Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

288 posts categorized "Medieval history"

06 March 2023

Where there's a will

One of the benefits of our Medieval and Renaissance Women project is that we have been able to focus on groups of documents that have features in common. Individually, these documents provide insight into the lives (and after-lives) of particular named women; collectively, this evidence is all the richer for revealing social trends and patterns of behaviour. Into this category falls a number of wills of women from the 13th to the 16th centuries, from England, Flanders and Germany.

The cover of the will of Elizabeth Ayrer of Nuremberg

The cover of the will of Elizabeth Ayrer of Nuremberg, 1534: Add Ch 74114

A full list of the women's wills digitised as part of this project is given at the end of this blogpost. They number 22 individual wills, some with probate certificates, and a commission by the archbishop of Canterbury to administer a will. It's more than likely that many of the women in whose names these wills were issued would have been obliterated from the historical record if these documents had not survived.

The women named in these wills came from different walks of life but they had shared experiences. In each case, they wished to make provision for their possessions and property after they had died, and to make arrangements for the salvation of their souls. Many of them are described as widows. Does this mean that, as they had no husbands to inherit their goods, it was more incumbent upon them to set out who should be the beneficiaries?

Several women were keen to stipulate where they should be buried. In 1318, Gunnilda atte Denne requested that her body be buried in the churchyard of St Peter Newdigate, and she made a bequest to that church for her obit mass (Add Ch 17295). In 1504, Katherine Cooke prescribed that her body be buried in the chapel of St Mary at St Michael the Archangel’s church, Lewes, next to the tomb of John Cooke, her husband (Add Ch 18791). She also left money for the maintenance of her tomb, for masses for her soul, and to Agnes Chamber, her daughter. In 1411, Margery, the widow of John Todenham, knight, left her body to be buried in the chancel of the Austin Friars, Thetford, next to the tomb of Elizabeth Homgrave, her daughter (Add Ch 24243).

The will of Gunnilda atte Denne

The will of Gunnilda atte Denne, 1318: Add Ch 17295

We can also gain insights into the wider social circles and support networks of medieval and Renaissance women. For instance, in 1342, Elizabeth, the widow of Thomas Paytfyn of Heddingley, made bequests to her brothers' children and to her siblings (Add Ch 16789). In 1500,  Joanna Lane, widow of Nicholas Lane of Snape, made bequests to her daughters, her goddaughter, and her goddaughter’s family (Add Ch 26317). In 1360, Katherine de Bassi of Tournai, wife of the late Baldwin du Bas, made payments to parish priests, hostels, hospitals, the sick, her relatives and those of her husband (Add Ch 75719). Katherine was here providing for the salvation of her soul, but one imagines that the people listed in her bequest deserved her favour in one way or another.

The will of Katherine de Bassi of Tournai

The will of Katherine de Bassi of Tournai: Add Ch 75719

It is possible to gauge from this documentary material that particular women may have had significant accomplishments, or moved in particular circles. We know, for example, that Margery de Crek was the founder of Flixton Priory. In her will, dated the morrow of the feast of St Luke the Evangelist (19 October), 1282, she left her body to be buried in the church there, which she had founded in 1258 (LFC Ch III 1). She made other bequests to this convent, to the bishop of Norwich, and to her family. One of the most detailed wills we have digitised, comprising 3 membranes folded into bifolia and sewn together, is that of Elizabeth Ayrer, widow of Sebald Neyrer of Nuremberg, dated 1534, and which was certified by the Burgomeister and council of that city (Add Ch 74114). In her will, dated 14 July 1574, Agnes Fearne made provision to establish a free school and a bedehouse at Wirksworth (Derbyshire) (Wolley Ch XII 31). We know that her sister’s stepson and Anthony Gell, one of her executors, founded the school and bedehouse in 1576.

Lfc_ch_iii_1_f001r

The will of Margery de Crek, founder of Flixton Priory, 1282: LFC Ch III 1

In one instance, a will survives of a woman who was subsequently declared intestate. On 18 March 1455, Sibylla Frances of Dunwich committed her body in her will to the Franciscans of Dunwich, besides making bequests to them, the parish church of Shaddingfield(?), and Peter Codon, the son of Robert Codon (Add Ch 10392). Other records show that by 1457 Sibylla was intestate, implying that her will had either been lost or that it had been deemed invalid. In other words, leaving a will was no guarantee that the woman's wishes be carried out to the letter.

Add Ch 6290

Will of Joan Ward, widow, of St Saviour’s Parish, Southwark (1544)

Add Ch 10392

Will of Sibylla Frances of Dunwich (1455)

Add Ch 16789

Will and probate certificate of Elizabeth, widow of Thomas Paytfyn of Heddingley (1342)

Add Ch 17295

Will and probate certificate of Gunnilda atte Denne (1318)

Add Ch 18791

Will and probate certificate of Katherine Cook of St Andrew’s parish, Lewes (1504)

Add Ch 19146

Will and probate certificate of Margaret, widow of John de Covert (1367)

Add Ch 24243

Will and probate certificate of Margery, widow of John Todenham, knight (1411)

Add Ch 26317

Will and probate certificate of Joanna Lane, widow of Nicholas Lane of Snape (1500)

Add Ch 28766

Will of Isabella Russell, widow of John Churchhay of Frome (1361)

Add Ch 60433

Will and probate certificate of Margaret Hervy of Ryburgh (1508)

Add Ch 65797

Commission by Thomas Bourgchier, archbishop of Canterbury, to administer the will of Emota Newton, widow (1481)

Add Ch 70581

Will of Margaret Canon (1424)

Add Ch 70587

Will of Margery Loqmer, widow of John Loqmer of Newington-next-Hythe (1473)

Add Ch 70593

Will and probate certificate of Joanna Chiltern, widow, wife of John Chiltern of Newington-next-Hythe (1481)

Add Ch 70601

Will and probate certificate of Agnes Leigh, widow, of the parish of Cheriton (1516)

Add Ch 74114

Will of Elizabeth Ayrer, widow of Sebald Neyrer of Nuremberg (1534)

Add Ch 75719

Will of Katherine de Bassi of Tournai (1360)

Add Ch 77153

Will of Isabella Storke, wife of William Denton of the diocese of Ely (1496)

Egerton Ch 8256

Will and probate certificate of Agnes Sowle (1465)

LFC Ch III 1

Will of Margery de Crek (1282)

Wolley Ch XII 31

Will of Agnes Fearne, widow, of Wirksworth (1574)

Wolley Ch XII 31a

Probate certificate of the will of Agnes Fearne (1575)

The British Library is immensely grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for the funding of our Medieval and Renaissance Women project.


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03 March 2023

Bringing the Cotton fragments to life

One of the most catastrophic episodes in modern library history was the Ashburnham House fire. On the night of 29 October 1731, a fire took hold below the room which held the famous Cotton collection, containing many of the most iconic historical and literary treasures from early times, among them Magna Carta, Beowulf and the Lindisfarne Gospels. Some of these items escaped the flames intact, others were singed or damaged by the water used to douse the fire, while many hundreds were burned significantly or completely destroyed. The fire-damaged survivors are held today at the British Library, but many of them remain extraordinarily difficult to handle or are too blackened to be read with the naked eye.

CottonMS_VitelliusFXI_f2v_PSC

One of the burnt pages from a 10th-century Irish Psalter: Cotton MS Vitellius F XI, f. 1v

But help is now at hand. Thanks to the incredible generosity of the Goldhammer Foundation, since 2020 the Library has been engaged in a project to bring some of the fragmentary Cotton remains to life. We have used multispectral imaging to photograph a selection of the damaged items, and our conservation team has employed new techniques to re-house some of the most vulnerable fragments and to improve the handling of the bound volumes.

Over the coming months, we will feature on this Medieval Manuscripts Blog stories about the most recent restoration of the burnt Cotton manuscripts, but here is a sample to whet your appetite. In due course, the items themselves will be available to view online in all their glory. The Cotton fire may have had tragic consequences, but there is potentially some light at the end of the tunnel.

Cotton MS Fragments I is a 12th-century manuscript containing a compilation of historical, geographical and other texts, made at Saint-Bertin. This work has been shown to be closely related to the Liber Floridus (‘Book of Flowers'), an important medieval encyclopedia made by Lambert, canon of Saint-Omer, between 1090 and 1100. Among its many texts, the manuscript notably contains an early plan of the city of Jerusalem, near impossible to discern in its current burnt state, but which can now be seen again in the new multispectral images.

Cotton_ms_fragments_i_f019r-(MSI-and-Standard)

A plan of the city of Jerusalem, revealed under multispectral imaging: Cotton MS Fragments I, f. 19r

In the 19th century, many of the fire-damaged Cotton manuscripts underwent intensive restoration, led principally by the efforts of Sir Frederic Madden, Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum. During this process, their folios were often remounted and reorganised. However, some of the smallest and most fragile of the burnt fragments could not be reunited with their original volumes and were instead housed separately in nine small boxes, now known as Cotton MS Fragments XXXII. One focus of this project has been the imaging and preservation of these tiny fragments, some measuring as little as a few millimetres in diameter. 

Cotton_ms_fragments_xxxii!3_fragment_1r

A fragment of a burnt Old English manuscript: Cotton MS Fragments XXXII/3, Fragment 1r

Cotton_ms_fragments_xxxii!2_fragment_1r

A burnt fragment from the Cotton collection: Cotton MS Fragments XXXII/2, Fragment 1r

Our project also includes a number of illuminated manuscripts. Particularly notable is an early Gallican Psalter, made in Ireland during the first half of the 10th century. This Psalter was so badly damaged in the 1731 fire that the 1802 catalogue of the Cotton manuscripts stated that it was ‘desideratur’ (destroyed). The Psalter was subsequently rediscovered by Madden, who remounted and reorganised its pages.

Cotton_ms_vitellius_f_xi_f001r-(MSI-and-Standard)

An illustration of David and Goliath from an early 10th-century Irish Psalter, revealed under multispectral imaging: Cotton MS Vitellius F XI, f. 1r

The Psalter features two full-page illustrations, now placed at the beginning of the volume, which depict David killing Goliath (f. 1r) and David enthroned, playing a harp (f. 2r); they were once placed at the openings of Psalms 51 and 102, facing framed initial pages. It also features numerous zoomorphic initials, made up of the bent bodies of ribbon shaped animals or distinctive panels of interlace.

Cotton_ms_vitellius_f015r

The beginning of Psalm 51 from the Irish Psalter, showing a zoomorphic initial, set within a full-page frame, revealed under multispectral imaging: Cotton MS Vitellius F XI, f. 3r

We are extremely grateful to Gina Goldhammer and the Goldhammer Foundation for their generous support of the Cotton Fragments Project. We would also like to acknowledge the contributions of Dr Christina Duffy (formerly Research Imaging Scientist at the Library) and our conservation team (Gavin Moorhead, Camille Dekeyser, Gary Kelly, Francesca Whymark and Mark Oxtoby), without whom none of this could have been achieved.

 

Julian Harrison and Calum Cockburn

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02 March 2023

Venusse was her name

How were royal children brought up in the Middle Ages? A manuscript newly digitised as part of our Medieval and Renaissance Women project supplies us with clues. Add MS 37656, a household account book compiled in 1305 by John de Claxton, keeper of the wardrobe, demonstrates how women were in charge of key aspects of the care of two medieval princes, Thomas of Brotherton (b. 1300, d. 1338) and Edmund of Woodstock (b. 1301, d. 1330).

The opening page of the household account

The household account of Princes Thomas and Edmund: Add MS 37656, f. 1r

Thomas of Brotherton and Edmund of Woodstock, afterwards Earls of Norfolk and Kent, were the fifth and sixth sons of King Edward I (r. 1272–1307), and the first by his second marriage to Margaret of France (b. c. 1279, d. 1318). At the time when this household account was compiled, the princes were four and three years old respectively. and lived primarily in the royal residences at Ludgershall (Wiltshire), under the supervision of a governess (‘magistra’) named Lady Edelina de Venusse. Lady Edelina was in charge of the princes' upbringing, wellbeing and provisioning, and she played a key role in their education. She was in charge of administering their household, and even had a damsel at her service.

Royal_ms_14_b_vi_f007r

The children of Edward I in a genealogical roll (Thomas of Brotherton and Edmund of Woodstock are on the right: Royal MS 14 B VI, f. 7r

Together with Lady Edelina, another nine women are mentioned in this account. One of them is none other than Mary of Woodstock, Thomas and Edmund’s older half-sister, who was a nun at Amesbury Priory but spent significant periods of time visiting and living with her younger siblings. The other women named in this record are mostly unknown, and this account is almost certainly the only evidence of the roles they played within the royal household. Among them are three nurses or nursemaids, two women assistants, a washerwoman, and the damsel who served Lady Edelina. Here is list of all the women mentioned in the household account:

  • Lady Mary of Woodstock, nun of Amesbury and the sister of Thomas and Edmund.
  • Lady Edelina de Venusse, governess (‘magistra’) of the princes’ household.
  • Mabel of Raunds, Thomas’ nurse (‘nutrix’).
  • Perretta de Poissy, nursemaid (‘berceressa’) of Edmund.
  • Erembourga, nursemaid (‘berceressa’) of Thomas.
  • (Unnamed) damsel of Lady Edelina.
  • Annis of Northampton, woman assistant (‘muliere coadjuvante’).
  • Pernell de Boweys, woman assistant (‘muliere coadjuvante’).
  • Matilda, washerwoman (‘lotrix’).
  • A certain Joanna, who is said to be 'the daughter of Isabella'.

These women not only provided the care and upbringing of the young princes, but they were also the recipients of numerous gifts and pieces of clothing. For example, Lady Edelina, Mabel the nurse, and Erembourga and Perretta, the nursemaids received coloured cloth to make corsets for themselves. Queen Margaret also ordered gifts valued at £12 13s 4d for Edelina, Mabel and Perretta as a reward for the work they had undertaken in caring for Thomas and Edmund.

A page from the household accounts

The entries recording the gifts to Edelina, Mabel and Perretta (the first paragraph of this page): Add MS 37656, f. 4v

The household account also records a series of objects and items that were bought for the royal children, providing us with a glimpse of day-to-day life during their early childhood. One of the entries records that a certain Martin the Minstrel was given 2 shillings as compensation for his services, but also for the repair of his drum, which had been broken by Thomas and Edmund, presumably when they were playing with the instrument. It is also noted that, during a time when Edmund was ill, sugar candies, apples, pears and, notably, a urinal were purchased for him. The princes also enjoyed the company of a pet ferret that was bought for them to catch rabbits.

A photograph of Ludgershall Castle from the air

An overhead view of Ludgershall Castle, home to the prince and their household, courtesy of English Heritage

This household account of Thomas and Edmund provides an invaluable insight into the roles played by women in the upbringing of the royal children. It also demonstrates how female care-providers could be highly regarded and amply rewarded, in the royal household at least.

We are extremely grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for their generous funding of Medieval and Renaissance Women.

 

Paula Del Val Vales

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28 January 2023

Three Alexander the Great manuscripts newly digitised

Our current exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth (closing soon on 19 February!), displays striking images of Alexander in medieval manuscripts of his legendary life. Many of these are already fully digitised, including high-status works of art like the Talbot-Shrewsbury Book and other superbly-illustrated Alexander legends in the British Library's collections.

miniature showing knight wearing armour and a crown on horseback fighting charge at three small dragons. The knight carries a spear

Alexander fighting dragons, in the Talbot-Shrewsbury Book (Rouen 1444–1445): Royal 15 E VI, f, 21r

Left. A man seated, wearing blue robes and a black hat, a young child holding a school book stands before him

Alexander taught by Aristotle in the schoolroom, in Le livre et la vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre (Paris, c. 1420–c. 1425): Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 10v

Manuscript page featuring two miniatues. The top one shows a knight on horseback charging at a group of 6 winged dragons. The lower image shows the same knight on the same horse but this time charging at a herd of several boar like monsters

Alexander fighting dragons and monsters, in Roman d'Alexandre in prose (Southern Netherlands, 1st quarter of the 14th century): Harley MS 4979, f. 67v

In preparation for the exhibition, we have digitised three more of our illustrated Alexander manuscripts, so that, in addition to the pages on display in the exhibition, all the images and accompanying text can be viewed online. One of the newly-digitised items is an early collection of Latin works; the others are French versions of Alexander’s life story, as told by the Roman historian, Quintus Curtius Rufus.

Royal MS 13 A I: an Alexander collection from 11th-century England

This small book preserves four early Latin texts relating to Alexander the Great, including Julius Valerius’s Historia Alexandri Magni, translated from the Greek, together with fictional correspondence between Alexander and his teacher, Aristotle, and with the Indian Brahmin, Dindimus. The only illustration, on the opening page, is an early drawing of the coronation of Alexander by the personified figure of Philosophy.

Two figure robed in green. The left figure is femal and standing. She is anointing the seated figure on the right. The seated figure is male. He wears a crown and holds and orb and septre

Alexander is anointed by the female personification of Philosophy (England, 4th quarter of the 11th century): Royal MS 13 A I, f. 1v

Two manuscripts of the Livre des Fais d’Alexandre le Grant: in the 15th century, the Portuguese humanist scholar Vasco da Lucena compiled his account in French of Alexander’s life (largely a translation of the Historia Alexandri Magni of the Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus), which he dedicated to Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy (1467–1477). The majority of the illustrations accompanying his work focus on violent confrontations between Alexander and his enemies, in particular his defeat of Darius, his capture and subjugation of cities on his route, and his brutality towards suspected traitors.

Royal MS 17 F I: a manuscript of the Lucena translation from Lille and Bruges

This copy of Lucena’s Livre des Fais was made by Jean Duchesne of Lille and illustrated in Bruges in the 1470s. It has 9 large miniatures with decorated borders and 11 smaller images within the text.

Royal_ms_17_f_i_f055r

The capture of the family of Darius; the five figures in a pavilion in the background represent his mother, wife, two daughters and son; Alexander is in the foreground in gold armour on a black horse, pursuing the Persians, in Livre des Fais d’Alexandre le Grant: Royal MS 17 F I, f. 55r

A knight in armour riding a heron

Detail of a border in Royal MS 17 F I, f. 40r

The Battle of Arbela (or Gaugamela); Alexander stands before his army outside the city and the citizens bring gifts; on the other side of the river is Darius in his carriage; the two rivers are perhaps the Tigris and Euphrates, named in the rubric below: Royal MS 17 F I, f. 96r

Manuscript page featuring a depiction of a city under siege

The Battle of Arbela (or Gaugamela); Alexander stands before his army outside the city and the citizens bring gifts; on the other side of the river is Darius in his carriage; the two rivers are perhaps the Tigris and Euphrates, named in the rubric below: Royal MS 17 F I, f. 96r

Royal MS 20 C III: the Lucena translation in another copy from Bruges

Curtius’s history of Alexander in French translation gained popularity among the 15th-century French-speaking nobility. A number of illustrated copies were produced in commercial ateliers to satisfy demand. The opening miniature in this large book produced in Bruges in the 1480s imagines Alexander’s birth in a truly imperial setting, with the furnishing, fabrics and luxurious garments reflecting the style of the magnificent court of the dukes of Burgundy at the time.

Scene showing a woman in bed, she has just given birth. She is being attended by a group of women. In the foreground two women take care of the baby. The the background a building is on fire

The birth of Alexander, with two golden eagles perched on the palace roof and the Temple of Artemis burning in the background as signs of future greatness, in Livre des Fais d’Alexandre le Grant (Bruges, c. 1485–1490): Royal MS 20 C III, f. 15r

The exquisitely-painted trompe-l’oeil borders, with realistic birds, flowers and fruit, contrast with the rather violent subject matter of some of the images.

Scene showing a city in the background. In the foreground people from the city are surrendering to an advancing army
The people of the fortress of Celaenae surrender to Alexander and his army: Royal MS 20 C III, f. 42r

Manuscript page. Miniature in top right hand side showing a crowd watching as two men are being beheaded by a figure swinging a sword
Cleander and other traitors are beheaded:Royal MS 20 C III, f. 238r

Come and see these beautiful manuscripts as well as many others in Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, open until 19 February 2023 at the British Library, or explore more on our Alexander the Great website.

We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for their support towards the exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors

 

Chantry Westwell

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24 January 2023

PhD placement on Medieval Women

Are you a PhD student working on topic relating to medieval women? We are now advertising an opportunity to do a placement with us in the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section at the British Library in 2023.

The student will assist us with preparing for the British Library's Medieval Women exhibition. The exhibition, scheduled for October 2024–February 2025, will focus on recovering medieval women’s voices, visions and experiences. It will tell their history through their own words, show them through their own images, and uncover their lives through original manuscripts, documents and objects.

A medieval manuscript page, with a large miniature, text and a floral border
Christine de Pizan writing in her study, with the goddess Minerva standing outside, from Christine de Pisan, Le livre des faits d'armes et de chevalerie: Harley MS 4605, f. 3r

The student will be supervised by the lead curator of the exhibition and will assist with key tasks in its development. These will include researching particular themes, exhibits and historical figures within the exhibition, assisting with the production of the exhibition book (e.g. assembling images, proof-reading), producing promotional materials (e.g. writing blogposts and content for the Library’s website) and helping to liaise with other teams at the British Library (such as Publishing, Conservation, Marketing).

This opportunity is offered as part of the annual British Library PhD Placement Scheme. Placements must take place between June 2023 and March 2024, and are offered for 3 months full-time or up to 6 months part-time.

The scheme is open to all current PhD students registered with a UK university. International PhD students are eligible to apply, subject to meeting any UK visa/residency requirements. Please visit our call for applications page for more information and details on how to apply.

The deadline for applications is 5pm on Monday 20 February 2023.

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15 January 2023

Wheel of approval

Medieval rulers often issued documents, such as privileges, grants and mercies, to assert their sovereignty. Castile was no exception to this rule. The most solemn type of document produced by the medieval Castilian chancery was known as the ‘privilegio rodado’ (literally, ‘privilege with a wheel’). One such charter is a confirmation of a grant of lands issued on 30 December 1254 by the Castilian royal couple Alfonso X of Castile (r. 1252–1284) and Violante of Aragon (b. 1236, d. 1300/1). This charter (Add Ch 24804) has recently been digitised as part of our Medieval and Renaissance Women project and it can now be viewed online for the first time.

The confirmation grant by Alfonso X of Castile and Violante of Aragon, with the wheel at its centre and with a leaden seal affixed at the bottom

The confirmation grant by Alfonso X of Castile and Violante of Aragon: Add Ch 24804

Alfonso X’s interest in books, scholarship and the promotion of arts, history, law and literature was well known by his contemporaries, so much so that his patronage earned him the moniker ‘The Learned’ or ‘The Wise’. He had married Violante of Aragon, the daughter of King Jaume I of Aragon and Violante of Hungary, in 1246, when he was still heir to the throne. Together, Alfonso and Violante ruled for over thirty years, although their marriage became strained after the death of their heir, Fernando de la Cerda, in 1275.

An illuminated image showing Alfonso X on the left, Violante of Aragon in the middle, and their son, Fernando de la Cerda, all sitting on thrones

Alfonso X and Violante of Aragon with their son, Fernando de la Cerda: Archivo Histórico Nacional, Códices, L. 1002, f. 23r

The recently digitized ‘privilegio rodado’ was co-issued by both monarchs, which means that they granted it jointly. Both their names, Alfonso and Violante, are highlighted equally in the charter. Moreover, the use of the diplomatic formula ‘reigning as one’ (‘regnante en uno’) emphasised the importance of the female members of the royal family, including Violante and the royal daughters in the issuing clause of the charter. Hence, the use of the phrase ‘reigning as one’ reflected the participation of both members of the royal couple in the affairs of the kingdom.

A detail from the charter issued by Alfonso and Violante

‘Rey don Alfonso regnante en uno con la Reyna doña Yoland mi mugier et con mis ffijas’ ('King Don Alfonso reigning as one with Queen doña Violante, my wife, and my daughters'): detail of Add Ch 24804

King Alfonso X regulated extensively the structure of the ‘privilegio’ and how it needed to be granted, as described in the ‘Siete Partidas’, one of several legal codes produced throughout his reign. (You can read more about this treatise in our blogpost on the law-code of Alfonso.)

Detail from an illuminated manuscript, showing King Alfonso, sitting on a throne on the left, dictating to a scribe, the middle of three figures on the right

King Alfonso dictates to a scribe: Add MS 20787, f. 1v

In the ‘Siete Partidas’, Alfonso X established the various elements that ensured the legal validity of the ‘privilegio’, and which bestowed it with an impressive appearance. The most striking element was the ‘signo rodado’, a wheel at the very centre of the charter. King Alfonso details in the ‘Siete Partidas’ that this should be ‘a flourish, in the shape of a circle’, which ought to include in the middle ‘the name of the king who bestows the grant, and outside of the latter should be signed by the name of the standard-bearer and of the royal steward’ (Siete Partidas, Partida III, Title XVIII, Law II).

In the inner circle of our charter we can read: ‘SIGNO DEL REY DON ALFONSO’, that is, the sign of King Don Alfonso.

In the outer circle: ‘DON IVAN GARCIA MAYORDOMO DE LA CORTE DEL REY LA CONFIRMA + EL ALFEREZIA DEL REY VAGA’, that is, the steward and the standard-bearer of the King confirm it.

Alfonso X’s ‘signo rodado’ confirming the charter

Alfonso X’s ‘signo rodado’ confirming the charter: Add Ch 24804

Other elements that bestowed the ‘privilegio’ with legal validity were the ‘chi-ro’ or ‘christogram’ at the beginning of the charter, as well as the extensive witness list of lay nobles and ecclesiastical magnates. In this instance they included the Moorish kings of Granada, Murcia and Niebla. Once written, the charter was sealed with a leaden seal, affixed by a silken cord. The original silk threats have survived on our document, together with the seal that shows the arms of Castile and Leon, namely a castle and a lion.

Obverse and reverse of the leaden seal attached to the grant

Obverse and reverse of the leaden seal attached to the grant: Add Ch 24804

Throughout the Middle Ages, charters, grants and documents were dated using different dating systems, In Castile, the customary system was the ‘Era Hispánica’ or Spanish Era. However, the dating clause could also include a reference to an extraordinary or unusual event which happened in that year. In this case, the charter is also dated ‘in the year in which Edward, first-born son and heir of King Henry III of England (r. 1216–1272), was knighted by King Alfonso X in Burgos’, that is, in 1254. Lord Edward, son of Henry III (and the future King Edward I), had travelled to Burgos to be knighted before his wedding to Eleanor of Castile, half-sister of Alfonso X, King of Castile. Hundreds of people gathered in Burgos for that occasion.

The dating clause of the charter

The dating clause of the charter, which reads: ‘en el anno que don Odoart ffijo primero et heredero del Rey Henrric de Anglatierra recebió cavallería en Burgos del rey don Alfonso’: Add Ch 24804

The striking wheel, the magnificently preserved seal and the original silk threads make this charter a particularly fine example of a ‘privilegio rodado’, and a rare survival within the British Library’s collections.

We are extremely grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for their generous funding of Medieval and Renaissance Women.

 

Paula Del Val Vales

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

29 November 2022

The Lady of Las Huelgas

On 31 December 1313, infanta doña Blanca of Portugal (b. 1259, d. 1321), the first-born daughter of Alfonso III, King of Portugal (r. 1238–1248), and granddaughter of Alfonso X the Wise, King of Castile (r. 1252–1284), made charitable donations to various religious houses, churches and hospitals in Castile. Collectively, her donations amounted to over 20,000 maravedís (the currency of the Castilian Kingdom), a small fortune at the time. The details of Blanca’s grants are recorded in a document housed at the British Library (Add Ch 24806), written in Spanish and affixed with her personal seal. This is one of three original charters made at the time. The others are now in the Archivo de la Catedral de Burgos and the Archivo del Monasterio de Las Huelgas respectively. The charter held at the British Library has recently been digitised as part of our Medieval and Renaissance Women project and it can now be viewed online for the first time.

The charter of Blanca of Portugal

Grant of Doña Blanca of Portugal: Add Ch 24806

The principal beneficiary listed in the charter is the Cistercian abbey of Las Huelgas de Burgos, a royal foundation established by the Castilian king, Alfonso VIII (r. 1158–1214), and Leonor Plantagenet (b. 1160, d. 1214), his wife. From its foundation, Las Huelgas was known as a female convent with strong ties to royal women. Many members of the Castilian royal family professed there as nuns, and some of them performed the role of the Lady or señora of the Abbey.

The particularities of this role changed throughout the centuries, but fundamentally it allowed royal women to hold influence over the abbey and to ensure its preeminent position as a religious and economic centre in the kingdom. The responsibility for the abbey’s religious rule and day-to-day running remained with the abbess. Blanca became the Lady of Las Huelgas in 1295, after professing as a nun at the monastery at the request of her uncle, King Sancho IV (r. 1284–1295).

Blanca

A portrait of Blanca (her name is spelled 'BRANCA') in the ‘Portuguese Genealogies’ (16th century): Add MS 12531/3, f. 9r

Blanca gave generous sums of money to the women of Las Huelgas. Her charter includes detailed instructions of how much money each woman was to receive yearly:

A la abbadesa, dozientos maravedís; a cada una de las monjas, çient maravedís, a cada una de las que fueren para monjas, setenta marevedís; a cada una de las freyras, quarenta maravedís; a cada una de las que fueren para freyras, veynte e çinco marevedís. E mando que den cada anno a tres para ser monjas a cada una trezientos maravedís.

‘To the abbess, 200 maravedís; to each nun, 100 maravedís; to each novice, 70 maravedís; to each freyra [a type of nun], 40 maravedís; to each woman preparing to be a freyra, 25 maravedís. And I order that every year they give to three women who want to join the convent as nuns 300 maravedís’.

Photograph of the abbey of Las Huelgas de Burgos

The abbey of Santa María la Real de Las Huelgas, Burgos, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The other significant beneficiary of Blanca’s donations was the nearby Hospital del Rey. Like the abbey of Las Huelgas, the Hospital del Rey had been founded in the 12th century by King Alfonso VIII and Queen Leonor, and its connection with the royal family continued throughout the medieval period. The hospital received 6,000 maravedís in Blanca’s bequests, to be spent on the care and nursing of the poor, as well as to buy livestock to feed them. Many other religious institutions also benefited from Blanca's grant, including the church of Santa María in Burgos, the church of Santa María in Briviesca, the monastery of Santa Clara of Alcocer in Guadalajara, the monastery of Santo Domingo de Caleruega in Burgos, as well as the lepers of San Lázaro and the ‘emparedadas’ (anchorites) in Burgos.

A map of the beneficiaries of Blanca’s donations

A map of the beneficiaries of Blanca’s donations, courtesy of ArcGIS StoryMaps

Blanca’s donations were an attempt to guarantee her personal legacy and spiritual salvation. Alongside her grants, she provided specific instructions about how she wanted to be remembered by the religious community of Las Huelgas, where she was buried after her death in 1321. Most notably, she arranged for the sisters to commemorate the vigil and the anniversary of her death with 12 wax candles every year, which were to weigh exactly 10 pounds (‘cada çirio de diez libras de cera’). On the anniversary itself, the monastery had to distribute food-alms to the poor, made up of bread, wine and meat. During the year, eight chaplains had to give prayers for Blanca’s soul every day.

Tomb

The tomb of Blanca of Portugal at Las Huelgas, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Blanca’s grant functioned as a display of the piety and patronage expected from a royal infanta and the Lady of Las Huelgas. It also demonstrates how, through their donations, women were able to change the social and economic landscape of the territories over which they ruled.

The seal of Blanca of Portugal

Blanca of Portugal’s fragmentary seal: Add Ch 24806

We are extremely grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for their generous funding of Medieval and Renaissance Women. We will publish more updates about the project on this Blog over the coming months.

 

Paula Del Val Vales

@BLMedieval

08 November 2022

The expenses of Queen Eleanor of Castile

A Psalter, a silver belt, brooches and clasps, Parisian jewels, brown bread from Cologne, nuts and pears: these are all items that Queen Eleanor of Castile (r. 1272–1290) bought between September 1289 and December 1290. Eleanor was the queen consort of the English king, Edward I (r. 1272–1307), and her wardrobe account (Add MS 35294), compiled by her treasurer, John of Berewyk (fl. 1279–1312), contains a set of her receipts and expenses from the final year of her life.

This manuscript has recently been digitised as part of our Medieval and Renaissance Women project and it can now be viewed online.

The opening page of the wardrobe account

The first page of Eleanor’s wardrobe account: Add MS 35294, f. 3r

This account may seem humble in appearance, but it opens a window into the world of Eleanor’s court, her household, and her day-to-day life. The expenses listed range from the most mundane and everyday items, such as her food, payments to her messengers, and the maintenance of her horses, to the incredibly lavish and luxurious, including purchases of jewels, pearls and Venetian glasses. The payments are expressed in pounds, shillings and pence. Here is a typical entry, in this case recording the queen’s purchase of writing materials:

An excerpt from the wardrobe account of Eleanor of Castile

Parcamenum. xvj die Februarii ibidem pro parcameno empto ad letteras Regine et ad libros Garderobe. xxd.

'Parchment. 16 February [1290], in the same place. For parchment bought for the letters and wardrobe books of the queen, 20 pence.'

Entry from 16 February 1290 recording expenses on parchment: Add MS 35294, f. 6v

Between 1289 and 1290, Eleanor bought ink and several rolls of parchment for her letters and wardrobe accounts, as well as red wax to seal her letters, and gold for illuminating her manuscripts. The queen even had an illuminator in her retinue, Godfrey ‘pictor’, who was responsible for decorating her books and is also mentioned in the accounts. All these purchases demonstrate that Queen Eleanor was an avid reader and writer, a woman interested in the patronage of illuminated manuscripts, and that she was in frequent contact with her networks through the exchange of letters.

A number of Eleanor’s letters have survived to the present day. They include another letter digitised and catalogued as part of our Medieval and Renaissance Women project, dating from 1280, in which Eleanor granted power to William de Verges, yeoman, to do fealty in her name to Guy, Count of Flanders, for the land that had fallen to her by hereditary right.

A letter of Eleanor of Castile

Letter of Eleanor of Castile with her seal, sent to Guy, Count of Flanders: Add Ch 8129

Eleanor’s wardrobe account also provides insight into her personal interests. Her treasurer recorded payments that relate to the queen’s homeland — the kingdom of Castile — and that show Eleanor’s longstanding connection to her native kingdom. For example, one entry indicates that the queen bought vestments and tunics of Spanish cloth (‘de panno Ispannie’), while another shows that Eleanor bought gum for the illumination of her manuscripts from the Iberian Peninsula (‘gumma alba de Ispannia’). The wardrobe account also records payments made to the queen’s own fowler (or bird hunter), as well as the purchase of birds (avibus, volucres). This shows the queen’s interest in hunting, which she continued to practise until the end of her life.

Image from an illuminated manuscript showing a woman hunting deer

A crowned woman hunting in the margins of the Alphonso Psalter (c 1284–1316), which was made for Alphonso, son of Eleanor of Castile and Edward I: Add MS 24686, f. 13v

The final entries from Eleanor’s wardrobe account include several payments relating to the queen’s death on 28 November 1290, when she was 49 years old, as well as the arrangements made for her funeral between November and December 1290. Eleanor’s treasurer notably paid 7 pence to buy a bushel of barley, used as part of the procedure of embalming the queen’s body (‘pro uno bussello ardei empto ad ponendum in corpus Regine’). This was a common practice for English medieval monarchs. The wardrobe account even records Eleanor's death, with a small marginal note in Latin that reads ‘decessus regine’.

Eleanor's tomb effigy at Westminster Abbey, showing her head and shoulders

The queen’s effigy from her tomb: courtesy of Westminster Abbey

We are extremely grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for their generous funding of Medieval and Renaissance Women. We will publish regular updates about the project on this Blog over the coming months.

 

Paula Del Val Vales

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