30 July 2022
Begun by William the Conqueror in the late 11th century, the Tower of London became the premier royal castle of medieval England. Besieged many times, the Tower was also home to elaborate royal apartments built by Edward I, while in the Tudor period many famous prisoners passed through its infamous Traitor’s Gate, including Anne Boleyn and the future Elizabeth I. But did you know that the British Library holds the earliest detailed image of this imposing fortress, extravagant palace, and notorious prison, dating from the 1400s?
The oldest realistic view of the Tower of London, dating from the 1480s: Royal MS 16 F II, f. 73r
The very first surviving image of the Tower can be seen below. It is a drawing of London made around 1252 by Matthew Paris, monk and chronicler of St Albans Abbey. Part of an illustrated itinerary of the journey from London to Jerusalem, Paris’s drawing of the Tower shows the castle’s central keep, called the White Tower, as well as an outer wall, but very little other detail. We cannot see any of the fortress’s many other towers, and the castle is also placed on the wrong side of the river. It was not for over two centuries later that a French artist would create the first detailed image of the Tower.
London in the 1250s, as drawn by Matthew Paris. The Tower is in the top left quarter: Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 2r
The miniature below is from a collection of poems by Charles, duke of Orléans (1394–1465). The manuscript was created around 1483, the year Edward V and Richard, duke of York, the famous Princes in the Tower, were imprisoned there and soon disappeared, probably murdered on the orders of their uncle, King Richard III. Duke Charles had been captured by Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, and he was then imprisoned at the Tower where he wrote many of his poems until his release in 1440. The image shows four simultaneous scenes, (1) of Charles writing poetry, (2) gazing out of a window in the White Tower, (3) greeting a man outside the White Tower, and (4) riding towards the castle gate and freedom. Although the illustrator used some artistic licence to stretch the castle’s outer wall, as a result of depicting several simultaneous scenes in different parts of the castle, we can still identify many of the locations shown here.
The Tower of London, where Charles, duke of Orléans, was imprisoned: Royal MS 16 F II, f. 73r
At the centre of the image we can see the St Thomas Tower, built under Edward I, and the infamous Traitor’s Gate beneath it. This was the private water-gate of the king, leading to the royal bedchamber in the tower above. In front of the gate is the wharf that runs along the Thames outside the castle. Behind the St Thomas Tower are the battlements of the Wakefield Tower, which contained the royal apartments of Henry III.
To the right of the St Thomas Tower we can see the brown roof of the great hall, no longer standing. Next to it, just on the edge of the frame, is the Lanthorn Tower. Originally the queen’s lodgings, this was later used by Edward II, rather than the king’s apartments in the St Thomas Tower, which were then used by one of his favourites. Beyond these, we can see the rounded Bell Tower, a wall along the entrance to Mint Street, and finally the Byward Tower, which Charles and his entourage are passing through to leave the Tower. Behind the castle we can see the city of London with London Bridge and its drawbridge. However, none of the various spires in the distance beyond the bridge can be linked to one of the city’s many medieval churches. Between the Tower and the bridge is the old medieval custom house and the edge of Tower Hill.
The artistic style suggests that the illustrator was Dutch. The detail in their depiction of the Tower and the city suggests that they either used another illustration of the Tower as a model, or they may have even been resident in London, using first-hand knowledge to depict the city and its castle. This would explain how their depiction of the Tower can be so accurate in its detail, such as the White Tower’s three square and one round turrets being correctly positioned as if one was indeed viewing the castle from the south bank of the river.
The White Tower of the Tower of London: image from Wikimedia
For more about early images of London, see our blogpost on London in medieval manuscripts, and to read more about Charles D'Orléans manuscripts at the British Library, see our blogpost Charles d'Orléans, earliest known Valentine? You can also read about one of the Tower’s more unusual residents, Henry III's elephant.
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14 July 2022
One of the questions that we consider in our current Gold exhibition is ‘where did the gold come from?’ In medieval Europe, natural deposits of gold were limited so most gold had to be either recycled by melting down older objects or imported by long-distance trade. From the 8th to 16th centuries, the kingdoms of West Africa were major suppliers and traders of gold, which was carried by camel caravans across the Sahara Desert to North Africa. From there, the gold travelled with merchants into the Middle East and Europe. Some of it ended up illuminating manuscripts thousands of miles away.
Medieval Europeans had little reliable information about West Africa, but they did know that it was an abundant source of gold. One account that made it all the way to medieval Europe was of the phenomenally wealthy Mansa Musa (r. 1312 to 1337), emperor of Mali, whose empire covered an area larger than Western Europe. In 1324 Mansa Musa made a pilgrimage to Mecca, bringing so much gold with him that it devalued the price of gold in Egypt, where he stopped on the way, for years afterwards. He is sometimes said to have been the richest person in history. In Europe, tales of this gold-drenched ruler made such an impression that he was portrayed on luxurious illustrated maps from the 14th to 16th centuries.
The earliest surviving map to depict Mansa Musa is the famous Catalan Atlas of 1375 (Paris, BnF, MS. Espagnol 30). This manuscript is attributed to Abraham Cresques, a 14th-century Jewish cartographer from Majorca. It includes a picture of Mansa Musa seated on a throne, wearing a gold crown and holding a sceptre and a round gold object, perhaps an orb, coin or nugget of gold. An accompanying caption in Catalan explains:
‘This Black ruler is named Musse Melly (Musa of Mali), lord of Guinea. This king is the richest and noblest ruler of this whole region because of the abundance of gold that is found in his lands’.
From then on, the figure of Mansa Musa sometimes appears on luxurious illustrated maps, always with emphasis on his vast riches of gold. In the Gold exhibition, you can see an example from the Queen Mary Atlas. This impressive volume, probably made for Queen Mary I of England and her husband Philip II of Spain, was completed by Portuguese cartographer Diogo Homem in 1558. You can read more about it in a previous blogpost.
While the detailed outlines and place names along the coasts reveal the extent of Portuguese exploration of Africa by sea, the interior of the continent is depicted more vaguely. Some of the information is based on centuries-old traditions, including the pictures of African rulers, labelled in Latin: ‘Emperor of Mali’, ‘King of Nubia’ and ‘Manicongo’ (ruler of the kingdom of Kongo). Although not specifically named, the ‘Emperor of Mali’ is probably intended as Mansa Musa, given the long tradition of portraying him on illustrated maps. The depictions emphasise the wealth and power of the African rulers, with their prominent golden crowns, sceptres and jewellery.
Another example is on a map showing Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, made around 1529 by cartographer Conte di Ottomanno Freducci, who was based in Ancona, Italy (active 1497-1539). Unusually Mansa Musa is represented with white skin, wearing European-style clothing and playing a stringed musical instrument.
The image of Mansa Musa on this map is accompanied by a caption in Latin which praises him as a ruler and emphasises his great wealth in gold:
‘This king Mansa Musa rules the province of Guinea and is no less prudent and knowledgeable than powerful. He has with him excellent mathematicians and men versed in the liberal arts, and he has great riches, as he is near the branch of the Nile which is called the Gulf of Gold. From this is brought a great quantity of gold dust or tibr, and this is a passage through his kingdom, and these regions abound in all the things that there are above the ground, particularly in dates and manna, and the best of all other things that can be had — they only lack salt’.
(Translation from Chet Van Duzer, 'Nautical Charts, Texts, and Transmission', eBLJ 2017, p. 32, available online)
Despite the whitewashing of the image of Mansa Musa on this map, the caption does seem to contain some authentic information about the trans-Saharan trade in gold. It refers to the Arabic word for gold dust ‘tibr’, and correctly identifies salt as one of the major commodities exchanged for gold in West Africa.
A further example is on a map attributed to Jacobo Russo, a cartographer who was active from 1520 to 1588 in Messina, Sicily. On this map, the rulers are not captioned but their identities are implied by the cities they are pictured beside. The figure of a Black ruler holding two large gold rings next to a city labelled ‘Guinea’ is most likely intended as Mansa Musa. The large gold rings suggest his wealth in gold, while the camels and camel-riders pictured nearby hint at the importance of this region for trading caravans.
These 16th-century maps stand at a turning point in the history of relations between Europe and West Africa. On the one hand, they illustrate the trans-Saharan trade in gold which had flourished for centuries. On the other, they show that Europeans had already managed to bypass the caravan routes by establishing direct overseas trade with West Africa. Initially their main goal was to obtain gold, but increasingly also people to enslave. In the following centuries, West African gold would become marginalised and the region devastated by the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Yet these depictions of medieval African rulers are a vivid reminder of an earlier time when West Africa was a centre of wealth, power and global connections, celebrated the world over for its glorious gold.
If you would like to find out more about medieval West Africa, we recommend the article Building West Africa on the British Library’s West Africa webspace, and the companion website for the past exhibition Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time by the Block Museum of Art.
The British Library’s Gold exhibition runs from 20 May to 2 October 2022 and you can book your tickets online now. An accompanying book Gold: Spectacular Manuscripts from Around the World is available from the British Library shop.
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The exhibition is supported by the Goldhammer Foundation and the American Trust for the British Library, with thanks to The John S Cohen Foundation, The Finnis Scott Foundation, the Owen Family Trust and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous.
30 March 2022
We recently encountered a mysterious medieval manuscript during our current Harley cataloguing project. In the three centuries that it has been in the Harley collection, no one realised the true identity of the manuscript with the shelf-mark Harley MS 2874. Contributing to this may be the fact that its main contents start with a string of illegible and unpronounceable words: ‘Cpnkxratkp malkgnprum spkrkxxm’.
What to make of these strange words? The fact that they are written in red ink suggests that they are part of a title. So what does this manuscript contain? When we turn to the old catalogue of the Harleian manuscripts published in the year 1808, we find the manuscript described as a fragmentary Breviary–a common prayer book used in Christian liturgy–that was written in the 14th century.
But the 1808 catalogue must be incorrect. The manuscript does not contain any texts that one expects to find in a Breviary. Instead, the illegible words appear to be a form of secret writing. They employ a known encryption method in which vowels are replaced with their successive letters in the alphabet. With this method and some knowledge of the Latin language in mind, the title can be deciphered as: ‘Coniuratio malignorum spirituum’. In English, this means: ‘The Conjuration of Evil Spirits’. The manuscript is clearly not a fragmentary Breviary, but a complete copy of an exorcism manual that claims to describe the rituals used to drive out demons from possessed persons in St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, Rome.
The Coniuratio malignorum spirituum survives in about 30 printed editions. All of these were published in Rome or Venice in the late 15th and early 16th century. Our Harley manuscript is almost certainly a handwritten copy of one of these printed books, and, based on its script, was copied around the year 1500.
The Harley manuscript differs greatly from the printed versions in that it not only encrypts the text’s title, but also encrypts or abbreviates any further references to the act of conjuring and invoking demons throughout the manuscript. For example, ‘Coniuro te diabole’ (I conjure you Devil) has become ‘Cpnkxrp tf dibbplf’ in code, or ‘9o te diabole’ in abbreviated form, and ‘Memento lucifer’ (I hold Lucifer in mind) has become ‘Mfmfntp lxckffr’.
Since none of the Italian versions contains secret writing, the Harley manuscript was almost certainly encrypted by the scribe who copied it. But why did they do this? For an answer to this question, we need to look into the scribe’s background. An important clue to their identity can be found on the manuscript’s first page. This page is not part of the Coniuratio malignorum spirituum, but rather it contains a text in a different script that is both fragmentary and faded. With the aid of Ultraviolet light it can be identified as a royal pardon from King Henry VI to William Babington (d. 1453), who was abbot of the Benedictine abbey of Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk between 1446 and 1453. It may be the same pardon of debts owed to the Exchequer that Babington and his monastery are known to have received on 23 December 1451.
Importantly, the royal pardon is not a later addition but original to Harley MS 2874. Whoever made the manuscript cut a fragment from the pardon and used the blank parchment on its reverse side for writing the first page of the exorcism manual. This suggests that the scribe was quite possibly a monk of Bury St Edmunds, and certainly based in England.
The English origin of the manuscript is significant because the historian Francis Young argues that there is no evidence for the popularity of Continental exorcism manuals in England at this time (A History of Exorcism in Catholic Christianity (2016), pp. 94-95). This means that the English scribe was probably unfamiliar with the genre of exorcism manuals. Perhaps this made them uneasy about the text’s contents, contributing to their decision to encrypt key parts of the manual. Moreover, they might have been particularly concerned about how future owners could use the manuscript. As Francis Young (p. 103) points out, the Coniuratio malignorum spirituum could be readily used for illicit magical rituals in which communication with demons is sought not to exorcise them but to control and employ them for one’s own purposes.
Its repeated use of the term ‘conjuration’ would have made the exorcism manual especially suitable for the dark arts, as in the instruction ‘I conjure you devil and unclean spirit’ (Coniuro te diabole et spiritus immunde).
Conjurations are often found in magical texts that present formulas for invoking and commanding spirits. According to a 17th-century English magical treatise you should say the following:
‘I conjure and constrain you to fulfil my will in everything faithfully without hurt of my body or soul and to be ready at my call as often as I shall call you’.
In using secret writing, the scribe may have wanted to limit the number of readers of the manuscript to a select and trusted few, perhaps a circle of monks at Bury St Edmunds. If that was their intention, then they seem to have been successful. Since the manuscript was acquired for the Harleian Library on 17 May 1715, cataloguers have not identified its contents, preventing magical practitioners from using it ever since.
This is just one of our many discoveries from the Harley cataloguing project. To read about some of the others, see our previous blogposts about a newly discovered manuscript from Byland Abbey and the lost miracles of St Wulfsige of Evesham. We will keep posting our findings, so keep a close eye on this blog!
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26 March 2022
The British Library is home to a huge array of beautiful bookbindings: from velvet and sheepskin chemises, to bejewelled covers, gold-tooled and patterned leather, and ivory friezes. Clasped bindings are a particular favourite of mine. This binding method is intended to protect a book from the effects of dust and light by an element (typically leather or metal) that secures its upper and lower covers. Clasped bindings have been in use for hundreds of years and many beautiful and elaborate examples survive from the Middle Ages.
One manuscript housed at the Library has a particularly special clasped binding. Attached to its green and gold-tooled covers, its small silver clasp is shaped in the form of a lion, with a coiled tail and a curly mane, and its right forepaw raised.
The upper cover and fore-edge of an early 16th-century Book of Hours, with its silver lion-shaped clasp: Egerton MS 1147
The lion-shaped silver clasp: Egerton MS 1147, clasp
The lion alone is a beautiful addition to the manuscript, but it also hides a tantalising secret. On the reverse of the clasp, enclosed within the space directly behind the lion’s head and upper body, an artist has added a delicate engraving. It depicts a female figure, draped in robes, with long flowing hair. Who is this mysterious woman? What is her connection to the silver lion, and why has her portrait been added to the back?
The reverse of the clasp, showing an engraving of a female figure: Egerton MS 1147, clasp
Possible answers to these questions can be found within the pages of the manuscript itself (Egerton MS 1147), recently digitised and available to view in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site. The volume is a Book of Hours — a type of devotional book that was very popular during the Middle Ages — written and illuminated in the Flemish city of Bruges between 1500 and 1515. It contains numerous beautiful illustrations and decorative borders that accompany its calendar and collection of prayers and liturgical and devotional readings.
Christ as Salvator Mundi, at the opening of the Latin Prayer to the Holy Face, ‘Salva sancta facies’: Egerton MS 1147, f. 12r (Image by Isabelle Reynolds-Logue)
One such illustration appears in the lower margin of the opening page of the Latin ‘Salva sancta facies’, or Prayer to the Holy Face. The image shows a woman sitting in an enclosed garden, the outline of a cityscape with numerous turrets and crenellations visible in the background. Before her appears a lion with silver fur wearing a golden crown and collar, its paw outstretched to the woman’s hand. In short, the image displays unmistakeable parallels to the design of the lion-shaped clasp attached to the book’s covers.
A marginal portrait of the ‘Maid of Ghent’ and her lion: Egerton MS 1147, f. 12r detail
The elusive female subject of both the clasp and the marginal illustration can be identified with a symbolic medieval figure known as the ‘Maid of Ghent’. Her story originates in a 14th-century Middle Dutch poem, written by the Flemish author Baudouin van der Lore. It was written at a time when the city of Ghent (in modern-day Belgium) was threatened by the invading army of Louis II, Count of Flanders. Baudouin’s poem details a vision of the Maid stranded in a wood, and relates how she is protected from the machinations of an evil prince by Christ who appears to her in the form of a lion. The poem’s symbolism evidently resonated with the citizens of Ghent and their struggle, and by the beginning of the 15th century, the Maid and her lion had been adopted as the emblem of the city itself.
Numerous examples of the ‘Maid of Ghent’ appear in surviving medieval metalwork, armorial plates and illuminated books produced in the city. The most notable of these is a large military standard, probably painted by a female Flemish artist called Agnes van den Bossche — one of only a few known women artisans from this time — some 40 years before our Book of Hours was made. The banner adopts the same design as the clasp and the illustration above: the Maid holding the crowned lion’s outstretched paw. The lion now appears in an almost burnished gold, but microscopic analysis of the banner and its pigments has revealed it would have originally been silver.
A military standard, depicting the ‘Maid of Ghent’ and her lion, probably painted by Agnes van der Bossche, 1481–1482: courtesy of STAM Museum Ghent
Our Book of Hours is known to have originated in the city of Bruges, where it was worked on by a succession of Flemish artists, but the recurring presence of the figure of the Maid and her lion suggests it may have been intended for a Ghentish owner, for whom this emblem would have had special significance. Moreover, the book remained in Ghent for many centuries after its production. A marginal inscription on one page displays the letters ‘IR’ linked by a lover’s knot: the monogram of a renowned bookbinder, Jan Ryckaert (b. 1516, d. 1573) whose workshop was based in the city. Eventually, it had become part of the collection of the Ghentish bibliophile Pierre Joseph Versturme-Roegiers (b. 1777, d. 1846).
The monogram of the Ghentish bookbinder Jan Ryckaert, showing the letters IR linked by a lover’s knot: Egerton MS 1147, f. 13v
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20 February 2022
The earliest surviving detailed map of Scotland is now on display at the Wardlaw Museum in St Andrews, as part of the British Library’s Treasures on Tour programme. The map was compiled by John Hardyng, who was born in 1377 or 1378, probably in Northumberland, and lived most of his life during the Hundred Years’ War between England and France. He joined the household of Henry Percy (‘Hotspur’) when he was 12 years old, and fought for the Percys in Anglo-Scottish border battles. He also served in France during the reign of Henry V, who sent him on a spying mission to Scotland in 1418. Hardyng is best known for his verse Chronicle of the history of Britain, in which he set out his fervent belief in the right of English kings to rule over Scotland. He was so determined to prove his case that he forged a series of documents purporting to provide corroborating historical evidence.
John Hardyng’s map of Scotland: Lansdowne MS 204, ff. 226v–227r
In 1457, Hardyng presented the first version of his Chronicle to King Henry VI of England, as part of his failed attempt to instigate an invasion of Scotland. The Chronicle is accompanied by this colourful map, spread across two pages, which depicts a very rectangular Scotland with west at the top. Hardyng doubtless drew on his earlier years of reconnaissance in Scotland in compiling his map. It includes much more topographical information and many more towns right across Scotland than in earlier surviving maps. The castles and walls of the towns are remarkably varied, while at Glasgow and Dunfermline the churches are drawn instead. The rivers are very clearly marked, with the River Forth, bridged at Stirling, running from top to bottom, and almost cutting the kingdom in two.
Detail of John Hardyng’s map of Scotland, showing Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dunfermline and St Andrews: Lansdowne MS 204, f. 226v
The level of detail, which Hardyng hoped would help an invading army, is strikingly different from earlier maps of Scotland. There is very little detail relating to Scotland in the small map of the world that was copied in 11th-century England and preserved in the collection of Sir Robert Cotton. East is at the top in this map, and the prominent islands to the north (on the left) are labelled ‘Orkney islands’ in Latin.
Detail of the 11th-century map of the world showing Britain and Ireland: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 56v
Matthew Paris (d. 1259) produced several maps of Britain from his monastery at St Albans in Hertfordshire. In this map, included in his Abbreviatio Chronicorum, Scotland is shown in two parts, joined by a bridge at Stirling. Rivers are prominent and many places are labelled, including Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dunfermline, Dundee, Arbroath and Aberdeen, as well as Galloway, Caithness, Sutherland and Orkney.
Detail of a map of Britain by Matthew Paris showing Scotland: Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1, f. 12v
In the mid-1560s, just over a century after John Hardyng compiled his map, the antiquary Laurence Nowell was producing new maps of Scotland. Like Hardyng, Nowell put west at the top in this small map, but he included far more detailed information, making this the most accurate map of Scotland at that time. It has recently been on display at the British Library in the exhibition Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens.
Map of Scotland by Laurence Nowell: Cotton MS Domitian A XVIII, ff. 98v–99r
John Hardyng’s map is on display at the Wardlaw Museum in St Andrews from 20 February until 3 July 2022. The museum is open seven days a week and entry is free. You can find out more about Hardyng’s life, his Chronicle and his map in James Simpson and Sarah Peverley’s book.
The Treasures on Tour programme is generously supported by the Helen Hamlyn Trust. The British Library is working with other libraries, museums and galleries to share our collections across the UK. Last year we loaned the Gospels of Máel Brigte to the Ulster Museum, as well as the Bodmin Gospels and Pascon Agan Arluth (a Cornish Passion poem) to Kresen Kernow in Redruth, Cornwall, as part of this programme, and we will be announcing additional loans as part of ‘Treasures on Tour’ over the coming months.
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12 February 2022
We are delighted to announce a major new project relating to Medieval and Renaissance Women. Thanks to generous funding from Joanna and Graham Barker, over the coming year the British Library will be digitising some of our manuscripts, rolls and charters connected with women from Britain and across Europe, which were made in the period between 1100 and 1600. At the same time we will enhance the catalogue records and we will engage with researchers working in this field and with the wider public. We are very excited by the prospect of bringing these works to broader attention, by making new discoveries, and by supporting research on a variety of topics.
Christine de Pizan giving instructions, in her Enseignemens que Cristine donne à son Filz, part of her collected works known as The Book of the Queen: Harley MS 4431, f. 261v (this manuscript has already been digitised)
We would like your assistance. Some of our most famous manuscripts relating to European women have already been digitised. They include the Book of Margery Kempe (Add MS 61823), the Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich (Stowe MS 42), and Christine de Pizan's The Book of the Queen (Harley MS 4431). As we make our final selection of other manuscripts, rolls and charters that most deserve to be digitised, we invite you to send us your own recommendations. They could relate directly to your own research, support an existing project, or be an item that you would love to explore in greater detail online.
An illustration of foetal presentations, in a 15th-century collection of medical treatises in Middle English: Sloane MS 2463, f. 271r
To take part, please add a comment at the foot of this blogpost or tweet them to @BLMedieval. We look forward to receiving your suggestions. We will consider them against a range of factors, such as the condition of the manuscript and its suitability for digitisation, its direct relevance to the British Library's project, and our aim of balancing coverage across a range of topics and the period as a whole. We will also keep a list of all suggestions that we are not able to include this time for consideration in the future.
A page from the cartulary of Lacock Abbey, a nunnery in Wiltshire: Add MS 88973, f. 2v (this manuscript has already been digitised)
Interested in helping? We need your suggestions by 18 March. Remember, we are looking for undigitised manuscripts, charters and rolls that have a strong connection with women from medieval and Renaissance Europe, and which were made between the years 1100 and 1600. Please check first our most recent list of manuscripts that are already available in full online, in our blogpost Our digitised collection keeps on growing. The list can be downloaded in two different formats, either as a PDF or as an Excel spreadsheet. We invite you especially to put forward items that may be lesser known, including administrative documents, wills and other types of rolls and charters. They can be in any European language, and to have been made in Britain or in continental Europe.
Here are some ideas as to the kinds of items that fall within the scope of our project:
- Was the author a woman?
- Were they written by a female scribe or decorated by a female artist?
- Do they contain specific texts relating to female life or illustrations of women?
- Do they relate to some aspect of female spirituality, education, health or business affairs?
- Do they throw significant light upon the lives of women in medieval and Renaissance Europe?
The seal of Constance, duchess of Brittany and countess of Richmond (1190s): Cotton Ch XI 45
We would welcome your suggestions by 18 March. As the project progresses, we will provide regular updates on this blog, including news about which manuscripts, rolls and charters will be digitised, and information about how we intend to engage with researchers and the general public. Once again, the British Library would like to thank Joanna and Graham Barker for their generous support for Medieval and Renaissance Women.
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17 December 2021
Our work on revising the online descriptions of manuscripts in the Harley collection continues apace. One manuscript that has recently had its online description updated is Harley MS 2682, an 11th-century volume known as the ‘Cologne Cicero’. It has been recognised for centuries as an important witness to a number of the works of the famous Roman statesman, lawyer, scholar and orator, Marcus Tullius Cicero (d. 43 BCE).
The beginning of Cicero's Orationes in Catilinam (western Germany, 2nd half of the 11th century): Harley MS 2682, f. 115r
The first person to collate the text of the ‘Cologne Cicero’ — the process of comparing different manuscripts of a work in order to establish its correct text — was François Modius (1556–1597), a Flemish jurist and humanist classical scholar. With the help of the Cologne theologian, Melchior Hittorp (c. 1525–1584), Modius was given access to the manuscript before 1584 when he published some of his collations. At that point, it was in the library at Cologne Cathedral, and it seems that it was originally made in the scriptorium there. The next scholar to collate the text of the ‘Cologne Cicero’ was Janus Gulielmus, or Johann Wilhelm (1555–1584), who called it the optimus (‘best', 'most useful’) of the three manuscripts he was using. In 1688, the manuscript was taken from Cologne Cathedral by the German classical scholar, Johann Georg Graevius (1632–1703). Graevius’s library, including our manuscript, was bought in 1703 by Johann Wilhelm II, Elector Palatine (1658–1716). The Wilhelm library was bought in turn by the merchant and diplomat Giovanni Giacomo Zamboni (d. 1753), sometime before 1724, from whom the 'Cologne Cicero' was purchased on 20 October 1725 by Humfrey Wanley (1672–1726), librarian to Edward Harley, 2nd Earl of Oxford (1689-1741).
As well as being collated intensively in the 1500s and 1600s, Harley MS 2682 is testament to the interest in studying Cicero’s works in the 11th century. It seems to represent the oldest attempt at bringing together all of Cicero’s works in one volume. What is more, it is an example of medieval textual criticism since the three so-called ‘Caesarian speeches’ were copied twice, in two different versions. The first version seems to have been imperfect, only containing the first half of the third speech, Pro rege Deiotaro (On behalf of King Deiotarus before Caesar). It seems that the compiler(s) of the ‘Cologne Cicero’ realised this shortcoming of the first exemplar for the ‘Caesarian speeches’, and found another manuscript — with the full text — from which to copy the three speeches once again.
The beginning of Cicero's De petitione consulatus, with a nota mark extending down the entire outer margin: Harley MS 2682, f. 53r
The pages of the ‘Cologne Cicero’ also show marks of continued use during its medieval history. There are numerous marginal annotations and so-called nota marks, drawing attention to a particular sentence or paragraph. Some common forms of nota marks are little pointing hands, manicules, or monograms of the word nota itself. On one page marking the beginning of De petitione consulatus (On running for the consulship) (f. 53r), the nota monogram runs down the entire outer margin. Someone must have found this page especially important!
To read more about the attention that medieval scholars and readers paid to the texts of the Latin classics, see our article on ‘The Latin Middle Ages’.
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22 August 2021
On 22 August 1485, the last English king to be killed in combat died at the Battle of Bosworth Field. He was none other than Richard III, a monarch whose reputation is still debated, known variously as the King under the Carpark, Shakespeare's hunchback ruler, and the (alleged) murderer of his young nephews, Edward V and Richard, Duke of York. In this blogpost, we set out some of the manuscript evidence for the reign of this controversial sovereign.
One of the earliest notices of the Battle of Bosworth is found in the calendar of an early 15th-century Book of Hours known as the 'Beaufort/Beauchamp Hours'. This calendar contains a number of added notices of births, deaths and other notable occurrences, extending as far as the deaths of Queen Jane Seymour in 1536 and Elizabeth Lucar in 1537. In the margin of the calendar page for August, the same scribe has made retrospective notes of two significant events:
7 August: 'This day landed King Harry the viith at Milfoord Haven, the yere of our Lord m.cccc.lxxxv.'
22 August: 'This day King Harri the viith wan the feeld wher was slayn King Richard the third. Anno domini 1485.'
The calendar page for August in the 'Beaufort/Beauchamp Hours', with added notices of the landing of Henry Tudor at Milford Haven and the death of Richard III at Bosworth: Royal MS 2 A XVIII, f. 31v
We can tell immediately that these notes were made after the Battle of Bosworth Field, since Henry Tudor is described prematurely at his landing as 'King Harry the 7th'. Richard is styled 'king' in the notice of his death, which does at least acknowledge the legitimacy of his rule. The lack of space in the margins of this calendar doubtless prevented the annotator from recording a more detailed description of Richard's personality and achievements.
Another posthumous report of Richard III's reign is found in an early 16th-century chronicle that extended originally as far as the rule of Henry VII. This chronicle supplies a dispassionate account of Richard's life, set out as part of a genealogical tree of the English rulers:
'Richard that was sonne to Richard Dewke of Yorke and brother unto Kyng Edward the iiiith was Kyng after hys brother and raynyd .ii. yeres and lyth buryd at Lecitor.'
A genealogical chronicle of the rulers of England, including an account of the reign of Richard III: King's MS 395, f. 33r
Richard is also illustrated in a roundel that accompanies the text, wearing a crown and carrying a sceptre in his right hand. This cannot be considered a realistic likeness, since all the portraits in this manuscript are similar in style and have the same palette of colours. But it is an antidote to the conventional image of King Richard, represented in the more famous painting held at the National Portrait Gallery. What is also noteworthy in the same manuscript is that no mention is made of the succession and brief reign of Edward V, Richard's nephew, or of the mysterious disappearance of the young princes.
The portrait of Richard III in the genealogical chronicle: King's MS 395, f. 33r
So what can we glean about Richard III from other manuscript sources? Like his predecessors, Richard was renowned as a law-giver. In one English statute book made in 1488 or 1489, just a few years after his death, Richard is shown in an historiated initial crowned and robed, holding a sceptre and orb, and surrounded by leading clerics and other courtiers. There is nothing to suggest here that his rule was considered illegitimate in any way. Indeed, at the time that this manuscript was produced, Henry VII's position on the throne was still precarious, since he was being challenged first by Lambert Simnel and then, in the 1490s, by Perkin Warbeck. Henry is illustrated in the same volume in exactly the same way as Richard III (f. 339v). You could not tell from this book alone that one of these kings had overthrown the other in battle.
The statutes issued by King Richard III in a legal manuscript made in London: Hargrave MS 274, f. 328v
Detail of the portrait of Richard III in this legal manuscript: Hargrave MS 274, f. 328v
Another visual statement of the legitimacy of Richard III's rule, this time dating from his own reign, is found in a manuscript of the English translation of De re militari by Vegetius. The decorated initial that opens this volume contains the royal coat of arms supported by two boars (Richard's emblem) and surmounted by a crown. At the foot of the same page is the griffin of Salisbury, perhaps to denote that the book was made for Edward of Middleham, prince of Wales and earl of Salisbury, Richard's son and heir apparent until his untimely death in 1484. On another page of the same manuscript is the coat of arms of Anne Neville, Richard's wife and queen of England (f. 49r).
The royal arms of King Richard III in a manuscript of De re militari: Royal MS 18 A XII, f. 1r
A final and contemporary indication of Richard's own personality is provided by books that belonged to him, including before he became king. One manuscript of the Romance of Tristan bears the inscription 'Iste liber constat Ricardo Duci Gloucestre'. After his death it passed into the hands of his niece, Elizabeth of York, who was married to Henry VII in order to unite the two dynasties. Her inscription, 'sans remevyr Elyzabeth', is found at the bottom of the page. This evidence reminds us that Richard was styled 'duke of Gloucester': in the wake of the discovery of his skeleton, York and Leicester waged claims to being the appropriate home for his reburial, while Gloucester was largely overlooked. It also suggests that he may have had an interest in courtly literature, some indication of the circles in which he moved and what was required of a Renaissance prince. This would also have extended to having knowledge of ancient and more recent history. Among the other manuscripts known to have been owned by Richard is a copy of the Chroniques de France, from 1270 to 1380, which is inscribed part-way down one page 'Richard Gloucestre'.
'This book belongs to Richard, duke of Gloucester', in a manuscript of Roman de Tristan: Harley MS 49, f. 155r
A manuscript of the Chroniques de France owned by 'Richard Gloucestre': Royal MS 20 C VII, f. 134r
Detail of Richard's name in Royal MS 20 C VII, f. 134r
Of course, there are other aspects of Richard's rule that we have not considered here. One of these is the sinister removal from power of his nephew, King Edward V, and the subsequent (assumed) deaths of the two princes in the Tower. To be accused of regicide and infanticide, even in an era when rulers were prepared to do anything to secure their position, is a massive stain on Richard III's reputation. The fate of Edward and his younger brother must always be set against attempts to rehabilitate Richard, and cannot be easily argued away. Equally, we are lacking a full understanding of Bosworth Field itself, and of how Richard's fortunes swayed on the battlefield. It is sometimes difficult to dislodge Shakespeare's account of the battle, and of Richard himself, from the popular memory. But the surviving manuscripts from his lifetime do at least provide us with a much more rounded vision of this most disputed of English monarchs.
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