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09 April 2019

The languages of history in the Middle Ages

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Which languages were used to write history in medieval Europe? Who wrote history, for whom, and the history of what? Robert Bartlett will explore these questions in a lecture at the British Library in the Knowledge Centre on Friday 14 June, from 19:30 to 21:00. To find out more information and to book your tickets please visit this page.

Historical chronicles often recall and illustrate the account of the building of the Tower of Babel from the book of Genesis to explain the origins of multilingualism. According to chapter 11, the sons of Adam decided to ‘make a city and a tower, the top whereof may reach to heaven’ in order that they would become famous. But God decided to put a stop to their plans, and ‘there confound their tongue, that they may not understand one another's speech’. As a result, the place was called Babel (confusion), ‘because there the language of the whole Earth was confounded: and from thence the Lord scattered them abroad upon the face of all countries.’

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The Tower of Babel, in Histoire ancienne jusqu’à Cesar: Add MS 25884, f. 80v

The Histoire ancienne jusqu’à Cesar is the earliest compilation of universal history written in French, initially dating from the first decades of the 13th century. At this time French was used in many areas outside France, such as Flanders, England and Italy, and across the Mediterranean (for more on the Histoire ancienne, see our previous blog posts here and here). In a 14th-century Parisian copy of the Histoire ancienne (Add MS 25884), the Tower of Babel is presented as a complex technological achievement. In the image, the tower is almost complete. Its incredible height and elegant form could be seen to celebrate the collective achievement of the community of builders, before the confusion of languages caused them to abandon the construction.

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Pyrrus's army with elephants, in Histoire ancienne jusqu’à Cesar:  Add MS 15268, f. 266r

As Latin had long been the language of learning and textual authority, the choice of French prose for writing history suggests that lay aristocratic audiences were increasingly engaged in understanding the past. French language and culture reached all the way to the Holy Land, where it was imported by crusaders and merchants. One of our copies of the Histoire ancienne is from the city of Acre in the eastern Mediterranean (Add MS 15268), where French chronicles were read eagerly by the multicultural and multilingual communities brought together in this cosmopolitan port.

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The Tower of Babel, above, and Zoroaster with two demons, below, in Il Tesoro: Yates Thompson MS 28, f. 51r

Influenced by the flourishing tradition of 13th-century French historical narratives, the Italian notary Brunetto Latini included an historical section in his encyclopedic Livre dou Tresor. His chapter on the Tower of Babel is derived from the version found in the Histoire ancienne. In 1260, Brunetto was exiled in France, where he composed the Tresor in French in order to reach a wider public. This vast encyclopedia is formed of three books, covering a variety of disciplines including theology, physics, astronomy and ethics.

Brunetto’s Tresor was extremely successful, and copies circulated widely across the Mediterranean. By the 14th century, it was translated into other vernaculars, notably Catalan and Castilian. However, one of the earliest translations of the Tresor was made in Brunetto’s home city, Florence, where he returned in 1267. The Italian Tesoro dates back to the 13th century, when the French version was available widely in Italy. This translation illustrates how French works fed into the multilingual literary culture of Italy, in the city of Brunetto’s student Dante, where the language that will be eventually called ‘Italian’ was emerging. A 15th-century Florentine manuscript of the Tesoro (Yates Thompson 28) was copied in 1425 by the scribe Bartolomeo di Lorenzo of Fighine.

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Opening page of Guido delle Colonne, Historia destructionis Troiae: Harley MS 176, f. 1r

Guido delle Colonne’s Historia destructionis Troiae (‘History of the Destruction of Troy’) offers a different example of the movement of historical texts between languages. In 1287, the Sicilian judge and poet composed his Latin prose account of the Trojan War, which is a translation of the 12th-century French Roman de Troie, by Benoît de Sainte-Maure. The Historia Destructionis Troiae was enormously popular across Europe and demonstrates how vernacular culture revitalised contemporary Latin historical writing.

Over 90 copies of Guido’s Historia survive. The success of Guido’s translation also suggests a preference in some circles for Latin as opposed to local languages, even as the local language (in this instance Italian) emerges as a literary language. The work was even popular beyond Italy, as demonstrated in an English copy made around 1400 (Harley MS 176).

Around this time, John Lydgate translated the Historia into English verse. He completed his version in 1420 and gave it the title ‘Troy Book’. This 15th-century illuminated English manuscript contains a particularly fine copy of Lydgate’s Troy Book, compiled with other works by the same author.

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The Trojan Horse, in John Lydgate, Troy Book: Royal MS 18 D II, f. 75r

Professor Bartlett’s talk is presented in conjunction with the ‘Narrating History Across Languages in Medieval Europe’ conference at Kings College London, 14-15 June, organised by The Values of French, a research project funded by the European Research Council at King’s College London. The conference will cover a range of geographic and linguistic traditions, including Catalan, Castilian, French, German, Greek, Latin and Sicilian. To book tickets, please visit this site.

Robert Bartlett, 'The Languages of History in the Middle Ages', The British Library, Friday 14 June, 19:30–21:00.

Kathleen Doyle, Hannah Morcos and Maria Teresa Rachetta (King's College London)

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You can learn more about the use of French in the Middle Ages in The Polonsky Foundation England and France article on the subject, in partnership with

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05 April 2019

An important Anglo-Saxon manuscript acquired for the nation

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Following hot on the heels of our triumphant Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, we are delighted to announce that a 10th-century Anglo-Saxon manuscript has been added to the collection of the British Library. Comprising a single leaf of a benedictional, the manuscript in question has been acquired from the estate of Stephen Keynes. It will now be available for consultation by researchers in our Manuscripts Reading Room (Add MS 89378), and it can be examined online on our Digitised Manuscripts site. We plan to display it in the Treasures Gallery at the Library later this year. We are extremely grateful to the British Library Collections Trust for generously supporting the acquisition of the benedictional leaf.

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Written in the middle decades of the 10th century, the benedictional leaf contains the conclusion of the benediction for Easter Day, benedictions for Monday and Tuesday, and the beginning of the benediction for Wednesday after Easter: Add MS 89378, f. 1r

The acquisition of this benedictional leaf is significant for everyone who studies the politics and liturgy of Anglo-Saxon England. Curiously, it is written in a transitional form of script, known as English square minuscule, rather than the more traditional English Caroline minuscule. This points to an early date of production for the benedictional. Along with two other leaves which survive from the same manuscript, now held in the USA, it has been described by David Dumville as constituting ‘the earliest known English benedictional (if, that is, they were not once part of a sacramentary)’ (Liturgy and the Ecclesiastical History of Late Anglo-Saxon England (Woodbridge, 1992), p. 76). 

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The leaf is written in English square minuscule, and at some stage seems to have been re-used as a binding fragment: Add MS 89378, f. 1v

We are very excited by the prospect of researchers having access to this manuscript in the Library. It is potentially related to other English benedictionals, including the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, also held at the British Library (Add MS 49598), together with Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France, ms. lat. 987, and Exeter, Cathedral Library, MS 3548C. It is also of great importance for the study of English Benedictine reform in the 10th century, for the study of 10th-century English politics, and for the development of English square minuscule script.

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The benedictional leaf is related textually to the Benedictional of St Æthelwold: Add MS 49598, f. 65r

One major research question we may mention here is whether the benedictional, when originally intact, once belonged to Archbishop Dunstan of Canterbury (959–988), a key figure in the monastic reform movement. Dunstan’s benedictional was attested at Glastonbury Abbey in 1247–48, and again by John Bale when writing to Archbishop Matthew Parker on 30 July 1560 (Cambridge University Library Add MS 7489): ‘I had also Benedictionum archiepiscopale Dunstani, the oldest boke that ever I sawe yet, and most straungely written, but yet legyble to hym that was acquaynted with that kynde of writynge; but now all are dispersed.’ The benedictional owned by St Dunstan is now presumed lost, but we can at least assume that our new manuscript was used by monastic reformers in the 10th century.

The three surviving leaves of this Anglo-Saxon benedictional once formed part of the collection of Sir Thomas Phillipps (his MS 29721). They were together when auctioned at Sotheby’s in 1972, and then sold individually by Maggs Bros. between 1976 and 1980. The leaves in question are now held at Harvard, Yale and the British Library:

  • Cambridge, MA, Harvard University, Houghton Library, Typ 612
  • New Haven, CT, Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Takamiya MS 89
  • London, British Library, Add MS 89378

One of the great successes of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms was that it demonstrated that we continue to learn more about the history and culture of this period. Among the new discoveries showcased in the exhibition was the recovery of erased slavery records in the Bodmin Gospels, revealed using multi-spectral imaging. In turn, much still remains to be discovered about the benedictional leaf, and we hope that it stimulates research for many years to come.

This is the first of two exciting acquisitions from the estate of Stephen Keynes. We will be announcing the second soon on the Medieval Manuscripts Blog.

 

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04 April 2019

Jews, Money, Myth at the Jewish Museum

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Two of the British Library’s medieval charters are currently on loan to an exhibition at the Jewish Museum in London. Jews, Money, Myth explores the role of money in Jewish life over the course of 2000 years. Drawing together art, film, literature, and artefacts from board games and cartoons to costumes and figurines, the exhibition follows the real and imagined stories of Jews — in finance, commerce and capitalism — up to the present day.

One of the loans (Add Ch 1251) is a Latin deed that records the partial repayment of the debt in November 1182 of Richard de Malbis (or Malebisse), a Norman landowner, to Aaron of Lincoln, one of the wealthiest men in England at the time. Malbis was later the principal instigator of mob violence against the Jewish community in York in 1190.

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Receipt for a payment of debt, written in Latin, England, 15 November 1182: Add Ch 1251

On the reverse of the deed, an informal Hebrew inscription by Solomon of Paris, an associate of Aaron of Lincoln, acknowledges the payment. Playing on the meaning of Malbis’ name in French (Mal Bete), Solomon states, ‘I have received £4 from Richard the evil beast … from his debt, the large one’.

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Acknowledgement of a payment of debt, written in Hebrew, England, 15 November 1182: Add Ch 1251, dorse

The second loan (Add Ch 71355) is a 13th-century legal document. A bilingual text written in Latin and Hebrew, it is a duplicate of a lost deed of lease of the land for the Jewish cemetery in Northampton, outside the town's north gate, and leased to the Northampton community by the local prior and the convent of St Andrew. The annual rent stated is half a mark, approximately £500 in today’s currency.

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Deed in Latin and Hebrew, recording the rent of a Jewish cemetery, England, c. 1270: Add Ch 71355

Jewish representatives of the community, named here as Samuel hazan ben Aaron, Benet ben Isaac, and Samson ben Samson, witnessed the legal document.

A nearby section of the exhibition examines Judas Iscariot, the disciple of Christ who betrayed him for 30 pieces of silver (Matthew 26:14-15). In the introduction to the exhibition catalogue, the curators explain that, beginning in the 12th century, ‘Jews began to be presented in Christian iconography as inherently attached to money’. Several reproductions from illuminated manuscripts included in this section show Judas with a bag of money, or his death. 

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Judas leaves the High Priest and hangs himself, in a Psalter with the Hours of the Virgin, Oxford, 1st quarter of the 13th century: Arundel MS 157, f. 10r

One illustration is reproduced from a Psalter recently digitised as part of the England and France 700-1200 project funded by The Polonsky Foundation. It is one of 20 full-page illuminations that appear at the beginning of the manuscript, forming one of the most outstanding prefatory cycles to survive from the period around 1200. In this image, Judas is depicted with the infamous 30 pieces of silver, piled next to the High Priest. Judas then hangs himself from a tree, out of guilt at his betrayal of Christ. The scene is juxtaposed with a representation of Christ’s flagellation at the hands of the Romans in the panel below. 

You can read more about this Psalter in Kathleen Doyle & Charlotte Denoël, Medieval Illumination, Manuscript Art in England and France, 700–1200 (London: British Library, no. 39. To explore other manuscripts included in the project, and learn about Hebrew in manuscripts digitised by the project, read this article on the Medieval England and France, 700-1200 website.

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Judas’ betrayal of Christ, in a Biblia pauperum, Northern Netherlands, c. 1395-1400: Kings MS 5, f. 11r

Also reproduced in the exhibition is an image from an opulent copy of the Biblia pauperum. The Biblia pauperum, or Bible of the poor, is a typological approach to the Christian Bible in which images illustrate how the Old Testament was seen to be both predictive of and more fully explained by the New Testament. The image featured in Jews, Money, Myth is a detail from the central image on this page, which compares the selling of Joseph to Potiphar to the selling of Christ by Judas. In the image, Judas holds a cloak with a large number of coins (although they are gold, rather than silver). The manuscript is described in more detail by Scot McKendrick & Kathleen Doyle, The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World (London: Thames and Hudson, 2016), no. 38.

For a fascinating discussion of Judas as ‘The Wickedest Man’, we highly recommend that you listen to Janet Robson’s Radio 4 broadcast from 2005, available here. You may also be interested in her article, 'Fear of Falling: Depicting the Death of Judas in Late Medieval Italy', in Fear and its Representations in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, ed. by Anne Scott and Cynthia Kosso, Arizona Studies in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, 6 (Turnholt: Brepols, 2002), pp. 33–65.

 

Jews, Money, Myth is on show at the Jewish Museum, London, from 19 March until 7 July 2019. The exhibition catalogue is edited by Joanne Rosenthal and Marc Volovici (London: Jewish Museum, 2019).

 

Calum Cockburn and Kathleen Doyle

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29 March 2019

Saints, kings and a bonnacon at Longthorpe Tower

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In a previous blogpost, Snakes and Scrolls, we compared iconography in British Library manuscripts to medieval wall paintings in a little church in Houghton-on-the-Hill, Norfolk. There are churches all over Britain containing hidden gems of medieval art, sometimes fragmentary, sometimes astonishingly fresh, and these treasure troves are lovingly cared for and nearly always kept open for visitors by the local communities. Many images recall the manuscript miniatures in our collections.

Not long ago, guidebooks in hand, I made an astonishing discovery down a suburban road in the outskirts of Peterborough: Longthorpe Tower. This is not a church building but a fortified ‘solar tower’ adjoining a manor house, containing the ‘finest collection of domestic wall-paintings’ in Britain, according to Rosewell.

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Longthorpe Tower, English Heritage

The Tower was part of a larger manor house built by the Thorpe family, peasants who purchased their freedom during the reign of King John (1199–1216) and increased their power and fortune by education and strategic marriages. Robert Thorpe, who rose to become lay steward of the powerful abbey of Peterborough and a knight of the realm, was able to add this prestigious status symbol to his manor house; he commissioned the wall paintings between 1320 and 1340.

Entering the painted room on the first floor is like walking into the Queen Mary Psalter or along the margins of the Taymouth Hours. The images are an eclectic mix of religious, allegorical, fantastical and heraldic imagery on a scale that is startling in comparison to the tiny, exquisite miniatures in manuscripts. The colours are faded, but many of the details and even some facial expressions are still visible.

One of the most recognizable images is a brooding representation of the Three Living and the Three Dead (for more on this popular medieval allegory, see our previous blog post). In this version of the scene, a crowned king is shown admonishing the three corpses (traces of a second king can be seen behind).

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Wall painting of the Three Living and the Three Dead: Longthorpe Tower, English Heritage (Image copyright Philip Halling and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License).

The wall painting is similar to this image from the Taymouth Hours, in which a younger-looking man holds out his hand and the three dead wave back jauntily.

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Miniatures of the Three Living and the Three Dead, detail from the Taymouth Hours:
Yates Thompson MS 13, ff. 179v–180r

Other familiar scenes are the labours of the months, depicted around an archway on one side of Longthorpe Tower. The clearest of these is on the lower left, a figure seated by the fire warming his hands (January).

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Wall paintings of the labours of the months and a scene from the life of St Anthony: Longthorpe Tower, English Heritage

This calendar image for January is found in many Psalters, including the Bohun Psalter and Hours, made not long after Longthorpe was built, for the de Bohun family of Essex.

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A figure warming his hands from the Calendar page for January, detail from the Bohun Psalter and Hours: Egerton MS 3277, f. 1r

In the upper part of the recess, below the labours of the months, is a scene from the life of St Anthony, the desert hermit. The saint is addressing a seated figure who is weaving, with birds and animals. Beneath are two standing figures, perhaps a pupil and teacher. The weaver probably represents the fact that Anthony was tempted by the devil with boredom, laziness and visions of women, which he overcame by the power of prayer. The weaver can be compared with this scene from the Luttrell Psalter, which shows women spinning and weaving.

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A spinner and a weaver, detail from the Luttrell Psalter: Add MS 42130, f. 193r

The vault of the roof is covered with paintings that represent heaven along with musicians, including this very clear image of David playing his harp.

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Wall painting of King David: Longthorpe Tower, English Heritage

Beatus initials at the beginning of Psalter manuscripts often contain similar images. In this one from the Queen Mary Psalter, David’s facial expression and hands are very finely drawn, as they are in Longthorpe Tower.

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David playing his harp, detail from the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 85r

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Wall painting of enthroned figures and a bonnacon: Longthorpe Tower, English Heritage

The south wall, next to the entrance, is painted with a trompe l’oeil cloth hanging that includes the Thorpe arms. Above it are two figures seated on thrones, identified by their arms as probably Edward III (left) and Edmund of Woodstock, Earl of Kent, executed in 1330 (right). Beneath is perhaps the only surviving wall painting of the mythical beast, the bonnacon (just the rear survives), at which an archer is aiming an arrow (only his bow is now visible). This image from a 13th-century bestiary contains a better-preserved image of the bonnacon.

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Hunting a bonnacon, detail from a bestiary: Harley MS 4751, f. 11r

For those who have not seen previous blogposts on this popular subject, a bonnacon is a mythological beast that protected itself by emitting flaming excrement. It also features in our article, ‘Beastly tales from the medieval bestiary’, on The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project website.

There are many more wonderful scenes in Longthorpe Tower including the ages of man, a wheel of the senses, a spider's web, an ostrich, a monkey and many more. All of these subjects are illustrated in manuscripts in the British Library, and can be found by searching our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts and Digitised Manuscripts website.  

These three books are my guides to medieval wall paintings and where to find them:

E Clive Rouse, Medieval Wall Paintings (Princes Risborough: Shire, 2010).

Roger Rosewell, Medieval Wall Paintings (Botley: Shire Publications, 2014).

Nick Mayhew Smith, Britain’s Holiest Places (Britain: Lifestyle Press Limited, 2011).

 

Chantry Westwell

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27 March 2019

Initial impressions: the Noyon Sacramentary

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Digitisation can lead to new discoveries, and allow us to make previously unnoticed connections. Recently, a manuscript digitised as part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project, known as the Noyon Sacramentary (Add MS 82956), caught my attention. More precisely, the specific style of its two large unfinished initials made me do a double take.

Thanks to my AHRC-funded PhD studentship, which the England and France Project inspired, I was ideally placed to make an art-historical connection that does not appear to have been made before. I noticed that the line-drawn initials of the Noyon Sacramentary are remarkably similar to the initials of some of the most famous manuscripts decorated in the so-called Franco-Saxon style.

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An unfinished initial V (for the Vere dignum opening) at the beginning of the Canon of the Mass (Noyon, 4th quarter of the 10th century): Add MS 82956, f. 6v. Add MS 86956 was allocated to the British Library by HM Government in lieu of Inheritance Tax under the Acceptance in Lieu (AIL) Scheme, 2007.

Despite developing on the Continent, this style integrates typically Anglo-Saxon or Insular decorative motifs (such as abstract animal decorations and interlace) with Carolingian elements. It was usually reserved for high-grade liturgical or biblical manuscripts and it flourished in mid-to-late 9th-century Francia (roughly modern-day France and parts of western Germany).

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Unfinished initial ligature TE (for the Te igitur opening) at the beginning of the Canon of the Mass: Add MS 82956, f. 7v

A sacramentary contains the prayers that the celebrant, usually a bishop, needed to perform Mass and other liturgical ceremonies. The Noyon Sacramentary was made in the late 10th century for the use of Noyon Cathedral. It has mainly been studied for its liturgical content and its unusual dimensions. Its leaves are two and a half times as tall as they are wide: this unusual format perhaps made it a highly portable 'saddle-book', making it easier for the bishop to travel to and consecrate churches far away from the seat of his bishopric.

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Illuminated initial V for the Vere dignum opening (Saint-Vaast, 3rd quarter of the 9th century): Cambrai, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 162, ff. 1v–2r

Another sacramentary with similar 'saddle-book' dimensions, but at least a century older, is now Cambrai, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 162. It was made at the Benedictine abbey of Saint-Vaast, one of the three centres in north-eastern France that excelled at the Franco-Saxon style. This manuscript has clear similarities with the Noyon Sacramentary, both in their unusual dimensions and their respective initial ‘V’ of the page with the words Vere dignum ('It is truly fitting'), a page that is marked with a large initial because it introduces the preface to the Canon of the Mass. Apart from the overall shape, this is seen in the stylised animal heads at the top of the two diagonal strokes of the ‘V’, and the roundels halfway down those strokes.

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Illuminated initial V in the Noyon Sacramentary: Add MS 82956, f. 6v (detail)

Can we speculate how this style came to inspire the makers of the Noyon Sacramentary in the 10th century? A possible model is another surviving sacramentary, now known as Reims, Bibliothèque Municipale, MS 213. This manuscript was also made for the use of Noyon Cathedral in the last quarter of the 9th century. However, it was made not at Noyon itself but as an export or commission at the Benedictine monastery of Saint-Amand, also in north-eastern France, another important centre associated with the Franco-Saxon style.

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Initial ligature TE (for the Te igitur opening) (Saint-Amand, 4th quarter of the 9th century): Reims, Bibliothèque Municipale, MS 213, f. 13v

The words ‘Te igitur’ ('You, therefore') are the first words of the Canon of the Mass. The overall shape of the word ‘TE’ in the Noyon Sacramentary and in the Reims manuscript are very similar. This is shown, for example, by the intricate composition of overlapping interlace that unites the outer ribbons of the ‘T’ and the ‘E’. But there are differences in the details, if not in the overall style. The arm of the ‘T’ in the Noyon Sacramentary ends in small, dog-like animal heads, whereas the top of the ‘T’ in the Reims manuscript is dominated by the heads of birds with long beaks. It seems highly likely that the Reims sacramentary was still in the cathedral library in the 10th century and inspired the makers of the Noyon Sacramentary, even if it was not the direct model for it.

Why did the 10th-century makers of this manuscript adopt a style of decoration associated with a century-old manuscript? The Noyon Sacramentary was made during a period when the bishops of Noyon were closely affiliated with the first kings of the Capetian dynasty of the kingdom of Francia. The first Capetian ruler, Hugh Capet (reigned 987–996), was crowned at Noyon in 987, succeeding the last Carolingian king of West Francia, Louis V (reigned 986–987).

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A TE ligature in the Noyon Sacramentatry: Add MS 82956, f. 7v

Noyon was probably chosen as the site of Hugh’s coronation to emphasise the connection to his distant ancestor, Charlemagne (reigned 768–814), whose first coronation was held there in 768. The older sacramentary (Reims, Bibliothèque Municipale, MS 213) was made around the reign of Charlemagne’s grandson, Charles the Bald (843–877). Charles the Bald was keen to promote favourable comparisons to his illustrious grandfather, for instance as a patron of manuscript art.

These political circumstances suggest that the use of Franco-Saxon style initials in the Noyon Sacramentary may have been part of a deliberate attempt to evoke continuity with the previous Carolingian period, in the history of both the cathedral and the kingdom.

You can discover more about 800 illuminated manuscripts from the collections of the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, all newly digitised, on our dedicated webspace: Medieval England and France: 700-1200.

 

Emilia Henderson

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20 March 2019

What's the language?

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Bonjour à tous!

International Francophonie Day highlights the global spread of French language and culture. It is the perfect day to celebrate our great collaboration with our French colleagues in The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700–1200.  

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An animation inspired by the Sirius constellation (Canis major) in British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius C I, f. 28r

As part of our ambitious collaborative project, we’ve digitised 800 medieval manuscripts from the two national libraries. In November 2018 we launched not one but two new project websites. One allows users to search and view all 800 project manuscripts through an innovative new viewer. We applied the International Image Interoperabitility Framework (or IIIF, as it is commonly known) standards to our images and descriptions. As a result, it is now possible to share, annotate, manipulate and download images from our 800 project manuscripts. You can also compare manuscripts side-by-side (up to four at a time!).

SideBySideView

Two manuscripts from each institution, presented side-by-side

We are happy to offer our readers this massive list of manuscript identifiers, or shelfmarks, titles and URL links to the IIIF images on the new website. All of these manuscripts can be viewed in their full glory on the project website hosted by the BnF.

Excel spreadsheet of the 800 project manuscripts

PDF of the 800 project manuscripts

 

What is new with the project and the curated website?

On a website hosted by the British Library, we are offering our readers articles, descriptions, films and more interpreting these manuscripts: Medieval England and France, 700–1200. Everything is available in two languages, English and French – just choose your preferred language at any point of the visit.

LandingPageEnglish

LandingPageFrench

There are six broad themes covering art, history, science, religion, making manuscripts and the medieval manuscript collections today. We chose a selection of manuscripts to explore through various articles in each theme. Since the initial launch in November 2018 with 24 articles, we have added six new articles, 33 new collection items, and created new pages with biographies and maps. Did we mention the animation of the crane, inspired by a tale in an illustrated bestiary? Medieval manuscripts offer us the greatest collection of surviving medieval artwork in any media. Often, the colours are still as vibrant and the gold as glittering as at the time they were made, over 800 years ago. These books offer us wonderful glimpses of medieval culture, ideas and even individual people.

There are famous thinkers and authors, like Alcuin or Anselm, who exemplify the movement of people, texts and ideas across Europe in the early Middle Ages. For example, Queen Emma’s achievements are celebrated in a work that is the earliest surviving account dedicated to a female political figure from England (excluding saints’ Lives).

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A seal of Anselm of Canterbury, containing one of the earliest surviving representations of the archbishop, attached to the charter British Library, LFC Ch VII 5

For anyone interested in medieval manuscript culture in the Middle Ages, this site is a treasure-trove. It is easy to spend hours wondering around, or you can dip in for 5 minutes at a time. With 30 articles on various aspects on manuscript culture, over 140 highlighted collection items, 10 people pages and 10 short videos, you will be sure to find something intriguing.

 

French language, modern and medieval

It was clear from the start of the project that whatever we were to do, it would all be available in both English and French.  The medieval world was multilingual. Latin was the main written language, but it was by no means the only one. Old English and different variants of written French, like Anglo-Norman or Old Occitan, were also written down.  

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The beginning of St John’s Gospel, Chapter 13 in Old Occitan, preceded by a Latin rubric: British Library, Harley MS 2928, f. 187v

To mark today’s theme, International Francophonie Day, we took a closer look at a copy of a poem by the earliest known French poet, Philippe de Thaon (active during the first half of the 12th century). One of his works called Comput is a verse explanation of the metrics of the medieval calendar and gives instructions about how to calculate the date of Easter. In the poem’s opening lines, Philippe tells the reader he has decided to compose his text in Anglo-Norman French: Ne nest griu ne latins (it isn't Greek or Latin), but the language De la nostre cuntree (of our country), so that the users Ben poënt retenir (are able to remember well).

… Në est pas juglerie,

Ne nest griu ne latins,

Ne ne nest angevins,

Ainz est raisun mustree

De la nostre cuntree:

Ben poënt retenir

Çoe dum ges voil garner

Së il volent entendre

E bone garde prendre.

 

('… [It] is not entertainment,

nor is it Greek, Latin,

or the Angevin dialect.

Rather [it] is the spoken discourse of our country:

[in it they] are able to remember well

what I want to teach them,

if they want to listen

and pay good attention.')

 

(translation by Dr Hannah Morcos, King’s College London)

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Philippe de Thaon explains why he has chosen Anglo-Norman French to write his poem Comput: British Library, Cotton MS Nero A V, f. 2r

 

To find out more about languages present in medieval manuscripts, visit the History and Learning section of Medieval England and France, 700-1200.

 

Tuija Ainonen and Calum Cockburn

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval, #PolonskyPre1200

 

 

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19 March 2019

Let sleeping cranes lie

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The RSPB has reported that the crane is coming back to Britain, with a record number of new birds reported in recent years. We have similarly found many cranes hidden in the British Library’s medieval bestiaries, manuscripts full of fantastic stories about all manner of birds and beasts.

A bird with great wings and long thin legs, the crane’s Latin name — grus — was thought to derive from the hoarse cry of her voice. The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project has created an animation that tells the story of the life of the bird and her flock, based on an account in an illustrated bestiary (Harley MS 4751). You can watch it here.

Cranes are not solitary creatures. They fly together as a flock, arranging themselves with military discipline high up in the air. According to this medieval bestiary, the birds swallow sand before they take off. Watch the animation to find out why.

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A crane guards the rest of her flock, holding a rock in her claws, in a bestiary with additions from Gerald of Wales’ Topographia Hibernica (Salisbury, late 12th century–early 13th century): Harley MS 4751, f. 39r

At night, the cranes are known for keeping a careful watch, guarding their camp and looking over the rest of the flock as they sleep. Other birds act as sentries, looking out for any enemies who might attack them. When there is cause for alarm, the cranes call out, to wake the rest and make sure they are safe.

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A pair of cranes alongside a Latin description of the bird in an early illustrated bestiary (England, 4th quarter of the 12th century): Add MS 11283, f. 17r

On duty, the crane has a particularly surprising way of keeping awake: she holds a stone in her claws. If she falls asleep, the stone will fall to the ground, make a noise and wake her up. Representations of this behaviour were common in early medieval bestiaries, and the crane’s vigilance and loyalty to her flock were regarded as particularly admirable traits.

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Sleeping cranes in an illustrated bestiary (England, c. 1200–c. 1210): Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 40r

We would love you to explore more stories of birds and beasts from the bestiary. Check out this brilliant discussion on our website, entitled Beastly tales from the medieval bestiary.

 

Calum Cockburn

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval, #PolonskyPre1200

 

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

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17 March 2019

Why we love the Harley Irish Gospels

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How better to celebrate St Patrick’s Day than to announce the digitisation of two important Irish manuscripts from the British Library's collections? Harley MS 1023 and Harley MS 1802 were both made in the 12th century in Armagh, St Patrick’s foundation and medieval cult centre. Here are 5 reasons why we love these manuscripts:

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The lion symbol of St Mark: Harley MS 1802, f. 60v

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The lion symbol of St Mark: Harley MS 1023, f. 10v

1) Because Irish Gospel-books are stunning. Irish scribes and artists played an important role in the development of Gospel-book design, and their manuscripts are renowned for their beauty and brilliance. In the Harley Gospel-books, each Gospel text begins with a lively picture of an animal, the ‘evangelist symbol’ for that particular Gospel-writer. Harley 1802 contains a brightly coloured lion of St Mark and equally vivid ox of St Luke. The lion is especially endearing, with its tongue lolling and its hind legs entangled in its tail. Harley 1023 contains a particularly springy lion of St Mark and a rather plump eagle of St John, this time depicted in bold line drawing. Decorated initials open each Gospel text, made up of sinuous beasts playfully contorted into marvellous shapes. Harley 1802 also includes an equally serpentine Chi-rho initial, the Greek monogram of Christ that appears at Matthew 1:18 in Irish and Irish-influenced Gospel books.

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The ox symbol of St Luke: Harley MS 1802, f. 86v

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The eagle symbol of St John: Harley MS 1023, f. 64v

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Chi-rho initial: Harley MS 1802, f. 10r

2) Because 12th-century Irish manuscripts are underrated. People often think of the period from the 7th to 8th centuries as the high point of Irish book art, exemplified by masterpieces such as the Book of Kells (c. 800). Far fewer people realise that the 12th century was also a period of artistic renewal and vibrancy in Ireland. Around 100 manuscripts survive from this period containing a wide variety of works. The two Harleys are among the most richly illuminated, as well as a third surviving Gospel-book (Oxford, Corpus Christi College, MS 122) and the stunning Psalter of Cormac (Add MS 36929). These 12th-century manuscripts are especially poignant because they represent a last flowering for the tradition of Irish illumination. Evangelist symbol pages and Chi-rho pages disappear from book art after the Anglo-Norman invasion beginning in 1167, meaning that these examples are the last of their kind.   

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Beatus page in the Psalter of Cormac: Add MS 36929, f. 2r

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Decorated initial ‘Q’ at the opening of the Gospel of St Luke: Harley MS 1802, f. 87r

3) Because no one can resist Viking style. At the time these manuscripts were made, Ireland was home to both a native Irish and a Scandinavian-Irish population. The Vikings first settled in Ireland in the 9th century and remained a culturally distinct group, based in large trading cities such as Dublin. Art from the 12th century often reveals Viking and Irish styles fusing together. This is especially clear in the interlaced beasts that make up the decorated initials of Harley 1802 (see the Luke initial, f. 87v, and the Chi-rho initial, f. 10r). Beasts and interlace were important features of both Irish and Viking art, but the styles were noticeably different. With their large round eyes and snub-noses, the beasts of Harley 1802 resemble those that had prowled the pages of Irish manuscripts since the 7th century. But the interlace that entangles them has a distinctively Viking feel. A strand of interlace sometimes swells in width and then bursts into several new strands. At ends or sharp bends, the interlace sometimes forms a rather leafy-looking lobe shape tapering into a curl. These vegetal features don’t appear in Irish interlace from earlier periods, but they do appear in Viking artworks such as the Runestone of Harald Bluetooth.

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The Runestone of Harald Bluetooth, Jelling, Denmark, 10th century

4) Because Mael Brigte Ua Maeluanaig, the scribe of Harley 1802, was such a chatterbox. We don’t know who made most medieval manuscripts. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, the scribe will record their name, and occasionally other morsels of information. In contrast, Mael Brigte wrote a colophon (a closing inscription) for each of the Gospel texts, telling us not only his name but also that he was 28 years old, working in Armagh in 1138. He refers twice to the murder of king-bishop Cormac Mac Carthaig by Toirdelbach Ua Briain in 1138, describing it as a ‘great crime’. He mentions a terrible storm that happened two years earlier. He tells us that Donnchad Ua Cerbaill was High King and gives a list of the many petty kings of his time. Such an insight into the life and personality of a non-famous 12th-century individual, including even their disgruntled commentary on contemporary politics, is rare. It’s hard not to take a liking to this chatty, opinionated, scholarly scribe.

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The end of the Gospel of St John and Mael Brigte’s longest colophon: Harley MS 1802, f. 156v

5) Because they can teach you a thing or two. Besides the Gospels, these manuscripts are fascinating for the wide variety of other texts that share their pages. The detailed glosses that crowd the margins of Harley 1802 reveal Irish scholars’ meticulous study of the Gospels, drawing on a Hiberno-Latin commentary tradition dating back to at least the 8th century. Other texts suggest an interest in gathering obscure knowledge. For example, Harley 1023 contains a list of Pharaohs of Egypt, and a list of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus (a group of Christians who slept in a cave for 300 years while hiding from persecution). Harley 1802 contains poems describing the personal appearances of the Three Magi and the Apostles, paying special attention to the colour and style of their hair and beards. These texts reveal the breadth of Irish learning and give an insight into how information was carefully collected and treasured by enquiring scholars.

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The end of the Gospel of St Luke, with added biblical questions and answers and a list of Pharaohs of Egypt: Harley MS 1023, f. 63v

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Irish poem on Christ and the Apostles: Harley MS 1802, f. 9v

Have we convinced you? Happy St Patrick’s Day everyone!

 

Eleanor Jackson

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