Medieval manuscripts blog

253 posts categorized "Medieval history"

13 January 2021

Over 4,500 manuscripts now online

Long-term readers of our blog may know that we periodically publish lists of our digitised manuscripts, the last of which was published in July 2020. With the arrival of the New Year and the beginning of a new lockdown in the UK, we are releasing an update to our lists of manuscript hyperlinks. We hope this makes it easier for readers and researchers to explore our amazing digitised treasures online.

A detail from a 16th-century grant of arms, showing a portrait of Sir Gilbert Dethick within a letter O.
A historiated initial ‘O’(mnibus) containing a portrait of Sir Gilbert Dethick (b. c. 1510, d. 1584), Officer of Arms of the College of Arms, London: Add MS 89166, f. 1r detail

There are now over 4,500 Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern manuscripts on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts website. Here is a full list of all the items currently available, as of January 2021:

PDF: Full-list-digitised-mss-jan-2021
Excel: Full-list-digitised-mss-jan-2021 (this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers).

The upper cover of the Basikilon Doron, an autograph manuscript of the text with a purple velvet binding.
The velvet binding of the autograph manuscript of the Basilikon Doron, handwritten by King James I: Royal MS 18 B XV, upper cover.

During this period of terrible uncertainty, the Library's Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern team has been busy as ever, working to make more manuscripts available for our readers online. Over the last 6 months alone, we have published over 850 items, from medieval and early modern codices and rolls to Greek papyri and ostraca. All the images featured in this blogpost are from collection items that we have digitised since June 2020. Here is a list of our most recent additions:

PDF: Digitised_mss_july2020_jan_2021
Excel: Digitised_mss_july2020_jan_2021(this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers).

A text page from a 14th-century book of hours, with marginal decoration including a dog with a bone, a hybrid and a coat of arms
A text page from a 14th-century book of hours, with marginal decoration including a dog with a bone, a hybrid and a coat of arms: Harley MS 6563, f. 53v

Over the last months, some 620 Greek papyri have been published online, spanning from the 3rd century BC to the early 8th century. These include pieces of Greek literature, such as the famous ‘Harris Homer Codex’, an 1800-year-old manuscript preserving portions of Homer’s Iliad, as well as hundreds of fascinating documents, such as letters of parents to their children, managers and employees, magical charms and shopping lists. You can view this video for a short introduction to cataloguing the Greek papyri.

Thanks to a collaboration with the Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung of the Staatliche Museen in Berlin, more than 250 inscribed pottery sherds (ostraca) from the 3rd century BC to 3rd century AD are now available online for the first time. A short overview is presented in our previous blogpost on ostraca.

A framed papyrus, featuring the text of Book II of Homer's Iliad.
The first frame of the ‘Harris Homer Codex’, containing Homer’s Iliad, Bk. II, ll. 101-149: Papyrus 126 (1) recto.

In September, we reported on the progress of a major digitisation programme, Heritage Made Digital: Tudor and Stuart manuscripts. This collaborative project, involving teams across the British Library, intends to publish approximately 600 Tudor and Stuart manuscripts online. The selection encompasses original letters by members of the Elizabethan court; literary manuscripts of the works of important Elizabeth and Jacobean poets such as John Donne and Sir Philip Sidney; notes by the alchemist and astronomer John Dee; and collections of state papers that highlight numerous aspects of the political and social history of this period, particularly the relationship between Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. As of the start of this year, over a quarter of these manuscripts have now been published.

A letter from Queen Elizabeth I to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, bearing her signature.
An original letter from Elizabeth I to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, her ambassador in Scotland, concerning the imprisonment of Mary Queen of Scots, dated 27 July 1567: Add MS 88966, f. 1r

Since this summer, two particularly significant manuscripts have been digitised, both of which can be explored in their entirety on the British Library’s new Universal Viewer. The Sherborne Missal, acquired by the British Library in 1998, has been called the ‘unrivalled masterpiece of English book production in the fifteenth century' (Kathleen Scott), with each of its hundreds of pages replete with astonishing illumination. Readers can learn more about the Sherborne Missal in our previous blogpost. The volume was also recently featured on BBC Radio 4’s Moving Pictures programme.

A miniature of the Crucifixion from the Sherborne Missal
The Crucifixion, from the Sherborne Missal: Add MS 74236, p. 380

Meanwhile in November, the British Library acquired and digitised the most important surviving manuscript of the works of Lewis of Caerleon, a highly influential mathematician, theologian and astronomer, who was imprisoned in the Tower of London towards the end of the reign of Richard III (r. 1483-1485). The volume contains the most complete collection of his astronomical and mathematical works, including texts that are unattested elsewhere, as well as its original medieval binding and an unparalleled series of astronomical tables and diagrams. Learn more in our earlier blogpost on the Lewis of Caerleon manuscript.

Astronomical tables and diagrams from the Lewis of Caerleon manuscript
Astronomical tables and diagrams from an autograph manuscript of the works of Lewis of Caerleon: Add MS 89442, pp. 30-31.

Many images of our manuscripts are also available to view and download from our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts which is searchable by keywords, dates, scribes and languages.

A map of China and the southern half of Japan, from an atlas of sea charts made by the Italian cartographer Joan Martines
A map of China and the southern half of Japan, from an atlas of sea charts made by the Italian cartographer Joan Martines: Harley MS 3450, ff. 5v-6r

Enormous thanks to all the members of staff across the Library whose hard work has made these achievements possible despite the difficult circumstances this year.

We wish all our readers a Happy New Year and hope you enjoy exploring our digitised collections!

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

21 December 2020

Great medieval bake off: Christmas edition

In the medieval and early modern periods, people celebrated Christmas with twelve days of extravagant feasting and merriment. Following the success of our Great medieval bake off in September, we’re getting into the spirit of the season by recreating some festive treats using authentic recipes from manuscripts held in the Library.

On your marks, get set, bake!

A scene from a medieval manuscript of people feasting at a table
A medieval feast, France, 1290-1300: Add MS 28162, f. 10v

Ellie’s recipe: a dish of snowe

A recipe for 'a dish of snowe' in an early 17th-century manuscript
Recipe for ‘a dish of snowe’, England, early 17th century: Add MS 28319, f. 17v (detail)

To make a dish of Snowe / Take a potte of sweete thicke creme and the white of eight egges and beate them altogether with a spoone then putte them into your creame with a dish full of Rose Water and a dishfull of Sugar withall then take a sticke and make it cleane and then cutt it in the ende fowre square and therewith beate all the aforesayd thinges together and ever as it ariseth take it of and putte it into a Cullander thys done take a platter and set an aple in the middest of it and sticke a thicke bush of Rosemarye in the apple then cast your snowe upon the rosemarye and fill your platter therewith and if you have wafers cast some withall and thus serve them forth

To make a dish of snow, take a pot of sweet thick cream and the whites of eight eggs and beat them together with a spoon, then put them into your cream with a dishful of rosewater and a dishful of sugar withal. Then take a stick and make it clean and then cut it in the end foursquare and therewith beat all the aforesaid things together and ever as it arises take it off and put it in a colander. This done, take a platter and set an apple in the middle of it and stick a thick bush of rosemary in the apple. Then cast your snow upon the rosemary and fill your platter therewith and if you have wafers cast some withal and thus serve them forth.

Some of the highlights of medieval and early modern feasts were novelty foods made to look like something else for the delight of the diners—the historical equivalents of an illusion bake. This recipe for ‘a dish of snowe’, made to resemble a snowy little tree on a hilltop, is a lovely example of this. This version of the recipe comes from an early 17th-century manuscript, but a similar version also appears in the printed book A proper newe booke of cokerye, which was published in several editions with the earliest dating from 1545. Modern editions of the recipe, which are based on these early printed editions, don’t explain that you should stick the rosemary into the apple, meaning that modern commentators have missed its identity as an illusion dessert. The extra detail provided in the manuscript version allows us to rediscover the original presentation of the dish. 

To make this recipe I mixed together a 300 ml pot of double cream, the whites of 2 eggs (the 8 eggs specified in the recipe would make enough snowe for a considerable feast!), 2 tablespoons of rosewater and 2 tablespoons of caster sugar, then whipped them together with a whisk until they formed a firm foamy consistency (about 15 minutes by hand). I love that this recipe gives you instructions to make your own whisk, but boringly I already had one. I placed a small apple in a bowl, made a hole in it with a skewer, and then stuck a sprig of rosemary into the hole so that it stood upright. With a spoon, I gently spread the snowe over the rosemary leaves and apple and put the rest in the bowl. Not having any wafers to hand, I decorated the dish with some cinnamon thins. The finished product looks more exciting than it tastes, which is pleasantly sweet and creamy but a little bland. I think it would work better as a topping, perhaps on something tart and fruity. But the recipe definitely succeeds in what was probably its main purpose, making an eye-catching winter wonderland of a centrepiece.

A photo of a modern recreation of 'a dish of snowe'
A dish of snowe, photo by Ellie Jackson

Calum’s recipe: gingerbread

A recipe for gingerbread in a 16th/17th-century manuscript
A recipe for gingerbread, England, late 16th-early 17th century: Add MS 46139, f. 48r (detail)

To make ginger breade / ffirste take fayre clarified honye, sinnamon, ginger, and a quantitie of pepper and graynes and a great quantitite of liccoras, anniseede, lett all theis seeth together, till they eate like ginger breade, as the taste pleaseth or offendeth you, so mende the aforesaid amixtures, and when you like yt well put in the breade and stirre yt well together, and worke yt forthwith, as hott as may be suffered

To make gingerbread, first take clarified honey, cinnamon, ginger, and a quantity of pepper and grains, and a large amount of liquorice and aniseed. Let all this sit together, until it tastes like gingerbread, as the taste pleases or offends you. Stir the previously mentioned mixtures, and when you like it well add the breadcrumbs and stir them together well, and then work the mixture, as hot as it can take.

Gingerbread is a common feature of surviving medieval cookbooks (this blog has previously featured a gingerbread recipe from an English cookery book made c. 1430). The example above can be found in an early modern collection of medical, alchemical and cookery recipes, partly written by Alexander Gill the Elder (b. 1565, d. 1635), the High Master of St Paul’s School in London, whose pupils notably included the famous English poet John Milton. Readers might have gathered that Gill’s recipe for gingerbread is unlike the biscuit or cookie we all know and love. In fact, this ‘gingerbread’ is not a biscuit at all. It is more similar to a piece of modern confectionary, a soft shaped sweet like marzipan or nougat, and ginger is only one of a number of spices that can be added to the mix.

For my version, I poured a jar of honey into a pan and brought it to a boil, skimmed the scum that formed on the surface and flavoured it with small amounts of cinnamon, ground ginger, white pepper and aniseed. To this, I added plain white breadcrumbs, incorporating them into the liquid a little at a time until the mixture began to grow firm and stick to the pan. I then turned it out on a parchment sheet, placed another parchment sheet on top and rolled it out thinly. Once the gingerbread had cooled, I cut it into squares. Some variants of this recipe mention that you can dye the gingerbread by adding sandalwood. In this case, I used a modern food colouring and shaped the resulting mixture into balls. The recipe resulted in a sweet, quite sickly treat, which tasted much like the filling in a treacle tart.

A photo of a modern recreation of gingerbread
A plate of gingerbread, based on the recipe in Add MS 46139, photo by Calum Cockburn

Clarck’s recipe: mulled wine

A recipe for mulled wine in a medieval manuscript
A recipe for mulled wine, England, 15th century: Harley MS 2868, f. 4v

Take an unce of gode treacle half an unce of tormentile rotes a sponfull of columbyn sedes vj nutkyrnels bray al þies sam except the treacle to þai be small þan putte iij sponefull of Juse of rewe and ij unce of sugar and medle all wele to gedder and put it into a closebox . and take of þat fastand þe quantite of an hesill nutt with a littill wyne or ayle warmyd

Take an ounce of good treacle, half an ounce of tormentil roots, a spoonful of ‘columbine’ [vervain] seeds, and six nut kernels. Grind all these together (except for the treacle) until they are a powder. Then add three spoonfuls of the juice of rue and two ounces of sugar, mix it well together, and put it in a jar. Then take of that solid matter the size of a hazelnut with a bit of warmed wine or ale.

Mulled or spiced wine was commonly consumed in the Middle Ages, but I was surprised to find a 15th-century Middle English recipe for this popular wintry drink in a Latin prayer book that is part of our ongoing cataloguing project on the Harley collection. An owner of the manuscript wrote the recipe below a prayer to St Giles, probably because they considered both the prayer and the recipe as forms of protection against plague: while the saint was often invoked against the disease, the recipe’s main ingredients (treacle, vervain, and tormentil) were considered highly potent plague remedies. Coincidentally, the saint’s feast day on 1 September also marks the beginning of the cold season—the time of the year which we nowadays associate with mulled wine.

I first simmered an ounce of lemon vervain (‘columbyn’ refers to verbena, not the poisonous columbine aquilegia!), common rue, and tormentil rhizome in a litre of water for half an hour. After sieving the resulting ‘herbal tea’, I added half an ounce of molasses (black treacle), two ounces of sugar, and a handful of finely crushed hazelnuts. I bottled the mixture, let it cool down, and then mixed half of it with 750 ml of warmed-up fruity red wine. The resulting flavour was tasty, but mostly dominated by the treacle. For those who want to try this for themselves, I would recommend adding traditional mulled wine spices such as cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg.

A photo of the ingredients for medicinal mulled wine
Ingredients for a medieval medicinal mulled wine, photo by Clarck Drieshen

We hope that our recipes can inspire your own culinary creations over this holiday season!

Ellie Jackson, Clarck Drieshen and Calum Cockburn
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval


***disclaimer: these recipes were made in the authors' own time and at their own expense. No Library resources were used in the making of these medieval treats! ***

19 December 2020

The medieval Christmas weather forecast

Are you wondering if we'll have a white Christmas? If so, forget about new-fangled weather forecasts: medieval manuscripts at the British Library may hold the answer!

One of these, a collection of Middle English texts compiled by John Colyns (d. c. 1542), a mercer of the parish of St Mary Woolchurch Haw in London, includes a series of weather predictions based on the phases of the Moon. It tells us that the weather is determined by the ‘prime of the Moon’, the day of the month on which you can see the first appearance of the ‘New Moon’ (when the Moon is invisible to the naked eye).

A snowy winter scene, including a man chopping wood for a woman to gather, and a domestic interior with a man, woman, and a baby, with, in the border below, men pulling a companion on a sledge.

A snowy winter scene (Bruges, c. 1540): Add MS 24098, f. 18v

The manuscript compiled by John Colyns, Harley MS 2252, gives us the following predictions:

Sunday: When the prime falls on a Sunday, in that Moon you shall have drought.
Monday: When the prime falls on a Monday, in that Moon you shall have wetness.
Tuesday: When the prime falls on a Tuesday, it means wind and coldness.
Wednesday: When the prime falls on Wednesday, you shall hear marvellously in that Moon.
Thursday: When the prime falls on a Thursday, it means a bright Moon.
Friday: When the prime falls on a Friday, you will have a moderate Moon.
Saturday: When the prime falls on a Saturday, you will have plenty of rain.

('Sonday: When the prime fallythe uppon Sonday in þat mone ye shall have drowghte
Monday: When the prime fallyth on the Monday in þat mone ye shall have moyste
Tuysday: When the prime fallyth on Tuysday hyt betokenythe wynde and colde.
Wenysday: When þe prime fallythe on Wednysday ye shall here marvelous in that mone
Thursday: When the prime fallythe on Thursday hyt betokenyt a clere mone
Fryday: When the prime fallythe on Frydaye ye shall have a mean mone
Saturday: When the prime fallythe on Saturday ye shall have plenty of rayne')

A set of weather predictions in John Colyns commonplace book, organised according to the days of the week (Sunday to Saturday), written in brown ink.

Weather predictions in John Colyns’ commonplace book (England, c. 1520c. 1540): Harley MS 2252, f. 159v

Since the New Moon fell this month on Monday, 14 December, this means that Christmas this year is bound to be wet! You heard it here first!

A wintry scene with a man and a woman seated in front of a fire and sheltering from the snow to the left, and in the foreground, a woman walking her dog and warming her hands with her breath.

A wintry scene in the margins of a calendar page for the month of January (Bruges, c. 1500): Egerton MS 1147, f. 6v

Wherever you are, there is a good chance of snow as well. Middle English weather predictions in a 15th-century medical manuscript (Add MS 4898) tell us that if 1 January falls on a Wednesday, which was the case this year, winter shall be ‘cold, hard and good, and [see] great snowfalls versus ferocious winds’ (‘Ȝyf þe ferste day of genever be wednysday . wynter schal be coold hard and good and grete snowys ver wykkyd wyndy’).

Weather predictions for a year in which 1 January falls on a Wednesday, written in black ink, and starting with a large blue initial that features penwork and pen-flourishing in red ink.

Weather predictions for a year in which 1 January falls on a Wednesday (England, 15th century): Add MS 4898, f. 130r

Although we might see wind and snow, the weather will not be too harsh. This is indicated by an English farmer’s almanac (Add MS 17367) that dates to the 1530s, as Dr Eleanor Jackson (Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts at the British Library) has determined. She points out that the almanac features weather predictions that are based on a year’s ‘Sunday letter’ or ‘dominical letter’. This refers to a method in which the letters 'A' to 'G' are assigned to the days of the week in an alphabetical order, with the letter 'A' always starting on 1 January. The year is then associated with the letter that corresponds with its first Sunday. In 2020, the first Sunday was on 5 January, which means that we live in an ‘E’ year. Our almanac’s weather predictions for such years are mostly illegible, but seem to predict ‘A good [winter]’.

An English almanac with predictions according to the Sunday letter of a year. The Sunday letters are written in red ink on the left side of the page.

Weather predictions in an English farmer’s almanac (England, 1530s): Add MS 17367

If we do get snow, the weather may be similar to a Christmas period sometime in the 15th century. An English almanac from 1420 (Royal MS 17 A XVI) features a weather report for the Twelve Days of Christmas that says, ‘last Christmas was of three conditions: rain in the morning, fair weather at ten and eleven, and dark and overcast weather in the afternoon’ (‘Crystynmes day laste past was off iij condycions in þe mornyng rayn at x and xj fayr weddur at aftur none dark and lowring’). During the next Twelve Days of Christmas, mist and clouds alternated with bright weather. However, on 30 December, ‘it began to snow and it snowed until the night’ (‘yt be gan to snaw and snew to nyght’). This weather returned on New Year’s Day when ‘it snowed until 10 in the morning and at noon it began again and it snowed all day until it was night’ (‘att þe mornyng yt snew to x of þe cloke and at xij yt be began agayn and snew all þe day to yt was nyght’).

A weather report for the Twelve Days of Christmas written in brown ink.

A weather report for the Twelve Days of Christmas (England, 1420): Royal MS 17 A XVI, f. 1v

But if snow fails to appear, the Christmas period may be more like a Twelvetide in 16th-century England. A weather report from that period, which was added to a 12th-century biblical manuscript from the Benedictine abbey of St Mary and St Rumon at Tavistock in Devon (Add MS 62122), tells us, ‘Christmas was fair and dry without any sunshine’ (‘Chrystynmas was fayre and drye with owt enye sunne shynyng’). The next days were mostly dry, but ‘New Year’s Day was full of rain all day long’ (‘new yeres day was full of rayne all daye lange’).

A weather report for the Twelve Days of Christmas written in brown ink.

A weather report for the Twelve Days of Christmas (England, 16th century): Add MS 62122, f. 2v

Just in case you question the authority of our sources — the practice of weather forecasting was well established in the Middle Ages, and supported by Classical sources such as the Meteorologica (Meteorology) of the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BC), whose works on natural philosophy were well-known in late medieval Europe.

A seated philosopher pointing up to a cloud above from which snowflakes fall down and from which emerges an animal’s head with a fiery breath, probably representing lightning.

An initial in Aristotle’s Libri Naturales (Books on Natural Philosophy) with a philosopher pointing up to lightning and snow coming from a cloud above (?Oxford, 3rd quarter of the 13th century): Harley MS 3487, f. 140v

We trust that our 'reliable' weather predictions will help you prepare for the Christmas period. You can explore the weather predictions of John Colyns and related writings in the fully digitised version of his commonplace book (Harley MS 2252) that is now available on our Digitised Manuscripts website. It is part of our Heritage Made Digital: Tudor and Stuart manuscripts project, and it's also one of the 3,000 manuscripts from the Harley collection that we have now described online.


Clarck Drieshen
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

11 December 2020

New Prophecies of the Ancient Sibyls

The British Library's major project to provide online catalogue records of manuscripts in the Harley collection has made significant progress in 2020. We have now enhanced the descriptions of some 3,000 Harley manuscripts, and more are being added every month to our Archives & Manuscripts Catalogue. Along the way, we are continuing to make new identifications and to unearth hitherto unknown texts. In this blogpost, Clarck Drieshen describes the recent discovery of a 14th-century Latin manuscript from France (Harley MS 3723) that contains previously unknown copies of the universal chronicle of the French Dominican friar Gerald of Frachet (1205–1271) (a history of the world from the Creation up to his own time) and a text on the ancient female oracles known as The Prophecy of the Tenth Sibyl.

The beginning of the Prophecy of the Tenth Sibyl in Harley MS 3723, with a large red initial ‘D’

The Prophecy of the Tenth Sibyl (France, 2nd half of the 14th century): Harley MS 3723, f. 123r

The Prophecy of the Tenth Sibyl tells of ten female oracles, known as Sibyls, who prophesied from sacred locations in regions around the Mediterranean Sea. Except for reporting that the Sibyls at Delphi and Erythraea had predicted the Trojan War, this work has little to say about the first nine oracles. As its modern title suggests, the focus is on the tenth Sibyl, named Tibultina in Greek and Albunea in Latin. She was also known as the 'Tiburtine Sibyl', after Tibur (modern-day Tivoli in Italy), from where she was believed to have made her prophecies. The work identifies her as the daughter of Priam and Hecuba, the legendary last king and queen of Troy, making her the sister of the Trojan princes Hector and Paris and the cursed prophet Cassandra.

Twelve women with dresses in different colours sitting on a circular bench with a golden pillar in the middle. The women, who represent the Sibyls, prophesise the birth of Christ.

Twelve Sibyls prophesising the birth of Christ (Bruges, c. 1497): Add MS 18851, f. 8v

In the Middle Ages, the Tiburtine Sibyl was known especially for predicting the birth of Christ. One legend told that she showed Emperor Augustus (r. 27 BC–14 CE) a vision of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child, which stopped him from declaring himself divine.

The Roman Emperor Augustus in a grey gown kneeling down and with his crown beside him with the Sibyl Tiburtina in a red dress standing behind him and showing him a vision of the Virgin Mary with Christ (who are visible elsewhere on the page).

The Tiburtine Sibyl with the Emperor Augustus (Northern Netherlands, 1486): Harley MS 2943, f. 11r

In The Prophecy of the Tenth Sibyl, a Roman emperor summons her after one hundred senators had experienced the same dream on the same night. In this dream, nine different suns had appeared in the sky. Asked to interpret the dream, the Tiburtine Sibyl explained that the suns represented nine future eras. She prophesied that one sun, which the senators described as having a blood-red colour, signified an era in which a virgin named Mary would bear a child named Jesus, the son of God. She also foretold that the last sun to appear in the dream, which had been very gloomy, represented the end time in which the son of God would return for a final judgement over humankind.

The Sibyl Tiburtina depicted as a woman with a white veil and a blue mantle unfurling a scroll.

The Tiburtine Sibyl (Catalonia, 1273): Add MS 50003, f. 221r

The Prophecy of the Tenth Sibyl concludes with a poem about the end of the world that contains a ‘hidden’ reference to the birth of Christ and his return at the world's end. In the original Greek version of the poem, reading the first letter of each line downwards spells out the words: ‘Iesous Chreistos Theou Uios Soter’ (‘Jesus Christ the Son of God, the Saviour’). The Latin translator tried to preserve this vertical text (acrostic), but was not always able to find a meaningful Latin word starting with the required letter.

Tiburtina’s poem on the end of the world, with the initials of each new line highlighted in red and forming an acrostic text in Greek about Christ.

The Tiburtine Sibyl's poem on the end of the world (France, 2nd half of the 14th century): Harley MS 3723, f. 126v

Although we now know that The Prophecy of the Tenth Sibyl originated from a Greek text composed by a 4th-century Christian writer, that in turn was translated into Latin and expanded around the year 1000, medieval authors believed that the Tiburtine Sibyl's prophecies were authentic, and they considered her an important witness to the truth of the Gospels. Her prophecies were circulated widely and today survive in over 100 manuscripts. You can read more about the manuscript tradition in Anke Holdenried, The Sibyl and Her Scribes: Manuscripts and Interpretation of the Latin Sibylla Tiburtina c. 1050-1500 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006).

Another copy of The Prophecy of the Tenth Sibyl, opening with a large purple initial ‘S’ with decoration in blue, green, purple, and red inside the letter

The Prophecy of the Tenth Sibyl (? Canterbury, 1st quarter of the 12th century): Cotton MS Vespasian B XXV, f. 117v

The 13th-century Dominican friar Gerald of Frachet would undoubtedly have been interested in the Tiburtine Sibyl's predictions about Christ, but probably also in her prophecies about the kings involved with the events leading up to the end time. Since she referred to these important kings only by their first initials, medieval authors were able to identify rulers living in their own times with these prophesied kings. Gerald himself felt a strong allegiance to Charles of Anjou (1226/1227–1285), the youngest son of Louis VIII of France and founder of the Capetian House of Anjou. In his universal chronicle, he stressed that Charles was a descendant of Charlemagne (748–814), King of the Franks and Emperor of the Romans, and compared his victory over Manfred, King of Sicily, in 1266 to Charlemagne’s victory over the Lombards. The Tenth Prophecy of the Sibyl predicted a powerful Frankish king whose name began with the letter ‘K’ and was clearly identifiable with Charlemagne (‘Karolus Magnus’). By adding her prophecies to his chronicle, Gerald may have wanted to emphasise Charles of Anjou’s ancestry and attribute an important role to him — a new Charlemagne — on the world stage. You can read more about the relationship between the chronicle and the prophecies in Régis Rech, ‘Charles d'Anjou et le Limousin: la conquête du royaume de Naples chez Hélie Autenc et Géraud de Frachet’, Bibliothèque de l'Ecole des Chartes, 158 (2000), 443-73.

The pope crowns Charles of Anjou, who sits in the middle, wears a blue cloak and holds two gold-coloured sceptres with a fleur-de-lis.

Charles of Anjou is crowned King of Sicily (Paris, 1332–1350): Royal MS 16 G VI, f. 429v

Harley MS 3723 is an important witness to Gerald of Frachet’s work. Of the roughly 25 manuscripts of his universal chronicle known previously to scholars, only three others contain the The Tenth Prophecy of the Sibyl. This arrangement of texts may also have been part of the manuscript that Gerald is thought to have presented to Charles of Anjou. Harley MS 3723 is also the only copy of Gerald’s work that reached England in the Late Middle Ages. Although English readers may have been less keen to identify the kings in the Tiburtine Sibyl's prophecies with French rulers, her predictions about disease and warfare may have strongly resonated with their experiences of the bubonic plague and Hundred Years War.

Containing more than 7500 manuscripts, the Harley collection is one of the largest intact 18th-century libraries in the world. Watch this Blog for more news about our discoveries as we continue to catalogue the Harley collection.  

 

Clarck Drieshen

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

25 November 2020

900 years since the White Ship disaster

900 years ago today a tragedy took place which would dramatically alter the course of British history. On the evening of the 25th November 1120, a recently renovated ship of the finest construction set sail from the port of Barfleur on the Normandy coast. The White Ship, as it was named, had on board around 300 people, including an a-list of English nobles and the only legitimate son of King Henry I of England, the 17-year-old William Adelin. But when the sun rose the next day, the fishermen of Barfleur found that only a few pieces of floating wreckage and one clinging survivor were all that remained of the White Ship.

A page from a manuscript of Peter of Langtoft's Chronicle, showing an illustration of a grief-stricken King Henry I and the White Ship.
Illustration of King Henry I and the White Ship from Peter of Langtoft’s Chronicle: Royal MS 20 A II, f. 6v

What happened?

There are many accounts of the sinking of the White Ship, many of them written long after the event. One of the earliest and most detailed accounts is in William of Malmesbury’s History of the English Kings, the first surviving version of which is thought to have been written around 1126. William of Malmesbury paints a vivid picture of the young prince, showered with every privilege, the great hope for the kingdom’s future, who was tragically cut off before his prime.

A detail from a manuscript of William of Malmesbury's Deeds of the English Kings, showing an account of the White Ship disaster.
Account of the White Ship disaster by William of Malmesbury in Gesta regum Anglorum, Cotton MS Claudius C IX, f. 98r

William of Malmesbury tells how Henry I and his followers were returning from a trip to France, during which William Adelin paid homage to King Louis VI of France and was made Duke of Normandy. King Henry’s ship departed first and reached England safely. But William Adelin, with ‘almost all the young nobility flocking around him’, led a second vessel, the White Ship. The young nobles, left to their own devices, started drinking and partying. The sailors also joined the fun, and after a few drinks too many they started boasting that they would overtake the king’s ship. When the White Ship launched after dark, the crew rowed as fast as they could, ‘swifter than an arrow’, straight into a rock offshore.

A detail from a medieval manuscript, showing an illustration of the White Ship.
Detail of the White Ship, Cotton MS Claudius D II, f. 45v.

The White Ship instantly began to sink. In a bid to save the prince, the crew launched a small boat and set William Adelin inside it. He would have escaped had he not heard the cries of his half-sister, Matilda, countess of Perche, still on board the sinking vessel. William ordered the oarsmen to go back for her, at which the small boat was overwhelmed by frightened people trying to clamber aboard and sank as well. The only survivor, a ‘rustic’, managed to cling to the floating mast all night.

A significant proportion of the English royal household and aristocracy died that night, and most of the bodies were never recovered. As William of Malmesbury famously summed it up, 'no ship ever brought England so much misery'.

Other accounts provide additional details. Most notably, Orderic Vitalis, writing around 20 years after the event, reported that priests had tried to bless the travellers before they set sail, but the rowdy company had laughed and driven them away. He adds that a number of people, including Stephen of Blois, were due to board the White Ship but decided against it when they saw the state of inebriation of them all. The sole survivor was identified by Orderic as a butcher from Rouen named Berold, who lived for a further 20 years. He also described how the captain of the ship, Thomas Fitzstephen, deliberately allowed himself to drown to avoid facing King Henry’s anger. Apparently, no one dared tell the king the news and, when he finally learned of it from a boy, his grief was immense.

A detail from a manuscript of Peter of Langtoft's Chronicle, showing an illustration of King Henry I wringing his hands in grief at the death of his son.
Detail of King Henry I wringing his hands in grief, from Peter of Langtoft’s Chronicle: Royal MS 20 A II, f. 6v

Was it murder?

The sinking of the White Ship has been the focus of several conspiracy theories. The idea that the ship was deliberately sabotaged was suggested by the novelist Ken Follett in Pillars of the Earth (1989), and by the scholar Victoria Chandler in her article ‘The Wreck of the White Ship: A Mass Murder Revealed?’ (1998).

None of the medieval sources imply that there was anything suspicious about the disaster. It’s difficult to imagine that such an act of mass murder could have been committed without raising any suspicions at the time, and any intrigue would almost certainly have been reported by the chroniclers. It’s also questionable how the ship could have been effectively sabotaged without the saboteurs themselves dying, and who stood to clearly gain from the disaster.

A medieval manuscript page with an illustration of Henry I and the White Ship
Henry I and the White Ship, Cotton MS Claudius D II, f. 45v.

What were the consequences?

While the sinking of the White Ship was a personal tragedy for those involved, it was also a political disaster which caused a succession crisis and civil war in England, a period known as the Anarchy. The death of William Adelin on the White Ship left King Henry I without a legitimate male heir. Although he remarried soon afterwards, Henry was unable to have any more children. As a result, he declared his daughter, Matilda, as his heir. But on Henry’s death in 1135, his nephew Stephen of Blois seized power. Matilda fought back, and period of long and devastating civil war ensued. Peace was only achieved in 1153, when Stephen agreed to recognise Matilda’s son as his heir, the future King Henry II.

A detail from a genealogical roll, with roundels featuring portraits of King Henry I, Queen Matilda, their children William Adelin and Matilda, their nephew Stephen and Henry II.
Detail of the royal family tree from Henry I to Henry II, showing King Henry I, his wife Matilda of Scotland, their children William Adelin and Matilda, Henry’s nephew Stephen, and Matilda’s son, Henry II, from a Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings: Royal MS 14 B V, Membrane 5 (image 'f. 5r')

Ultimately, the White Ship disaster is a reminder of how one tragic event could change the course of history. On the 900th anniversary of the event, spare a thought for the victims of the disaster, both the people who died on the ship and the many thousands who suffered in the civil war that followed.

Eleanor Jackson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

23 November 2020

The Polonsky project's two year anniversary

Today is the two year anniversary of our launch of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700–1200, in which we collaborated with the Bibliothèque nationale to digitise and make available 800 medieval French and English manuscripts from our two collections.

We have two websites: one, hosted by the Bibliothèque nationale, in which you can view all 800 manuscripts in an International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) viewer, and a curated website hosted by the British Library on which you can read articles, view individual manuscript descriptions and watch videos and animations. Both are bilingual, in English and French.

A phoenix rising from the flames
A phoenix rising from the flames: Harley MS 4751

We recently participated in an online seminar sponsored by the Consortium of European Research Libraries (CERL) that celebrated five digitisation projects sponsored by the Polonsky Foundation, some completed and others ongoing. The seminar was oversubscribed, so the presentations were recorded and may be watched here:

(Note: videos of the six presentations will automatically play in sequence, one after the other. Alternatively, you can click the 'playlist' button near the top right to select individual videos to play).

The Medieval England and France, 700-1200 website has been very well received, with over 150,000 individual users from all over the world. The majority of those are from the UK and the US, but there are thousands of viewers from France, Canada, Australia, Italy, Brazil, the Philippines, Spain and Italy making up the top ten countries by use.

So far, the most popular article is on how to make a medieval manuscript, in which you can watch seven videos on different aspects of manuscript production, such as parchment preparation, ink, pigments and applying gold leaf. Viewers spend an average of eleven minutes on this article. Other popular articles are featured in the Science and Nature theme, including those on mathematics, medicine, bestiaries and calendars. Articles discussing the use of Latin, Anglo-Norman French and Old English are also popular.

If you haven’t yet checked it out, or if you are amongst the 30% returning users, do explore the website. You may be interested in watching Professor Nick Vincent discussing law-making in early medieval England or Professor Julia Crick discussing manuscript production after the Norman Conquest. Or perhaps you'll enjoy the animated features on the whale and the crane from the bestiary. The project book has just been reprinted, too, if you would like to buy a copy.

You can read about the work of the Polonsky Foundation on their newly launched website, including about the England and France project.

Kathleen Doyle

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

The Polonsky Foundation logo

15 November 2020

Parchment in prison: imprisoned medieval writers

In 1484, Lewis of Caerleon (d. in or after 1495), a Welsh physician who served Lady Margaret Beaufort and her son (the future King Henry VII), was arrested at the order of King Richard III for his loyalty to the Tudors. Despite being incarcerated at the Tower of London, Lewis obtained writing materials and employed his scientific knowledge to compose several innovative astronomical works. In a newly-acquired collected volume of his scientific works that was finished in the decade after he was released and may have been written under his close supervision (Add MS 89442), Lewis states that he produced some of his astronomical tables — containing calculations for lunar eclipses and solar times — during his incarceration. Lewis is one of several medieval authors who composed original works in prison. On the Day of the Imprisoned Writer, we explore some of their most famous works.

An astronomical table with Arabic numerals in brown and red ink and an inscription above that notes that Lewis of Caerleon composed it at the Tower of London

Lewis of Caerleon’s table on solar times ‘newly made in the year of Our Lord 1484 in the Tower of London’ (London or Cambridge, 1485–c. 1495): Add MS 89442, f. 121r

Boethius (c. 480–524), a Roman statesman who had fallen out of grace with the Ostrogoth king Theodoric the Great, is famously known for writing The Consolation of Philosophy — a philosophical work touching on the subjects of free will, happiness, fate and fortune — while awaiting his trail and execution. His work presents a dream-vision in which Lady Philosophy consoles him by highlighting that wealth and power are merely transitory and only internal virtues and qualities can withstand the vicissitudes of fortune. As its central message corresponded with Christian ideas, Boethius’s work became one of the most influential and widely-read books of the Middle Ages.

Boethius, a bearded man lying in bed on the left, is visited by Lady Philosophy, a woman with a red cloak and wearing a crown. She points to a blind-folded woman inside a wheel, representing the Wheel of Fortune.

Boethius visited by Lady Philosophy (Northern France, c. 1425–1475): Add MS 10341, f. 31v

Undoubtedly inspired by Boethius, Thomas Usk (d. 1388), a scrivener and legal clerk of London, wrote his own dream-vision while he was imprisoned and awaiting execution for purported treason. His poem, known as The Testament of Love, sees him visited by Lady Love who, much like Lady Philosophy, discusses the transitory nature of worldly bliss and the superiority of true inner happiness, offering consolation to the author in his state of despair. No manuscript copies of his poem survive, but it gained a wide readership after William Thynne included it in the collected works of Geoffrey Chaucer, late medieval England’s most renowned poet, that he first published in 1532.

The opening of Thomas Usk’s Testament of Love, printed in black ink in 1598.

The Testament of Love in Thomas Speght’s publication the complete works of Geoffrey Chaucer (London, 1598): Add MS 42518, f. 317v

In 1534, Thomas More (1478–1535), former Lord Chancellor of England, followed Boethius’s example after King Henry VIII had imprisoned him at the Tower of London for refusing to swear the Oath of Supremacy, acknowledging Henry as head of the English Church. Apprehending a painful death, More wrote A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation. The book offers consolation to those fearing physical torment: it argues that death by torture is no worse than a natural death and that one can entirely forget about one’s own physical pain by contemplating the suffering that Christ endured for mankind. After his execution, More’s book circulated in manuscript form before becoming widely available in printed publications of his collected works.

The opening of Thomas More’s A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation, written in black ink, beginning: ‘A dialogue of comfort against tribulation made by a Hungarian in Latin and translated out of Latin into French and out of French into English’.

Thomas More’s A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation (England, c. 1550): Harley MS 1634, f. 1r

But imprisoned authors did not only write ‘books of consolation’. After he was captured at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, Charles, Duke of Orléans (1394–1465), produced some of the most elegant medieval love poetry during his 25 year-long captivity in England. He is best known for his ‘Book of Love’, a sequence of lyrics presented within the narrative framework of two dreams in which an imprisoned lover pursues Lady Beauty at the court of the love of God; after she dies during his absence, he renounces love before wooing a second lady. The ‘Book of Love’ survives in both French and English versions. The latter, extant in Harley MS 682, contains more than 6500 lines of verse, and may have been composed by Charles himself, since he spoke English fluently.

A poem by Charles of Orléans written in brown ink in a Gothic cursive script

An English poem by Charles of Orléans, beginning ‘As for farewell farewell farewell farewell / And of farewell more than a thousand score’ (England, 1439–1440): Harley MS 682, f. 147r

The Italian romance writer Rustichello da Pisa (fl. late 13th century) also employed his literary skills when he found himself locked up with the Venetian merchant Marco Polo (1254–1354) at Genoa, then at war with the city-state of Venice. In their prison cell, he penned down the marvellous stories that Polo recounted about how he, together with his father and uncle, had followed the Silk Road deep into Asia to meet Kublai Khan, ruler of the Mongol Empire, serving as his emissary to China for fifteen years before returning to Italy. Although the veracity of Polo’s account is debated, it provided the most detailed and accurate description of Asia that was available at the time. Spiced with marvellous elements, The Travels of Marco Polo became a medieval bestseller and survives in scores of manuscripts today.

Three scenes from the Travels of Marco Polo, showing two men before a king (upper left panel) and kneeling before a pope (upper right panel), and undertaking a journey in a boat (lower panel).

The Travels of Marco Polo (Paris, 1333–c. 1340): Royal MS 19 D I, f. 58r

John of Rupescissa (c. 1310–1366x70), a Franciscan friar from Aurillac worked in entirely different genres. Spending much of his life in prison, Rupescissa believed that the many hardships that he had endured there — he contracted the plague and was nearly killed by a fellow prisoner — had prepared him to receive supernatural insights about the world. In a visionary dream, he believed to have seen an infant Antichrist who had been recently born and would soon herald the end of times. He also believed that mankind could protect itself from the upcoming apocalyptic disasters and defeat Antichrist by harnessing the divine powers hidden inside nature through the art of alchemy. This prompted him to write both books about prophecies and ‘alchemical medicine’, such as the Liber de consideratione quintae essentiae omnium rerum (Book on the Consideration of the Quintessence of All Things). Although the papal court at Avignon had declared him mad, his reputation as a prophet helped his works gain wide circulation during the later Middle Ages. You can read more about him in Leah DeVun's Prophecy, Alchemy, and the End of Time: John of Rupecissa in the Late Middle Ages (New York, 2009).

A Middle English translation of Rupescissa’s book on Quintessence, written in black ink, beginning: ‘The first boke of the consideration of quintessence of all things’

A Middle English translation of Rupescissa’s book on Quintessence (England, 15th century): Sloane MS 353, f. 2r

The works of the medieval authors discussed here were in most cases deeply informed by their experiences of imprisonment. To some degree, this influenced their popularity. Their insights gained and expressed in extreme hardship gave them a credibility and authority that few other authors could claim in speaking about the nature of the world and the human condition.

 

Clarck Drieshen

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

09 November 2020

Lewis of Caerleon manuscript saved for the nation

In August 1485, as the Battle of Bosworth raged and King Richard III was toppled from the throne of England, an astronomer lay imprisoned at the Tower of London. Lewis of Caerleon, the personal physician to Elizabeth Woodville (wife of King Edward IV) and Lady Margaret Beaufort (mother of King Henry VII), had incurred Richard's wrath by his loyalty to the Tudor cause. Lewis owed his life ultimately to Henry's victory at Bosworth, enabling him to continue his study of eclipses, equinoxes and other astronomical observations.

The opening page of the Lewis of Caerleon manuscript

The opening page of the manuscript: Add MS 89442, p. 1

Following the intervention of the Culture Secretary, on the recommendation of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest, the most significant manuscript of the works of Lewis of Caerleon has recently been acquired by the British Library. Made in the 1480s–90s, and possibly begun while Lewis was held at the Tower, this manuscript has been in private hands for the last 500 years. It contains the most complete collection of his works, including texts that are unattested elsewhere, and is a lavish presentation copy, presumably designed as a gift for an important patron or institution. The manuscript retains its original binding, in near-pristine condition, and contains an unparalleled series of astronomical tables. Its acquisition will allow scholars of medieval astronomy and science — many of whose predecessors were unaware of the manuscript's existence — to identify Lewis's sources, to verify his calculations, and to gain new insight into the significance of his research.

The binding of the Lewis of Caerleon manuscript

The contemporary, blind-stamped binding of the manuscript: Add MS 89442

Lewis of Caerleon (d. in or after 1495) was born in Wales, before studying medicine at the University of Cambridge and possibly also at Oxford. It has long been recognised that he bridged the gap between medieval Oxford astronomers, such as Simon Bredon (d. 1372) and Richard Wallingford (d. 1336), both fellows of Merton College, and his early modern English successors. It is equally notable that Lewis of Caerleon drew upon the work of Arabic astronomers such as Al-Battānī (d. 929), Jabir ibn Aflah (d. c. 1160), and Abū Ishāq Ibrāhīm al-Zarqālī (d. 1087), all of whom are named in this compilation (‘Albategni’, ‘Geber’, ‘Arzachel’). But Lewis did not merely copy the works of previous astronomers, since he actively improved and expanded upon their observations using his own calculations.

An astronomical table begun by Lewis of Caerleon in the Tower of London

An astronomical table attributed to Lewis of Caerleon, entitled: ‘Tabula equacionis dierum in motu et in tempore per me Lodowycum Caerlyon noviter facta anno domino .1485. in turre Londoniarum’: Add MS 89442, p. 121

Now that this manuscript is publicly accessible online, we anticipate that more will be discovered about the circumstances of its manufacture and its early ownership. There are indications that it was made under Lewis's own supervision, since there are numerous self-references (‘per me Lodowycum’) and annotations throughout the manuscript, while his signature (‘Lewys’) is found in many places. The first recorded owner was the historian and antiquary Sir Henry Spelman (d. 1641), who bought the manuscript on 11 April 1606. It then passed by descent through his family, until being listed as lot 3 in the sale catalogue of Spelman's library by the London bookseller John Harding, auctioned on 28 November 1709. Our manuscript next appears in the sale of the library of Walter Clavell (d. by 1740), before ending up in the library of the Earls of Macclesfield at Shirburn Castle, Oxfordshire. There it remained until the manuscripts of the 9th Earl of Macclesfield were auctioned, with some exceptions including the present volume, at Sotheby’s, London, in 2004–05.

An astronomical diagram and text by Lewis of Caerleon

One of astronomical diagrams in the manuscript: Add MS 89442, p. 31

More recently, after leaving the Macclesfield collection, this manuscript had been sold to an overseas purchaser. After the Culture Secretary's intervention, its export was deferred temporarily to allow a UK-based institution to raise the matching funds to buy it. This was especially challenging due to the difficult circumstances brought about by Covid-19, but the British Library was finally able to raise the funds to purchase this manuscript in August 2020. We are extremely grateful to the following for generously supporting the acquisition of this manuscript: the Shaw Fund, the T. S. Blakeney Fund, the Bernard H. Breslauer Fund of the American Trust for the British Library, the British Library Collections Trust, the Friends of the National Libraries, and those who wish to remain anonymous.

An eclipse table

An eclipse table attributed to Richard Wallingford and expanded by Lewis of Caerleon: Add MS 89442, p. 65

The newly-acquired manuscript of the works of Lewis of Caerleon has been assigned the shelfmark Add MS 89442. It can be viewed in its entirety on the Library's Universal Viewer, and in due course (once Covid restrictions are lifted) it can be consulted by researchers in our Manuscripts Reading Room. By acquiring the manuscript for the nation, the British Library hopes to encourage more research into the writings of this important medieval astronomer and physician, his relationship to the royal court, and his influence upon later scientists. This manuscript is a remarkable witness to the work of Lewis of Caerleon, and we are delighted that it will now be available for study by future generations.

 

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Medieval manuscripts blog recent posts

Archives

Tags

Other British Library blogs