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01 March 2021

Rhygyfarch: poetry and protest in medieval Wales

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To mark St David’s Day this year, we are looking at the life and work of a medieval Welsh poet, clerk, and biographer, and one of the most renowned scholars of his time.

His name was Rhygyfarch (b. 1057, d. 1099) and he was born the eldest son of Sulien the Wise (b. 1011, d. 1090/1), a learned teacher who served two terms as bishop of the city of St Davids in Pembrokeshire. Named after Wales’ patron saint (its Welsh name Tyddewi means ‘David’s house’), the city of St Davids was regarded as an important place of learning during the medieval period and the ecclesiastical centre of the Welsh Church. Its cathedral was the resting place of St David’s body and his relics, and was later declared a pilgrimage destination by Pope Calixtus II (r. 1119-1124). By the mid-11th century, the city had also become home to a highly influential monastic school overseen and maintained by Sulien and members of his family.

A view of St David's Cathedral and the Bishop's Palace.
The cathedral of St Davids and the Bishop’s Palace (mattbuck / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-2.0

Rhygyfarch’s early life was evidently devoted to learning. He appears to have spent much of this time in St Davids, where he and his brothers were personally taught by their father. Their education most likely involved an intensive study of major Classical authors including Ovid, Virgil, Boethius, and Macrobius, and Anglo-Latin writers such as Bede and Aldhelm of Sherborne. Subsequently, Rhygyfarch became the clerk of the ecclesiastic community of St Padarn at Llanbadarn Fawr, situated further up the coast near Aberystwyth, which housed an important scriptorium (a place where manuscripts were made) and a well-stocked monastic library, though few of its manuscripts now survive.

It was there that Rhygyfarch gained a reputation amongst his contemporaries as a foremost scholar and teacher, which persisted for centuries after his death. In fact, he was so widely regarded throughout the country that the Brut y Tywysogion (Chronicle of Princes), a historical work that informs much of our understanding of the history of early medieval Wales, described him as ‘y doethaf o doethon y Brytanyeit’ (one of the most learned of the learned men of the Britons).

An illustration from a medieval manuscript, showing a scribe writing in a book.
A scribe writing in a medieval manuscript, from Gerald of Wales’ Topographica Hibernica (Royal MS 13 B VIII, f. 22r)

Rhygyfarch composed a number of Latin prose and poetic texts during his lifetime. Most notably, he was the author of the oldest surviving biography of St David, who lived in the 6th century. His Vita sancti Davidis episcopi appears in a single complete copy in a 12th-century manuscript that ultimately became part of the collection of Sir Robert Cotton (Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV). Rhygyfarch wrote the prose work in Latin but by the later medieval period it had also been translated and adapted into a Middle Welsh version known as the Buchedd Dewi.

A page from a medieval manuscript, featuring the opening of the Life of St David by the Welsh poet Rhygyfarch.
The opening of Rhygyfarch’s Life of St David, 2nd half of the 12th century, possibly south-east Wales (Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV, f. 61r)

Rhygyfarch’s Life of St David was written during the final decade of the 11th century, when Wales was suffering in the aftermath of successive Norman invasions undertaken by William I (r. 1066-1087) and his son William Rufus (r. 1087-1100). Rhygyfarch expressed his own feelings about the Norman occupation and the subjugation of his people in an emotional elegy now known as Rhygyfarch’s Lament, which he wrote not long after his biography of Wales’ patron saint. The Latin poem is attested in only a single manuscript (now Cotton MS Faustina C I), which was copied at the priory of Llanbadarn Fawr in the half century after the Welsh author’s death.

A page from a medieval manuscript, featuring the text of Rhygyfarch's Lament.
Rhygyfarch’s Lament, 1st half of the 12th century, Llanbadarn Fawr (Cotton MS Faustina C I, f. 66r)

In the course of his Lament, Rhygyfarch mourns Wales’ present plight and calls attention to the Norman oppression of the country, which has caused the apparent decline of all parts of Welsh society. He writes that ‘the people and the priest are despised by the word, heart, and work of the Normans’, that ‘there are continual sorrows and fears’, that ‘the courts are sad’ and ‘there is no pleasure in hearing the songs of poets’. Rhygyfarch’s depiction of Wales is of a country trapped by its grief, from where ‘it is not possible to leave, nor even possible to stay’.

Rhygyfarch also turns his focus to the Welsh people themselves, and in an extended passage denounces their lack of courage, urging them to take action against their oppressors in increasingly emotive language:

non audes humero ferre faretram,
arcum nec tenso tendere neruo,
ilia nec gladio cingere lato,
armo nec peltam tollere leuo,
nec vibrat patulo lancea pugno...
o moribunda doles, o tremebunda!
concidis, heu, misera tristibus armis.
nil tibi (nunc) letum nilque uenustum.
tristis barba cadit, tristis ocellus;
nam te aliena canit turba perosum.
et ignominia complet apertam
peccatis faciem. heu, mala pestis!
pingit enim affectus mens mala carni
ut bona mens campo gaudia monstrat
        (ll. 51-67; Lapidge. ‘Welsh-Latin Poetry’ (1973/4), pp. 90-92)

[Wales], you do not dare to carry the quiver of arrows on your shoulder, nor stretch the bow with a tight bow-string, nor gird your guts with the broadsword, nor raise the shield on your left shoulder... [Wales], you are struck down and dying, you tremble in fear, you collapse, alas, miserable in your sad defences. Nothing is joyful to you now, nothing pleasant. Your beard sags, your eye is sad; for a hostile crowd speaks of you as hateful. Disgrace fills your open face with blemishes. Alas for the evil plague: for the diseased mind reflects its condition in the flesh, just as the healthy mind shows its joys to the field.

Rhygyfarch’s Lament captured the frustration of many of the Welsh in their captivity and it also seems to have foreshadowed a call to arms against the Norman invaders that would soon spread throughout the country. In 1094, soon after the poem’s composition, the Welsh rose up against the Norman occupation in an open revolt that ultimately led them to reclaim many of the kingdoms they had previously lost by the end of the century.

Cotton MS Faustina C I is notable for featuring another of Rhygyfarch’s Latin poems, entitled De messe infelici (On the Unhappy Harvest). The work consists of a single four-line stanza written in the upper margin of one of the manuscript’s pages. The poem is noticeably more playful than his Lament and takes the form of a proverb that warns of the potential danger posed by mice to a harvest:

Longa fluit pluuiis tempestas noxia nimbis,
nam nequit in segites messor committere falces:
quamuis ipse suis maturis parcat aristis,
turba tamen muris nescit iam parcere campis.
        (ll. 1-4; Lapidge, ‘Welsh-Latin Poetry’ (1973/4, p. 92)

The endless rain pours down, destructive (to the harvest) with its violent downfall,
for the reaper cannot commit scythes to the crops:
although he spares his mature crops,
an army of mice nevertheless refuses to spare the fields.

A detail from a medieval manuscript, featuring a four-line Latin poem by Rhygyfarch, written in the upper margin of the page.
Rhygyfarch’s De messe infelici (On the Unhappy Harvest), 1st half of the 12th century, Llanbadarn Fawr (Cotton MS Faustina C I, f. 80r detail)

Both Cotton MS Faustina C I and Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV have been digitised in their entirety by the British Library and are available to view online on our Digitised Manuscripts site. We hope you enjoy reading Rhygyfarch’s writings and wish you a Happy St David’s Day!

 

Calum Cockburn
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Further Reading

David Howlett, ‘Rhygyfarch ap Sulien and Ieuan ap Sulien’, in The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, Volume 1: c. 400-1100, ed. by Richard Gameson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 701-706.

Michael Lapidge, ‘The Welsh-Latin poetry of Sulien’s family’, Studia Celtica (1973/4), 68-106.

St David of Wales: Cult, Church and Nation, ed. by J. Wyn Evans and Jonathan M. Wooding (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2007) [Includes an edition of Rhygyfarch’s Life of St David].

 

23 February 2021

Illuminated Canon Tables

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Canon tables are ubiquitous and fundamental to Christian copies of Scripture over many centuries, in both Greek and Latin. Devised by the early Church Father Eusebius (d. c. 340), bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, the tables present a unifying gateway to the Gospels, the four biblical accounts of the life of Christ written by the Evangelists, Sts Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The tables contain numbered lists of passages that are either shared in two or more Gospel accounts, or are unique to a particular Gospel. As Eusebius explains in a letter to his friend Carpianus, he compiled the ten tables (or canons, in Greek) to help the reader ‘know where each of the Evangelists was led by the love of truth to speak about the same things’.

In deluxe copies of the Gospels, the canon tables offered an opportunity for artists to explore a different type of decoration from pictorial illustration and narrative initials. Typically the tables are presented in micro-architectural frames, sometimes complete with faux marble or porphyry columns under elaborate arched pediments.

Perhaps the most well-known canon table in the British Library is also the earliest: a sophisticated 6th- or 7th-century example in Greek made in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). These canons are now fragmentary, comprising only two leaves that were added to a 12th-century manuscript of the Gospels in Greek. The fragments give a glimpse of what must have been a truly splendid book, as they are written on gold, and embellished with bust portraits above the arches.

The Golden Canon tables, written on gold parchment with rich decoration
The Golden Canon tables, Constantinople, 6th-7th century: Add MS 5111/1, f. 11r

In an elegant 9th-century Latin example the decoration is enhanced by the presence of an archer who prepares to shoot an arrow across the pediment at another man, who is preparing to launch his spear.

Canon table 2, decorated with an archer and spear-thrower
The Eller Gospels, canon table 2, with an archer and spear-thrower, northeastern France, 2nd quarter of the 9th century: Harley MS 2826, f. 5r

In a later, 12th-century Latin version of the tables from the Benedictine abbey of St Pierre in Préaux in Normandy, the columns feature lush foliage topped by elaborated capitals, with twisted winged creatures embedded in the design. The first canon is set out as seven groups of five passages identified by Roman numerals (the Ammonian section references), divided by horizontal lines and presented in four columns. Each column is headed by the name of the relevant Evangelist (Math[eu]s), Marcus, Lucas and Joh[ann]es). At top, the Abbey’s patron saint St Peter sits above the central column, identified by the key held in his right hand. This attribute was derived from Christ’s statement that ‘That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church . . . And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 16:18-19). 

The Préaux Gospels, canon table 1, with St Peter
The Préaux Gospels, canon table 1, with St Peter, northwestern France, 1st quarter of the 12th century: Add MS 11850, f. 10r

The other nine canons all include a central nimbed figure holding a gold book, presumably representing an Evangelist and the Gospels themselves, which are to come following the elegant correlation of their contents.

The Préaux Gospels, canon table 6, with a nimbed figure
The Préaux Gospels, canon table 6, with a nimbed figure, northwestern France, 1st quarter of the 12th century, Add MS 11850, f. 14r

To find out more, you can also explore our articles on Manuscripts of the Christian Bible, Illuminated Byzantine Gospel-books, and Biblical Illumination, as well as our earlier blogpost on the Golden Canon Tables.

Kathleen Doyle

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14 February 2021

Charles d'Orléans, earliest known Valentine?

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Around this time of year, the British Library’s reference team are often asked about the earliest known Valentine, supposedly a poem in our collection which was sent by the 15th-century prince Charles d'Orléans to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. If you search online for ‘earliest known Valentine’ you will see this claim appearing on various websites. As you might be able to guess, the story doesn’t fully check out. But it’s certainly true that Charles was partial to poetic musings on the theme of Valentine’s Day, so this year, we thought we’d set the record straight by exploring the truth of Charles’ Valentine’s Day poetry.

Frontispiece miniature showing the Court of Love with Charles kneeling at the lower right, from a collection of Charles D'Orleans' poems
Frontispiece miniature showing the Court of Love with Charles kneeling at the lower right, from a collection of Charles D'Orléans' poems: Royal MS 16 F II, f. 1r

Who was Charles d'Orléans?

Born in 1394, Charles d'Orléans was a member of the French royal family, the grandson of King Charles V of France (r. 1364–1380) and nephew of King Charles VI (r. 1380-1422). He became Duke of Orléans at the age of fourteen after the assassination of his father. On 25 October 1415, Charles fought at the Battle of Agincourt when France was catastrophically defeated by England. The twenty-one-year-old was captured on the battlefield and brought back to England where he remained as a political prisoner for the next twenty-five years. He was finally released in 1440 and spent the last years of his life in France, dying in 1465.

Despite the political turmoil that surrounded his life, Charles is best remembered as a gifted writer of romantic, witty and sometimes wistful poetry. He wrote over 500 poems in the course of his life, with a particularly prolific period during his years of captivity. Charles wrote in both Middle French and Middle English, the latter of which he learned to speak fluently while in England. The British Library holds several important manuscripts of Charles’ work: a unique collection of his English poetry thought to have been made under his personal supervision (Harley MS 682), an exceptionally lavish illuminated copy of 166 of his French poems owned by King Henry VII of England (Royal MS 16 F II), a 15th-century copy of Charles' personal poetry manuscript (Harley MS 6916), as well as an early 16th-century copy of some of his French poems (Lansdowne MS 380).

Miniature of Charles d'Orléans writing poetry in the Tower of London, with the Royal arms of England in the border below
Charles d'Orléans writing poetry in the Tower of London, with the Royal arms of England in the border below: Royal MS 16 F II, f. 73r

Earliest known Valentine?

The poem that is sometimes referred to as the earliest known Valentine begins ‘Je suis desja d'amour tanné / Ma tresdoulce Valentinee’ (I’m already wearied by love, my very sweet Valentine). Yet the romantic story attached to the poem doesn’t stand up to fact-checking. Charles did not compose this poem while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London, but in around 1443-60 after he had returned to France. It is not included in Harley MS 682 or Royal MS 16 F II, both manuscripts which consist mainly of poems composed during Charles’ time in England. The only British Library manuscript which includes the poem is Harley MS 6916, a copy of Charles' personal poetry manuscript which he began in England then brought back to France and continued adding to till the end of his life (now Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Français 25458).

Beginning of Charles’ poem ‘Je suis desja d'amour tanné’, in a copy of his personal manuscript
Beginning of Charles’ poem ‘Je suis desja d'amour tanné’, in a 15th-century copy of his personal manuscript: Harley MS 6916, f. 134r

Despite being addressed to ‘my very sweet Valentine’, the poem is not a personal message of affection like today’s Valentine’s cards. It actually refers to the courtly practice of holding a lottery on St Valentine’s Day in which everyone was assigned a partner, generally not their husband or wife, who was supposed to be their ‘Valentine’ for the year. This was a rather artificial enactment of the concept of courtly love, in which knights were supposed to devote themselves to the service of a married lady. In the poem, Charles excuses himself from the custom, apologetically telling his allotted Valentine that he’s too old and tired.

By Charles’ time, Valentine’s Day poetry was already a well-established genre with examples by Geoffrey Chaucer, Oton de Grandson, John Gower, Christine de Pizan and John Lydgate, among others. It was the fact that such poems were already well-known that meant Charles could play with the audience’s expectations by writing what is essentially an anti-Valentine.

Detail of Charles d'Orléans writing poetry in the Tower of London
Detail of Charles d'Orléans writing poetry in the Tower of London: Royal MS 16 F II, f. 73r

Charles’s Valentine’s Day poetry

Although he can’t qualify as having written the first Valentine, Charles d'Orléans was still an important figure in the development of Valentine’s Day. About fourteen of his poems explore the subject of Valentine’s Day, a surprisingly high number, many of which can be found in British Library manuscripts.

One poem, beginning ‘Dieu Cupido, et Venus la Deese’ (The god Cupid and goddess Venus), was written when Charles was still a young man in France. It takes the form of a mock contract placing Charles in the service of Cupid and Venus. The poem ends by stating that the contract is granted on St Valentine’s Day:

Donné le jour saint Valentin martir,
En la cité de gracieux desir,
Où avons fait nostre conseil tenir
Par Cupido et Venus souverains,
A ce presens plusieurs plaisirs mondains.

(Granted the day of Saint Valentine, martyr,
In the city of Gracious Desire,
Where we had our council convened.
On behalf of sovereign Cupid and Venus,
Several worldly pleasures to this man present).

(Poetry of Charles D’Orléans and His Circle, ed. Fox and Arn, trans. Barton Palmer, pp. 22-23).

The poem demonstrates the close association of St Valentine’s Day with love and desire. Its optimistic and playful tone makes a striking contrast with Charles’ later more sombre poetry on the theme of Valentine’s Day.

Beginning of Charles’ poem ‘Dieu Cupido, et Venus la Deese’
Beginning of Charles’ poem ‘Dieu Cupido, et Venus la Deese’: Royal MS 16 F II, f. 11r

In a later poem set on St Valentine’s Day, written during his captivity in England, Charles sadly reflects on the death of his partner, perhaps his wife Bonne d’Armagnac (d. 1430/35). Beginning ‘Le beau souleil, le jour saint Valentin’ (On St Valentine's day, the beautiful sun), Charles tells how he wakes up and hears the birds singing and choosing their mates. The idea that birds pick their partners on Valentine’s Day had been a major theme in Valentine’s poetry since Chaucer's Parlement of Foules. This prompts the bereaved Charles to lament:

Saint Valentin choisissent ceste annee
Ceulx et celles de l'amoureux party.
Seul me tendray, de confort desgarny,
Sur le dur lit d'ennuieuse pensee.

(Let men and women of Love's party
Choose their St. Valentine this year!
I remain alone, comfort stolen from me
On the hard bed of painful thought).

(Poetry of Charles D’Orléans and His Circle, ed. Fox and Arn, trans. Barton Palmer, pp. 134-35).

Beginning of Charles’ poem ‘Le beau souleil, le jour saint Valentin’
Beginning of Charles’ poem ‘Le beau souleil, le jour saint Valentin’: Royal MS 16 F II, f. 134r

Both of these poems were also adapted into Middle English versions which can be found in Harley MS 682 (ff. 1r-v, 47v-48r). For example, the above passage about Charles' grief on Valentine's Day appears in English as:

Als wele is him this day that hath him kaught
A valentyne that louyth him, a y gesse,
Where as this comfort sole y here me dresse
Upon my bed so hard of noyous thought.

(As he is well this day that has caught
A Valentine that loves him, as I guess,
Whereas this comfort addresses me here alone
Upon my bed so hard of painful thought).

The end of Charles’ poem '(W)han fresshe Phebus, day of Seynt Valentyne'
The end of Charles’ poem '(W)han fresshe Phebus, day of Seynt Valentyne', Harley MS 682, f. 48r

So while the claims that Charles wrote the first Valentine aren’t true, he was certainly a prolific writer of Valentine’s Day poetry, drawing on earlier poetic traditions and developing them in new ways. His poems on feeling alienated or cynical about the amorous pursuits of St Valentine’s Day provide a novel and, for many, highly relatable perspective on the genre of Valentine’s poetry. Charles’ poetry was very popular in the 15th and 16th centuries, making it likely that he helped to further popularise the romantic associations of St Valentine’s Day. This makes him a particularly important Valentine’s poet.

If, however, you do want to find out about the earliest surviving Valentine’s love letter, take a look at our previous blogpost on the letter written by Margery Brews to her future husband John Paston in 1477.

Eleanor Jackson
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Further reading

Editions and translations of Charles’ French poetry from: Poetry of Charles D’Orléans and His Circle: A Critical Edition of BnF MS. Fr. 25458, Charles D’Orléan’s Personal Manuscript, ed. by John Fox and Mary-Jo Arn, trans. by R. Barton Palmer (Turnhout: Brepols, 2010).

For Charles’ English poetry, see: Fortunes Stabilnes: Charles of Orleans's English Book of Love: A Critical Edition, ed. Mary-Jo Arn (Binghampton, New York: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1994).

29 January 2021

Bede, The Dig and Sutton Hoo

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This weekend has seen the release on Netflix of The Dig, a fictionalised account of the excavation at Sutton Hoo of an Anglo-Saxon ship-burial. Starring Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown, a self-taught archaeologist, and Carey Mulligan as a very youthful Edith Pretty, the landowner, The Dig is based on real events. The Sutton Hoo finds are among the most extraordinary from early medieval England — we displayed this gold belt buckle and part of the sword-belt in the British Library's recent Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition — but the identity of the person buried with the ship remains unresolved. In this blogpost we review some of the oldest written evidence connected to Sutton Hoo, as recorded in Bede's Ecclesiastical History.

Basil Brown in the Sutton Hoo ship-burial

A photograph of Basil Brown in the ship-burial, from the website of the Sutton Hoo Ship's Company

The mound containing the ship-burial at Sutton Hoo, on the banks of the River Debden in Suffolk, was opened in the summer of 1939, on the eve of World War II. At first, Basil Brown was digging with the assistance of Mrs Pretty's gardener, her gamekeeper and an estate worker, until archaeologists from Cambridge University and the Ordnance Survey intervened. Together they uncovered not only the outline of an early medieval ship, revealed by the rivets left in the sandy soil, but a number of grave goods including precious jewellery, silver bowls from the Mediterranean, and the remains of the famous Sutton Hoo helmet.

After the war the finds were examined by a young researcher, Rupert Bruce-Mitford, who spent the rest of his career analysing the site. Although much of the context for the discoveries had already disappeared by the late 1940s (Sutton Hoo had been commandeered by the British military during wartime), Bruce-Mitford recognised that the combination of 'pagan' and 'Christian' artefacts most likely dated the burial to the period of the conversion of the kingdom of the East Angles to Christianity, in the 7th century.

The Sutton Hoo helmet

The Sutton Hoo helmet, courtesy of the British Museum

Over the years a number of candidates have been put forward as the person buried in the ship-mound. They include Rædwald, king of the East Angles from around 600 to perhaps the 620s, and his sons and successors Earpwald and Sigeberht. Some historians and archaeologists have been less circumspect than others in naming Rædwald, the most famous of the three, as the king commemorated at Sutton Hoo. This is based, in turn, on the account of the East Anglian kingdom provided by Bede approximately 100 years after the burial.

Bede (died 735), a monk at Wearmouth in Northumbria, completed his Ecclesiastical History, or Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, in 731. Much of its focus is on the conversion period, from the mission of Augustine from Rome to Canterbury in 597 to the time when the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms first adopted Christian customs.

The British Library holds two of the oldest surviving manuscripts of Bede's History, both of which can be viewed in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site. One of them (Cotton MS Tiberius A XIV) was probably made in Northumbria in the late 700s or the early decades of the 800s. The other (Cotton MS Tiberius C II) is characterised by the decorated initials which mark the beginning of each book, and it was most likely made in Kent sometime in the middle of the 9th century. (Another important early copy of the Historia ecclesiastica, known as the Moore Bede, was also displayed in our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.) The two manuscripts which formerly belonged to Sir Robert Cotton (died 1631) were damaged by a fire at Ashburnham House, London, in 1731. You will notice that their parchment pages were blackened and warped by the heat of the flames, with the occasional loss of parts of their text.

A decorated initial B in a manuscript of Bede's Ecclesiastical History

The opening page of the first book of Bede's Ecclesiastical History, in Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 5v

According to Bede (Historia ecclesiastica, II.5), Rædwald was for a while the most powerful king to rule South of the Humber. He was described as the fourth such king to hold 'imperium' over the southern Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, a phrase later translated into Old English as 'bretwalda' ('Britain-ruler'). Rædwald's candidacy as occupant of the Sutton Hoo ship-burial is based furthermore on his being the first king of the East Angles to be baptised as a Christian (Historia ecclesiastica, II.15). But Bede did not hold him in the greatest esteem. Rædwald was said to have been perverted by his wife and other evil counsellors into maintaining a temple with one altar for the Christian sacrifice and another for pagan worship. This would align with the combination of Christian and non-Christian grave-goods discovered at Sutton Hoo. In Bede's words, 'rex Reduald natu nobilis quamlibet actu ignobilis' ('King Rædwald was of noble birth but ignoble in his deeds').

A text-page from Bede's Ecclesiastical History

The chapter of Bede's Ecclesiastical History in which he records that Rædwald was a lapsed Christian, of noble birth but ignoble in his deeds (lines 1-2 of the 2nd column): Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 54v

But Rædwald isn't the only candidate for the ship-burial. He was succeeded as king by his pagan son, Earpwald, who later converted to Christianity under the influence of King Edwin of Northumbria. Bede reports that Earpwald was assassinated by a pagan not long after his conversion, thereby becoming the first Anglo-Saxon king to be martyred on account of his Christian faith (Historia ecclesiastica, II.15). Sigeberht, another son (or step-son) of Rædwald, ruled East Anglia in the aftermath of Earpwald's death. He was a devout Christian, who had been converted in Gaul while fleeing from the enmity of Rædwald (Historia ecclesiastica, III.18). Sigeberht eventually abdicated and retired to a monastery, until an army led by the pagan King Penda of Mercia invaded around the 640s. Sigeberht was dragged to the battlefield in order to inspire the East Angles, but he refused to carry anything but a staff and was killed. The whole East Anglian army was either slain with him or scattered.

A still from the Netflix production of The Dig

A still from The Dig (Netflix)

The complicated dynastic history of the East Anglians, combined with the lack of firm dates for the reigns of these kings, makes it well-nigh impossible to conclude with any certainty who was buried at Sutton Hoo. As we have seen, Rædwald, Earpwald and Sigeberht alike all adopted the Christian faith, but Rædwald effectively renounced it while Earpwald was murdered soon after he had converted. Assigning the ship-burial to any of these men depends in large part on our subjective opinion of what constitutes a 'pagan' or 'Christian' grave-good at this period. But this does not detract from our romantic notions of the burial site, as exemplified by The Dig itself.

The book which accompanied the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition is available to purchase from the British Library online shop. You can also read more about the background to Sutton Hoo and the conversion period on our dedicated Anglo-Saxons webspace, including this article by Alison Hudson on the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. We would also heartily recommend the blogpost Inside 'The Dig' by the British Museum's curator, Sue Brunning, which analyses the historical accuracy of the new film.

 

Julian Harrison

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19 January 2021

Merovingian illumination in a manuscript of Gregory's Moralia

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The British Library holds one of the earliest surviving copies of Pope Gregory the Great’s (d. 604) Moralia in Job, a highly influential commentary on the Old Testament book of Job. It was made only about a century after St Gregory’s death, possibly in Laon during a period of Merovingian rule. The Merovingians were a dynasty that ruled over the Franks in the territory similar to Roman Gaul from the time of Merovech (or Merovich), by tradition the father of Childeric I (d. 481) and grandfather of Clovis I (d. 511).

A detail view of an initial ‘I’ in the shape of a fish
Initial ‘I’ from Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, France, possibly Laon, 2nd half of the seventh century: Add MS 31031, f. 5v (detail)
Full page of text with an initial ‘I’ in the shape of a fish
Full page with an initial ‘I’ from Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, France, possibly Laon, 2nd half of the seventh century: Add MS 31031, f. 5v

The decoration of Merovingian manuscripts is distinctive. It features a limited palette of brown, green and yellow, and the use of zoomorphic initials (as the name suggests, where animals form all or part of the letter). Some letters, such as ‘I’ are formed of just one animal, like the fish of ‘I’(nter) (among) at the beginning of the first book, while other letters are more composite. The beginning of the third book of the commentary is a letter ‘B’ for Beatus Iob (blessed Job), made up of a fish and two birds.

A detail of an initial 'B' in the form of two birds and a fish
Initial ‘B’ from Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, France, possibly Laon, 2nd half of the seventh century: Add MS 31031, f. 55v (detail)
A full page of text with an initial 'B' in the form of two birds and a fish
Full page with an initial ‘B’ from Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, France, possibly Laon, 2nd half of the seventh century: Add MS 31031, f. 55v

Another characteristic feature of these manuscripts is the display script – enlarged coloured letters typically used to delineate important divisions, such as the beginning of new sections of text. The first book of the text begins with a heading ‘In expositione Beati Iob’ (An Exposition of the Blessed Job). Similarly, the beginning of the third book (incipit liber [tertius]) is announced in capital letters of alternating colours.

Detail of an uncoloured initial ‘Q’ in the form of two birds and a fish
Initial ‘Q’ from Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, France, possibly Laon, 2nd half of the seventh century: Add MS 31031, f. 78v (detail)
Full page with an uncoloured initial ‘Q’ in the form of two birds and a fish
Full page with an initial ‘Q’ from Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, France, possibly Laon, 2nd half of the seventh century: Add MS 31031, f. 78v

Something of the way in which these manuscripts were made is revealed by the letter and display script at the beginning of the fourth book: ‘Q’(ui) (who), formed of two facing birds and a fish, and ‘Incipit liber quartus’ (beginning of the fourth book). Both are carefully drawn in ink but left without any added colours. This suggests that the writing and drawing were done first and the colours were added later, but in this case not completed.

You can read more about Gregory the Great in our article on the works of the Church Fathers, and find out more about Merovingian art in our article on French manuscript illumination, both on the Polonsky Foundation England and France Project website.

Kathleen Doyle
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13 January 2021

Over 4,500 manuscripts now online

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Long-term readers of our blog may know that we periodically publish lists of our digitised manuscripts, the last of which was published in July 2020. With the arrival of the New Year and the beginning of a new lockdown in the UK, we are releasing an update to our lists of manuscript hyperlinks. We hope this makes it easier for readers and researchers to explore our amazing digitised treasures online.

A detail from a 16th-century grant of arms, showing a portrait of Sir Gilbert Dethick within a letter O.
A historiated initial ‘O’(mnibus) containing a portrait of Sir Gilbert Dethick (b. c. 1510, d. 1584), Officer of Arms of the College of Arms, London: Add MS 89166, f. 1r detail

There are now over 4,500 Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern manuscripts on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts website. Here is a full list of all the items currently available, as of January 2021:

PDF: Full-list-digitised-mss-jan-2021
Excel: Full-list-digitised-mss-jan-2021 (this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers).

The upper cover of the Basikilon Doron, an autograph manuscript of the text with a purple velvet binding.
The velvet binding of the autograph manuscript of the Basilikon Doron, handwritten by King James I: Royal MS 18 B XV, upper cover.

During this period of terrible uncertainty, the Library's Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern team has been busy as ever, working to make more manuscripts available for our readers online. Over the last 6 months alone, we have published over 850 items, from medieval and early modern codices and rolls to Greek papyri and ostraca. All the images featured in this blogpost are from collection items that we have digitised since June 2020. Here is a list of our most recent additions:

PDF: Digitised_mss_july2020_jan_2021
Excel: Digitised_mss_july2020_jan_2021(this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers).

A text page from a 14th-century book of hours, with marginal decoration including a dog with a bone, a hybrid and a coat of arms
A text page from a 14th-century book of hours, with marginal decoration including a dog with a bone, a hybrid and a coat of arms: Harley MS 6563, f. 53v

Over the last months, some 620 Greek papyri have been published online, spanning from the 3rd century BC to the early 8th century. These include pieces of Greek literature, such as the famous ‘Harris Homer Codex’, an 1800-year-old manuscript preserving portions of Homer’s Iliad, as well as hundreds of fascinating documents, such as letters of parents to their children, managers and employees, magical charms and shopping lists. You can view this video for a short introduction to cataloguing the Greek papyri.

Thanks to a collaboration with the Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung of the Staatliche Museen in Berlin, more than 250 inscribed pottery sherds (ostraca) from the 3rd century BC to 3rd century AD are now available online for the first time. A short overview is presented in our previous blogpost on ostraca.

A framed papyrus, featuring the text of Book II of Homer's Iliad.
The first frame of the ‘Harris Homer Codex’, containing Homer’s Iliad, Bk. II, ll. 101-149: Papyrus 126 (1) recto.

In September, we reported on the progress of a major digitisation programme, Heritage Made Digital: Tudor and Stuart manuscripts. This collaborative project, involving teams across the British Library, intends to publish approximately 600 Tudor and Stuart manuscripts online. The selection encompasses original letters by members of the Elizabethan court; literary manuscripts of the works of important Elizabeth and Jacobean poets such as John Donne and Sir Philip Sidney; notes by the alchemist and astronomer John Dee; and collections of state papers that highlight numerous aspects of the political and social history of this period, particularly the relationship between Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. As of the start of this year, over a quarter of these manuscripts have now been published.

A letter from Queen Elizabeth I to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, bearing her signature.
An original letter from Elizabeth I to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, her ambassador in Scotland, concerning the imprisonment of Mary Queen of Scots, dated 27 July 1567: Add MS 88966, f. 1r

Since this summer, two particularly significant manuscripts have been digitised, both of which can be explored in their entirety on the British Library’s new Universal Viewer. The Sherborne Missal, acquired by the British Library in 1998, has been called the ‘unrivalled masterpiece of English book production in the fifteenth century' (Kathleen Scott), with each of its hundreds of pages replete with astonishing illumination. Readers can learn more about the Sherborne Missal in our previous blogpost. The volume was also recently featured on BBC Radio 4’s Moving Pictures programme.

A miniature of the Crucifixion from the Sherborne Missal
The Crucifixion, from the Sherborne Missal: Add MS 74236, p. 380

Meanwhile in November, the British Library acquired and digitised the most important surviving manuscript of the works of Lewis of Caerleon, a highly influential mathematician, theologian and astronomer, who was imprisoned in the Tower of London towards the end of the reign of Richard III (r. 1483-1485). The volume contains the most complete collection of his astronomical and mathematical works, including texts that are unattested elsewhere, as well as its original medieval binding and an unparalleled series of astronomical tables and diagrams. Learn more in our earlier blogpost on the Lewis of Caerleon manuscript.

Astronomical tables and diagrams from the Lewis of Caerleon manuscript
Astronomical tables and diagrams from an autograph manuscript of the works of Lewis of Caerleon: Add MS 89442, pp. 30-31.

Many images of our manuscripts are also available to view and download from our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts which is searchable by keywords, dates, scribes and languages.

A map of China and the southern half of Japan, from an atlas of sea charts made by the Italian cartographer Joan Martines
A map of China and the southern half of Japan, from an atlas of sea charts made by the Italian cartographer Joan Martines: Harley MS 3450, ff. 5v-6r

Enormous thanks to all the members of staff across the Library whose hard work has made these achievements possible despite the difficult circumstances this year.

We wish all our readers a Happy New Year and hope you enjoy exploring our digitised collections!

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08 January 2021

A virtual get-away, medieval style

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In these dark days of January, we all dream of escape. Perhaps it's time for a virtual vacation, medieval style. Here are some options to choose from.

France

Paris is the ultimate city of romance and culture — a firm favourite of tourists. This miniature shows the River Seine and perhaps the Ile de la Cité with the Palais (now the Conciergerie) on the right. You are unlikely to meet armoured men there nowadays, though you may see some ‘gilets jaunes’.

A manuscript image of knights in armour blockading Paris, with a landscape including the Seine and a bridge behind

Knights in armour blockade Paris, with a landscape including the Seine and a bridge behind, in Chroniques de France ou de St Denis, 1270–1380 (Paris, 1380–1400): Royal MS 20 C VII, f. 135v

Or how about renting a chateau in the French countryside?

A manuscript image of the Castle of Jalousie surrounded by rose bushes

The Castle of Jalousie surrounded by rose bushes, in the Roman de la Rose (Bruges, c. 1500): Harley MS 4425, f. 39r

Italy

Tuscany has it all — rolling hills with stunning vistas, hilltop villages of luminous Tuscan stone, sunshine, art and wine — and Florence, beloved home-town of Dante Alighieri, pictured here flying over the landscape with Beatrice, in his vision of Paradise.

A manuscript image of Dante flying over the Florentine towns with Beatrice

Dante flying over the Florentine towns with Beatrice (Tuscany, c.1450): Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 157r

Spain

Or how about a package holiday to sunny Spain? A Spanish trip should always include a ‘Costa’ as the sun is bound to shine and the nightlife is great. Do you prefer the Costa Blanca, Costa Brava or Costa del Sol? 

A manuscript image of the Sun with an angel and birds

The Sun with an angel and birds, in the Silos Apocalypse (Northern Spain, c. 1100): Add MS 11695, f. 197r

Portugal

Lisbon’s palaces, monasteries and its great location on the estuary of the River Tagus  make it a perfect place to spend a weekend. This detailed border image in a genealogy of the kings and queens of Portugal shows the major sites and the city, including the Jeronimos monastery (completed 1521) a little way up the coast. It was painted by the artist Antonio de Holanda, who was based in Lisbon.

A manuscript image of a genealogical tree of the kings and queens of Portugal from Alfonso Anriquez; in the lower margin is the port of Lisbon, with sailing ships outside the harbour

A genealogical tree of the kings and queens of Portugal from Alfonso Anriquez; in the lower margin is the port of Lisbon, with sailing ships outside the harbour (Lisbon, 1530–34): Add MS 12531, f. 7r 

Cyprus and the Greek Islands

Cyprus is perhaps the destination for foodies. The well-known medieval armchair traveller, Sir John Mandeville, ‘visited’ Cyprus, where he found various recreational activities including magnificent feasts. Some of the places seen by Mandeville were illustrated by a Bohemian artist.

A manuscript image of a deer hunt using leopards and, below, a feast

Recreation in Cyprus with, above, a deer hunt using leopards and, below, a feast, in an illustrated version of Mandeville’s Travels (Bohemia, early 15th century): Add MS 24189, f. 5v

For those who wish to combine the sun and sea of the Greek Islands with a visit to a World Heritage Site, a visit to the island of Patmos is recommended. It was here that St John the Evangelist was exiled and had his vision of the Apocalypse. The Holy Monastery of the Apocalypse was built on the site of the cave where John heard the voice of God. Images of him writing the Book of Revelations on Patmos are usually found at the beginning of medieval Apocalypses.

John, on the island of Patmos, being visited by an angel who tells him to write down his vision; two men row away in a boat

John, on the island of Patmos, is visited by an angel who tells him to write down his vision; two men row away in a boat (Netherlands or Germany, c. 1400): Add MS 38121, f. 3v 

Sun, sand and sea

There are different types of holidays to choose from, some of them further afield, but for most people, a beach holiday is the most popular. Sadly, there are not many pictures of beaches in medieval manuscripts. However, we did find one in a 16th-century notebook of botanical watercolours of plant species and landscapes by the Italian botanist, Gherardo Cibo. The plant, Convolvulus or Coastal Bindweed, is shown beside a long beach with fishermen carrying rods, but with no parasols or deckchairs in sight.

A manuscript image of Convolvulus or Coastal Bindweed with a beach, a port and sailing ships in the background

Illustration of Convolvulus or Coastal Bindweed with a beach, a port and sailing ships in the background (Italy, 1564–84):  Add MS 22332, f. 150r

And for those who enjoy swimming, please do remember your swimming trunks; it's advisable not to wear a crown. This image is from a collection of tales of famous women by Christine de Pizan, and it illustrates the story of Camilla from the Aeneid. King Metabus escapes across the river with his daughter after being dethroned by his enemies.

A manuscript image of the Escape of Camilla in a boat with the king swimming behind

The Escape of Camilla in a boat with the king swimming behind, in a Flemish translation of Cité des dames (Netherlands, 1475): Add MS 20698, f. 64v

Asia

For exploring Asia, Alexander the Great would be the best guide. With him, you could go diving, visit the trees of the Sun and Moon, and see exotic beasts in India.

A manuscript image of Alexander being lowered into the sea in a cask

Alexander being lowered into the sea in a cask, in Roman d’Alexandre (Rouen, 1444–45): Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 20v

A manuscript image of the trees of the Sun and the Moon and wild beasts being presented to Alexander

The trees of the Sun and the Moon and wild beasts being presented to Alexander, in Ystoire dou bon roi Alixandre (Paris, c. 1340): Royal MS 19 D I, ff. 31v–32r

An African Safari

The ultimate destination for the adventure traveller is a safari to Africa. Here are some of the animals you might see if you are lucky – and some you might not!

A manuscript image of a leopard chasing a stag, with a camel and another animal

A leopard chasing a stag, with a camel and another animal, in a bestiary: Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 7r

Staying at Home

For our British readers, if this is all too much and you prefer a staycation, there are some lovely places to visit in our own green and pleasant land.

A manuscript image of an English landscape: a river scene with walled towns and ships

An English landscape: a river scene with walled towns and ships, in Wavrin, Chroniques de la Grande Bretagne (Bruges, c. 1480): Royal MS 15 E IV, f. 24v

Don't forget that you can explore these and other manuscripts on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site and on our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

 

Chantry Westwell

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24 December 2020

The ox and ass at the Nativity

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Picture a traditional Nativity scene. The Christ Child is at the centre with his parents, Mary and Joseph, surrounded by a host of familiar characters who played a role in the unfolding events. There are angels, shepherds, the Three Wise Men or Magi (although they can be in a separate scene of the Epiphany), the innkeeper, sometimes even midwives, and, of course the ox and the ass.

The Holy Family with the ox and ass in a Book of Hours
The Holy Family with the ox and ass in a Book of Hours, France, Tours, 1510 – 1520: Add MS 35214, f. 52v

Images of the Nativity in medieval manuscripts also tend to contain some of these familiar characters. Yet after the three members of the Holy Family, the most frequently depicted are the ox and the ass. This is rather surprising as they are not mentioned in the Gospels, but they are one of the most ancient and stable elements in the iconography of the Nativity.

The earliest surviving text mentioning their presence dates from the 8th century (the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, which was not included in the New Testament). However, the first known example of a Nativity scene in art, a carving on the Sarcophagus of Stilicho in Milan dated to AD 400, contains just Christ in the manger with the ox and ass on either side; Mary and Joseph are absent.

Nativity scene on the Sarcophagus of Stilicho in Milan
Nativity scene on the Sarcophagus of Stilicho in Milan, AD 400 (Giovanni Dall'Orto / Attribution only license / Wikimedia Commons)

One of the oldest medieval images of the Nativity in our collections contains a friendly-looking ox and ass, watching over Jesus in a rather elaborate crib, hidden in a corner beneath Mary, who takes centre stage. The midwife and Joseph appear to the right (midwives are found most often in earlier images but gradually disappeared from the iconography). This elaborate and stylised miniature is from the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, a manuscript made in Winchester in the 10th century.

Nativity in the Benedictional of St Æthelwold
Nativity in the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, Winchester, 963-984: Add MS 49598, f. 15v

The ox and ass (or donkey) remained prominent features of Nativity scenes, often found alongside the Christ child. In this image below Christ is placed above Mary in a raised manger and the animals appear to have their noses in the manger where Jesus lies. Some commentators have interpreted this as a kind act by the animals, breathing on the baby to keep him warm, while for others the animals are feeding from the manger, referring to the passage in the Gospel of John, where Christ calls himself ‘the bread of life’ and promises eternal life to those who feed on him.

Scene of the Nativity in an architectural setting with the ox and ass at the manger from Germany
Scene of the Nativity in an architectural setting with the ox and ass at the manger, Germany (Swabia, possibly Hirsau): Egerton MS 809, f. 1v

A charming domestic scene in a Book of Hours in French (below) shows Mary reading or saying her prayers, while Joseph seems to watch her in bemusement (though his head-in-hand pose may denote that he is tired or sleeping). Both seem unaware that the baby Jesus, again at some distance, apparently has his hand in the donkey’s mouth. Of the two animals, the donkey is often seen as more playful, and so perhaps he is allowing the baby to prod him, while the ox (traditionally a sacrificial animal in the Bible) was seen by early Christians as symbolic of Christ’s sacrifice, so he is often shown as the more serious of the two.

Nativity with Ox and Ass in a Book of Hours
Nativity with Ox and Ass in a Book of Hours, France,  1400-1425: Harley MS 2952, f. 142v

In the 14th century, St Briget of Sweden’s vision of the Nativity had a major influence on subsequent iconography. She described seeing the ox and the ass and the Virgin kneeling before a ‘glorious infant lying on the earth, naked and glowing’ with ‘ineffable light and splendour’. And so images of Christ lying naked, worshipped by Mary (and sometimes Joseph) became common in devotional manuscripts. The ox and ass are never too far away, a benevolent presence, Christ’s first playmates.

Nativity Scene with the Holy Family, animals and shepherds with musical instruments
Nativity Scene with the Holy Family, animals and shepherds with musical instruments, Sept articles de la foy, France (Rouen), c. 1440: Royal MS 19 A XXII, f. 4v
Nativity with Mary kneeling, Joseph sleeping, and a cuddly ox and ass
Nativity with Mary kneeling, Joseph sleeping, and a cuddly ox and ass, in Eusebius, Chronici canones (trans. Jerome), Italy (Rome), c. 1485- c. 1488: Royal MS 14 C III, f. 119v

A page from the Hours of the Virgin in the Tilliot Hours contains an unusual two-part image where the ox and ass are present in both scenes. The lower image shows Joseph and the heavily pregnant Mary arriving at the inn, leading a tired-looking donkey which has been carrying Mary in a saddle, followed by the ox. They are greeted by an inkeeper who in this telling of the tale is a woman. In the Nativity scene above, the ox has his nose to the manger, joining in the adoration of the Christ Child, while the donkey looks on from behind.

Nativity scene in two parts with shepherds above and Mary and Joseph arriving at the inn (below), from 'The Tilliot Hours
Nativity scene in two parts with shepherds (above) and Mary and Joseph arriving at the inn (below), in The Tilliot Hours, France (Tours), c. 1500: Yates Thompson MS 5, f. 41v

A picture of the two animals beside a baby in a manger is the simplest and most easily recognisable symbol of the Nativity. An example of this is a set of representations of key events in a medieval almanac. Each event is depicted with the number of years since it occurred, and, following the Ark (4308 years ago), is a simplistic drawing of an ox and ass on either side of a Christ in a crib. The animals make it obvious to the viewer that this is not just any baby, but Christ at his Nativity and so we know that the almanac was produced 1412 years after the birth of Christ, around the year 1412.

Illustrated almanac showing the number of years since key events in history including the Birth of Christ
Illustrated almanac showing the number of years since key events in history including the Birth of Christ (1412 years previously), England, 1400-1412: Harley MS 2332, f. 20v

And lastly, in this rather worrying scene the Christ Child seems to be trying to leap out of the manger. The donkey is holding him back by grasping his swaddling garments with its teeth. Again, Mary and Joseph are oblivious, though the ox watches in horror.

A Nativity scene with musicians in the four corners, from the Maastricht Hours
A Nativity scene with musicians in the four corners, from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century: Stowe MS 17, f. 15v

Whether symbols, playmates, transport or babysitters, it certainly seems that the ox and the ass were useful characters at the Nativity.


Chantry Westwell

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