29 November 2022
On 31 December 1313, infanta doña Blanca of Portugal (b. 1259, d. 1321), the first-born daughter of Alfonso III, King of Portugal (r. 1238–1248), and granddaughter of Alfonso X the Wise, King of Castile (r. 1252–1284), made charitable donations to various religious houses, churches and hospitals in Castile. Collectively, her donations amounted to over 20,000 maravedís (the currency of the Castilian Kingdom), a small fortune at the time. The details of Blanca’s grants are recorded in a document housed at the British Library (Add Ch 24806), written in Spanish and affixed with her personal seal. This is one of three original charters made at the time. The others are now in the Archivo de la Catedral de Burgos and the Archivo del Monasterio de Las Huelgas respectively. The charter held at the British Library has recently been digitised as part of our Medieval and Renaissance Women project and it can now be viewed online for the first time.
Grant of Doña Blanca of Portugal: Add Ch 24806
The principal beneficiary listed in the charter is the Cistercian abbey of Las Huelgas de Burgos, a royal foundation established by the Castilian king, Alfonso VIII (r. 1158–1214), and Leonor Plantagenet (b. 1160, d. 1214), his wife. From its foundation, Las Huelgas was known as a female convent with strong ties to royal women. Many members of the Castilian royal family professed there as nuns, and some of them performed the role of the Lady or señora of the Abbey.
The particularities of this role changed throughout the centuries, but fundamentally it allowed royal women to hold influence over the abbey and to ensure its preeminent position as a religious and economic centre in the kingdom. The responsibility for the abbey’s religious rule and day-to-day running remained with the abbess. Blanca became the Lady of Las Huelgas in 1295, after professing as a nun at the monastery at the request of her uncle, King Sancho IV (r. 1284–1295).
A portrait of Blanca (her name is spelled 'BRANCA') in the ‘Portuguese Genealogies’ (16th century): Add MS 12531/3, f. 9r
Blanca gave generous sums of money to the women of Las Huelgas. Her charter includes detailed instructions of how much money each woman was to receive yearly:
A la abbadesa, dozientos maravedís; a cada una de las monjas, çient maravedís, a cada una de las que fueren para monjas, setenta marevedís; a cada una de las freyras, quarenta maravedís; a cada una de las que fueren para freyras, veynte e çinco marevedís. E mando que den cada anno a tres para ser monjas a cada una trezientos maravedís.
‘To the abbess, 200 maravedís; to each nun, 100 maravedís; to each novice, 70 maravedís; to each freyra [a type of nun], 40 maravedís; to each woman preparing to be a freyra, 25 maravedís. And I order that every year they give to three women who want to join the convent as nuns 300 maravedís’.
The abbey of Santa María la Real de Las Huelgas, Burgos, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The other significant beneficiary of Blanca’s donations was the nearby Hospital del Rey. Like the abbey of Las Huelgas, the Hospital del Rey had been founded in the 12th century by King Alfonso VIII and Queen Leonor, and its connection with the royal family continued throughout the medieval period. The hospital received 6,000 maravedís in Blanca’s bequests, to be spent on the care and nursing of the poor, as well as to buy livestock to feed them. Many other religious institutions also benefited from Blanca's grant, including the church of Santa María in Burgos, the church of Santa María in Briviesca, the monastery of Santa Clara of Alcocer in Guadalajara, the monastery of Santo Domingo de Caleruega in Burgos, as well as the lepers of San Lázaro and the ‘emparedadas’ (anchorites) in Burgos.
A map of the beneficiaries of Blanca’s donations, courtesy of ArcGIS StoryMaps
Blanca’s donations were an attempt to guarantee her personal legacy and spiritual salvation. Alongside her grants, she provided specific instructions about how she wanted to be remembered by the religious community of Las Huelgas, where she was buried after her death in 1321. Most notably, she arranged for the sisters to commemorate the vigil and the anniversary of her death with 12 wax candles every year, which were to weigh exactly 10 pounds (‘cada çirio de diez libras de cera’). On the anniversary itself, the monastery had to distribute food-alms to the poor, made up of bread, wine and meat. During the year, eight chaplains had to give prayers for Blanca’s soul every day.
The tomb of Blanca of Portugal at Las Huelgas, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Blanca’s grant functioned as a display of the piety and patronage expected from a royal infanta and the Lady of Las Huelgas. It also demonstrates how, through their donations, women were able to change the social and economic landscape of the territories over which they ruled.
Blanca of Portugal’s fragmentary seal: Add Ch 24806
We are extremely grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for their generous funding of Medieval and Renaissance Women. We will publish more updates about the project on this Blog over the coming months.
10 November 2022
History records that Alexander the Great was the son of King Philip II of Macedon and Queen Olympias. (A rumour that his real father was the Egyptian pharoah Nectanebus is described in our blogpost A pharaoh in disguise). But having royal parents was never enough for a popular medieval hero; they were expected to have an entire dynasty of illustrious ancestors. And so various prequels were written, conjuring up marvellous origins for Alexander, and mixing real people with invented characters.
One of these origin stories is found in the French Roman de Florimont. This tells of Alexander's imaginary grandparents, the Albanian hero, Florimont, or ‘flower of the world’, and Romadanaple, a beautiful princess. Florimont was the son of Mataquas, Duke of Albania, and his wife Edonia, while Romadanaple’s parents were a certain King Philip of Greece, and Amorydale, daughter of the ‘King of Africa’.
Alexander the Great’s parents, King Philip of Macedon and Queen Olympias, in Histoire ancienne jusqu'a César (France, 14th century): Royal MS 16 G VII, f. 121r
The romance of Florimont begins in Greece. King Philip, having founded the city of Philippolis, is under attack from the evil Camdiobras, King of Hungary. Philip has a beautiful daughter, Romadanaple, who he keeps hidden from her numerous suitors; but she becomes the subject of unwelcome attentions from Camdiobras, who threatens to carry her off. Meanwhile, in Albania, Duke Mataquas has a son named Florimont, whose destiny is revealed to him in a dream — he sees a lion cub leaving his palace to join a powerful male lion, then going on to defeat a monster and a huge wild boar.
But all doesn't proceed simply. The young Florimont falls under the spell of the Lady of the Island of Celée, who takes him to her enchanted world. He is rescued by his mother and freed from the spell, but spends some time wandering about under the name Pauvre Perdu (poor lost boy). At last, Florimont joins a group of warriors who are riding to rescue King Philip from Camdiobras. By single-handedly defeating the Hungarian attacker, Florimont wins the hand of the beautiful Romadanaple and her inheritance, which he unites with his own.
The coronation of Florimont and Romadanaple, in the Livre du Roy Florimont fiz du duc d'Albanye: Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France, ms français 12566, f. 179v
Florimont goes on to have many adventures, including defeating a monstrous sea dragon and returning to Albania to rescue his parents from a giant, who has imprisoned them in a castle. Most importantly, Florimont and Romadanaple have a son, who becomes Philip II of Macedon. Philip marries Olympias and their son is none other than Alexander the Great.
Aimon de Varennes, author of the romance of Florimont, was a native of Chatillon d’Azergues in the Lyonnais district of France. Aimon claimed to have unearthed the tale during a trip to Philippopolis (now Plovdiv in Bulgaria).
Aimon may have travelled to that part of the world, but his assertion that he translated the text from Greek to Latin and then into French appears to be fictive. His Romance does retain certain ‘Greek’ words, which demonstrate a very elementary knowledge of the language. The author’s intentions and his claims as to the origins of the tale are laid out in the prequel in a 13th-century manuscript of the Roman de Florimont (Harley MS 4487).
Aymez….Fist le Rommans si sagement
Il lavoit en grece veue ...
A Phelippole la trova
A chastillon len aporta
Ainsi com il lavoit enpris
Lat de latin en romanz mis
('Aymon conceived the romance well
He had seen it in Greece
He found it in Philippolis
Brought it to Chatillon
As he had learned it
He changed it from Latin into Romance')
(f. 3r, column 1, lines 8–9; 31–36)
The opening page of the manuscript with the author’s name and a 14th century ownership inscription in the lower margin, 'Pierre Derloit prestre ?Corodathis' (?Lotharingia, 1295): Harley MS 4487, f. 3r
Towards the end of the tale, Aimon even claims that French is not his mother tongue:
As fransois voel de tant server
Que ma langue lor est sauvage
(f. 85v, column 2, lines 13–14)
You can discover more tales connected to Alexander in our major exhibition, Alexander the Great: the Making of a Myth. The show is open at the British Library until 19 February 2023, and tickets can be purchased online or in person, subject to availability.
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08 November 2022
A Psalter, a silver belt, brooches and clasps, Parisian jewels, brown bread from Cologne, nuts and pears: these are all items that Queen Eleanor of Castile (r. 1272–1290) bought between September 1289 and December 1290. Eleanor was the queen consort of the English king, Edward I (r. 1272–1307), and her wardrobe account (Add MS 35294), compiled by her treasurer, John of Berewyk (fl. 1279–1312), contains a set of her receipts and expenses from the final year of her life.
The first page of Eleanor’s wardrobe account: Add MS 35294, f. 3r
This account may seem humble in appearance, but it opens a window into the world of Eleanor’s court, her household, and her day-to-day life. The expenses listed range from the most mundane and everyday items, such as her food, payments to her messengers, and the maintenance of her horses, to the incredibly lavish and luxurious, including purchases of jewels, pearls and Venetian glasses. The payments are expressed in pounds, shillings and pence. Here is a typical entry, in this case recording the queen’s purchase of writing materials:
Parcamenum. xvj die Februarii ibidem pro parcameno empto ad letteras Regine et ad libros Garderobe. xxd.
'Parchment. 16 February , in the same place. For parchment bought for the letters and wardrobe books of the queen, 20 pence.'
Entry from 16 February 1290 recording expenses on parchment: Add MS 35294, f. 6v
Between 1289 and 1290, Eleanor bought ink and several rolls of parchment for her letters and wardrobe accounts, as well as red wax to seal her letters, and gold for illuminating her manuscripts. The queen even had an illuminator in her retinue, Godfrey ‘pictor’, who was responsible for decorating her books and is also mentioned in the accounts. All these purchases demonstrate that Queen Eleanor was an avid reader and writer, a woman interested in the patronage of illuminated manuscripts, and that she was in frequent contact with her networks through the exchange of letters.
A number of Eleanor’s letters have survived to the present day. They include another letter digitised and catalogued as part of our Medieval and Renaissance Women project, dating from 1280, in which Eleanor granted power to William de Verges, yeoman, to do fealty in her name to Guy, Count of Flanders, for the land that had fallen to her by hereditary right.
Letter of Eleanor of Castile with her seal, sent to Guy, Count of Flanders: Add Ch 8129
Eleanor’s wardrobe account also provides insight into her personal interests. Her treasurer recorded payments that relate to the queen’s homeland — the kingdom of Castile — and that show Eleanor’s longstanding connection to her native kingdom. For example, one entry indicates that the queen bought vestments and tunics of Spanish cloth (‘de panno Ispannie’), while another shows that Eleanor bought gum for the illumination of her manuscripts from the Iberian Peninsula (‘gumma alba de Ispannia’). The wardrobe account also records payments made to the queen’s own fowler (or bird hunter), as well as the purchase of birds (avibus, volucres). This shows the queen’s interest in hunting, which she continued to practise until the end of her life.
Bas-de-page of the Alphonso Psalter (c 1284–1316), depicting a crowned woman hunting, suggested to be Eleanor of Castile: Add MS 24686, f. 13v
The final entries from Eleanor’s wardrobe account include several payments relating to the queen’s death on 28 November 1290, when she was 49 years old, as well as the arrangements made for her funeral between November and December 1290. Eleanor’s treasurer notably paid 7 pence to buy a bushel of barley, used as part of the procedure of embalming the queen’s body (‘pro uno bussello ardei empto ad ponendum in corpus Regine’). This was a common practice for English medieval monarchs. The wardrobe account even records Eleanor's death, with a small marginal note in Latin that reads ‘decessus regine’.
The queen’s effigy from her tomb: courtesy of Westminster Abbey
We are extremely grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for their generous funding of Medieval and Renaissance Women. We will publish regular updates about the project on this Blog over the coming months.
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05 November 2022
Nectanebus II was the last pharaoh and native king of Egypt, who reigned from approximately 360 to 342 BC. His rule began relatively successfully, but he fled Egypt after he was defeated by the Persian ruler, Artaxerxes III. Little is known of his life thereafter, but rumours spread that Nectanebus had an affair with Olympias, queen of Macedonia, and that he fathered her illegitimate son. That boy grew up to become one of the most famous people in the ancient world: Alexander the Great. You can explore their story in our major exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth.
Olympias enthroned with Nectanebus wearing a white robe and holding a case of astronomical instruments, in Le livre et la vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre (Paris, c. 1420–1425): Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 7r
Stories about Alexander’s alleged Egyptian origins gained considerable popularity during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. They included legends about his life and conquests, such as the Greek Alexander Romance attributed to Pseudo-Callisthenes. This Greek romance became the main source for later medieval legends of the Macedonian conqueror, many of which began with extended prologues recounting Alexander’s conception via Olympias’s (not so) secret affair with Nectanebus, the exiled pharaoh.
‘Nectanebus King of Egypt’ enthroned, in the prose Roman d'Alexandre (Southern Netherlands, c. 1290–1300): Harley MS 4979, f. 4v
Some medieval texts embraced the rumours of Alexander’s Egyptian ancestry. Other authors were more sceptical and condemned them as slandering the Macedonian queen’s fidelity to her husband, King Philip II of Macedonia. Even in texts that claimed Philip to be Alexander's real father, Nectanebus still played a key role in Alexander’s early life as his childhood mentor, teaching him how to read the stars and prophesise the future.
In the prime of his reign as pharaoh, Nectanebus was a skilled practitioner of astrology and divination. According to the Greek Alexander Romance, he would regularly procure a bronze basin of rain or spring water and would use miniature ships to predict the outcomes of sea battles. He could also influence the fate of battles by moulding wax figures of men and bringing them to life, only to sabotage the miniature boats in his water basin, meaning that the real enemy ships would sink.
Nectanebus in his chamber, enchanting a basin of water: Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 4v
One day, to his misfortune, Nectanebus foresaw his own downfall with the invasion of Artaxerxes, and the pharaoh decided to flee, knowing that it was too late to change his fate. Nectanebus had his head shaved in disguise and he soon established himself as an Egyptian prophet in Macedonia.
Nectanebus being shaved, observing the stars and fleeing from Egypt: Harley MS 4979, f. 6v
Word of his wondrous prophetic skills spread in Macedonia, until Nectanebus eventually caught the attention of the beautiful Queen Olympias. She approached the prophet for advice since she had been unable to conceive an heir by King Philip, and was worried that she would be deposed and that Philip would re-marry.
Nectanebus had also supposedly read Olympias’s future, predicting that she would conceive a son by the god Ammon, who would appear to her in a dream in the form of a serpent or dragon. But this was all part of the exiled pharaoh’s deceptive plan, since that night he disguised himself as Ammon. Manuscript illuminations usually depict the seduction scene with Nectanebus as a human, embracing Olympias in bed, while a dragon watches over them, representing his serpentine disguise.
Nectanebus addressing Olympias, and embracing each other in bed while a dragon watches over them, in the Talbot Shrewsbury Book (Rouen, 1444–1445): Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 6r
When Olympias became pregnant, she was accused of infidelity. The Legend reveals that Nectanebus salvaged her reputation by transforming into a dragon at a royal banquet, demonstrating to Philip and the slanderers that it really was the god Ammon who had visited Olympias’s bedchamber and fathered her child.
Nectanebus as a dragon approaching Olympias at a banquet (Paris, 1333– c. 1340): Royal MS 19 D I, f. 4v
When Alexander the Great was born, Nectanebus was supposed to become the child’s mentor, teaching him the astrological arts. But Nectanebus soon met his tragic end. The adolescent Alexander pushed him off a cliff, mocking the fact that Nectanebus could not foresee his own death, despite claiming to be a skilled prophet.
Alexander and an attendant watch while Nectanebus falls to his death: Royal MS 19 D I, f. 5v
The whereabouts of Nectanebus’s burial is unknown. In the medieval romance tradition, he was laid to rest when Alexander ordered a burial for him after finally discovering that his real father was the last pharaoh of Egypt.
Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth runs at the British Library until 19 February 2023. Tickets can be bought in advance or in person, subject to availability.
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27 October 2022
The British Library’s major exhibition Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth takes visitors on a remarkable journey through the legends and stories connected with one of the ancient world’s most renowned figures: Alexander the Great. The main source and inspiration for the stories highlighted in the show was the legendary Life of Alexander, known as the Alexander Romance, one of the most popular texts of ancient literature.
Alexander ascends to heaven with griffins, in the Old French Prose Alexander Romance (Paris, c. 1340): Royal MS 19 D I, f. 37r (detail)
Legends about Alexander's life, conquests and adventures had started in his own lifetime. Some stories were instigated by Alexander himself to legitimise his rule, others were spread by his soldiers and generals. The first stories were recorded in writing by Alexander’s companions, who collected their memoirs of the king’s conquests. Apart from some fragments quoted in other texts, these works are all now lost. But the stories themselves were often preserved in later histories of Alexander, such as Plutarch’s biography of him from the 1st century AD and Appian’s chronicle of his conquests from the 2nd century AD.
Plutarch's Life of Alexander, in the Latin translation by Guarino of Verona (Florence, 1470): Harley MS 3485, f. 367r (detail)
During his conquests, Alexander was accompanied by eminent scientists of his time. They jotted down wonders of the lands they visited, although once again only fragments of these works survive. This 2,200-year-old papyrus preserves a similar text. It talks about a legendary nation that beheaded its enemies, cut out their tongues and minced them with flour to serve as a special treat for dinner. The identification of these people is problematic but similarly gruesome stories are mentioned in Alexander’s adventures.
An account of barbaric customs (Gurob, Egypt, 3rd century BC): Papyrus 489
The fantastical stories of Alexander, retold by historians, scientists and travellers, inspired others to fill in the gaps of the king’s life, wondering what he may have said or written in particular situations. Imagining such scenes was so popular that it was used in ancient education to teach students creative writing. This 2,000-year-old papyrus preserves such a school-text. It contains the homework of a child who was tasked to make up what Alexander would have said after he defeated Darius, the emperor of the Persians. The pupil's shaky hand devises a short speech for Alexander, in which he generously praises his dead opponent and demands a royal burial for him.
A model speech in the name of Alexander the Great (Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, AD 150–225): Papyrus 756
The most successful of these fictitious texts had a life of their own. One popular composition by an unknown author was a letter supposedly written by Alexander to his former teacher, Aristotle, about the marvels of the Eastern realms of the earth. Written originally in Greek and later translated into many languages, this letter depicts fantastic episodes faced by the Macedonian army on its long journey beyond India, featuring men with six hands, giant crabs, deadly sirens, a tooth-tyrant, and a monstrous three-horned beast that killed 26 men at once.
Beginning of Alexander’s Letter to Aristotle about the Sights and Miracles of India, preserved in a 15metre-long chronicle roll (England, possibly Battle Abbey, 2nd quarter of the 13th century): Cotton Roll XIV 12, membrane 4
Around the 3rd century AD, in Alexandria, this rich array of stories, travelogues, speeches and letters was collected into one large narrative of Alexander’s life resulting in one of the most beloved books created in Antiquity — the Alexander Romance.
Alexander’s entry to Rome with the senators bowing, from the earliest illuminated Greek manuscript of the Alexander Romance (Eastern Mediterranean, 13th century): Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Barocci 17, f. 28v
Originally written in Greek, the Romance contains the life of Alexander coloured with extraordinary legends. It records his mythical origins from a dragon-shaped pharaoh, retelling his wise words and letters he exchanged with philosophers, politicians and kings, and the extraordinary battles he fought on land and water. It regales us with the most incredible adventures credited to Alexander, including his descent into the sea, his flight into the heavens and his encounters with monsters of the East taken from his fictitious epistle to Aristotle.
Alexander facing the headless giants (Blemmydae), in the Old French Prose Alexander Romance (Paris, 1420): Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 80r (detail)
Soon after its composition, the text underwent incredible transformations. New stories were added to the original narrative from a variety of sources, creating an entangled network of Greek versions of the text. These variants were then translated into many of the languages of the medieval Mediterranean, from Coptic, Armenian and Syriac, through Latin, Arabic, Persian and Ethiopian, and onwards to a plethora of medieval vernaculars including French, English, German and Russian.
'The Strange Men Found by King Alexander of Macedon', a hand-coloured engraving (Russia, c. 1820): British Museum 1934,0402.24
The British Library's Alexander the Great exhibition provides a stunning insight into the evolution of this medieval bestseller, showing how stories and legends were transmitted and adapted across two millennia. In different eyes, Alexander could be viewed as a powerful monarch, a mighty conqueror, a formidable tyrant, a wise philosopher, an inspired prophet or an all-knowing magician.
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21 October 2022
The British Library’s new exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, open until 19 February 2023, invites visitors on a mythical journey across time and space. Following in the footsteps of one of the most famous figures of the ancient world, you'll encounter the many lands and legends of Alexander the Great.
The Marriage of Alexander the Great, Firdawsi, Shahnamah, Sultanate India, 1438: Or 1403, f. 318r
Visitors to the exhibition will witness Alexander’s mysterious conception involving snakes and dragons, and will attend his birth surrounded by ominous portents of an exceptional career and a life of unparalleled adventures. The stories of Alexander’s origins are revealed through ancient objects and lavishly decorated medieval manuscripts, including the famous Talbot-Shrewsbury Book from the 15th century. This luxurious collection of legends, made for a royal patron, Margaret of Anjou (the future wife of King Henry VI of England), contains some of the most evocative illustrations of Alexander’s adventures.
Alexander’s conception from Nectanebo the magician, who convinced Olympias, Alexander’s mother, that a god in the shape of a dragon would visit her in her sleep, but it was in fact he who came to her bed and fathered Alexander; in the Roman d’Alexandre en Prose, the Talbot-Shrewsbury Book, Rouen 1444–45: Royal MS 15 E VI , f. 6r (detail)
Becoming the ruler of Macedon at the early age of 20, Alexander soon conquered the Balkans, marching on to attack his arch- enemy, the Persian Empire under King Darius III. After a series of battles, the two opponents faced each other in a final confrontation at Gaugamela in modern-day Iran. The battle, described in Persian poetry as a war of 'ants and locusts', inspired authors and artists across the world from the medieval West and the Middle East to the Caucasus. A strikingly dramatic representation is shown in one of the gems of the exhibition: the richly decorated Armenian version of Alexander’s legends from 1544, on generous loan from the John Rylands Library, Manchester.
Alexander (left) facing Darius, the Persian Emperor (right), from the Armenian Alexander Romance, Constantinople, 1544, John Rylands Library, The University of Manchester: Armenian MS 3, ff. 43v–44r
After defeating the Persians at the battle of Gaugamela, Alexander marched further east. In one of his greatest military successes, he defeated the elephant-army of King Porus of India, and conquered today’s Punjab. This victorious battle is represented on an exceptional treasure, probably from Alexander’s lifetime or not much later. Known as the Porus Medallion, this silver medal, on loan from the British Museum, commemorates this triumph with a rare representation of Alexander attacking a war elephant.
Alexander (left on a horse) and the bearded Porus, king of India, (right on an elephant), The Porus Medallion, Babylon(?), c. 323BC, © Trustees of the British Museum 1887,0609,1.
Alexander is famous for his desire to know and see more than anyone before him, and the legends take him beyond India to explore the marvels and wonders of the unknown realms of the world. The exhibition follows him on these fabulous journeys, as he faces giants and cannibals, fantastic beasts and monsters. We see Alexander taming the mythical griffins who will carry him to explore the sky in a flying machine. An unusual representation of this scene, on loan from the V&A, shows Alexander’s flight in exquisite metalwork, possibly from a 12th-century altar or cross.
Alexander exploring the sky in a carriage of griffins, The Rolls Plaque, Liege 1150–1160, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London, M.53-1988
Traversing the wonders of the East, our visitors will accompany Alexander as he consults the talking Trees of the Sun and Moon about his future. They'll follow him as he reaches Paradise but is refused admission, turning back towards Babylon to be crowned king of the world. Here we see the celebrations interrupted by bad omens. One of these is beautifully represented in a 700-year-old Persian manuscript, the earliest illustrated copy of the great Persian poet Nizami’s epic about Alexander, loaned by the Chester Beatty in Dublin. A terror-struck Alexander examines a still- born child that is half-beast, half-human, an ominous sign that predicts his imminent death.
Alexander examining the portentous child, Firdawsi, Shahnamah (Book of Kings): The Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, Per. 104.49
The omen was reliable: a few days later Alexander was dead. Some legends claim he was poisoned, others blame malaria and, according to new research, he may have died from alcohol poisoning. Whatever the truth, he did not rest even in death. After a fierce debate over his final resting place, Alexander's generals agreed that his body should be carried home. On the way to Macedon, his general Ptolemy hijacked the sumptuous funeral procession and took Alexander’s coffin to Egypt.
A Roman and a Persian debate the final destination of Iskandar’s coffin as it is carried from Babylon, from Fidawsi, Shahnamah, Ishafan 1640: IO Islamic 3682, f. 344
Reaching Alexandria, Egypt’s new capital founded by Alexander, Ptolemy built a magnificent tomb for the king. Although it served as a pilgrimage site for centuries, the tomb had mysteriously disappeared by the 5th century AD, never to be found again ... or had it?!?
We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for their support towards the exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors.
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13 October 2022
Purgatory weighed heavily on the minds of many medieval Christians. Each sin they committed in life meant they would spend longer in Purgatory before ascending to Heaven. For the famous poet Dante Alighieri (c. 1265–1321), Purgatory could involve great suffering, with the prideful crushed under stones and the envious having their eyes sewn up.
Dante and Virgil at the gates of Purgatory (left); Dante speaking with one of the Proud, who are punished in Purgatory by carrying heavy stones (right): Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 84r
A whole industry grew up around minimising one’s time in Purgatory. Monasteries and chantries prayed for the dead, in the hopes that this would speed their journey to Heaven. But another method was to get an indulgence. These could be earned through certain acts, like making a pilgrimage to a particular shrine, or simply buying one from various collectors appointed by the Church. In return, people believed that the indulgence gave certain spiritual benefits, such as absolution from part of a person’s sins, which meant a shorter time in Purgatory. The funds from the sale of indulgences sometimes went towards specific projects, like the construction of a cathedral, or to support particular monasteries, hospitals or religious orders.
One of the manuscripts digitised as part of the Library’s Medieval and Renaissance Women project is just such a document. Stowe Ch 607 is an indulgence issued in 1439 to two sisters, Margery and Anna Dicks, which allowed them to choose their own confessor who could offer a full remission of sins. Although hand-written, this indulgence was mass produced, with blank spaces left for the names of whoever bought it. The text states that their money would go towards the conversion of the Greeks (that is, from Greek Orthodox to Roman Catholic Christianity) and the defence of Christendom’s frontiers.
An indulgence of Pope Eugenius IV, issued by Peter de Monte to Margery and Anna Dicks, 1439: Stowe Ch 607
This particular indulgence was issued in the name of Pope Eugenius IV (r. 1431–1447) by Peter de Monte (c. 1400–1457), the controversial papal collector for England from 1435 to 1441. At the time of the Reformation, indulgence collectors were often accused of corruption by Protestants like Martin Luther, whose Ninety-Five Theses (1517) was written in response to the collector Johann Tetzel, but such men also came in for criticism in the 1400s. The Pardoner of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales carried several fake relics, from a collection of pig bones to a pillowcase which he claimed was the Virgin Mary’s veil, selling them to gullible village priests. Dissidents like the Lollards and many church reformers also criticised indulgences and those who sold them. Thomas Gascoigne (1404–1458), who was chancellor of Oxford University in the 1440s, wrote that people could buy indulgences ‘for an offering of ale, and others for a loathsome act of sin; and others had baskets full of letters of indulgence to sell them throughout the country to whoever wanted to buy them.’
A portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer in a manuscript of The Canterbury Tales: Lansdowne MS 851, f. 2r
In 1444, Peter de Monte was to be investigated by the archbishop of Canterbury and two other churchmen, following rumours that he had received huge sums of money from these indulgences, but had sent only a small amount to the papal coffers. Later, Gascoigne named de Monte as one of the corrupt sellers of indulgences, calling him a ‘very arrogant Lombard’ (he was actually Venetian). Gascoigne alleged that some people had received indulgences from de Monte in return for ‘false carnal pleasure’, and he claimed that when de Monte lost a game of football, he would give the winner a sealed indulgence instead of money.
A letter from Peter de Monte in the Book of Margery Kempe: Add MS 61823, f. vii recto
We know little about Margery and Anna, not even the amount they paid for their indulgence (which would have been based on their wealth and status). A partial indulgence, that remitted only certain sins, could easily cost a skilled tradesman a week's salary. The type purchased by Margery and Anna (known as a plenary indulgence) would have cost considerably more. We can only assume that they believed in its effectiveness of shortening the time they would spend in Purgatory. As this indulgence was issued in support of the Crusades, and in unifying the Latin and Greek churches, the sisters may have held an interest in supporting the defence and expansion of Latin Christendom, a cause that was widespread in late medieval England.
Although Peter de Monte was investigated by the papacy, he seems to have escaped punishment for his corrupt activities. He was nominated bishop of Brescia, in northern Italy, in 1442, taking up his post in 1445. He withdrew from secular politics following the death of Eugenius IV in 1447, focusing on his bishopric until he died in 1457.
The British Library's Medieval and Renaissance Women digitisation project is in full swing. We are publishing regular updates about the project's progress, and about the manuscripts, rolls and charters that we are digitising, and that will be shared online with you over the coming months. See this blogpost for our most recent report.
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06 October 2022
The British Library is delighted to announce the 2022 Panizzi Lecture series which will be given by Jeffrey Hamburger on Drawing Conclusions: Diagrams in Medieval Art and Thought.
Diagrams constitute an omnipresent feature of medieval art and thought. From Antiquity onwards, the forms and procedures of geometric reasoning held a privileged place in the pursuit of truth, the understanding of which remained closely linked to ideals of beauty and perfection.
Drawing on the collections of the British Library, whose holdings provide virtually comprehensive coverage of all ramifications of the diagrammatic tradition, this series of lectures examines the practical, theoretical and aesthetic dimensions of medieval diagrams as matrices of meaning and patterns of thought informing diverse areas of medieval culture.
The lectures will be held in person at the British Library and also live streamed, thanks to the generosity of Jonathan A. Hill, Bookseller.
Lecture 1 : 24th October. Maps of the Mind: Diagrams Medieval and Modern.
Lecture 2: 27th October. The Codex in the Classroom: Practical Dimensions of Medieval Diagrams.
Lecture 3: 1st November. Poetry, Play, Persuasion: The Diagrammatic Imagination in Medieval Art and Thought. Followed by a drinks reception.
Booking is free but required for both in person and online attendance.
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