the added names of King Æthelred and Wulfstan: Cotton MS Claudius A III, f. 35r

In other manuscripts, Wulstan’s annotations show him minutely changing the wording of his own sermons, as well as correcting and supplementing the texts of others. He also oversaw the compilation of the first cartulary gathering together evidence of gifts of property to the cathedral priory of Worcester and leases of its land.

A page from the first cartulary of Worcester containing copies of leases.

Copies of leases in the first cartulary of Worcester: Cotton MS Tiberius A XIII, f. 87v

The manuscripts linked to Wulfstan reveal the multifaceted role of an early medieval bishop, responsible for pastoral care in his diocese and for the education and disciplining of the clergy, managing property, participating on the national stage as a major voice at the royal council and advising on the spiritual welfare of the kingdom.

Although Wulfstan died in York on 28 May 1023, he was buried, in accordance with his wishes, in the fenland abbey at Ely.

Claire Breay

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21 May 2023

Medieval and Renaissance Women: remember their names

The British Library's project devoted to Medieval and Renaissance Women has now reached its successful conclusion. Funded through the generosity of Joanna and Graham Barker, we have digitised a grand total of 93 volumes, 219 charters and 25 rolls that are connected with the lives of European women between the years 1100 and 1600.

A medieval charter granted by Abbess Fredescendis

A chirograph of Fredescendis, abbess of Maubeuge, granting land to Guarin, abbot of Vicogne (between 1129 and 1151): Add Ch 1390

All the items can now be viewed online. We hope that you enjoy exploring them, for your own research or pleasure, or simply to gain an insight into the daily lives, achievements and struggles of these women. The manuscripts that we have digitised cover topics such as female health, the education of women, their business dealings and female spirituality, including personal and communal religious experiences.

A page from an illuminated manuscript containing Hildegard von Bingen's Liber divinorum operum

Hildegard von Bingen, Liber divinorum operum (late 15th century): Add MS 15418, f. 7r

The full lists of all the items in Medieval and Renaissance Women are available in two formats, as a PDF or as an Excel document. They can be downloaded from the following links: please note, the Excel format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers.

 

PDF: Download Medieval_and_renaissance_women_digitised_vols_mar_2023

PDF: Download Medieval_and_renaissance_women_digitised_charters_rolls_may_2023

Excel: Download Medieval_and_renaissance_women_digitised_vols_mar_2023 

Excel: Download Medieval_and_renaissance_women_digitised_charters_rolls_may_2023 

 

For more details, see our blogposts on the manuscript volumes and on the charters and rolls.

In addition to digitising all of these manuscripts, rolls and charters, we have taken the opportunity to enhance our catalogue records. We were also joined on a six-month placement by Paula Del Val Vales, a PhD student at the University of Lincoln, who shared with us her expertise, and in return she gained experience of cataloguing, promoting and researching our collections. As part of our project, Paula has created new people pages and collection items for the British Library's webspaces, as listed here:

Birgitta of Sweden and Revelations of Birgitta of Sweden

Eleanor of Castile and Wardrobe Account of Eleanor of Castile

Eleanor de Montfort and Household Roll of Eleanor de Montfort

Ippolita Maria Sforza and Cicero's De Senectute written by Ippolita Maria Sforza

Empress Matilda and Embroidered Seal-Bag of Empress Matilda

 

The opening page of an illuminated manuscript, written by Ippolita Maria Sforza

Cicero, De senectute, written by Ippolita Maria Sforza (1458): Add MS 21984, f. 3r

So, to conclude our project, let's remember the names of some of the women we've encountered during Medieval and Renaissance Women. Some of them are relatively well-known, while in other cases their names are preserved only in a single, ephemeral document or a chance inscription. Their fates and fortunes may be imperfectly understood, but at least their names are preserved for posterity.

Anne de Bretagne; Beatrice Malherbe; Catherine of Siena; Dorothy, abbess of the Poor Clares without Aldgate; Elizabeth of Katzenelenbogen; Fredescendis, abbess of Maubeuge; Gunnilda atte Denne; Hildegard von Bingen; Ismania, widow of Laurence Berkerolles; Julian of Norwich; Kunegunde; Jane Lumley; Margaret, Archduchess of Austria; Nicolosa Sanuta; Odelina de Trachy; Petronilla of Nereford; Margaret de Quincy; Rohais, countess of Lincoln; Sibylla Frances of Dunwich; Tomasina de Damis; Violante of Aragon; Ela, countess of Warwick; Alix, countess of Eu; Ymelda; Zuliana, nun of Santa Caterina, Brescia

 

The will of Gunnilda atte Denne

The will of Gunnilda atte Denne (1318): Add Ch 17295

 

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11 May 2023

Medieval and Renaissance Women: full list of the charters and rolls

We always say, never start a blogpost with the words, 'We are delighted to announce that'.

So, in true time-honoured fashion, we are thrilled to release a list of all the rolls and charters digitised as part of our Medieval and Renaissance Women project. There are 25 rolls and 219 charters in total, in addition to the 93 manuscript volumes that we announced in a previous blogpost. The Medieval and Renaissance Women project has been made possible thanks to generous funding by Joanna and Graham Barker.

The seal of the Empress Matilda

The seal of the Empress Matilda, between 1141 and 1142: Add Ch 75724

Here begins the list. This may take some time, but it's worth it, we promise. From the top... The will of Sibylla Frances of Dunwich. A confirmation by Sybilla of Kaversfeld, widow of Hugh Gargate, to Bicester Priory of land in Stratton. An acknowledgement by Marie, abbess of St Stephen’s Abbey, Soissons, to the Knights Templar of Mont-de-Soissons. A sale by Katherine von Solmesse and Salentin, lord of Isenburg, her husband, to Baldwin, archbishop of Trier. A letter of attorney from Ismania, widow of Laurence Berkerolles. A certificate for the safe delivery of Margaret of Anjou to Louis XI of France. A chirograph of Fredescendis, abbess of Maubeuge, granting land to Guarin, abbot of Vicogne…

Actually, why don't you simply peruse the list for yourself? It's great fun, we promise (again)!

A confirmation by Sybillia of Kaverfield, featuring her seal.

Confirmation by Sybilla of Kaversfeld, widow of Hugh Gargate, to Bicester Priory of land in Stratton, early 13th century: Add Ch 10608

You can download the full list of charters and rolls here, with links to the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site and the Universal Viewer. There, you'll be able to read these manuscripts in full and for free from the comfort of your own living room. 

PDF: Download Medieval_and_renaissance_women_digitised_charters_rolls_may_2023

Excel: Download Medieval_and_renaissance_women_digitised_charters_rolls_may_2023 (this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers)

A mortmain license by Joan, Princess of Wales, featuring her seal.

Mortmain licence by Joan of Kent, princess of Wales, for Michael de la Pole, Lord Chancellor, to grant property to the Maison Dieu of Myton, 1383: Egerton Ch 2130

An acquittance by Abbess Tomasina.

Acquittance by Tomasina de Damis, abbess of the monastery of Santa Giulia, Brescia, to Mafeus de Monte, 1409: Stowe Ch 565

The documents included in the project represent women from all levels of medieval society, from merchants and landowners to nuns and abbesses, from nurses and shopkeepers to noblewomen and queens. They also span a huge variety of different types of documents including grants and confirmations, chirographs and letters with original signatures, leases and genealogies, indentures and religious statutes, licenses for marriages and acknowledgments of divorce, and wills in which women passed on their property and determined their legacy after their deaths. Most importantly, all these manuscripts show medieval and early modern women exerting their own agency and making decisions that influenced not only their own day-to-day lives but also the communities to which they belonged.  

The opening membrane of the will of Margaret Paston.

The opening of the will of Margaret Paston, 1482: Add Roll 17253

A portrait of Helena Snackenborg, enclosed in a roundel, from her genealogy.

A portrait of Helena Snackenborg, Marchioness of Northampton, from her genealogy, c. 1640: Lansdowne Roll 9

A petition by Joan Astley written on a small piece of parchment.

Petition by Joan Astley, nurse of Henry VI, for an increase in salary, 1424: Stowe Ch 643

Over 100 of the documents contain seals that belonged to women or women-run institutions, with many featuring portraits or emblematic images relating to their owners. Some, such as the foundation charter of Bordesley Abbey by Empress Matilda (Add Ch 75724) have even survived with their own seal bags, delicately woven in different coloured silks.

A composite image showing over one hundred seals belonging to women and women-run institutions.

The seals of over 100 women and women-run institutions digitised as part of the Medieval and Renaissance Women project 

The seal bag of Empress Matilda, woven in blue and yellow silk threads.

Seal bag enclosing the seal of Empress Matilda, between 1141 and 1142: Add Ch 75724

Our senior imaging technicians photographed all the seals in the project using an imaging technique called raking light (where light is directed at an object from an angle parallel to the surface) to ensure that all their fine details, legends and sculptural reliefs could be captured.

The green oval seal of Liece of Rouen.

Seal of Liece, daughter of Ralph of Rouen, 2nd half of the 12th century: Harley Ch 50 B 23

The brown seal of Idonia of Hurst.

Seal of Idonia of Hurst, 4th quarter of 12th century to 1st quarter of 13th century: LFC Ch XXV 20

We hope you enjoy reading about the stories and lives of the women featured in these incredible items.

 

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