THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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

09 March 2019

Celebrating the spiritual life

International Women’s Day has inspired us to examine how medieval women used literature for shaping their daily lives. The hundreds of prayer books that are extant from late medieval female religious communities, for example, reveal how religious women used miraculous narratives to bolster their commitment to a life of prayer. One 15th-century German prayer book (Harley MS 2841) is a good case in point.

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A prayer to the Virgin Mary in the 15th-century German prayer book: Harley MS 2841, f. 16r

Harley MS 2841 contains prayers for personal devotion that are phrased for a woman. One of them identifies her as a certain ‘Amelia’, and although her identity is unknown, she was almost certainly a nun. An added list of female names in the same manuscript includes another, later Amelia — namely ‘Amelia Zandt von Merl’, Abbess of Marienberg in Boppard in Rhineland-Palatinate (1581–1624) — as well as her successor, ‘Maria Margarethe Zandt von Merl’ (1624–1654).

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A 17th-century list of nuns at Boppard: Harley MS 2841, f. 195r

The contents of Harley MS 2841 would have been especially well-suited for a novice or newly-professed nun. It features a miracle that tells of a woman whose ‘friends’ steal her inheritance when they learn that she has entered a convent. The nun is deeply distressed, but consoled when the Archangel Gabriel appears to her and teaches her a prayer that invokes the Joys of the Virgin Mary. The reader of the prayer book is promised similar consolation if she recites the prayer together with 100 Hail Maries in front of an image of the Virgin Mary.

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An angel inhabiting the margins of the Archangel Gabriel’s consoling prayer: Harley MS 2841, f. 27r

This miracle survives in many prayer books from female religious communities in the Low Countries and Germany. Middle Dutch examples are extant in a 15th-century prayer book owned by an unidentified female religious community (Egerton MS 2904), and in an early 16th-century prayer book produced for a community of religious women dedicated to St Francis (Add MS 14042).

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The Archangel Gabriel’s consoling prayer with a pasted-in woodcut of the Virgin with Child, c. 1517-1523: Add MS 14042, f. 161v

A number of female religious communities seem to have shared the miracle of the Archangel Gabriel within a literary culture they designed in support of their spiritual lives. This may have suggested to religious women that a life of prayer in an enclosed convent would provide them with divine protection and support in all their needs. But it may also have been a means for them to empower themselves against the various slings and arrows that continued to afflict them, despite being cloistered and metaphorically dead to the world. In a popular variant of the miracle, it is not the nun’s friends who distress her, but her parents, angered over her decision to enter a convent. In this sense, devotional literature could be an important means for religious women to become detached from disturbances from the outside world, and to reaffirm and celebrate their commitment to a spiritual life.

 

Clarck Drieshen

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08 March 2019

Tales of ancient women

For International Women’s Day, we have decided to celebrate women across the world in our own distinctive way. Greek papyri recount many stories of the past, shedding light on everyday life in Ptolemaic, Roman and Byzantine Egypt, told through the voices of the ancient people themselves. Here we have selected a few texts on papyrus from the British Library collections, where women are the protagonists. These mini-stories offer a varied picture of the ancient woman: from the independent to the weak, from the one seeking justice to another asking for compassion, from the bride to the divorced.

 

Independent woman

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Papyrus 2458 (P.Oxy. XII 1467), 3rd century

In this 3rd-century papyrus from Oxyrhynchus, Aurelia Thaisous, also called Lolliane, states that she qualifies for the right to act independently in her legal transactions, without any male guardians, on the grounds of her having three children (ius trium liberorum). She seems proud of being able to write with a high degree of ease. This is the petition she presented to the prefect, which was to be kept in his office.

 

A wedding poem

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Papyrus 1728 (P.Aphrod.Lit. IV 35), 6th century

Patricia must have been extremely flattered when she read this acrostic poem (an epithalamion or wedding poem), composed by Dioscorus of Aphrodito on the occasion of her marriage to Paul. According to Disocorus, Patricia was more skilled than the Graces themselves, and her numerous virtues proved her relation to the gods. Paul was a very lucky man …

 

Managing a beer-shop

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Papyrus 2660 (P.Lond. VII 1976), 3rd century BCE

It was hard for Haynchis to manage a beer-shop all by herself, and at her age. Her daughter was the only help she had. A vine-dresser, Demetrius, had carried her daughter away, promising her the Moon. But guess what? He already had a family! He took her without Haynchis’ s consent, leaving her on her own and without life's necessities of life. In this petition, Haynchis made appeal to Zenon, manager of the estate of Apollonius, trusting that justice would be served and that her daughter would return.

 

A lonely widow

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Papyrus 755 col.ii (P.Oxy. I 71 col.ii), 4th century

A wealthy widowed landowner, whose sons were serving in the army, hired two managers, Secundus and Tyrannus, to manage her estates. She trusted in their good faith but they turned out to be crooked, and they even robbed her of some of her possessions. Seeking justice, she appealed to Clodius Culcianus, prefect of Egypt, noting that women in particular should be helped because of their ‘natural weakness’. This is her petition, found at Oxyrhynchus.

 

A daughter’s marriage

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Papyrus 2217 (SB IV 7449), 5th century

This papyrus tells an incredible story. It must have been difficult for Aurelia Nonna to rid her mind of these memories: the blows she had received, her dress being torn … Her nephew, Alypius, a monk, had wanted her little daughter to marry a relative, Apaion, whom she did not want to marry. When Nonna refused, he grew angry and started to beat her. But Nonna did not keep silent; she wrote to the bishop of Oxyrhynchus, as preserved in this petitition, denouncing these outrages and asking for the bishop's compassion. She was happy to accept whatever decision he made.

 

Divorce by mutual agreement

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Papyrus 716 (P.Nekr. 34), 4th century

Senpsais and Aurelius Soulis would have promised to share a common life in mutual affection and respect, and it was neither’s fault that their marriage eventually ended. Their union was ruined by an evil spirit, and they agreed mutually to divorce. Senpsais returned all the wedding gifts to Soulis, as well as her dowry, and both were free one day to remarry. This papyrus contains the deed of divorce.

 

Healing through prayers

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Papyrus 2494 (P.Lond. VI 1926), 4th century

Valeria was afflicted by a grievous shortness of breath. Although she must have felt ill and weak, she had hope and faith. She sought healing through the prayers of father, Papnuthius, most valued and adorned with every virtue. This papyrus contains her letter to him.

 

A financial dispute

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Papyrus 1800 (P.Lond. V 1731), dated 20 September 585

When Aurelia Tsone of Syene was a young girl, her parents divorced. Her mother, Tapia, had received money from her former husband for the maintenance of their daughter; instead, she seems to have thrown Tsone out of the house and started a new life. Once Tsone reached the legal age, she continued to claim the money owed to her. This papyrus acknowledges receipt of the money, proving that Tsone won the dispute.

These are just a few of the stories preserved in the British Library's papyri. For similar tales, we recommend that you read our blogpost The Voices of Ancient Women.

 

Federica Micucci

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05 March 2019

The Renaissance Nude

We are delighted that two British Library manuscripts are featured in the new exhibition at the Royal Academy entitled The Renaissance Nude, which is open from 3 March to 2 June 2019. As Thomas Kren, one of the exhibition's curators has commented, 'The British Library’s splendid loans make clear the way beloved themes from Greek and Roman mythology were kept alive during the Middle Ages, enjoying renewed interest in northern Europe in the 15th century. Such sumptuous illuminated manuscripts in a newly naturalistic style brought the often sensual narratives vividly to life.'

The exhibition has transferred from the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and examines the renewed interest in ancient Greek and Roman art that brought the human body to the forefront of artistic innovation in the 15th and 16th centuries. The exhibition features paintings and drawings, sculpture, and bronze statuettes with various approaches to illusionistic depictions of the nude.

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Diana bathing, in the Épître Othéa a Hector: Harley MS 4431, f. 126r

The first manuscript features an image of Diana bathing, illustrating one of the most well-known of late medieval texts, the Épître Othéa a Hector (letter from Othéa to Hector). This was the first major work of Christine de Pizan (d. c. 1430), in which Othéa, the goddess of wisdom, tells 100 moralising stories illustrating vice and virtue to instruct the young Hector of Troy.    

Christine is widely regarded as one of Europe’s earliest female professional authors. She was born in Venice in 1365, but moved to Paris as a young child when her father was appointed the royal astrologer and alchemist to King Charles V (1364–1380). Christine’s writing career began at the age of 24, after her husband died suddenly, and she was faced with the necessity of providing for herself and her small children.

The British Library copy was completed under Christine’s direct supervision, and was dedicated to Queen Isabeau of Bavaria, who married King Charles VI (1380-1422) in 1385.  The manuscript is now in two volumes and is fully digitised. We have previously blogged about it here.

Our other spectacular manuscript on display in The Renaissance Nude is a copy of the Roman de la Rose, an allegorical poem that survives in more than 100 illuminated copies. The British Library copy is one of the finest.  It is also been digitised in full, and it has been discussed in our blogposts Sex and death in the Roman de la rose and Everything's coming up Roman de la roses.  

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Zeuxis in the Roman de la rose: Harley MS 4425, f. 142r

The page exhibited at the Royal Academy illustrates the story of the painter Zeuxis. He employed five women to model for his nude depiction of Helen of Troy, combining the best features of each. 

Both manuscripts come from the Harley collection, formed in two generations by the 1st and 2nd Earls of Oxford, Robert Harley (1661–1724), and his son, Edward Harley (1689–1741). You can find out more about the origins of the British Library’s collections here.

The Renaissance Nude is on show at the Royal Academy in London until 2 June 2019.

 

Kathleen Doyle

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03 March 2019

Guess the manuscript 127

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Regular readers of this Blog since the early 14th century will know that we periodically run a mind-bending quiz, known over the world as Guess the Manuscriptâ„¢. We are delighted to bring you instalment 127 of this popular competition (actually, we've forgotten how many now, but it doesn't really matter).

Your challenge is to hunt down and identify this page from a medieval manuscript. The only clue? It can be found somewhere on the British Library's Medieval England and France, 700–1200 webpages. Simples.

Guess

One lucky winner will win a week's holiday to Basingstoke (accommodation, travel and living expenses not included), and an unlucky runner-up will win two weeks in Basingstoke (we are only kidding). Please send your guesses to @BLMedieval or via the comments button below.

 

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02 March 2019

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: a huge thank you

When the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition finally closed last week, over 108,000 people had visited it. We would like to thank again the 25 lenders who loaned over half of the manuscripts and other objects. We are very grateful for the generosity of all the institutions that loaned so many great treasures. They were displayed alongside 80 books and documents from the British Library, ranging from Beowulf and the St Cuthbert Gospel to the oldest surviving charter from England. Half of the Library’s own exhibits – 40 books and documents – came from the remarkable collection of Sir Robert Cotton, recently inscribed on the Memory of the World register.

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Codex Amiatinus, loaned by the Biblioteca Laurenziana Medicea in Florence, returned to England for the first time in over 1,300 years (image credit Tony Antoniou)

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The Lindisfarne Gospels (Cotton MS Nero D IV) was one of the many manuscripts on display in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

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Spong Man was loaned to the exhibition by Norfolk Museums Service (image credit Tony Antoniou)

Thank you too to all the donors whose support enabled us to bring together so many loans, to all the members of the advisory group who guided the development of the exhibition and related programmes, and to everyone who contributed to the exhibition catalogue and our sold-out ‘Manuscripts in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms’ conference in December. A selection of papers from the conference will be published next year. And very many thanks to all the members of the Medieval Manuscripts Section and all the other teams across the Library who supported the delivery of the exhibition, whether in visible or unseen ways.

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The exhibition catalogue, edited by Claire Breay and Joanna Story, features every item on display in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

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Installing Wynflaed's will (Cotton Ch VIII 38): many teams across the Library were involved in preparing and supporting the exhibition

Although the exhibition has closed, and the exhibits have been returned to the lenders and the British Library’s shelves, our Anglo-Saxons website remains online, updated last week with new articles, collection items and videos from the exhibition. And, as regular readers of this Blog will be well aware, to support future research on the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, almost all of the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon manuscripts have been fully digitised through a programme funded in memory of Mel Seiden and by The Polonsky Foundation England and France 700–1200 Project.

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The Caligula Troper was among the British Library's Anglo-Saxon manuscripts digitised in advance of the exhibition: Cotton MS Caligula A XIV, f. 20v

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The Judith of Flanders Gospels, with its magnificent treasure binding, was kindly loaned to Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms by the Morgan Museum and Library, New York (image credit Tony Antoniou)

And finally, to everyone who came to the sold-out programme of public talks and to the exhibition itself, thank you very much.

 

Claire Breay

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27 February 2019

Inside information

In early modern England, the business of government produced a lot of paper. Flurries of notes, memoranda, bills and reports regularly passed through many different hands. Once they had been read, they also needed to be preserved and filed away for future reference. In April 1592, the administrator Nicholas Faunt (1553/4–1608) noted that letters and documents ‘dayly come in of all sortes’, and that care should be taken, since ‘greate inconveniences may growe through the losse of papers and unorderlie keepinge of them’.

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Sir Francis Walsingham's Table Book: Stowe MS 162

One manuscript in the Stowe collection shows how Sir Francis Walsingham (c. 1532–1590), Principal Secretary of State, organised this daily deluge of paper. Stowe MS 162, also known as ‘Walsingham’s Table Book’, is an inventory of the statesman’s own personal archive. The volume, which is in the handwriting of Walsingham’s secretary, Thomas Lake (d. 1630), records where and how each document was stored, for easy location and retrieval. As the head of a network of Elizabethan ‘intelligencers’, Walsingham depended on up-to-date information, so the accurate management of his memoranda, letters and reports was essential.

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'Bondels of Scottish matters remaining in the study at London': Stowe MS 162, f. 66r

Walsingham categorised his files into three subjects: foreign matters; home matters; and the catch-all heading, ‘diverse matters’. Within ‘home matters’, for instance, we find papers concerning ‘Forts and Castles’, ‘Piracy’, ‘Recusants’, and ‘Religion and Matters Ecclesiastical’. Documents on these subjects were assembled into bound books compiled by Walsingham’s secretaries, or gathered as loose papers into portable bundles, parcels or bags, often indexed using a letter of the alphabet.

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'A table of the matters conteined in the book of Piracies': Stowe MS 162, f. 29r

Walsingham’s collection of documents was in regular use. Some items were kept ‘in the Chests’, or ‘Remaining at the Courte upon the Shelfe’ in Whitehall, while others were held ‘in the study at London’, in Walsingham’s house on Seething Lane. When new documents arrived, the table book was updated. It was also used to keep track of loans, recording for example that Sir Robert Cecil, who succeeded Walsingham as Secretary of State, consulted in 1596 a volume on Ireland titled ‘a book of Plotts and discourses’.

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A note recording the borrowing of a volume by Robert Cecil: Stowe MS 162, f. 2r

When Walsingham died, the volumes from his neatly indexed archive passed into many different hands. One of these volumes may have been Lansdowne MS 146, a compilation of papers titled ‘Matters of Piracies’. According to the table book, Walsingham’s ‘book of Piracies’ was made up of 25 documents, including a copy of a commission to allow Kingston upon Hull to ‘appoint shipps out for taking of Piracies’, and a ‘proclamation against the maintenance of Pirats’. The contents of Lansdowne MS 146 correspond exactly with the ‘table of the matters conteined in the book of Piracies’ described in the table book. Although the table book can no longer tell us the whereabouts of a given document, it can still offer clues to material that may once have belonged to this Elizabethan statesman.

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The contents of the Matters of Piracies: Lansdowne MS 146, f. 1r

Walsingham’s table book offers one solution to the perennial problem of keeping up with the latest information. Using this finding aid, the Principal Secretary of State could amass a comprehensive and carefully organised archive of papers that was accessible, up-to-date and accurate. Although Walsingham’s boxes and bundles no longer remain, Stowe MS 162 offers a glimpse of how one statesman organised and navigated the copious papers that shaped the Elizabethan government.

 

Amy Bowles

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22 February 2019

Through the looking glass

If you came to our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, you may have seen the Guthlac Roll, made in the late 12th or early 13th century. Look here and you'll notice that two figures in this roll seem to be wearing spectacles. It is very unlikely that these spectacles were part of the original design: exploring how spectacles are represented in medieval manuscripts suggests that both they and the plume rising from the seated figure's cap were added in the early modern period. 

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Roundel of Beccelm speaking with St Guthlac’s sister Pega: Harley Roll Y6, roundel 15

One of the first concrete references to spectacles dates from the early 14th century. On 23 February 1305, Giordano da Rivalto, a Dominican friar from Pisa, delivered a sermon that partly celebrated the ingenuity of mankind. Giordano stated, ‘It is not yet twenty years since there was found the art of making spectacles (Italian: occhiali)'. Although it is doubtful that spectacles were invented in a single eureka moment, Giordano’s bold claim suggests that spectacles were certainly in use in some areas from the late 13th century.

The earliest surviving artistic depictions of spectacles date to the 14th and 15th centuries. This 15th-century Book of Hours, produced in northern Italy, includes a detail of monks singing a requiem, with one member of the group wearing spectacles.

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Detail of a miniature of monks singing a requiem, with the celebrant wearing spectacles, at the beginning of the Office of the Dead: Harley MS 2971 f. 109v

An extremely clear illustration of spectacles can be found in another 15th-century Book of Hours, produced in central France, perhaps Tours. In this image, St Mark holds spectacles to his eyes as he reads a book, while his evangelist symbol, the lion, looks on eagerly from the side.

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Detail of a miniature of Mark reading a book and holding spectacles to his eyes: Yates Thompson MS 5, f. 12r

Ancient and medieval texts, many of them pre-dating the surviving artistic depictions, also occasionally refer to transparent materials being used as visual aids. One of the earliest descriptions is found in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, completed shortly before his death in AD 79. Pliny shared an anecdote recalling how the emperor Nero used to watch gladiator fights with the assistance of a mineral called a smaragdus. According to Pliny, a smaragdus could be concave to ‘concentrate the vision’ or laid flat to ‘reflect objects just as mirrors do’. It is unclear whether Pliny thought that Nero used the smaragdus as a reflective device or to enhance his vision. Pliny also described how a smaragdus was a green mineral, perhaps emerald, malachite or the green varieties of jasper. It is certainly tempting to suggest that Nero used emeralds to enhance his view of the gladiators. 

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Detail of a miniature in colours and gold showing Pliny writing in his study and a landscape with animals, rivers, the sea, Sun and Moon: Harley MS 2677, f. 1r

In some early texts, scholars explained the scientific principles behind the use of corrective lenses. In the 2nd century, Ptolemy wrote on the topic in his Optics. Two Arabic authors from the 10th and 11th centuries, Ibn Sahl and Alhazen, later expanded on Ptolemy’s explanation. The English friar Roger Bacon also addressed the topic in his Opus Majus (c. 1266), during his time in Paris.

Robert Grosseteste also described the process in his De Iride (‘On the Rainbow’), composed between 1220 and 1235. Grosseteste described how ‘we can make objects at very long distance appear at very close distance’, perhaps describing an early telescope. Grosseteste further remarked how lenses could make small things larger when observing them at close distances, so that it is ‘possible for us to read the smallest letters at incredible distance, or count the sand, or grain, or grass, or anything else so minute’.

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Detail of an historiated initial 'A'(mor) of Robert Grosseteste: Royal MS 6 E V, f. 6r

Perhaps the lenses described by these authors were more akin to modern magnifying glasses rather than spectacles. A 15th-century French translation of Vincent of Beauvais’s Le Miroir Historial contains a possible depiction of such a lens. This manuscript detail depicts Vincent of Beauvais, sitting at a desk and writing his book. It is possible that the glass object in the background was intended to be a kind of lens that may have been used as a reading aid. Of course, it is also possible that this shows a mirror, in reference to the title of the text, rather than a magnifying lens.

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Detail of a miniature of Vincent of Beauvais sitting at a desk and writing his book: Royal MS 14 E I, f. 3r

We might not know exactly when the spectacles were added to the Guthlac Roll, but the history of medieval spectacles is certainly looking a little clearer …

 

Becky Lawton

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Quotations taken from D.E. Eichholz, trans., Pliny: Natural History X (Cambridge, 1962), pp. 212–15, and A.C. Sparavigna, ‘Translation and discussion of the De Iride, a treatise on optics by Robert Grossetste’, International Journal of Sciences (2013), 2:9, pp. 108–13.

 

19 February 2019

Reconstructing the Otho-Corpus Gospels

As our stunning Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition comes to an end, it's time to reflect on recent discoveries that illuminate this fascinating period of early medieval history, and on the new opportunities for learning more about the past. Archaeological discoveries, such as the Staffordshire Hoard, help us to make a direct connection with 7th-century Mercia, even if we cannot be certain to whom these objects belonged or why they were buried. New advances in imaging science, such as that revealing erased manumissions of slaves in the Bodmin Gospels, as reported on this Blog, help us to uncover medieval people whose lives would otherwise be unknown to us.

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The lion of St Mark in the Otho-Corpus Gospels: British Library, Cotton MS Otho C V, f. 27r

One manuscript that has probably not given up all its secrets is the so-called Otho-Corpus Gospels. That name is modern in origin, being derived from the two collections in which its twin halves now reside: the Otho press in the Cotton collection at the British Library, and the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge. The two parts of this 8th-century Northumbrian gospel-book had been divided by the 16th century at the latest, with one coming into the hands of Matthew Parker, archbishop of Canterbury (died 1575), and the other being acquired a few decades later by Sir Robert Cotton (died 1631). The easiest way to compare them would be to bring them physically side-by-side, as demonstrated in our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, when the Corpus portion was generously loaned for a short period to the British Library. But the usual separation of the manuscript is only one barrier to properly understanding it, since the Otho part was damaged severely by the Cotton fire in October 1731, leaving its parchment pages shrivelled and charred. Not only is the gospel-book no longer together, but it is no longer intact.

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The first surviving page of the Otho portion: Cotton MS Otho C V, f. 1r

As part of the preparations for Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, Cotton MS Otho C V was digitised in full, thanks to funding provided by The Polonsky Foundation. This complements nicely the digitisation of Corpus Christi MS 197B by our colleagues in Cambridge. Users are now able to study both parts of this gospel-book from the comfort of their own offices or living rooms. But one further feature of this dual digitisation should be mentioned here, and it is that which perhaps offers the greatest potential for furthering our knowledge of this manuscript. The British Library manuscripts digitised for our recent project can now be viewed on a IIIF viewer, and the same is true for those at the Parker Library. This means that researchers can view the images of both portions of the gospel-book side-by-side, hopefully enabling us to make more connections between them.

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Even though the Otho portion is badly damaged, we can still tell that it was finely written and decorated: Cotton MS Otho C V, f. 21r

Why is this important? In the case of the Otho part of the manuscript, we have only 64 leaves remaining, representing the gospels of Matthew and Mark. In the 19th century, its pages were restored at the British Museum and inlaid in paper mounts, with pencil notes added in the margins to notify where the text had been identified. In the case of the Corpus Christi part, containing the gospels of Luke and John, the pages have been rearranged, as was Matthew Parker's frequent practice, which complicates investigation into them. Maybe in time their original organisation will be reconstructed, throwing new light on the manuscript's place of origin and its later use and ownership.

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The preface to the Gospel of Mark: Cotton MS Otho C V, f. 25v

Thanks to The Polonsky Foundation, Cotton MS Otho C V can be seen on the Universal Viewer or on our Digitised Manuscripts site. Thanks to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, their MS 197B can be seen on Parker on the Web, and you can read about it in this accompanying blogpost. We are delighted to be able to share this wonderful manuscript with you, and we hope that in time we will learn more of its secrets. 

 

Julian Harrison

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