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07 July 2020

The 800th anniversary of the translation of Thomas Becket

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On 29 December 1170, Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral. The event shocked Christendom, and Becket was canonised as a martyr just three years later. On this day 800 years ago his body was translated (moved) from the crypt in Canterbury Cathedral to a new shrine in the Trinity Chapel.

Medieval manuscript illustrated with the earliest known representation of the murder of St Thomas Becket
The earliest known representation of the murder of St Thomas Becket: Cotton MS Claudius B ii, f. 341r

Becket’s murder was recorded in a letter written by John of Salisbury (d. 1180), who was an eyewitness to the event. A copy of this letter is included in an early collection of letters assembled by Alan, the prior of the Cathedral from 1179 –1186 and later abbot of Tewkesbury (d. 1202), where it is illustrated by the earliest known representation of the murder (Cotton MS Claudius B ii).

Becket rose from relatively humble beginnings as the son of a London merchant to serve as chancellor to Henry II (r. 1154–89) from 1154, before becoming archbishop in 1162. Thereafter, he clashed with the King in defence of the autonomy of the Church. Thomas fled into exile in France in 1164, returning to England in early December 1170. Upon his return, tensions with the King still were unresolved, and a few weeks later, four knights left Henry’s court in Normandy and forced themselves into the Archbishop’s presence.

Detail of the earliest known representation of the murder of St Thomas Becket
Detail of the earliest known representation of the murder of St Thomas Becket: Cotton MS Claudius B ii, f. 341r

The images included in this manuscript narrate the sequence of events. In the upper register the Archbishop is at table when a messenger announces the arrival of the four knights, outside the door to the right. Below, having taken up arms, the knights enter the cathedral and attack Becket while he is kneeling before an altar. The knight wielding the sword may be Reginald Fitzurse, if the small animal head on his shield can be identified as a bear (ursus is ‘bear’ in Latin). To the right are four prostrated figures who venerate St Thomas at his tomb, perhaps representing the later penitence of the knights.

Calendar entry for ‘the translation of St Thomas, martyr’ in the Luttrell Psalter
Calendar entry for ‘the translation of St Thomas, martyr’ in the Luttrell Psalter: Add MS 42130, f. 7r

In many English medieval calendars this translation date is included as a feast day. For example, the Luttrell Psalter made for Sir Geoffrey Luttrell features an entry for ‘the translation of St Thomas, martyr’. This entry escaped later censorship following the November 1538 Proclamation issued jointly by Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell by which Becket was characterised as a ‘rebel and traitor to his prince’ rather than a saint, and accordingly that ‘his name, shall not be observed, nor the service, office, antiphons, collects, and prayers in his name read, but rased and put out of all the books.’ The date of Becket’s martyrdom on 29 December in the Luttrell Psalter, however, was struck out by a single, rather discreet, line.

Calendar entry for ‘St Thomas, archbishop and martyr’ struck out in the Luttrell Psalter
Calendar entry for ‘St Thomas, archbishop and martyr’ struck out in the Luttrell Psalter: Add MS 42130, f. 12v

Another calendar in which the translation survives on 7 July is an early 15th-century example from the diocese of Norwich. Here the image is of Becket as a young man in a bishop’s mitre, holding a sword representing the weapon of his martyrdom together with a cross-topped staff.

 Represtation of St Thomas Becket in a calendar
Representation of St Thomas Becket from a folding calendar: Egerton MS 2724, f. 1r

To discover more about Thomas Becket, you can read our earlier blogposts about Becket’s translation, Becket's martyrdom and erasing references to Becket in manuscripts. The letter collection (Cotton MS Claudius B ii) was digitised thanks to funding from The Polonsky Foundation England and France 800-1200 project, and you can view the manuscript's collection item page or read more about medieval saints in manuscripts on the project website.

Kathleen Doyle

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24 June 2020

Chyryse: a midsummer night's recipe

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Coinciding with the feast of the Nativity of St John the Baptist (24 June), midsummer was a time for celebrations both religious and secular in medieval society. These included church-going, holding pageants, lighting bonfires, singing, dancing, gathering flowers and feasting.

A taste of these medieval festivities survives in a recipe for chyryse, or cherry pudding, found in several medieval culinary collections. Some versions of the recipe specify that the cherries are to be picked on the feast of St John the Baptist, when they are at their best. The cherry harvest was closely associated with the festivities of midsummer and in medieval literature, the expression 'cherry time' was often used to signify short-lived good times.

Medieval manuscript illumination of a boy stealing cherries from a tree, with an angry club-wielding man coming to punish him, from the Luttrell Psalter
A boy stealing cherries from a tree, with an angry club-wielding man coming to punish him, the Luttrell Psalter, Add MS 42130, f. 196v

For midsummer this year, I am experimenting with recreating chyryse from the British Library's copy of the Forme of Cury (Add MS 5016, m. 5), a recipe book composed by Richard II’s chief cook around 1390. Medieval recipe books are not quite as user-friendly as modern ones, often providing no quantities, obscure ingredients and bafflingly vague instructions. This, however, is all part of the fun.

Medieval recipe for chyryse from the Forme of Cury
Recipe for chyryse from the Forme of Cury, Add MS 5016, membrane 5

The recipe

Take almaundes unblanched, waisshe hem, grynde hem, drawe hem up with gode broth. do þerto thridde part of chiryse. þe stones take oute and grynde hem smale. make a layour of gode brede & powdour and salt and do þerto. colour it with sandres so that it be stondyng, and florissh it with aneys and with cheweryes, and strawe þeruppon and serue it forth.

Take unblanched almonds, wash them, grind them, draw them up with good broth. Add a third part of cherries, take out the stones, and grind them small. Make a layour (thick sauce) of good bread and powder (spice mix) and salt and add. Colour it with sandalwood so that it is standing (thickened) and flourish it with aniseed and with cherries and strew on top and serve it forth.

Method

To make this recipe, I mixed together 100g ground almonds and 150ml red wine (the recipe calls for 'gode broth', i.e. animal stock, but some alternative versions use wine instead, which seems like a better option). I heated them gently in a pan. After removing the stones, I roughly pureed a large punnet of cherries with a hand blender and added them to the pan. I grated a slice of wholemeal bread to make breadcrumbs, which I added to the mixture along with a spice mix of ginger, cinnamon, cloves, sugar and salt (the recipe does not specify which spices, but this is an authentic medieval blend). Not having any sandalwood to dye it, I left out that step. I gently simmered the mixture for about 20 minutes until it thickened, then refrigerated it overnight. I served it with a garnish of aniseed and halved fresh cherries.

A photo of a bowl of chyryse, a purple mushy pudding garnished with cherries and aniseed
My modern recreation of chyryse, photo by the author

The verdict

Chyryse is like nothing I've eaten before, but I really like it. The mixture itself is not very attractive, although the garnish certainly helps. Its grainy texture is unlike most modern puddings, with semolina probably being the closest comparison. The strong fruity cherry flavour is warmed by the earthy spices. The aniseed is an especial winner, its liquorice kick perfectly complementing the mellow sweetness of the cherries. Once I'd got over its initial strangeness, I found chyryse to be a bewitching midsummer delight.

Medieval manuscript illumination of people harvesting cherries, with boys standing in the branches of the tree and throwing cherries down to a woman below
The cherry harvest, with boys standing in the branches of the tree and throwing cherries down to a woman below, Sloane MS 4016, f. 30r

 

Eleanor Jackson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

***disclaimer: this recipe was made in my own time and at my own expense. No Library resources were used in the making of this chyryse! ***

15 June 2020

Magna Carta quiz

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15 June 2020 marks the 805th anniversary of the granting of Magna Carta by King John. The British Library holds two of the four surviving copies of one of the most famous documents in the world, with the others being held at Lincoln Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral. One clause of Magna Carta gave all 'free men' in 1215 the right to justice and a fair trial, a statement that has been reinterpreted by successive generations worldwide.

'No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.'

 

A miniature from an illuminated legal manuscript, showing King John hunting on a grey horse, accompanied by dogs, and with rabbits darting into their burrows

A portrait of King John hunting (England, 14th century): British Library, Cotton MS Claudius D II, f. 11r

In this quiz we ask you to test your knowledge of Magna Carta. There are no prizes but your pride may be at stake. If you're stuck, you can always look up the answers on the British Library's Magna Carta webspace. You may also enjoy this animation narrated by Terry Jones: What is Magna Carta?

The answers are now published below (don't peek if you want to guess first).

  1. What does 'Magna Carta' mean?
  2. Where did King John sign Magna Carta (this may or may not be a trick question)?
  3. Who was the archbishop of Canterbury in 1215, and who was the Pope?
  4. For how long did Magna Carta originally remain in force?
  5. How many clauses of Magna Carta remain on the United Kingdom statute book?
  6. Who described Magna Carta (allegedly) as 'Magna Farta'?
  7. Which future US President used Magna Carta when drawing up the Declaration of Independence?
  8. Which future President cited Magna Carta at their trial in 1963-64?

 

And the answers are:

  1. 'Magna Carta' is Latin for the 'Great Charter' or large charter, to distinguish it from the Forest Charter, also known as 'Parva Carta' or the small charter
  2. He confirmed the document by affixing to it the Great Seal of England, at Runnymede (so technically he didn't sign it)
  3. Stephen Langton and Pope Innocent III
  4. For 10 weeks, until it was declared null and void by the Pope on 24 August 1215
  5. There are 3 clauses still valid in UK law
  6. Oliver Cromwell
  7. Thomas Jefferson
  8. Nelson Mandela, at the Rivonia Trial

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27 May 2020

The St Albans Benefactors' Book: precious gifts and colourful characters

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Made to take pride of place on the abbey's high altar, the St Albans Benefactors' Book reads like a who's who of medieval England. It preserves hundreds of names, details and portraits of people who made gifts to the Abbey of St Albans throughout the Middle Ages. Far more than a list of donors, it presents a vivid picture of a community and all the individuals who comprised it. Its pages bustle with the life and colour of medieval society.

Donor portrait of King Offa of Mercia (d. 796), holding a miniature church
King Offa of Mercia (d. 796), who is said to have founded St Albans Abbey: Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 3v

The Benefactors' Book (Cotton MS Nero D VII) was begun around 1380 as a register of members of the Abbey's confraternity, established by Abbot Thomas de la Mare (r. 1350–96). According to the preface, anyone who made a donation could be admitted into the confraternity, which granted them a lavish induction ceremony, spiritual benefits and a record in this prestigious book.

As well as recording contemporary donors, the entries stretch far back into the Abbey's past, beginning with King Offa of Mercia who is said to have founded the Abbey in 793 (pictured above). Spaces were also left for future entries, and the abbey continued to add the details of new benefactors into the 16th century.

Donor portrait of Æthelgifu, a 10th-century noblewoman, holding a charter
Æthelgifu, a 10th-century noblewoman who gave lands, 30 gold mancuses, 30 oxen, 20 cows, 250 sheep, a herd of pigs with a swineherd, 2 silver cups, 2 horns, a book, a curtain and a cushion: Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 90r

The job of compiling the register from the Abbey's old documents was given to Thomas Walsingham (d. c. 1422), the precentor of the Abbey and a prominent historian. The scribe was a monk of the Abbey named William de Wyllum, and the illuminator was a professional lay artist named Alan Strayler who waived the cost of the pigments in return for his place among the Abbey's benefactors (f. 108r).

Self-portrait of Alan Strayler, the artist who illuminated the book
Self-portrait of Alan Strayler, the artist who illuminated the book: Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 108r

The book presents an orderly view of medieval society. The benefactors are organised according to social hierarchy: kings and queens first, followed by popes, abbots, priors and monks of St Albans, bishops and finally laypeople. All levels of society who could afford to donate are included, from members of the royal family and knightly aristocracy, to London burghers, fishmongers, millers and masons.

Donor portrait of Nigel the miller holding a money bag
Nigel the miller who gave a yearly sum of 4 shillings: St Albans Benefactors' Book, Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 96r

Strayler's lively portraits are full of individuality. People assume different postures, facial features, expressions and gestures. They wear detailed costumes appropriate to their social rank and many of them are shown proudly clutching the prized objects that they donated to the Abbey. Although it is unclear how closely they reflect the actual appearances of the people they represent, the portraits give a vivid impression of assorted personalities and walks of life.

Donor portrait of Joan, Countess of Kent, fashionably dressed and holding her gift of a necklace
Joan, countess of Kent, and princess of Wales and of Aquitaine (d. 1385), who gave a gold necklace and 100 shillings: St Albans Benefactors' Book, Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 7v
Donor portrait of Robert Chamberleyn, squire of the king, wearing a suit of armour and kneeling
Robert Chamberleyn, squire of the king, who gave wine liberally (1417): Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 142v

Where details of a person's appearance were known, it seems that Strayler took care to include them. For example, abbot of St Albans Richard of Wallingford (d. 1336), a gifted astronomer who created an extraordinary astronomical clock for the Abbey, is depicted with a blemished face, reflecting the fact that he was said to have suffered from leprosy.

Portrait of Richard of Wallingford, abbot of St Albans (d. 1336), with his clock
Richard of Wallingford, abbot of St Albans (d. 1336), with his clock: Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 20r

Similarly, a man named Æthelwine the Black (Egelwynnus ye Swarte) who, together with his wife Wynflæd, gave land to the abbey in the time of King Edward the Confessor (r. 1042–1066), is depicted with dark skin.

Donor portrait of Æthelwine the Black and his wife Wynflæd holding a charter
Æthelwine the Black (Egelwynus ye Swarte) and his wife Wynflæd, who gave land to the abbey in 11th century: Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 89v

Just as fascinating as the benefactors are their gifts, which richly evoke the splendour of medieval material culture. Besides land, property and money, people gave treasures such as jewellery, vestments, chalices, bowls, horns, bells, statues, precious stones and books.

Donor portrait of Petronilla de Benstede holding her gift of a round super-altar
Petronilla de Benstede who gave a round super-altar of jasper set in silver on which St Augustine of Canterbury was said to have celebrated: Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 101v

The entries are suffused with hints of stories that leave you longing to know more. For example, in the section on abbots of St Albans, we learn of Abbot Ealdred who filled in the cave of a dragon, and the unfortunate Abbot John Berkamsted who 'did nothing memorable in his life' (nichil memorabile fecit in vita).

Portrait of Abbot Ealdred with a dragon at his feet
Ealdred, abbot of St Albans in the 11th century, who filled in the cave of a dragon: Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 12v
Portrait of Abbot John Berkamsted wringing his hands in anguish
John Berkamsted, abbot of St Albans (d. 1302), who 'did nothing memorable in his life', Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 19r

Unlike the chronicles that Thomas Walsingham would go on to write, this is a history not of momentous events but of the colourful characters, precious gifts and shared stories that were the fabric of the Abbey's community for centuries.

Now you can immerse yourself in this captivating book too: the manuscript is newly digitised and available to view on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

Eleanor Jackson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

20 May 2020

Remembering Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War

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This week we are looking back at the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition which opened to the public in October 2018. By the time the exhibition closed four months later, the enigmatic figure of ‘Spong Man’ had greeted over 108,000 visitors.

Spong Man on display in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition

‘Spong Man’, on loan from Norwich Castle Museum (1994.192.1)

Excavated in Norfolk about 40 years ago, Spong Man is the ceramic lid of a cremation urn, who had travelled from his current home in Norwich Castle Museum to London for the exhibition. Sitting with his head in his hands, he looked visitors straight in the eye and welcomed them to his 5th-century world. While Spong Man sat alone, some of the most memorable moments in the exhibition were manuscripts brought together for display alongside each other, thanks to the generosity of so many lenders. Here is a reminder of just a few.

Just behind Spong Man was a single exhibition case containing the St Augustine Gospels, perhaps brought from Rome by St Augustine in 597, the Moore Bede, probably the earliest copy of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, and the Textus Roffensis, which contains the first piece of English law and the earliest datable text written in English.

An illuminated page from the St Augustine Gospels

The St Augustine Gospels, on loan from Cambridge, Corpus Christi College (MS 286) © Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

A page from the Moore Bede

The Moore Bede, on loan from Cambridge University Library (MS Kk.5.16) © Cambridge University Library

The opening page of Textus Roffensis

Textus Roffensis, on loan from Rochester Cathedral Library (MS A. 3. 5)

Round the corner, the Book of Durrow and the Echternach Gospels shared a case.

A decorated page from the Book of Durrow

The Book of Durrow, on loan from Dublin, Trinity College Library (MS 57) © Trinity College Dublin

A decorated page from the Echternach Gospels

The Echternach Gospels, on loan from Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France (MS lat. 9389)

In the same room were the Durham Gospels next to the Lindisfarne Gospels and, at the far end, two manuscripts made at Wearmouth-Jarrow in the early 8th century were reunited when the pocket-sized St Cuthbert Gospel, acquired by the British Library in 2012, was displayed next to the giant Codex Amiatinus, which had returned from Italy to Britain for the first time in over 1300 years.

St Cuthbert Gospel

The St Cuthbert Gospel (British Library, Add MS 89000)

Codex Amiatinus on display in the exhibition

Codex Amiatinus, on loan from Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana (MS Amiatino 1)

The room focusing on Mercia included the Lichfield Angel, discovered in 2003, displayed next to King Offa’s gold dinar.

The Lichfield Angel on display in the exhibition

The Lichfield Angel, on loan from Lichfield Cathedral

The gold dinar of King Offa

Gold dinar of King Offa, on loan from the British Museum (CM 1913,1213.1) © Trustees of the British Museum

Highlights of the room on the West Saxons were the Alfred Jewel displayed directly in front of a case containing the copy of the Pastoral Care that Alfred sent to Worcester.

The Alfred Jewel

The Alfred Jewel, on loan from Oxford, Ashmolean Museum (AN1836 p.135.371)

A page from King Alfred's translation of the Pastoral Care

The Pastoral Care, on loan from Oxford, Bodleian Library (MS Hatton 20)

The section on languages and literature was dominated by a replica of the Ruthwell Cross with its extracts from the poem ‘The Dream of the Rood’.

The Ruthwell Cross replica in the gallery

The Ruthwell Cross replica in the gallery

Nearby the cases containing the Four Poetic Codices, brought together for the first time Beowulf, the Vercelli Book (containing the whole text of ‘The Dream of the Rood’), the Exeter Book and the Junius Manuscript.

The four poetic codices on display

The Four Poetic Codices on display in the exhibition: Beowulf (British Library, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV); The Vercelli Book, on loan from Vercelli, Biblioteca Capitolare (MS CXVII); The Junius Manuscript, on loan from Oxford, Bodleian Library (MS Junius 11); The Exeter Book, on loan from Exeter Cathedral Library (MS 3501)

Further on, the jewelled binding of the Gospels of Judith of Flanders was displayed in the centre of the room containing eight highlights of the manuscript art from the late 10th- and 11th-century kingdom of England.

The treasure binding of the Judith of Flanders Gospels

The Judith of Flanders Gospels, on loan from New York, Morgan Library (MS M 708) © The Pierpont Morgan Library and Museum, New York

Towards the end of the exhibition the Domesday surveyors’ questions and part of the Exon Domesday survey were displayed with Domesday Book itself, showing the vast amount of evidence it reveals about the landscape, organisation and wealth of late Anglo-Saxon England.

A page for Yorkshire in Great Domesday

Great Domesday Book, on loan from The National Archives (E/31/2/2)

Finally, and several hours later for some dedicated visitors, the exhibition ended with the Utrecht Psalter, the Harley Psalter and the Eadwine Psalter, which drew together key themes in the exhibition: the connections between Europe and the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, the movement of manuscripts, and the development and continuity of the English language.

A page from the Utrecht Psalter

The Utrecht Psalter, on loan from Utrecht, Universiteitsbibliotheek (MS 32) © Utrecht University Library

An opening of two pages from the Harley Psalter

The Harley Psalter, British Library Harley MS 603

A page from the Eadwine Psalter

The Eadwine Psalter, on loan from Cambridge, Trinity College (MS R.17.1)

Although the exhibition closed in February 2019, you can continue to explore exhibits through the collection items and articles featured in our Anglo-Saxons website, and the exhibition catalogue is available from the British Library online shop.

 

Claire Breay

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

14 May 2020

How to be a hermit

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When John Donne famously remarked that ‘no man is an island’, he meant, in a literal sense, that no person is isolated. The word ‘isolate’ comes from the Latin insulatus ('insulated'), which came, in turn from insula ('island'). Insulatus became Italian isolato, which gave us the Modern English ‘isolate’. Many of us are currently feeling the pain of being islands, isolated from family or friends. But, throughout history, many cultures have construed isolation as having a symbolic power. This tradition was especially strong in the Christian West in the Middle Ages, when people chose to 'island' themselves to bring them closer to God.

Medieval Christian solitaries often sought to emulate Biblical examples. The Old Testament prophet Elijah was visited by an angel who told him to travel for forty days and forty nights to Mount Horeb. There he dwelt in a cave and heard the voice of God (1 Kings 19:7–10). Elijah’s retreat was emulated by later figures. For instance, John the Baptist retreated into the desert in fulfilment of a prophecy of Isaiah that he would be a ‘voice of one crying in the desert’. There he wore camel skins, fed on locusts and wild honey, and preached penance, before he baptised Christ in the River Jordan (Matthew 3:3–13). Christ also famously emulated Elijah’s forty days and forty nights when he was tempted in the wilderness by the Devil (Matthew 4:1–11).

An initial in an illuminated manuscript, showing John the Baptist wearing animal skins

A historiated initial 'D'(eus), showing John the Baptist clad in animal skins, in the Hours of Bonaparte Ghislieri (Bologna, c. 1500): Yates Thompson MS 29, f. 48r

In the 3rd  and 4th centuries, a group of people retreated into the Egyptian desert to pursue lives of isolation. E. A. Jones has noted that, when Christianity was adopted as the official religion of the Roman Empire under the Emperor Constantine (r. 306–337), it 'lost its dangerous, ‘edgy’ status as a countercultural movement', so that devout Christians could no longer seek martyrdom (Hermits and Anchorites in England, 1200–1550, Manchester University Press, 2019, p. 2). Consequently, they sought other forms of martyrdom in regimes of self-discipline and the denial of bodily desire. These figures saw themselves as spiritual athletes (many Christian writers of this period used the term askesis, which was originally used of athletes training for a contest), intent on difficult and arduous labour in the pursuit of spiritual perfection.

Perhaps the most famous of the Desert Fathers was St Anthony of Egypt (c. 251–356), who is often considered the ‘founder of monasticism’. He made his life in the wilderness, where he was soon joined by followers with whom he formed an early monastic community. Like many hermits, he is said to have undergone demonic torments, including being tempted by devils in the shape of beautiful women and wild beasts. He is the patron saint of animals, skin diseases, farmers, butchers, basket-makers, brush-makers and gravediggers.

A miniature of St Anthony with 2 pigs at his feet

St Anthony in the desert, in the Hours of Charles le Clerc (Netherlands, 15th century): Add MS 19416, f. 126v

Alongside these Desert Fathers, there were also Desert Mothers. Perhaps one of the most engaging stories is that of St Mary of Egypt. Mary lived in the city of Alexandria, where she led a dissolute life for 17 years, ‘lying in the fire of promiscuity’ as the Old English version of her Life puts it. One day, she saw a large crowd of people hurrying to the sea to board a boat. They told her they were going to Jerusalem to venerate the Cross and she decided to join them, but not necessarily for religious reasons. In the Old English translation of her Life in Cotton MS Julius E VII, Mary describes how, ‘I saw ten young men standing together by the shore, good-looking enough in body and in demeanour … for the pleasure of my body’ (translated by Hugh Magennis, The Old English Life of Saint Mary of Egypt, University of Exeter Press, 2002, pp. 85–87). Mary travelled with them, but in Jerusalem she experienced a religious conversion. Thereafter she retreated into the desert, where she lived for 47 years, subsisting on desert plants and wearing only ‘the garment of the word of God’, when the scraps of her clothes had withered away. You can read more about her in our blogpost Hairy Mary.

A detail from the Dunois Hours, showing Zosimas handing his cloak to St Mary of Egypt

St Zosimas hands his cloak to St Mary of Egypt, from the Dunois Hours (Paris, c. 1439–c. 1450): Yates Thompson MS 3, f. 287r

In early medieval England, a number of figures sought to emulate the Desert Fathers and Mothers. St Guthlac was a 7th-century Mercian who, after a life as a soldier, retreated to the East Anglian fens (presumably the closest approximation of a desert that rainy England could offer). There he lived in a disused barrow on an island, and dispensed spiritual counsel to those who visited him. The 8th-century Life of Guthlac by a monk named Felix described how he fasted often, eating only barley bread. He had terrifying visions of devils, which some modern scholars think may have been the result of ergot poisoning. (Ergot is a fungus which can grow on barley and produces a compound similar to lysergic acid or LSD.) Guthlac’s life is clearly modelled, to some degree, on that of St Anthony. The modern medical explanation for Guthlac’s torments is ironic, because St Anthony’s intercession was often invoked by sufferers of ergotism.

A roundel from the Guthlac Roll, showing St Guthlac being tormented by demons

St Guthlac being tormented by devils, in the Guthlac Roll (England, late 12th or early 13h century): Harley Roll Y 6

Each of these figures lived in isolated places away from human society. In England a form of eremitical life emerged around the late 11th century called anchoritism, which allowed people to live as recluses but within the fold of society. Anchorites or anchoresses (the female form) would permanently enclose themselves in cells attached to a church in order to live a life of prayer and contemplation. The word comes from the Greek ἀναχωρεῖν (‘anachorein’) meaning ‘to retire or retreat’. In their cells they lived a life of extraordinary restriction. They had a small window which looked onto the church, another which led onto a servant’s parlour (through which they could receive food and get rid of waste) and a third window on the church yard or street, from which they could dispense spiritual counsel. They were otherwise confined to a single room for what could be decades. You can read more about the lives of anchoresses on the Discovering Literature: Medieval website.

A miniature showing an anchoress being enclosed

Miniature of an anchoress being enclosed, in a pontifical (England, 15th century): Lansdowne MS 451, f. 76v

Perhaps the most famous English anchoress was Julian of Norwich, who wrote the first work in English authored by a woman. During a period of illness in 1373, at the age of 30, Julian experienced visions of Christ. She recovered and composed a short account of her experiences. This account may have been submitted to ecclesiastical authorities when she applied for the right to become an anchoress. Her application was successful and she lived in a cell at St Julian’s Church in Conesford, in Norwich, for at least 20 years. During this time, she meditated on the meaning of her visions, producing a longer version of her initial account (which survives only in post-Reformation copies). This second version of the text represents Julian’s transition from mystic to sophisticated theologian. It is an elegant piece of rhetorical writing, in lyrical prose, which contains some unforgettable imagery. Given the privation of her life — a life of permanent enclosure — Julian’s work is strikingly, almost radically, hopeful.

The opening page of Julian of Norwich's treatise

The short version of Julian of Norwich's Revelations of Divine Love (England, 15th century): Add MS 37790, f. 97r

Julian never makes reference to the realities of her way of life. At one point she writes that ‘this place is pryson, and this lyfe is pennannce’, but she was likely referring to her life on Earth, rather than the confines of her cell. Her work is instead suffused with optimism. Julian’s most famous line, 'all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well', delivers a hopeful message of love as the guiding force of the universe.

A page from from a 17th-century manuscript containing the Long Text of Julian of Norwich's Revelations of Divine Love.

Julian of Norwich’s Long Text of Revelations of Divine Love (France, c. 1675): Stowe MS 42, f. 33r

In this time of isolation, the lives of medieval hermits may seem stranger to us, as we realise the true toll that isolation takes. But this strangeness perhaps also gives us a new appreciation of these figures, battling demons in mountain caves or fenland barrows or ‘islanded’ in small, dark cells. Julian’s hope in the darkness is a message that speaks to us across the centuries.

 

@marywellesley

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06 May 2020

The legend of Alexander in late Antique and medieval literary culture: PhD studentship at the British Library

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The British Library is collaborating with Durham University to offer a fully-funded full-time or part-time PhD studentship via the AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnership scheme. The student’s research will focus on the legend of Alexander the Great, and the successful applicant will be supervised by Dr Venetia Bridges (Durham) and Dr Peter Toth (British Library).

Detail of a miniature of Alexander and the Wheel of Fortune

Alexander the Great on Fortune’s Wheel, in a French chronicle of the ancient world (France, 3rd quarter of the 15th century): Harley MS 4376, f. 271r (detail)

Alexander the Great is one of the most fascinating figures of the ancient world. He conquered the world from Greece to India in less than 10 years. Although he died in 323 BC when he was only 33, Alexander's legacy continues to influence European, Middle Eastern and Asian cultures.

A drawing of Alexander the Great holding an orb and sceptre, with Philosophy holding a pot and brush

Alexander the Great, anointed by the personification of Philosophy, in a Latin version of the Alexander Romance (England, last quarter of the 11th century): Royal MS 13 A I, f. 1v

In the last two millennia, Alexander the Great has been represented as a magician, a scientist, a statesman, a philosopher and as one of the greatest explorers of humankind. The British Library’s collection of materials relating to the legend of Alexander provides an exceptional opportunity for PhD research into his immense impact on European literary culture from a transnational and multilingual perspective. As a student at Durham but working on the British Library’s collections, the successful applicant will have a unique opportunity to study the fascinating Alexander legends in their primary sources. This studentship will coincide with an exhibition about the legends of Alexander to be held at the British Library in late 2022. 

Miniatures of Alexander the Great and his army fighting blemmyae

Alexander the Great fighting the headless blemmyae in a French version of the Alexander Romance (Flanders 1st quarter of the 14th century): Harley MS 4979, f. 72v (detail)

Legends of Alexander’s life and conquests were combined into a narrative, known as the Alexander Romance, soon after his death. This compilation quickly became a ‘best-seller’, with translations in almost every language of the medieval Mediterranean, including Latin, Armenian, Syriac, Ethiopic, Arabic, Persian, English, French and German. Moreover, many of these texts are lavishly decorated with fascinating combinations of ancient and medieval imagery.

Applicants are invited to propose a multilingual and comparative project on Alexander’s reception from Late Antiquity to the close of the Middle Ages in European contexts, with a particular focus on the Alexander Romance. The proposal should focus on texts in more than one language, and include manuscripts in the Library’s collections. Possible topics include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • the Alexander Romance’s influence upon high medieval literature (11th-13th centuries);
  • the Alexander Romance’s influence on travel and scientific literature and geographical exploration;
  • the Alexander Romance’s dissemination in the later Middle Ages (14th-15th centuries) in translations, adaptations and material witnesses;
  • a comparative study of the Alexander Romance in Western (European) and Eastern (Byzantine and Slavonic) versions;
  • the role of Alexander in royal and religious propaganda, including ‘nationalist’ historiographies and Crusader literature;
  • a study of key medieval manuscripts and/or texts related to the Alexander Romance that demonstrate aspects of Alexander’s appropriation in different cultures;
  • the Late Antique beginnings of the Alexander Romance’s textual histories.

Applicants

The successful applicant will have multilingual interests in medieval and/or late Antique literature and culture with reading fluency in at least two European languages. Applicants should have received a first or high upper-second class honours degree and a master’s either achieved or completed by the time of taking up the doctoral study, both in a relevant discipline. Applicants must satisfy the standard UKRI eligibility criteria.

Stipend

For the academic year 2020-21 the student stipend will be £16,885, consisting of £15,285 basic stipend, a maintenance payment of £600 and an additional allowance of £1,000. The British Library will also provide a research allowance to the student for agreed research-related costs of up to £1,000 a year.

Duration

The studentship is fully funded for 3 years and 9 months full-time or part-time equivalent, with the potential to be extended by a further 3 months to provide additional professional development opportunities.

For full details and how to apply, please visit https://www.dur.ac.uk/english.studies/postgrad/support/

The deadline for applications, including references, is 5pm on 29 May 2020.

 

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23 April 2020

St George and the Garter

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On St George’s Day (23 April) 1349, at St George’s Chapel in Windsor, the first annual assembly was held by the Order of the Garter, England’s oldest Order of Chivalry. Dedicated to George, the Order was founded by King Edward III (1312–1377) who wanted to revive the Knights of the Round Table of Arthurian Legend. Edward had appointed himself as the Order’s Sovereign, his son Edward the Black Prince (1330–1376) as Royal Knight, and 24 of his most loyal men as Knights Companions. He had chosen the French maxim ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’ (‘Shamed be he who thinks ill of it’) as the Order’s motto, and a blue garter as its emblem, perhaps alluding to the girdle with which St George, according to medieval legend, had tamed a dragon before slaying it.

Two groups of men and women in blue mantles with blue garters on them, standing to the left and right of an altar on which St George on horseback impales a dragon with his lance. Behind him stands a woman with a pink gown and green headwear, and holding a white lamb on a leash, who represents the princess who, according to medieval legend, had been selected through a lottery to offer herself as food to the dragon.

An assembly of Knights and Ladies of the Garter (women were accepted soon after the Order’s foundation), before an altar of St George (Rouen, 1444–1445): Royal MS 15 E VI (The Talbot Shrewsbury Book), f. 439r

The rituals and symbols of the Order of the Garter are described and depicted in many richly decorated medieval and early modern manuscripts. The Pageants of Richard Beauchamp (Cotton MS Julius E IV/3), for example, features an early depiction of the Order’s ceremony for installing new Knights. This ceremony requires the Sovereign, aided by senior Knights, to place the garter — a dark blue velvet riband with a gold buckle and edges — around the newly-elected Knight’s lower left leg, just below the knee. In this manuscript, King Henry IV can be seen giving the garter to Richard Beauchamp (1382–1439), 13th Earl of Warwick as a reward for successfully defeating the Welsh at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1405. (You can read more about the Pageants of Richard Beauchamp in this blogpost.)

A pen drawing showing Richard Beauchamp in full armour receiving the garter around his left leg from a Knight who kneels below him. To his left stands King Henry IV. They are surrounded by other Knights of the Garter

Richard Beauchamp receives the garter from King Henry IV (England, 4th quarter of the 15th century): Cotton MS Julius E IV/3 (The Pageants of Richard Beauchamp), f. 4v

Many manuscripts describe the history of the Order of the Garter (Harley MS 5415) or explain its statutes and ordinances about membership, functions, qualifications, costumes and ceremonies (Cotton MS Nero D II, ff 252r–265v, Harley MS 235, Harley MS 278, Lansdowne MS 783, Lansdowne MS 1207). These books indicate that the Knights had few obligations, apart from attending the annual assembly, participating in religious services, and wearing the garter whenever appearing in public. Their privileges were both honorific and spiritual: members could hang their swords, helmets, banners, stall-plates with their names, and heraldic devices at St George’s Chapel at Windsor. After death, the remaining Knights would perform large numbers of masses (100 for Knights and 1000 for the Sovereign) for the benefit of their souls.

An opening at the beginning of a manuscript containing the statutes and ordinances of the Order of the Garter, with, on the left page, a full-page drawing of the royal arms of the Order: an escutcheon encircled by the blue garter and with a royal crown in gold and red on top. The escutcheon has two halves: in the left half is the red cross of St George on a silver ground, and in the right half are the quartered royal arms of Queen Elizabeth I, featuring two quarters in blue with three fleurs-de-lis in gold, and two quarters in red with three lions in gold. On the right page, we see the opening of the statutes and ordinances, marked by a gold initial ‘T’, and written in a Gothic script with black ink

The Statutes and Ordinances of the Order of the Garter (England, after 1572): Lansdowne MS 1207, ff. 1v–2r

One important category of manuscripts relating to the Order of the Garter contains their members' coats of arms. Around 1415, the Order created its own officer of arms, known as the Garter King of Arms. In the 1430s, William Bruges (c. 1375–1450), the first to hold that office, created the Order’s first extant armorial, now known as the Bruges Garter Book (Stowe MS 594). The manuscript contains illustrations of the King and the 25 Founder Knights, all wearing heraldic tabards and Garter mantles and displaying their coats of arms. William Bruges himself, as the Garter King of Arms, is shown kneeling before St George.

St George in full armour and with a pink mantle, holding a jousting shield with a red cross on a white ground, and a lance and a sword with which he holds a green dragon down at this feet. To his right is the Garter King of Arms who is wearing a crown and a heraldic tabard with the coat of arms of Henry V (the same as those of Queen Elizabeth I), and is kneeling in prayer

William Bruges wearing a heraldic tabard that displays the arms of King Henry V, kneeling in prayer before St George (England, 1430s): Stowe MS 594, f. 5v

Other heraldic manuscripts from the Order contain collections of the arms of its then members. Their arms are easy to recognize since members had the right to encircle the shields (escutcheons) of their coats of arms with the blue garter, the Order’s emblem.

A list of the Knights of the Garter in the first year of the reign of King Henry V with in the page’s margins the coats of arms of its 26 members, including those of the King. Two have been left unfinished.

Armorial of the Order of the Garter (? London, 1588): Harley MS 1864, f. 2v

An important literary manuscript that is associated with the Order of the Garter’s early history is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, perhaps the most famous medieval English romance. This Middle English poem sees Gawain, one of King Arthur's most valiant knights, undertake a quest during which he acquires a magical green girdle. Upon his return to Camelot, the Knights of the Round Table agree to wear a green sash in memory of Gawain’s quest, just like the Knights of the Garter, who would wear their garters on ceremonial occasions. What is more, an early owner of the unique copy of the poem (Cotton MS Nero A X) inscribed a motto below the text that is almost identical to that of the Order: ‘hony soit q[ui] mal penc’. This raises interesting questions about the poem's underlying meaning, and whether it comments on the ideals and practices of the Order.

Above, we can see the inscription of the Order of the Garter’s motto in brown ink in the manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Below this image is full-page miniature from the same manuscript, showing Gawain in full armour, kneeling before King Arthur, wearing golden crown and a blue mantle, and Queen Guinevere, wearing a golden crown and a green dress.

The Order of the Garter’s motto (above) and a full-page miniature of Sir Gawain returning to the court of King Arthur after completing his quest in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (North-West Midlands, c. 1400): Cotton MS Nero A X/2, f. 128v and f. 130r

The Order of the Garter was celebrated in other poetic manuscripts. For example, we have a poem by William Tesshe of York, uniquely surviving in Harley MS 3437, in which he praises the Order’s Sovereign, Queen Elizabeth I, and honours each of its Knights separately. The manuscript is decorated with their coats of arms in colours and gold.

Another unique poem, extant in Harley MS 6103, is dedicated to George Villiers (1592–1628), who was Marquess of Buckingham and Lord High Admiral of England when he was admitted to the Order in 1620. The poem styles him as St George, his namesake, and claims that he too will curb ‘The conquerd dragon which hee [St George] leadeth tame’. An accompanying full-page illustration adorns Villiers with attributes that are rife with Garter imagery. It displays him as a knight wearing full armour, riding a horse with the arms of the Order on its caparison, holding a lance with a banner that displays St George slaying the dragon in one hand, and a dragon on a leash in the other. The dragon is apparently tamed by the garter that is hanging from its neck, suggesting an analogy between the Order’s emblem and the girdle with which St George subjugated his dragon.

This illustration shows George Villiers in full armour and riding a horse with a red caparison (horse cape) which displays the Order of the Garter’s coat of arms (the red cross of St George encircled by the blue garter). In his right hand, he is holding a lance with a yellow banner that features an image of St George slaying the dragon. In his left hand, he is holding a blue leash that goes around the neck of a small winged red dragon below him. From the dragon’s neck, and attached to the leash, hangs the blue garter with, what appears to be, a sketch of St George slaying the dragon inside it.

George Villiers with the symbols of the Order of the Garter (England, after 1620): Harley MS 6103, f. 3r

Music was central to the Order of the Garter’s religious celebrations at Windsor. The canons who performed its liturgical music produced original music compositions, and they were perhaps responsible for a creative and artistic rendering of a 16th-century melody for the Order’s motto (‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’) that has been inserted on a paper sheet into Royal MS 8 G VII. The music has been written on two 5-line staves that are shaped like the garter and a lance with which a knight charges a dragon. The composition is dedicated to the Earl of Arundel, probably Henry Fitzalan (1512–1580), the 12th Earl, who was admitted to the Order in 1544.

A 5-line music staff with neumes shaped in the form of the garter with inside it a knight charging a dragon with a lance that is made of another 5-line music staff with neumes, forming a melody for singing the Order’s motto in canon.

A canon for the Order of the Garter’s motto written on music staves that are shaped like the garter and a knight’s lance (England, 16th century): Royal MS 8 G VII, f. 1v

The Order of the Garter is nearly 700 years old. The rituals and symbols that its members practise today are preserved in manuscripts of great artistic and cultural value, many of which themselves date back centuries.

 

Clarck Drieshen

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