THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

201 posts categorized "Medieval history"

11 June 2019

The Ruin of Britain

Add comment

Very few texts survive that were written in Britain between the 5th and 7th centuries. We have works by just two named authors from that period. One was a shepherd, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery and became the patron saint of Ireland, none other than St Patrick. The other wrote one of the most influential rants in British history.

GildasTheRuinofBritaincottonmsvitelliusavif014v

A page from the earliest substantial copy of Gildas's The Ruin of Britain, made possibly in Canterbury in the 10th century: Cotton MS Vitellius A VI, f. 14v

The ranter in question was Gildas, a Romano-British deacon and monk. Sometime between the late 5th century and the 6th century, he wrote The Ruin of Britain, which describes a time of dramatic change, when the Roman legions had left Britain and the Romano-British population was under attack from invaders:

‘I shall try, God willing, to say a little about the situation of Britain; about her obstinacy, subjection, and rebellion ... the destruction of cities; about those who survived’: Gildas: The Ruin of Britain and other works, ed. and trans. by Michael Winterbottom (London: Phillimore, 1978), p. 16.

As this quotation suggests, The Ruin of Britain is a moralising polemic that condemned the British lay and ecclesiastical leaders. The text is full of examples and quotations from the Bible. Although Gildas's account is vivid, he was not an eyewitness: most of the events he described occurred before he was born.

A fragment of The Ruin of Britain survives in a late 9th- or early 10th-century continental copy (now in Bibliothèque Carnegie de Reims, MS 414). The oldest substantial copy was made in southern England in the mid-10th century (British Library Cotton MS Vitellius A VI). Sadly, this manuscript was significantly damaged by fire in 1731.

GildasTheRuinofBritaincottonmsvitelliusavif007v

The pages of this manuscript of The Ruin of Britain were damaged by fire in 1731, before being placed in paper mounts in the 19th century: Cotton MS Vitellius A VI, f. 7v

In The Ruin of Britain, Gildas depicted the defeats and natural disasters suffered by the Britons as divine punishment for their sins. He claimed that Romano-British leaders had invited three ship-loads of Saxons to protect them from Pictish invaders, but these Saxons had turned on their hosts and become an even worse enemy. Gildas described vividly how whole settlements were put to the sword, ‘fragments of bodies covered with coagulated clots of red blood, in confusion as if in some kind of horrible wine press’ (translated by Hugh Williams, Gildas (London, 1899)). Some Britons surrendered to the invaders, others fled into the mountains or deep into forests, others still migrated to the continent. Some resisted, such as Ambrosius Aurelianus, who reputedly defeated the invaders at Mons Badonicus in the year that Gildas was born.

While Gildas praised leaders like Ambrosius, he did not mince his words about the Romano-British kings and churchmen of his own day: ‘Britain has kings, but they are tyrants: she has judges, but they are unrighteous men’. Gildas singled out five kings in particular for condemnation: Constantine, king of Dumnonia (the area around modern Cornwall and Devon); Aurelius Caninus; grey-haired Vortipor of the Demetae (in what is now Pembrokeshire); Cuneglas, who probably ruled the area around the Dinarth Rhos peninsula; and Maelgwn of Gwynedd. Gildas accused all these men of murder and adultery. He saved his fiercest criticism for the most powerful British king, Maelgwn:

‘And you, island dragon … greater than almost all the kings of Britain, but worse in morality ... You are certainly not lacking in warnings, since you were taught by the finest teacher in almost all of Britain.’

It is unclear what happened to Gildas after he wrote The Ruin of Britain. Some have suggested that he migrated to Brittany, like many other Britons, since there was a Breton monastery dedicated to St Gildas. But there is no firm evidence for this. Gildas was remembered as a saint by the Anglo-Saxons, and his name is found in eight pre-Conquest calendars of saints' days.

Ironically, Gildas’s writings survive to this day in part because the Anglo-Saxons that he so despised continued to quote him. For example, Bede (d. 735) used The Ruin of Britain as one of his sources for the history of post-Roman Britain.

GildasTheRuinofBritaincottonmsvitelliusavif015r

The most substantial surviving manuscript of The Ruin of Britain was copied in England in the 10th century: Cotton MS Vitellius A VI, f. 15r

Three centuries years later, Archbishop Wulfstan of York (d. 1023) used Gildas as cautionary tale, to try to galvanise English resistance to the Scandinavian invasions:

‘There was a historian in the time of the Britons, Gildas, who wrote about their misdeeds, how they exasperated God with their sins so much that He finally allowed the English army to conquer their land … Let us take warning from this: it is true what I say, we know of worse deeds among the English than we have heard of among the Britons.’

The Ruin of Britain had long-lasting effects, even they were not what Gildas intended. He may not have swayed the leaders of his own day, and it is clear that the Germanic invaders became dominant in southern Britannia. The Ruin of Britain nonetheless had a major impact on some later writers. It remains the principal (near) contemporary narrative account of the momentous events of the 5th and 6th centuries.

 

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

06 June 2019

The curse of the spiritual sword

Add comment

We have previously reported about our fascination with medieval book curses, added in monastic libraries to ward off thieves and warn careless users. Book curses typically state that those who stole or damaged a book would be spiritually condemned, often including the Greek-Aramaic formula ‘Anathema Maranatha'. For example, during the 12th and 13th centuries monks at Reading Abbey systematically added such curses to their manuscripts containing biblical commentaries (examples include Add MS 38687Harley MS 101 and Harley MS 1246).

Image 1  Reading Abbey's Book Curse  Add MS 38687  f. 150r

Reading Abbey’s book curse in a commentary on Deuteronomy and Joshua (1st quarter of the 13th century): Add MS 38687, f. 150r

We would like to share some new findings that will enable you to protect your favourite books, as well as other prized possessions. One example comes from the so-called ‘Noyon Sacramentary’ (Add MS 82956). This 10th-century manuscript, produced by the monastic community at Noyon Cathedral in northern France, contains masses and prayers for blessings and ceremonies. The manuscript opens with a wrathful curse that would bring down a series of spiritual punishments upon those who stole from or committed any other crime against Noyon Cathedral.

Image 2  Noyon Cathedral's Curse  Add MS 82956  f. 1v

Noyon Cathedral’s ‘Curse of the Spiritual Sword’ (4th quarter of the 10th century): Add MS 82956, f. 1v

The Noyon Cathedral curse begins: ‘excommunicamus eos et gladio sancti spiritus a vertice capitis usque ad plantam pedis transverberamus’ (‘We will excommunicate them and cut through them with the sword of the Holy Spirit, from the top of the head to the sole of the feet').

It then declares that book-thieves would be condemned to burn in the eternal fire of Hell together with Judas Iscariot, perhaps because they, like Judas, committed betrayal for material gain. Finally, to top it off, these thieves were to remain in the darkness of Hell where they would keep the devil company.

Perhaps an even more powerful curse for protecting your belongings comes from a 12th-century lectionary (containing readings from the Gospels for the Mass) from the Benedictine abbey of Tholey in western Germany (Add MS 29276). The curse is preceded by an itemised list of the monastery’s relics and sacred objects: ‘We have in this monastery of St Peter and St Mauritius eight bookcases of silver, four books of silver, and ten chalices’. Protecting this treasure is a curse that the community would collectively cast upon anyone who stole from the monastery:

‘a sancte matris ecclesiae segregamus ac perpetuae maledictionis anathemate condempnamus . sit que maledictus in domo . in agro . veniantque super eum omnes ille maledictiones . quas dominus per moysen in populum divin[a]e legis prevaricatione se esse missurum. Sitque anathema maranatha . id est pereat in secundo adventu domini. Stix sit ei potus. Amen’.

‘We will segregate him from the mother church and condemn him with the eternal curse of anathema: may he be cursed in the house and on the land, and let all the curses that the Lord cast through Moses onto the transgressors of the Divine Law come upon him. May he be anathema maranatha. That means: may he be damned at the Second Coming of Our Lord (the Last Judgement); may the Styx be his drink. Amen’.

Image 4  Tholey Abbey's Curse  Add MS 29276  f. 162v

Tholey Abbey’s ‘Styx-Curse’ (c. 1100–c. 1175): Add MS 29276, f. 162v

This curse encompasses both the eternal sentence to Hell, at the Last Judgement, and the Styx, the principal river of the Underworld. While it may seem unexpected to find a medieval monk referring to the Styx, monasteries gained knowledge about the Underworld through their copies of works such as Virgil's Aeneid . For example, in a 12th-century theological miscellany from the Cistercian abbey of Thame in Oxfordshire (Burney MS 357), the Styx is listed as one of the rivers in Hell, and its name is defined as ‘sadness’ (tristicia).  

Image 5  Thame Abbey's Names of the Infernal Waters  Burney MS 357  f. 4v

The ‘Stix’ among the ‘Names of the Infernal Waters’ (Nomina Humorum Infernalium) (1st half of the 12th century): Burney MS 357, f. 4v

It's clear that some medieval monks were very resourceful when it came to protecting their most precious treasures. The book curses that they devised indicate not only their knowledge of religious and Classical works, but also the importance they attributed to their sacred books and objects.

To learn more about medieval monastic libraries, and how books were acquired, used and stored, see this article on Medieval monastic libraries by Alison Ray, created as part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700–1200. Together with the Bibliothèque nationale de France, we have digitised 800 manuscripts from our collections, which you can learn more about on our dedicated Medieval England and France webspace.

 

Clarck Drieshen

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval #PolonskyPre1200

 

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

In partnership with

BnF logo

Supported by

The Polonsky Foundation logo

20 May 2019

Mehmed the Conqueror, scourge of the world

Add comment

The fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in 1453 brought Turkish politics closer to western Europe. The Italian merchant cities already had commercial ties with the Ottomans across the Mediterranean, but after the collapse of the Byzantine Empire, western Europeans became increasingly more interested in — and often worried by — their new eastern neighbours.

It was not only scholars, manuscripts and ideas that flowed from East to West. In the wake of the Ottoman conquest of the Byzantine Empire, the reputation of Mehmed II (1432–1481), commonly known as Mehmed the Conqueror, spread throughout Western Europe. Reports travelled of his military genius, political astuteness and cultural refinement.

Add_7880_f45v

A portrait of Mehmed II in Kiyafet ül-insaniye, a description of the first twelve Ottoman sultans: Add MS 7880, f. 45v

A celebrity of the 15th century, Mehmed mesmerised his contemporaries, particularly Italian humanists and artists. Gentile Bellini was even invited to paint Mehmed’s portrait. The humanists’ fascination with the Ottoman sultan may be gauged through an epitaph for Mehmed, which started circulating soon after the sultan’s death in 1481. Previously attributed to Leonardo Griffi (1437–1485), friend of the renowned Italian humanist Francesco Filelfo (1398–1481), but now considered to have been composed anonymously, the epitaph extols Mehmed’s virtues and conquests.

An early copy of the epitaph known as ‘the epigram of the great Turk’ (epigrama magni teurci [sic]) survives in Harley MS 2455, a late-15th century manuscript written probably in Milan. The volume also contains works by Terence and Ovid and a copy of the 14th-century epitaph for Giovanni Visconti, archbishop of Milan (d. 1354), composed by Gabrio Zamorei. As Zamorei’s epitaph occurs in many other manuscripts produced in Milan, it is likely Harley 2455 may have also been written there.

Sultans1

This copy of the epitaph for Mehmed II is written in a clear humanistic script: Harley MS 2455, f. 90r

The epitaph for Mehmed brings together the humanists’ fascination for the Ottoman sultan and their enthusiasm for classical antiquity. In flowing elegiac couplets, the sultan is described as the ‘dread of the world’ (timor orbis), having conquered countless peoples, kingdoms and cities. Mehmed’s conquest of Constantinople was followed by that of other major Greek cities as well as that of the Genovese colony in Crimea. He is not an equal to Alexander the Great or Hannibal, the text explains, but stands well above them.

In good humanistic tradition, the poet censures ‘proud Italy’ (superba Italia), whom the sultan would have conquered had the fates not conspired against him. Mehmed may have the whole world, but in the face of death, the poet concludes, human pride, magnificence, empires and gold perish without a trace.

Gentile_Bellini_003

Portrait of Mehmed II by Gentile Bellini, in the collections of the National Gallery, London

The British Library has recently started to upgrade the catalogue records of the Harley manuscripts, including Harley MS 2455. You can read an introduction to this project here.

 

Cristian Ispir

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval #HarleyMSS

10 May 2019

How many alphabets?

Add comment

The exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark, exploring 5,000 years of writing across the globe, is on at the British Library until 27 August. But how many different ways of writing were there?

The manuscripts digitised for The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project were mostly written in medieval Latin, English and French, and in the Roman alphabet; but we have found all kinds of alphabets and sign systems among their leaves, including ciphers, monastic sign language, and many more.

Many Christian scholars in early medieval western Europe might not have been able to read Greek and Hebrew, but they were aware of their importance as the original languages of the Bible. (You can read more about their understanding of Hebrew in this article.) Certain scribes attempted to copy out these alphabets. One such example is found in an 11th-century compilation of scientific works by writers such as Hrabanus Maurus and Isidore of Seville. The scribe copied approximations of the Greek and Hebrew alphabets, with the letter names in Latin, but apparently didn’t understand them, as the two alphabets are mixed up with each other.

Image1_cotton_ms_vitellius_a_xii_f045r

A version of the Greek and Hebrew alphabets from Salisbury, 4th quarter of the 11th century: Cotton MS Vitellius A XII, f. 45r

Another, somewhat more accurate, example is found in a collection called Scutum Bede, compiled by Geoffrey of Ufford in the 12th century, and made up of historical and grammatical treatises, including lists of kings, a biblical world history, and a trilingual list of animals, plants and stones. This page gives the Hebrew and Greek alphabets together with their names in Latin.

Image2_stowe_ms_57_f003r

The Hebrew and Greek alphabets in the Scutum Bede collection of historical and grammatical works, perhaps from Peterborough, c. 1154: Stowe MS 57, f. 3r

Biblical knowledge was not the only source of alternative alphabets. Before Latin literacy was common in England, the runic alphabet was sometimes used for writing inscriptions. The runic letters þ (th) and ƿ (w) were subsequently added to the Roman alphabet, as they were necessary for writing the sounds of English. The 11th-century scientific compilation already mentioned includes three different versions of a runic alphabet, followed by the words ‘pax vobiscum et salus pax’ ('peace and health be with you, peace').

Image3_cotton_ms_vitellius_a_xii_f065r

Three runic alphabets, in a manuscript from Salisbury: Cotton MS Vitellius A XII, f. 65r.

Another ancient alphabet is Ogham, used for inscribing stone monuments, usually in Old Irish. The scribe of the Scutum Bede had a go at this: each sign is shown alongside runic letters.

Image4_stowe_ms_57_f003v

Ogham-style signs and runic letters, perhaps from Peterborough: Stowe MS 57, f. 3v.

Another writing system was specifically designed for the manuscript page. Tironian notes were attributed to Tiro, the slave and personal secretary to Cicero, and were a kind of shorthand for representing different Latin letters and words. Some of these symbols ended up being used in place of common words in Latin: for example, the symbol ‘7’ was adopted in Old English to mean ‘and’. But there were entire lexicons full of Tironian symbols, including these two manuscripts digitised by The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project.

Image5_add_ms_21164_f003r

A lexicon of Tironian notes from western France, 10th century: Add MS 21164, f. 3r.

Image6_add_ms_37518_f027r

Another lexicon of Tironian notes from central France, 9th century: Add MS 37518, f. 27r

If a scribe had enough knowledge of Tironian notes, they could copy out the entire Psalter in them. This image is from the opening of Psalm 50, ‘Miserere mei Deus’ (‘Have mercy on me, O God’), which, as the rubric in the Roman alphabet explains, was attributed to David after the prophet Nathan confronted him about his adultery with Bathsheba. You can see the manuscript in Writing: Making Your Mark.

Image7_add_ms_9046_f024v

A Psalter written in Tironian notes, from north-eastern France, 4th quarter of the 9th century:  Add MS 9046, f. 24v.

Finally, there is the list of symbols found in the Cosmographia, an 8th-century work supposedly by  Aethicus Ister, which describes a journey around the world. One 12th-century copy of the text ends with an alphabet attributed to Aethicus Ister, but it is not one which is known to have been used. So even an entirely fictional alphabet can be found in a manuscript from medieval England.

Image8_cotton_ms_appendix_lvi_f090r

The alphabet of Aethicus Ister, with the letter names written out in the Roman alphabet, England, mid-12th century: Cotton MS Appendix LVI, f. 90r.

 

Kate Thomas

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval #PolonskyPre1200

 

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

In partnership with

BnF logo

Supported by

The Polonsky Foundation logo

25 April 2019

Writing the story of writing: a new exhibition

Add comment

On 26 April a new landmark exhibition opens at the British Library. Its theme is broad but it is also personal and intimate: Writing: Making Your Mark traces the incredible story of how we write.

Add_ms_5112_f003r

Writing on a page: a portrait of St Luke the Evangelist from a 12th-century Byzantine gospel-book: Add MS 5112/1

Jotting notes, sending texts, typing emails — all are part of our daily lives. Writing surrounds us. It lets us communicate with people we don’t see and may never meet. It allows our great-grandparents to talk to us from the past through their handwritten letters and postcards. Through it, we can leave messages to future generations which they may or may not read. We take all this for granted without necessarily being aware that, with every single letter we put down, we are part of the 5000-year story of writing.

Hiero

Hieroglyphs from the back of a 2nd or 3rd-century Greek papyrus: Papyrus 2

Writing: Making your Mark is an opportunity to think about this amazing human invention and the incredible journey made by writing worldwide in the last 5 millennia. From ancient cuneiform tablets, carved hieroglyphs, long papyrus scrolls and gold-blazed parchment leaves to printed and typewritten pages or computer screens, we reflect on how writing has changed they ways we think, feel and see the world.

Sphinx

One of the oldest attestations of an alphabetic system survives on the base of this sphinx, with the ancestors of our letter 'M' (as water on the right) and 'a' (as the ox-head) next to it (Sinai, 1800 BCE): British Museum EA 41748 (courtesy of the British Museum)

Writing: Making Your Mark is a remarkable opportunity to display some of our ancient and medieval treasures in a new light and in a global context, surrounded by examples from other periods and cultures.

Tablet

A Greek wax tablet with a child’s homework, written in Egypt in the 2nd century AD: Add MS 34186(1)

A 2,000-year old Greek homework-book illustrates the humble beginnings of a career in writing. A prosaic document, recording the sale of only a twelfth part of a land and house in Ravenna, is the longest intact papyrus in the British Library. Its script, written at times rather carelessly by a notary called John, shows letter-forms developed by the Roman imperial administration, which mark the beginnings of our lower-case letters and are direct predecessors of the characteristic insular script of early medieval England.

Ravenna

Detail from the Ravenna Papyrus, AD 572, with the scribe recording his name ('scribsi ego Johannis') using the 'lower-case' letters of the New Roman cursive: Add MS 5412

One of the earliest examples of the new script developed in the court of Charlemagne in the late 8th century shows us the roots of the New Roman typeface, that went on to the printed page in the early 16th century and then on to our screens as Times New Roman.

Theodulf

An example of Carolingian minuscule from a manuscript of Theodulf of Orléans, De Spiritu Sancto, made between 809 and 816: Harley MS 3024, f. 33r

The exhibition concludes by looking at the future of writing, asking how humankind will make its mark in the coming years. Come and join us on this amazing journey.

Writing: Making Your Mark will be open at the British Library from 26 April to 27 August 2019. Tickets can be purchased here.

 

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

12 April 2019

Reunited at last: the Percy Hours and Percy Psalter

Add comment

It is always exciting to acquire a new manuscript for the collection. But to acquire a new manuscript and reunite it with its long-separated other half is no less than thrilling. The Percy Psalter (Add MS 70000) and the Percy Hours (Add MS 89379) were created as a single-volume Psalter-Hours in the late 13th century. They formed one manuscript for around 500 years, until a 19th-century book dealer split them in two and sold the halves into separate private collections. The British Library acquired the Percy Psalter from the New York collector Clark Stillman in 1990. We are delighted to announce that we have now purchased the Percy Hours from the estate of the London collector Stephen Keynes, bringing the two manuscript halves together for the first time in around 200 years.

Add_ms_89379_f026r

The Hours of the Virgin, with a historiated initial showing the Annunciation: the Percy Hours, Add MS 89379, f. 26r

This reunion is all the more satisfying because the Percy Psalter and Hours are historically important and stunningly beautiful. They were made in York towards the end of the 13th century as a prayer book for a branch of the aristocratic Percy family. Lord and Lady Percy are depicted on the opening page of the Psalter, proudly displaying their coats of arms.

Add_ms_70000_f016r

Psalm 1 with a historiated initial showing the Tree of Jesse; below, patron portraits and a stag hunt: the Percy Psalter, Add MS 70000, f. 16r

The manuscript was made at a moment of great change in book history. Devotional books were rapidly gaining popularity among wealthy laymen and women. At first these aristocratic patrons adopted the Psalter as their preferred book of personal devotion, inspired by monastic practices. Other essential texts were often included, such as a calendar for keeping track of different saints’ feast days, and the Office for the Dead for praying for the souls of departed loved ones. As the 13th century progressed, it became common to supplement the Psalter with the Hours of the Virgin, a series of prayers addressed to the Virgin Mary that were recited at set hours of the day and night. This resulted in the Psalter-Hours — a deluxe all-in-one collection of texts for personal devotion.

Add_ms_89379_f055r

The Hours of the Virgin, with a historiated initial showing the funeral procession of the Virgin Mary: the Percy Hours, Add MS 89379, f. 55r

The Percy Psalter-Hours is a rare and early example of this class of devotional book from northern England. The growing market for books in the 13th century led to professional workshops of scribes and illuminators appearing in cities around the country. The British Library has an outstanding collection of manuscripts made in regional workshops such as Oxford, London and East Anglia. But examples from the North are comparatively rare. The Percy Psalter-Hours was created by a well-organised team of scribes and artists, working in the latest styles. It reveals that northern book production was just as sophisticated as elsewhere in England.

Add_ms_70000_f007v

Calendar page for June showing the feast of St William of York: the Percy Psalter, Add MS 70000, f. 7v

The manuscript also displays some unique features of northern devotion. For example in the calendar, the feast days of former archbishops of York Sts Wilfrid (24 April and 12 October), John of Beverley (7 May) and William of York (8 June) are marked in glittering gold letters. Some of the feasts are so local that they do not appear in calendars anywhere else, such as the feasts of the Yorkshire abbess St Everild (9 July) and the York Feast of Relics (19 October). St William of York is also commemorated with a prayer in the Hours (f. 42v). Another important local feature is that the Hours of the Virgin follows a slightly different version (or ‘Use’) than elsewhere. It is thought that this manuscript preserves the earliest surviving example of the Hours of the Virgin of the Use of York.

Add_ms_89379_f042v

Prayer commemorating St William of York: the Percy Hours, Add MS 89379, f. 42v

Perhaps the most appealing feature of the manuscript is its artwork. In both the Psalter and Hours, each major text opens with a letter containing a miniature scene from a religious narrative. Graceful figures in jewel-like colours are set against backgrounds of shimmering gold. Some may give a clue to the religious affiliations of the original owners. For example, an image at the beginning of the Penitential Psalms shows a man confessing to a Dominican friar, identified by his black habit. This may suggest that the owners had a Dominican confessor.

Add_ms_89379_f062r

Penitential Psalms with a Dominican hearing confession and a priest blessing penitents: the Percy Hours, Add MS 89379, f. 62r

In contrast to the serene images in the initials, the margins of both the Psalter and Hours portions of the manuscript are inhabited by boisterous scenes of animals and hybrid monsters fighting, playing musical instruments, or simply wandering by. It’s hard not to smile when you open a page and are greeted with these lively creatures.

Picture1

Creatures in the margins: the Percy Hours, Add MS 89379, ff. 83r, 92r, 94r, 97v, 100r, 78v, 85r; the Percy Psalter, Add MS 70000, ff. 13v, 4r, 5r

We are very pleased to have acquired the Percy Hours and to have finally reunited it with the Percy Psalter in the national collection. You can view both of these manuscripts in full on our Digitised Manuscripts website, and we plan to display them in the Library’s Treasures Gallery later this year. We are extremely grateful to the British Library Collections Trust for generously supporting the acquisition of the Percy Hours.

This is the second of two exciting acquisitions from the estate of Stephen Keynes. For the first, see our earlier announcement on the Medieval Manuscripts Blog.

Eleanor Jackson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

09 April 2019

The languages of history in the Middle Ages

Add comment

Which languages were used to write history in medieval Europe? Who wrote history, for whom, and the history of what? Robert Bartlett will explore these questions in a lecture at the British Library in the Knowledge Centre on Friday 14 June, from 19:30 to 21:00. To find out more information and to book your tickets please visit this page.

Historical chronicles often recall and illustrate the account of the building of the Tower of Babel from the book of Genesis to explain the origins of multilingualism. According to chapter 11, the sons of Adam decided to ‘make a city and a tower, the top whereof may reach to heaven’ in order that they would become famous. But God decided to put a stop to their plans, and ‘there confound their tongue, that they may not understand one another's speech’. As a result, the place was called Babel (confusion), ‘because there the language of the whole Earth was confounded: and from thence the Lord scattered them abroad upon the face of all countries.’

C00402-11

The Tower of Babel, in Histoire ancienne jusqu’à Cesar: Add MS 25884, f. 80v

The Histoire ancienne jusqu’à Cesar is the earliest compilation of universal history written in French, initially dating from the first decades of the 13th century. At this time French was used in many areas outside France, such as Flanders, England and Italy, and across the Mediterranean (for more on the Histoire ancienne, see our previous blog posts here and here). In a 14th-century Parisian copy of the Histoire ancienne (Add MS 25884), the Tower of Babel is presented as a complex technological achievement. In the image, the tower is almost complete. Its incredible height and elegant form could be seen to celebrate the collective achievement of the community of builders, before the confusion of languages caused them to abandon the construction.

Add_ms_15268_f226r

Pyrrus's army with elephants, in Histoire ancienne jusqu’à Cesar:  Add MS 15268, f. 266r

As Latin had long been the language of learning and textual authority, the choice of French prose for writing history suggests that lay aristocratic audiences were increasingly engaged in understanding the past. French language and culture reached all the way to the Holy Land, where it was imported by crusaders and merchants. One of our copies of the Histoire ancienne is from the city of Acre in the eastern Mediterranean (Add MS 15268), where French chronicles were read eagerly by the multicultural and multilingual communities brought together in this cosmopolitan port.

Yates_thompson_ms_28_f051r

The Tower of Babel, above, and Zoroaster with two demons, below, in Il Tesoro: Yates Thompson MS 28, f. 51r

Influenced by the flourishing tradition of 13th-century French historical narratives, the Italian notary Brunetto Latini included an historical section in his encyclopedic Livre dou Tresor. His chapter on the Tower of Babel is derived from the version found in the Histoire ancienne. In 1260, Brunetto was exiled in France, where he composed the Tresor in French in order to reach a wider public. This vast encyclopedia is formed of three books, covering a variety of disciplines including theology, physics, astronomy and ethics.

Brunetto’s Tresor was extremely successful, and copies circulated widely across the Mediterranean. By the 14th century, it was translated into other vernaculars, notably Catalan and Castilian. However, one of the earliest translations of the Tresor was made in Brunetto’s home city, Florence, where he returned in 1267. The Italian Tesoro dates back to the 13th century, when the French version was available widely in Italy. This translation illustrates how French works fed into the multilingual literary culture of Italy, in the city of Brunetto’s student Dante, where the language that will be eventually called ‘Italian’ was emerging. A 15th-century Florentine manuscript of the Tesoro (Yates Thompson 28) was copied in 1425 by the scribe Bartolomeo di Lorenzo of Fighine.

Harley 176

Opening page of Guido delle Colonne, Historia destructionis Troiae: Harley MS 176, f. 1r

Guido delle Colonne’s Historia destructionis Troiae (‘History of the Destruction of Troy’) offers a different example of the movement of historical texts between languages. In 1287, the Sicilian judge and poet composed his Latin prose account of the Trojan War, which is a translation of the 12th-century French Roman de Troie, by Benoît de Sainte-Maure. The Historia Destructionis Troiae was enormously popular across Europe and demonstrates how vernacular culture revitalised contemporary Latin historical writing.

Over 90 copies of Guido’s Historia survive. The success of Guido’s translation also suggests a preference in some circles for Latin as opposed to local languages, even as the local language (in this instance Italian) emerges as a literary language. The work was even popular beyond Italy, as demonstrated in an English copy made around 1400 (Harley MS 176).

Around this time, John Lydgate translated the Historia into English verse. He completed his version in 1420 and gave it the title ‘Troy Book’. This 15th-century illuminated English manuscript contains a particularly fine copy of Lydgate’s Troy Book, compiled with other works by the same author.

Royal_ms_18_d_ii_f075r

The Trojan Horse, in John Lydgate, Troy Book: Royal MS 18 D II, f. 75r

Professor Bartlett’s talk is presented in conjunction with the ‘Narrating History Across Languages in Medieval Europe’ conference at Kings College London, 14-15 June, organised by The Values of French, a research project funded by the European Research Council at King’s College London. The conference will cover a range of geographic and linguistic traditions, including Catalan, Castilian, French, German, Greek, Latin and Sicilian. To book tickets, please visit this site.

Robert Bartlett, 'The Languages of History in the Middle Ages', The British Library, Friday 14 June, 19:30–21:00.

Kathleen Doyle, Hannah Morcos and Maria Teresa Rachetta (King's College London)

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

You can learn more about the use of French in the Middle Ages in The Polonsky Foundation England and France article on the subject, in partnership with

BnF logo
BnF logo

05 April 2019

An important Anglo-Saxon manuscript acquired for the nation

Add comment

Following hot on the heels of our triumphant Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, we are delighted to announce that a 10th-century Anglo-Saxon manuscript has been added to the collection of the British Library. Comprising a single leaf of a benedictional, the manuscript in question has been acquired from the estate of Stephen Keynes. It will now be available for consultation by researchers in our Manuscripts Reading Room (Add MS 89378), and it can be examined online on our Digitised Manuscripts site. We plan to display it in the Treasures Gallery at the Library later this year. We are extremely grateful to the British Library Collections Trust for generously supporting the acquisition of the benedictional leaf.

LIN_080119_07

Written in the middle decades of the 10th century, the benedictional leaf contains the conclusion of the benediction for Easter Day, benedictions for Monday and Tuesday, and the beginning of the benediction for Wednesday after Easter: Add MS 89378, f. 1r

The acquisition of this benedictional leaf is significant for everyone who studies the politics and liturgy of Anglo-Saxon England. Curiously, it is written in a transitional form of script, known as English square minuscule, rather than the more traditional English Caroline minuscule. This points to an early date of production for the benedictional. Along with two other leaves which survive from the same manuscript, now held in the USA, it has been described by David Dumville as constituting ‘the earliest known English benedictional (if, that is, they were not once part of a sacramentary)’ (Liturgy and the Ecclesiastical History of Late Anglo-Saxon England (Woodbridge, 1992), p. 76). 

LIN_080119_07 verso

The leaf is written in English square minuscule, and at some stage seems to have been re-used as a binding fragment: Add MS 89378, f. 1v

We are very excited by the prospect of researchers having access to this manuscript in the Library. It is potentially related to other English benedictionals, including the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, also held at the British Library (Add MS 49598), together with Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France, ms. lat. 987, and Exeter, Cathedral Library, MS 3548C. It is also of great importance for the study of English Benedictine reform in the 10th century, for the study of 10th-century English politics, and for the development of English square minuscule script.

The-Benedictional-of-St-Add_MS_49598_f65r

The benedictional leaf is related textually to the Benedictional of St Æthelwold: Add MS 49598, f. 65r

One major research question we may mention here is whether the benedictional, when originally intact, once belonged to Archbishop Dunstan of Canterbury (959–988), a key figure in the monastic reform movement. Dunstan’s benedictional was attested at Glastonbury Abbey in 1247–48, and again by John Bale when writing to Archbishop Matthew Parker on 30 July 1560 (Cambridge University Library Add MS 7489): ‘I had also Benedictionum archiepiscopale Dunstani, the oldest boke that ever I sawe yet, and most straungely written, but yet legyble to hym that was acquaynted with that kynde of writynge; but now all are dispersed.’ The benedictional owned by St Dunstan is now presumed lost, but we can at least assume that our new manuscript was used by monastic reformers in the 10th century.

The three surviving leaves of this Anglo-Saxon benedictional once formed part of the collection of Sir Thomas Phillipps (his MS 29721). They were together when auctioned at Sotheby’s in 1972, and then sold individually by Maggs Bros. between 1976 and 1980. The leaves in question are now held at Harvard, Yale and the British Library:

  • Cambridge, MA, Harvard University, Houghton Library, Typ 612
  • New Haven, CT, Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Takamiya MS 89
  • London, British Library, Add MS 89378

One of the great successes of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms was that it demonstrated that we continue to learn more about the history and culture of this period. Among the new discoveries showcased in the exhibition was the recovery of erased slavery records in the Bodmin Gospels, revealed using multi-spectral imaging. In turn, much still remains to be discovered about the benedictional leaf, and we hope that it stimulates research for many years to come.

This is the first of two exciting acquisitions from the estate of Stephen Keynes. We will be announcing the second soon on the Medieval Manuscripts Blog.

 

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval