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28 March 2020

The caption competition is back!

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Hold on to your hats. Our funtastic caption competition is back.

This is your opportunity to shine, by coming up with an appropriate description for the image below. What on Earth is going on?

A page from an illuminated manuscript showing a lady holding a sword and shield and a man brandishing the sae weapons

The page is found in a 14th-century Book of Hours of the Use of Saint-Omer (Add MS 36684, f. 26v), which you can explore in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

We'll publish or retweet the best suggestions. You can either submit them using the comment field below or send them by Twitter to @BLMedieval. May the best pun win! (There is no prize, of course, just eternal glory.)

 

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26 March 2020

Humfrey Wanley, Library-Keeper of the Harleian Library

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One of the many gems of the British Library is the Harleian collection, founded by Robert Harley, Lord High Treasurer and 1st Earl of Oxford, and his son, Edward (1689–1741), 2nd Earl of Oxford. It's the largest intact 18th-century manuscript collection in the world, containing more than 7,000 manuscripts, 14,000 charters and 500 rolls. While we are re-cataloguing the manuscripts, we thought we'd take the opportunity to pay tribute to the collection's early Library-Keeper, Humfrey Wanley (1672–1726).

Wanley was appointed as Library-Keeper for the Harleian Library in 1705 after he successfully negotiated the acquisition for Robert Harley of the 660 manuscripts of the late antiquary Sir Simonds D’Ewes (1602–1650). Wanley — who had previously been employed as Assistant at the Bodleian Library, cataloguer of the library of Hans Sloane (his catalogue survives in Sloane MS 3972 B), and inspector of the library of Robert Cotton (1586–1631) — continued to expand the Harleian Library with thousands of manuscripts.

A portrait of Humfrey Wanley holding in his hands a Greek gospel-book

Thomas Hill, portrait of Humfrey Wanley in the Harleian Library holding his notebook open at his own facsimile copy of the 10th-century Greek Covel Gospels, and with the so-called Guthlac Roll of about the year 1200 on his desk (1711): courtesy of the Society of Antiquaries of London

Among Wanley’s most significant acquisitions for the Harleian Library are the more than 300 manuscripts of Edward Stillingfleet (d. 1699), late Bishop of Worcester; over 200 heraldic manuscripts from the Randle Holme arms-painters of Chester; and about 125 manuscripts of the clergyman Robert Burscough (1650/51–1709). Simultaneously, he used Continental agents to purchase manuscripts from Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands and monasteries in the Levant. He also sold his own collection of manuscripts to the Library. A 14th-century French Psalter in the Harleian collection (Harley MS 3978), for example, bears his ownership inscription: ‘Liber Humfredi Wanley’.  

Image in a Psalter of the Adoration of the Magi

An ownership inscription of Wanley

The Adoration of the Magi in a Psalter (above) and the ownership inscription of Humfrey Wanley (below), North-Eastern France, 2nd half of the 14th century: Harley MS 3978, f. 15v and f. 1*recto

The Harleian Library also acquired manuscripts composed and copied by Wanley himself. It features a parchment volume with facsimile copies of medieval charters (Harley MS 7505) that a young Wanley made around 1689–1691 from local archives in Warwickshire. These reveal his skills as both a palaeographer and calligrapher.

A copy of a charter, written by Humfrey Wanley

Humfrey Wanley’s copy of a mid-14th-century charter of Richard Fitzalan (c. 1313–1376), 3rd Earl of Arundel: Harley MS 7505, f. 2r

Wanley meticulously recorded his acquisition activities in his diary (Lansdowne MSS 1716-1718), but also kept a notebook (Lansdowne MS 677) with a ‘wish-list’ of manuscripts owned by other collectors he hoped to acquire for the Harleian Library (‘Things proper for the Library in the Hands of Particular Persons’). It includes both the Warwickshire charters and the manuscripts of Hans Sloane with which he had previously worked.

A reward offered for the return of Wanley's notebook

Humfrey Wanley offering a reward for returning his notebook to him: ‘Whoever brings this Book to Mr Humfrey Wanley at the Right Honourable the Earl of Oxford’s [Lord Harley’s House] in Dover-street, Westminster; shall receive one Guinea Reward’: Lansdowne MS 677, f. 1v

In acquiring manuscripts, Wanley showed a level of integrity that was unusual for his time. When a bookseller of a 9th-century manuscript containing the four Gospels written in gold ink (Harley MS 2797) insisted that Wanley should erase a 17th-century ownership inscription of the abbey of Sainte Geneviève in Paris because it was bought through a ‘private seller’, Wanley refused to do so, stating that ‘I do not love to putt a pen-knife upon an old Book in order to erase’ (The Diary of Humfrey Wanley (1996), vol. 2, pp. 359–60).

Wanley's 'Golden Gospels'

The un-erased ownership inscription of the abbey of Sainte Geneviève in Paris: ‘Ex Libris S. Genovefae Parisiensis’ (Northern France, 3rd quarter of the 9th century): Harley MS 2797, f. 1r

Wanley considered ownership inscriptions as one of the most important features that should be mentioned in manuscript catalogues. He gave much thought to manuscript cataloguing, since he considered it to be one of his principal tasks at the Harleian Library. In a letter he wrote following his inspection of the Cottonian library in 1703, he recommended that the textual and artistic contents of manuscripts be catalogued to a high level of detail:

‘That every Book & Tract be particularly described [...] whether it [be] written upon Parchment or Paper; whether the Language be English, Saxon, Latin, French etcaetera. Particular Notice also might be taken of such books as are remarkable for their Beauty, for being written Correctly, or in very Good or very Bad Hands; [or] remarkable for their Antiquity. And when the Age of the Book or Tract or Name of the Scribe that wrote it, of any Eminent Person that owned it; or old Library to which it did formerly belong does appear; it should be carefully noted, because by these Marks Posterity will be sure that these are the individual Books now described; and no Original or Antient Copie can be changed for a New one, but the Cheat may be discovered’ (Harley MS 7055, f. 19r).

Wanley first demonstrated his meticulousness in cataloguing Hans Sloane’s manuscripts and in producing a monumental catalogue of Old English manuscripts in 1705. Subsequently, he wrote catalogue entries for over 2,400 Harleian manuscripts in a ‘Catalogus Brevior’ (Additional MSS 45701–45707) — completed and published by the British Museum almost a hundred years later — and hundreds of records for a ‘Catalogus Maior’ (Additional MSS 45699–45700). In addition, he began a subject catalogue for the entire collection (Lansdowne MS 815), wrote an index to the Harleian charters (Add MS 45711), and a catalogue of heraldic manuscripts in the Harleian Library (Add MS 6052).

Wanley's catalogue of Old English manuscripts

The frontispiece of Humfrey Wanley’s catalogue of Old English manuscripts, printed at Oxford at the Sheldonian Theatre in 1705

Wanley is an example to modern cataloguers. We certainly hope to follow in his footsteps as we re-catalogue the Harleian collection to modern standards and make records of the Harley manuscripts accessible in our online manuscripts catalogue

You can read more about Humfrey Wanley here:

The Diary of Humfrey Wanley 1715-1726, ed. by Cyril Ernest Wright and Ruth C. Wright, 2 vols (London: Bibliographical Society, 1966).

Deirdre Jackson, 'Humfrey Wanley and the Harley Collection', Electronic British Library Journal (2011), article 2 [pp. 1–20].

Michael Murphy, 'Humfrey Wanley on How to Run a Scholarly Library', The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, 52:2 (1982), 145–55.

Cyril Ernest Wright, ‘Humfrey Wanley: Saxonist and Library-Keeper’, Proceedings of the British Academy, 46 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960), pp. 99–129.

 

Clarck Drieshen

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14 March 2020

Pilgrimage by proxy

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A recent addition to our digitised collections is a unique 15th-century guidebook for pilgrims to the Holy Land. Almost like a late medieval Lonely Planet guide for a prospective pilgrim, it contains an illustrated narrative of the journey, a detailed itinerary with distances, and practical instructions for prospective pilgrims.

The main text is a detailed account of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and Mount Sinai, originally written in Italian by the Franciscan friar Niccolò da Poggibonsi (fl. 1345–1350), and known as Libro d’Oltramare (Book of Outremer). Our manuscript (Egerton MS 1900) is the only known copy of the German translation of this text.

A coloured drawing of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, with bell tower and a ramp leading to the upper level.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem; Southern Germany (Nürnberg?), c. 1465: Egerton MS 1900, f. 12v

The genre of written pilgrimage accounts to the Holy Land has its origins in the 4th century. Such texts were aimed at readers who were unable to physically make such a long and difficult journey. By reading descriptions of the actual locations mentioned in the Bible, they could instead go on a mental pilgrimage, envisaging the places as they read.

Niccolò’s mid-14th-century text revolutionised this genre in several ways, making it easier than ever before for a European reader to visualise the cities, churches and places of veneration. Firstly, his account was the first pilgrimage guidebook written in the vernacular. Moreover, it is a first-person narrative based on his first-hand experiences, whereas most previous accounts were derived from much older texts. Moreover, it seems that Niccolò planned from the beginning to incorporate illustrations of the places and marvels he encountered into the text.

Coloured drawing of the walled up Golden Gate of the Temple Mount, Jerusalem, with five lines of text underneath.

Golden Gate, Jerusalem: Egerton MS 1900, f. 51r

Unsurprisingly, the text describes the many important churches and sites in Jerusalem in the most detail. These passages are illustrated with no fewer than 40 drawings. They mainly portray important buildings and churches, such as the Golden Gate (f. 51r), the complex of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (ff. 12v, 14r, 15r, 18v, 19v, 20v, 23v, 26r), the Chapel of the Ascension (f. 44r), and the Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount (f. 52v).

Coloured drawing at the bottom of a manuscript page, of the place of the Last Supper with a wooden table and entrance on the right hand side.

The place of the Last Supper: Egerton MS 1900, f. 36r

More specific locations associated with important events from the Bible are also included, such as ‘the place where our Lord ate his evening meal with his Disciples' (der stat do unnser herr sein abent essen aß mit seinem Jungern). Although the perspective is slightly confusing, the illustration of the place of the Last Supper shows a wooden trestle table on a colourful mosaic floor.

Coloured drawing of the city of Nazareth with a fountain in the foreground on the left-hand side.

Nazareth and ‘St Gabriel’s well’: Egerton MS 1900, f. 75v

Numerous locations of important biblical events elsewhere in the Biblical Levant and the Sinai Peninsula are also portrayed. For instance, under the heading ‘Saint Gabriel’s well’ is a nearly full-page drawing of a well or a fountain with the city of Nazareth in the background. This was the well where, according to tradition, the Angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary during the Annunciation.

A manuscript page with a coloured drawing of a tree with leaves reaching down to the ground in the middle of the page.

The tree of the apples of Paradise: Egerton MS 1900, f. 139r

Another site mentioned towards the end of the text, as the narrator is travelling through Sinai, is the tree of ‘the apples of Paradise’. This seems to refer to the very Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden, the fruit of which tends to be depicted as an apple in western Christian art.

Coloured drawing of a mount with the body of St Catherine, wearing a golden crown, on the top.

The mountain where the body of St Catherine was found: Egerton MS 1900, f. 132r

Another category of important places in the pilgrimage account is locations related to the veneration of early Christian martyrs. For example, there are several illustrations of sites connected to St Catherine of Alexandria (d. c. 305). The most unusual among them is perhaps the drawing of ‘the mountain where St Catherine was first found’ (Der perg do Sant Katrey am ersten funden wart). It shows a mottled brown mound with the incorrupt body of the saint, dressed in a red dress and a golden crown, lying on the top.

Close-up of a manuscript page with a coloured drawing of four pyramids in a row.

Detail of pyramids: Egerton MS 1900, f. 116v

A smaller category of illustration is that of various marvels that were curious to a medieval European traveller. Shown above are the small drawing of four pyramids, most likely representing the pyramids at Giza. The heading testifies to the late-medieval belief that, instead of monumental tombs, they were in fact the ‘granaries of the Pharaohs’ (korn kasten kunig pharaonis).

A coloured drawing of an imagined giraffe with short legs, long neck, and a shaggy grey coat.

Giraffe: Egerton MS 1900, f. 110v

Interrupting the sequential narrative of the journey is a small series of exotic animals encountered by Niccolò, including the elephant, a local goat breed big enough to ride, and the ostrich. More unusually for a medieval illustration, the fourth exotic animal is the giraffe. The text is based on an eyewitness encounter, but the artist is unlikely to have seen an actual giraffe. While they included the characteristic long neck, they seem to have based the other features of this giraffe — such as the cow-like head and the shaggy grey coat — on domesticated animals closer to home.

Why not check out the rest of this wonderful manuscript and go on a mental pilgrimage of your own? You can read more about it in this article by Kathryn Blair Moore: ‘The Disappearance of an Author and the Emergence of a Genre: Niccolò da Poggibonsi and Pilgrimage Guidebooks between Manuscript and Print', Renaissance Quarterly, 66 (2013), 357–411.

 

Emilia Henderson

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29 February 2020

10 years of the Medieval Manuscripts Blog

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This month is an exciting anniversary for us: it has been ten years since the British Library's award-winning Medieval Manuscripts Blog began back in February 2010. It’s a decade that has seen large-scale digitisation, blockbuster exhibitions, exciting acquisitions and fascinating discoveries, and the Blog has been our main way of letting you know about them all. We aim to be inspiring, informative and amusing and above all to share with you the manuscripts love. To celebrate our big anniversary, join us in looking back at some of the Blog's highlights over the years.

10. Launch of The Polonsky Foundation Pre-1200 Project

Medieval manuscript miniature of the Adoration of the Magi
The Adoration of the Magi from an illuminated Psalter, London, 1220s: Lansdowne MS 420, f. 8v

Originally started to promote the Library’s Greek Manuscripts Digitisation Project, the Blog announced the launch of the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site back in September 2010. Over 2,900 digitised manuscripts later, we’re still blogging to keep you updated about our digitisation projects. One of the most ambitious of these was the Polonsky Foundation Pre-1200 Project, a collaboration with the Bibliothèque nationale de France, in which we digitised 400 manuscripts, produced two new bilingual websites and published an accompanying book. Announcing the project launch was one of our proudest moments.

9. The voices of ancient women

Papyrus with a drawing of a girl
A girl serving drinks at a table, from an illustrated copy of the Life of Secundus, the Silent Philosopher: Egypt, 6th century, Papyrus 113 (15c)

We may be called the Medieval Manuscripts Blog, but we’re actually the section for Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts. Our blogposts about the Library’s ancient collections are ever-popular, and one of the big hits of 2018 was our post commemorating International Women’s Day, exploring fascinating insights into the lives of women in Roman Egypt from some of our ancient Greek papyri.

8. The first voyage of Codex Amiatinus

The Codex Amiatinus
Codex Amiatinus, written at Wearmouth-Jarrow before 716: Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Amiatino 1 (© Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence)

The Blog provides us with a great platform for promoting exhibitions such as Royal Manuscripts (2011–12), Magna Carta (2015), Harry Potter (2017–18), and Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (2018-19). We know that our readers loved our series of blogposts accompanying the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. One of the most popular announced that the oldest surviving, complete Latin Bible in the world, Codex Amiatinus, was coming on loan to the British Library. It was the first time that this incredible manuscript, made at the twin monasteries of Wearmouth-Jarrow before 716, had returned to the British Isles in over 1300 years.

7. Loch Ness Monster found at the British Library

A photoshopped image of a medieval manuscript with a picture of the Loch Ness monster capsizing a boat with a monk looking on
An artist's reconstruction of the Loch Ness Monster (Sarah J Biggs, 2013)

The Medieval Manuscripts Blog is known for making some very important discoveries on 1st April each year. These completely serious and factual discoveries are some of the Blog's perennial favourites. For example, who could forget the time we used specialist imaging to uncover the earliest known picture of the Loch Ness Monster?

6. Unicorn cookbook found at the British Library

A photoshopped image of a medieval manuscript with a picture of a man cooking a unicorn on a grill
Detail of a unicorn on the grill in the Unicorn Cookbook

By complete coincidence, 1st April was also the date on which we made another of our very exciting discoveries: the long-lost unicorn cookbook. Every year this blogpost receives thousands of page-views from people wanting to learn how medieval cooks prepared this rare delicacy.

5. Medieval Manuscripts at the UK Blog Awards

A photo of Julian and Sarah at the Blog Awards
Julian and Sarah triumphant at the UK Blog Awards

One special highlight was when we were named Arts and Culture Blog of the Year in the inaugural UK Blog Awards in 2014. It was a tremendous honour and we were thrilled to bits!

4. White gloves or not white gloves

A photo of a hand wearing white gloves

We also use the Blog to share useful information about accessing and caring for our collections. One of our most popular blogposts explains our policy of not wearing gloves to handle manuscripts. There is a widespread view, stemming from films and television, that white gloves should be worn for handling old books. But recent scientific advice suggests that wearing gloves can do more harm than good.

3. Hwæt! Beowulf online

The opening words of the Beowulf manuscript
The opening words of Beowulf, beginning "Hwæt" ("Listen!"): London, British Library, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 132r

On the Blog we provide regular updates on which manuscripts are available to view online. It’s especially exciting when our favourites go online, and over the years we have announced the digitisation of star manuscripts such as the Lindisfarne Gospels and Old English Hexateuch, Christine de Pizan’s Book of the Queen, the Luttrell Psalter and more. But the announcement that received the greatest attention was the 2013 digitisation of the Beowulf manuscript, the most famous poem in the Old English language.

2. St Cuthbert Gospel saved for the nation

The front cover of the Cuthbert gospel, featuring tooled leather with interlace and plant designs
The front cover of the St Cuthbert Gospel, Wearmouth-Jarrow, late 7th century: Add MS 89000

The Blog is also where we announce new acquisitions. The most thrilling of these was when we acquired the St Cuthbert Gospel following the most successful fundraising campaign in the Library's history. Created in the early 8th century in the North-East of England and placed in St Cuthbert's coffin in Durham Cathedral, this is the earliest intact European book. Since 2010 we’ve also welcomed into the collection treasures such as the Mostyn Psalter-Hours, the Southwark Hours, the Percy Hours and a leaf from an Anglo-Saxon benedictional.

1. Knight v Snail

Medieval manuscript depiction of a knight fighting a snail
Knight v Snail in the Gorleston Psalter, England (Suffolk), 1310-1324: Add MS 49622, f. 193v

Our number one is our most viewed blogpost of all time: the phenomenally popular Knight v Snail. In 2013, a trip to the manuscripts store room to look at some medieval genealogical rolls resulted in a blogpost about the ultimate adversaries of the medieval margins. Why do knights fight snails in medieval manuscripts? No one knows for sure but, as our viewers have demonstrated, it certainly makes for great entertainment.

There are so many blogposts we haven't been able to mention here — Lolcats of the Middle Ages, anyone? Crisp as a poppadom, Shot through the heart and you're to blame, A medieval rainbow, New regulations for consulting manuscripts, Help us decipher this inscription — suffice to say, this is our 1,299th blogpost, and in the last 10 years the Blog has attracted over 5.25 million views from almost 200 countries ... more than enough to pass a rainy day.

Thank you so much to our talented writers and loyal readers — you’re all brilliant. Editing the blog is such a wonderful experience and we're incredibly grateful to everyone who has made it possible. Here’s to the next ten years!

Don't forget to follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

27 February 2020

Clever cats and other swashbuckling tales

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We have recently published a new selection of manuscripts online. They contain a variety of swashbuckling tales, mischievous furry creatures, and ever more glorious images. Which is your favourite?

 

Petit Jean de Saintré and Floridan and Elvide (Cotton MS Nero D IX)

This book contains two little-known romances. The first, by Antoine de La Sale, tells the adventures of the hero, Jean, at the court of King John of France. His lady, the Dame des Belles Cousines, teaches him how to become the perfect knight. Following this is the tragic story of Floridan et Elvide, a French prose romance about a young couple who elope in order to avoid an arranged marriage. They are waylaid at an inn by a group of rascals, who first murder Floridan, then attack Elvide, who is forced to take her own life to avoid dishonour. A not so happy ending.

A knight kneeling at court, while a group of ladies look on

A knight kneeling at court, from Petit Jean de Saintré: Cotton MS Nero D IX, f. 2r

A miniature showing Floridan being attacked while Elvide watches

Floridan is attacked while Elvide watches, from Floridan and Elvide: Cotton MS Nero D IX, f. 109r

 

Le Roman de Renart (Add MS 15229)

We recently blogged about this collection of tales of one of the world’s most famous tricksters. Tibert the cat is the only one of the animals who is the match of the cunning fox, Renard, and manages to avoid falling victim to his wicked schemes.

enard and Tibert the cat, seated, looking at the moon

Renard and Tibert the cat, seated, looking at the moon: Add MS 15229, f.  53r

 

Dante Alighieri, Divina Commedia (Add MS 19587)

This manuscript, with coloured drawings showing Dante on his remarkable journey, was copied in Naples around 1370. It has the coats of arms of the Rinaldeschi family and the Monforte family, Counts of Biseglia (Naples), with on the final page are found entries of births and deaths in the family between 1449 and 1483.

Dante and Virgil are in a barren wood, with the harpies perched on top of thorny trees, representing the souls of suicides; hounds tear the bodies of the profligates; Virgil breaks off a twig and the wounded tree drips blood

Dante and Virgil are in a barren wood, with the harpies perched on top of thorny trees, representing the souls of suicides; hounds tear the bodies of the profligates; Virgil breaks off a twig and the wounded tree drips blood, from Inferno, Canto 13: Add MS 19587, f.  21r

 

The Pilgrimage of the Soul (Egerton MS 615)

This allegory of life as a pilgrimage was translated from the French work by Guillaume de Deguileville. As in the well-known Pilgrim’s Progress, the protagonist, assisted by his guardian angel, undergoes various trials and overcomes temptation on a long journey that ends in Paradise. This manuscript was copied and illustrated somewhere in eastern England.

The pilgrim and his guardian angel, unbaptized souls in a band of darkness, devils torturing a soul and a mock court scene with Satan and a devil

The pilgrim and his guardian angel, unbaptized souls in a band of darkness, devils torturing a soul and a mock court scene with Satan and a devil: Egerton MS 615, f. 46v

 

The Mirror of Human Salvation, made for a royal owner (Harley MS 2838)

The Mirror of Human Salvation draws parallels between episodes and prophesies in the Old and New Testaments, historical and natural events, and saints' Lives. This copy was made for King Henry VII (1485–1509), founder of the Tudor dynasty. The royal arms of England with the motto 'Honi soit qui mal y pense' are found on the first folio.

The Virgin Mary, holding the instruments of the Passion, banishes the devil; Judith holds the head of Holoferne

The Virgin Mary, holding the instruments of the Passion, banishes the devil; Judith holds the head of Holofernes: Harley MS 2838, f. 32v

 

Aldobrandino of Siena, Le Régime du corps; Gautier of Metz, L'Image du monde (Sloane MS 2435)

This 13th-century volume contains Aldobrandino’s handbook on health, composed for Beatrice of Savoie (1220–1266). Its contents are based mainly on Latin translations of Arabic medical texts. It is followed by a poem by Gautier of Metz about the Earth and the universe. The first text includes a section on sleep as part of a healthy lifestyle, with an illustration of a situation that is all-too-familiar. 

Above, a person is sleeping peacefully; below, two people absorbed in a game that is keeping them awake

Illustration of a treatise on sleeping and waking; above, a person is sleeping peacefully; below, two people absorbed in a game that is keeping them awake: Sloane MS 2435, f. 7r

 

The Romance of the Three Kings’ Sons (Harley MS 326)

This Middle English romance concerns three young princes, Philip of France, Humphrey of England, and David of Scotland, who set off to battle the Turks. The illustrations in this manuscript are unique, as it is a rare surviving illustrated copy of the story.

The coronation of the Emperor

The coronation of the Emperor: Harley MS 326, f. 98v

 

Fribois, Abrege de Croniques de France (Add MS 13961)

This 15th-century manuscript contains an abbreviated chronicle of France, from the destruction of Troy to the death of Louis de Mâle, Count of Flanders, in 1383. It was composed in 1459 by Noel de Fribois, counsellor to King Charles VII of France, and was written and painted for Etienne Chevalier, secretary to the king.

The decorated opening page of the chronicle

The decorated opening page of the chronicle: Add MS 13961, f. 2r

 

You can explore all these manuscripts in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site, alongside other gems from the British Library's collections.

 

Chantry Westwell

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13 February 2020

In Praise of the Psalms

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When we were cataloguing a Psalter manuscript as part of the Polonsky Foundation England and France digitisation project, we identified a previously unrecognised copy of the text known as De laude psalmorum ('In praise of the Psalms'). This short Latin treatise explains why saying the Psalms was considered spiritually beneficial, and which Psalms were good for which purposes. It opens a window onto how medieval people understood one of the most important liturgical and devotional books of the Middle Ages, the Psalter.

A damaged miniature of the Lapidation of St Stephen
A damaged miniature of the Lapidation of St Stephen: Harley MS 2928, f. 13v

Harley MS 2928 was made in 12th-century Aquitaine (now in southern France). The main part of this book is a copy of the book of Psalms, with four now quite damaged miniatures, an exposition of Christian hymns, and a copy of part of the Gospel of John in the Old Occitan language. As was typical for Psalters in this period, a number of prayers and texts related to prayers have been included in the manuscript, including De laude psalmorum on ff. 192v-194r.

This text, which some scholars believe to be the work of Alcuin of York, was extremely popular in medieval Europe. The scholar Jonathan Black has identified 193 copies of De laude psalmorum, or of parts of it, from all over Europe and dating from the 9th to the 16th centuries, including five at the British Library (Add MS 37768, Royal MS 5 E IX, Add MS 36929, Cotton MS Tiberius C VI, and Royal MS 2 A XXII) (Jonathan Black, Mediaeval Studies (2002)). As this work was not an official part of church liturgy, but instead something to be undertaken because the reader him- or herself personally wanted to pray and praise God, its readers and copyists must have believed it to be particularly useful.

A damaged miniature of a three saints including an archbishop
A damaged miniature of a three saints including an archbishop: Harley MS 2928, f. 18r

In its full version, which is found in Harley MS 2928, De laude psalmorum offers eight reasons why the reader might wish to say the Psalms, and a selection of Psalms which are good for those purposes. For example, if you are afflicted by trouble and spiritual temptation, you are told to sing Psalms 21, 63 and 68 . Other reasons for singing the Psalms include the desire to praise God, the confession of sins, and the feeling of having been abandoned by God. Throughout the text, a great deal of importance is placed on the reader's inner state of mind, and his or her own wish to pray: each of the eight sections begins with the words 'si vis' ('if you wish') or similar, and the reader is told to sing the Psalms 'intima mente' ('in your innermost mind') or 'compuncto corde' ('with a goaded heart').

Harley MS 2928 is not an especially high-status manuscript. Folio 193 is a little misshapen, and there is a hole in it, through which – completely coincidentally – we can see the word 'gratiam' ('grace').

A hole in the parchment, through which the word 'gratiam' ('grace') is visible
A hole in the parchment, through which the word 'gratiam' ('grace') is visible: Harley MS 2928, f. 193r

But Harley MS 2928 is not the only manuscript digitised for the Polonsky Foundation England and France project which contains part of De laude psalmorum. Cotton MS Titus D XXVI, half of an 11th-century manuscript known as Ælfwine's Prayerbook, includes a brief list, written in Old English, of devotions to perform first thing in the morning, including singing Psalm 66 (see Kate Thomas, Notes & Queries (2012)). The author of this text comments:

'Ne mæg ænig mann on his agen geþeode þa geswinc 7 þara costnunga nearonessa, þe him onbecumað, Gode swa fulfremedlice areccan, ne his mildheortnesse biddan, swa he mæg mid þillicum sealmum 7 mid oþrum swilcum'

('No man can tell God so effectively, in his own language, of the hardship and oppression of the temptations which come to him, nor ask his mercy, as he can with these psalms and with other such').

This is closely adapted from the advice given in De laude psalmorum:

‘nullatenus potest tua propria lingua nec humano sensu tam perfecte miseriam tuam ac atribulacione angustiamque diversarum tribulacione explicare et illius misericordiam implorare quam in his psalmis et ceteris his similibus’

('You cannot in any way, in your own language, nor in human thought, so perfectly explain your suffering, and the trouble and constriction of various temptations, and ask his mercy as in these psalms and in others similar to them').

Medieval manuscript with text of devotions to perform first thing in the morning
Text of devotions to perform first thing in the morning: Cotton MS Titus D XXVI f. 2v

This quotation, short though it is, shows how a popular text could be copied by scribes in different places, and in different languages, across the centuries. One of the exciting things about the Polonsky Foundation England and France 700-1200 project has been the discovery of new copies of texts and of the common interests which bring manuscripts from England and France together.

Kate Thomas 

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09 February 2020

Middle English manuscripts galore

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What do The Vision of Piers Plowman, The Canterbury Tales and The Master of Game have in common?

They are all found in British Library manuscripts which have recently been digitised and are now available to view online. Thanks to a generous grant by The American Trust for the British Library, forty-one of our priceless Middle English manuscripts have been conserved, digitised and catalogued and uploaded to our Digitised Manuscripts site. You can download the full list of Middle English manuscripts (in the form of an Excel spreadsheet). The full list is also found below.

So which manuscripts can you explore from the comfort of your office/living room/bed [delete as appropriate], thanks to the wonders of modern technology? If the Chester Cycle of plays is your thing, copied by the scribe George Bellin in 1600, why not look up Harley MS 2013? If you're a fan of the poetry of John Lydgate (who isn't?), you have lots of new manuscripts to choose from, including Harley MS 116, Harley MS 629 and Harley MS 1245. It was a difficult task to select which manuscripts to digitise (we estimate that we hold at least 600 volumes containing Middle English, the largest such collection in the world), but we were able to include The Seege of Troy (Harley MS 525), the poems of Charles of Orléans (Harley MS 682) and the South English Legendary (Harley MS 2277). Which are your favourites? A Myrour to Lewde Men and Wymmen, anyone (Harley MS 45)?

A page of Lydgate's Life of Our Lady, with a decorated border

The opening page of John Lydgate's Life of Our Lady, beginning 'This booke was compilid by Iohn lidgate monke of Bury at the excitacion and steryng of oure worshipful Prince kyng herry the fifthe, in the honour glorie and worshippe of the birthe of the most glorious maide wife and moder of oure lord ihesu criste chapitrid and markyd after this table': Harley MS 629, f. 2r

 

The opening page of A Mirror to Lewd Men and Women

This copy of A Myrour to Lewde Men and Wymmen was owned by Margaret Bent in the 15th century: Harley MS 45, f. 1r

 

The opening page of the Chester Cycle

The opening page of the Chester Cycle: Harley MS 2013, f. 4r

 

The Seege of Troye, with Robert Cotton's signature in the upper margin

This manuscript of The Seege of Troye once belonged to the famous collector Sir Robert Cotton: Harley MS 525, f. 1r

 

Drawings of four types of fish

Drawings of four types of fish (a trout, a pike, a minnow, a porpoise) on a formerly blank page of The Vision of Piers Plowman: Harley MS 6041, f. 96v

 

Once again, we are extremely grateful to The American Trust for the British Library for providing the funding that supported this project. We feel a little like Chaucer's pilgrims: there is a long journey ahead of us, but plenty to keep us occupied along the way.

Shelfmark Title Digitised Manuscripts URL
Harley MS 0024 Prose Brut http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?index=0&ref=Harley_MS_24  
Harley MS 0045 A Myrour to Lewde Men and Wymmen http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_45
Harley MS 0116 An English miscellany including Thomas Hoccleve, The Regiment of Princes; The Short Charter of Christ; Benedict Burgh, Parvus Cato and Cato Major; anonymous Middle English poems and poems by John Lydgate; Gottfried von Franken, Godfridus Super Palladium (Middle English translation); Nicholas Bollard, The Book of Planting and Grafting http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_116
Harley MS 0172 A devotional miscellany of Middle English prose and verse http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_172
Harley MS 0271 The true processe of Englysh polecie; Benedict Burgh, Parvus Cato, Cato Maior http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_271
Harley MS 0525 The Seege of Troy; Robert of Cisyle; Speculum Gy de Warewyke http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_525
Harley MS 0565 Chronicle of London; an English poem on the expedition of Henry V into France; John Lydgate, King Henry VI's Triumphal Entry into London http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_565
Harley MS 0614 Bartholomaeus Anglicus, De Proprietatibus Rerum, in the English translation by John Trevisa http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_614 
Harley MS 0629 John Lydgate, Life of Our Lady http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_629
Harley MS 0661 John Hardying, Chronicle in verse (second version) http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?index=0&ref=Harley_MS_661 
Harley MS 0682 Charles of Orléans, Collected poems http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_682
Harley MS 0875 William Langland, Vision of Piers Plowman http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_875
Harley MS 0913 The Kildare Lyrics http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_913
Harley MS 1239 Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde; a selection from The Canterbury Tales http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_1239
Harley MS 1245 John Lydgate, The Fall of Princes; Defence of Holy Church http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_1245
Harley MS 1304 John Lydgate, Life of Our Lady http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_1304
Harley MS 1568 The Prose Brut Chronicle http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_1568
Harley MS 1671  The Weye of Paradys (unfinished) http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_1671
Harley MS 1701 Robert Mannyng, Handlyng Synne; Meditations on the Supper of Our Lord and the Hours of the Passion; King Robert of Sicily; a mass against the plague http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_1701
Harley MS 2013 The Chester Cycle http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?index=0&ref=Harley_MS_2013
Harley MS 2250 Miscellany of Middle English poems on the life of Christ; John Watton, Speculum Christiani; Pseudo-Bonventura, Dieta Salutis (excerpts); catechetical teachings; saints' lives; John Mirk, Festial (extracts); Middle English tracts on the reckoning of time; anonymous theological tract on the Ten Commandments, vices and virtues; Robert of Winchelsey, Constitutio de Juramento ac Obedientia http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_2250
Harley MS 2255 A collection of poems by John Lydgate http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_2255
Harley MS 2277 South English Legendary http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?index=0&ref=Harley_MS_2277 
Harley MS 2280 Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_2280
Harley MS 2338 The Meditations of the Supper of Our Lord (abridged version); a Merlin prophecy (imperfect) http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_2338
Harley MS 2376 William Langland, Piers Plowman http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_2376
Harley MS 2382 Middle English verse collection including Lydgate's Life of Our Lady and Chaucer's Prioress' Tale and Second Nun's Tale http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_2382
Harley MS 2392 Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_2392
Harley MS 372 John Lydgate, The Life of St Edmund and St Fremund; Advice to an old gentleman who wished for a young wife; John Lydgate, The Kings of England; John Lydgate, Complaint þat Crist maketh of his Passioun; Geoffrey Chaucer, Anelida and Arcite; Sir Richard Roos, La Belle Dame sans Mercy; John Lydgate, Prayer on the Five Joys of the Virgin Mary; Thomas Hoccleve, Regiment of Princes; anonymous prayers and poems http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_372
Harley MS 3862 John Lydgate, Life of Our Lady http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_3862
Harley MS 3943 Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_3943
Harley MS 4011 An English miscellany including poems by John Lydgate; Craft of Dying; Duodecim Gradus Humilitatis; Counsels of Isidore; The Libel of English Policy; Osbern Bokenham, Mappula Anglie; John Skelton, Of the Death of the Noble Prince, Kynge Edwarde the Forth; John Russell, Book of Nurture http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_4011
Harley MS 4203 John Lydgate, The Fall of Princes http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_4203
Harley MS 4260 John Lydgate, Life of Our Lady http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_4260
Harley MS 4789 Bartholomaeus Anglicus, De Proprietatibus Rerum, in the English translation by John Trevisa http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?index=0&ref=Harley_MS_4789  
Harley MS 4912 Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_4912
Harley MS 5086 Edward of Norwich, The Master of Game; The Babees’s Book; The ABC of Aristotle; Dietary for King Henry V; Treatise on equine medicine http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_5086
Harley MS 5272 John Lydgate, Life of Our Lady; The Life of St Dorothy; The Abbey of the Holy Ghost http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_5272
Harley MS 6041 William Langland, Vision of Piers Plowman http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_6041
Harley MS 7333 Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, and other Middle English poetic works by Benedict Burgh, John Lydgate, Richard Sellyng, Charles d'Orléans, John Gower and Thomas Hoccleve http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?index=0&ref=Harley_MS_7333 
Harley MS 7335 Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_7335

 

Julian Harrison

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04 February 2020

Medical recipes from Gilbertine nuns

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On 4 February we celebrate the feast of St Gilbert of Sempringham (1083–1189), an Englishman of Anglo-Norman descent who established the Gilbertine Order – the only religious Order that was founded in England during the Middle Ages. We would like to mark this event by sharing our discovery of a previously unidentified manuscript that was owned by the first of the thirteen monasteries that Gilbert established during his life: the Priory of St Mary at Sempringham in Lincolnshire.

The feast of St Gilbert highlighted in a calendar with blue and red ink, reading ‘Sancti Gileberti confessoris’

The feast of St Gilbert highlighted in a calendar of saints (England, c. 1260): Add MS 54179, f. 1v

Gilbert founded Sempringham Priory, in or shortly before 1131, for seven women who desired to follow a strict religious life. The house developed into a double monastery of nuns living under the Benedictine Rule, supported by priests following the Augustinian Rule, lay brothers and sisters. Three prioresses presided over the community.

The priory was dissolved in 1538, and subsequently completely demolished. Only six manuscripts from Sempringham are known to survive (they include Royal MS 3 A XV and Royal MS 5 C V). These were copied between the 12th and 14th centuries, mostly containing biblical and theological texts in Latin.

A Gilbertine canon in a white habit, with a tonsure and beard, kneeling in prayer before St John the Baptist, who is holding and pointing to an Agnus Dei

A Gilbertine canon kneeling in prayer before St John the Baptist (Sempringham, late 13th century): Royal MS 3 B III, f. 1r

Among the manuscripts surviving from Sempringham is a single Middle English text. This is an early translation of the Lord’s Prayer added to a Latin collection of the works of the theologian St Augustine of Hippo, found in Royal MS 5 C V.

The Lord’s Prayer in Middle English, written in brown ink

The Lord’s Prayer in Middle English (Sempringham, late 13th or early 14th century): Royal MS 5 C V, f. 307r

While cataloguing the Harley manuscripts, we recently found a previously unnoticed 15th-century collection of Middle English recipes in Harley MS 6816 that apparently belonged to Sempringham Priory. The recipes are written on a booklet that was tucked away among 17th-century medical texts by the manuscript’s anonymous compiler. The booklet (ff. 97r–134r) contains recipes against ailments, diseases and poisons (nearly identical to those in Sloane MS 3285), recipes for making medical unguents, ointments and oils, and a glossary of plant names in Latin and English. Here are a few highlights:  

An ointment for lightness in the head:

Take the juice of danewort, salt, honey, wax, and incense, boil them together over a fire, and anoint the head and temples therewith.  

Anoyment for vanite in the hede

Tak the juse of wallworte salte and hony and wax and ensens and boile them to geder over þe fire and ther withe anoynte þe hede and the temples (f. 97r)

 

For watering eyes:

Take a red cabbage leaf, smear it with the white of an egg, and put it on the watering eyes when you go to bed.

For wateringe eighen

Take a rede cole leffe and anoynte hit with the whitte of a egge and ley hit to the waterringe eyghen when thou goste to beedd (f. 97v)For a man who talks in his sleep:

 

For a man who talks in his sleep:

Take southern wormwood, mix it with wine, let the sick drink thereof when he goes to bed and it will calm him.

For a mon þat spekethe in his slepe

Take sowthernwoode and temper hit with wine and lett the seke drincke þerof when he gothe to his beede and it shall sece hym (f. 98v)

 

For a man who has a perilous cough:

Take rue, sage, cumin, and pepper powder, boil them together in honey, make an electuary [a sort of medical syrup], and use thereof a spoonful in the evening and another one in the morning.

For a man that hathe a perelous coghe

Take rewe sage and comyn and powder of pepper and seth them to geder in hony and make a letvarie and use here of a sponefull att even and a oder att morne (f. 99r)

 

For a headache:

Take vervain with honey and vinegar, blend them together, and drink it while fasting.

For the hede ache

 Take verveyn with hony and eysell and temper hem to geder and drincke hit fastinge (f. 107v)

A page with medical recipes written in brown ink from Harley MS 6816

Recipes against worms in the ears and the poisonous bite of an adder (England, 15th century): Harley MS 6816, f. 101r

The booklet in Harley MS 6816 was probably at Sempringham Priory soon after it was produced. This is suggested by a legal document, dated to 8 March 1504, that an early 16th-century owner added to the booklet’s final leaf. In the document, the prioresses of Sempringham — ‘we the prioresses of the monastery of St Mary of Sempringham’ (‘nos priorissae Monasterij beate Marie de [Sem]pyngham’) — record a payment from the abbot of another monastery, possibly the nearby Premonstratensian abbey of Newbo.

A legal document from the prioresses of Sempringham Priory, written in brown ink

An indenture from Sempringham Priory (England, 15th century): Harley MS 6816, f. 134r

The document suggests that the collection of recipes was used by the nuns at Sempringham Priory. We know from the Book of St Gilbert — a collection of documents concerning the life and miracles of the saint which survives in Cotton MS Cleopatra B I and Harley MS 468 — that the nuns used such medical remedies. It records that a nun from Sempringham used to treat another nun who was suffering from leprosy with medical unguents in the infirmary.

A page from The Book of St Gilbert with a puzzle initial with foliate motifs in blue and red

The Book of St Gilbert (England, 1st half of the 13th century): Harley MS 468, f. 4v

That Harley MS 6816’s medical recipes were used by religious owners is also evident from additions that were made to the booklet’s final pages. These contain Latin prayers to St Anthony of Egypt and St Sebastian for protection against the plague, and a drawing of the body of Christ after it had been taken from the Cross.

The naked dead body of Christ, partially wrapped in a burial shroud, displaying bloodied wounds in his head from the Crown of Thorns and a side wound inflicted by the lance of the Roman soldier Longinus

The dead body of Christ (England, 15th century): Harley MS 6816, f. 134v 

Harley MS 6816 shows that Sempringham Priory, like other monasteries, had access to medical texts. Moreover, it suggests that although the collection of medical recipes may not have been written at the priory, the community customised it by adding their own religious texts and imagery.

 

Clarck Drieshen

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