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

14 May 2023

Caption this May 2023

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We haven't done one of these for a while. The rules are simple. We'd love you to suggest a caption (the wittier the better) for the image below, taken from a British Library manuscript (Add MS 15097). You can either add a comment at the end of this post or tweet us @BLMedieval, it's that easy. Thinking caps on!

Add_ms_15097_f066v v2

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11 May 2023

Medieval and Renaissance Women: full list of the charters and rolls

We always say, never start a blogpost with the words, 'We are delighted to announce that'.

So, in true time-honoured fashion, we are thrilled to release a list of all the rolls and charters digitised as part of our Medieval and Renaissance Women project. There are 25 rolls and 219 charters in total, in addition to the 93 manuscript volumes that we announced in a previous blogpost. The Medieval and Renaissance Women project has been made possible thanks to generous funding by Joanna and Graham Barker.

The seal of the Empress Matilda

The seal of the Empress Matilda, between 1141 and 1142: Add Ch 75724

Here begins the list. This may take some time, but it's worth it, we promise. From the top... The will of Sibylla Frances of Dunwich. A confirmation by Sybilla of Kaversfeld, widow of Hugh Gargate, to Bicester Priory of land in Stratton. An acknowledgement by Marie, abbess of St Stephen’s Abbey, Soissons, to the Knights Templar of Mont-de-Soissons. A sale by Katherine von Solmesse and Salentin, lord of Isenburg, her husband, to Baldwin, archbishop of Trier. A letter of attorney from Ismania, widow of Laurence Berkerolles. A certificate for the safe delivery of Margaret of Anjou to Louis XI of France. A chirograph of Fredescendis, abbess of Maubeuge, granting land to Guarin, abbot of Vicogne…

Actually, why don't you simply peruse the list for yourself? It's great fun, we promise (again)!

A confirmation by Sybillia of Kaverfield, featuring her seal.

Confirmation by Sybilla of Kaversfeld, widow of Hugh Gargate, to Bicester Priory of land in Stratton, early 13th century: Add Ch 10608

You can download the full list of charters and rolls here, with links to the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site and the Universal Viewer. There, you'll be able to read these manuscripts in full and for free from the comfort of your own living room. 

PDF: Download Medieval_and_renaissance_women_digitised_charters_rolls_may_2023

Excel: Download Medieval_and_renaissance_women_digitised_charters_rolls_may_2023 (this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers)

A mortmain license by Joan, Princess of Wales, featuring her seal.

Mortmain licence by Joan of Kent, princess of Wales, for Michael de la Pole, Lord Chancellor, to grant property to the Maison Dieu of Myton, 1383: Egerton Ch 2130

An acquittance by Abbess Tomasina.

Acquittance by Tomasina de Damis, abbess of the monastery of Santa Giulia, Brescia, to Mafeus de Monte, 1409: Stowe Ch 565

The documents included in the project represent women from all levels of medieval society, from merchants and landowners to nuns and abbesses, from nurses and shopkeepers to noblewomen and queens. They also span a huge variety of different types of documents including grants and confirmations, chirographs and letters with original signatures, leases and genealogies, indentures and religious statutes, licenses for marriages and acknowledgments of divorce, and wills in which women passed on their property and determined their legacy after their deaths. Most importantly, all these manuscripts show medieval and early modern women exerting their own agency and making decisions that influenced not only their own day-to-day lives but also the communities to which they belonged.  

The opening membrane of the will of Margaret Paston.

The opening of the will of Margaret Paston, 1482: Add Roll 17253

A portrait of Helena Snackenborg, enclosed in a roundel, from her genealogy.

A portrait of Helena Snackenborg, Marchioness of Northampton, from her genealogy, c. 1640: Lansdowne Roll 9

A petition by Joan Astley written on a small piece of parchment.

Petition by Joan Astley, nurse of Henry VI, for an increase in salary, 1424: Stowe Ch 643

Over 100 of the documents contain seals that belonged to women or women-run institutions, with many featuring portraits or emblematic images relating to their owners. Some, such as the foundation charter of Bordesley Abbey by Empress Matilda (Add Ch 75724) have even survived with their own seal bags, delicately woven in different coloured silks.

A composite image showing over one hundred seals belonging to women and women-run institutions.

The seals of over 100 women and women-run institutions digitised as part of the Medieval and Renaissance Women project 

The seal bag of Empress Matilda, woven in blue and yellow silk threads.

Seal bag enclosing the seal of Empress Matilda, between 1141 and 1142: Add Ch 75724

Our senior imaging technicians photographed all the seals in the project using an imaging technique called raking light (where light is directed at an object from an angle parallel to the surface) to ensure that all their fine details, legends and sculptural reliefs could be captured.

The green oval seal of Liece of Rouen.

Seal of Liece, daughter of Ralph of Rouen, 2nd half of the 12th century: Harley Ch 50 B 23

The brown seal of Idonia of Hurst.

Seal of Idonia of Hurst, 4th quarter of 12th century to 1st quarter of 13th century: LFC Ch XXV 20

We hope you enjoy reading about the stories and lives of the women featured in these incredible items.

 

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05 May 2023

The Coronation Banquet of Henry VI

What was the food like at a medieval coronation banquet? As the coronation of King Charles III approaches, we look back over 500 years to an account of the coronation banquet served before the young Henry VI (r. 1422-1461, 1470-1471) on 5 November 1429 when he was only 7 years old.

The account is featured in an episode of The Food Programme that will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 7 May 2023 at 12.30pm, in which Jaega Wise and Head of the Eccles Centre and food historian Dr Polly Russell explore the history of coronation eating from the 1400s to the present day.

A pen-drawing of the Coronation of Henry VI in 1429.

The coronation of the child Henry VI as King of England at Westminster, from the Pageants of Richard Beauchamp: Cotton MS Julius E IV/3, f. 23v

The details of Henry’s coronation banquet are recorded in a work by John Lydgate (d. c. 1451), a prolific writer of Middle English verse often seen as a successor to Geoffrey Chaucer (d. 1400). Lydgate was well connected at the royal court throughout his literary career, and in 1429 he was commissioned to write a number of works to mark the coronation of Henry VI, including a text now known as the ‘Soteltes for the coronation banquet of Henry VI’.

The text is a Middle English poem in three stanzas, designed to accompany each of the banquet’s courses as they arrived into the hall (probably Westminster Hall, the traditional venue for such occasions during this period). One surviving manuscript at the British Library (Egerton MS 1995) incorporates the poem as part of a medieval chronicle of the city of London. Most notably, the chronicle also preserves notes about the dishes served at the banquet itself.

An opening from a 15th-century manuscript, containing an account of the coronation feast of Henry VI.

The first and second courses of the coronation banquet feast of Henry VI, recorded in a medieval chronicle of London: Egerton MS 1995, ff. 176v-177r

The banquet was lavish in both its scale and the sheer variety of dishes served across its three courses. The dishes included:

  • All kinds of meat and fish, including roasted beef, mutton, pigs, rabbits, chickens, swan, heron stuffed with capons, quails, curlew, larks, partridge, carp, crab, chopped eels, pike.
  • Boars heads encased in pastry castles decorated with gold.
  • Slices of red jelly carved with white lions.
  • A ‘custade rooial’ (a type of pastry) enclosing a golden leopard.
  • A fritter shaped like a sun with a fleur-de-lis.
  • A fritter shaped like a leopard’s head with ostrich feathers.
  • A jelly sculpture containing a red antelope, wearing a crown around its neck with a golden chain.
  • A roasted peacock served in its plumage.
  • A ‘flampayne’, a pork pie ornamented with leopards and gold fleur-de-lis.
  • A cold ‘bakemete’, a meat pie shaped like the royal coat of arms.

The account of the third course of the coronation banquet of Henry VI.

The third course of the coronation banquet of Henry VI: Egerton MS 1995, f. 177v

At the heart of the banquet were its ‘subtleties’. A subtlety was a special type of medieval dish that served as theatrical tableside entertainment. Subtleties typically took the form of lavish tableau, with scenes and models depicting emblematic subjects, often made entirely out of confectionary, such as marzipan or other foodstuffs.

The account of the coronation banquet of Henry VI records that each course had its own subtlety that was brought in with the dishes. The subtleties and the accompanying verses were highly symbolic, emphasising Henry’s dual role as King of England and of France and the unity between the two countries, and this message was of immense political import. At the time the young king was crowned, the Hundred Years War was raging between England and France, as the two countries made opposing claims to the French throne.

The subtlety for the first course depicted St Edward the Confessor and St Louis of France wearing their coats of arms with Henry VI between them. The accompanying stanza written by Lydgate emphasises Henry’s role as heir to these two saintly kings:  

Loo here been ii kyngys right profytabylle and right goode
Holy Synt Edwarde and Synt Lowys
Also the braunche borne of hyr blode
Lyyvynge a monge Crystyn most soverayne of pryse
Enherytoure to the flowredelysse.
God graunte he may thoroughe grace of Cryste Jesu
The VIte Harry to raygne, and be as wyse
And hym resemble in kynghode and verte.

Look here are two kings beneficent and good
Holy St Edward and St Louis
As well as the descendants born of their blood
Living among Christendom most sovereign of princes  
Inheritor of the fleur-de-lis.
God grant that he may through the grace of Jesus Christ
The sixth Harry to reign and be as wise
And resemble him in kinghood and virtue.

The subtlety for the second course depicted the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund and Henry V, King of England, together holding aloft Henry VI, with Lydgate’s second stanza focusing on the military achievements of the two kings against rebellious factions in their respective kingdoms. The final subtlety, meanwhile, depicted the Virgin Mary and infant Christ in her lap holding a crown, with St George and St Denis presenting Henry to her. Lydgate’s closing stanza links the two patron saints of England and France explicitly to the king’s right to rule both countries:

O blessyd lady, Crystys modyr dyre
And Syn Gorge called hyr owne knight;
Hooly Syn Denys, O martyr, moste entere,
To the here vi Harry we present to the in youre syghte.
Schechythe youre grace on hym,
Thys tendyr and whythe vertu hym avaunce,
Borne by dyscent and tytylle of right
Justely to raygne in Ingelonde and yn Fraunce.

O blessed lady, Christ’s dear mother
And St George, called her own knight;
Holy St Denis, O martyr, most perfect
To you here Harry VI we present to you in your sight.
Showing your grace on him,
This tender (youth) and with virtue him advance,
Born by descent title of right
Justly to reign in England and in France.

This was not the only time St George would make an appearance at the feast. The London chronicle records that the King’s Champion, a man called Sir Philip Dymoke, rode into the banqueting hall dressed in full armour as the English patron saint, declaring to the crowd that the king was rightful heir to the throne.

The entrance of Sir Philip Dymoke to the banqueting hall.

The description of the entrance of Sir Philip Dymoke to the banqueting hall: Egerton MS 1995, f. 176v

The effect of the entrance of these tableaus and performances must have been striking to the assembled onlookers. Not only would they have contributed to the visual extravagance of the occasion alongside the numerous tables of food on display, they would also have impressed upon the king’s subjects the strength of his claim to the thrones of England and France, even as the ensuing political strife and the ongoing war loomed large on the continent.

Henry VI enthroned giving the Earl of Shrewsbury the sword as constable of France.

Henry VI enthroned in front of the joint arms of France and England, from the Talbot Shrewsbury Book: Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 405r

To learn more about Henry VI’s coronation feast, tune in to The Food Programme on BBC Radio 4, 7 May 2023 at 12.30pm, or listen on the BBC Sounds website afterwards!

Calum Cockburn

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29 April 2023

Lost and found: in praise of Cardinal Wolsey

We recently blogged about our exciting project to bring the burnt volumes of the Cotton collection back to life, following the extensive damage they sustained in the Ashburnham House fire of 1731. Thanks to generous funding from the Goldhammer Foundation, the British Library has used multi-spectral imaging to photograph a selection of the damaged manuscripts, making them available to our readers online for the first time.

One major benefit of multi-spectral imaging is that it has allowed us to read and identify many of the fire-damaged texts, making some incredible discoveries in the process. One of these discoveries is a Latin praise work (or ‘panegyric) addressed by John Leland (b. c. 1503, d. 1552) to his patron, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (b. 1470/71, d. 1530). We can now reveal that this text known as the ‘Panegyricon ad Cardinalem Eboracensem’, and for centuries believed to have been completely lost, has survived in Cotton MS Fragments XXIII.

A portrait of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, now at Trinity College, Cambridge

Portrait of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey: courtesy of Trinity College, Cambridge

Perhaps best known as the mastermind behind the restoration of Hampton Court Palace, Wolsey rose from the son of a butcher’s boy to become Archbishop of York and Chancellor of England. In 1515, he was appointed Cardinal by Pope Leo X (r. 1513–1521), giving him pre-eminence over the rest of the English clergy. He was a major figure in European political and religious life for much of the early decades of the 16th century, until his failure to secure the divorce of Henry VIII (r. 1509-1547) from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon (b. 1485, d. 1536) in 1529, caused his downfall. Wolsey was subsequently arrested by the King for treason and travelled to London to await trial, but famously died on route, avoiding the more violent fates of other figures at Henry’s court, such as Thomas More, Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell.

Fundamental to Wolsey’s power and influence during his career was his role as a patron of culture and education. Wolsey was responsible for the patronage of many artists and writers at the Tudor court. One of these figures was John Leland, a poet and Humanist scholar, and one of the very first early modern antiquarians, an advocate for the gathering of knowledge. Leland is best known for his extensive travels around England in the 1530s, when he toured and examined the libraries of many of the country’s religious houses in the years leading up to the Dissolution of the Monasteries. During this time, he compiled numerous lists of significant or unusual books, many of which would subsequently become part of the Royal library. Unfortunately, his life ultimately ended in tragedy: Leland went mad following the death of Henry VIII in 1547 and never recovered.

A list of the religious houses of Wales, written in Leland's hands and with his annotations

A list of the religious houses of Wales, written in Leland’s hand: Add MS 38132, f. 39r

Leland was a prolific writer. In his early career, he cultivated a strong circle of literary friends, patrons, and sponsors throughout England and Renaissance Europe, with whom he frequently corresponded and for whom he would write Latin praise works as gifts. As one of his patrons, Wolsey was a particularly strong advocate for Leland at the Tudor Court, securing him a number of positions during this time. This support would continue until the Cardinal’s fall from favour in 1529, at which point Leland gained the patronage of Thomas Cromwell (b. 1485, d. 1540), Wolsey’s successor.

Leland’s work in praise of Wolsey is attested in an important volume of English literary history known as the Illustrium majoris Britanniae scriptorum. This text is a chronological catalogue of British authors, compiled by John Bale (b. 1495, d. 1563), a contemporary and correspondent of Leland. Leland is one of the authors represented in the second edition of the text, published in 1557-1558. Under a list of his recorded writings, Bale includes the following title and Latin incipit (the opening line of a particular work), as well as a note indicating that his source for this information was a copy of the text consulted in Leland’s own library:

Panegyricon ad Cardinalem,                        Lib. 1. Dicturo de tuis laudibus ampliss.

A page from Bale's Catalogue of British authors, showing his entry for John Leland.

The entry for John Leland and his ‘Panegyricon ad Cardinalem’ in John Bale’s Illustrium majoris Britanniae scriptorium, published in 1557-1558: C.28.m.6, p. 671

Another important piece of evidence for the text’s existence is presented by the 1542 inventory of the Royal Library at Westminster Palace. This inventory records a work known as the ‘Panegyricon ad Cardinalem’, which was identified by James Carley as a possible copy of Leland’s lost work in his edition and study of the inventory (H2. 243; The Libraries of Henry VIII (2000), p. 92). However, while many of Leland’s other recorded works have survived in numerous manuscripts and printed editions, until now, no copies of Leland’s panegyric to Cardinal Wolsey have ever been found. 

Cotton MS Fragments XXIII

We can now turn our attention to Cotton MS Fragments XXIII, a small volume that consists of twelve fragmentary parchment leaves. Like many of the volumes that were heavily burnt in the Ashburnham House fire, these leaves were subsequently mounted on paper guards and rebound.

The opening Leland's Panegyricus, damaged in the Ashburnham House fire of 1731.

The opening of Leland’s Panegyricon ad Cardinalem, burnt in 1731: Cotton MS Fragments XXIII, f. 2r

The main text in the manuscript is a Latin prose work, written in a neat italic hand, which begins on f. 2r and ends on f. 12v. The opening of the text features the title ‘PANEGYRICVS’, enclosed within a decorative red border. A blank space within a red frame has been left by the scribe, or potentially created because of the fire damage sustained by the manuscript, and would presumably have held a decorated initial. Much of the rest of the first line remains visible. Its opening words read ‘[D]icturo mihi de laudibus tuis…’ (I am about to speak your praises…), unmistakeably a variant closely resembling the opening line that Bale quotes in his catalogue of Leland’s writings.

Cotton_ms_fragments_xxiii_f002r_MSI_detail

The opening of the ‘Panegyricus’, photographed with multi-spectral imaging: Cotton MS Fragments XXIII, f. 2r

Additional evidence that this work was addressed to Cardinal Wolsey appears on the first leaf of the volume. The verso features a short Latin dedicatory poem, only nine lines long, written beneath a coat of arms decorated in colours and gold.  The coat of arms has been heavily warped because of the damage sustained in the 1731 fire, and is now barely visible to the naked eye. However, thanks to the multi-spectral imaging, the arms can now be identified as belonging to Wolsey himself.

Cotton_ms_fragments_xxiii_f001v_MSI

The coat of arms of Cardinal Wolsey above a Latin dedicatory poem: Cotton MS Fragments XXIII, f. 1v

Notably, the arms in the burnt manuscript show a number of similarities with a contemporary image of Wolsey’s arms painted at the beginning of a Latin encomium (another type of praise work), which is also dedicated to him (Harley MS 1197, ff. 402–413). In Cotton MS Fragments XXIII, most of the embellishments and decorative elements on this heraldic device have burned away, but the central features remain: red tassels descending from a cardinal’s hat now obscured at the top; a golden ‘chief’ (or band) below it; and the ends of two cross-staves emerging from a black shield. In the centre, the shield’s silver cross is still visible, with the faintest impression of the red lion and four blue leopard faces it once held.

The burnt arms of Cardinal Wolsey in Cotton MS Fragments XXIII

The burnt arms of Cardinal Wolsey: Cotton MS Fragments XXIII, f. 1v

The arms of Cardinal Wolsey painted in an Encomium dedicated to him.

The arms of Cardinal Wolsey, painted at the beginning of an Encomium dedicated to him: Harley MS 1197, f. 402r

The discovery of Leland’s lost praise poem for Wolsey highlights the tremendous power that the Cardinal wielded in England and across the Continent during this period. Most importantly, it reinforces how art and literary patronage was a significant part of his influence. By supporting and surrounding himself with a coterie of artists, writers, and scholars, he was reinforcing his position, controlling the dissemination of his image and ensuring his own legacy. The centrality of his role at the Tudor Court was reflected in the paintings, literary compositions, and (in the case of Hampton Court Palace) buildings created in his name. Although that legacy was ultimately tarnished by his fall from favour, his impact on the cultural life of England persisted.

There are many more questions to be asked about Cotton MS Fragments XXIII, its origins, the circumstances around its production and its text of Leland’s panegyric, but multi-spectral imaging means that for the first time in 500 years, we are in a position to uncover the answers.

Calum Cockburn

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25 April 2023

Inventing a royal past

Greenwich Palace was a favourite of England’s Tudor monarchs. Beside the palace stood the church of the Observant Friars, founded in 1482. Being so close to a royal residence, the church played a regular part in royal ceremonies — Henry VIII, Mary I and Elizabeth I were all baptised there. This church had political and religious importance, which is reinforced by two manuscripts digitised for the Library’s Medieval and Renaissance Women project. Egerton MS 2341/1 and Egerton MS 2341/2 contain instructions for the glaziers creating the stained glass for the church’s East window. These instructions demonstrate how that window was designed to strengthen the new Tudor dynasty.

Probably originally a single roll, the two manuscripts are undated. They must have been written after 1489, when Margaret Tudor was born, as she is one of the individuals to be depicted in the window. In turn, they presumably pre-date the death of Elizabeth of York, Henry VII’s queen, in February 1503, as the text refers to her in the present tense. They may have been made in the early 1490s, and before the church was consecrated by April 1494.

Instructions for the design of the images of Henry VII and his queen, Elizabeth of York, with their drawings of their coats of arms in colour

Part of the roll describing the images of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York: Egerton MS 2341/2, membrane 2

The window was to depict Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, his wife, each holding the other’s hand. It would also feature Margaret, their daughter, and Margaret Beaufort, Henry’s mother. Next, there would be several figures widely revered in late medieval England, including Charlemagne, the mythical Constantine (father of the historical Constantine the Great), St Thomas de Cantilupe, and the Saxon saints Edward the Confessor, Edmund the Martyr and Oswald. The choice of these figures is not surprising. What is unusual is the choice of the women to feature on the window.

The window was to include nine saintly women, each of royal blood. The most famous of these was St Helena, who discovered the True Cross and many other relics in Palestine and was the mother of Emperor Constantine. While not a princess, the manuscript describes Helena as ‘daughter to Coyle Kyng of Britaigne’, the Old King Cole of the nursery rhyme, repeating a mythical ancestry popularised by the medieval chroniclers Henry of Huntingdon and Geoffrey of Monmouth.

A manuscript illumination of St Helena revealing the True Cross to four robed men

St Helena’s discovery of the True Cross: Add MS 17275, f. 290v

Another famous saint to be featured in the window was Margaret of Scotland, the granddaughter of Edmund Ironside and wife of Malcolm III, king of Scots. Their daughter, Maud (or Matilda), married Henry I of England, while Margaret’s great-grandson himself became king as Henry II. In an interesting historical parallel, Margaret, Henry VII’s daughter, who was to appear in the pane below St Margaret, would marry a Scottish king, like her saintly namesake, and have a great-grandson who would become king of England: James VI and I.

The next well-known figure was St Winifred. She was descended from a Welsh princely family and became an important saint in Wales and Shropshire, with cult sites at Holywell and Shrewsbury.

A leaf of a manuscript showing the start of a Latin prayer to St Winifred

A prayer to St Winifred in a 15th-century devotional: Harley MS 955, f. 67v

The remaining six female saints were all Saxon royal women and ranged from the lesser known to the outright obscure: Æthelthryth or Audrey, daughter of King Anna of East Anglia; Edith, daughter of King Edgar of England; Æthelburh, daughter of King Æthelberht of Kent; Eormenhild, daughter of King Eorcenberht of Kent; Blitha, a relative of Æthelred the Unready and Edmund Ironside; and Mildrith, daughter of King Merewalh of Magonsæte, a Mercian sub-king.

Why was the window to include such individuals? Henry VII’s claim to the throne was not especially strong. Although he was a descendant of Edward III, his royal ties were through an unlicensed marriage on his father’s side and illegitimacy on his mother’s. There were other nobles in England who had stronger claim to be king, like the children of George, duke of Clarence, or the Stafford dukes of Buckingham, both families descended legitimately from Edward III. In these two rolls we can see an attempt to bypass this issue by going far back into England’s past to create legitimacy for the fragile new Tudor dynasty.

By focusing on royal women from before the Norman Conquest, the window placed Henry, his queen and his daughter among a cohort of royal women stretching back over a thousand years. He could claim direct descent from St Margaret, the ancestor of every English king from Henry II onwards. She, in turn, was linked to several of these Saxon saints. This window presented a Tudor history that looked beyond the dynastic squabbles of the 15th century, using these women to emphasise Henry VII’s link to a more distant and less contentious Anglo-Saxon past.

We are extremely grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for their generous funding of Medieval and Renaissance Women.

 

Rory MacLellan

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23 April 2023

Shakespeare before Shakespeare

This year marks 400 years since the publication of one of the most influential books in the English language: Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies (1623), better known as the Shakespeare First Folio. Several plays are found in this collected edition for the very first time, including MacbethTwelfth Night and The Tempest. We might have remained ignorant of Prospero's books and 'Out damned spot' if this volume had never been published.

But some of the characters that are most familiar to us in Shakespeare's plays pre-date his time, and are featured in medieval manuscripts held at the British Library. Here we pick out five of our favourites.

 

Richard II

A page from an illuminated manuscript, with a miniature showing Richard II being handed to the citizens of London

Richard is delivered to the citizens of London: Harley MS 1319, f. 53v

King Richard II ruled England from the death of his grandfather, Edward III, in 1377, until he was deposed in 1399, and replaced on the throne by Henry IV (Part One). He is perhaps best remembered in Shakespeare's version of his life for the speech by John of Gaunt (Richard's uncle), 'This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle, this earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England'. A century after Richard's death, Jean Creton wrote La Prinse et mort du roy Richart at the request of Philip, Duke of Burgundy, one copy of which is Harley MS 1319. This manuscript contains some 16 miniatures illustrating events that culminated in the overthrow of Richard II, including one showing the king being handed over to the citizens of London.

 

Antony and Cleopatra (comin' at ya)

Detail of an illuminated manuscript showing the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra

The double suicide of Antony and Cleopatra: Royal MS 14 E V, f. 339r

Shakespeare's fated lovers are illustrated in a host of medieval manuscripts. Their story is told in Giovanni Boccaccio's De casibus virorum illustrium, as translated into French as Des Cas des nobles hommes et femmes. We're particularly enamoured of this copy made in Bruges around 1480 for King Edward IV of England. Antony is poised to stab himself with his long pointed sword, while Cleopatra is shown standing next to him, two asps clasped to her naked bosom. Her headdress is very un-Egyptian, owing more to medieval fashion than that of the 1st century BC.

 

Macbeth

A page from the Melrose Chronicle

A page from the Chronicle of Melrose, including the entry for 1050, recording that Macbeth had visited Rome: Cotton MS Faustina B IX, f. 13r

We have blogged before about the real Macbeth. He was king of Scotland from 1040, when Duncan was killed in battle, until 1057, when Macbeth was himself killed by Malcolm at Lumphanan in Mar. The Chronicle of Melrose, dating from the 1170s, is one of the earliest narrative sources for Macbeth's reign, and reveals that he visited Rome in 1050, where he is said to have distributed alms. There is no mention in this account of daggers, witches or windswept heaths, no Banquo, Fleance or Macduff, no Lady Macbeth walking in her sleep.

 

Troilus and Cressida

A detail from an illuminated manuscript showing Troilus and Cressida

The lovers, Troilus and Cressida: Add MS 15477, f. 35v

In 2012, at the Globe to Globe festival held in London, Troilus and Cressida was performed in the Māori language, notably including a challenge or haka at the beginning of the play. This reminds us how the story of the Trojan lovers has been re-imagined over the centuries, from Geoffrey Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, to William Walton's opera, and to the dramatic versions by both William Shakespeare and John Dryden. An early manuscript illustration is this copy of Guido delle Colonne's Historia destructionis Troiae, showing Troilus and Cressida in bed on the left and riding with Diomedes on the right.

 

Julius Caesar

Miniature in an illuminated manuscript of the assassination of Julius Caesar

The assassination of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March: Royal MS 18 E V, f. 355v

Also at Globe to Globe, an Italian company notoriously performed Shakespeare's Julius Caesar by omitting one of the central characters in the play, whose initials are JC (you didn't have to be there). One of the most famous scenes in that play, the assassination of Caesar, was recreated by the actors walking to the front of the stage, declaiming their speech, and marking a cross with chalk on a wooden chair (in place of stabbing their victim). The original scene is perhaps better understood in this illustration in the Histoire tripartite of Baudouin d'Avennes, made perhaps in Bruges in the 1470s. Et tu, Brute?

 

Julian Harrison

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20 April 2023

Lady Lumley’s literary endeavours

Over the past year, we’ve been digitising manuscripts that reflect the lives and achievements of medieval and early modern women. This blogpost looks at four surviving volumes that belonged to Jane Lumley (b. 1537, d. 1578), an English noblewoman, Renaissance scholar and translator. All four manuscripts have been digitised thanks to generous funding from Joanna and Graham Barker, and can now be read online for the first time.

Jane Lumley was the eldest child of Henry Fitzalan (b. 1512, d. 1580), 12th Earl of Arundel. FitzAlan was a prominent member of the Tudor court, serving under Henry VIII and all three of his children and successors. Fitzalan was especially interested in learning, and during his life collected one of largest libraries in Tudor England, housed at Nonsuch Palace in Surrey. He also invested considerably in the education of all his children, including his two daughters. Most notably, Jane and her younger sister, Mary, were both taught Latin and Greek and were able to make use of their father’s extensive collection. Jane produced her own original translations of Classical texts that still survive.

A portrait of Jane Lumley by the Flemish artist Steven van der Meulen

A portrait of Jane Lumley by the Flemish artist Steven van der Meulen made in 1563 (Wikimedia Commons)

Jane’s literary endeavours were also supported by her husband, John Lumley (b. c. 1533, d. 1609), 1st Baron Lumley, whom she married at some point between 1550 and 1553. Lumley was a friend of Jane’s brother and a book collector and bibliophile like her father. Together, the Lumleys amassed a collection of over 320 manuscripts and 2,400 printed books, which also incorporated the library at Nonsuch Palace following the death of Jane’s father in 1580. Upon his own death in 1609, John Lumley willed their library to Prince Henry Frederick (b. 1594, d. 1612), eldest son of James VI and I (r. 1603–1625), King of England and Scotland. It was subsequently added to the Old Royal Library, and centuries later became one of the British Museum Library’s foundation collections.

The Lumley Library housed at least three surviving works by Jane, made after she had married John Lumley. They include Jane’s commonplace book (Royal MS 15 A IX), written in her own hand and containing her own translations of a number of Classical works from their original Greek into Latin and English. The most notable of these is her English translation of Iphigenia at Aulis, the last of the surviving tragedies of the Greek playwright Euripides. The play focuses on the decision of the Greek general Agamemnon to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, to appease the goddess Artemis and allow the Greeks to set sail for Troy and begin the Trojan War. This is the first known translation of one of Euripides’ plays into English by any hand, and it is also the first known dramatic work in English to be written by a named woman.

The opening of an English translation of Euripides' Iphigenia at Aulis, from Jane Lumley's commonplace book.

The opening of Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis, translated by Jane Lumley: Royal MS 15 A IX, f. 66r

Jane also used her commonplace book to write drafts of translations that she intended as gifts for her father. The first half of the volume focuses on her translations of the Orationes (Speeches) of the Ancient Greek rhetorician Isocrates (b. 436 BC, d. 338 BC), from Greek into Latin. Several of these texts feature dedicatory letters addressed to Jane’s father, which she signed, ‘filia tua tibi deditisimma Joanna Lumleya’ (your most dedicated daughter Jane Lumley).

A dedicatory letter to Henry Fitzalan, signed by Jane Lumley

A dedicatory letter to Henry Fitzalan, 14th Earl of Arundel, signed by Jane Lumley: Royal MS 15 A IX, f. 4v

Two presentation copies of Jane’s translations also survived as part of the Lumley Library (now Royal MS 15 A I and Royal MS 15 A II). Like the drafts found in her commonplace book, Jane probably intended these as gifts to be presented to her father on New Year’s Day, a period often associated with gift-giving. The first of these volumes contains her translation of Isocrates’ Archidamus; the other is a translation of his Evagoras, written in her own hand.

The opening of Jane Lumley's English translation of Isocrates' Archidamus

The opening of Jane Lumley’s translation of Archidamus: Royal MS 15 A I, f. 3r

The opening of Jane Lumley's English translation of Isocrates' Evagoras

The opening of Jane Lumley’s translation of Evagoras: Royal MS 15 A II, f. 4r

Two of the three surviving volumes containing Jane’s work also feature added inscriptions by her husband, John Lumley, who marks them explicitly as ‘The doinge of my Lady Lumley dowghter to my L. Therle of Arundell', a reflection of his own respect for and acknowledgement of his wife’s work and achievement.

The opening page of one of Jane's book of translation, inscribed by her husband John Lumley.

The inscription of John Lumley, Jane’s husband, in a copy of one of her translations: Royal MS 15 A I, f. 1A-r

In addition to writing her own translations of Classical texts, Jane also collected manuscripts in her own right. One item that she commissioned is a roll of English maxims on the subject of pride (Royal MS 14 B III), made during the third quarter of the 16th century. The roll is illuminated in colours and gold and features a monogram of her name JOANNA LVMLEIA at the beginning of its second membrane.

The second membrane of a roll of maxims on the subject of pride, made for Jane Lumley.

A roll of maxims on the subject of pride, including the monogram of Jane Lumley: Royal MS 14 B III, membrane 2

We hope you enjoy reading these manuscripts from the library of Jane Lumley and rediscovering her work as an important Renaissance scholar and early Humanist.

Calum Cockburn

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14 April 2023

Managing a medieval household

How much did a medieval noblewoman pay to feed her staff and the members of her inner circle? What was the price of honouring the memory of a deceased member of the family? And how much did a queen spend on buying spices every year? You can find the answers to all these questions in a set of household rolls digitised as part of our Medieval and Renaissance Women project, thanks to generous funding by Joanna and Graham Barker.

Household rolls are a particular type of financial account that record the expenses, income, and other elements relating to the management of a household or medieval domestic establishment. Here is a list of all the household rolls that have been recently digitised and are now available to view online:

Add MS 7966 B

Roll of expenses in wax and spices by the royal households, 1300-1301

Add MS 8877

The household roll of Eleanor de Montfort, Countess of Leicester and Pembroke, 1265 

Add Roll 63207

The household roll of Katherine de Norwich, September 1336 to September 1337

Add Roll 75855

Fragmentary roll of household expenses of Queen Philippa of Hainault 

Royal MS 14 B XIX

Expenses of Princess Mary’s Household, from 1 July 1525 to 31 December 1526

Royal MS 14 B XXVI

Expenses of Princess Mary’s household in her household departments, comparing the expenditure from 1525 and 1526

A collection of medieval household rolls

The newly digitised household rolls: Add MS 8877, Add Roll 63207, Add Roll 75855, Add MS 7966 B, Royal MS 14 B XXVI

One of the most common types of household roll was the ‘diet account’, which recorded the day-to-day location of the household and its expenses on food and provisions. A fascinating example is the household roll of Eleanor de Montfort (b. 1215, d. 1275), Countess of Leicester and Pembroke (now Add MS 8877). Eleanor was one of the most influential women in 13th-century England, the sister of King Henry III (r. 1216-1272) and wife to Simon de Montfort (b. c. 1208, d. 1265), one of the leaders of the rebellion in the Second Barons’ War. Eleanor’s household roll covers a particularly turbulent period in her life, immediately before and after the Battle of Evesham (4 August 1265), one of two major battles that took place during the war, in which both Eleanor’s husband and her son, Henry, were killed.

A portrait of Eleanor de Montfort, enclosed within a roundel in colours and gold.

Portrait of Eleanor de Montfort from a Genealogical Roll of the Kings of England: Royal MS 14 B VI, Membrane 6

Entries in Eleanor’s household roll record the location of her household, the presence of the Countess, her close kin and the names of prominent visitors she hosted, as well as details of her various household departments, and the types and quantities of food and drink that were consumed. This entry, for example, shows that on an average day Eleanor paid a total of 10s. 10 ½d. on feeding herself and her staff, with purchases including grain, wine, and fish, among other items:

Die Veneris sequenti, pro comitissa et predictis; panis, ij. Quarteria, ij. Busseli, de Abindon’, Panis, ex emptione, vj.d. Vinum, iiij. Sixtaria; missis Domingo W. de Bathon’, dimidium sextarium; missis Domine Agnete, j. sextarium et  domidium. [Coquina.] Alleces, vij., de instaro. Piscis (de mari), ix.s. vj d. [Mareschalcia.] Fenum, ad lviij. Equos. Avena, iij. Quareria, v. busselli. Pro busca, iij.d. Proo gagiis B. Juvenis, vij.d.ob. Summa, x.s. x.d. ob.

‘On Friday following, for the countess and the above-mentioned; grain, 2 quarters, 2 bushels, from Abingdon. Grain, by purchase, 6d. Wine, 4 sesters; half a sester having been sent to Sir Walter of Bath; 1 ½ sesters having been sent to Lady Agnes. [Kitchen] Herrings, 700, from the stock. Fish from the sea, 9s 6d. [Marshalesea] Hay, for 68 horses. Oats, 3 quarters, 5 bushels. For brushwood, 3d. For the wages of B. Juvenis,7 ½ d. Sum, 10 s. 10 ½ d.’

        (see ed. and trans. L. J. Wilkinson, The Household Roll (2020), pp. 1-2).

A detail from the first membrane of the household roll of Eleanor de Montfort

An entry from the household roll of Eleanor de Montfort: Add MS 8877, Membrane 1

As well as the more everyday entries in household rolls, it is also possible to find records of extravagant expenditures, made for important occasions. That is the case for one entry in the household roll of the noblewoman Dame Katherine de Norwich (Add Roll 63207). Katherine de Norwich was the daughter of Sir John de Hethersett, and the widow of Piers Braunche (d. 1296) and later Walter de Norwich (d. 1329) and owned a number of manorial estates and residences throughout England. On 20 January 1337, Katherine spent a total of £10 18s 8d, a sixth of her annual expenditure on an anniversary feast held to commemorate the death of her second husband. Katherine hosted over ninety people for the event. Among the items bought for the feast, we find beer, hogs, mallards, a heron, chicken, partridge and wine.

The first membrane of the household roll of Katherine de Norwich

The household roll of Katherine de Norwich: Add Roll 63207, Membrane 1

Some household rolls were also made to record the expenditure from purchases of a particular type of item. For example, one surviving roll made between 1300-1301 (now Add MS 7966 B) details expenses for wax and spices, bought for members of the English royal family, including King Edward I (r. 1272-1307), Queen Margaret of France (b. c. 1279, d. 1318), the future Edward II (r. 1307-1327),and Thomas (b. 1300, d. 1338), eldest son of King Edward I and Margaret. The roll records over twenty different spices, which would have been used to enrich the flavour of meals prepared for the royal household, from ginger and pepper, to galangal, cumin, cinnamon and saffron, among others.

A membrane from a household roll, containing expenditure on cinnamon, pepper and other spices.

Records of expenditure on cinnamon, pepper, and other spices, from a household roll made for the English royal family: Add MS 7966 B, Membrane 2

Household rolls provide a window into the day-to-day lives of medieval women, their expenses and income, the food they ate and the visitors they hosted, as well as the ways in which they managed their estates and resources. We hope you enjoy exploring these fascinating items! 

Paula Del Val Vales

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