Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life


What do Magna Carta, Beowulf and the world's oldest Bibles have in common? They are all cared for by the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section. This blog publicises our digitisation projects and other activities. Follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval. Read more

18 March 2016

The Letter Book of Archbishop Wulfstan

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by Becky Lawton

This week sees the arrival online of the manuscript containing the ‘Wulfstan’s Letter Book’, which has been digitised as part of our Anglo-Saxon manuscripts digitisation project. The manuscript (Cotton Vespasian A XIV) is a compilation of three sections, written in the 11th and 12th centuries.


Page for February from a calendar, South Wales?, c. 1150-1200, Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV, f. 1v

The first section of this manuscript is believed to have been written in south-eastern Wales, and contains a calendar, a Latin-Old Cornish glossary containing over 300 words and a collection of saints lives. The page above is taken from the calendar page for February, and it features the feast day for St Brigid at the top of the page. Dedicated followers of the blog may remember some interesting aspects from the Life of St Brigid from a post on her feast day, 1 February.


An extract from the Libellus Responsionem in Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, England, c. 1130-1170,  Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV, f. 109r

The second section of the manuscript is a selection of extracts from ‘The Ecclesiastical History of the English Church and People’, completed by Bede in 731. The extracts in this manuscript were copied in the mid-12th century; but a copy of Bede’s text made in the late 8th or early 9th century was uploaded to Digitised Manuscripts last month.

Cotton_ms_vespasian_a_xiv_f114r Extract of a letter from Alcuin to King Æthelred of Northumbria, from the Letter Book of Archbishop Wulfstan, England, c. 1002-1023, Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV , f. 114r

The final section in this manuscript is commonly known as the ‘Wulfstan Letter Book’. This text is a collection of letters written by Alcuin of York (c.735-804), which was compiled by Archbishop Wulfstan of York (d.1023) in the early 11th century. Alcuin was raised and educated at the church of York before moving to the court of Charlemagne in Francia in the 790s. Alcuin did not forget his fellow Englishmen, and sent many letters back to Anglo-Saxon England. Chief among his correspondents were the monks at York and King Æthelred of Northumbria, who is the recipient of the letter on the page above. Alcuin wrote to Æthelred to advise him on how to combat the Viking invasions of the time and how best to rule his kingdom. Archbishop Wulfstan also had connections to York, lived during a time of Danish invasions in England, and his king was also named Æthelred. Wulfstan may have found the advice in Alcuin’s letters helpful in his own day, and perhaps had them copied for this very reason.

  Cotton_ms_vespasian_a_xiv_f117r Extract of a letter from Alcuin to King Æthelred of Northumbria, Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV, f. 117r

On some pages it is possible to see sections that have been highlighted by a pointing hand or underlining. It is commonly thought that these annotations were made by Archbishop Wulfstan himself, owing to his close associations with the manuscript.

Cotton_ms_vespasian_a_xiv_f116v Extract of a letter from Alcuin to King Æthelhred of Northumbria, Cotton Vespasian A XIV, f. 116v.

Many of the phrases which were underlined or pointed to contain advice on good kingship and how to rule a good, Christian kingdom, in order to prevent the Viking invasions. Wulfstan’s specific interest in these passages may reflect his concerns for the behaviour of his own king and the state of the kingdom of England.


 Verses written in Archbishop Wulfstan's own hand, Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV, f. 148v

After compiling his collection of Alcuin’s letters, Wulfstan added a number of other items to the manuscript. On f. 148v is a poem, which includes Archbishop Wulfstan’s name six times. This poem is thought to have been written in Wulfstan’s own hand, rather than by a scribe.


Related Content:

Discover a beautifully illuminated single volume Latin Vulgate Bible produced at Alcuin's monastery of Tours in the 9th century.

A Carolingian Masterpiece: the Moutier-Grandval Bible



16 March 2016

Justifying Women Writers: A Medieval Poet Speaks Out

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Today we are beginning a series of posts about medieval women. Our first post shines a spotlight on a highly educated, shadowy female poet. Contrary to popular belief, there were quite a number of famous medieval women writers and readers, and the British Library is lucky enough to look after a range of texts made for, written by, and even copied by women writers, from ninth-century Mercian prayer books (such as Harley MS 7653) to the Book of Margery Kempe (Add MS 61823, perhaps the earliest surviving autobiography of an English person) to the works of Christine de Pizan in the lavishly illustrated Book of the Queen  (Harley MS 4431) to a collection of Latin, French, and Italian prayers translated and copied by the twelve-year-old future Elizabeth I as a New Year’s present for her father, Henry VIII (Royal MS 7 D X). Elizabeth really went the extra mile when it came to presents: not only did she translate and copy the text herself, she even embroidered the manuscript’s cover with Tudor roses and her father’s and stepmother’s initials.

Embroidered front cover from the ‘Prayerbook of Princess Elizabeth’, England, 1545, Royal MS 7 D X

However, medieval women writers did not always have an easy time, according to a poem written by a medieval woman about women writers in the newly digitised manuscript Add MS 21499, ff. 77v-78r.


Detail of a line with a female pronoun from the poem ‘Laudis honor’, England (Bury St Edmunds?), 12th century, Add MS 24199, f. 78r

The author of the poem appears to be female, because she uses the female pronoun ‘grata’ in the penultimate line. In her learned poem, which is full of classical allusions, she claims that she has been exiled by ignorant rulers who disapprove of her writing, and asks the muse Clio to leave her as she won’t need her help any more. ‘Art is my crime, and my genius’, she laments. (The poem is edited and translated in The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard, by Constant J. Mews, translated by Mews and Neville Chiavaroli (2nd edn, 2008), pp. 164-66).


Detail of the poem ‘Laudis honor’,  Add MS 24199, f. 78r 

 The poet also suggests that the (male) leaders who have banned her writing might just be jealous of her talent, since she could see no theological reason for banning women from writing:

‘Now if only I knew what wickedness our writing might be....

Much writing will not stop me from being good,

Writing allows me, not forbids me to know God.

We believe and know rationally that God exists

And also that what we do God does not forbid...

Your mind desired to condemn what it could not do...

Compose verses, you slanderer of verse, so that I may think

That you of course can create but do not want to.

I would be acceptable to you if my writing were acceptable:

Equal genius usually reconciles two people!’

The identity of this brave and outspoken poet is unknown, although it has been suggested that the writer might be Heloise, the noted female writer from early 12th-century France.

Royal 16 F II, f 137
Detail of a later medieval miniature depicting Heloise teaching, from the poems of Pseudo-Heloise, Low Countries (Bruges), c. 1450-1483, Royal MS 16 F II, f. 137

In 1129, Suger, the powerful abbot of Saint-Denis, sanctioned the expulsion of Heloise and her nuns from their convent in Argenteuil on charges of misconduct, which might have inspired a poem about exile such as the one in Add MS 24199. The classical allusions echo the language of some of Heloise’s letters to her former lover, Abelard; but the writer may equally have been an anonymous female scholar who refused to be silenced.         

This woman's poetry did find more appreciative audiences. The copy of this poem which has been digitised has been associated with Bury St Edmunds, an all-male house in East Anglia. The poem is an enigmatic testament to an extraordinary woman whose identity remains uncertain and a reminder of how often women’s voices have been muted through history.

Alison Hudson

Related content:

The Books of Remarkable Women

Christine de Pizan and the Book of the Queen

10 March 2016

The Coronation Gospels on Display in Edinburgh

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The exhibition Celts opens at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh on 10 March 2016. The British Library has lent the Coronation Gospels (Cotton Tiberius A II) to the exhibition. This ninth-century copy of the Gospels in Latin is usually known as the ‘Coronation Gospels’ owing to the erroneous belief of its early modern owner, Robert Cotton, that early English kings took coronation oaths on the manuscript. The Coronation Gospels’ artwork and later history demonstrate the interconnectedness of secular leaders in early medieval Europe. As such, they form part of the exhibition’s exploration of how different cultures came into contact and influenced each other.

Opening of Jerome’s letter to Pope Damasus, from the Æthelstan Gospels, Northern Europe (Lobbes?), 9th century, Cotton MS Tiberius A II, f. 3

The exhibition in Edinburgh focuses on diverse artistic influences exhibited by the decoration of the Gospels, particularly in their fine initials and in their portraits of the evangelists. However, the manuscript’s later history also contributes to the exhibition’s theme of diversity and intra-European contacts. 

Cotton MS Tiberius A. ii, ff. 164v-165
Opening of St John’s Gospel, Cotton MS Tiberius A II, ff. 164v-165


Connections and contacts can be seen in the way the Coronation Gospels travelled between various owners across Europe. The manuscript was made somewhere in northern Europe in the ninth century, possibly at the monastery of Lobbes, in modern-day Belgium. By the early tenth century, it had arrived in England, where it belonged to King Æthelstan (d. 939), according to an inscription made in the mid-tenth century at Christ Church Canterbury.


Detail of page mentioning King Æthelstan, Cotton MS Tiberius A II, f. 15v

The manuscript may have arrived in England thanks to Æthelstan’s close connections to Continental leaders. At the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, an English scribe wrote the names Odda (the Old English spelling of Otto) and Mihthild (Matilda) (f. 24r). Those were the names of Otto I, who was king of East Francia from 936 and who was crowned emperor in 962, and his mother (who died in 968).


Detail of inscription mentioning Otto and Matilda, Cotton MS Tiberius A II, f. 24

Æthelstan had extensive dealings with Otto, who married Æthelstan’s half-sister, Eadgyth or Edith, in 929 or 930. The inscription may suggest that this impressive copy of the Gospels was a present from Otto to his brother-in-law, Æthelstan, who was a great collector of books. The British Library houses some of Æthelstan’s other books, including another Continental manuscript that Æthelstan gave to St Peter’s Abbey in Bath (Cotton MS Claudius B V, which may also be viewed in full on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website) and a late ninth- or early tenth-century Breton Gospel-book which Æthelstan apparently gave to St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury (Royal 1 A XVIII).

In addition to being a great collector of books, Æthelstan was also a great re-gifter of manuscripts. At some point before his death in 939, the king gave the Coronation Gospels to Christ Church Cathedral, Canterbury, according to further inscriptions recorded in the book (ff. 15r and 15v). The first inscription takes the form of a poem praising Æthelstan’s piety, describing the book’s ornate cover, and hinting at a grim fate for anyone who should be tempted to steal the book away from Canterbury.  


Page containing the poem ‘Rex pius Æðelstan’ written in a continental hand, Cotton MS Tiberius A II, f. 15

Although the poem seems to have been written at (or least for) Christ Church Canterbury, which is mentioned by name, the handwriting shows it was copied, and possibly composed, by someone trained in mainland Europe, providing evidence of continued interaction between writers and artists with backgrounds in different regions and styles.

The British Library is delighted to be supporting the National Museum of Scotland’s Celts exhibition. Catch it while it is on, between 10 March and 25 September 2016!

Alison Hudson

08 March 2016

British Library Volunteer Programme, Department of Western Heritage, 2016

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Thanks to the generosity of the American Trust for the British Library and the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation the British Library is able to offer a five-month volunteership for an American doctoral student to participate in the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section of the Western Heritage Department.

Egerton 737 f 1 c11345-08
Miniature of Aristotle teaching Alexander the Great, from Nicolas Oresme (translator), Les Ethiques d'Aristote, Low Countries (Bruges), c. 1460 - c. 1480, Egerton MS 737, f. 1r

The student will be involved in all aspects of the work of the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section, including responding to inquires, providing talks for students and patrons, selecting and presenting manuscripts for display in our exhibition gallery, and cataloguing, and will thereby gain insight into various curatorial duties and aspects of collection care.  During the volunteership at the Library, the student will enjoy privileged access to printed and manuscript research material and will work alongside specialists with wide-ranging and varied expertise.  The student’s primary focus would be on supplementing the online Digitised Manuscripts website by researching and adding descriptions of medieval manuscripts.  The position is designed to provide opportunity for the student to develop research skills and expertise in medieval and Renaissance art and history, and presenting manuscripts to a range of audiences.  


The programme is only open to US citizens who are engaged actively in research towards, or have recently completed a PhD in a subject area relevant to the study of pre-1600 illuminated manuscripts. 


The term of the placement is for a period of five months.  The placement is voluntary and therefore unpaid.  However, the successful applicant will be reimbursed in respect of actual expenses in the performance of his or her duties, such as direct travel expenses to London and commuting expenses to the British Library, accommodation, and immediate living expenses such as food (but not clothing), subject to a maximum of £8,000 in total.  The volunteer will be responsible for making his or her own travel and accommodation arrangements.

If the applicant does not hold the right to work in the United Kingdom, the Library will sponsor the volunteer for a visa using the UK Border Agency’s points-based system under Tier 5 Charity Workers.  The successful candidate will be required to submit the relevant application form to the local processing centre.  The processing fee will be reimbursed by the Library.  No placement may commence until the appropriate right to work documents have been obtained and verified.

How to apply

Please send an application letter setting out your qualifications and the months you would be able to be in London, a résumé, and two reference letters to Dr Kathleen Doyle, Lead Curator, Illuminated Manuscripts, The British Library, by email to [email protected], or by post to 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB, by 18 April 2016.  A telephone interview may be held, and questions may include a discussion about the date and origin of a manuscript.

Kathleen Doyle

05 March 2016

New Digitisation Project and Positions in the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts Section

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Starting this summer the British Library will collaborate with another major research library on an exciting new project to enhance access to and promote 800 pre-1200 Latin manuscripts, half of which are held by the British Library.  There will be three fixed-term posts in the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section of the Western Heritage department to work on this project.

Detail of Arundel 60 f 13 

Detail of an initial depicting King David, from a Psalter, Southern England (Winchester), late 11th century, Arundel MS 60, f. 13r

The first is the post of the Project Curator, who will manage the digitisation and promotion of 400 pre-1200 manuscripts, and will manage a cataloguer, a project support officer, and in the second year, a web content curator. The project curator will be responsible for: overseeing the successful completion of the digitisation; coordinating all aspects of the project with the project partner, under the supervision of the project board; editing the catalogue records and summaries of the manuscripts; and interpreting the manuscripts using innovative and traditional means through online resources and engagement with academic and general users. This post will be for two years and nine months, and will start on 6 June, dependent on the necessary security clearances being obtained. Interviews for this position will be held on 21 April.

The second position is that of the Project Cataloguer, who will be responsible for providing summary catalogue descriptions of the 400 Latin manuscripts, at a rate of one manuscript per day, together with short descriptions of each for an interpretative website.  This is a two year post being on 27 June, dependent on the necessary security clearances being obtained. Interviews for this position will be held on 9 May.

A further part time position will be that of the Project Officer, who will assist curators in the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts Section with all aspects of preparation for and delivery of the digitisation project and other smaller digitisation projects, including the Southeast Asian manuscripts project. This will include arranging for delivery to the Studio, checking images and uploading manuscripts to the Library’s online catalogue, contributing to the development of learning materials, preparing blog posts, answering enquiries and a range of other curatorial duties.  This position will be .7 full time equivalent, or 3 ½ days per week.  This is a two year post being on 27 June, dependant on the necessary security clearances being obtained. Interviews for this post will be held on 19 May.

Full details of each position and how to apply are available on the Library’s website,  In each case, the positions are only open to applicants with the right to work in the UK.

Kathleen Doyle

04 March 2016

Cnut Manuscripts Now in the Treasures Gallery

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The Vikings are back! To commemorate the 1,000th anniversary of the conquest of England by King Cnut in 1016, one exhibition case in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery (free admission, Monday to Sunday) is currently devoted to a variety of different sources from his reign.

Detail of a list of benefactors including 
‘Æðelred [the Unready] Cynge' and 'Cnut Cynge', from the New Minster Liber Vitae, England (Winchester), 1031, Stowe MS 944, f. 25r

The new display includes two charters, a list of benefactors from the Liber Vitae of the New Minster, Winchester, the account of Cnut’s defeat of Edmund Ironside in the ‘D’ version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and the earliest surviving copy of Cnut’s law codes issued at Winchester in 1020 or 1021.

Section of Cnut’s law codes, from I-II Cnut, England, second half of 11th century, Cotton Nero A I, f. 11v

Apart from the two charters, all these manuscripts are now available on our Digitised Manuscripts website, but it is well worth seeing these variously sized manuscripts in person, if you are in London: for example, the law codes on display are the earliest surviving example of a ‘pocket-sized’ volume of English laws. So if you get the chance, do pop into the Treasures Gallery to learn more about what was happening 1,000 years ago!

Alison Hudson

01 March 2016

A Calendar Page for March 2016

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For more information about the Bedford Hours, please see our post for January 2016; for more on medieval calendars in general, our original calendar post is an excellent guide.

Calendar page for March from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430, Add MS 18850, f. 3r

March sees the beginning of springtime proper, and these folios from the Bedford Hours reflect all the contradictions of the new season.

Detail of miniatures of a man cutting vines and the zodiac sign Aries, from the calendar page for March, Add MS 18850, f. 3r

At the bottom of the first folio is a miniature of a man hard at work trimming vines with an unusual-looking tool; he appears to be working in the dead of night, under a starry sky.  Next to him is a rather jaunty-looking ram, for the zodiac sign Aries.

Detail of a marginal roundel of Mars, from the calendar page for March, Add MS 18850, f. 3r

The roundel in the middle right margin depicts an armoured warrior with a forked beard, holding a sword and a pike.  This (literally) martial gentleman is intended to represent Mars, for as the rubric explains, ‘the pagans called the month of march after their god of war’. 

Calendar page for March, Add MS 18850, f. 3v

The beauty of spring is reflected in the decoration of the March calendar pages, adorned as they are with bluebells, roses, and less realistically, golden leaves.  The roundels illustrate the season further, depicting, as the rubrics tell us, how in March ‘everything becomes green’, and below, ‘how in March thunder and storms are born’. 

Detail of marginal roundels of a two scenes of March weather, from the calendar page for March, Add MS 18850, f. 3v

-  Sarah J Biggs

29 February 2016

The Leaping Saint: 29th February in the Middle Ages

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Calendar crop

A close up of a volvelle, or wheel-chart, Harley MS 3719, f.  156r 

Today is a Leap Day. People born on this day are known as ‘leaplings’. This bonus day only comes around every four years to accommodate the fact that the solar year is a pesky 365.2422 days long. Throughout human history there have been a number of attempts to knit the solar year to the calendar, with varying degrees of success. Adding an extra day to the end of February is, actually, a comparatively recent innovation.

The ancient Egyptians had a whole leap-month, called the intercalary or epagonal month, which consisted of either five or six days, that was added to the end of the year. It still survives in the liturgical calendar of Egyptian (Coptic) Christians.

The Romans used this method until 46 BCE, when Julius Caesar set about reforming the calendar. Caesar got rid of the leap-month and came up with the idea of adding an extra day in February every four years. The addition, however, was inserted not at the end of the month, as in our calendars, but by repeating 24th February (the sixth day before the start of March - as the Romans termed it). Caesar’s practice, together with his reformed calendar, now known as the Julian calendar (after the emperor himself), was later adopted in both Western (Catholic) and Eastern (Orthodox) Christianity. The leap day is still called “double-sixth-day”, in French (dissextile), Italian (bisestile) or even in Greek (disektos).

This doubling of 24th February, together with all the consequences it brought about, is accurately explained in a lavishly illuminated collection of ecclesiastical laws from the fourteenth century


The Smithfield Decretals, Southern France, c.1300-1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 309r. 

Leap crop 3

A close up of the gloss by Bernard of Botone (d. 1266). The text reads: 

A standard solar year has 365 days and six hours, so in four years’ time these hours make 24 extra hours, which must be added as a new day to every fourth year. This additional day is what we call “double-sixth-day”, because, although it is counted as an addition, it stands under the same number as the previous day in the calendar, so that the two days are regarded as one and the same. The extra day is inserted in the calendar after 24 February (six days before the first day of March) so that we celebrate the memory of St Matthias the Apostle (24 February) on the next day, too.


In 1582, calendrical reform came from Rome again, this time, from Pope Gregory XIII (1502-1585). Gregory realised that because a whole day was added to every fourth year, when in fact it should be a bit less than a day to be accurate, the Julian calendar was 11 days ahead: 15th October in Gregory’s time was, astronomically, 4th October. In order to cut out this accumulated surplus, he issued a Papal directive stating that 4th October in 1582 will be followed by 15th October and the first year of each century will not be a leap year any more, except if it is divisible by 400. So what about the leaping saint? Well, the medieval solution for the leap-year problem was generous. By doubling 24th February the following saints’ feast days could all keep their original date and – because there were two 24ths in the month – February remained 28 days long. In this way, no saint suffered the ignominy of having their feast day celebrated only one year in every four. Instead, there was a gain: in the leap year Saint Matthias was celebrated twice – on the 24th(a) and 24th(b) alike.

Yet curiously, in this overhaul the repeated 24th remained in place. It was only over time that the medieval system of two 24ths was phased out and replaced by a 29th day of the month, but the tradition of having an extra 24th with its leaping saint, the Apostle Matthias, is still preserved in the Catholic liturgy.

Leap crop 2
 Page from a fifteenth-century breviary, with instructions on how to celebrate the Evangelist Matthias in a leap year, The Breviary of Isabel the Castile, Southern Netherlands, c. 1497, Add MS 18851, f. 347r

Happy Leap Day!

~ Peter Toth & Mary Wellesley