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199 posts categorized "Medieval history"

27 March 2019

Initial impressions: the Noyon Sacramentary

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Digitisation can lead to new discoveries, and allow us to make previously unnoticed connections. Recently, a manuscript digitised as part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project, known as the Noyon Sacramentary (Add MS 82956), caught my attention. More precisely, the specific style of its two large unfinished initials made me do a double take.

Thanks to my AHRC-funded PhD studentship, which the England and France Project inspired, I was ideally placed to make an art-historical connection that does not appear to have been made before. I noticed that the line-drawn initials of the Noyon Sacramentary are remarkably similar to the initials of some of the most famous manuscripts decorated in the so-called Franco-Saxon style.

FIG. 1 - add_ms_82956_f006v

An unfinished initial V (for the Vere dignum opening) at the beginning of the Canon of the Mass (Noyon, 4th quarter of the 10th century): Add MS 82956, f. 6v. Add MS 86956 was allocated to the British Library by HM Government in lieu of Inheritance Tax under the Acceptance in Lieu (AIL) Scheme, 2007.

Despite developing on the Continent, this style integrates typically Anglo-Saxon or Insular decorative motifs (such as abstract animal decorations and interlace) with Carolingian elements. It was usually reserved for high-grade liturgical or biblical manuscripts and it flourished in mid-to-late 9th-century Francia (roughly modern-day France and parts of western Germany).

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Unfinished initial ligature TE (for the Te igitur opening) at the beginning of the Canon of the Mass: Add MS 82956, f. 7v

A sacramentary contains the prayers that the celebrant, usually a bishop, needed to perform Mass and other liturgical ceremonies. The Noyon Sacramentary was made in the late 10th century for the use of Noyon Cathedral. It has mainly been studied for its liturgical content and its unusual dimensions. Its leaves are two and a half times as tall as they are wide: this unusual format perhaps made it a highly portable 'saddle-book', making it easier for the bishop to travel to and consecrate churches far away from the seat of his bishopric.

FIG. 3 - IRHT_Cambrai  BM  MS 162  ff. 1v-2r

Illuminated initial V for the Vere dignum opening (Saint-Vaast, 3rd quarter of the 9th century): Cambrai, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 162, ff. 1v–2r

Another sacramentary with similar 'saddle-book' dimensions, but at least a century older, is now Cambrai, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 162. It was made at the Benedictine abbey of Saint-Vaast, one of the three centres in north-eastern France that excelled at the Franco-Saxon style. This manuscript has clear similarities with the Noyon Sacramentary, both in their unusual dimensions and their respective initial ‘V’ of the page with the words Vere dignum ('It is truly fitting'), a page that is marked with a large initial because it introduces the preface to the Canon of the Mass. Apart from the overall shape, this is seen in the stylised animal heads at the top of the two diagonal strokes of the ‘V’, and the roundels halfway down those strokes.

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Illuminated initial V in the Noyon Sacramentary: Add MS 82956, f. 6v (detail)

Can we speculate how this style came to inspire the makers of the Noyon Sacramentary in the 10th century? A possible model is another surviving sacramentary, now known as Reims, Bibliothèque Municipale, MS 213. This manuscript was also made for the use of Noyon Cathedral in the last quarter of the 9th century. However, it was made not at Noyon itself but as an export or commission at the Benedictine monastery of Saint-Amand, also in north-eastern France, another important centre associated with the Franco-Saxon style.

FIG. 5 - Gallica  Reims  BM  213  f. 13v

Initial ligature TE (for the Te igitur opening) (Saint-Amand, 4th quarter of the 9th century): Reims, Bibliothèque Municipale, MS 213, f. 13v

The words ‘Te igitur’ ('You, therefore') are the first words of the Canon of the Mass. The overall shape of the word ‘TE’ in the Noyon Sacramentary and in the Reims manuscript are very similar. This is shown, for example, by the intricate composition of overlapping interlace that unites the outer ribbons of the ‘T’ and the ‘E’. But there are differences in the details, if not in the overall style. The arm of the ‘T’ in the Noyon Sacramentary ends in small, dog-like animal heads, whereas the top of the ‘T’ in the Reims manuscript is dominated by the heads of birds with long beaks. It seems highly likely that the Reims sacramentary was still in the cathedral library in the 10th century and inspired the makers of the Noyon Sacramentary, even if it was not the direct model for it.

Why did the 10th-century makers of this manuscript adopt a style of decoration associated with a century-old manuscript? The Noyon Sacramentary was made during a period when the bishops of Noyon were closely affiliated with the first kings of the Capetian dynasty of the kingdom of Francia. The first Capetian ruler, Hugh Capet (reigned 987–996), was crowned at Noyon in 987, succeeding the last Carolingian king of West Francia, Louis V (reigned 986–987).

FIG. 6 - add_ms_82956_f007v detail

A TE ligature in the Noyon Sacramentatry: Add MS 82956, f. 7v

Noyon was probably chosen as the site of Hugh’s coronation to emphasise the connection to his distant ancestor, Charlemagne (reigned 768–814), whose first coronation was held there in 768. The older sacramentary (Reims, Bibliothèque Municipale, MS 213) was made around the reign of Charlemagne’s grandson, Charles the Bald (843–877). Charles the Bald was keen to promote favourable comparisons to his illustrious grandfather, for instance as a patron of manuscript art.

These political circumstances suggest that the use of Franco-Saxon style initials in the Noyon Sacramentary may have been part of a deliberate attempt to evoke continuity with the previous Carolingian period, in the history of both the cathedral and the kingdom.

You can discover more about 800 illuminated manuscripts from the collections of the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, all newly digitised, on our dedicated webspace: Medieval England and France: 700-1200.

 

Emilia Henderson

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#PolonskyPre1200

 

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20 March 2019

What's the language?

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Bonjour à tous!

International Francophonie Day highlights the global spread of French language and culture. It is the perfect day to celebrate our great collaboration with our French colleagues in The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700–1200.  

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An animation inspired by the Sirius constellation (Canis major) in British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius C I, f. 28r

As part of our ambitious collaborative project, we’ve digitised 800 medieval manuscripts from the two national libraries. In November 2018 we launched not one but two new project websites. One allows users to search and view all 800 project manuscripts through an innovative new viewer. We applied the International Image Interoperabitility Framework (or IIIF, as it is commonly known) standards to our images and descriptions. As a result, it is now possible to share, annotate, manipulate and download images from our 800 project manuscripts. You can also compare manuscripts side-by-side (up to four at a time!).

SideBySideView

Two manuscripts from each institution, presented side-by-side

We are happy to offer our readers this massive list of manuscript identifiers, or shelfmarks, titles and URL links to the IIIF images on the new website. All of these manuscripts can be viewed in their full glory on the project website hosted by the BnF.

Excel spreadsheet of the 800 project manuscripts

PDF of the 800 project manuscripts

 

What is new with the project and the curated website?

On a website hosted by the British Library, we are offering our readers articles, descriptions, films and more interpreting these manuscripts: Medieval England and France, 700–1200. Everything is available in two languages, English and French – just choose your preferred language at any point of the visit.

LandingPageEnglish

LandingPageFrench

There are six broad themes covering art, history, science, religion, making manuscripts and the medieval manuscript collections today. We chose a selection of manuscripts to explore through various articles in each theme. Since the initial launch in November 2018 with 24 articles, we have added six new articles, 33 new collection items, and created new pages with biographies and maps. Did we mention the animation of the crane, inspired by a tale in an illustrated bestiary? Medieval manuscripts offer us the greatest collection of surviving medieval artwork in any media. Often, the colours are still as vibrant and the gold as glittering as at the time they were made, over 800 years ago. These books offer us wonderful glimpses of medieval culture, ideas and even individual people.

There are famous thinkers and authors, like Alcuin or Anselm, who exemplify the movement of people, texts and ideas across Europe in the early Middle Ages. For example, Queen Emma’s achievements are celebrated in a work that is the earliest surviving account dedicated to a female political figure from England (excluding saints’ Lives).

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A seal of Anselm of Canterbury, containing one of the earliest surviving representations of the archbishop, attached to the charter British Library, LFC Ch VII 5

For anyone interested in medieval manuscript culture in the Middle Ages, this site is a treasure-trove. It is easy to spend hours wondering around, or you can dip in for 5 minutes at a time. With 30 articles on various aspects on manuscript culture, over 140 highlighted collection items, 10 people pages and 10 short videos, you will be sure to find something intriguing.

 

French language, modern and medieval

It was clear from the start of the project that whatever we were to do, it would all be available in both English and French.  The medieval world was multilingual. Latin was the main written language, but it was by no means the only one. Old English and different variants of written French, like Anglo-Norman or Old Occitan, were also written down.  

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The beginning of St John’s Gospel, Chapter 13 in Old Occitan, preceded by a Latin rubric: British Library, Harley MS 2928, f. 187v

To mark today’s theme, International Francophonie Day, we took a closer look at a copy of a poem by the earliest known French poet, Philippe de Thaon (active during the first half of the 12th century). One of his works called Comput is a verse explanation of the metrics of the medieval calendar and gives instructions about how to calculate the date of Easter. In the poem’s opening lines, Philippe tells the reader he has decided to compose his text in Anglo-Norman French: Ne nest griu ne latins (it isn't Greek or Latin), but the language De la nostre cuntree (of our country), so that the users Ben poënt retenir (are able to remember well).

… Në est pas juglerie,

Ne nest griu ne latins,

Ne ne nest angevins,

Ainz est raisun mustree

De la nostre cuntree:

Ben poënt retenir

Çoe dum ges voil garner

Së il volent entendre

E bone garde prendre.

 

('… [It] is not entertainment,

nor is it Greek, Latin,

or the Angevin dialect.

Rather [it] is the spoken discourse of our country:

[in it they] are able to remember well

what I want to teach them,

if they want to listen

and pay good attention.')

 

(translation by Dr Hannah Morcos, King’s College London)

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Philippe de Thaon explains why he has chosen Anglo-Norman French to write his poem Comput: British Library, Cotton MS Nero A V, f. 2r

 

To find out more about languages present in medieval manuscripts, visit the History and Learning section of Medieval England and France, 700-1200.

 

Tuija Ainonen and Calum Cockburn

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval, #PolonskyPre1200

 

 

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19 March 2019

Let sleeping cranes lie

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The RSPB has reported that the crane is coming back to Britain, with a record number of new birds reported in recent years. We have similarly found many cranes hidden in the British Library’s medieval bestiaries, manuscripts full of fantastic stories about all manner of birds and beasts.

A bird with great wings and long thin legs, the crane’s Latin name — grus — was thought to derive from the hoarse cry of her voice. The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project has created an animation that tells the story of the life of the bird and her flock, based on an account in an illustrated bestiary (Harley MS 4751). You can watch it here.

Cranes are not solitary creatures. They fly together as a flock, arranging themselves with military discipline high up in the air. According to this medieval bestiary, the birds swallow sand before they take off. Watch the animation to find out why.

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A crane guards the rest of her flock, holding a rock in her claws, in a bestiary with additions from Gerald of Wales’ Topographia Hibernica (Salisbury, late 12th century–early 13th century): Harley MS 4751, f. 39r

At night, the cranes are known for keeping a careful watch, guarding their camp and looking over the rest of the flock as they sleep. Other birds act as sentries, looking out for any enemies who might attack them. When there is cause for alarm, the cranes call out, to wake the rest and make sure they are safe.

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A pair of cranes alongside a Latin description of the bird in an early illustrated bestiary (England, 4th quarter of the 12th century): Add MS 11283, f. 17r

On duty, the crane has a particularly surprising way of keeping awake: she holds a stone in her claws. If she falls asleep, the stone will fall to the ground, make a noise and wake her up. Representations of this behaviour were common in early medieval bestiaries, and the crane’s vigilance and loyalty to her flock were regarded as particularly admirable traits.

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Sleeping cranes in an illustrated bestiary (England, c. 1200–c. 1210): Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 40r

We would love you to explore more stories of birds and beasts from the bestiary. Check out this brilliant discussion on our website, entitled Beastly tales from the medieval bestiary.

 

Calum Cockburn

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17 March 2019

Why we love the Harley Irish Gospels

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How better to celebrate St Patrick’s Day than to announce the digitisation of two important Irish manuscripts from the British Library's collections? Harley MS 1023 and Harley MS 1802 were both made in the 12th century in Armagh, St Patrick’s foundation and medieval cult centre. Here are 5 reasons why we love these manuscripts:

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The lion symbol of St Mark: Harley MS 1802, f. 60v

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The lion symbol of St Mark: Harley MS 1023, f. 10v

1) Because Irish Gospel-books are stunning. Irish scribes and artists played an important role in the development of Gospel-book design, and their manuscripts are renowned for their beauty and brilliance. In the Harley Gospel-books, each Gospel text begins with a lively picture of an animal, the ‘evangelist symbol’ for that particular Gospel-writer. Harley 1802 contains a brightly coloured lion of St Mark and equally vivid ox of St Luke. The lion is especially endearing, with its tongue lolling and its hind legs entangled in its tail. Harley 1023 contains a particularly springy lion of St Mark and a rather plump eagle of St John, this time depicted in bold line drawing. Decorated initials open each Gospel text, made up of sinuous beasts playfully contorted into marvellous shapes. Harley 1802 also includes an equally serpentine Chi-rho initial, the Greek monogram of Christ that appears at Matthew 1:18 in Irish and Irish-influenced Gospel books.

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The ox symbol of St Luke: Harley MS 1802, f. 86v

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The eagle symbol of St John: Harley MS 1023, f. 64v

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Chi-rho initial: Harley MS 1802, f. 10r

2) Because 12th-century Irish manuscripts are underrated. People often think of the period from the 7th to 8th centuries as the high point of Irish book art, exemplified by masterpieces such as the Book of Kells (c. 800). Far fewer people realise that the 12th century was also a period of artistic renewal and vibrancy in Ireland. Around 100 manuscripts survive from this period containing a wide variety of works. The two Harleys are among the most richly illuminated, as well as a third surviving Gospel-book (Oxford, Corpus Christi College, MS 122) and the stunning Psalter of Cormac (Add MS 36929). These 12th-century manuscripts are especially poignant because they represent a last flowering for the tradition of Irish illumination. Evangelist symbol pages and Chi-rho pages disappear from book art after the Anglo-Norman invasion beginning in 1167, meaning that these examples are the last of their kind.   

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Beatus page in the Psalter of Cormac: Add MS 36929, f. 2r

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Decorated initial ‘Q’ at the opening of the Gospel of St Luke: Harley MS 1802, f. 87r

3) Because no one can resist Viking style. At the time these manuscripts were made, Ireland was home to both a native Irish and a Scandinavian-Irish population. The Vikings first settled in Ireland in the 9th century and remained a culturally distinct group, based in large trading cities such as Dublin. Art from the 12th century often reveals Viking and Irish styles fusing together. This is especially clear in the interlaced beasts that make up the decorated initials of Harley 1802 (see the Luke initial, f. 87v, and the Chi-rho initial, f. 10r). Beasts and interlace were important features of both Irish and Viking art, but the styles were noticeably different. With their large round eyes and snub-noses, the beasts of Harley 1802 resemble those that had prowled the pages of Irish manuscripts since the 7th century. But the interlace that entangles them has a distinctively Viking feel. A strand of interlace sometimes swells in width and then bursts into several new strands. At ends or sharp bends, the interlace sometimes forms a rather leafy-looking lobe shape tapering into a curl. These vegetal features don’t appear in Irish interlace from earlier periods, but they do appear in Viking artworks such as the Runestone of Harald Bluetooth.

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The Runestone of Harald Bluetooth, Jelling, Denmark, 10th century

4) Because Mael Brigte Ua Maeluanaig, the scribe of Harley 1802, was such a chatterbox. We don’t know who made most medieval manuscripts. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, the scribe will record their name, and occasionally other morsels of information. In contrast, Mael Brigte wrote a colophon (a closing inscription) for each of the Gospel texts, telling us not only his name but also that he was 28 years old, working in Armagh in 1138. He refers twice to the murder of king-bishop Cormac Mac Carthaig by Toirdelbach Ua Briain in 1138, describing it as a ‘great crime’. He mentions a terrible storm that happened two years earlier. He tells us that Donnchad Ua Cerbaill was High King and gives a list of the many petty kings of his time. Such an insight into the life and personality of a non-famous 12th-century individual, including even their disgruntled commentary on contemporary politics, is rare. It’s hard not to take a liking to this chatty, opinionated, scholarly scribe.

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The end of the Gospel of St John and Mael Brigte’s longest colophon: Harley MS 1802, f. 156v

5) Because they can teach you a thing or two. Besides the Gospels, these manuscripts are fascinating for the wide variety of other texts that share their pages. The detailed glosses that crowd the margins of Harley 1802 reveal Irish scholars’ meticulous study of the Gospels, drawing on a Hiberno-Latin commentary tradition dating back to at least the 8th century. Other texts suggest an interest in gathering obscure knowledge. For example, Harley 1023 contains a list of Pharaohs of Egypt, and a list of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus (a group of Christians who slept in a cave for 300 years while hiding from persecution). Harley 1802 contains poems describing the personal appearances of the Three Magi and the Apostles, paying special attention to the colour and style of their hair and beards. These texts reveal the breadth of Irish learning and give an insight into how information was carefully collected and treasured by enquiring scholars.

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The end of the Gospel of St Luke, with added biblical questions and answers and a list of Pharaohs of Egypt: Harley MS 1023, f. 63v

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Irish poem on Christ and the Apostles: Harley MS 1802, f. 9v

Have we convinced you? Happy St Patrick’s Day everyone!

 

Eleanor Jackson

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09 March 2019

Celebrating the spiritual life

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International Women’s Day has inspired us to examine how medieval women used literature for shaping their daily lives. The hundreds of prayer books that are extant from late medieval female religious communities, for example, reveal how religious women used miraculous narratives to bolster their commitment to a life of prayer. One 15th-century German prayer book (Harley MS 2841) is a good case in point.

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A prayer to the Virgin Mary in the 15th-century German prayer book: Harley MS 2841, f. 16r

Harley MS 2841 contains prayers for personal devotion that are phrased for a woman. One of them identifies her as a certain ‘Amelia’, and although her identity is unknown, she was almost certainly a nun. An added list of female names in the same manuscript includes another, later Amelia — namely ‘Amelia Zandt von Merl’, Abbess of Marienberg in Boppard in Rhineland-Palatinate (1581–1624) — as well as her successor, ‘Maria Margarethe Zandt von Merl’ (1624–1654).

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A 17th-century list of nuns at Boppard: Harley MS 2841, f. 195r

The contents of Harley MS 2841 would have been especially well-suited for a novice or newly-professed nun. It features a miracle that tells of a woman whose ‘friends’ steal her inheritance when they learn that she has entered a convent. The nun is deeply distressed, but consoled when the Archangel Gabriel appears to her and teaches her a prayer that invokes the Joys of the Virgin Mary. The reader of the prayer book is promised similar consolation if she recites the prayer together with 100 Hail Maries in front of an image of the Virgin Mary.

Image III

An angel inhabiting the margins of the Archangel Gabriel’s consoling prayer: Harley MS 2841, f. 27r

This miracle survives in many prayer books from female religious communities in the Low Countries and Germany. Middle Dutch examples are extant in a 15th-century prayer book owned by an unidentified female religious community (Egerton MS 2904), and in an early 16th-century prayer book produced for a community of religious women dedicated to St Francis (Add MS 14042).

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The Archangel Gabriel’s consoling prayer with a pasted-in woodcut of the Virgin with Child, c. 1517-1523: Add MS 14042, f. 161v

A number of female religious communities seem to have shared the miracle of the Archangel Gabriel within a literary culture they designed in support of their spiritual lives. This may have suggested to religious women that a life of prayer in an enclosed convent would provide them with divine protection and support in all their needs. But it may also have been a means for them to empower themselves against the various slings and arrows that continued to afflict them, despite being cloistered and metaphorically dead to the world. In a popular variant of the miracle, it is not the nun’s friends who distress her, but her parents, angered over her decision to enter a convent. In this sense, devotional literature could be an important means for religious women to become detached from disturbances from the outside world, and to reaffirm and celebrate their commitment to a spiritual life.

 

Clarck Drieshen

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22 February 2019

Through the looking glass

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If you came to our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, you may have seen the Guthlac Roll, made in the late 12th or early 13th century. Look here and you'll notice that two figures in this roll seem to be wearing spectacles. It is very unlikely that these spectacles were part of the original design: exploring how spectacles are represented in medieval manuscripts suggests that both they and the plume rising from the seated figure's cap were added in the early modern period. 

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Roundel of Beccelm speaking with St Guthlac’s sister Pega: Harley Roll Y6, roundel 15

One of the first concrete references to spectacles dates from the early 14th century. On 23 February 1305, Giordano da Rivalto, a Dominican friar from Pisa, delivered a sermon that partly celebrated the ingenuity of mankind. Giordano stated, ‘It is not yet twenty years since there was found the art of making spectacles (Italian: occhiali)'. Although it is doubtful that spectacles were invented in a single eureka moment, Giordano’s bold claim suggests that spectacles were certainly in use in some areas from the late 13th century.

The earliest surviving artistic depictions of spectacles date to the 14th and 15th centuries. This 15th-century Book of Hours, produced in northern Italy, includes a detail of monks singing a requiem, with one member of the group wearing spectacles.

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Detail of a miniature of monks singing a requiem, with the celebrant wearing spectacles, at the beginning of the Office of the Dead: Harley MS 2971 f. 109v

An extremely clear illustration of spectacles can be found in another 15th-century Book of Hours, produced in central France, perhaps Tours. In this image, St Mark holds spectacles to his eyes as he reads a book, while his evangelist symbol, the lion, looks on eagerly from the side.

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Detail of a miniature of Mark reading a book and holding spectacles to his eyes: Yates Thompson MS 5, f. 12r

Ancient and medieval texts, many of them pre-dating the surviving artistic depictions, also occasionally refer to transparent materials being used as visual aids. One of the earliest descriptions is found in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, completed shortly before his death in AD 79. Pliny shared an anecdote recalling how the emperor Nero used to watch gladiator fights with the assistance of a mineral called a smaragdus. According to Pliny, a smaragdus could be concave to ‘concentrate the vision’ or laid flat to ‘reflect objects just as mirrors do’. It is unclear whether Pliny thought that Nero used the smaragdus as a reflective device or to enhance his vision. Pliny also described how a smaragdus was a green mineral, perhaps emerald, malachite or the green varieties of jasper. It is certainly tempting to suggest that Nero used emeralds to enhance his view of the gladiators. 

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Detail of a miniature in colours and gold showing Pliny writing in his study and a landscape with animals, rivers, the sea, Sun and Moon: Harley MS 2677, f. 1r

In some early texts, scholars explained the scientific principles behind the use of corrective lenses. In the 2nd century, Ptolemy wrote on the topic in his Optics. Two Arabic authors from the 10th and 11th centuries, Ibn Sahl and Alhazen, later expanded on Ptolemy’s explanation. The English friar Roger Bacon also addressed the topic in his Opus Majus (c. 1266), during his time in Paris.

Robert Grosseteste also described the process in his De Iride (‘On the Rainbow’), composed between 1220 and 1235. Grosseteste described how ‘we can make objects at very long distance appear at very close distance’, perhaps describing an early telescope. Grosseteste further remarked how lenses could make small things larger when observing them at close distances, so that it is ‘possible for us to read the smallest letters at incredible distance, or count the sand, or grain, or grass, or anything else so minute’.

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Detail of an historiated initial 'A'(mor) of Robert Grosseteste: Royal MS 6 E V, f. 6r

Perhaps the lenses described by these authors were more akin to modern magnifying glasses rather than spectacles. A 15th-century French translation of Vincent of Beauvais’s Le Miroir Historial contains a possible depiction of such a lens. This manuscript detail depicts Vincent of Beauvais, sitting at a desk and writing his book. It is possible that the glass object in the background was intended to be a kind of lens that may have been used as a reading aid. Of course, it is also possible that this shows a mirror, in reference to the title of the text, rather than a magnifying lens.

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Detail of a miniature of Vincent of Beauvais sitting at a desk and writing his book: Royal MS 14 E I, f. 3r

We might not know exactly when the spectacles were added to the Guthlac Roll, but the history of medieval spectacles is certainly looking a little clearer …

 

Becky Lawton

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Quotations taken from D.E. Eichholz, trans., Pliny: Natural History X (Cambridge, 1962), pp. 212–15, and A.C. Sparavigna, ‘Translation and discussion of the De Iride, a treatise on optics by Robert Grossetste’, International Journal of Sciences (2013), 2:9, pp. 108–13.

 

18 February 2019

Explore our Anglo-Saxons webspace

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Would you like to find out more about the Anglo-Saxons? Have you been mesmerised by our recent blockbuster exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, or are you doing research into some aspect of early medieval culture?

If so, you may be interested in the British Library's new webspace devoted to the Anglo-Saxons. Already published are a number of articles, on subjects as diverse as music, Anglo-Saxon women, and the Battle of Hastings, together with collection items and biographies. In the near future we intend to add more material, so (literally) please watch this space ...

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Many of the essays have been written by Alison Hudson, Project Curator for the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, and Becky Hudson, Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts Intern. Becky has written articles exploring the earliest English speakers and Learning and education in Anglo-Saxon England. In Anglo-Saxon England and Europe, she has drawn upon sources ranging from the St Augustine Gospels to the Utrecht Psalter and a gold dinar of King Offa, in order to demonstrate the close and long-standing relationship between England and its European neighbours. Alison has examined the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and Science and the natural world. In her article How was the kingdom of England formed?, she traces the background to the unification of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the 10th century.

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A gold dinar of King Offa, reproduced by permission of the British Museum

Among the collection items described and illustrated on the site are manuscripts from the British Library's own collections, alongside books and artefacts loaned by other institutions to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. Among the Library's manuscripts that are featured are the St Cuthbert Gospel, Bald's Leechbook and the Coronation Gospels; among the loans we might mention (to name a few) are the Binham Hoard, the Moore Bede and Codex Amiatinus.

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Codex Amiatinus, reproduced by permission of Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, was returned specially to England for the first time in 1,300 years to be displayed at the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition

The people featured on the Anglo-Saxons webspace include kings, queens, bishops, monks and hermits, from Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, to Alfred the Great. They have been selected in part because they are most prominent in the contemporary sources, such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Encomium Emmae Reginae, and in part because they represent several layers of early medieval society.

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Emma of Normandy as depicted in the work entitled ‘In Praise of Queen Emma’

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Julian Harrison

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17 February 2019

When love comes knockin’ at your door

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To the joy and relief of some, the magic of Valentine’s Day has now vanished, taking heart-shaped chocolates and romantic cards with it. A different perspective of love is offered by a motif popular in the Classical world: the so-called paraclausithyron.

This term, used by Plutarch (Moralia 753B), refers to a song of lament and despair sung by an ‘excluded lover’ (amator exclusus) at the firmly shut door of their beloved. The lover usually carries a garland and has walked at night by torchlight to reach their beloved’s house, where they plead to be admitted without success.

In Greek literature, the motif occurs in different genres. An illustrious example is found in Theocritus’ Idyll 3, where the lover, a goatherd, begs his mistress Amaryllis to let him come into her cave. He laments in despair:

Just look: there’s such pain in my heart. If only I could turn into a buzzing bee and come into your cave through the ivy and fern that hide you! Now I know what love is: he’s a cruel god. Truly he was suckled by a lioness, and his mother gave birth to him in a thicket: he’s making me smoulder with love and torturing me deep in my bone. (translated by N. Hopkinson)

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The beginning of Theocritus, Idyll 3 (15th century): Add MS 11885, f. 12r

A number of surviving epigrams relate to the scene of the closed door. This one, by the poet Asclepiades of Samos from the 3rd century BC, emphasises the lover's sorrow at not being admitted into the house:

Abide here, my garlands, where I hang ye by this door, nor shake off your leaves in haste, for I have watered you with my tears — rainy are the eyes of lovers. But when the door opens and ye see him, shed my rain on his head, that at least his fair hair may drink my tears. (translated by W. R. Paton)

Another poem by Meleager of Gadara, written roughly 2,100 years ago, contains several elements typical of the motif:

O stars, and Moon, lighting well the way for those disposed to love, and Night, and you, my instrument that accompanies my revels — will I gaze upon my wanton one, still awake on her bed, singed often by her lamp? Or does someone share her bed? I will take off my suppliant garland, douse it with tears, and fix it on her porch, inscribing on it just this: “Cypris, to you Meleager, the initiate in your revels, hung up these spoils of love. (translated by Paton)

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Detail of a heart (15th century): King's MS 322, f. 1r

It is not only male lovers who might be excluded. The ‘Alexandrian Erotic Fragment’ (Papyrus 605 verso) relates the lament of an ‘excluded woman’.  The motif of the ‘abandoned woman’ is well-known in Classical mythology: one thinks immediately of poor Ariadne, deserted by Theseus, or Medea who, left by Jason for another woman, killed her own children to punish him.

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Medea killing her children (c. 1450–1460): Harley MS 1766, f. 33r

The text of this papyrus was copied by Dryton, a cavalry-man, after 10 October 174 BC. His family archive is now dispersed across the world. A small fragment in the Sackler Library, Oxford, supplies a few more words of the second column of the British Library papyrus.

The poem has a complex metrical scheme, although its language is simple. It starts abruptly, with the woman remembering the old promise of love, having Aphrodite as a security (all translations by P. Bing):

Our feelings were mutual, we bound ourselves together. (ll. 1–2)

The tender memories of the past torture her, because her lover has proven to be an ‘inventor of confusion’ (l. 7). An invocation to the stars and night begins her journey to the house:

O beloved starts and lady Night, companions in my desire, take me even now to him. (ll. 11–12)

The trip is lightened not by a torch, but by the fire that enkindles her soul:

My guide is the potent torch that’s ablaze in my soul. (ll. 15–16)

The woman pleads to be admitted in a vortex of feelings, being mad, jealous and ready to submit to her beloved. After all, ‘if you devote yourself to just one, you will just go crazy’ (l. 31), she explains. She has a ‘stubborn temper’ when she gets in a fight (ll. 33–34), yet she now seeks reconciliation. Unfortunately, the second column of the papyrus is fragmentary.

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The ‘Alexandrian Erotic Fragment’: Papyrus 605 verso

Ancient authors had different views on these lovers’ practices. Plato considered that imploring one's beloved and sleeping on doorsteps was a form of slavery (Symposium 183A), whereas Plutarch thought that serenading and decorating the beloved’s threshold with garlands might bring some ‘alleviation that is not without charm or grace’ (De cohibenda ira 455B–C).

We should add a word of warning. Should you plan to serenade your lover, make sure that the right person is listening. In Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazusae, two young lovers exchange love songs. One of them invokes his beloved to open the door, but the person who opens it is not exactly whom the young man was hoping for …

 

Federica Micucci

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