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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

18 July 2019

Magical seals in an English Book of Hours

In addition to containing the daily cycle of prayer, Books of Hours sometimes include magical spells or incantations, reflecting their lay owners' concerns over physical and spiritual dangers. Stowe MS 16, a Book of Hours produced in London shortly before 1410, is an interesting example. This manuscript is mainly known to scholars because it includes a miniature of the Annunciation that has been attributed to Herman Scheerre (fl. c. 1388–c. 1422), a Flemish or German illuminator who was one of the most influential artists in early 15th-century England.

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The Hours of the Virgin Mary (London, c. 1410): Stowe MS 16, f. 9r

But another remarkable feature of Stowe MS 16 has so far gone unnoticed: a 15th-century owner — perhaps ‘George Rotherham’, who inscribed his name on a flyleaf — added four circular diagrams that, as their accompanying inscriptions explain, represent ‘seals’ that offered supernatural protection. The first is referred to as the ‘Seal of Solomon’, alluding to an ancient legend according to which the biblical King Solomon owned a seal ring with an engraved hexagram or pentagram, that enabled him to command demons. It formed the basis for a tradition of pseudo-Solomonic seals that flourished during the later Middle Ages. The inscription that accompanies the seal in Stowe MS 16 instructs the reader to use it as an amulet in battle: ‘Hoc signum Salamonis qui super se portaverit nec manu in bello erit captus’ (‘Whosoever will carry the seal of Solomon on themselves will not be captured in battle’).

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The Seal of Solomon: Stowe MS 16, f. 151r

The owner of Stowe MS 16 also added incantations against ‘seven sisters’ (‘septem sorores’), fever demons who are named after seven types of fever, followed by three more magical seals that offered protection against enemies, water and fire, and evil. The inscription on the first seal reads: ‘Hoc signum fer [te]cum contra omnes inimicos’ (‘Carry this seal with you against all enemies’).

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Three magical seals: Stowe MS 16, f. 152r

Magical seals were not usually copied into prayer books. Instead, they circulated in medical and magical manuscripts. For example, one 15th-century English medical manuscript (Royal MS 17 B XLVIII) contains a seal for thunderstorms: ‘Quando audieris tonitruum respice hoc signum et liberaberis; In nomine patris’ (‘When you hear thunder, look at this seal and you will be freed – In the name of the Father’).

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A seal against lightning (England, 15th century): Royal MS 17 B XLVIII, f. 1r

Magical seals were also copied onto separate parchment leaves that could be worn as amulets. One such leaf, now bound into Add MS 36674, contains on one side a so-called ‘Heavenly Letter’. This letter, invoking the divine names of God, was purportedly sent by Pope Leo III to Charlemagne in order to protect him in battle. On the leaf’s other side, thirty-two seals have been drawn in red ink. These complement the Heavenly Letter’s purpose since they claim to protect their user against imprisonment, wounds and death in battle.

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Thirty-two magical seals (England, late 16th century–early 17th century): Add MS 36674, f. 111r

Another separate amulet leaf with magical seals is now bound into Add MS 15505. The amulet, produced in early 16th-century Italy, features a large circular diagram with ten magical seals inside it. At its centre is a seal with a ‘cross crosslet’ and the magical formula ‘AGLA’. It is circumscribed with the name ‘Antonius’ — probably referring to St Anthony of Egypt, who was often invoked against the plague — and is surrounded by eight more seals that provide protection against demons, enemies, evil and misfortune. The seals contain magical inscriptions such as ‘SATOR AREPO’, a popular magical formula that had been used on amulets for centuries (another example is found in Egerton MS 821). Each seal is flanked by the Greek letters ‘Chi’ and ‘Rho’, representing the name of Christ.

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Nine magical seals (Italy, early 16th century): Add MS 15505, f. 22r

Magical seals were also copied onto amulet rolls. On one 15th-century English roll (Harley Roll T 11), they have been combined with devotional items such as the ‘Measure of the Side Wound’. This lozenge-shaped image purports to represent the true size of the wound in Christ’s side, inflicted when the Roman soldier Longinus pierced him with his lance. The accompanying text claims that when pregnant women wear the image on their bodies during childbirth, it will protect both them and their children. This suggests that the amulet roll may have been used as a birthing girdle, making particularly relevant its seals for staunching bleeding wounds and against sudden death (without having received the last rites).

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Magical seals and the Measure of the Side Wound (England, 15th century): Harley Roll T 11, f. 1r

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Magical seals for staunching bleeding wounds and against sudden death: Harley Roll T 11, f. 2r

No less than sixty-three magical seals were copied onto a 17th-century English amulet roll (Add MS 25311). Many are aimed against evil spirits, but others against material and physical dangers: for example, it includes seals against venomous snakebites and poverty. The roll may have served as a multi-purpose amulet, or as a model from which single seals were copied onto smaller amulets.

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Magical seals against evil spirits [1st column, 1st to 3rd rows], venomous snakes [2nd column, 5th row] and poverty [3rd column, 5th row] (England, 17th century): Add MS 25311

The owner of Stowe MS 16 who added the four magical seals to the manuscript probably copied them from the sort of medical or magical manuscripts that are shown here. In doing so, they evidently wanted to give their Book of Hours protective properties so that, in carrying it with them for their daily prayers, it would function equally as an amulet.

 

Clarck Drieshen

12 July 2019

Underwater adventures

The British Library’s current exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion (7 June–8 September 2019), investigates the great thinker’s fascination with water. But Leonardo was not the first to send his imagination plunging beneath the waves. Here are some of the ways that medieval people imagined being able to explore underwater.

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Leonardo’s studies of the River Arno: British Library, Arundel MS 263, f. 149r 

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Beowulf dives into the mere, Beowulf, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 166r

In the Anglo-Saxon period, underwater exploration belonged to the world of heroic poetry rather than human technology. In the Old English epic poem Beowulf, the hero journeys to the bottom of a horrifying mere to fight Grendel’s Mother in her watery lair. He dresses in full war-gear, a mail-shirt and a gold boar-embellished helmet, and arms himself with a precious sword named Hrunting. Then after briefly settling his affairs in case of his death, he dives into the lake:

The man of the Weder-Geats moved briskly, would hardly wait for an answer; the surging water took possession of the war-maker. It was then a good part of the day before he could make out the level bottom (Translation by R. D. Fulk).

In a hall in the depths of the lake, Beowulf and Grendel’s Mother engage in a ferocious fight. For a long time the adversaries seem to be evenly matched, but the decisive moment comes when Beowulf notices an enormous sword that was made by giants in ancient times. He grabs the sword and swings it at the lake-woman, slicing off her head.

The poem makes no attempt to explain how Beowulf is able to survive underwater—he just can. His status as a legendary hero and the strongest man alive places him outside the ordinary limits of human ability. In a world of giants, dragons, magical swords and cursed treasure, the hero is a supernatural figure. Beowulf is up to any challenge, no diving apparatus required.

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Alexander is lowered into the sea, Le Livre et le vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 77v

Another of medieval literature’s most memorable underwater adventures is that of Alexander the Great. The ancient Macedonian king and formidable military commander was one of the greatest heroes of medieval romance. One episode associated with Alexander in the romance tradition describes how he travels to the bottom of the sea to explore its wonders.

Unlike Beowulf, Alexander is hampered by the real-world necessity of having to breathe. To solve this, he designs an air-tight barrel made from glass which is lowered on chains from a boat. Inside his proto-submarine, Alexander takes lamps to light his way and two animal companions, a cockerel to tell the time and a cat whose breath purifies the air.

Alexander’s underwater journey shows that medieval people were thinking creatively about how a person could venture safely underwater. That’s not to say that the design would work: for one thing, the barrel would float without ballast; for another, a cat’s breath does not purify air so Alexander would have a very limited air supply.

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Alexander is lowered into the sea, Roman d'Alexandre, Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 20v

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Design for diving equipment, a mechanical sketchbook, Add MS 34113, f. 180v

Is not until the 15th-century that people began to design diving apparatus with a view to practical use. This sketchbook, compiled in the 15th-century by an unknown Italian engineer, contains designs for diving suits that might have inspired Leonardo's (you can also see this manuscript in the exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion, displaying a design for a water wheel).

The diving suits would allow a person freer movement than the barrel, so that the divers can carry out tasks underwater such as loading these baskets with rocks. With the figure on the left, the engineer has attempted to solve the problem of air supply by feeding air through a hose, connected at one end to a float on the surface and at the other to the diver’s mask. This is close to the design that was finally employed in the first successful diving suits, but with one major difference. The Renaissance engineer had not realised that the air supplied to the diver would have to be pressurised to account for the increased pressure underwater.

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Leonardo’s design for Diving Apparatus, Arundel MS 263, f. 24v

Leonardo’s diving apparatus from the early 16th century follows roughly the same design as the anonymous sketchbook, but adds some improved features. His diving mask is provided with two hoses, one to bring fresh air in and the other to take old air out. He has realised that the hoses will need to be reinforced with metal rings to stop the water pressure from closing them up. The float is also modified to prevent water accidentally spilling into the air supply. But crucially, Leonardo did not think to add an air compressor to the design so in practice the diver would not be able to breathe in deep water.

It was not until the 18th century that the first successful diving suits were made. But from Beowulf to Leonardo, people had long been coming up with creative ways to explore the world beneath the waves. To admire Leonardo’s design for diving apparatus in person, don’t miss the exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion, at the British Library from 7 June–8 September 2019.

Eleanor Jackson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

10 July 2019

Jerome and the lion

Everyone loves a picture of a medieval lion. The Twitter hashtag #notalion celebrates how amusingly unrealistic they often look, frequently resembling cuddly housecats more than the king of beasts. In medieval manuscripts, lions are found not only in bestiaries but also in illuminated bibles and other religious works, and sometimes in images of St Jerome who, believe it or not, once befriended a lion.

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Jerome and the lion, from his translation of Eusebius of Caesarea, Chronici canones: Rome, c. 1485–c. 1488: Royal MS 14 C III, f. 2r (detail)

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St Jerome with the lion holding up its paw, at the opening of the Psalter of St Jerome in a Book of Hours: Netherlands, S., 2nd quarter of the 15th century: Harley MS 2982, f. 97r

St Jerome (347–420), known in Latin as Hieronymous, was one of the Fathers of the early Christian Church, most famous for translating the entire Bible into Latin. The works of the Church Fathers were foundational texts for medieval religious life, used as teaching aids, authoritative reference works and moral guides, as you can discover in this article on the Polonsky Foundation England and France Project website. In the image below, the Church Fathers, Gregory, Augustine, Jerome (with a lion) and Ambrose are shown at the walls of the Fortress of Faith, with men and women representing vices.

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The Fortress of Faith, in Pierre Richard, La forteresse de la foy: Lille and Bruges, 4th quarter of the 15th century: Royal MS 17 F VI, f. 101r

Along with the other Church Fathers, Jerome is venerated as a saint. His feast day is 30 September and his life is recorded in the Golden Legend, the medieval collection of saints’ Lives compiled by Jacobus Voragine (c. 1230–1298), where the story of the lion is told.

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Jerome seated, being given a scroll by an angel, with a lion at his feet, from Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda aurea, translated by Jean de Vignay: Paris, 1382: Royal MS 19 B XVII, f. 2r (detail)

The Golden Legend often blends traditional stories about the saints with historical facts, and this blending can be seen in its account of St Jerome’s life. According to the Golden Legend, as a young man Jerome moved to Rome to study, where he soon established his reputation as a scholar of note, and was ordained a cardinal at the age of 39. However, he rejected papal intrigues and politics, choosing to become a desert hermit and endure hardship as the ‘companion of wild beasts and scorpions’ for four years. He then went to Bethlehem where he asked permission to live at the place of the Nativity, like a domestic animal beside the crib, to work on his translation of the Bible.

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St Jerome as a monk removing the thorn from the lion’s paw, from Wauchier de Denain, Lives of the Saints: Paris, 2nd quarter of the 13th century: Royal MS 20 D VI, f. 159v

During this time, a lion came limping into the monastery where Jerome came to pray. The other monks fled in terror but he treated the lion kindly, removing a thorn from its paw and having it washed and bandaged. The lion was tamed and lived among the monks, looking after the donkey who carried their wood, and guarding it when it went out into the fields.

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St Jerome reading, with the donkey carrying wood guarded by the lion: The Hastings Hours, Ghent or Bruges, c. 1480: Add MS 54782, f. 278v

One day, while the lion was asleep, the donkey was stolen by a troop of passing camel merchants. Although he searched everywhere, the lion could not find his friend. The monks suspected the lion of having eaten the donkey and punished him, making him carry their wood. The lion bore this patiently, but kept looking for his friend, and one day when the camel traders were passing back that way he recognised the donkey in their caravan. He gave a terrifying roar, so that the merchants fled, and he brought the donkey and the camels back to the monastery. Jerome saw the lion’s joyful behaviour and realised what had happened. It was not long before the merchants appeared and begged forgiveness for their crime. Jerome forgave them graciously and they went on their way, leaving the monks with their lion and their donkey.  

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St Jerome writing with his hand on the lion’s head, at the beginning of his prologue to the Bible: Netherlands, 1492: Yates Thompson MS 16, f. 1r 

Having re-organised the Divine Office, putting all the Psalms and lessons of the Church year into the correct order, St Jerome died in Bethlehem at the age of 98. The underground chamber where he worked on his translation for 40 years can still be seen near the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. There are donkeys, but no lions, in the vicinity.

                                                                                                                                                                Chantry Westwell

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06 July 2019

Medieval cures for lung disease, gout and vertigo

Even after the Normans conquered England, Old English (the oldest form of the vernacular) continued to be spoken throughout the country. It continued to be used in books produced in  monasteries there for at least a century after William the Conqueror’s invasion.

One excellent example of this is found in the Old English Illustrated Herbal. Originally made in Canterbury in the early 11th century, this manuscript contains Old English translations of a collection of Latin remedies, illustrated with numerous paintings of plants and animals. You can read more about its history in Taylor McCall’s article on Medical knowledge in the early medieval period, as well as in this earlier blogpost.

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Illustrations of a lion, a bull, a monkey, a bear and a dog alongside Old English medical recipes, in the Old English Illustrated Herbal (Canterbury, 1st quarter of the 11th century): Cotton MS Vitellius C III, ff. 81v–82r

To judge by its additions and annotations, this manuscript continued to be read for many years after its production. During the 12th century, scribes at Canterbury were still adding new recipes to it, which were also written in the vernacular.

One added remedy is a cure for lung disease (Wið lungen adle), made from a mixture of herbs with warm ale. Another claims to be seo seleste eahsalf wið ehpærce (the best eye salve for eye pain). There is even a medical treatment for gout, entitled Wið fot adle (Against foot disease).

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A page of Old English medical recipes added in the 12th century, including a treatment for gout (column 2, lines 1–15): Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 83r

This remedy describes a recipe for a drink — a mixture of wine, leeks, cumin and laurel berries — that a patient should take every day until the disease is cured:

Wið fot adle 7 wið þone dropan nim datulus þa wyrt oðer nama titulosa þæt is on ure geþeoda þæt greata crauleac nim þes leaces heafda 7 dryg swiðe 7 nim ðer of þriddan healves penincges gewihte 7 peretreo 7 romanisce rinda  7 cymen 7 feorðan del lauwerberian 7 þera oðera wyrta ælces healves penincges gewihta 7 vi piper corn unwegen 7 grind ealle to duste 7 do win tra aeg faille fulle þis is foð læcæcræft fyle þan men drincan oþ ðæt he hal fy.

('Against foot rot (gout) and against wrist-drop: take the wort hermodactylus, known by another name titulosa that in our own language is called the ‘great crow leek’. Take the heads of this leek and dry them thoroughly, and take a weight amounting to two and a half pennies, and pyrethrum and Roman rinds and cumin and one fourth as much laurel berries, and of the other worts, each by weight of a half penny and six pepper corns, unweighed, and grind them all to dust. And add two egg shells full of wine: this is a true leechcraft. Give it to the man to drink till he is whole again.')

These 12th-century additions occur throughout the herbal. On one occasion, two medical recipes were added to a previously blank page, opposite a large illustration of a man and a centaur presenting a book in a landscape surrounded by animals. The image is captioned Escolapius Plato Centaurus.

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Old English medical recipes added in the 12th century, facing a representation of a man and a centaur presenting a book: Cotton MS Vitellius C III, ff. 18v–19r

One of these added recipes purports to be a remedy for vertigo or giddiness. It instructs the reader to:

Nim betonica 7 wæll swyðe on win oþþa on ald ealað 7 wæse þæt heafod mid þam wose 7 leg fiððen þæt wyrt swa wærm abutan þæt heafod 7 wrið mid claðe 7 læt swab eon ealla niht.

('Take betony and boil it thoroughly in wine or in old ale, and wash the head with the infusion, and then lay the wort, so warm, about the head, and wreathe with it a cloth, and leave it there all night.')

While it is hard to determine the effectiveness of such cures, this addition to an older Anglo-Saxon book does reveal the continued use of English a century after William's victory at the Battle of Hastings. If you'd like to know more about writing in the vernacular in the 12th century, why not take a look at this article featured on our website.

 

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04 July 2019

What inspires you?

Add comment Comments (7)

The British Library's Medieval Manuscripts Blog is about to reach a major milestone. Sometime in the next few weeks we are likely to receive our 5 millionth lifetime view — not bad for a blog devoted to ancient, medieval and early modern manuscripts.

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The Gorleston Psalter, early 14th century: Add MS 49622, f. 194v

So this got us thinking. Which manuscripts in the British Library's collections have most inspired you? Have you written a thesis or article about one or more of them? Are there particular items that you go back to look at again and again? How has modern technology, such as digitisation and multispectral imaging, benefitted your research? Have you ever had an inspirational moment with a British Library manuscript, either online or in the Reading Room? If you had to pick, which of our manuscripts is your favourite?

We would love to hear your stories. Please send them to us as a comment using the box below, or drop us a line via Twitter (@BLMedieval). We'd like to publish the best ones on this Blog.

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Cats in a medieval English bestiary, early 13th century, digitised as part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Harley MS 4751, f. 30v

 

From the people who brought you the Unicorn Cookbook, Knight v Snail, Lolcats of the Middle Ages and much, much more.

@BLMedieval

02 July 2019

Insular Manuscripts: Networks of Knowledge

For the last three years, the ‘Insular Manuscripts: Networks of Knowledge’ project has been investigating the large number of manuscripts written in insular scripts between the mid-7th and the mid-9th centuries. The project aims to examine knowledge exchange in early medieval Europe through analysis of these manuscripts. Some of the manuscripts were written in Britain and Ireland, but many were written in Francia and northern Italy, in monasteries which had been founded by missionaries from Ireland and the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

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A text page from the Lindisfarne Gospels, made around 700: Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 31v. This manuscript is currently on display in the Library's major exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark.

So far, the project has recorded 844 items originating from at least 668 different manuscripts that were written in insular scripts between 650 and 850, in addition to 72 original Anglo-Saxon charters written before 850. Only 321 (38%) of the 844 items were definitely or probably written in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms or Ireland, and only 136 of those are still held in Britain or Ireland. The other 185 items written in Ireland or the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms are now held elsewhere. The majority were apparently early medieval exports to Francia and many are now held in libraries alongside even greater numbers of manuscripts in insular scripts that were produced in Francia itself.

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The beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, in the Echternach Gospels: Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France, ms lat. 9389, f. 20r

As a result of the programmes in many libraries to digitise their medieval manuscripts, over 60% of the manuscripts written in insular scripts have now been digitised in some form, transforming opportunities for new research. (In the case of the British Library, you can find all our digitised content on our Digitised Manuscripts site.)

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Jerome's commentary on Isaiah (Marmoutiers, 2nd quarter of the 8th century: Egerton MS 2831, f. 110r

The third workshop in the project focused on ‘Knowledge Exchange: People and Places’, and was hosted last month in Vienna by Bernhard Zeller at the Institut für Mittelalterforschung der Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften. (Details of the programme and paper summaries are available on the project website.) The workshop included a visit to the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, to see a selection of manuscripts written in insular scripts, introduced by Andreas Fingernagel, Head of Manuscripts and Rare Books.

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Members of the Insular Manuscripts workshop in Vienna

The meeting in Vienna was the final workshop in a series of three, as part of the project which has been generously funded by the Leverhulme Trust. This workshop followed the first in London in April 2017 on ‘Methods of Making’ and the second in Dublin and Galway in June 2018 on ‘Digital Potential’. As the project draws to a close, the project partners will be considering the next steps to take forward their research questions, and the data compiled by the project on all known manuscripts written in insular scripts will be posted on the project website by the end of this year.

 

Claire Breay

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29 June 2019

Noah's Ark and the Anglo-Saxons

When our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition ended recently, you might have been forgiven for thinking that little more remains to be discovered about this crucial period of early medieval history. It's highly unusual for unknown Anglo-Saxon manuscripts to come to light (although we did recently purchase a leaf formerly in private hands), while archaeological finds like the Staffordshire Hoard and the Winfarthing Pendant are still extreme rarities. We are delighted, therefore, to reveal that new technologies can enable us to uncover more about the Anglo-Saxon past.

Some of our readers may be familiar with the Old English Orosius, Add MS 47967 is the earliest surviving copy of a vernacular translation of the Historiarum adversus Paganos Libri Septem (Seven Books of History against the Pagans), a history of the world written by Paulus Orosius (d. after 418). This manuscript was probably copied in Winchester during the reign of King Alfred the Great (r. 871–899) and it may have been part of Alfred’s programme to translate important Latin works into Old English.

At the very end of this copy is a faded page of text (f. 87v), nearly impossible to read, although N. R. Ker attempted a transcription in his Catalogue of Manuscripts containing Anglo-Saxon (1957). Now, with the help of multi-spectral imaging technology employed by Dr Christina Duffy at the Library, we have been able to produce a clearer photograph of the page, unveiling more of the text it contains.

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Before and after: the page of faded text at the end of the Old English Orosius, and after undergoing multispectral imaging: Add MS 47967, f. 87v

The Old English written here comprises a long note that provides details relating to the Bible, specifically the ages of Adam, Noah, his sons and their wives, and the dimensions of the Ark. The text reads as follows:

Adam lifede nigon hund geara 7 XXX geara [...] Noe lifede ær ðam flode syx hund geara 7 æfter ðam flode ðryo hund wintra 7 fiftig wintra 7 he wæs innan ðære earc feowertig daga he 7 his ðryo suna Sem. Cham. 7 Iapheh 7 hyra ðryo wif seo earc waes ðryo hund faeðma lang 7 fiftig faeðma wid. 7 ðryttig faeðma heah. 7 his sunu Sem. Lifede syx hund geara. 7 ðryo 7 ðryttig geara his sunu hatte Arfaxad se lifode feower hund geara 7 eahta 7 ðryttig geara. Ða gestrynde he sunu se hatte heber. Of him asprang ðaet ‘h’ebreisc folc.’

('Adam lived for 930 years. Noah lived 600 years before the Flood and 350 winters after it and he was in the Ark for 40 days, he and his three sons Shem, Ham and Japheth and their three wives. The Ark was 300 fathoms long, 50 fathoms wide, and 30 fathoms high. And his son Shem lived 630 years and his son Arfaxad lived 438 years. Then he begat a son called Heber. From him sprung forth the ‘Hebrew’ people.')

Comparable examples of this type of Old English text survive from other early manuscripts. At the end of a 12th-century copy of excerpts from the Disticha Catonis (Cotton MS Julius A II) is a series of notes written in the vernacular.

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A page of notes written in Old English: Cotton MS Julius A II, f. 140v

This text concerns a variety of subjects, including the names of the two thieves who were crucified next to Christ, the Temple of Solomon and the Church of St Peter in Rome, the dimensions of the world, and the number of bones in the human body. There is also a note that, like the faded text in the Old English Orosius, details the measurements of Noah’s Ark.

Noes arc waes iii hund fedma lang 7 fiftig wid 7 ðritig heah.

('Noah’s Ark was 300 fathoms long and 50 fathoms wide and 30 fathoms high.')

The story of Noah and his sons, and the building of the Ark, seems to have been popular in Anglo-Saxon England. Many of the surviving genealogical lists of Anglo-Saxon kings, for example, feature Noah prominently. The West Saxon Regnal List tell us that the line of the kings of Wessex, the dominant kingdom of Anglo-Saxon England from the late 9th century onwards, was descended from the Old Testament patriarch, through his fourth son Sceaf, said to have been born on the Ark itself. This work survives in a miscellany of astronomical, geographical and theological material, made in England during the second quarter of the 11th century.

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This copy of the West Saxon Regnal List states that the West Saxon kings were descended from Noah, through his fourth son Sceaf: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 23r

In the same manuscript, a mappa mundi or ‘map of the world’ shows where the Ark is thought to have come to land. Here, its final resting place (marked with a drawing of the Ark itself) is identified as east of the Black Sea, close to the mountain ranges of Armenia.

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A map of the world from the Anglo-Saxon miscellany, showing the location of Noah’s Ark: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 56v

Meanwhile, the artists of the Old English Hexateuch (Cotton MS Claudius B IV), written around the same time, were particularly inspired by Noah’s story and included several illustrations to accompany the account of Noah and his sons from the book of Genesis. These colourful framed images show the various phases of the Ark’s construction, the loading of the animals, the Ark at sea and the animals leaving the Ark with Noah and his family, once the waters had retreated.

(Image 7) cotton_ms_claudius_b_iv_f015v

The animals leaving the Ark after the Flood has subsided, from the Old English Hexateuch: Cotton MS Claudius B IV, f. 15v

We are very excited to have been able to read the page in the Orosius manuscript for perhaps the first time in a thousand years. This is proof that there are many more discoveries to be made, which collectively will enable us to build up a more detailed picture of pre-Conquest history.

 

Visit our Medieval England and France website to discover how to make a medieval manuscript, to read beastly tales from the medieval bestiary, and to learn about medieval science, medicine and monastic libraries.

 

Calum Cockburn

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27 June 2019

Unexpected encounters of the fragmentary kind

Over the last few months, we have been progressively adding new descriptions of the Harley manuscripts to our online catalogue. We have been surprised on a regular basis by the number of medieval fragments we have encountered in some of these volumes. Many of these leaves were not previously described in the printed Catalogue of Harleian Manuscripts (1808–1812), and they have gone largely unnoticed in modern times.

One of our most unexpected discoveries comes from the collections of John Bagford (1650–1716), a shoemaker, bookseller and library agent for Hans Sloane (1660–1753) and Robert Harley (1661–1724), founders of the Library’s Sloane and Harley collections. For example, tucked between Bagford’s notes on the history of printing is a parchment fragment that features a decorated monogram of the letters Te Igitur followed by the words clementissime pater, the opening words of the Canon of the Mass (‘Thee, therefore, most merciful Father’).

Image 1 - Bagford Fragment (recto)

Image 2 - Bagford Fragment (verso)

The opening of the Canon of the Mass and the Commemoration of the Living and the beginning of the Invocation of the Saints, from a fragmentary liturgical book (late 10th century or early 11th century): Harley MS 5910, ff. 79v, 79r

This fragment was cut from a manuscript used to celebrate Mass, probably a missal or sacramentary. Its script and the initial's design suggest that it was made  in the late 10th century or early 11th century, probably in France. The script and initial bear close similarities with a 10th-century manuscript made in Stavelot (modern-day Belgium). That manuscript (Stowe MS 3) was recently digitised as part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project. It contains a copy of the Four Gospels and a lectionary (a collection of readings of Scripture used for worship on a particular day). Here, pencil sketches for a large initial Q and F mark the beginning of the Gospel of St Luke.

Image 3 - Stowe MS 3 [I]

Image 4 - Stowe MS 3 [II]

Sketches in pencil for a large initial Q and F marking the beginning of the Gospel of St Luke, from a 10th-century Gospel-book and Lectionary made in Stavelot: Stowe MS 3, ff. 111v–112r

During the Middle Ages, monasteries often recycled old liturgical manuscripts as binding materials. This may explain how a 15th-century manuscript of the Speculum Curatorum (Mirror for Curates) by the English Benedictine monk Ranulf Higden (d. 1364) came to include a flyleaf from a 12th-century Roman ritual, a manuscript containing the rites that were performed by priests. The fragment contains part of the rite of sprinkling a congregation with holy water (Asperges), followed by a blessing for pilgrims (‘Benedictio peregrinorum’).

Image 5 - Roman Ritual Fragment

A fragment from a Roman ritual (12th century): Harley MS 1004, f. 198r

The Dissolution of the Monasteries between 1536 and 1541 caused many religious manuscripts to be dispersed among lay owners. The latter often exploited such manuscripts as sources of binding materials for other books, resulting in some unusual pairings of medieval and early modern leaves. For example, we have found two flyleaves with a 13th-century glossary of plant names in an early modern manuscript of texts concerning the Church of England.

Image 6 - Glossary Fragment

A glossary of plant names (13th century): Harley MS 828, f. 1*recto

Image 7 - Texts concerning the Church of England

Texts concerning the Church of England (late 16th century or early 17th century): Harley MS 828, f. 1r

In cataloguing a manuscript (Harley MS 6547) containing the Tractatus de Libero Arbitrio (Treatise on Free Will), we encountered a parchment fold-out that was taken from a 13th-century glossed Bible.

Image 7 - Glossed Bible Fragment

Romans 11:1-6 (13th century): Harley MS 6547, f. 36r

Image 9 - Tractatus de Libero Arbitrio

Tractatus de Libero Arbitrio (late 16th or early 17th century): Harley MS 6547, f. 1r

An unknown early modern English manuscript owner appears to have taken a leaf from a 13th-century lectionary to supply a flyleaf for a mid 16th-century survey of English counties (Harley MS 71).

Image 8 - Gospel Readings Fragment

Readings from the Gospels (13th century): Harley MS 71, f. 1r

Image 11 - Survey of English Counties

A survey of English counties (1558–1559): Harley MS 71, f. 1r

A final example of an unusual pairing can be found in Harley MS 6355. This manuscript contains a 16th-century treatise on gunpowder, just as the printed catalogue describes. What the catalogue does not mention is that it also contains four flyleaves with texts and music notation for liturgical feasts, taken from a 14th-century manuscript.

Image 9 - Liturgical Music Fragment

Liturgical texts with music notation (14th century): Harley MS 6355, ff. 3v–4r

Image 13 - Treatise on gunpowder

A treatise on making gunpowder, using cannons and mortars (16th century): Harley MS 6355, ff. 5v–6r

Many other Harleian binding fragments await further research. Not only do such leaves sometimes contain materials that are valuable sources for medieval history and art, but they also provide us with an insight into how they were used and re-used by their early owners. We hope to discover many more as our cataloguing project continues. Maybe you will have your own close encounters with some of these 'UFLs' (unidentified flyleaves).

 

Visit our Medieval England and France website to discover how to make a medieval manuscript, to read beastly tales from the medieval bestiary, and to learn about medieval science, medicine and monastic libraries.

 

Clarck Drieshen & Calum Cockburn

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval