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41 posts categorized "Polonsky"

21 December 2019

Two Peters of Notre-Dame

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It has been eight months since tragedy struck Notre-Dame, the iconic cathedral of Paris, when fire broke out on its roof on 15 April 2019. The cornerstone of Notre-Dame was laid in 1163 (though construction on the site may have begun as early as 1160) and it was fully completed around 1250. But the presence of a religious community headed by the Bishop of Paris on the Île de la Cité – the island in the Seine at the heart of Paris – was already long-established. There had been a church or a cathedral there since possibly as early as the 4th century.

Moreover, at the time of the building of the new Gothic cathedral, the cathedral school of Notre-Dame enjoyed a far-reaching reputation, largely due to outstanding scholars such as Peter Lombard (d. 1160) and Peter Cantor (d. 1197). This resulted in close connections between the influential intellectual sphere of Paris and the English ecclesiastical and scholastic elite. Some of these connections are evident in surviving manuscripts that have been digitised as part of the Polonsky Foundation England and France 700-1200 project

Large decorated initial C on a blue, square background, within which are two male human figures. The man on the left is seated, bearded and holding a scroll, and the other person is standing to his left and facing him.
Initial 'C(um omnes)', with a seated figure possibly representing Peter Lombard teaching a student, introducing the prologue to his Gloss on the Psalms: South-eastern England (Canterbury?), 3rd quarter of the 12th century, Add MS 54229, f. 3r

12th-century Paris was celebrated throughout Europe as the leading place for the study of theology and the liberal arts. One of the personalities that inspired this acclaim was the theologian Peter Lombard (d. 1160) . It was also largely due to him that the cathedral school of Notre-Dame became one of the main schools of the emerging University of Paris.

Originally from Lombardy in north-western Italy, Peter initially lacked any influential French contacts or relations. But by 1145 he had made such a name for himself as a teacher of theology that he was invited to be the magister (‘master’ or ‘teacher’) of the cathedral school of Notre-Dame, and was appointed as Bishop of Paris shortly before his death.

A page of text in two columns, with text in red ink in both the outer and inner margins.
Peter Lombard’s commentary for Psalm 97 (98) beginning with a large blue initial 'C(antate Domino)', while the text of the Psalm itself is written in the margin in red: England, second half of the 12th century, BnF, Latin 17271, f. 189r

Peter’s most influential work, the Four Books of Sentences, became the standard theology textbook for much of the Middle Ages, but his commentaries on the Psalms were also exceptionally widely circulated. The speed with which his works were disseminated is illustrated by the two copies of his commentary on the Psalms digitised by the Polonsky England and France project (Add MS 54229 and BnF, Latin 17271) which were made in England, possibly during Peter’s own lifetime or shortly after his death. You can read more about the innovations in page layout that Peter Lombard’s commentary inspired in this article about the tradition of Glossed Psalters.

A page of text in two columns, beginning with a large, red, decorated initial.
Decorated initial 'V(erbum)' beginning the Verbum abbreviatum of Peter Cantor: Byland Abbey in North Yorkshire, 1st quarter of the 13th century, Add MS 35180, f. 3r

During the first phase of the building of the new Notre-Dame cathedral, another exceedingly influential theologian called Peter became closely associated with the cathedral chapter. It is unclear when he arrived in Paris to teach, but around 1183 he had become the Cantor of Notre-Dame, and is therefore known as Peter Cantor, or Peter the Chanter (d. 1197). The position of Cantor was the second highest in rank of the members of the cathedral chapter. The Cantor’s work involved managing the activities of the choir: for example, supervising liturgical services and teaching the choristers. However, based on documentary evidence of his activities, it seems that Peter mainly focused on teaching theology and engaging in church government.

In the 1190s Peter assembled his teachings on practical morality developed during his long career as a theology lecturer into the work Verbum abbreviatum (roughly ‘Abridged sayings’). This text quickly became popular throughout Europe and almost 100 copies are known to have been in circulation during the medieval period.

Detail of a page of text in two columns, focusing on the explicit (that is, ending statement) written in red in the right-hand column.
The explicit of the Verbum abbreviatum written in red; southwestern England (Tewkesbury?), 4th quarter of the 12th century-1st quarter of the 13th century, Cotton MS Claudius E I, f. 173v

Two manuscripts containing the Verbum abbreviatum (Add MS 35180 and Cotton MS Claudius E I) were copied in England and are especially early examples of the text. Indeed, the oldest of the two (Cotton MS Claudius E I) might have been copied as early as the year of Peter Cantor’s death. This early date is suggested by the ending statement, or explicit, of the text:

‘[Here] ends the Verbum abbreviatum of Master Peter, the foremost Chanter of Paris, afterwards a novice of Longpont, in which place he died [as a] novice.’ 

(Explicit verbum abbreviatum magistri Petri primus cantoris Parisiensis, postea novicii Longipontis, in quo novicius defunctus est.)

This refers to the fact that Peter Cantor was elected dean of the cathedral chapter of Reims in 1196, but on his way there he stopped at the Cistercian abbey of Longpont.  While there he became ill and died in January 1197. The precise details are unclear, but this explicit seems to suggest that shortly before his death he joined the Cistercian community at Longpont but died before he could take his vows.

Perhaps this news had been recently received by the scribe of the manuscript. In any case, it shows that details about the author, as well as copies of his texts, could spread quickly across the Channel to England.

          Emilia Henderson
          @minuscule_eth

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04 December 2019

Medieval bookbindings: from precious gems to sealskin

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This blog tends to focus on the inside of the Library’s collection items, on their varied texts and remarkable illustrations. But the physical outside of a manuscript can be just as intriguing.

Most medieval and early modern manuscripts no longer have their original bindings. The earlier the manuscript, the rarer it is that the binding survives. The binding is a book’s first defence against wear and tear, dirt and water damage. Even if it is kept clean and safe, the frequent opening of a book puts pressure on, and eventually wears out, the binding supports. Additionally, many manuscripts have been rebound in modern times by their later owners, who often wanted their entire collection to have the same bindings. As a result, original or near-contemporary medieval bindings that still survive are rare.

The type of high status binding that would have been the very rarest at the time of production sometimes survives from the early medieval period. These deluxe bindings are known as treasure bindings, because of their lavish and high-quality materials and craftsmanship. Excitingly, several early medieval treasure bindings are among the manuscripts digitised as part of the Polonsky Project. Read all about their decorations of carved ivory, precious metals and gems, in the article about medieval bindings on the Polonsky Project website.

Lower board of a binding made of dark brown wood and with clearly visible cord of lacing in a zig-zag pattern along the right-hand edge.
Lower cover with exposed wooden board: binding of Add MS 37518, 1st quarter of the 9th century.

However, the humbler medieval bindings that still survive can be just as exciting. For example, we have an early binding of a copy from the early 9th century of the so-called Commentarii notarum tironianarum (read more about this manusctipt in a previous blogpost on antique shorthand in Carolingian books). It might not be the original binding, but it was probably made no more than two centuries after the manuscript that it protects.

Spine of a book seen straight-on, with visible endband at the top and three lines of sewing supports, evenly spaced and horizontal across the spine, connecting the gatherings of the text block to the boards also visible.
Exposed spine showing the sewing supports: binding of Add MS 37518, 1st quarter of the 9th century.

The date can be determined because the process of attaching the boards is typical of the Carolingian method, which was popular during the 8th to 12th centuries. For this manuscript, the method of board attachment is visible because the whitish leather that once covered both wooden boards and the spine is partially lost. The exposed lower board and spine makes it easy to study the pattern of the lacing (the cords that are threaded through the inner edges of the wooden boards) and the sewing supports (the way that those cords were attached to the gatherings of parchment that make up the text block). As a result, it provides a good opportunity for studying the otherwise covered parts of an early binding.

Egerton_ms_2951!1_fblefr
Upper part of the former cover for Egerton MS 2951, 4th quarter of the 12th century; now kept separately as Egerton MS 2951/1, 2nd half of the 14th century.

 

Inner cover of parchment binding made from a manuscript leaf, light beige in colour, with the text running perpendicular to the binding, and the now detached leather lacing strips visible in the inner edge and sticking up slightly from the surface of the parchment.
Inside of the lower part of the former cover for Egerton MS 2951, 4th quarter of the 12th century; now kept separately as Egerton MS 2951/1, 2nd half of the 14th century.

Another relatively common – and relatively low-cost – medieval way to cover manuscripts was to reuse leaves from another manuscript no longer considered useful. This is the kind of binding that was used to cover the collection of poems written in late 12th century, now Egerton MS 2951. At some point after the mid-14th century, the collection was given a ‘limp’ parchment binding made from a bifolium of a manuscript of the Gospel of St John written during the latter half of the 14th century. The binding is now removed and kept separately, but the old strips of alum-tawed leather that were used for the lacing are still visible on the insides of the covers.

Upper cover of a binding in dark brown leather with a patch of darker brown fur still visible in the upper third, and with three small metal bosses in the two upper and the lower right corner.
Upper cover with metal bosses: binding for Add MS 63077, 2nd half of the 12th century.

 

Lower cover of binding in dark brown leather with some patches of darker fur visible at the top and in the middle of the bottom half, with two metal bosses in the upper and lower right corners, as well as a copper roundel inscribed with the title of the text in the middle.
Lower cover with metal bosses and a copper roundel inscribed ‘GENESIS GLO[SATUS]’: binding for Add MS 63077, 2nd half of the 12th century. 

Sometimes surviving medieval bindings were made with more unusual materials. For instance, the binding of a 12th-century glossed book of Genesis (Add MS 63077), which is later than the manuscript it protects.  The metal furnishings – the metal bosses still surviving on both covers, and the inscribed copper so-called ‘title window’ of the lower cover – are characteristic of Gothic bindings. Fixtures like these started becoming common by the early 14th century. What is uncommon about this Gothic binding, however, is that the still furry leather used to cover it might be made from sealskin!

Next time you check out a digitised manuscript, don’t forget to scroll to the images of the binding – it might be a rare medieval one.  

Emilia Henderson

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Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

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More information about medieval bookbinding:

‘Medieval Manuscripts: Bookbinding terms, materials, methods, and models’, Special Collections Conservation Unit of the Preservation Department of Yale University Library (2013), see Traveling Scriptorium blog by the Yale University Library: <https://travelingscriptorium.library.yale.edu/2013/07/17/bookbinding-terms-materials-methods-and-models/>

‘Bookbinding – Parts’, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nOBTrua1eH0, (2016), by Prof. Ana B. Sánchez-Prieto, part of the course ‘Deciphering Secrets: The Illuminated Manuscripts of Medieval Europe’, by the universities of Colorado (USA) and Complutense of Madrid (Spain), see platform on www.coursera.org

 

23 November 2019

Happy anniversary to the Polonsky Project

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Today is the one-year anniversary of the launch of our collaborative interpretative and digitisation project with the Bibliothèque nationale de France, The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200.  A year ago we met in Paris as part of a three-day international conference to celebrate two new bilingual websites that provide unprecedented access to some of the riches of our two national collections.  Thanks to generous funding from The Polonsky Foundation, each Library digitised 400 manuscripts made in either England or France before the year 1200.  You can view all 800 of them on a website hosted by the BnF, and if you wish, select two or more to examine side by side (view the digitised manuscripts on the BnF website).  

An image from a medieval manuscript, which depicts a robed man sitting at a desk, writing with a quill pen and a knife
A portrait of St Dunstan: Canterbury, 4th quarter of the 12th century, Royal MS 10 A XIII/1, f. 2v

A second website, also fully bilingual, is hosted by the British Library (view the BL's interpretative website).  Here you can read 30 articles on various topics, such as English manuscript illumination, French manuscript illuminationmedicine, or history. Or, watch videos of Professor Nick Vincent discussing law-making in early medieval England or Professor Julia Crick discussing manuscript production after the Norman Conquest. We also commissioned two animated films based on the story of the crane and the story of the whale from a medieval bestiary manuscript.  Some of the most popular films have been those on how to make a manuscript, commissioned from artist and calligrapher Patricia Lovett, with viewers spending an average of nearly 10 minutes on this topic. There’s also a film produced by the BnF, which explains the background to the project.

Taken together, over half a million individual pages have been viewed by people all over the world.  Early English manuscripts have been particularly popular.  We know that you are loyal viewers, too, with over 30% returning for another visit to the interpretative website, and with many of you reporting how you are using the resources in your teaching, or for your own research. We love to hear how you’ve been using the website and which features you’ve particularly enjoyed, so please let us know in the comments field below.  

We’ve received some great press coverage, including this BBC History podcast on the wonders of the Middle Ages, and a review in Hyperallergic. We have also been featured in La Revue Française de généalogie (April 2019), Les Veillées des Chaumières (May 2019), and Femme Actuelle Jeux (May 2019).

A detail from a medieval Bible manuscript, with an image of Christ and the Virgin Mary inside a decorated letter O
Christ in dialogue with the Virgin Mary, from the Chartres Bible: Chartres, 1146-1155, BnF Latin 116, f. 12r

The first printing of our project book by curators Kathleen Doyle and Charlotte Denoël, Medieval Illumination: Manuscript Art in England and France 700-1200, has sold out, and has just been reprinted.  It is also available as Enluminures médiévales: Chefs-d’oeuvre de la Bibliothèque nationale de France et de la British Library, 700-1200.  Charlotte Denoël and Francesco Siri are currently editing the Paris conference proceedings, and Charlotte Denoël has recently published an article 'Le programme Polonsky France-Angleterre, 700-1200: manuscrits médiévaux de la Bibliothèque nationale de France et de la British Library: bilan et perspectives', in Bulletin du Bibliophile, 1 (2019), 3-10. 

Cette collaboration entre la BnF et la British Library a permis d’importantes avancées technologiques: désormais, la BnF est en mesure de proposer dans Gallica marque blanche, l’infrastructure numérique utilisée pour le site web du projet, ainsi que pour les nombreux autres sites créés par la BnF pour ses partenaires souhaitant disposer d’une bibliothèque numérique sur le modèle de Gallica, de nouvelles fonctionnalités, comme le visualiseur IIIF et le multilinguisme.

Nous espérons à présent que de nouvelles collaborations et les retours des utilisateurs sur les deux sites permettront d’actualiser et d’enrichir le corpus initial du projet. 

Thanks to all of you who have enjoyed and helped publicise the websites, and happy anniversary!


Kathleen Doyle and Charlotte Denoël
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14 November 2019

Classics lost and found

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Works written by ancient Greek and Roman authors have made a major impact on the world’s culture and society. They profoundly shaped medieval thought, as you can discover in Cillian O’Hogan’s article The Classical Past on the Polonsky England and France 700-1200 project website. Compared to their afterlife and significance, however, the number of classical writings that have actually survived is surprisingly low. Why were some works lost while others survived, and where can you find them?

A decorated initial in a medieval manuscript, featuring a bird-human hybrid creature.
Beginning of the book on the nature of the birds from Pliny’s Natural History: England, 2nd half of 12th century, Arundel MS 98, f. 85v

A large number of classical texts do not survive at all. For example, we have only about a third of the works of Aristotle. His famous treatise on laughter and comedy – desperately sought in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose – has not come down to us. Some highly acclaimed pieces of ancient Greek lyrical poetry, such as Sappho’s poems, have also disappeared.

Many ancient plays, both in Greek and Latin, are only known by name. Various works of epic poetry, such as Cicero’s famous poem on his own historical significance, humbly titled On my own consulship, do not survive. Nor is there any trace of a substantial proportion of scientific and historical writings by ancient Greek and Roman authors. Sometimes we have hints of works only, such as this parchment book tag which used to serve as a 'title page' to a scroll containing Sophron’s Comedies on Women from the 5th century BC, now lost.

A piece of ancient papyrus bearing Greek writing
A book tag (syllibos) with the title of a lost papyrus scroll said to have contained Sophron’s Comedies on Women: Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, 1-2nd century, Papyrus 801

Traditionally, barbarian invasions and Christian monks have been blamed for intentionally destroying works of the classical past. The image of burning books and libraries is often evoked in scholarship, fiction and films alike. While this may have occasionally occurred, the biggest deciding factor for the survival or disappearance of classical texts is actually likely to be their use in medieval school education.

The reason for this is that works that made it onto school curricula tended to be copied more, so medieval scribes preserved them in large numbers. Texts that proved to be too difficult or unsuitable for use in schools were more prone to being lost. For example, of the 142 books of Livy’s exceptionally long work, The History of Rome from its Foundation, from the 1st century BC, only 35 books have survived intact, with the rest preserved only in extracts abridged for school use.

An ancient wooden tablet bearing a Greek inscription
An example of a classical text surviving through use in school - eight lines from Homer’s Iliad written on a wooden tablet by a teacher: Egypt, 3rd century, Add MS 33293

School curricula also explain why ancient grammatical literature was transmitted in surprising quantities across medieval Europe and the Mediterranean, including educational material for the study not only of Latin but also of ancient Greek. Popular texts, such as Priscian’s 5th-century Institutes of Latin Grammar, survive in large numbers, sometimes annotated with glosses or notes added in classrooms, as in this example from 11th-century France.

A medieval manuscript page containing lots of glosses and beginning with a decorated initial C.
A heavily annotated title page from an copy of a grammatical textbook by Priscian, which was widely used in medieval schools: France, 11th century, Harley MS 2763, f. 1r

Although schools filtered the classical tradition rather heavily, omitting a number of texts that we would now be eager to read, the ancient schoolmasters had a surprisingly broad literary grasp. We have works on ancient mythology such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and encyclopaedic works such as Pliny’s Natural History. The works of Homer in the Eastern Mediterranean and Virgil, Cicero, Horace and Ovid in the West all survived thanks to their inclusion in late antique and medieval secondary education.

This key role of schools in the transmission of the classical past sheds a special light on other surviving texts, too. Ancient Roman plays, for example, have come down to us not as scripts for theatrical performances but rather as school manuals. They were used to teach students how to find the right words, tone and style to use in various situations, from speeches at courts to creative writing, as in this copy of the plays by the 2nd-century BC playwright, Terence.

A medieval manuscript page
An annotated school copy of comedies by Terence: Germany, 11th century, Harley MS 2750,  f. 65r

But besides medieval manuscripts, there is another source which reveals additional clues about classical texts: the papyri preserved in the sand of Egypt. The large number of papyrus fragments excavated at various sites in Egypt have already filled many of the gaps in our knowledge of the Classics. They have supplied us with lost works by Aristotle (The Constitution of Athens), almost complete comedies (such as The Hated Man by the 4th-century BC Menander), and unique fragments from Sappho, alongside remarkable survivals of ancient science. Many of these amazing finds are in the British Library’s collections and are presented in articles on our Greek Manuscripts website.

A damaged fragment of ancient papyrus with Greek writing on.
Papyrus fragment showing the last lines and close (colophon) of Menander’s comedy, The Hated Man: Egypt, Oxyrhynchus, 4th century, Papyrus 3077

Here, you will find more on the Aristotle papyrus, a remarkable medical fragment and some carbonised scrolls from the destroyed city of Herculaneum.

Whether preserved in medieval libraries or in archaeological sites, the works of the classical past continue to inspire us. As work on the British Library’s collection of ancient texts continues worldwide, we hope that there are many more discoveries to come.

Peter Toth

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03 October 2019

Off to a good start: exploring decorated initials

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Decorated initials are one of the most distinctive features of medieval manuscript illumination. Enlarging the letters at the beginning of texts was a practical way to help readers find their place in a manuscript. But it also provided an opportunity for scribes and artists to beautify the page and explore the relationship between text and image. In this blogpost we’re pondering the development and meaning of decorated initials in some of the manuscripts digitised as part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project.

Page from a medieval manuscript showing a the opening of a text with a decorated initial
The opening to Bede, Ecclesiastical History, 9th century, England, the Midlands: Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 5v

In the 7-9th centuries, initial letters in English manuscripts were decorated like prestige metalwork. This letter ‘b’ from the opening of a 9th-century manuscript of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History looks similar to the silver disc brooches that were popular among elites of the period.

An Anglo-Saxon silver disc brooch, decorated with animal and foliage motifs and a cross design
Disc brooch from the Pentney Hoard, Norfolk, early 9th century: British Museum 1980,1008.3

They share the same round shape, with an outer border divided into panels of decoration, and a central field divided into a cross-shape. Within this rigid geometry, animal and plant forms twist and intertwine, set against a dark background. Using the forms of metalwork connects the decorated letters to a visual language of prestige usually associated with kings and queens. It signifies that the words are precious and powerful.

In the case of the Tiberius Bede, the design also echoes some of the ideas that are expressed in the text. The Ecclesiastical History begins, ‘Britain, an island of the ocean, which once was called Albion, lies to the north-west, being opposite Germany, France and Spain, which form the greater part of Europe.' In the context of this geographic description, the circular bowl of the letter ‘b’ looks similar to a medieval map, divided into the four cardinal points.

A page from a medieval manuscript with a large letter Q formed from interlace animals and plants
The opening to Psalm 51, the Bosworth Psalter, Southern England (Canterbury?), 3rd quarter of the 10th century: Add MS 37517, f. 33r

In the 10th century, decorated initials moved away from the appearance of metalwork. In manuscripts such as the Bosworth Psalter, the tangled animals and vegetation took over. Whereas in the earlier image the plants and animals were confined to fixed panels within the body of the letter, here they are the letter. The letter ‘Q’ is entirely made up of looping strands that sprout indiscriminately into bunches of leaves and beast heads, which spew out more foliage from their gaping mouths. The endless twisting, transforming and re-generating of forms makes the letter seem alive. This might suggest the life-giving properties of the Psalms, which were central to medieval worship, or it might comment more broadly on the organic qualities of writing in which letters create language and generate ideas.

Page from a medieval manuscript showing a large letter D containing a picture of a man beheading another man with a sword
Psalm 101, the Eadui Psalter, Canterbury, c. 1012-23: Arundel MS 155, f. 93r

Historiated initials are letters that contain a picture inside. They first appeared in English manuscripts of the 8th century and became an important feature of illuminated manuscripts throughout the Middle Ages. Here in the Eadui Psalter, the initial ‘D’ contains an image of the young David defeating the giant Goliath, aided by God who is represented by a hand reaching down from the sky in blessing. The image encourages the reader to connect the opening words of the Psalm, ‘Hear, O Lord, my prayer: and let my cry come to thee’, to the account of David and Goliath’s combat in 1 Samuel 17, and to consider the ways in which the texts of the Bible interrelate.

In historiated initials, the letter becomes a frame through which readers can glimpse an insight into the text. But the shape of the letter might also add to the effect of the image. Here the upper bowl of the ‘D’ appears to trace the arc of David’s sword swing, vividly creating a sense of the force that David brings smashing down on Goliath’s neck.

It's clear that decorated initials were much more than decorative page markers. If you’re curious to learn more, check out our article on English manuscript illumination on The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project website.

 

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02 September 2019

King Arthur: fable, fact and fiction

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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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20 August 2019

A medieval guide to predicting your future

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How can you predict the future, interpret your dreams, and protect yourself against harm? Some of the manuscripts digitised for The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project have the answer. Many medieval manuscripts include charms, which seek to influence events through the use of words and ritual actions, and prognostics, which predict what will happen. These were usually created and written down by people who knew the church liturgy well and had a deep understanding of the changes of the Moon and the seasons. You can read more about medieval knowledge of such natural phenomena in our article about medieval science.

Page from a medieval manuscript listing months followed by numbers
'On the bad days and which months they are from', Winchester, 3rd quarter of the 11th century: Cotton MS Vitellius E XVIII, f. 9r

Some particularly intriguing Old English charms and prognostics appear in the opening leaves of an 11th-century Psalter (Cotton MS Vitellius E XVIII). These include a list of ‘bad days’ in every month on which nothing you begin will be ended, which are calculated by counting how many days it has been since the last New Moon (the night on which the Moon is on the opposite side of Earth from the Sun, making it invisible).

So in case you have any important projects coming up, the text reveals that in August these are the 8th and 13th nights of the Moon (counting the night of the New Moon as the first), in September they are the 5th and the 9th nights of the Moon, in October they are the 5th and the 15th nights, November the 7th and 9th nights, and in December the 3rd and 13th nights. So for the UK in 2019, these translate into the following calendar dates: 8th and 13th of August, 3rd and 7th of September, 2nd and 7th October, 3rd, 5th and 28th of November, and 8th December. Best not to start your projects on these days!

(You can calculate the unlucky dates for any place and year using an online Moon phases calendar).

A page from a medieval manuscript containing a charm
'On theft', from Ælfwine’s Prayerbook, Winchester, third decade of the 11th century: Cotton MS Titus D XXVI, f. 79v

If one of your treasured belongs has gone astray, you might find this Latin charm from a collection of liturgical, scientific and prognostic texts useful (Cotton MS Titus D XXVI). The charm claims to reveal the identity of a thief: 'If you have lost something, write these letters on a blank sheet and place it under your head in the night when you sleep, and you will see him who has taken it from you'. Then it provides a group of letters and symbols for you to copy out.

But if you dream about something else, the prognostic on f. 9r-v might help. A dream which takes place on the 1st night of the New Moon pertains to joy, a dream on the 11th night will be without danger, and whatever you dream about on the 7th night will happen after a long time.

Prognostics could also foretell the course of a person’s life. A text on ff. 7v-8r claims to tell a person’s future based on how many days after the New Moon they were born. For example, we learn that whoever is born on the 21st night of the New Moon will be an ingenious robber, someone born on the 10th will travel around many places, but someone born on the 2nd will merely be 'mediocris' (average)!

A page from a medieval manuscript containing a charm
'Names to protect against a king or emperor', perhaps written in Bréziers, Southern France, 12th century: Egerton MS 821, f. 59v

Another manuscript in the collection is wholly composed of prognostics and charms (Egerton MS 821). One of these is a list of names that you should think through in your mind when in the presence of a king or emperor to work against his power: ‘in axbidino . henonia . adonay, sabaot iactriel. sa. adonai. eloym. hagai’.

If you wish to foretell the outcome of a fight, f. 40r instructs you to count the letters in the combatants' names, add five to whichever is the longer, and deduct ten. If the resulting numbers are equal, the one with the longer name will win; but if they are unequal, the one with the longer name will be beaten. It’s oddly reminiscent of the games that many of us used to play as children: by counting the number of letters in someone’s name, or by drawing a spiral and counting the number of lines in it, you can find out what your future is. Perhaps those fortune-telling games have been circulating for much longer than we think!

Kate Thomas

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18 August 2019

What is a bestiary?

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As the Getty's wonderful Book of Beasts exhibition draws to close, it's an apt moment to reflect on the medieval manuscripts we know as 'bestiaries'. Elizabeth Morrison, one of the curators of Book of Beasts, has described the bestiary as 'one of the most appealing types of illuminated manuscripts, due to the liveliness and vibrancy of its imagery ... All of us can find something to relate to in the bestiary and its animals' ('Beastly tales from the medieval bestiary').

Lions resuscitating their cubs
The lion bringing its cubs to life (Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 6r)

Function and origins

We might regard bestiaries as a kind of medieval encyclopedia relating to natural history, with one notable distinction: each creature was described in terms of its place within the Christian worldview, rather than as a purely scientific phenomenon. The animals were interpreted as evidence of God’s divine plan for the world. This is particularly true of the first animal typically described in the bestiary, namely the lion. One famous bestiary story is that of the birth of lions. Lion cubs were said to be born dead, until on the third day their father breathed upon them, bringing them to life, a reflection of the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ. 

A page from a bestiary, illustrating a lion
The opening page of a medieval bestiary (Add MS 11283, f. 1r)

The origins of the bestiary can be traced to the Physiologus, a Greek text devoted to natural history from late Antiquity. Around the 11th century, material was added from Isidore of Seville's Etymologies, a popular early medieval encyclopedia. Bestiaries themselves became popular in England from the 12th century onwards, but they did not all contain the same descriptions or illustrations, leading to them being divided into different families by modern scholars. As Elizabeth Morrison has pointed out, 'the bestiary was not a single text, but a series of changeable texts that could be reconfigured in numerous ways. The number of animals could vary quite significantly, as well as their order.'

MedievalBestiary4-cats-mice-f36v
Cats and mice in a bestiary (Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 36v)

Real and imagined

Bestiaries offer an enticing insight into the medieval mind. Some of the creatures they describe would have been very familiar to their original audience, such as cats, donkeys and owls. Others were more exotic, such as crocodiles and elephants, and this is often a source of amusement for modern readers; normally, the artists were relying upon the text and their own imaginations when depicting such beasts, rather than working from first-hand experience.

An elephant from a bestiary
Men mounted on an elephant (Harley MS 3244, f. 39r)

Likewise, bestiaries contain accounts of animals that we would now identify as mythical, such as phoenixes and unicorns. These fantastic beasts inhabited a special place in the medieval imagination, and beyond. You may recognise the illustration of the phoenix, below, from an English bestiary, as one of the stars of the British Library exhibition Harry Potter: A History of Magic.

A phoenix rising from the flames
A phoenix in a medieval bestiary (Harley MS 4751, f. 45r)

Bestiary folklore

Bestiaries abound with tales of fantastic and fabulous proportions. The story of the whale is a case in point. In bestiary tradition, the whale was so large that it could rest on the surface of the water until greenery grew on its back. Passing sailors, mistaking the animal for an island, would set camp on its back and unsuspectingly light a fire. The whale would then dive back into the ocean, dragging its victims with it.

Whale2
Sailors making camp on the back of a whale (Harley MS 4751, f. 69r)

We have reproduced the tale of the whale in this animation, created as part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700–1200. You could say, we 'had a whale of a time'.

Surviving manuscripts

Illuminated Latin bestiaries survive in significant numbers. The Getty's exhibition catalogue lists a total of 62 examples, now dispersed across collections in the United Kingdom, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Russia and the USA. No fewer than 8 are held at the British Library (and we loaned 6 manuscripts in total to Book of Beasts).

Illustration of a dragon
A dragon from an English bestiary (Harley MS 3244, f. 59r)

Here is a list of the illuminated Latin bestiaries in the British Library's collections:

Add MS 11283: England, 4th quarter of the 12th century

Cotton MS Vitellius D I: England, 2nd half of the 13th century

Harley MS 3244: England, after 1236

Harley MS 4751: England, early 13th century

Royal MS 12 C XIX: England, early 13th century

Royal MS 12 F XIII: Rochester, c. 1230

Sloane MS 3544: England, mid-13th century

Stowe MS 1067: England, 1st half of the 12th century

Medieval sheep
Sheep in a bestiary (Sloane MS 3544, f. 16r)
 
A manticore wearing a jaunty hat
A manticore (Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 29v)

You can read more about bestiaries in Elizabeth Morrison's article, 'Beastly tales from the medieval bestiary'.

 

Julian Harrison

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