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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

08 September 2019

The art of the alphabet poem

On International Literacy Day (8 September), we look at how medieval and early modern scribes and artists celebrated the Latin alphabet through art and poetry. Decorated alphabets were central to medieval ‘alphabet books’. These are ‘pattern books’ that feature alphabets written or drawn in different fonts and featuring various styles of decoration. Their purpose is debated, but one explanation is that artists used them for promoting their skills among potential clients, or for recording interesting designs they found in other manuscripts. For example, the 'Macclesfield Alphabet Book' (Add MS 88887) ─ one of two surviving English alphabet books (the other one is Sloane MS 1448A) ─ contains fourteen different types of decorative alphabets.

Image 1 - Macclesfield Alphabet Book-min

An alphabet featuring human faces (England, 1475–1525): Add MS 88887, ff. 3v–4r

Similar alphabets were known to or designed by the German artist and scribe Johann Holtman, who produced an alphabet book (Add MS 31845) in 1529.

Image 2- German Alphabet Book-min

An alphabet featuring human faces and animals (Germany, 1529): Add MS 31845, ff. 9v–10r

Decorated alphabets could also be combined with poetry. The ‘abecedarium’, a poem in which the first letters of each line or stanza together form the letters of the alphabet, was a form often used by medieval poets. Geoffrey Chaucer, the most renowned medieval English poet, himself wrote an ‘ABC hymn to the Virgin’ (see Harley MS 2251). Early modern artist-scribes also used this form, but put more emphasis on the alphabet poem’s visual display. First of all, they drew their initials at an enormous size, dedicating an entire page to each initial. Secondly, they decorated them extravagantly using a great variety of patterns and figures. Another distinct feature of their poems is that they are unique: only originals – no copies – survive. One example is a 16th-century Dutch alphabet poem (Add MS 24898):

Image 3 - Dutch poem [1]-min

Image 4 - Dutch poem [2]-min

Image 5 - Dutch poem [3]-min

Poems for the letters ‘A’, ‘B’, and ‘C’ (The Hague, 1560): Add MS 24898, ff. 1r, 2r, 4r

The initials reflect the poem’s religious themes. For example, its often-repeated motif of a stork eating a snake draws its meaning from medieval bestiaries. These use the stork’s enmity towards the snake as an example for the righteous who, likewise, should be the enemies of evil thoughts (‘snakes’). The poem was created by an artist-scribe who identifies himself on the page that is dedicated to the letter ‘D’. In the initial, he inscribed his name (‘Marcus van Yperen’) with the date 25 August 1560 in a banderole that is suitably wrapped around two quills and a quill knife.  

Image 6 - Dutch poem [4]-min

Poem for the letter ‘D’ (The Hague, 1560): Add MS 24898, f. 5r

Another alphabet poem entitled Pennarum Nitor or The Pens Excellency (Add MS 36991) was created by Joseph Lawson in 1608. Here, each page presents two versions of the same letter of the alphabet, each with its own ‘poem’. The upper one is decorated in the style of a medieval manuscript, whereas the lower one is in a typographical style. The texts on these pages have no apparent connection with one another. For example, the two texts for the letter ‘A’ are legal and religious:

‘All men shall knowe by these presentes that I Robert Watersonne of ffelmingham in the Countie of Norffolk am indebted and doe owe unto L. Maine […]’.

‘A man of might if that thou bee give not thy minde I say unto a whore of no degree marke this I doe thee pray, for in the scripture thou shalt read if that thou marke it well the whordome is the ready way to lead the into hell’.

Image 7 - Lawson's alphabet poem [1]-min

Image 8 - Lawson's alphabet poem [2]-min

Image 9 - Lawson's alphabet poem [3]-min

Poems for the letters ‘A’, ‘B’, and ‘C’ (England, 1609): Add MS 36991, ff. 17r, 18r, 19r

A final example of a decorated alphabet poem comes from a mid 17th-century English manuscript (Harley MS 1704). The artist-scribe may have created it for a ‘Robert Clare’ of Uttoxeter in Staffordshire: the latter’s name features in the ‘poem’ — which is more like a draft for a legal document — for the letter ‘B’. The manuscript also features inscriptions by Robert Clare himself, indicating that he came to own the poem after it was finished. The first one begins:

‘All men are wormes, but this no man in silk / twas brought to taugt first wrapt and white as milk / where afterwards it grew a butterfli which was a caterpiller [...]’.

Image 10- HarleyAlphabet Poem [1]-min

Image 11 - Harley Alphabet Poem [2]-min

Image 12 - Harley-Alphabet Poem [3]-min

An English alphabet poem (England, c. 1650): Harley MS 1704, ff. 144r, 145r, 146r

Medieval alphabet books and early modern alphabet poems may have fulfilled a similar purpose. Christopher de Hamel has suggested that alphabet books may not be practical books created by artists for their own use after all. Perhaps, he argues, they represent a way of analysing and visually displaying the world that is inherent to the ‘genre’ of alphabet books. Likewise, decorated alphabet poems encapsulate various aspects of the world, covering, for example, literary, religious, and legal subjects. Their initials reflect this in the multitude of human figures, animals and hybrid figures that inhabit them.

 

Clarck Drieshen

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07 September 2019

Wine-making, medieval-style

Pluck. Crush. Cork. Medieval calendars remind us that September is the month for making wine. If planting and pruning vines fall to the month of March, September is the time for cashing in on all the effort.

The parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard in the Stavelot Bible

The depiction of the parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard in the Stavelot Bible takes us closer to the toil involved in tending the vines: Add MS 28106, f. 6r

To turn grapes into wine has never been an easy task. During the summer months, the vines grow heavy with fruit. September is the time to start picking the grapes and prepare them for the arduous journey towards vinification.

The Old Testament story of the spies of Canaan

The two figures on the right are carrying a large cluster of grapes, freshly picked, illustrating the Old Testament story of the spies of Canaan (Numbers 13:1-33): Harley MS 4996, f. 24v

After picking the grapes, the next stage is to crush them. The evidence in medieval manuscripts is interesting. The majority of representations of wine-making involve some form of crushing the grapes. This was usually done by treading them in a large tub. It provided the model for the most enduring image of medieval vinification, that of winemakers stomping on grapes, allowing the juice to drain into a waiting basin.

Crushing tubs

Crushing tubs varied in size. Some were small enough to accommodate only one person, others large enough for several: Royal MS 2 B II, f. 5r

In medieval calendars, each month had one or several types of agricultural activities (or labours) associated with it. The 'labours of the month' were illustrated on the calendar page, one (or several) for each month. You can find out more in our article on medieval calendars. The labour of the month of September was wine-making and the associated symbol was usually the wine-press, and later the wine barrel. There was significant variation in how the wine-press was depicted, but it usually involved one or several labourers treading on grapes in a tub.

Crushing freshly-picked grapes

Crushing freshly-picked grapes was an essential stage of making wine. This illustration is from a 14th-century calendar page for September: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 79v

In an early 12th-century manuscript produced at Silos Abbey in Spain, picking the grapes and crushing them are represented as actions occurring simultaneously, a reading on a prophetic passage from the Book of Revelation:

"The angel swung his sickle on the earth, gathered its grapes and threw them into the great wine-press of God’s wrath. They were trampled in the wine-press outside the city, and blood flowed out of the press [...]".  (Revelation 14:19-20).

Wine-making in Beatus of Liébana's Commentary on the Apocalypse

Wine and wine-making are a prominent metaphor in the Book of Revelation. This manuscript of Beatus of Liébana's Commentary on the Apocalypse conveys the drama of the biblical text with vivid colours and imagery: Add MS 11695, f. 168r

On the other hand, once the grapes are picked, it is advisable to crush them immediately — unless one is producing wine made from dried grapes through techniques which, although popular today, did not exist in the Middle Ages. Trampling the grapes was not the only way to crush them. The Romans had invented technology using mechanical pressure to crush grapes into juice. Their successors went further, developing the 'basket press'. This typically medieval wine-press used a basket made of wood staves kept together by metal rings, while a heavy disc pressed down towards the bottom of the basket, forcing the juice of the grapes to ooze out between the staves into a container.

Christ in a wine-press

This image based on the words of the Book of Revelation shows Christ in a wine-press fitted with bars which allowed a mechanism to squash the grapes into the staves of the basket: Add MS 35166

The grape juice was then poured into casks and barrels and stored, but without any preservatives such as sulfites. Because of this, the wine could easily go bad, and aging was not possible.

Filling up the barrels in a calendar

While some are tread-crushing the grapes, others fill up the barrels with juice ready for fermentation, from a 15th-century calendar for September: Add MS 18851, f. 5v

Wine had been made in western Europe before the Middle Ages. The ancient Greeks and the Romans planted most of the vines that were producing wine in the Middle Ages. Just like today, wine was consumed for the pleasure of it. An important part of its production, however, was driven by the requirements of the Mass, with wine being an essential part of Communion. Wine was biblical, liturgical, communal, bridging the gap between the sacred and the profane. A common motif was that of Christ in the wine-press, which brought together several mystical and theological insights, based on imagery from the Book of Revelation: "He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty” (Revelation 19:15).

Christ in the wine-press in a manuscript of the Apocalypse

The image of Christ in the wine-press is common in manuscripts of the Apocalypse: Royal MS 2 D XIII, f. 45v

 

Cristian Ispir

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02 September 2019

King Arthur: fable, fact and fiction

King Arthur is one of our most popular heroes: noble yet flawed, a great leader (but perhaps not such a great judge of character), a brave soldier who died fighting for a noble yet hopeless cause. There are tantalising fragments of evidence that the legendary figure may be based on a real king who fought to defend Britain against Anglo-Saxon invaders around the 5th-6th centuries. But was he a Celt, a Roman, a Briton or an Anglo-Saxon, and did he really take on the Anglo-Saxons?

If King Arthur existed at all, we will probably never know the truth about what he was really like. The sources that describe him were written centuries later, when his life had already turned to legend. You can read more about them in an article about King Arthur on the Polonsky Project website. But what endures about King Arthur are the many stories that people crafted about him thoughout the Middle Ages. Here we explore some of the manuscripts that contributed to the growth of Arthur’s legend.

Medeival manuscript showing a picture of King Arthur as a knight, wearing chainmail with a sword, shield and lance
Miniature of King Arthur, holding a spear and a shield emblazoned with the Virgin and Child from a historical collection including Langtoft’s chronicles: Northern England, c. 1307 - c. 1327, Royal MS 20 a ii, f. 4r

Two of the earliest accounts of King Arthur were by William of Malmesbury (b. c. 1090, d. c. 1142) and Geoffrey of Monmouth (d. 1154/55), Anglo-Norman clerics who wrote historical chronicles in Latin in the first half of the 12th century. Geoffrey’s History of the Kings of Britain portrayed Arthur at the outset as a brave and fearsome young warrior, who dons his battle regalia (as in the image above, from Royal MS 20 a ii, which is of a later date) and defeats multiple enemies single-handedly. He established Arthur’s reputation as a powerful Christian monarch who embodies the qualities of generosity and culture, qualities demonstrated in the earliest surviving image of Arthur in a manuscript, where he is shown as a tall, venerable figure with a beard and a long robe (BnF lat. 8501A, below).

Medieval manuscript with a picture of a King Arthur with a long beard and robe
A portrait of Arthur at the beginning of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae: Mont Saint-Michel, second half of the 12th century, BnF, lat. 8501A, f. 108v

As many medieval chroniclers did, Geoffrey introduced elements from legend. For him Arthur belonged to an idealised past, peopled with dragons and the chivalrous knights and virtuous maidens of the magnificent Camelot. In contrast, William of Malmesbury was critical of the ‘fond fables which the Britons were wont to tell’, and for him Arthur was merely a ‘praiseworthy’ and ‘warlike’ leader. His Deeds of the English Kings begins with the Anglo-Saxon invasions in 449 and tells of Arthur’s single-handed defeat of 900 invaders. This copy of his work from Saint Alban’s Abbey, is decorated with initials containing a dragon, a lion and other creatures, perhaps referencing Arthur’s magical associations (BnF lat. 6047, below).

A page of text in a medieval manuscript, including a decorated initial containing a bird
An initial containing a bird, in William of Malmesbury Gesta Regum Anglorum: St Alban’s abbey, last quarter of the 12th century, BnF, lat. 6047, f. 93v

Later in the 12th century, authors on both sides of the channel, including Wace, Layamon and most notably Chretien de Troyes, adapted the Arthurian legend, embellishing it with tales of Arthur’s early education by Merlin, his chivalrous exploits with Lancelot, Gawain and the knights of the Round Table, and his doomed romance with Guinevere.

The illustrations in this 14th-century English manuscript of Wace’s Roman de brut, a history of England from the time of Brutus, depict Arthur as a warrior king (Egerton MS 3028, below). Here he is shown leading the conquest of Gaul. Red-bearded and in full armour, with a fierce grimace on his face, he splits in two the head of Frollo, tribune of Gaul, with his sword.

Medieval manuscript with a picture of Arthur, dressed in chainmail, slicing open the head of a knight with his sword
Arthur killing Frollo, Roman de Brut: England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3028, f. 41r

Wace introduced the Round Table in his Roman de Brut, completed in 1155, and his words ‘Arthur .. bore himself so rich and noble…[and the] Round Table was ordained ….At this table sat Britons, Frenchmen, Normans, Angevins, Flemings, Burgundians and Loherins’. Here Wace brings Europe’s leaders to his table, portraying Arthur as not only an inspiring and fair ruler, but an international statesman of note.

Three women lead Percival by the hand to King Arthur, who is seated at a table
Perceval is brought to Arthur at the Round Table (although the rubric specifies ‘table roonde’ the artist has depicted the table as long and narrow), from the Lancelot-Grail: Northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai), 1316, Add MS 10293, f. 376r

But there is a dark side to Arthur in de Boron’s Roman du Graal, as illustrated in a manuscript of this work (Add MS 38117, below). Wanting to rid his kingdom of the evil Mordred, his son conceived by incest, Arthur finds all the children born on the same day and sets them adrift in a boat, sending them to a certain death by drowning.

Medieval manuscript with a picture of King Arthur and a group of people watching as a boat full of small children drifts out to sea
King Arthur setting infants adrift in a boat from Robert de Boron, Suite de Merlin: Northern France (Arras?), 1310, Add MS 38117, f. 97v

All the stories about King Arthur and his court were brought together in the early 13th century in the monumental prose version known as the Vulgate Cycle. It was a medieval literary phenomenon, surviving in around eighty manuscripts from the 13th to the 15th century. This illuminated manuscript of the work shows Arthur as a humble young squire, drawing the sword from the stone (Add MS 10292, below).

Medieval manuscript showing a group of people gathered outside a church, with Arthur pulling the sword from the stone
Arthur draws the sword from the stone, from the Lancelot-Grail Vulgate Cycle: Northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai), c. 1316, Add MS 10292, f. 99r
Medieval manuscript showing a group of nobles feasting
Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere at Camelot in Lancelot du Lac England, S. (Pleshey castle): c. 1360- c. 1380, Royal 20 D IV, f. 1r

The doomed love triangle between Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot leads to the king’s ultimate downfall and he is seen as gullible, though not blameless in the situation that develops. In the image above, set at Camelot, he is the gracious and dutiful king (on the right), seated beside Guinevere, their arms entwined, and in another episode from the story (on the left), Lancelot and Guinevere conduct their intrigues behind his back (Royal MS 20 D IV).

Lydgate’s 15th-century work, The Fall of Princes, based on a work by Boccaccio, includes Arthur as an example of how the mighty fall. This manuscript shows Arthur, victorious, slaughtering his enemies on one page, and on the next is an image of his tomb at Avalon (Harley MS 1766, below).

Medieval manuscript with a picture of King Arthur and his followers over a pile of dead bodies
King Arthur slaying heathens, from The Fall of Princes: South-east England, 1450-1460, Harley MS 1766, f. 218r
Medieval mauscript with a picture of a pink carved tomb inside a church
King Arthur's tomb, from The Fall of Princes: South-east England, 1450-1460, Harley MS 1766, f. 219r

Although we will never know who Arthur really was, the adaptability of his legend allowed him to remain relevant throughout the Middle Ages and to continue to capture people’s imagination to this day.

A number of manuscripts featuring King Arthur from the collections of the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, including three of those pictured above, have recently been digitised by The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project, and early accounts of Arthur’s reign are highlighted in an article about the legend of King Arthur on the project website.

 

Chantry Westwell

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31 August 2019

5 million page-views and counting

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We once declared privately that we would never again begin a blogpost with the words, 'We are delighted to announce'. But today we have to break that rule: we are extremely delighted to announce that our Medieval Manuscripts Blog recently received its 5 MILLIONTH page-view. We have been blogging about the British Library's marvellous manuscripts since 2010, telling you all about our exhibitions, events and digitisation projects. We hope you have enjoyed reading this Blog as much as we have enjoyed writing it.

To celebrate, and for one day only, we are going to give the Blog over to you, our loyal readers. You keep us on our toes, and your kind and incisive comments help us to know what you're interested in. Earlier this summer, we asked you to tell us which British Library manuscripts inspire you? Here is some of the wonderful feedback we received: what 'delighted' us most was the range of people who responded, from art historians to nuns to calligraphers to fans of tattoos to historic sites, and from across the world. We received so many comments that we're listing them here in alphabetical order. Thank you all again.

PS this is one of the easiest blogposts we've ever had to write, as you've done it for us!

PPS we'd also like to thank the Blog's many contributors over the years (you know who you are); you'll be hearing from some of them over the coming days.

PPPS we'd finally like to thank the funders of our many digitisation initiatives, including The Polonsky Foundation and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, without whom it would not have been possible to make so many of our manuscripts available online.

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

A knight fighting a snail

 

I started delving into medieval manuscripts and images because I was doing research that included herbals, alchemy, and early medicine. That got me hooked on many other types of medieval images. I can't possibly pick a favorite. So many are divine or informative.

 

Nuria Bono

Nuria M. Bono tweet: 'I'm here for the cats'

Kaleb Borromeo

Kaleb Borromeo tweet: 'they have inspired me to learn the original languages'

The Brooklyn Art Historian

Brooklyn Art Historiam tweet: 'Seyssel's translation of Xenophon's Anabasis, gifted to Henry VII'

The Anabasis manuscript presented to Henry VII

Miniature of Henry VII receiving the book from the translator, Claude de Seyssel: Royal MS 19 C VI, f. 17r

 

Marianne Lee Burdi

Marianne Lee Burdi tweet: 'I always love your snails'

Nancy Ewart

Nancy Ewart tweet: 'You put a banquet in front of me & tell me I can only have one? ONE of the manuscripts I love is the Spanish Beatus'

One copy of the commentary on the Apocalypse by Beatus of Liébana can be found here: Add MS 11695

 

Göktug and Lilac Sunday

Goktug tweet: 'Beowulf is my favourite'; Lilac Sunday: 'Beowulf, I became hooked after the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition'

The Beowulf manuscript can be found online here: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV

 

Brandon Hawk

Brandon Hawk tweet: 'So many British Library manuscripts made it into my book, Preaching the Apocrypha in Anglo-Saxon England'

Presenting the Rule to St Benedict

A miniature of monks presenting a copy of the Rule of St Benedict to St Benedict: Cotton MS Tiberius A III, f. 117v

 

My research is on the way memory systems work in non-literate and early literate cultures. I read Mary Curruthers "The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture" and started looking at medieval manuscripts for the way they were designed and annotated to aid memory during my PhD research. I already loved the artistry, but add in the incredible mnemonic aids - drolleries and glosses and the layout and lettering - and I fell even more deeply in love with them. I have written about medieval manuscripts and what they can teach us about the memory arts in my most recent book.

I have spent way too many hours browsing your glorious database and choosing a favourite is impossible. But if I have to, the Smithfield Decretals win my vote.

For example, I love this image:

The Smithfield Decretals

A bas-de-page scene of a centaur fighting dragons, in the Smithfield Decretals: Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 173r

Catherine Leglu

I discovered BL Egerton MS 1500 in 2005 because I was exploring the Occitan manuscripts. I was amazed by the rows of tiny heads, some of them topped by gold crowns, and by the maps. Nobody I asked at the time seemed to be sure what the text was. In 2011 I obtained funding from the Leverhulme Trust, which included digitising the manuscript. Our project's first three articles about Egerton 1500 came out in the eBLJ in late 2013. One of the exciting discoveries was that the columns of kings, popes, doges and emperors included borrowings from some illuminated rolls depicting kings of England, some of them also in the British Library. Since then, I have published several articles on this Occitan version of Paolino Veneto's illustrated history of the world until 1313, and more are to come.

The Occitan illustrated chronicle

Scenes from the First Crusade, in Abreviamen de las Estorias: Egerton MS 1500, f. 46r

Sjoerd Levelt tweet: 'I wrote a whole book about Cotton MSS Vitellius F XV and Tiberius C IV
 
Lewes Castle
Lewes Castle tweet: 'So many, but it has to be the Beowulf manuscript'
 
Linda

I'm a newbie calligrapher, and was transfixed by the carpet pages I've seen in the gallery. So much so that I've actually just spent sixty or seventy hours creating my own, painstakingly painting knots and swirls and even attempting a bit of gold leaf! A brilliant experience for me, though I confess a certain amount of 'Anglo-Saxon' was muttered over the fiddly bits!

Fell into the manuscript rabbit hole whilst researching cats in art...and found a treasure trove. Since then have "spread the words" by posting the occasional video and giving introductory presentations on the story of Med MSS and its artwork at any institution interested... Do I have a favorite? Think the Rutland for its superb dragons and marginalia, Lindisfarne & St Cuthberts of course, the Talbot Shrewsbury, Lisbon Bible...too many favorites to list.

The Rutland Psalter

Historiated initial of a king and queen kneeling before an altar, with Christ above with a sword in his mouth, at the beginning of Psalm 101, in the Rutland Psalter: Add MS 62925, f. 99v

 

Melibeus

Melibeus tweet: 'Seriously? I have to choose a favourite manuscript? That is so cruel. Here we go: the Maastricht Hours'

The Maastricht Hours can be found online here: Stowe MS 17

 

It is incredibly difficult to single out individual items in such an awe-inspiring and magisterial collection of ancient, medieval and early modern manuscripts as that held by the British Library.

On a personal level, the first manuscript I consulted for my thesis will always stand out. The humble Additional 10289 is a miscellaneous 13th-century book copied at the abbey of Mont Saint-Michel, containing a history of the abbey in Old French. I remember feeling privileged to be handling the book in the reading room, contemplating the production of its parts and the strange addition of the crude tale Jouglet on the final folios (in which the advice of a mischievous jongleur leads to an unfortunate toilet incident on a young couple’s wedding night…)

I’m currently consulting on a daily basis the Library’s digital images of three important illuminated manuscripts of the Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César, the earliest universal chronicle in French composed at the beginning of the 13th century. Thanks to the Digitised Manuscripts website, our team has been able to transcribe collaboratively the complete text of the significant Angevin manuscript, Royal MS 20 D I. In addition, we’ve recorded the contents of two substantial 13th-century manuscripts in our digital Alignment tool, which offer insights into the early dissemination of this text in the Holy Land (Additional MS 15268) and northern France (Additional MS 19669).

The ‘Medieval manuscripts blog’ has been an amazing resource for discovering more about the incredible items in the collection, from the illuminations on calendar pages to medieval lolcats, knights vs snails, the mindboggling marginalia in the Maastricht Hours (Stowe MS 17, my personal favourite) and of course, who could forget the unicorn cookbook!

The histoire ancienne

The minotaur, in the Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César: Royal MS 20 D I, f. 22r

 

Claudine Moulin

Claudine Moulin tweet: 'Harley 3034: merci for giving us so much'

Claudine's 9th-century manuscript can be found online here: Harley MS 3034

 

Rachel

Rachel tweet: 'Any of the ones with animals on. I even have one tattooed on my arm!'

A good opportunity to tell you I don't have a single favorite. The joy of your blog is exactly that I am surprised by the variation and richness of our heritage. The comments and the wealth of background information is of help, but it is the images on my screen so rich in color and meaning that offer me great moments. Thanks for that.

 

Lucy Freeman Sandler

By a rough count I've written 3 books and about 30 articles either mentioning or solely focused on British Library manuscripts. Not one of these publications could have appeared without 1) access to the manuscripts; 2) the knowledge, assistance and interest of the BL staff; 3) the reference facilities of the BL; 4) the BL Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts; 5) most recently, and most wonderfully, the digitization of an increasing number of BL manuscripts; and 6) the BL Manuscripts Blog, which provides delight and discovery to specialists and amateurs alike. Bravo!

I have written about several manuscripts that have been featured in this blog, including the Neville of Hornby Hours (Egerton 2781), the subject of my dissertation and several articles as well as a key work in my first book; the Taymouth Hours (Yates Thompson 13), the subject of my second book; and the Queen Mary Psalter (Royal 2 B VII), about which I have written two articles. Multispectral imaging by The British Library's Christina Duffy enriched the research for my second article on the Psalter, published earlier this year. Most of my publications mention other BL manuscripts. My research as a whole has benefitted enormously from the BL's digitization initiatives as well as from access to the manuscripts, for which I am extremely grateful. I require students in my "Illuminated Book" course to subscribe to the blog and to use other of the BL's online resources: they and the blog are wonderful resources for teaching.

The Taymouth Hours

Miniature of Christ feeding the 5,000, in the Taymouth Hours: Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 102r

 

Sister Walburga

Sister Walburga tweet: 'Harley MS 3908 is mostly about St Mildred, our second abbess here at Minster Abbey. As it was digitalised I could access it from our monastery. Fantastic!'

Mass for St Mildred

A mass for the feast of St Mildred: Harley MS 3908, f. 42r

29 August 2019

Tweet, tweet

Does Twitter have its origins in the medieval period? Well, in a literal sense, no. As far as we are aware, no medieval ships came close to being named BoatyMcBoatFace as a result of a ‘campaign’ of parchment scraps. Medieval people did not write 280-character messages on pieces of parchment or paper, send them to each other or re-send the messages of others. But the imagery of ‘twitter’ and ‘tweet’ does have its origins in the Middle Ages. The modern name ‘Twitter’ was clearly chosen because there is something joyous about chattering birdsong. It implies something playful and social, and perhaps also lively, raucous debate. We can only speculate on whether Twitter’s creators knew that there is a now obsolete meaning of the word ‘twitter’ in English, which means a person who ‘reproaches or upbraids’.

Cropped bas de page from Howard Psalter
Here an owl is being used by a bird catcher to capture other birds, as referred to in The Owl and the Nightingale’, from the Howard Psalter (England, 14th century): Arundel MS 83, f. 14r

With their restless desire to anthropomorphise, humans have long heard birdsong and understood its rhythms and patterns to be akin to human speech. The idea that birds like to get into lively debates is very old. The early Middle English poem, The Owl and the Nightingale, tells the story of a bad-tempered debate between an owl and a nightingale. Each bird is horrified by the other, pouring scorn on their counterpart's song, nesting habits and appearance. But the poem is also a meditation on how to debate. In a revealing passage, the nightingale pauses before she speaks:

An sat sumdel & heo bi þohte

An wiste wel on hire þohte

Þe wraþþe binimeþ monnes red.

('She sat awhile and thought,

Reflecting on her thoughts,

Knowing that wrath robs a man of reason. ') [ll. 939–41]

This poem was written at some point between 1189 and 1216. Although it is anonymous, in the poem the birds resolve to seek the counsel of ‘Maister Nichole of Guldeforde’ (Master Nicholas of Guildford). This little in-joke may indicate that Guildford was the author or was known to them.

The Owl and the Nightingale
The Owl and the Nightingale (England, c. 1250–1300, possibly after 1275): Cotton MS Caligula A IX, f. 239v

While The Owl and the Nightingale imagines the birds as tetchy and sometimes downright rude, they are not always depicted in this way in medieval poetry. At around the time that the Owl and the Nightingale was composed, Farīd al-Dīn Aṭṭār (d. c. 1230) was at work thousands of miles away on The Conference of the Birds منطق الطیر‎, (Maniq-u-ayr). This poem is a work of Sufi mysticism and has a contemplative tone by comparison with The Owl and the Nightingale. It tells the story of a group of birds who gather together to choose a new sovereign. The hoopoe is the wisest of the birds and acts as their leader and guide. He tells them that they must travel on an arduous journey through seven valleys to find their new king. The conclusion of the poem (which we won’t give away) is a moment of realisation for the birds, and it involves a pun ... (You can read more about this manuscript on our Asian and African Studies Blog.)

The Conference of the Birds
The Conference of the Birds (late 15th or early 16th century): Add MS 7735, f. 30v

Perhaps one of the most delightful descriptions of avian debate is Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls, which was written in the late 14th century. It describes a group of birds gathering together in the early spring — on ‘seynt valentynes day’ — to choose their mates for the year. The poem appears to be the beginning of the tradition that associates Valentine’s Day with lovers. There is nothing in the hagiography (the Life) of St Valentine to suggest an association with lovers. The narrator describes the riot of sound made by the birds:

For this was on Saint Valentines day,

Whan every brid [bird] cometh ther to chese [choose] his make [mate],

Of every kinde that men thinke may;

And that so huge a noise [did] they make,

That erthe and air and tree and every lake

So ful was that unnethe [hardly] was ther space

For me to stonde, so ful was al the place.  [ll. 316–22]

The noble birds — the eagles — are allowed to make their selections first. Three male eagles (tercels) eagerly vie for the hand of the formel (female) eagle, but the other birds soon interrupt, complaining that this is all taking too long. A cacophonous semi-debate ensues.

The Parliament of Fowls
Geoffrey Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls (English, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 15th century): Harley MS 7333, f. 129v

If you’re interested in learning more about medieval avian debates, or in Middle English literature more generally, there are a very small number of places remaining on our adult learning course, Discovering Middle English, which starts on 11 September. You’ll get to encounter Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Arthurian legends of Thomas Malory and, of course, Geoffrey Chaucer.

 

Mary Wellesley

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Manuscripts mentioned in this blogpost

Arundel MS 83 (De Lisle Psalter)

Cotton MS Caligula A IX (The Owl and the Nightingale)

Add MS 7735 (The Conference of the Birds)

Harley MS 7333 (Geoffrey Chaucer, Parliament of Fowls)

28 August 2019

The Joyful Ballad of the Taverners

Diluting wine with water, also known as baptising wine, was a common medieval practice. Taverners (innkeepers) and vintners (wine merchants) were especially associated with this custom. Literary accounts sometimes depicted them as nefarious figures who mixed wine with water in order to maximize their profit. Ironically, at the same period drinking diluted wine was associated with the virtue of temperance; in contrast, the excessive drinking of wine was associated with the deadly sin of gluttony (gula).

Bacchus and his followers
Bacchus and his followers as examples of gluttony, in Christine de Pizan’s L'Épître Othéa (France, c. 1410–c. 1414): Harley 4431, f. 106r

While cataloguing the Harley manuscripts, we recently discovered a previously unknown copy of a remarkable Middle French poem that responds to the practice of diluting wine. This poem, known as The Joyful Ballad of the Taverners (Ballade joyeuse des Taverniers), survives only in a few French manuscripts and early printed books. Our copy was added to a flyleaf of a manuscript (Harley MS 512) containing De Proprietatibus Rerum ('On the Properties of Things'), an encyclopedia of natural knowledge compiled by the Parisian scholar Bartholomaeus Anglicus (d. 1272).

The manuscript of The Joyful Ballad
The Joyful Ballad of the Taverners (France, 15th century): Harley MS 512, f. 1r

The Joyful Ballad is essentially a catalogue of curses that the poet wished upon taverners who diluted their wine. Although its author is unknown, it has long been associated with François Villon (c. 1431–after 1463), one of the most renowned French poets of the late Middle Ages, but also a murderer, thief and vagabond. Here is a translated stanza in order to give you a taste of the poem:

'Let some great gunshot blow their heads off sheer;

Let thunders catch them in the market-place;

Let rend their limbs and cast them far and near,

For dogs to batten on their bodies base;

Or let the lightning-stroke their sight efface.

Frost, hail and snow let still upon them bite;

Strip off their clothes and leave them naked quite,

For rain to drench them in the open air;

Lard them with knives and poniards and then bear

Their carrion forth and soak it in the Rhine;

Break all their bones with mauls and do not spare

The vintners [or ‘taverners’] that put water into our wine.'

[translation from John Payne, The Poems of Master François Villon of Paris (London, 1892), p. 137].

The Joyful Ballad is perhaps the most vitriolic poem to challenge the practice of mixing wine with water. But this subject was also central to medieval debate poetry, in which personifications of Water and Wine were pitted against each other. In the Goliae Dialogus inter Aquam et Vinum ('Goliardic Dialogue between Water and Wine'), they are represented by Thetis, goddess of the sea, and Dionysus, god of winemaking and wine. Dionysus argued that God created the grape without mixing it with water, for which reason it was heresy to drink diluted wine.

Manuscript of the Goliardic Dialogue
Goliae Dialogus inter Aquam et Vinum, (England, 14th century): Cotton MS Titus A XX, f. 66r

Diluted wine was not only disliked by medieval poets. The Roman poet Gaius Valerius Catullus (d. 54 BC) dedicated one of his poems to the subject. (This was well-known in the Middle Ages: the copy in Burney MS 133 is a good example.) Catullus's poem is suitably addressed to his cup-bearer (Ad Pincernam Suum). Here’s a translated extract:

'And get lost, water; off to drier lands,

Wine-spoiler. Fill the cups of prudish hands.

Thyonian [Bacchic] is the only wine for me.'

[translation by Len Krisak from Gaius Valerius Catullus Carmina (Manchester, Carcanet Press, 2014), p. 19]

The poem of Catullus
Catullus, Ad Pincernam (Italy, 1460): Add MS 11915, f. 13r

This is a lesson you may wish to bear in mind the next time you visit your local hostelry. We are sure that your friends may be amused if you recite The Joyful Ballad to them, although we cannot guarantee that the innkeeper or bartender may react in the same fashion.

 

Clarck Drieshen

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Manuscripts cited in this blogpost

Harley 4431 (Christine de Pizan’s L'Épître Othéa)

Harley MS 512 (The Joyful Ballad of the Taverners)

Cotton MS Titus A XX (Goliae Dialogus inter Aquam et Vinum)

Burney MS 133 (Catullus, Ad Pincernam)

Add MS 11915 (Catullus, Ad Pincernam)

24 August 2019

What's happening here?

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Many of you may be aware, especially if you follow us on Twitter, that we have a penchant for a little manuscript known as Le Petit Livre d'Amour (Stowe MS 955). Written by Pierre Sala early in the 16th century, it was presented as a love-gift to his mistress (and future wife), Marguerite Builloud. On the reverse of a portrait of the lover (f. 17v) is written, 'Set de vray le portret de Pierre Sala mestre dotel de ches le roy avec des enimes quil avoit fet a sa mestresse qui estoit grand honcle a madame de Ressis laquelle est sortie de la mayson de Guillien en Quercy.' Alongside the portrait of Sala (attributed to Jean Perréal) and the series of enigmatic miniatures (attributed to the Master of the Chronique scandaleuse), one of the manuscript's most distinctive features is its original wooden carrying case, designed to be suspended from a girdle. The leather covering is carved with devices which include the letters P (for Pierre) and M (for Marguerite), formed out of crossed compasses or staves. We suggest that you read more about the 'Little Book of Love' in this blogpost, and that you view it in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

Miniature of a man and a woman playing the bagpipes

This is a prelude to this weekend's caption competition. As ever, there are no prizes, but we'd love to have your responses to the question, 'What is happening here?' Answers please via the comments box below or on Twitter to @BLMedieval

23 August 2019

Ancient recycling: writing on potsherds

There are only a few days left to visit the British Library's major exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark. Recently, we dedicated a blogpost to one of the exhibits that has undoubtedly captured our visitors’ attention for its length, beauty and interest: the so-called Ravenna papyrus.

Another object on display, quite different from the Latin papyrus in terms of its size, nature and content, has also raised considerable public interest. It is a small potsherd, measuring 6.7 x 10 x 0.7 cm, whose outside (convex) side was used to host writing (Ostracon 13993). It is just one of the almost 4,200 potsherds, written in Ancient Greek, which form part of the British Library collections. They are known as ostraca (singular ostracon). You may not be immediately familiar with this term, but a modern English verb is derived from it. In Athens, in the 5th century BC, names of political figures who were believed to represent a threat to democracy were scratched onto the surface of potsherds, which were then deposited in urns. If a certain number of votes was reached, the person was expelled, that is, ostracised, for a period of ten years.

An ostracon issued for a sex-worker in ancient Egypt
The ostracon on display in Writing: Making Your Mark, dated 7 October 110 (Ostracon 13993)

Writing on pottery was common in the ancient world, and served different purposes. Containers of various types and shapes could be inscribed with information as to their contents, origi, or destination, especially for trade. Such labels, called ‘tituli picti’ or ‘dipinti’, were generally executed on the neck or shoulders of the amphora in red or black ink. However, these painted inscriptions are not considered to be ‘ostraca’, even when they are preserved in fragmentary form.

In contrast, shards of broken pots were commonly recycled and used as a writing material. For example, in Graeco-Roman Egypt ostraca were widely employed for writing many kinds of text, despite their disadvantages. Their smaller surface could only host short texts; they were heavier than a sheet of papyrus; and they could not be sealed. On the other hand, such shards were not only easy to source, such as in households and rubbish heaps, but they were also free of charge. Writing was usually traced on them in ink using the calamus, a reed pen employed for writing Greek and Latin texts on papyrus, or the reed brush for Egyptian writing. In Writing: Making Your Mark, our visitors have the opportunity to view an example of a reed pen in Arabic style, with the nib cut left oblique in order to favour writing from right to left.

As a result of their widespread use, ostraca from Egypt bear a wide variety of Greek texts. These include everyday documents such as tax receipts, lists, accounts and letters, as well as writing exercises and literary texts. At times, it can be difficult to tell whether these literary works were themselves being copied as writing exercises. One of the most famous examples of ostraca preserving a literary text is a Ptolemaic ostracon now held in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence (PSI XIII 1300). This contains an ode by Sappho, of which only a few words are quoted by other ancient authors.

The island of Elephantine
Elephantine Island (source https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elephantine)

The ostracon on display in our exhibition dates from over 1,900 years ago, and it contains a type of permit which is only rarely attested in our sources. In it, two tax collectors authorised a woman named Thinabdella to perform her activity as a sex-worker on a specific day. The ostracon is one of a handful of such permits to survive from Elephantine, an island off Aswan in Upper Egypt. The text on our ostracon reads:

Pelaias and Sokraton, tax farmers, to the ‘hetaira’ Thinabdella, greetings. We grant you permission to have intercourse with whomever you wish in this place on the day written below.

The date then follows, corresponding to 7 October 110, alongside the subscription of Sokraton, penned in a different hand. Why the permit was granted for a single day has been a matter of debate. Did Thinabdella come to the town for a short stay, or on a specific occasion, such as a festival?

There are just a few days left to see the ostracon in person at Writing: Making Your Mark: the exhibition closes on 27 August. If you would like to see more ostraca, you can check them out on Digitised Manuscripts, where you will currently find over 145 ostraca originating from Elephantine, with more yet to come!

The exhibition catalogue, in both paperback and hardback, is available from the British Library Shop.

9780712352536 Writing Making Your Mark

 

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