26 March 2020
One of the many gems of the British Library is the Harleian collection, founded by Robert Harley, Lord High Treasurer and 1st Earl of Oxford, and his son, Edward (1689–1741), 2nd Earl of Oxford. It's the largest intact 18th-century manuscript collection in the world, containing more than 7,000 manuscripts, 14,000 charters and 500 rolls. While we are re-cataloguing the manuscripts, we thought we'd take the opportunity to pay tribute to the collection's early Library-Keeper, Humfrey Wanley (1672–1726).
Wanley was appointed as Library-Keeper for the Harleian Library in 1705 after he successfully negotiated the acquisition for Robert Harley of the 660 manuscripts of the late antiquary Sir Simonds D’Ewes (1602–1650). Wanley — who had previously been employed as Assistant at the Bodleian Library, cataloguer of the library of Hans Sloane (his catalogue survives in Sloane MS 3972 B), and inspector of the library of Robert Cotton (1586–1631) — continued to expand the Harleian Library with thousands of manuscripts.
Thomas Hill, portrait of Humfrey Wanley in the Harleian Library holding his notebook open at his own facsimile copy of the 10th-century Greek Covel Gospels, and with the so-called Guthlac Roll of about the year 1200 on his desk (1711): courtesy of the Society of Antiquaries of London
Among Wanley’s most significant acquisitions for the Harleian Library are the more than 300 manuscripts of Edward Stillingfleet (d. 1699), late Bishop of Worcester; over 200 heraldic manuscripts from the Randle Holme arms-painters of Chester; and about 125 manuscripts of the clergyman Robert Burscough (1650/51–1709). Simultaneously, he used Continental agents to purchase manuscripts from Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands and monasteries in the Levant. He also sold his own collection of manuscripts to the Library. A 14th-century French Psalter in the Harleian collection (Harley MS 3978), for example, bears his ownership inscription: ‘Liber Humfredi Wanley’.
The Adoration of the Magi in a Psalter (above) and the ownership inscription of Humfrey Wanley (below), North-Eastern France, 2nd half of the 14th century: Harley MS 3978, f. 15v and f. 1*recto
The Harleian Library also acquired manuscripts composed and copied by Wanley himself. It features a parchment volume with facsimile copies of medieval charters (Harley MS 7505) that a young Wanley made around 1689–1691 from local archives in Warwickshire. These reveal his skills as both a palaeographer and calligrapher.
Humfrey Wanley’s copy of a mid-14th-century charter of Richard Fitzalan (c. 1313–1376), 3rd Earl of Arundel: Harley MS 7505, f. 2r
Wanley meticulously recorded his acquisition activities in his diary (Lansdowne MSS 1716-1718), but also kept a notebook (Lansdowne MS 677) with a ‘wish-list’ of manuscripts owned by other collectors he hoped to acquire for the Harleian Library (‘Things proper for the Library in the Hands of Particular Persons’). It includes both the Warwickshire charters and the manuscripts of Hans Sloane with which he had previously worked.
Humfrey Wanley offering a reward for returning his notebook to him: ‘Whoever brings this Book to Mr Humfrey Wanley at the Right Honourable the Earl of Oxford’s [Lord Harley’s House] in Dover-street, Westminster; shall receive one Guinea Reward’: Lansdowne MS 677, f. 1v
In acquiring manuscripts, Wanley showed a level of integrity that was unusual for his time. When a bookseller of a 9th-century manuscript containing the four Gospels written in gold ink (Harley MS 2797) insisted that Wanley should erase a 17th-century ownership inscription of the abbey of Sainte Geneviève in Paris because it was bought through a ‘private seller’, Wanley refused to do so, stating that ‘I do not love to putt a pen-knife upon an old Book in order to erase’ (The Diary of Humfrey Wanley (1996), vol. 2, pp. 359–60).
The un-erased ownership inscription of the abbey of Sainte Geneviève in Paris: ‘Ex Libris S. Genovefae Parisiensis’ (Northern France, 3rd quarter of the 9th century): Harley MS 2797, f. 1r
Wanley considered ownership inscriptions as one of the most important features that should be mentioned in manuscript catalogues. He gave much thought to manuscript cataloguing, since he considered it to be one of his principal tasks at the Harleian Library. In a letter he wrote following his inspection of the Cottonian library in 1703, he recommended that the textual and artistic contents of manuscripts be catalogued to a high level of detail:
‘That every Book & Tract be particularly described [...] whether it [be] written upon Parchment or Paper; whether the Language be English, Saxon, Latin, French etcaetera. Particular Notice also might be taken of such books as are remarkable for their Beauty, for being written Correctly, or in very Good or very Bad Hands; [or] remarkable for their Antiquity. And when the Age of the Book or Tract or Name of the Scribe that wrote it, of any Eminent Person that owned it; or old Library to which it did formerly belong does appear; it should be carefully noted, because by these Marks Posterity will be sure that these are the individual Books now described; and no Original or Antient Copie can be changed for a New one, but the Cheat may be discovered’ (Harley MS 7055, f. 19r).
Wanley first demonstrated his meticulousness in cataloguing Hans Sloane’s manuscripts and in producing a monumental catalogue of Old English manuscripts in 1705. Subsequently, he wrote catalogue entries for over 2,400 Harleian manuscripts in a ‘Catalogus Brevior’ (Additional MSS 45701–45707) — completed and published by the British Museum almost a hundred years later — and hundreds of records for a ‘Catalogus Maior’ (Additional MSS 45699–45700). In addition, he began a subject catalogue for the entire collection (Lansdowne MS 815), wrote an index to the Harleian charters (Add MS 45711), and a catalogue of heraldic manuscripts in the Harleian Library (Add MS 6052).
The frontispiece of Humfrey Wanley’s catalogue of Old English manuscripts, printed at Oxford at the Sheldonian Theatre in 1705
Wanley is an example to modern cataloguers. We certainly hope to follow in his footsteps as we re-catalogue the Harleian collection to modern standards and make records of the Harley manuscripts accessible in our online manuscripts catalogue.
You can read more about Humfrey Wanley here:
The Diary of Humfrey Wanley 1715-1726, ed. by Cyril Ernest Wright and Ruth C. Wright, 2 vols (London: Bibliographical Society, 1966).
Deirdre Jackson, 'Humfrey Wanley and the Harley Collection', Electronic British Library Journal (2011), article 2 [pp. 1–20].
Michael Murphy, 'Humfrey Wanley on How to Run a Scholarly Library', The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, 52:2 (1982), 145–55.
Cyril Ernest Wright, ‘Humfrey Wanley: Saxonist and Library-Keeper’, Proceedings of the British Academy, 46 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960), pp. 99–129.
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30 July 2019
Earlier this year, the British Library was delighted to acquire a leaf of an Anglo-Saxon benedictional (a service book used by a bishop). At the time we reported that, despite its fragmentary nature, this manuscript was of great significance for the study of 10th-century English political and religious culture. In particular, we observed that its script pointed to an early date of production, and that it was related textually to other benedictionals from Anglo-Saxon England, most notably the Benedictional of St Æthelwold.
We are pleased to announce that this manuscript (Add MS 89378) is now on display in our Treasures Gallery, in a display case devoted to new acquisitions. This gallery is free to visit and is open seven days a week. The benedictional leaf can be viewed in the same room as other iconic treasures, such as Magna Carta, the Shakespeare First Folio, the Beatles' lyrics, and a letter of the 19th-century computing pioneer, Ada Lovelace.
Given that this display coincides with the Library's major temporary exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, we thought it might be worth making a few remarks on the handwriting of the benedictional leaf. Most unusually, when compared with other surviving Anglo-Saxon benedictionals, it is written in English square minuscule. This script gained currency in 10th-century England during the reigns of King Athelstan (924–939) and his successors. It is characterised by its 'square' letter-forms, as shown, for instance, by the shape of a, c, d, e, g. We reproduce both pages here (the recto, above, is on show in Treasures) to give a flavour of this unusual script.
Our readers may also be interested to know that two leaves of the same benedictional (separated in the 1970s) are now in collections in the USA (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University, Houghton Library, Typ 612; New Haven, CT, Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Takamiya MS 89). In time we hope that they can be digitally re-united, and that researchers will be able to learn more about their production and usage.
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02 July 2019
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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10 May 2019
The exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark, exploring 5,000 years of writing across the globe, is on at the British Library until 27 August. But how many different ways of writing were there?
The manuscripts digitised for The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project were mostly written in medieval Latin, English and French, and in the Roman alphabet; but we have found all kinds of alphabets and sign systems among their leaves, including ciphers, monastic sign language, and many more.
Many Christian scholars in early medieval western Europe might not have been able to read Greek and Hebrew, but they were aware of their importance as the original languages of the Bible. (You can read more about their understanding of Hebrew.) Certain scribes attempted to copy out these alphabets. One such example is found in an 11th-century compilation of scientific works by writers such as Hrabanus Maurus and Isidore of Seville. The scribe copied approximations of the Greek and Hebrew alphabets, with the letter names in Latin, but apparently didn’t understand them, as the two alphabets are mixed up with each other.
A version of the Greek and Hebrew alphabets from Salisbury, 4th quarter of the 11th century: Cotton MS Vitellius A XII, f. 45r
Another, somewhat more accurate, example is found in a collection called Scutum Bede, compiled by Geoffrey of Ufford in the 12th century, and made up of historical and grammatical treatises, including lists of kings, a biblical world history, and a trilingual list of animals, plants and stones. This page gives the Hebrew and Greek alphabets together with their names in Latin.
The Hebrew and Greek alphabets in the Scutum Bede collection of historical and grammatical works, perhaps from Peterborough, c. 1154: Stowe MS 57, f. 3r
Biblical knowledge was not the only source of alternative alphabets. Before Latin literacy was common in England, the runic alphabet was sometimes used for writing inscriptions. The runic letters þ (th) and ƿ (w) were subsequently added to the Roman alphabet, as they were necessary for writing the sounds of English. The 11th-century scientific compilation already mentioned includes three different versions of a runic alphabet, followed by the words ‘pax vobiscum et salus pax’ ('peace and health be with you, peace').
Three runic alphabets, in a manuscript from Salisbury: Cotton MS Vitellius A XII, f. 65r.
Another ancient alphabet is Ogham, used for inscribing stone monuments, usually in Old Irish. The scribe of the Scutum Bede had a go at this: each sign is shown alongside runic letters.
Ogham-style signs and runic letters, perhaps from Peterborough: Stowe MS 57, f. 3v.
Another writing system was specifically designed for the manuscript page. Tironian notes were attributed to Tiro, the slave and personal secretary to Cicero, and were a kind of shorthand for representing different Latin letters and words. Some of these symbols ended up being used in place of common words in Latin: for example, the symbol ‘7’ was adopted in Old English to mean ‘and’. But there were entire lexicons full of Tironian symbols, including these two manuscripts digitised by The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project.
A lexicon of Tironian notes from western France, 10th century: Add MS 21164, f. 3r.
Another lexicon of Tironian notes from central France, 9th century: Add MS 37518, f. 27r
If a scribe had enough knowledge of Tironian notes, they could copy out the entire Psalter in them. This image is from the opening of Psalm 50, ‘Miserere mei Deus’ (‘Have mercy on me, O God’), which, as the rubric in the Roman alphabet explains, was attributed to David after the prophet Nathan confronted him about his adultery with Bathsheba. You can see the manuscript in Writing: Making Your Mark.
A Psalter written in Tironian notes, from north-eastern France, 4th quarter of the 9th century: Add MS 9046, f. 24v.
Finally, there is the list of symbols found in the Cosmographia, an 8th-century work supposedly by Aethicus Ister, which describes a journey around the world. One 12th-century copy of the text ends with an alphabet attributed to Aethicus Ister, but it is not one which is known to have been used. So even an entirely fictional alphabet can be found in a manuscript from medieval England.
The alphabet of Aethicus Ister, with the letter names written out in the Roman alphabet, England, mid-12th century: Cotton MS Appendix LVI, f. 90r.
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12 July 2018
In anticipation of the British Library's major Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, which opens on 19 October, we are delighted to have added the vast majority of our Anglo-Saxon single-sheet charters to our Digitised Manuscripts site. A full list of the 203 charters currently available can be downloaded here; we plan to add the remaining 8 charters in due course.
King Æthelbald of the Mercians and of the South Angli grants ten hides at Ismere by the river Stour and land at Brochyl in Morfe forest, Worcestershire, to Cyneberht, comes, for the construction of a minster, dated 736: Cotton MS Augustus II 3
The British Library holds the world's largest collection of Anglo-Saxon charters. They are issued in the names of kings, bishops and laypeople, and include a considerable number of writs, wills, records of disputes and decrees of synods. The charters supply significant testimony to the evolution of English handwriting (the scripts deployed include uncial, pointed minuscule, square minuscule and English Caroline minuscule). They are composed primarily in Latin but with a considerable number in Old English (or with Old English bounds). Some of the documents are originals or were issued contemporaneously, while others are later copies or are deemed to be forgeries. Collectively, these charters provide us with substantial evidence for early English political, ecclesiastical, administrative and social history.
Archbishop Wulfstan grants a lease, for three lives, of a half hide at Perry Wood in St Martin’s-without-Worcester, to Wulfgifu, with reversion to the church of Worcester, 1003 × 1016: Add Ch 19795
We recently learned the sad news of the death of Peter Sawyer, whose handlist of Anglo-Saxon charters (published in 1968) has proved invaluable to generations of scholars. Many of the charters now available online have also been edited in recent years on behalf of the British Academy/Royal Historical Society Joint Committee on Anglo-Saxon Charters, and we are indebted to scholars such as Susan Kelly, Simon Keynes and the late Nicholas Brooks for their editions and painstaking investigations into these documents.
Record of a dispute between Archbishop Wulfred of Canterbury, King Coenwulf of the Mercians, and Abbess Cwoenthryth, concerning the minsters of Reculver and Minster-in-Thanet, and of the dispute’s settlement by the transfer to Wulfred of a hundred hides at Harrow, Herefrethinglond, Wembley, and Yeading, all in Middlesex, and thirty hides at Combe, Kent, 825: Stowe Ch 15
King Æthelstan of England grants privileges to the bishopric of Crediton in return for 60 pounds of silver, 933: Cotton MS Augustus II 31
King Edgar of England grants 22 hides at Ringwood, Hampshire, to Abingdon Abbey, 961: Cotton MS Augustus II 39
King Edgar of England grants land at Bleadon, Somerset, to the Old Minster, Winchester, 975 (copied in the 15th century): Cotton Ch VIII 18
Bishop Eadnoth of Crediton mortgages a yardland by the river Creedy, Devon, to Beorhtnoth, probably 1018 (copied in the 13th century): Cotton Roll II 11
King Cnut of England grants his crown and the port of Sandwich to Christ Church, Canterbury, 1023 (copied in the 12th century): Stowe Ch 39
Will of Bishop Ælfric of Elmham (d. 1038): Cotton MS Augustus II 85
King Edward the Confessor of England grants seven hides at Millbrook, Hampshire, to Bishop Ælfwine of Winchester, 1045: Cotton Ch VIII 9
Over the coming months, and throughout the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, we will be blogging about some of the Anglo-Saxon charters in the British Library's collections, starting with this charter made 1,025 years ago (Cotton MS Augustus II 38). While charters may not be as beautiful as some of the magnificently illuminated manuscripts from the period, they are every bit as exciting. Many of the charters we have digitised are presumed to be originals: they may have been seen and touched by some of the historical figures mentioned in the text, at crucial moments in history.
King Æthelred of England confirms the privileges of Abingdon Abbey, including the right of free election of a new abbot, 993: Cotton MS Augustus II 38
In this charter, King Æthelred (‘the Unready’) confirmed the rights and property of Abingdon Abbey. The text mentions ‘frequent and numerous difficulties to me [Æthelred] and my nation’ in the past decade. This seems to be a reference to the Scandinavian forces that had begun attacking England again in the 980s, culminating with the disastrous defeat of English forces at the Battle of Maldon. Æthelred therefore repented of his youthful indiscretions and issued a series of ‘penitential’ charters, including this one, to try to protect some of the churches he had neglected and to set his kingdom right.
We know at least some of the people mentioned in this text actually touched this piece of parchment because some of them left marks in the shape of a cross next to their names in the witness list. (Alas, the parchment is damaged next to Æthelred’s name).
In addition to revealing major governmental reshuffles and wars, charters can also reveal more personal details. For instance, one of Æthelred’s ‘youthful indiscretions’ involved kicking his mother out of his court when he was a teenager. In this charter, she appears in the witness list, suggesting that she had become a powerful force in the kingdom and was accepted at court again. She appears in the witness list next to Æthelred’s sons, whom she was helping to bring up. Removing your mother from the palace clearly did not preclude relying on her for childcare.
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27 March 2018
Nobody’s perfect, not even manuscripts. Since parchment is made from animal skins, the pages often have holes of varying sizes. Some of these may have been caused by an insect bite that expanded when the skin was stretched during parchment production. Other holes may have been created during other stages in the parchment-making process itself. Medieval scribes still often used this ‘flawed’ parchment. Sheets of parchment were time-consuming and expensive to produce, so some scribes embraced the flaws they found, with creative results.
Detail of a decorated flaw from the Tollemache Orosius, England (Winchester?), late 9th or early 10th century: Add MS 47967, f. 62v
The creativity of the late 9th- or early 10th-century scribe of the Tollemache Orosius (Add MS 47967) came to the fore whenever they came across a hole in the parchment. In one instance the flaw was turned into a creature, perhaps a badger, a sheep or a mole.
Verses about zodiac signs, where the ‘o’ in ‘capricornus’ is created by a flaw in the parchment, from a calendar, England, 1st half of the 11th century: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 3r
Detail of Aquarius drawn around a hole in parchment, from the other side of the page in the mid-11th century calendar, England (Canterbury?): Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 3v
The 11th-century scribe and artist of the 'Julius Work Calendar' demonstrated not one but two solutions to dealing with a flaw in parchment. On one side of a page, the scribe used a round hole as a substitute for the ‘o’ in capricOrnus. On the other side, the scribe or artist used the same hole to represent the negative space under Aquarius’s arm as he pours a jug of water. Unfortunately, we cannot fully appreciate the artist’s and scribe’s ingenuity today, since this page was warped by the Cotton Fire. This means the proportions of the image and letters have shrunk, and the second ‘c’ in capricornus is barely visible.
Detail of a page from the Echternach Gospels, early 8th century: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, lat 9389, f. 17r
Sometimes, scribes got so caught up in creatively decorating holes they forgot about the text they were supposed to be writing. Jo Story of the University of Leicester has pointed out that the scribe of the Echternach Gospels was so distracted by making the hole in the parchment into a bird that they missed out a whole clause! They had to go back and add it in the margin between the columns.
Not all flaws were decorated although depending on how you hold the page, they can provide sneak peeks of other decoration; detail of a flaw in a 12th-century copy of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Brittaniae: Add MS 15732, f. 26v (photo credit Jessica Pollard)
Not all holes in manuscripts were decorated. Nevertheless, it is tempting to wish that sometimes there were more flaws in the parchment, just to see what kind of creative solutions the scribes would have come up with.
Have a look through the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website and let us know if you have any other favourite examples of scribes or artists who made a virtue out of imperfection.
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06 December 2017
Regular readers of this Blog will know that we are constantly adding more manuscripts to our Digitised Manuscripts site. Many of these medieval books have been digitised as part of a major project sponsored by The Polonsky Foundation, in collaboration with our friends at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Here are three examples of newly-digitised British Library manuscripts containing chronicles and cartularies. All three have a connection to France and/or contain texts written in French.
Chronicle of Saint-Martin-des-Champs
Additional MS 11662 contains an illustrated verse chronicle of the priory of Saint-Martin-des-Champs, produced in Paris between 1072 and 1079, shortly after the events described took place. The priory was founded by King Henry I in the mid-11th century, on or near the site of a Merovingian church just outside Paris, dedicated to St Martin, the Roman soldier who gave his cloak to a poor beggar.
Narrative illustrations in chronicles are rare in the Romanesque period, and these are unique early examples of the scenes represented. The text includes a copy of the foundation charter by Henry I, dated 1059–1060, and Philip I's confirmation of the donation of Janville and Neuvy-en-Beauce to Saint-Martin-des-Champs (1065). A page is missing after f. 4, but a complete copy of the text with its illuminations was made in Paris c. 1245 (now BnF, nouv. acq. lat. 1359).
Henry I of France on his throne, pointing to a drawing of the church of Saint-Martin-des-Champs, in the Chronicle of Saint-Martin-des-Champs. At the bottom of the page, he presents the foundation charter to the canons of the priory; on the charter is written 'Libertas aecclesia Sancti Martini': Add MS 11662, f. 4r.
Philip I of France on his throne, surrounded by his court, giving the charter to the canons. Members of the court are named and the churches of Saint-Martin-des-Champs and Saint-Samson of Orléans are illustrated to his left: Add MS 11662, f. 5v
The chronicle is followed by a modern transcription of the text with one of the images (f. 13r) and an index added by an earlier owner. Baron de Joursanvault (1748–1792), whose arms are found on f. 10r.
An 18th-century transcription of the chronicle: Add MS 11662, f. 13r
The next two manuscripts are associated with St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury, founded by Archbishop Augustine (r. 597–604) in the early 7th century. The church, originally known as SS Peter and Paul, was re-founded by King Æthelberht (r. 860–866) to house ‘the bodies of Augustine himself and all the bishops of Canterbury and the kings of Kent’ (Bede, Historia Anglorum, I.33). In the 11th century, the possessions of the convent of Minster-in-Thanet, founded by St Mildreth in the 690s, were acquired by the abbey along with her relics, allegedly donated by King Cnut (r. 1016–1035).
Lives of the Canterbury saints
The opening page with a charter granting privileges to St Augustine’s Abbey. The name of its former owner, Sir Robert Cotton’s, is inscribed at the bottom: Cotton MS Vespasian B XX, f. 2r
Much of this volume, copied in the 12th century, consists of hagiographical works by Goscelin, a monk of the abbey of Saint-Bertin in Saint-Omer, northern France, who came to England in the 11th century and who visited many monasteries, collecting material on English saints. The manuscript contains Goscelin's writings on the miracles and translation of St Augustine, as well as a Life of St Mildreth and other texts relating to the early archbishops of Canterbury. On f. 25r, an otherwise blank page, are notes in very faint pencil, written in Old French, probably dating to the 14th century.
Display initial at the beginning of Goscelin, Historia minor de adventu sancti Augustini: Cotton MS Vespasian B XX, f. 5v
Monastic institutions in the Middle Ages often manufactured documents granting themselves land and privileges. A series of spurious charters and papal privileges follows Goscelin's works in this collection, including a charter of King Edward the Confessor written in a 15th-century hand (ff. 276r–v) and two charters of King Æthelberht I of Kent in Anglo-Caroline script (ff. 277r–279r).
A full-page historiated initial 'I' depicting King Æthelberht I of Kent, holding a scroll in his right hand and a document in his left: Cotton MS Vespasian B XX, f. 277r
A cartulary of St Augustine’s, Canterbury
A fragmentary 12th-century cartulary owned by St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury, is the first item in this composite manuscript, comprising five booklets bound together in the early modern period (Harley MS 337). The Canterbury cartulary contains various papal and imperial privileges, including the confirmation of a privilege granted by Pope Innocent III and correspondence between Calixtus II (r. 1119–1124) and Henry V (r. 1111–1125), the Holy Roman Emperor, relating to the investiture controversy.
A decorated initial at the beginning of the cartulary: Harley MS 337, f. 1r
Also bound with these earlier works is ‘the Harleian Roll’, so-named because it contains a series of shields, painted around 1314, decorating a work in Anglo-Norman French by William of Waddington, the Manuel de Pechiez. A total of 126 armorial shields in colours are found in the upper margins and the outlines of unfinished shields are sketched in brown ink on the remaining pages.
A fragment from the Manuel des Pechiez, with armorial shields including that of Sir Giles of Argentein, killed at Bannockburn in 1314: Harley MS 337, f. 15v
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20 September 2017
There was once a scribe named Walter, a canon and deacon who lived at Cirencester Abbey in the latter part of the 12th century. And that is practically all we know of him. With little biographical information, is it possible to make personalities of the past feel closer? Studying Walter’s handwriting can actually take us a little bit further. He is known to us from his meticulous scribal work and the marginal notes that he made in surviving manuscripts.
Walter’s hand appears throughout an exceptionally early copy of the letters of Thomas Becket (Cotton MS Claudius B II), dating to the 1180s, both in the main text and in the margins. (We have recently digitised this manuscript as part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project, and it can be viewed in full on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.) Walter’s notes compare the manuscript’s text to that of another rescension, which he calls his exemplar or the alius liber, the ‘other book’. His heightened editorial interest in this text suggests he was keenly aware of the political importance of Becket’s letters, assembled only a few years earlier by Alan of Tewkesbury, and which laid out the murdered archbishop’s dispute with King Henry II (1154–1189). According to Michael Gullick, Walter probably worked on the manuscript over several years, in a self-directed campaign (‘A twelfth-century manuscript of the letters of Thomas Becket’, in English Manuscript Studies 1100–1700, 2 (1990), pp. 1-31).
Margaret or Matilda? Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 49r
Walter's notes highlight disparities between the two books. For instance, on one page a Latin note appears in the margin beside a rubric stating that the following letter is from ‘Thomas the Archbishop of Canterbury to Margaret Queen of the Sicilians’. It tells us that in his other book, in alio libro, the text names her as Matilda, Matildi. As a Queen of Sicily named Margaret actually lived between 1135 and 1183, we can conclude that, in this instance, the version we are looking at here is more accurate than the ‘other book’. Walter placed a line and a dot above the ‘in’ of his note (which is abbreviated). The same symbol appears above the word ‘Margerete’ in the rubric, to help match them up.
A decorative ‘S’: Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 233v
The notes are not mere musings. This is demonstrated both by their meticulously composed content and their decorative treatment. For example, now and again Walter added a coloured initial to the manuscript. Again, we can tell what part of the text this note relates to from matching symbols in the margin and in the text proper (look to the left of the green ‘T’). In some cases, Walter even arranged his notes in an elaborate shape.
Diamonds are forever: Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 80r
For instance, this diamond with stepped sides and ornate finials shows particular commitment to the decorative cause. But there is one delightful glimpse in this manuscript of fallibility. Finding a mistake can sometimes feel like meeting the person behind the script for the first time. So let’s ‘find’ Walter.
Mistakes may be rare, but they can allow us to glimpse the personality behind the pen: Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 177r
In column two of one page about half-way through the book, Walter carefully outlined and ruled a triangle, filling it with neat lines of script. When proof-reading the text, however, he must have kicked himself. Drawing a line from the top of the triangle to the space beneath the first column, he directed the reader to a confession in chastened cursive script: ‘I should have written this note here.’
Cotton MS Claudius B II est une compilation des lettres de Thomas Becket. Cet article présente des notes marginale de Walter de l’abbaye de Cirencestre et l'erreur qui l’a poussé à ajouter, ‘Je devais écrire cette note ici’.
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