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925 posts categorized "Medieval"

11 June 2019

The Ruin of Britain

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Very few texts survive that were written in Britain between the 5th and 7th centuries. We have works by just two named authors from that period. One was a shepherd, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery and became the patron saint of Ireland, none other than St Patrick. The other wrote one of the most influential rants in British history.

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A page from the earliest substantial copy of Gildas's The Ruin of Britain, made possibly in Canterbury in the 10th century: Cotton MS Vitellius A VI, f. 14v

The ranter in question was Gildas, a Romano-British deacon and monk. Sometime between the late 5th century and the 6th century, he wrote The Ruin of Britain, which describes a time of dramatic change, when the Roman legions had left Britain and the Romano-British population was under attack from invaders:

‘I shall try, God willing, to say a little about the situation of Britain; about her obstinacy, subjection, and rebellion ... the destruction of cities; about those who survived’: Gildas: The Ruin of Britain and other works, ed. and trans. by Michael Winterbottom (London: Phillimore, 1978), p. 16.

As this quotation suggests, The Ruin of Britain is a moralising polemic that condemned the British lay and ecclesiastical leaders. The text is full of examples and quotations from the Bible. Although Gildas's account is vivid, he was not an eyewitness: most of the events he described occurred before he was born.

A fragment of The Ruin of Britain survives in a late 9th- or early 10th-century continental copy (now in Bibliothèque Carnegie de Reims, MS 414). The oldest substantial copy was made in southern England in the mid-10th century (British Library Cotton MS Vitellius A VI). Sadly, this manuscript was significantly damaged by fire in 1731.

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The pages of this manuscript of The Ruin of Britain were damaged by fire in 1731, before being placed in paper mounts in the 19th century: Cotton MS Vitellius A VI, f. 7v

In The Ruin of Britain, Gildas depicted the defeats and natural disasters suffered by the Britons as divine punishment for their sins. He claimed that Romano-British leaders had invited three ship-loads of Saxons to protect them from Pictish invaders, but these Saxons had turned on their hosts and become an even worse enemy. Gildas described vividly how whole settlements were put to the sword, ‘fragments of bodies covered with coagulated clots of red blood, in confusion as if in some kind of horrible wine press’ (translated by Hugh Williams, Gildas (London, 1899)). Some Britons surrendered to the invaders, others fled into the mountains or deep into forests, others still migrated to the continent. Some resisted, such as Ambrosius Aurelianus, who reputedly defeated the invaders at Mons Badonicus in the year that Gildas was born.

While Gildas praised leaders like Ambrosius, he did not mince his words about the Romano-British kings and churchmen of his own day: ‘Britain has kings, but they are tyrants: she has judges, but they are unrighteous men’. Gildas singled out five kings in particular for condemnation: Constantine, king of Dumnonia (the area around modern Cornwall and Devon); Aurelius Caninus; grey-haired Vortipor of the Demetae (in what is now Pembrokeshire); Cuneglas, who probably ruled the area around the Dinarth Rhos peninsula; and Maelgwn of Gwynedd. Gildas accused all these men of murder and adultery. He saved his fiercest criticism for the most powerful British king, Maelgwn:

‘And you, island dragon … greater than almost all the kings of Britain, but worse in morality ... You are certainly not lacking in warnings, since you were taught by the finest teacher in almost all of Britain.’

It is unclear what happened to Gildas after he wrote The Ruin of Britain. Some have suggested that he migrated to Brittany, like many other Britons, since there was a Breton monastery dedicated to St Gildas. But there is no firm evidence for this. Gildas was remembered as a saint by the Anglo-Saxons, and his name is found in eight pre-Conquest calendars of saints' days.

Ironically, Gildas’s writings survive to this day in part because the Anglo-Saxons that he so despised continued to quote him. For example, Bede (d. 735) used The Ruin of Britain as one of his sources for the history of post-Roman Britain.

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The most substantial surviving manuscript of The Ruin of Britain was copied in England in the 10th century: Cotton MS Vitellius A VI, f. 15r

Three centuries years later, Archbishop Wulfstan of York (d. 1023) used Gildas as cautionary tale, to try to galvanise English resistance to the Scandinavian invasions:

‘There was a historian in the time of the Britons, Gildas, who wrote about their misdeeds, how they exasperated God with their sins so much that He finally allowed the English army to conquer their land … Let us take warning from this: it is true what I say, we know of worse deeds among the English than we have heard of among the Britons.’

The Ruin of Britain had long-lasting effects, even they were not what Gildas intended. He may not have swayed the leaders of his own day, and it is clear that the Germanic invaders became dominant in southern Britannia. The Ruin of Britain nonetheless had a major impact on some later writers. It remains the principal (near) contemporary narrative account of the momentous events of the 5th and 6th centuries.

 

Alison Hudson

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06 June 2019

The curse of the spiritual sword

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We have previously reported about our fascination with medieval book curses, added in monastic libraries to ward off thieves and warn careless users. Book curses typically state that those who stole or damaged a book would be spiritually condemned, often including the Greek-Aramaic formula ‘Anathema Maranatha'. For example, during the 12th and 13th centuries monks at Reading Abbey systematically added such curses to their manuscripts containing biblical commentaries (examples include Add MS 38687Harley MS 101 and Harley MS 1246).

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Reading Abbey’s book curse in a commentary on Deuteronomy and Joshua (1st quarter of the 13th century): Add MS 38687, f. 150r

We would like to share some new findings that will enable you to protect your favourite books, as well as other prized possessions. One example comes from the so-called ‘Noyon Sacramentary’ (Add MS 82956). This 10th-century manuscript, produced by the monastic community at Noyon Cathedral in northern France, contains masses and prayers for blessings and ceremonies. The manuscript opens with a wrathful curse that would bring down a series of spiritual punishments upon those who stole from or committed any other crime against Noyon Cathedral.

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Noyon Cathedral’s ‘Curse of the Spiritual Sword’ (4th quarter of the 10th century): Add MS 82956, f. 1v

The Noyon Cathedral curse begins: ‘excommunicamus eos et gladio sancti spiritus a vertice capitis usque ad plantam pedis transverberamus’ (‘We will excommunicate them and cut through them with the sword of the Holy Spirit, from the top of the head to the sole of the feet').

It then declares that book-thieves would be condemned to burn in the eternal fire of Hell together with Judas Iscariot, perhaps because they, like Judas, committed betrayal for material gain. Finally, to top it off, these thieves were to remain in the darkness of Hell where they would keep the devil company.

Perhaps an even more powerful curse for protecting your belongings comes from a 12th-century lectionary (containing readings from the Gospels for the Mass) from the Benedictine abbey of Tholey in western Germany (Add MS 29276). The curse is preceded by an itemised list of the monastery’s relics and sacred objects: ‘We have in this monastery of St Peter and St Mauritius eight bookcases of silver, four books of silver, and ten chalices’. Protecting this treasure is a curse that the community would collectively cast upon anyone who stole from the monastery:

‘a sancte matris ecclesiae segregamus ac perpetuae maledictionis anathemate condempnamus . sit que maledictus in domo . in agro . veniantque super eum omnes ille maledictiones . quas dominus per moysen in populum divin[a]e legis prevaricatione se esse missurum. Sitque anathema maranatha . id est pereat in secundo adventu domini. Stix sit ei potus. Amen’.

‘We will segregate him from the mother church and condemn him with the eternal curse of anathema: may he be cursed in the house and on the land, and let all the curses that the Lord cast through Moses onto the transgressors of the Divine Law come upon him. May he be anathema maranatha. That means: may he be damned at the Second Coming of Our Lord (the Last Judgement); may the Styx be his drink. Amen’.

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Tholey Abbey’s ‘Styx-Curse’ (c. 1100–c. 1175): Add MS 29276, f. 162v

This curse encompasses both the eternal sentence to Hell, at the Last Judgement, and the Styx, the principal river of the Underworld. While it may seem unexpected to find a medieval monk referring to the Styx, monasteries gained knowledge about the Underworld through their copies of works such as Virgil's Aeneid . For example, in a 12th-century theological miscellany from the Cistercian abbey of Thame in Oxfordshire (Burney MS 357), the Styx is listed as one of the rivers in Hell, and its name is defined as ‘sadness’ (tristicia).  

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The ‘Stix’ among the ‘Names of the Infernal Waters’ (Nomina Humorum Infernalium) (1st half of the 12th century): Burney MS 357, f. 4v

It's clear that some medieval monks were very resourceful when it came to protecting their most precious treasures. The book curses that they devised indicate not only their knowledge of religious and Classical works, but also the importance they attributed to their sacred books and objects.

To learn more about medieval monastic libraries, and how books were acquired, used and stored, see this article on Medieval monastic libraries by Alison Ray, created as part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700–1200. Together with the Bibliothèque nationale de France, we have digitised 800 manuscripts from our collections, which you can learn more about on our dedicated Medieval England and France webspace.

 

Clarck Drieshen

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31 May 2019

What does a wheelbarrow have to do with Aristotle?

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Visitors to the British Library exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, will no doubt stop to admire a copy of Aristotle’s works on natural sciences, probably made for a medieval student at Oxford University. The careful layout and the perfectly formed gothic handwriting in different styles is impressive, but what will they make of the images on the page?

The page on display shows a decorated letter containing, logically enough, a seated philosopher examining a book and pointing to the heavens. But in the margin there is a man pushing a naked figure in a wheelbarrow, similar to the figures sometimes used to illustrate the fool of Psalm 52, “The fool (insipiens) said in his heart: There is no God” (e.g. in the Rutland Psalter, Add MS 62925). What does this scene have to do with Aristotle?

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A philosopher and a man pushing a fool in a wheelbarrow, Aristotle’s Libri naturales, England (Oxford?), 3rd quarter of the 13th century: Harley MS 3487, f. 22v  

In the 13th century, the works of the Greek philosopher Aristotle were translated into Latin and completely transformed ideas on philosophy and natural science in Western Europe. Despite Church disapproval of the study of ‘pagan’ writings that contradicted its teachings, and the subsequent banning of Aristotle’s works in Paris, they soon became key texts in medieval universities. This book contains a collection of the required reading on the Oxford curriculum, complete with glosses and commentaries in the margins and between the lines of text to provide detailed explanations.

But it is the decoration that makes this manuscript unique: it is exceptional for a volume of Aristotle’s works to be so elaborately illustrated at this time. There are 29 historiated initials, one at the beginning of each book or chapter, each representing the text that is to follow. Because there was no earlier tradition of illustrating Aristotle’s texts, the artists had to be innovative. Sometimes they adapted subjects from other genres, and sometimes they invented new ones.

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Books being burned before a king, a friar and others, Aristotle’s Libri naturales: Harley MS 3487, f. 4r

Perhaps the most intriguing of all the initials is the first in the manuscript, on the opening page of Physics. The decorated letter on this page depicts a small child throwing books onto a fire before a king, a friar and other figures.  Scholars have suggested that this scene represents the burning of books of Aristotle’s works in Paris in 1210, while the friar represents the role played by the Franciscans and other preaching orders in teaching Aristotle.

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A windmill and a bird, Aristotle’s Libri naturales: Harley MS 3487, f. 161r

Perhaps the most famous image in this manuscript is one of the earliest depictions of a windmill. This is found at the beginning of the book Meteorologica, which includes early accounts of weather phenomena. Here a man is adjusting the direction of a windmill to catch the wind. Beneath, a bird holds a twig in its beak, perhaps referring to the way that birds use the wind in flight.

Now, let’s return to the illustration of a philosopher star-gazing and a fool riding in a wheelbarrow on the page on display in the exhibition. It appears at the beginning of book IV of Physics, which studies the Heavens. A possible interpretation for this image is that it juxtaposes knowledge and foolishness. The seated philosopher inside the letter is looking up at the stars, but above him the fool could be a reminder that too much knowledge leads to madness. But as with many of the marginal images in the manuscript, there are no definite explanations.

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A coat of arms, possibly of a son of Geoffrey Beauchamp of Bedford, with one man blowing a horn and another eating, Aristotle’s Libri naturales: Harley MS 3487, f. 216r

This manuscript is an example of the skills that came together in 13th-century Oxford to produce a work that is both educational and entertaining. The thoughtful explanations and interpretations of the text, the remarkable planning and layout, and the innovative decoration and illustration, make it easy and delightful to use. The owner must have been one lucky student, and indeed a likely candidate would be the son of Geoffrey Beauchamp of Bedford (fl. c. 1256), member of one of the richest and most powerful families in England at the time.

 

Chantry Westwell

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29 May 2019

Crocodiles rock (never smile at a manuscript)

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Regular readers of our Blog may have noticed that animals are one of our favourite subjects, especially the weird and wonderful creatures that inhabit the bestiary. Some of these creatures, like the unicorn or bonnacon, are no longer to be seen; but one of the strangest beasts is still thriving (though please don’t get too close) — the crocodile. The British Library's bestiaries contain a huge variety of images of these creatures, by medieval artists who were compelled to use their imagination  — after all, one rarely encountered a crocodile when fishing for eels in the Essex mud-flats in the 13th century!

A fairly realistic depiction of a crocodile is found in this bestiary, which was in the library of Rochester Priory in the 14th century and may have been made there. This manuscript, as well as two others described in this blogpost (Royal MS 12 C XIX and Harley MS 3244), is currently on display in the exhibition Book of Beasts at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

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A crocodile in the ‘Rochester Bestiary’, 2nd quarter of the 13th century: Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 24r

The crocodile is often accompanied by its enemy, a snake-like beast from the Nile, known as the hydrus. The text describes how, when a crocodile is asleep with its mouth open, the hydrus rolls in the mud to become slippery; it slithers into the crocodile’s mouth before being swallowed. It then begins to eat its way out, killing the crocodile in the process. In the bestiary tradition, animal behaviours are seen as moral allegories; in this case the crocodile’s mouth represents the mouth of Hell, while the hydrus is Christ, who enters through the gate of Hell to redeem lost souls. In this manuscript there are two drawings of crocodiles, one with the hydrus and the other eating fish.

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A beaver with a man blowing a horn, a crocodile swallowing a hydrus, a crocodile eating fish, and a winged hyena (England, 1st quarter of the 13th century): Stowe MS 1067, ff. 2v–3r

Guillaume le Clerc, a Norman cleric and early compiler of the bestiary, described crocodiles as being shaped ‘somewhat like an ox’. The artist of one bestiary seems to have followed this trend, as their crocodile has long legs and looks more like a horse.

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Bears and a crocodile (England, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 13th century): Sloane MS 3544, f. 10v

Later in the same volume, a different artist drew a more plausible shape, although this crocodile's ears are rather dog-like.

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Another crocodile in Sloane MS 3544, f. 43r

All the early writers who described crocodiles, from Pliny to Isidore to Mandeville, were agreed that they are ferocious beasts. Some alluded to their taste for humans, while Mandeville and Bartholomaeus Anglicus mentioned the tears that they cried before swallowing their hapless prey. In this image, a crocodile (labelled 'serpens') is shown swallowing a man who is stabbing him, while a hydra emerges from a hole it has bitten in his side.

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A crocodile swallowing a man (England, 2nd quarter of the 13th century): Harley MS 3244, f. 43r 

For pure invention, the prize goes to these two artists, whose creatures resemble dinosaurs or prehistoric insects.

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A crocodile swallowing a hydrus (England, 1st quarter of the 13th century): Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 12v

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A crocodile with a knotted tail (England, early 13th century): Harley MS 4751, f. 62v. This manuscript was digitised as part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project.

Bestiaries are not the only manuscripts to contain images of crocodiles. Here are two in the margins of Psalters, one made in Constantinople and the other in England.

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A crocodile in the Bristol Psalter (Constantinople, 11th century): Add MS 40731, f. 92r

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A crocodile in the Queen Mary Psalter (England, between 1310 and 1320): Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 102v

So why blog about crocodiles? They are certainly not cuddly creatures like the dogs, cats, elephants, hedgehogs, beavers or owls that we've blogged about before. The idea came to me while I was writing another blogpost on the works of Homer. What do crocodiles have to do with Homer, one might ask? The missing link is the remarkable survival of two Egyptian papyri containing his writings, known as the ‘Harris Homer’, one in roll-form and one in book-form (Papyrus 107 and Papyrus 126).

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The Harris Homer (Egypt, 1st–2nd century): Papyrus 107, f. 1r

The papyrus roll was found in ‘the crocodile pit’ at Ma’abdey, near Monfalat, in Egypt, on 9 December 1849, before being acquired by Mr A. C. Harris. This story has been investigated by Brent Nongbri in his article ‘The Crocodile pit of Maabdeh, Florence Nightingale, and the British Museum's acquisition of the Harris Homers’, Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists, 54 (2017), 207–17. Apparently the pit was a cave on the banks of the Nile containing thousands of crocodile and human mummies, much visited by 19th-century travellers who wished to experience the thrill of being attacked by bats and encountering the spirits of dead crocodiles.

 

Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

22 May 2019

Book of Beasts at the Getty

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Bestiaries are one of the most popular medieval texts, describing the characteristics and habits of beasts real and imagined. We are delighted to say that the British Library has loaned six manuscripts to an exciting new exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Book of Beasts, curated by Elizabeth Morrison and Larisa Grollemond, explores the wonders of the medieval bestiary tradition, drawing together manuscripts, tapestries and paintings, as well as a variety of other objects.

Two of these British Library loans are magnificent 13th-century English bestiaries. The first (Royal MS 12 C XIX) contains over 80 illustrations of beasts, birds and fish, painted in gold and bright colours. This bestiary is accompanied by several theological works, including extracts from the Book of Genesis and the Etymologies of Isidore of Seville (c. 560–636), as well as a number of medical recipes. In the page illustrated here, it tells us that the camel can endure thirst for three days, and that it prefers to drink muddy water.

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A bestiary made in England (c. 1200–c. 1210): Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 33r (detail)

The second manuscript (Royal MS 12 F XIII) is now known as the Rochester Bestiary, because it belonged to the cathedral priory of St Andrew, Rochester. This manuscript includes 55 finished illustrations, although there were spaces left for 126 in total, some with added instructions in Frecnch to an illuminator. The bestiary is followed by a lapidary (an account of the properties of precious stones), written in Anglo-Norman French.

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The lion (the king of the beasts) is usually the first animal to be described in a bestiary, as found in the Rochester Bestiary (c. 1230): Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 4r

Medieval bestiaries were produced in many different forms. Another of the manuscripts on loan to the Getty contains an illustrated aviary (or text about birds) by Hugh of Fouilloy (Sloane MS 278). It is combined with the Dicta Chrysostomi, which survives in very few manuscripts from this period and contains only a small number of accounts of animals, discussed across 27 chapters. Although the title of this text — The Words of John Chrysostom on the Nature of Beasts — suggests that its author was St John Chrysostom, who lived during the 4th century, it was actually written in France around the year 1000.

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A watchful crane raises its foot, in a bestiary with Hugh of Fouilloy’s Aviarium (northern France, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 13th century): Sloane MS 278, f. 27r (detail)

Another bestiary is featured in the theological miscellany pictured below (Harley MS 3244). Made in the middle of the 13th century, the volume is a compilation of texts intended for a Dominican friar, who is depicted kneeling before Christ on f. 27r. Many of its 133 illustrations have unique designs; it includes more images of fish and insects than most other bestiaries that survive from this period, as well as a number of additions to the text itself.  

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An elephant with a ‘castle’ on its back (England, c. 1236–c. 1250): Harley MS 3244, f. 39r (detail)  

The Getty Museum's exhibition examines how artists adapted the stories and images of the bestiary for use in other medieval manuscripts and artworks. For example, we have also loaned an illustrated collection of treatises on heraldry, compiled around 1494 by a certain Adam Loutfut, a Scottish scribe in the service of Sir William Cummyn of Inverellochy (Harley MS 6149). One of its treatises describes the animals that most commonly appear on medieval coats of arms, many of which derive from the bestiary tradition.

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A page from a heraldic treatise by Adam Loutfut, including images of a modewarp (mole), tiger, horse and a bear (Scotland, c. 1494): Harley MS 6149, f. 17r

The final volume in this selection is known as ‘The Northern French Miscellany’ (Add MS 11639), a lavishly illustrated manuscript containing a variety of biblical and theological texts in Hebrew. Numerous inhabited initial-word panels appear throughout the book, some featuring vibrant images of birds and beasts, whose designs are stylistically very similar to the illustrations of bestiary manuscripts.

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An eagle lands upon an unsuspecting duck in this inhabited initial-word panel, from the Northern French Miscellany (southern Germany or France, 1277–1324): Add MS 11639, f. 107r

To explore more of the stories from the medieval ‘book of beasts’, check out our animations about the lives of the Crane and the Whale, both based on accounts and illustrations from another early illustrated bestiary (Harley MS 4751). Our own website also features an article written by Beth Morrison, Senior Curator of Manuscripts at the Getty Museum, 'Beastly tales from the medieval bestiary'.

Book of Beasts is on at the Getty Center until 18 August. We'd love you to catch it if you're in California this summer.

 

Calum Cockburn

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

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20 May 2019

Mehmed the Conqueror, scourge of the world

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The fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in 1453 brought Turkish politics closer to western Europe. The Italian merchant cities already had commercial ties with the Ottomans across the Mediterranean, but after the collapse of the Byzantine Empire, western Europeans became increasingly more interested in — and often worried by — their new eastern neighbours.

It was not only scholars, manuscripts and ideas that flowed from East to West. In the wake of the Ottoman conquest of the Byzantine Empire, the reputation of Mehmed II (1432–1481), commonly known as Mehmed the Conqueror, spread throughout Western Europe. Reports travelled of his military genius, political astuteness and cultural refinement.

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A portrait of Mehmed II in Kiyafet ül-insaniye, a description of the first twelve Ottoman sultans: Add MS 7880, f. 45v

A celebrity of the 15th century, Mehmed mesmerised his contemporaries, particularly Italian humanists and artists. Gentile Bellini was even invited to paint Mehmed’s portrait. The humanists’ fascination with the Ottoman sultan may be gauged through an epitaph for Mehmed, which started circulating soon after the sultan’s death in 1481. Previously attributed to Leonardo Griffi (1437–1485), friend of the renowned Italian humanist Francesco Filelfo (1398–1481), but now considered to have been composed anonymously, the epitaph extols Mehmed’s virtues and conquests.

An early copy of the epitaph known as ‘the epigram of the great Turk’ (epigrama magni teurci [sic]) survives in Harley MS 2455, a late-15th century manuscript written probably in Milan. The volume also contains works by Terence and Ovid and a copy of the 14th-century epitaph for Giovanni Visconti, archbishop of Milan (d. 1354), composed by Gabrio Zamorei. As Zamorei’s epitaph occurs in many other manuscripts produced in Milan, it is likely Harley 2455 may have also been written there.

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This copy of the epitaph for Mehmed II is written in a clear humanistic script: Harley MS 2455, f. 90r

The epitaph for Mehmed brings together the humanists’ fascination for the Ottoman sultan and their enthusiasm for classical antiquity. In flowing elegiac couplets, the sultan is described as the ‘dread of the world’ (timor orbis), having conquered countless peoples, kingdoms and cities. Mehmed’s conquest of Constantinople was followed by that of other major Greek cities as well as that of the Genovese colony in Crimea. He is not an equal to Alexander the Great or Hannibal, the text explains, but stands well above them.

In good humanistic tradition, the poet censures ‘proud Italy’ (superba Italia), whom the sultan would have conquered had the fates not conspired against him. Mehmed may have the whole world, but in the face of death, the poet concludes, human pride, magnificence, empires and gold perish without a trace.

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Portrait of Mehmed II by Gentile Bellini, in the collections of the National Gallery, London

The British Library has recently started to upgrade the catalogue records of the Harley manuscripts, including Harley MS 2455. You can read an introduction to this project here.

 

Cristian Ispir

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval #HarleyMSS

15 May 2019

Cataloguing the Harley manuscripts

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In recent months, the British Library has started to revise the online catalogue descriptions of manuscripts in the Harley collection. Sold to the nation in 1753, the Harley manuscripts form one of the Library's foundation collections. The collection comprises more than 7,000 manuscripts, 14,000 charters and 500 rolls, spanning the period from the 8th to the 17th centuries. Some of these manuscripts are already well-known — such as the Harley Psalter (Harley MS 603), the 'Book of the Queen', containing the works of Christine de Pizan (Harley MS 4431), and the Book of Thomas More (Harley MS 7368) — but many of them have received less attention than they deserve. Our cataloguing project aims to make them more accessible.

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Two famous manuscripts in the Harley collection: the Harley Psalter (Harley MS 603, f. 8r) and the 'Book of the Queen', with a miniature of Christine de Pizan (Harley MS 4431, f. 4r)

The Harleian library was founded in October 1704, when Robert Harley (1661–1724) purchased more than 600 manuscripts from the collection of Sir Simonds d’Ewes (1602–1650). In 1711, Harley was made 1st Earl of Oxford and Mortimer; after that date, his son, Edward Harley (1689–1741), was most active in augmenting the collection. The 1710s saw further groups of important English manuscripts enter the library, and from about 1717 the Harleys began using overseas agents to purchase manuscripts from Continental Europe, especially France, Germany and Italy. Numerous important British and foreign collections were auctioned in London in the 1720s, allowing further acquisitions.

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A painting of Humfrey Wanley by Thomas Hill, at the Society of Antiquaries: Wanley holds a Greek lectionary, while the Guthlac Roll (Harley Roll Y 6) hangs by his side

A prominent role in the formation of the library was played by Humfrey Wanley (1672–1726), who became library-keeper to the Harleys in 1708. His diary (Lansdowne MSS 771–772) and letters are an important resource for understanding the growth of the collection.

Edward Harley bequeathed the library to his widow, Henrietta Cavendish Harley, countess of Oxford and Mortimer (1694–1755), during her lifetime, and thereafter to their daughter, Margaret Cavendish Bentinck, duchess of Portland (1715–1785). In 1753, the manuscripts were sold by the Countess and the Duchess to the nation for £10,000 under the Act of Parliament that also established the British Museum.

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A page from the printed catalogue of the Harley manuscripts, published in 1808, showing the descriptions of Harley MSS 4990–4994

The Harley manuscripts were described systematically in the catalogue printed in four volumes between 1808 and 1812. This reference tool is a product of its own time, and is of limited use for modern users. Some of the Harley manuscripts have been catalogued and digitised in recent years (for example, by The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project), but the vast majority have not been described since the 19th century. Our cataloguing project will create new online records for these manuscripts, as well as augmenting existing descriptions on the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

As time progresses, the new records of the Harley manuscripts will be made available on the Library's Explore Archives and Manuscripts online catalogue. We have started by focusing on manuscripts referenced in surveys such as Andrew Watson’s Catalogue of Dated and Datable Manuscripts c. 700-1600 in the Department of Manuscripts, the British Library (London, 1979), and in Ruth Dean & Maureen Boulton’s Anglo-Norman Literature (London, 1999). More records are being added every week.

Many manuscripts were described inadequately in the printed catalogue, which we are now attempting to remedy. For example, one 15th-century manuscript containing a fragment of an important textbook about rules for teaching correct French, was previously described as: ‘Formulas of letters, charters, obligations, etc, partly on parchment, partly on paper. 15th century.’

Harley catalogue - Copy

We have now been able to identify this textbook as the popular Orthographia Gallica, sometimes attributed to Thomas Sampson, a 14th-century teacher of letter writing at Oxford.

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Grammatical works such as Thomas Sampson's Ars Dictamini and Orthographia Gallica are included in this 15th-century volume: Harley MS 4993, ff. 21v–22r

Meanwhile, this manuscript, described in the printed catalogue as a gospel-book, contains one of the earliest example of polyphonic music from England.

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An early 13th-century Latin chant with musical notation and text guides: Harley MS 5393, f. 80v

The Harley collection also contains some fascinating 17th-century manuscripts. Harley MS 1960 is a anthology of riddles written by members of the Holme family in Chester. One riddle reads: ‘ten teeth & neer a tongue, it is sport for old & yong: I pulled it out of my yellow fleece & tickled it well on the belly piece’. The solution is ‘one playing on a violin’.

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The 17th-century manuscript contains around 144 riddles, listed as questions and answers: Harley MS 1960, f. 15v

Some little-known manuscripts reveal unsuspected gems. For example, an ABC illustrated poem, in which each stanza features a richly decorated initial, is found in Harley MS 1704.

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This decorated initial 'N' in a 17th-century manuscript is a reminder of the glory of medieval manuscript illumination: Harley 1704, f. 155r

As our cataloguing project progresses, we will publish more blogposts about our discoveries. We will also be tweeting about the Harley manuscripts via @BLMedieval, using the hashtag #HarleyMSS. Make sure you follow us closely.

 

Cristian Ispir, Clarck Drieshen and Julian Harrison

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

10 May 2019

How many alphabets?

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The exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark, exploring 5,000 years of writing across the globe, is on at the British Library until 27 August. But how many different ways of writing were there?

The manuscripts digitised for The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project were mostly written in medieval Latin, English and French, and in the Roman alphabet; but we have found all kinds of alphabets and sign systems among their leaves, including ciphers, monastic sign language, and many more.

Many Christian scholars in early medieval western Europe might not have been able to read Greek and Hebrew, but they were aware of their importance as the original languages of the Bible. (You can read more about their understanding of Hebrew in this article.) Certain scribes attempted to copy out these alphabets. One such example is found in an 11th-century compilation of scientific works by writers such as Hrabanus Maurus and Isidore of Seville. The scribe copied approximations of the Greek and Hebrew alphabets, with the letter names in Latin, but apparently didn’t understand them, as the two alphabets are mixed up with each other.

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A version of the Greek and Hebrew alphabets from Salisbury, 4th quarter of the 11th century: Cotton MS Vitellius A XII, f. 45r

Another, somewhat more accurate, example is found in a collection called Scutum Bede, compiled by Geoffrey of Ufford in the 12th century, and made up of historical and grammatical treatises, including lists of kings, a biblical world history, and a trilingual list of animals, plants and stones. This page gives the Hebrew and Greek alphabets together with their names in Latin.

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The Hebrew and Greek alphabets in the Scutum Bede collection of historical and grammatical works, perhaps from Peterborough, c. 1154: Stowe MS 57, f. 3r

Biblical knowledge was not the only source of alternative alphabets. Before Latin literacy was common in England, the runic alphabet was sometimes used for writing inscriptions. The runic letters þ (th) and ƿ (w) were subsequently added to the Roman alphabet, as they were necessary for writing the sounds of English. The 11th-century scientific compilation already mentioned includes three different versions of a runic alphabet, followed by the words ‘pax vobiscum et salus pax’ ('peace and health be with you, peace').

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Three runic alphabets, in a manuscript from Salisbury: Cotton MS Vitellius A XII, f. 65r.

Another ancient alphabet is Ogham, used for inscribing stone monuments, usually in Old Irish. The scribe of the Scutum Bede had a go at this: each sign is shown alongside runic letters.

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Ogham-style signs and runic letters, perhaps from Peterborough: Stowe MS 57, f. 3v.

Another writing system was specifically designed for the manuscript page. Tironian notes were attributed to Tiro, the slave and personal secretary to Cicero, and were a kind of shorthand for representing different Latin letters and words. Some of these symbols ended up being used in place of common words in Latin: for example, the symbol ‘7’ was adopted in Old English to mean ‘and’. But there were entire lexicons full of Tironian symbols, including these two manuscripts digitised by The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project.

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A lexicon of Tironian notes from western France, 10th century: Add MS 21164, f. 3r.

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Another lexicon of Tironian notes from central France, 9th century: Add MS 37518, f. 27r

If a scribe had enough knowledge of Tironian notes, they could copy out the entire Psalter in them. This image is from the opening of Psalm 50, ‘Miserere mei Deus’ (‘Have mercy on me, O God’), which, as the rubric in the Roman alphabet explains, was attributed to David after the prophet Nathan confronted him about his adultery with Bathsheba. You can see the manuscript in Writing: Making Your Mark.

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A Psalter written in Tironian notes, from north-eastern France, 4th quarter of the 9th century:  Add MS 9046, f. 24v.

Finally, there is the list of symbols found in the Cosmographia, an 8th-century work supposedly by  Aethicus Ister, which describes a journey around the world. One 12th-century copy of the text ends with an alphabet attributed to Aethicus Ister, but it is not one which is known to have been used. So even an entirely fictional alphabet can be found in a manuscript from medieval England.

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The alphabet of Aethicus Ister, with the letter names written out in the Roman alphabet, England, mid-12th century: Cotton MS Appendix LVI, f. 90r.

 

Kate Thomas

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval #PolonskyPre1200

 

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