THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

869 posts categorized "Medieval"

15 December 2018

Name that rune!

Add comment Comments (0)

Some readers of this Blog may remember a sword with a mysterious inscription that was displayed in the British Library’s Magna Carta exhibition in 2015. Thousands of people across the world tried to solve that particular puzzle, so we thought we'd test your brains again with another undeciphered inscription.

This time round, it's found in our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, on display in London until 19 February 2019. On show alongside some of the greatest manuscripts from Anglo-Saxon times, and treasures from Sutton Hoo and the Staffordshire Hoard, is this silver-gilt fitting, kindly loaned by the British Museum. It's dramatically decorated with a beast’s head: blue-glass eyes, scrolled ears, fangs and a looped tongue define its features.

AN00753200_001_l

A silver gilt fitting with a runic inscription: British Museum BEP 1869,0610.1 © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.

The ‘body’ attached to the head is decorated with a line of runes. Transliterated into the Latin alphabet, they read as follows:

‘sbe/rædhtȝbcai/e/rh/ad/æbs’

But what does this mean? To date, no one has been able to translate this runic inscription into modern English. Maybe you can try?

The fitting probably dates to the late 8th century. It resembles artwork made in Mercia around that time: compare, for example, its beast head with some manuscripts from that period. The fitting’s function is uncertain, but since it is only decorated on one side, it might have been part of a scabbard for a long knife or seax. It was found in the River Thames near Westminster Bridge in the 19th century.

AN01237383_001_l

Royal_ms_2_a_xx_f017r in
Compare and contrast: (1) the beast's head from the silver gilt fitting: British Museum BEP 1869,0610.1
© The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved. (2) detail of an initial with a beast’s head, from a manuscript made in Mercia in the late 8th or early 9th century: Royal MS 2 A XX, f. 17r

Some people have suggested that cryptic collections such as this may have acted as talismans, offering protection to the owner. You may be aware that the word ‘rún’ (rune) is related to the Germanic words for ‘secret’ and ‘whisper’.

So what do these mysterious runes mean? We'd love you to send us your thoughts, either by tweeting @BLMedieval or by using the comments button below.

 

Like us, befriend us, retweet us: @BLMedieval

Twitter

12 December 2018

A useless letter?

Add comment Comments (0)

Have you ever wondered, if you lived in Anglo-Saxon England, how would you communicate with distant friends and colleagues? Before the days of email and WhatsApp, letters were written onto pieces of parchment, and could take weeks or even months to arrive at their destination.

A very small number of Anglo-Saxon letters survive in their original form. Letters were often practical documents, sent with a purpose or key message in mind. Many clerks saw little reason for preserving the originals unless they had important historical or theological content, or were sent by or addressed to an important person. Somewhat inevitably, Letters written on single sheets of parchment were more prone to wear and damage than manuscripts. Original Anglo-Saxon letters are exceedingly rare, and the majority of letters from this period are preserved in later copies.

Inutilis

Ep[isto]la inutil[is] (‘A useless letter'): Cotton MS Augustus II 18

In 12th-century Canterbury, a clerk sorting through a collection of Anglo-Saxon charters and letters wrote the words epistola inutilis ('useless letter') on the back of an Anglo-Saxon letter sent in the year 704 or 705. We would certainly not refer to this letter as ‘useless’ today, as it is now well-known as the earliest surviving letter written on parchment from the Latin West. The letter was written by Bishop Wealdhere of London and addressed to Archbishop Berhtwald of Canterbury. Wealdhere wrote to ask Berhtwald’s permission to attend a meeting of bishops that aimed to resolve recent disputes between the kingdom of the East Saxons and the neighbouring kingdom of the West Saxons.

Cropped

Wealdhere’s letter to Archbishop Berhtwald: Cotton MS Augustus II 18

The letter is in Insular minuscule script, which was quick to write and so perfect for letter writing. On the back, it is possible to see impressions left from when the letter was folded for delivery. Once folded, the scribe wrote the address inscription. Although faded, this inscription becomes a lot clearer with the assistance of multi-spectral imaging.

A possible transcription of the inscription is as follows:

A UALDH[ARIO] d[omino]    ad berhtualdo.

FROM WEALDHERE            to Berhtwald

Address

PCA

The address inscription on Weadhere’s letter before and after multispectral imaging: Cotton MS Augustus II 18

Another original Anglo-Saxon letter that was dubbed ‘useless’ in 12th-century Canterbury is the Fonthill Letter, now well-known for being the earliest surviving letter in the English language. In it ltter, Ordlaf, an ealdorman of Wiltshire, wrote to King Edward the Elder (899–924) to explain how he had acquired some disputed land in Fonthill, Wiltshire. This letter is also written in a minuscule script and retains impressions from where it was folded for delivery.

Cropped Fonthill

The Fonthill Letter: Canterbury, Dean and Chapter, Chart. Ant. C. 1282

Many letters written by Alcuin of York (d. 804) survive in letter collections. Letter writing was a skill, influenced by convention and classical rhetoric, and students often consulted letter collections to learn their craft. One particular collection of Alcuin’s letters bears marginal notes made when the manuscript was used in the schoolroom.

Harley abc

Harley pater noster

Annotations in the margin of a letter collection of Alcuin’s letters: Harley MS 208, ff. 87v–88r

The manuscript was copied in 9th-century Francia, but was in an Anglo-Saxon England by around the year 1000. In the upper margin of one page, a student copied the alphabet (but inverted the letter 'b'), followed by 4 Old English letters and the first line of the Lord’s Prayer. In the bottom margin, the scribe wrote a line of Old English, Hwæt ic eall feala ealde sæge (‘Listen, I [have heard] many ancient tales’) which is reminiscent of a line from the epic poem Beowulf. Maybe the scribe felt that the collection of letters found in this manuscript were indeed ‘ancient tales’?

Listen I have heard many ancient tales

Old English annotation in the margin of a letter collection of Alcuin’s letters: Harley MS 208, f. 88r

Alcuin spent the early years of his life at York, before moving to the Frankish court in the early 780s. He regularly wrote letters to Charlemagne, king of the Franks, and members of his court, discussing practical matters or engaging in theological discussion. Although Alcuin remained in Francia until his death in 804, he maintained regular contact with friends back in Anglo-Saxon England. When long distance travel was time-consuming and often dangerous, writing or receiving a letter must have been a special, emotive experience.

In his letters, Alcuin often acknowledged the joy of receiving a letter from a distant friend. In a letter to Higbald, bishop of Lindisfarne, he wrote:

“Let my speedy letter show in writing what my tongue cannot say in your ears, that the eyes may replace the ears in communicating the secret of the heart.”

Ms_218_f191v

Decorated capitals beginning a letter from Alcuin to Charlemagne: London, Lambeth Palace Library MS 218, f. 191v

Although letter collections were often utilitarian manuscripts, some were clearly aimed at high-status audiences. The manuscript illustrated above was copied in 10th-century England, and it includes many of Alcuin’s letters to Charlemagne. The first two lines of every letter were copied in lavishly coloured display capitals, suggesting that the letter collection was compiled for a high status patron, perhaps a king given the focus of many of the letters.

You can see these original letters for yourself in our landmark exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, on at the British Library until 19 February 2019. Tickets are available here.

 

Rebecca Lawton

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

09 December 2018

Women and books in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

Add comment Comments (0)

Whenever I talk to members of the public who have visited the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, one of the most common reactions is, ‘I didn’t expect there to be so much about women!’ As Claire Breay recently discussed on Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4, more evidence survives about early medieval women than many people realise. Our exhibition includes a prayerbook connected to the wife of Alfred the Great; chronicle accounts of the victories of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians; the oldest substantial woman’s will that survives from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms; the first surviving political tract written for (and about) a woman in England; and one of the fabulously jewelled gospel-books of Judith of Flanders.   

Morgan Library  MS M 708  upper cover
The jewelled cover of one of Judith’s gospel-books, made in Northern Europe in the 2nd half of the 11th century: New York, Morgan Library, MS M 708, upper cover

The majority of the population in Anglo-Saxon England — including the majority of women — probably couldn’t read or write. That said, women made up a sizeable proportion of the part of the population that was literate. In Anglo-Saxon times, literacy was highest among monks, nuns, priests and other clergy, who had committed to a religious life. Religious women, such as abbesses, were at the forefront of several literary developments. Additionally, we have evidence that some lay noblewomen owned books.

Literacy among nuns and women religious

Female religious in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were probably able to read. Regardless of which rule of life they followed, reading scriptures and saints’ Lives was essential at most monasteries. There is also direct evidence of book ownership among female religious. For example, four out of the six  surviving early English prayerbooks use female forms and may have been written by or for women. Of the two originally made for men, one (Ælfwine’s prayerbook) was subsequently used and modified at the Nunnaminster, Winchester. 

Royal_ms_6_a_vi_f013r
Aldhelm addresses Abbess Hildelith and others, from a copy of his De Virginitate made in southern England c. 1000: Royal MS 6 A VI, f. 13r

In the early part of the period, religious houses led by women, including Whitby, Hartlepool, Ely and Barking were major intellectual centres. Hilda, abbess of Whitby, was the patron of the first English poet whose name we know, Caedmon. Meanwhile, Aldhelm’s De Virginitate, one of the most advanced works ever produced in Anglo-Latin, was dedicated to a group of women: Hildelith, abbess of Barking, Justina, Cuthburh, Osburh, Aldegethe, Scholastica, Eadburh, Byrngithe, Eulalia and Thecla.

Literacy among lay noblewomen

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms also includes evidence of noblewomen owning or commissioning books. The Book of Nunnaminster may have been owned by Ealhswith, wife of Alfred the Great, before it was given to the Nunnaminster. According to Asser, Alfred’s mother owned a finely illuminated book of English poetry, while Queens Emma and Edith both commissioned texts in the 11th century.

Add_ms_33241_f001v
Opening of ‘In Praise of Queen Emma’, depicting the author presenting his work to Emma while her sons Edward the Confessor and Harthacnut look on: Add MS 33241, f. 1v

It wasn’t just queens who had access to books and writing. The exhibition also displays Wynflaed’s will, the earliest substantial will of an Englishwoman. One third of all surviving Anglo-Saxon wills are in the name of women. This will shows Wynflaed using writing to conduct her affairs and it also reveals that she owned books. Wynflaed herself was a widow associated with a religious house, but she gave her books to her (apparently) lay daughter rather than to the nuns.

Cotton_ch_viii_38_f001r
Will of Wynflæd, copied out in England in the late 10th or early 11th century: Cotton Ch VIII 38

Perhaps the most spectacular example of female book-ownership is one of the Judith Gospels, generously on loan from the Morgan Library in New York, with its fabulous silver-gilt cover with jewels. Four of these de luxe books owned by Judith of Flanders survive. Judith’s Gospels are incredibly unusual for having survived with their jewelled covers intact. However, Judith was not unusual in 11th-century Britain in being a noblewoman with an interest in books. Books also survive that belonged to Margaret of Scotland and Edward the Confessor’s sister, Godgifu.

Female scribes and artists

Just as there were women readers, there were also female scribes. We know the name of at least one female scribe from the Anglo-Saxon period: Eadburh, abbess of Minster-in-Thanet. Around 735, St Boniface wrote to her, noting that she had sent him books and asking her to copy the epistles of Paul in golden letters for him. Another correspondent, Lull, sent her a silver stylus ('graphium argenteum').  

Harley_ms_2965_f016v
End of excerpts from Matthew’s Gospel and beginning of excerpts from John’s Gospel, from the Book of Nunnaminster: Harley MS 2965, f. 16v

At least one manuscript in the exhibition has traditionally been attributed to female scribes: the Book of Nunnaminster, a 9th-century Mercian prayerbook possibly owned by Ealhswith. Some of its text uses certain female forms. Later, someone added a record of the lands which Ealhswith, wife of Alfred the Great, gave to the Nunnaminster, as well as a prayer that uses female forms.

You can learn more in our article Women in Anglo-Saxon England. All these manuscripts can be seen in our once-in-a-generation exhibition Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, which is on at the British Library until 19 February 2019.

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

04 December 2018

Spong Man and friends

Add comment Comments (1)

In early Anglo-Saxon times, East Anglia was an important kingdom, occupying most of what is now Norfolk and Suffolk. Over the years, archaeologists and antiquarians have unearthed objects which illuminate the lives of those who lived in or passed through East Anglia between the 5th and 9th centuries.

A stunning selection of objects from Anglo-Saxon East Anglia have been kindly loaned to the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition by Norfolk Museums Service. These objects provide an invaluable insight into early burial practices, cultural habits and social structures among the East Angles.

1_SpongMan_R7J7481

Spong Man: Norwich Castle Museum 1994.192.1

One such item currently on display in London is Spong Man, which was once the lid to a 5th-century cremation urn. This lid was excavated at Spong Hill, North Elmham, which is the largest known Anglo-Saxon cremation cemetery. Spong Man is one of very few three-dimensional anthropomorphic representations from the entire Anglo-Saxon period.

81_Lead_R7J7406

Lead sheet with runic inscription: Norwich Castle Museum 2004.37

Another object on loan from Norwich Castle Museum is this lead sheet with a runic inscription. It is one of several similar Anglo-Saxon lead sheets inscribed with runes. This particular sheet was discovered in Norfolk in 2004, and attempts to decipher the inscription suggest that it may have once been a memorial plate or fixed to a coffin.

6_OghamKnife__R7J8986

Knife handle with an ogham inscription: Norwich Castle Museum 1950.24

Also featuring in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms is this knife handle made from a red deer antler, which also has an inscription in ogham script. Ogham script uses straight or angled lines and was developed to write inscriptions in the early Irish language. Although this handle was discovered at Weeting in East Norfolk, it was most likely made far away in what is now Ireland or Scotland. It demonstrates that East Anglia had far-reaching connections with other parts of the British Isles.

79_NMAS Objects -23

Stylus: Norwich Castle Museum L2003.4

Bronze styli such as this were common in Anglo-Saxon England. The wider side was used to smooth  the wax flat, ready for use, while the pointed side was used to inscribe text on wax-filled tablets made of wood or bone.

Binham Hoard (c) Norwich Castle Museum

The Binham Hoard: Norwich Castle Museum 

Norfolk Museums Service has also kindly loaned us some sensational gold and silver items. They include a selection from the Binham Hoard, a collection of 6th-century bracelets, brooches and bracteates (neck pendants that copy the designs of Roman coins and incorporate mythological imagery). The design of these bracteates derived from the practice of wearing pierced Roman coins as jewellery.

7_Harford Brooch front

The Harford Farm Brooch (front): Norwich Castle Museum 1994.5.78

7_Harford Brooch back detail

The Harford Farm Brooch (back): Norwich Castle Museum 1994.5.78

Another item of jewellery is the Harford Farm Brooch. This 7th-century gold and garnet brooch was found in a female grave at Harford Farm cemetery, near Norfolk, but it is typical of brooches made in Kent. A runic inscription on the back reads, ‘Luda repaired this brooch’. 

12_NMS Pendant

Pendant from Winfarthing, Norfolk: Norwich Castle Museum 2017.519.6

This exquisitely decorated pendant was also found in the grave of a woman. She was buried in the first half of the 7th century in a cemetery near Winfarthing, south Norfolk.

Hockwold

Enamelled mounts from Hockwold, Norfolk: Norwich Castle Museum 2010.292.1, 2010.292.2

Dublin Trinity durrow_86r_lg

The opening of the Gospel of Mark, in the Book of Durrow: Trinity College Library, Dublin, MS 57, f. 86r © The Board of Trinity College, Dublin

In the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, it is often possible to compare manuscripts and metalwork side by side. The design of a pair of enamelled mounts from East Anglia bears similarities to the intricate insular designs found in the Book of Durrow (on loan from Trinity College, Dublin). This suggests that certain designs, and in some cases the artists who made them, could travel large distances during the early Middle Ages. The rivets on the edges of the mounts suggest that they were once affixed to a larger item, perhaps a hanging bowl.

All of these fascinating objects from Norfolk Museums Service can be viewed until 19 February 2019 in the Library's magnificent Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.

 

Becky Lawton

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

01 December 2018

A calendar page for December 2018

Add comment Comments (0)

It’s December! Hard to believe that 2018 is almost over. But before the year comes to an end, we’ve got a few things to thresh out, literally …

Cotton_ms_julius_a_vi_f008v
Calendar page for December, made in southern England in the first half of the 11th century: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 8v

This is the page for December in a 1000-year-old calendar made in southern England. You can currently see the calendar on display in the British Library’s once-in-a-generation Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.

The page for December is accompanied by an image of men threshing and winnowing grain. Grain was harvested in ears. To separate the kernels out from the husks, the ears of grain were beaten with flails, as seen on the left of the image.

Cotton_ms_julius_a_vi_f008v threshing
Detail of threshers: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 8v

There was then a second process, winnowing, to ensure the edible parts of grain were separated out. Traditionally, winnowers toss the kernels in a basket or winnowing-fan. The heavy, edible kernels fall back down, while the undesirable chaff blows away.

Cotton_ms_julius_a_vi_f008v counting
Detail of man with a marked stick: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 8v

In the middle of the image, there is a man with stick which is not a flail. It has a serrated edge near the top, and horizontal lines all the way down. Another depiction of it can be found in a related calendar (Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, shown below). This might be another farm implement, but Debby Banham and Ros Faith have suggested that this man might be an overseer with a tally stick, counting how much grain had been prepared.

This gives a precious insight into the organisation of farming and landscape in 11th-century England. Very few notes on day-to-day farm work survive: the only exception seems to be the Ely Farming Memoranda (also on display in our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition). The organisation and records of English farming were part of the reason England became such a wealthy kingdom, and this organisation underpinned the impressive administrative achievement of Domesday Book. (At the risk of sounding like broken record, you can even see Domesday Book in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.)

Cotton_ms_tiberius_b_v!1_f008v counting
Detail of man with a marked stick: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 8v

In the Julius Work Calendar, two men carry off an enormous basket, presumably filled with useable grain. In the Tiberius Work Calendar, the two men with a basket seem to be approaching the threshers, perhaps bringing the ears of grain to be threshed.

Cotton_ms_tiberius_b_v!1_f008v
Detail of men winnowing and threshing: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 8v

As with earlier tasks featured in this calendar, threshing might not have been the most seasonal activity for December. However, it might have been linked to December because threshing was a major Biblical metaphor. Since threshing is the process that separates useful, edible grain from inedible husks, it was used in both the Old and New Testaments as a metaphor for judgement, for separating the good from the bad. This metaphor might have been particularly appropriate for Advent, which starts in December. Advent is the period before Christmas in the Christian liturgical year. Today it is associated with chocolate calendars, but in Anglo-Saxon England it was a time of fasting and penance, like Lent, as people prepared themselves for the holy feasts.

There are a number of feasts highlighted with a gold cross in this calendar, all grouped towards the end of the month. The first of these falls on 21 December, the feast of St Thomas the Apostle which was also, the calendar notes, the Winter Solstice. Thomas was a popular saint in Anglo-Saxon England, and several Old English accounts were made of his life. Even the writer Ælfric was obliged to write an account of St Thomas’s life: he initially refused because other versions existed and because he and St Augustine had some doubts about some of the miracles attributed to Thomas. Their objection was not to the idea a miracle would happen, but because these stories portrayed Thomas as vengeful, taking delivery of a severed hand after its owner had slapped him.

Cotton_ms_julius_a_vi_f008v gold crosses
Christmas and the following feast days marked out with a gold crosses: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 8v

The next major holiday marked in the calendar is one we still celebrate today: Christmas. Learn more about how Christmas was celebrated in 11th-century English monasteries here. Then as now, Christmas kicked off a whole series of festivities: the next three days in the calendar are also marked out in gold. On 26 December is the feast of St Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Rather luridly, the verse in the calendar describes him ‘swimming in blood’. This is followed by the feast of St John the Evangelist and then the feast of the Holy Innocents, the massacre of children in Bethlehem.

Cotton_ms_julius_a_vi_f008v sagittarius
Detail of Sagittarius: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 8v

At the top of the page, there is information about astrological changes in December, including a roundel depicting the constellation Sagittarius. Sagittarius is here depicted as a centaur, with his cape billowing out elegantly behind him.

Harley_ms_2506_f039v
Detail of Sagittarius, from a copy of Cicero's Aratea in a collection of astronomical texts made in Fleury in the 990s, with drawings added a few years later by an English artist: Harley MS 2506, f. 39v

Whatever is on your own calendar for December, we hope you have a great month. And if you are looking for something to do over the winter holidays, the British Library has an interesting exhibition on at the moment …

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

In partnership with

BnF logo

Supported by

PF Logo

28 November 2018

A spoonful of sugar

Add comment Comments (0)

Today, the mention of sugar evokes reports about the harmful health effects of increased sugar consumption, and counter-actions such as the recently introduced UK ‘sugar tax’. But sugar is also a universally used inactive ingredient in many medications. As Mary Poppins was aware, it helps less pleasant ingredients go down. When sugar was first introduced to Europe, and for several centuries afterwards, it was regarded as an active — and curative — medical ingredient in its own right.

Egerton_ms_747_f106r

Illustration of a sugarcane plant in a collection of medical texts, Italy (Salerno), c. 1280–1350: Egerton MS 747, f. 106r

One of the earliest mentions of sugar in England is found in a manuscript containing a collection of medical recipes, written in the mid-to-late 11th century (Sloane MS 1621). Although made in what is now the Low Countries or northern France, this manuscript was brought soon afterwards to the abbey of Bury St Edmunds in England. Perhaps it came with Baldwin (d. c. 1097), originally from Chartres in France and physician to King Edward the Confessor (1042–1066), who was made abbot of Bury St Edmunds in 1065.

At Bury, numerous scribes added medical recipes to the book throughout the later decades of the century, suggesting it was valued and frequently consulted. Sugar is found in the ingredients lists of two of these added recipes, showing that Bury St Edmunds had access to the most current medical literature available in Latin. The close study of this manuscript, which led to the discovery of the recipes mentioning sugar, has been facilitated by its digitisation for The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project.

Sloane_ms_1621_f063r

Starting on line 6, the Rosatum tertiani febris ('A conserve of roses for tertian fever') lists zuccari and siruppo albo (white syrup) as its ingredients, England (Bury St Edmunds), c. 1075–1100: Sloane MS 1621, f. 63r

Sugar is one of several exotic ingredients from the Far East that were largely unknown to the authors of the Greco-Roman sources that formed the core of medieval medical texts. These ingredients were not brought to Europe until the rise of the Arab-Muslim empire from the 7th to the 12th centuries. The Persian Sasanid Empire was among the first territories to be conquered, along with knowledge of cultivating sugarcane. This is demonstrated by the history of the word sugar itself, which reached English via the Medieval Latin zuccarum/saccarum derived from Arabic sukkar, which in turn stems from Persian šakar.

Sugar seems to have been among the later Arabic medical ingredients to reach Europe, as it is hardly ever mentioned in pre-11th century sources. Other Far Eastern ingredients brought to Europe by Arab merchants were definitely known sooner. Some were so well-known to the writers of Anglo-Saxon medical texts that they were adapted into Old English. For instance, two recipes in the work known as Lacnunga (Healings) list sideware (zedoary, from Persian zadwār) and gallengar (galangal, from Arabic ḵalanjān). The Latin versions of the words are zedoaria and galinga/galangal respectively. For more on exotic ingredients in Anglo-Saxon medicine, have a look at the illustrated Old English Herbal.

Harley_ms_585_f138r

Harley_ms_585_f138v

Lacnunga, remedy 30, To wensealfe (To [make] a wen-salve) with sideware and gallengar four lines down on the right, England, c. 975–1025: Harley MS 585, ff. 138r–v

What is so significant about the addition of recipes mentioning sugar in Sloane MS 1621, at a monastery in England, is the specific time at which it occurred. The closing decades of the 11th century witnessed exciting new developments in the history of medicine in Europe. The earliest translations of Arabic medical texts into Latin were made in central and southern Italy in the last quarter of the 11th century. It was through Arabic textual sources, as opposed to trade, that knowledge of sugar seemingly reached Europe. A key figure in this process may have been Constantine the African (d. c. 1087). Originally from Carthage (in modern-day Tunisia), he had moved to Italy and entered the Benedictine abbey of Monte Cassino by 1077.

Sloane_ms_1621_f052r

Beginning on line 12, Antidotum ad stomachum calidum faciendum: Sloane MS 1621, f. 52r.

Sloane_ms_1621_f052v

Antidotum ad stomachum calidum faciendum, beginning on line 12 of the recto, and with the list of ingredients on the verso including ten drams each of zuccari and penidi (rock candy): Sloane MS 1621, ff. 52r–52v.

Unfortunately, Constantine did not reference his Arabic sources, so it is hard to know exactly to which works he had access. Yet descriptions of sugar by Arabic writers, such as Ibn Māsawayh (d. 875) and Al-Rāzī (d. 925 or 935), closely parallel the way sugar is used in the recipes of Sloane MS 1621. In Arabic texts, sugar is described as having warming effects and being beneficial for the stomach and intestines. The recipe on ff. 52r–v opens with Antidotum ad stomachum calidum faciendum ('A remedy to make the stomach warm'). It also claims to be efficient against a painful stomach and for ‘anyone who cannot digest’.

Whether Abbot Baldwin and the monks of Bury St Edmunds had stomach troubles or merely a sweet tooth, it is clear that they had acquired the latest medical texts available in Europe, only decades after they had first been translated. Indeed, they might have gained knowledge of sugar before the saccharine substance itself had made it to England.

Thanks to funding from The Polonsky Foundation, and in conjunction with our partners at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, you can now see the whole of Sloane MS 1621 on our new viewer, using International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) technology. This enables you to compare manuscripts side-by-side, to annotate images or to share them on social media, and to download them either as an individual image or as a PDF of an entire manuscript. You may also like to read Taylor McCall's article, Medical knowledge in the early medieval period, which discusses this and other manuscripts.

 

Emilia Henderson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval #PolonskyPre1200

 

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

In partnership with

BnF logo

Supported by

The Polonsky Foundation logo

25 November 2018

Name that place

Add comment Comments (6)

If you are an Anglo-Saxonist, you may have heard of two significant places: Brunanburh and Clofesho. The former is remembered as the site of a momentous battle, and the latter was the meeting place for a series of influential Church councils. But both places are enigmatic. Their locations have never been identified with any certainty, and have puzzled scholars for hundreds of years.

Today we ask you to help us name that place: we welcome suggestions at the foot of this blogpost or via our @BLMedieval Twitter account. To assist you, here are some clues from manuscripts currently on display in our once-in-a-generation exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War.

800px-Bromborough_market_cross_2018-2

Did the battle of Brunanburh take place in Bromborough, near the site of this market cross?

 

Brunanburh

Brunanburh was the site of a significant battle in 937, fought between King Æthelstan of England and an alliance of kings from northern Britain: King Olaf of Dublin, King Constantine of Alba (now Scotland), and King Owain of Strathclyde, a British kingdom in the North-West.

One of the earliest sources for the battle is the Old English heroic poem The Battle of Brunanburh, as preserved in some manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The opening of the poem describes Æthelstan’s ‘long-lasting glory forged at the fighting with swords’ edges around Brunanburh’.

Cotton_ms_tiberius_b_i_f141r

Cotton_ms_tiberius_b_i_f141r

The beginning of the battle of Brunanburh in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: Cotton MS Tiberius B I, f. 141r

Other medieval accounts of the battle provide alternative spellings of its name. The oldest manuscript of Annales Cambriae records the battle as Bellum brune; while Symeon of Durham, writing in the 12th century, said it was fought at ‘Wendun, which is called by another name et Brunnanwerc or Brunnanbyrig’.

Harley_ms_3859_f193r

The entry for 937 in Annales Cambriae, in the middle column: Harley MS 3859, f. 193r

Cotton_ms_faustina_a_v_f061v

Account of the battle in Symeon of Durham’s Libellus de exordio ecclesiae Dunelmensis: Cotton MS Faustina A V, f. 61v

Brun-, the recurring element in all these place-names, is perhaps a personal name, a river name or the Old English or Old Norse word for spring or stream. The suffixes –burh/-wec and -dun are the Old English words for fortification and a low hill.

More than 30 different places have been suggested for the battle of Brunanburh. Considering that some of the forces that engaged King Æthelstan came from Dublin, Scotland and Strathclyde, most suggestions have been located in northern England or southern Scotland. There are also plenty of references in the poem to warriors arriving or departing by ship. Here the poet paints a graphic image of the chief fleeing the battle:

There was put to flight

The Northmen’s chief, driven by need

To the ship’s prow with a little band.

(Michael Livingston, The Battle of Brunanburh: A Casebook, Exeter, 2001)

It would make sense for the site to have had easy access to the coast or a riverbank. Some places proposed as the site of this famous battle include:

  • Bromborough on the Wirral
  • Burnswick, southern Scotland
  • Lanchester, County Durham

If you were to choose the site for a climactic Anglo-Saxon battle, where would it be?

 

Clofesho

If you're unable to identify Brunanburh, perhaps you might turn your attentions to identifying Clofesho. In Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed in 731, he described an important synod organised by Archbishop Theodore in 670. One outcome of this meeting was the decision to hold a council once a year at a place known as Clofesho. These councils provided the opportunities for bishops from distant locations to gather and make important decisions about the Anglo-Saxon Church.

Cotton_ms_tiberius_c_ii_f100r

Cotton_ms_tiberius_c_ii_f100r

Bede’s account of the origin of the tradition of holding a synod at Clofesho. ‘Clofaeshooh’ is mentioned in lines 2–3 in the left-hand column: Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 100r

Over the next 150 years, Clofesho became a meeting place of great symbolic importance in the Anglo-Saxon Church. One of the most significant councils at Clofesho was held in 803, when it was confirmed that the archiepiscopal see of Lichfield would once again be classed as a bishopric. Lichfield had been promoted to the status of an archbishopric in 787, at the request of King Offa of Mercia. The charter produced at the council of Clofesho in 803 confirmed that Lichfield once again fell under the authority of Canterbury. This charter is currently on display in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.

Cotton_ms_augustus_ii_61_f001r

Decree of the council of Clofesho, 803: Cotton MS Augustus II 61

Despite its clear importance, scholars have not been able to identify Clofesho. Bede described the very first council held there, but he did not tell us anything about its location. Since it was used as a meeting place for the entire Anglo-Saxon Church, it makes sense for it to have been sited in a central location, perhaps in the kingdom of Mercia.

Modern places out forward as the site of Clofesho include Cliffe-at-Hoo, Abingdon, Tewkesbury and Hitchin. Another candidate is All Saints Church at Brixworth, Northamptonshire.

Brixworth

All Saints Church, Brixworth

Many elements of the Anglo-Saxon building of All Saints Church, Brixworth, survive intact. Its size suggests that it must have been a place of great importance in the Anglo-Saxon period, but there is no mention of Brixworth in any early sources. The old version of the place-name, Briclesworda, is first recorded in the Domesday survey, commissioned by William the Conqueror at Christmas 1085. In Domesday Book, Brixworth occupied 9.5 hides with land for 35 ploughs, 2 mills and a meadow.

Brixwortrh

Breclesworda, Northamptonshire, in Great Domesday: The National Archives, E 31/2/2

One possibility is that, at some point during the period of Danish invasions, Clofesho was renamed Breclesworda. There are other examples of place-names changing in the Anglo-Saxon period. For example, Streaneshalch became Whitby and Medeshamstede became Peterborough. Did the same happen to Clofesho? Or are you able to suggest a different place for it?

 

Hitchin

Was Hitchin the original site of Clofesho? This panel, featuring King Offa and the Hwicce, now stands outside the town's library

 

The British Library's exhibition Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, featuring glorious manuscripts and extraordinary artefacts, is on display in London until 19 February 2019.

 

Rebecca Lawton

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

24 November 2018

‘Arise, O Lord, and may your enemies be torn apart’: the Staffordshire Hoard in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

Add comment Comments (0)

‘Arise, O Lord, and may your enemies be torn apart and those who hate you will flee from your face.’

So reads (in English translation) an inscription on an object in the famous Staffordshire Hoard, discovered by metal-detectorists in 2009. We are delighted that a selection of gold and silver treasure from that hoard can currently be seen in the British Library's landmark exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War. These items are on display in London thanks to the generosity of Birmingham Museums Trust and the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent.

Staffs hoard

Part of the Staffordshire Hoard: © Birmingham Museums Trust and the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent

The incredible Staffordshire Hoard, comprising around 4,000 items, was found in a field near the village of Hammerwich. The hoard's purpose and the precise date that it was deposited are open to question. Some experts have suggested that the hoard was buried in the ground before 675, although certain of the objects may have been around 100 years old at this time.

This area of Staffordshire was in the heartlands of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia. In Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, he described the military campaigns of Penda, the powerful Mercian king, against the neighbouring kingdoms of Northumbria and East Anglia. Almost all of the objects in the Staffordshire Hoard are martial and were most likely used by Anglo-Saxon warriors. Perhaps the hoard was brought together following battles between the armies of Mercia, Northumbria and East Anglia.

Pommel

A sword pommel from the Staffordshire Hoard: © Birmingham Museums Trust and the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent

The Staffordshire Hoard contains an extraordinary number of hilt fittings taken from the decorated handles of swords and knives. The hoard also features gold and garnet strips which may have been mounted on other weapons or armour. It's also intriguing to note that many of the objects were deliberately damaged before they were buried in the ground. Perhaps that was done to render them useless or somehow to destroy their symbolic power.

Item from Staffordshire Hoard (c) Birmingham Museums Trust

Cross pendant with central garnet and filigree decoration: © Birmingham Museums Trust and the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent

The Staffordshire Hoard also includes items with explicitly Christian connections. Shown above is an ornamental pectoral cross with a stunning garnet at the centre. It may have been used by a high-ranking cleric or a Christian nobleman. Another Christian object is this metal strip, with the aforementioned inscription from the Old Testament Book of Numbers (‘Arise, O Lord, and may your enemies be torn apart and those who hate you will flee from your face’).

K550-view2

Inscribed strip with gem setting: © Birmingham Museums Trust and the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent

One of the chief advantages of displaying parts of the Staffordshire Hoard in conjunction with other artefacts and manuscripts is that it underlines similarities in their decoration. For instance, many objects in the Staffordshire Hoard fuse together gold and garnets. The garnets were cut into specific shapes to fit into the pattern work, while some of the gold filigree, made from gold wire and twisted to look like little beads, is less than one millimetre thick. They were then fashioned into stylised animals or stretched out in thin ribbons of intertwined interlace.

Gold and garnet decoration was used in other metalwork on display in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. This can be seen, for example, in the Sutton Hoo sword-belt and belt buckle (on loan from the British Museum) and the Winfarthing pendant (on loan from Norfolk Museums Service), which were also found in the former territory of the kingdom of East Anglia.

Item from Sutton Hoo © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved. (2)

The Sutton Hoo sword-belt: British Museum, BEP 1939,1010.10

Winfarthing

Pendant from Winfarthing, Norfolk: Norwich Castle Museum, 2017.519.6

Some of the interlace patterns in the Staffordshire Hoard also bear similarities to the decoration of Insular gospel books made in the late 7th and early 8th centuries. A particularly vivid example of this style of decoration is found in the Echternach Gospels, which has been loaned to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition by the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

26_OF-TOL-18003364

The opening to the Gospel of Mark in the Echternach Gospels: Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France MS Latin 9389, f. 76r

The style of script and decoration of this gospel book suggests that it was produced in a scriptorium with strong Insular influences, possibly in Ireland, Northumbria or Echternach (in modern-day Luxembourg). The letters ‘IN’ on the page above are decorated with red and yellow interlace designs, and surrounded with miniature red dots. This design and colour palate is similar to the gold and garnet designs and gold filigree decoration of the Staffordshire Hoard.

Detail

Detail of decorated ‘IN’ in the Echternach Gospels: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, ms latin 9389, f. 76r

We are very excited to have these fascinating objects from the Staffordshire Hoard in the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. The hoard bears witness to Mercian martial power in the 7th century: many of its objects were infused with Christian symbolism, and they drew on artistic trends witnessed across the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and the wider Insular world.

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms is on display in London until 19 February 2019. You can buy tickets here.

 

Rebecca Lawton

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval