Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

Introduction

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

28 October 2019

The Lindisfarne Gospels: Turning over a new leaf

Fans of the Lindisfarne Gospels will be excited to hear that we have just turned the page, so you can now see a new opening on display in the British Library's Treasures Gallery. This time we are showing some of the manuscript's text pages, ff. 82v-83r, which contain the account of Christ’s arrest in the Gospel of St Matthew (Matthew 26:39-55).

A text page from a medieval manuscript with two columns of stately script
The Lindisfarne Gospels, England, around 700: Cotton MS Nero D iv, f. 82v

These pages showcase the Lindisfarne Gospels’ stately script, one of the finest surviving examples of the formal calligraphy used for high status books in England and Ireland in the 7th-9th centuries. This script, known as Insular half-uncial, first developed in Ireland and is shared with masterpieces of Irish book art such as the Book of Durrow and Book of Kells. Insular half-uncial is a large, round, imposing script that could only be written by highly trained scribes. They had to work slowly and meticulously, holding the pen vertically and paying attention to details such as serifs and head strokes.

According to a colophon written in the 10th century, the Lindisfarne Gospels was created by Eadfrith, bishop of Lindisfarne from 698 to 721. The monastery of Lindisfarne was founded around 634 by the Irish missionary St Aidan, who brought to Northumbria the traditions of Irish monasticism and book production. After the Synod of Whitby in 664, Northumbria officially declared allegiance to the Roman Church, but the Irish missionaries left an enduring legacy in the script of manuscripts such as the Lindisfarne Gospels.    

A text page from a medieval manuscript with two columns of stately script
The Lindisfarne Gospels, England, around 700: Cotton MS Nero D iv, f. 83r

The pages on display also give you the chance to admire the manuscript's ground-breaking Old English translation. Aldred, the 10th-century priest who wrote the colophon, also added an Old English translation above the words of the Latin text, providing the oldest known translation of the Gospels into English. Look carefully at these pages and you might see some words that you recognise. For example, on the second line of the second column on f. 83r, the Latin word 'gladium' is translated as 'suord' (modern English, sword). Or on the fifth-from-last line of the first column on f. 82v, the Latin word 'pater' is translated as 'fader' (modern English, father). 

Come and see the Lindisfarne Gospels and other spectacular manuscripts from our collection for free in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery or explore them online on our Digitised Manuscripts website.

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25 October 2019

John Bagford, bibliophile or biblioclast?

It is unfortunate that most books made in the West in the medieval period have not survived. In England, for instance, only about 90 missals (books containing the order of the Mass) have survived, out of an estimated 40,000 extant around the beginning of the 15th century. The situation is far worse for less prominent books, such as manuscripts of classical, scientific, medical and grammatical works. More manuscripts were undoubtedly lost in the early modern and modern periods than in the course of the Middle Ages.

Today, some medieval manuscripts survive only in fragmentary form. Modern libraries have a duty to preserve both complete manuscripts and the fragments of other books that have been partially lost.

One of the lesser-known collections of manuscript fragments at the British Library is that of John Bagford (1650/1–1716), now part of the Harley collection. John Bagford was a London shoemaker turned bibliophile and bookseller. A friend of the leading antiquarians of his time, he is known today mostly as a collector of Restoration-period ballads. You can read more about his career in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry (subscription only) and in the blogpost ‘A Man of very surprising Genius’.

The Bagford collection includes nearly 300 manuscript fragments collected in six volumes, ranging from modest vellum scraps to full-size parchment and paper leaves. Bagford collected the fragments indiscriminately and did not arrange them in a specific order, with the sole exception of Harley MS 5958, which contains mainly fragments of musical manuscripts.

Image1

A fragment of a leaf from a 13th-century English book of motets: Harley MS 5958, f. 65

Originally, Bagford’s collection also included fragments of early printed books, but these were removed from the original volumes at the British Museum and are preserved separately. His scrapbooks contain fragments from a large variety of manuscripts dating from the 8th century down to the end of the Middle Ages. While fragments of musical, liturgical and biblical manuscripts are the most numerous, there is also a large number of fragments of patristic, scientific, classical, grammatical and legal texts.

Image2

A leaf from a Northumbrian 8th-century manuscript containing Justinus’s Epitome: Harley MS 5915, f. 10

Several fragments are from illuminated manuscripts, but it appears Bagford collected every sort he could find, no matter how humble.

Image3

A cut-out of a miniature depicting a law doctor instructing two adults and two children: Harley MS 5414, f. 28

Image4

This fragment contains some form of reference system for patristic books (A for Augustine, B for Beda, C for Cassiodorus): Harley MS 5915, f. 7

Collecting fragments has always been controversial. It is one thing to acquire and gather loose leaves and floating scraps, quite another to make cut-outs from other manuscripts, defacing, mutilating and even destroying other items in pursuit of enlarging one’s collection. Bagford’s fragments come from a variety of sources, the provenance of most of which is untraceable.

Many fragments of medieval manuscripts considered dispensable were used since the beginning of print to reinforce the bindings of printed books. Small scraps were pasted on book spines, larger ones were used as pastedowns (paper or parchment pasted on the inner covers) or endleaves. Recycling medieval manuscripts was already common in the Middle Ages, when discarded older books were used for binding new ones. Often, an old manuscript parchment leaf would be used as covers for a newer volume.

A fragment from a manuscript containing the hugely popular 12th-century retelling of the Trojan War by Joseph of Exeter (died 1210) reveals its bookbinding afterlife. A residue of adhesive on the back indicates that this fragment was sourced from a binding where it was used as a pastedown.

Image5

This fragment was once part of a manuscript containing Joseph of Exeter's De Bello Troiano: Harley MS 5977, f. 87r

Image6

The other side of the fragment shows traces of adhesive presumably used to paste the fragment onto the inside of the lower board: Harley MS 5977, f. 87v

An unexamined fragment of the 12th-century play Geta was similarly used as a pastedown. This fragment is a bifolium (a sheet folded in half to produce two leaves), later incorporated into a manuscript more than twice its size.

Image7

This fragment used to be folded in half. The holes for the binder’s stitching of cords are still visible, as is the folding line, slightly ripped at the top. The poor surface quality is due to it having been pasted, presumably, onto the lower board of another book: Harley MS 5977, f. 88 

Bagford was accused by some 19th-century bibliographers of biblioclasm, meaning ‘the destruction of books’, a capital crime among booklovers. A ‘wicked old biblioclast’ (according to William Blades), ‘the most hungry and rapacious of all book and print collectors’ (T.F. Dibdin), Bagford's book-collecting activities remain a mystery. One must wonder how Bagford, a Londoner, acquired a loose leaf of astronomical tables for use in London, or a multitude of cut-out illuminations from manuscripts no longer extant.

Image8

A leaf from a 13th-century scientific manuscript containing a table for the calculation of the meridian in London: Harley MS 5977, f. 131

Confronted with the low survival rates for books written before the Reformation, book historians often have to be content with the (vellum) scraps under the master’s table, regardless of whether the scraps were used in binding newer books or deliberately removed from a discarded manuscript. A manuscript scrap in hand is worth two in the dustbin of history. And so we are grateful today for Bagford’s zeal, which provides us with distant echoes of voices forever lost.

Image9

A fragment from Alfredus the Englishman’s translation of Nicolaus of Damascus’ work on plants, now lost, which incorporates material from Aristotle’s De Plantis, also lost. Alfredus translated Nicolaus’ book from Arabic, which had been translated from Syriac, which had been translated in turn from Greek: Harley MS 5414, f. 72

Bagford's manuscript fragments are found in Harley MS 5414, Harley MS 5915, Harley MS 5934, Harley MS 5958, Harley MS 5966 and Harley MS 5977, all of which are included in our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. They are also being systematically described as part of our project to recatalogue the Harley collection.

 

Cristian Ispir

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19 October 2019

Drawing a blank: an attempt to save the life of Charles I?

Leafing through Harley MS 6988, it would be easy to flick past an unobtrusive empty page towards the end of the manuscript. Upon closer inspection, however, this ‘blank’ may be one of the central documents of the trial and execution of King Charles I in 1649.

Harley MS 6988 contains royal letters and warrants from between 1625 and 1655, chronicling the reign of King Charles I from his accession to his execution for treason, along with the development of the Civil War. Although one page towards the end of the manuscript is empty, this ‘blank’ is nevertheless as revealing as it is enigmatic.

On the right-hand side is the signature ‘Charles P’, while the left bears the Prince’s seal. In the hand of William Oldys (1696–1761), a previous owner of the document, is written: ‘Prince Charles his Carte Blanche to the Parliament to save his Father’s Head 1648’. A carte blanche is a blank paper on which a recipient can write their own conditions, essentially a pre-signed offer of full discretionary power.

A blank paper with Prince Charles’s signature and seal

The suspected carte blanche sent by the Prince: Harley MS 6988, f. 222r

Is this empty sheet a carte blanche sent by Prince Charles (the future King Charles II) to Parliament as a last-ditch offer in exchange for his father’s life?

The question has been discussed in an article by T.C. Skeat, who notes that several early historians thought it probable that the paper was genuine: according to an account in the 1663 book Flagellum: or the Life and Death, Birth and Burial of Oliver Cromwell, ‘a Blank with the Kings Signet, and another of the Princes’ was given to Colonel John Cromwell, ‘for [Oliver] Cromwell to write his own conditions in, if he would now preserve the life of the King’.

In 1766 the story was linked to the blank pages of Harley MS 6988, when William Harris wrote in his biography of Charles II that, ‘I know there is in the British Museum a blank paper, at the bottom of which, on the right hand, is written Charles P. and on the left, opposite thereunto, a seal is affixed’.

However, it is questionable whether Prince Charles would have made such an offer on the eve of his father’s execution. Letters from the King to his son had instructed against any concessions on religion. Earlier in Harley MS 6988, King Charles I wrote to the Prince, ‘I command you to do nothing, whether it concerns war or peace, but with the advice of your council, and that you be constant to those grounds of religion and honour, which heretofore I have given you’ (f. 208r).

A letter addressed to Prince Charles, signed by King Charles I

The King instructs his son to be constant in religion and honour: Harley MS 6988, f. 208r

On the other hand, as Skeat noted, the offer of a carte blanche was a familiar strategy during the period. Soon after the King’s execution, James, 1st Duke of Hamilton, was also sentenced to death for treason. His family protested, but Parliament refused to ‘hearken to the Earl of Denbigh, who proposed, on behalf of Duke Hamilton his brother-in-law, to give them a blank signed by the said Duke, to answer faithfully to such questions as should be there inserted’.

Royal figures are also found appending their signatures and seals to documents containing blank spaces to be filled in later, such as the 1601 licence in the Folger Shakespeare Library (MS X.d.70) signed by King James I, and the c. 1648 bond signed by Prince Charles now in the National Archives (SP 16/516 f. 225).

Although the empty page in Harley MS 6988 may have been ‘intentionally left blank’ by Prince Charles, it is not certain whether it was indeed a carte blanche intended to ‘save his Father’s Head’. Skeat concluded that the story was genuine, writing that ‘it seems almost perverse to refuse to accept the Carte Blanche as the very document with which the Prince of Wales sought to preserve his father’s life’. Despite uncertainties around its original purpose, the surviving leaf in Harley MS 6988 is a tantalising witness to a tempestuous historical moment, as well as a reminder of the potential of the blank page.

 

Amy Bowles

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11 October 2019

The Nine Worthy Women

In the late medieval and early modern eras, heraldic collections often contained, alongside contemporary examples, the imaginary coats of arms of men from medieval romance and legend or of kings who lived before the age of heraldry. Prominent among these attributed coats of arms were those of the so-called ‘Nine Worthies’ (Les Neuf Preux), a group of three pagan (Classical), three Jewish, and three Christian leaders first described in the early 14th-century French poem Les Voeux du Paon by Jacques du Languon (found, for example, in Harley MS 3992). The Nine Worthies personified the ideals of chivalry and military excellence. At the beginning of one late 15th-century book of heraldry (Harley MS 2169), they were introduced as ‘The IX Worthy Conqwerourys’, and were identified (from left to right) as Hector of Troy, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar; David, Joshua and Judas Maccabeus; and King Arthur, Charlemagne and Godfrey of Bouillon (one of the leaders of the First Crusade).

Image 1 - Nine Male Worthies

The arms of the Nine Worthies (4th quarter of the 15th century): Harley MS 2169, f. 5v

In the late 14th century, a group of female worthies joined their male counterparts. The Nine Worthy Women (Les Neuf Preuses) consisted of queens and female leaders who were also associated with military prowess. This grouping was much less fixed than that of the male worthies. For instance, the majority of the Nine Worthy Women who were part of the pageant for the coronation of King Henry VI at Paris in 1431 were queens of the Amazons, a tribe of warrior women from Greek mythology who, according to medieval sources such as the legendary travel memoir of John Mandeville, governed the land of Amozoyne where ‘dwellyth no man’. Other versions included female British leaders such as Boudica, queen of the Iceni (a British Celtic tribe), who led an uprising against Roman occupying forces; Æthelflæd, daughter of King Alfred, who fought off various Viking attacks; and Margaret of York, wife of King Henry VI, who led the Lancastrians in battle against Edward IV.

Image 2 - Amazons

The Amazons in Mandeville’s Travels (1st half of the 15th century): Harley MS 3954, f. 30r

Another version of the Nine Worthy Women features at the beginning of Harley MS 6090, a late 16th- or early 17th-century English heraldic collection. In that manuscript the three Classical queens and female leaders are: Minerva, the Roman goddess of war, whose arms feature the ‘Aegis’ (a shield with the head of the gorgon Medusa) of her Greek equivalent Athena; Semiramis, a mythical queen of Babylon; and Tomyris, a legendary ruler of the Massagetae, who defeated Cyrus the Great. 

Image 3 - Nine Worthy Women [1]

The arms of Minerva, Semiramis and Tomyris (late 16th or early 17th century): Harley 6090, f. 3v

The three Jewish queens and female leaders are Deborah, a prophetess and judge of the Israelites; Jael, who killed the commander of an enemy Canaanite army by hammering a tent peg (of which six are displayed on her arms) into his temple; and Judith, who decapitated Holofernes (his head is displayed on her arms), the leader of an Assyrian army that occupied Israel.

Image 4 - Nine Worthy Women [2]

The arms of Deborah, Jael, and Judith (late 16th or early 17th century): Harley 6090, f. 4r

The three Christian queens and female leaders are Empress Matilda (1102–1167), daughter of King Henry I, who initiated a war against her cousin, Stephen of Blois, after he usurped the throne; Isabel I of Castile [also known as Elizabeth I of Spain] (1451–1504), under whose rule Spain was united and the Emirate of Granada conquered; and Joanna II (1371–1435), Queen of Naples, who managed to re-establish herself as Queen after she had been imprisoned by her husband, James of Bourbon.

Image 5 - Nine Worthy Women [3]

The arms of Empress Matilda, Isabel I of Castile, and Joanna II of Naples (late 16th or early 17th century) (late 16th or early 17th century): Harley 6090, f. 4v

The arms of the Nine Worthy Women in Harley MS 6090 were most likely copied from John Ferne’s The Blazon of Gentrie, first printed in 1586. Their audience would have been familiar with these women through contemporary and medieval works that praised their achievements, such as De Mulieribus Claris (About Famous Women) by Giovanni Boccaccio (as in Harley MS 4923) and the works of Christine de Pizan (for example, Harley MS 4431).

Image 6 - Minerva

Minerva giving arms to her followers in Christine de Pizan’s L'Épître Othéa (c. 1410–1414): Harley MS 4431, f. 102v

Why are the female worthies so prominent in Harley MS 6090, while the male worthies are absent? Perhaps they were particularly popular among English authors. In an article published in 1946, Celeste Turner Wright pointed out that, during and following the reigns of Queen Mary I (1553–1558), and Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603), English authors often cited the Nine Worthy Women to justify female governance, to prove women's ability in national affairs, and to attack the Salic Law of France that excluded women from succession to the throne ('The Elizabethan Female Worthies', Studies in Philology, 43 (1946), 628–43).

 

Clarck Drieshen

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05 October 2019

Medieval saints as protectors of animals

St Francis of Assisi (1181/82–1225) is traditionally known as the patron saint of animals and the natural environment. During the Middle Ages, however, other saints were sometimes associated with protecting animals, particularly in magical texts or ‘charms’.

One such charm is found in an 11th-century Psalter from Winchester (Cotton MS Vitellius E XVIII), recently digitised as part of The Polonsky England and France Project. This manuscript features a number of magical remedies for healing animals, written in Old English. The book also contains instructions for making a magical device known as 'St Columcille’s Circle', used to protect bees and keep them in a bee-enclosure (‘apiary’) when they were swarming. The text advised that you should use the point of a knife to draw a circle on a malmstone, and to inscribe Roman numerals and a Latin text inside the circle: ‘contra apes ut salui sint et in corda eorum scribam hanc’ (‘[This circle is] in case of a swarm of bees so that they may be safe, and in their hearts I will write my law’). One should then drive a stake into the ground at the centre of the apiary, and place the stone on top of the stake, so that the stone disappeared into the ground while its surface with the magical circle remained visible. You can read more about this in Martha Dana Rust's article, 'The Art of Beekeeping Meets the Arts of Grammar: A Gloss of "Columcille's Circle"', Philological Quarterly, 78 (1999), 359–87.

St Columcille’s Circle

St Columcille’s Circle (3rd quarter of the 11th century): Cotton MS Vitellius E XVIII, f. 15v

It is not clear why the charm associates St Columcille (521–597), also known as Columba — one of Ireland’s three patron saints — with the protection of bees. Martha Dana Rust has suggested that the author of 'St Columcille’s Circle' may have been influenced by the Ecclesiastical History of the English People written by Bede (673/4–735). Bede interpreted the name ‘Columcille’ as a compound of the name Columba and the Latin cella (‘cell’), which could refer both to the monastic cell or the wax cell of a honeycomb. For example, in one 12th-century English bestiary, Add MS 11283, it is noted that bees use flowers to create ‘small and rounded cells’ ('minutae atque rotundae cellulae').

A swarm of bees in an English bestiary

A swarm of bees in an English bestiary (4th quarter of the 12th century): Add MS 11283, f. 23v

Another saint associated with the protection of animals is named in a 12th-century scientific and magical manuscript from southern France (Egerton MS 821). This collection contains various charms for healing cattle, including a charm for protecting an animal that invokes a certain ‘St Silvanus’. The text includes prayers to Christ and the Virgin Mary for support, but also instructs the reader to give three sticks to three men, and then say to them: ‘I appeal to you, [?named] men, that you should defend this animal from thieves or malign animals’ (‘apello homines nom[?ine] ut cum baculos defendatis hanc bestia a latronibus vel a malis bestiis’). Finally, the reader was instructed to invoke St Silvanus himself to protect the animal in question from thieves, dangerous animals and all ‘evil things’ (‘malos omnes’).  

St Silvanus charm

An ‘animal-charm’ invoking St Silvanus (12th century): Egerton MS 821, f. 56r

The Silvanus who is invoked in the charm has not been identified. He may represent a Christianised version of the Roman wood deity, Silvanus, who was venerated as a protector of animals and a patron of shepherds and their herds in the pre-Christian Roman Empire. The cult of Silvanus may have been recast into Christian form by missionaries during the Middle Ages, while retaining aspects of its pre-Christian identity. (You can read more about this in Peter F. Dorcey's book, The Cult of Silvanus: A Study of Roman Folk Religion (Leiden: Brill, 1992)). It is possible that Silvanus, whose cult flourished particularly in southern France, continued to be invoked as a protector of animals during the Middle Ages alongside other saints who were closely linked with the natural world.

We have digitised 800 manuscripts dating from pre-1200, in partnership with the Bibliothèque nationale de France. You can see some of the highlights on this dedicated webspace, including articles, videos and links to all the manuscripts in the project.

 

Clarck Drieshen

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03 October 2019

Off to a good start: exploring decorated initials

Decorated initials are one of the most distinctive features of medieval manuscript illumination. Enlarging the letters at the beginning of texts was a practical way to help readers find their place in a manuscript. But it also provided an opportunity for scribes and artists to beautify the page and explore the relationship between text and image. In this blogpost we’re pondering the development and meaning of decorated initials in some of the manuscripts digitised as part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project.

Page from a medieval manuscript showing a the opening of a text with a decorated initial
The opening to Bede, Ecclesiastical History, 9th century, England, the Midlands: Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 5v

In the 7-9th centuries, initial letters in English manuscripts were decorated like prestige metalwork. This letter ‘b’ from the opening of a 9th-century manuscript of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History looks similar to the silver disc brooches that were popular among elites of the period.

An Anglo-Saxon silver disc brooch, decorated with animal and foliage motifs and a cross design
Disc brooch from the Pentney Hoard, Norfolk, early 9th century: British Museum 1980,1008.3

They share the same round shape, with an outer border divided into panels of decoration, and a central field divided into a cross-shape. Within this rigid geometry, animal and plant forms twist and intertwine, set against a dark background. Using the forms of metalwork connects the decorated letters to a visual language of prestige usually associated with kings and queens. It signifies that the words are precious and powerful.

In the case of the Tiberius Bede, the design also echoes some of the ideas that are expressed in the text. The Ecclesiastical History begins, ‘Britain, an island of the ocean, which once was called Albion, lies to the north-west, being opposite Germany, France and Spain, which form the greater part of Europe.' In the context of this geographic description, the circular bowl of the letter ‘b’ looks similar to a medieval map, divided into the four cardinal points.

A page from a medieval manuscript with a large letter Q formed from interlace animals and plants
The opening to Psalm 51, the Bosworth Psalter, Southern England (Canterbury?), 3rd quarter of the 10th century: Add MS 37517, f. 33r

In the 10th century, decorated initials moved away from the appearance of metalwork. In manuscripts such as the Bosworth Psalter, the tangled animals and vegetation took over. Whereas in the earlier image the plants and animals were confined to fixed panels within the body of the letter, here they are the letter. The letter ‘Q’ is entirely made up of looping strands that sprout indiscriminately into bunches of leaves and beast heads, which spew out more foliage from their gaping mouths. The endless twisting, transforming and re-generating of forms makes the letter seem alive. This might suggest the life-giving properties of the Psalms, which were central to medieval worship, or it might comment more broadly on the organic qualities of writing in which letters create language and generate ideas.

Page from a medieval manuscript showing a large letter D containing a picture of a man beheading another man with a sword
Psalm 101, the Eadui Psalter, Canterbury, c. 1012-23: Arundel MS 155, f. 93r

Historiated initials are letters that contain a picture inside. They first appeared in English manuscripts of the 8th century and became an important feature of illuminated manuscripts throughout the Middle Ages. Here in the Eadui Psalter, the initial ‘D’ contains an image of the young David defeating the giant Goliath, aided by God who is represented by a hand reaching down from the sky in blessing. The image encourages the reader to connect the opening words of the Psalm, ‘Hear, O Lord, my prayer: and let my cry come to thee’, to the account of David and Goliath’s combat in 1 Samuel 17, and to consider the ways in which the texts of the Bible interrelate.

In historiated initials, the letter becomes a frame through which readers can glimpse an insight into the text. But the shape of the letter might also add to the effect of the image. Here the upper bowl of the ‘D’ appears to trace the arc of David’s sword swing, vividly creating a sense of the force that David brings smashing down on Goliath’s neck.

It's clear that decorated initials were much more than decorative page markers. If you’re curious to learn more, check out our article on English manuscript illumination on The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project website.

 

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30 September 2019

Middle English manuscripts online

The British Library holds one of the most significant collections of manuscripts written in Middle English. Thanks to a very generous grant by The American Trust for the British Library, we have recently been able to digitize a sizeable number of them, the first batch of which can now be viewed on our Digitised Manuscripts site. They range from copies of the works of Geoffrey Chaucer to William Langland's Piers Plowman, and from texts relating to veterinary medicine to the Chronicle of London. We hope that our readers enjoy exploring them online; there are more to come, so keep an eye on this Blog and on our Twitter feed (@BLMedieval) for further announcements.

We are extremely grateful to our friends at the ATBL for supporting this project. We know that it will make a major difference to everyone who works on these texts, and on medieval literary culture in general. Please let us know if this has inspired you, or if you have made notable findings as a result of this digitisation.

A monk kneels before a bishop

A monk kneeling before a bishop, in The Weye of Paradys: Harley MS 1671, f. 1r 

 

Here is a list of the manuscripts we have recently made available online.

Harley MS 172: Devotional manuscript written by the 'Winchester scribe', principal scribe of the 'Winchester Anthology' (Add MS 60577), including Peter Idley, Instructions to His Son; Benedict Burgh, English translation of Cato Major; John Lydgate, Ryght as a Rammes Horne; Thomas Hoccleve, Ars Sciendi Mori

Harley MS 271: The true processe of Englysh polecie; Benedict Burgh, Parvus Cato, Cato Maior

Harley MS 372: John Lydgate, The Life of St Edmund and St Fremund; Advice to an old gentleman who wished for a young wife; John Lydgate, The Kings of England; John Lydgate, Complaint þat Crist maketh of his Passioun; A prayer to the Virgin Mary; A prayer to St Sebastian; Geoffrey Chaucer, Anelida and Arcite; Sir Richard Roos, La Belle Dame sans Mercy; John Lydgate, Prayer on the Five Joys of the Virgin Mary; Thomas Hoccleve, Regiment of Princes; Poem against excess in apparel; Latin tract about the qualities necessary for a priest

Harley MS 525: Miscellany of Middle English romances containing The Seege of Troy, Robert of Cisyle, and Speculum Gy de Warewyke

The beginning of the Chronicle of London

Chronicle of London, from the coronation of Richard I in 1189 to 1443, in the reign of Henry VI: Harley MS 565, f. 10r

Harley MS 565: Chronicle of London; 'The Expedition of Henry V into France'; John Lydgate, 'King Henry VI's Triumphal Entry into London'

Harley MS 629: John Lydgate, Life of Our Lady

Harley MS 875: William Langland, Vision of Piers Plowman

Harley MS 913: The Kildare Lyrics (in Latin, English and French), including the Land of Cokaygne

Geoffrey Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde

The opening page of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde: Harley MS 1239, f. 1r

lHarley MS 1239: Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, The Knight's Tale, The Man of Law's Prologue and Tale, The Wife of Bath's Tale, The Clerk's Tale and The Franklin's Tale

Harley MS 1671: The Weye of Paradys (unfinished)

Harley MS 1701: Robert Mannyng of Brunne, King Robert of Sicily, 'Handlyng Synne'; 'Medytacyouns of the soper of oure Lorde'; King Robert's romance in couplets

Harley MS 2338: Thomas Breus, Religious text in verse, mainly on the Passion

Harley MS 2382: John Lydgate, Life of Our Lady; The Assumption of Our Lady; Prayer to the Virgin from the Speculum Christiani; John Lydgate, Testament; Geoffrey Chaucer, The Prioress’s Tale; Geoffrey Chaucer, The Second Nun’s Tale; Life of Saint Erasmus; Long Charter of Christ; Childe of Bristowe; an animal prophecy of Merlin

A decorated page in Lydgate's Life of Our Lady

John Lydgate's Life of Our Lady, in a manuscript which belonged to John de Vere, 13th earl of Oxford (1442–1513): Harley MS 3862, f. 1r

Harley MS 3862: John Lydgate, Life of Our Lady

Harley MS 3943: Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde

Harley MS 4912: Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde

A treatise on equine medicine

A treatise on equine medicine with the added title ‘The boke of medycen for horsses and to know of what Cuntrey the best horses be bredin contaynyng 30 leves’: Harley MS 5086, f. 99r

Harley MS 5086: Miscellany of verse and prose treatises relating to hunting, manners, medicine and veterinary medicine, including a translation of Gaston Phebus's 'Livre de Chasse', in the Middle English translation by Edward of Norwich entitled 'Master of the Game', a dietary for King Henry V and a treatise on equine medicine

Harley MS 6041: William Langland, Vision of Piers Plowman; form of confession in Middle English prose

 

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26 September 2019

Discovering Sacred Texts launch

This week the British Library has launched its latest online learning resource, Discovering Sacred Texts, which invites visitors to explore the world’s major faiths through the Library’s extensive collections. The new website includes over 250 digitised collection items, teachers’ resources, short films and articles. Nine faiths are featured: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, the Baha’i Faith and Zoroastrianism.

Discovering Sacred Texts also includes many spectacular medieval manuscripts. For our readers, here’s a handy guide to some of the specially written articles focusing on pre-1600 western manuscripts on the site.

A page from the Codex Sinaiticus with four columns of stately Greek script.
The Codex Sinaiticus, the earliest surviving copy of the complete New Testament, Eastern Mediterranean, early 4th century: Add MS 43725, f. 244v

The Christian Bible is formed of numerous books that were written over hundreds of years. Early Christians adopted the Jewish scriptures, which they characterised as the Old Testament, and added to them a collection of texts recounting the lives and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and his early followers, called the New Testament. At first, the Christian Bible circulated in Greek but before long it was translated into a wide variety of languages: Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, Ethiopic and Latin.

Find out more about the formation and spread of the Christian Bible in The Christian Bible, by Scot McKendrick.

A page from a Greek manuscript with dashes and other small lines around the words
Gospel lectionary with ekphonetic notation, Eastern Mediterranean or Southern Italy, late 10th century: Arundel MS 547, f. 9r

Copies of the entire Bible were rare for much of the ancient and early medieval period. Portions of the Bible, such as the Gospels, Psalms and Apocalypse, were regularly produced as separate volumes. The text was often shaped to suit the readers’ needs. For example, passages might be re-ordered to form a lectionary, combined to produce a harmonised text, or paraphrased as a summary version.

Explore the different contents and uses of biblical manuscripts in Manuscripts of the Christian Bible, by Scot McKendrick.

A decorated manuscript showing scenes of Christ and the Apostles
The Holkham Bible Picture Book, England, c. 1327-1335: Add MS 47682, f. 28r

Unlike in other Abrahamic religions, Christian sacred texts were often produced with extensive illustrations. The Church justified images as a useful tool for teaching people about scripture. Rich decoration could also emphasise the importance of the biblical text itself, with shimmering gold evoking the glory of heaven. Decorated letters, either with abstract or figurative designs, might also serve the practical purpose of marking the beginnings of texts.

Learn more about the development and functions of images in medieval biblical manuscripts in Biblical Illumination, by Kathleen Doyle.

A decorated page with a picture of the Virgin Mary and the Angel Gabriel, and below inside the decorated intial, a picture of a woman praying
The Annunciation with a patron portrait, the Beaufort/Beauchamp Hours, 15th century, England: Royal MS 2 A XVIII, f. 34r

The most popular book of the late Middle Ages was the Book of Hours, a type of prayer book for the laity. While their contents vary, the prayers often focus on the Virgin Mary and the Passion of Christ, with shorter prayers included for a wide variety of saints. Many Books of Hours also include images, both to appeal to the eye and to deepen the spiritual experience of prayer. Often, they were carefully customised to reflect their owner's personal interests.

Discover the different texts and images that appear in Books of Hours in Medieval prayer-books, by Eleanor Jackson.

A text page with large initials and a border decorated with flowers and vines
Wycliffite Bible, England, Early 15th century: Arundel MS 104, f. 251r

The Bible was translated into a wide range of languages from an early date. The oldest known translation of a biblical text into English is the Old English translation of the Psalms added between the lines of the Vespasian Psalter in the mid-9th century. The entire Bible was first translated into English by the followers of the reformer John Wycliffe in the last decades of the 14th century, at which point it provoked considerable controversy.

Find out more about medieval translations of the Bible in The importance of translation in the diffusion of Christianity, by Annie Sutherland.

The Virgin Mary seated on a throne with the baby Jesus on her lap. On the lower right a monk kneels in prayer.
Coldingham Breviary, England, 1270-80: Harley MS 4664, f. 125r

Women played an important role in Christianity from the time of Christ and throughout the Middle Ages. The Virgin Mary and three women who were the first witnesses to the Resurrection of Christ served as exemplars of holiness and were often depicted in medieval manuscripts.

Learn more about attitudes to women in Women and Christianity, by Christine Joynes.

Medieval manuscript with a picture of Christ, covered in bloody wounds, kneeling before his tomb. In the lower margin there is a handwritten note.
Anne Boleyn’s Book of Hours, Kings MS 9, f. 231v

King Henry VIII formally broke with the Roman Church after Pope Clement VII refused to grant him an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. In the decades that followed, the dissolution of the monasteries and programmes of Protestant reform led to the widespread destruction of medieval manuscripts. Yet Henry himself remained devoted to medieval religious traditions and he owned a large number of Latin devotional manuscripts.

Learn more about Henry’s manuscripts and the consequences of his break with the Roman Church in Henry VIII and the Reformation, by Susan Doran.

A group photo, standing outside the Library's Treasures Gallery
Some of the British Library's curators at the Discovering Sacred Texts launch event on Monday

As well as these ancient and medieval-focused articles, there are lots of other fascinating articles about the Library’s diverse collection on the Discovering Sacred Texts web-space. We hope you enjoy exploring!

 

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