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20 posts categorized "Polonsky"

20 March 2019

What's the language?

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Bonjour à tous!

International Francophonie Day highlights the global spread of French language and culture. It is the perfect day to celebrate our great collaboration with our French colleagues in The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700–1200.  

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An animation inspired by the Sirius constellation (Canis major) in British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius C I, f. 28r

As part of our ambitious collaborative project, we’ve digitised 800 medieval manuscripts from the two national libraries. In November 2018 we launched not one but two new project websites. One allows users to search and view all 800 project manuscripts through an innovative new viewer. We applied the International Image Interoperabitility Framework (or IIIF, as it is commonly known) standards to our images and descriptions. As a result, it is now possible to share, annotate, manipulate and download images from our 800 project manuscripts. You can also compare manuscripts side-by-side (up to four at a time!).

SideBySideView

Two manuscripts from each institution, presented side-by-side

We are happy to offer our readers this massive list of manuscript identifiers, or shelfmarks, titles and URL links to the IIIF images on the new website. All of these manuscripts can be viewed in their full glory on the project website hosted by the BnF.

Excel spreadsheet of the 800 project manuscripts

PDF of the 800 project manuscripts

 

What is new with the project and the curated website?

On a website hosted by the British Library, we are offering our readers articles, descriptions, films and more interpreting these manuscripts: Medieval England and France, 700–1200. Everything is available in two languages, English and French – just choose your preferred language at any point of the visit.

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LandingPageFrench

There are six broad themes covering art, history, science, religion, making manuscripts and the medieval manuscript collections today. We chose a selection of manuscripts to explore through various articles in each theme. Since the initial launch in November 2018 with 24 articles, we have added six new articles, 33 new collection items, and created new pages with biographies and maps. Did we mention the animation of the crane, inspired by a tale in an illustrated bestiary? Medieval manuscripts offer us the greatest collection of surviving medieval artwork in any media. Often, the colours are still as vibrant and the gold as glittering as at the time they were made, over 800 years ago. These books offer us wonderful glimpses of medieval culture, ideas and even individual people.

There are famous thinkers and authors, like Alcuin or Anselm, who exemplify the movement of people, texts and ideas across Europe in the early Middle Ages. For example, Queen Emma’s achievements are celebrated in a work that is the earliest surviving account dedicated to a female political figure from England (excluding saints’ Lives).

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A seal of Anselm of Canterbury, containing one of the earliest surviving representations of the archbishop, attached to the charter British Library, LFC Ch VII 5

For anyone interested in medieval manuscript culture in the Middle Ages, this site is a treasure-trove. It is easy to spend hours wondering around, or you can dip in for 5 minutes at a time. With 30 articles on various aspects on manuscript culture, over 140 highlighted collection items, 10 people pages and 10 short videos, you will be sure to find something intriguing.

 

French language, modern and medieval

It was clear from the start of the project that whatever we were to do, it would all be available in both English and French.  The medieval world was multilingual. Latin was the main written language, but it was by no means the only one. Old English and different variants of written French, like Anglo-Norman or Old Occitan, were also written down.  

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The beginning of St John’s Gospel, Chapter 13 in Old Occitan, preceded by a Latin rubric: British Library, Harley MS 2928, f. 187v

To mark today’s theme, International Francophonie Day, we took a closer look at a copy of a poem by the earliest known French poet, Philippe de Thaon (active during the first half of the 12th century). One of his works called Comput is a verse explanation of the metrics of the medieval calendar and gives instructions about how to calculate the date of Easter. In the poem’s opening lines, Philippe tells the reader he has decided to compose his text in Anglo-Norman French: Ne nest griu ne latins (it isn't Greek or Latin), but the language De la nostre cuntree (of our country), so that the users Ben poënt retenir (are able to remember well).

… Në est pas juglerie,

Ne nest griu ne latins,

Ne ne nest angevins,

Ainz est raisun mustree

De la nostre cuntree:

Ben poënt retenir

Çoe dum ges voil garner

Së il volent entendre

E bone garde prendre.

 

('… [It] is not entertainment,

nor is it Greek, Latin,

or the Angevin dialect.

Rather [it] is the spoken discourse of our country:

[in it they] are able to remember well

what I want to teach them,

if they want to listen

and pay good attention.')

 

(translation by Dr Hannah Morcos, King’s College London)

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Philippe de Thaon explains why he has chosen Anglo-Norman French to write his poem Comput: British Library, Cotton MS Nero A V, f. 2r

 

To find out more about languages present in medieval manuscripts, visit the History and Learning section of Medieval England and France, 700-1200.

 

Tuija Ainonen and Calum Cockburn

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval, #PolonskyPre1200

 

 

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19 March 2019

Let sleeping cranes lie

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The RSPB has reported that the crane is coming back to Britain, with a record number of new birds reported in recent years. We have similarly found many cranes hidden in the British Library’s medieval bestiaries, manuscripts full of fantastic stories about all manner of birds and beasts.

A bird with great wings and long thin legs, the crane’s Latin name — grus — was thought to derive from the hoarse cry of her voice. The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project has created an animation that tells the story of the life of the bird and her flock, based on an account in an illustrated bestiary (Harley MS 4751). You can watch it here.

Cranes are not solitary creatures. They fly together as a flock, arranging themselves with military discipline high up in the air. According to this medieval bestiary, the birds swallow sand before they take off. Watch the animation to find out why.

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A crane guards the rest of her flock, holding a rock in her claws, in a bestiary with additions from Gerald of Wales’ Topographia Hibernica (Salisbury, late 12th century–early 13th century): Harley MS 4751, f. 39r

At night, the cranes are known for keeping a careful watch, guarding their camp and looking over the rest of the flock as they sleep. Other birds act as sentries, looking out for any enemies who might attack them. When there is cause for alarm, the cranes call out, to wake the rest and make sure they are safe.

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A pair of cranes alongside a Latin description of the bird in an early illustrated bestiary (England, 4th quarter of the 12th century): Add MS 11283, f. 17r

On duty, the crane has a particularly surprising way of keeping awake: she holds a stone in her claws. If she falls asleep, the stone will fall to the ground, make a noise and wake her up. Representations of this behaviour were common in early medieval bestiaries, and the crane’s vigilance and loyalty to her flock were regarded as particularly admirable traits.

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Sleeping cranes in an illustrated bestiary (England, c. 1200–c. 1210): Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 40r

We would love you to explore more stories of birds and beasts from the bestiary. Check out this brilliant discussion on our website, entitled Beastly tales from the medieval bestiary.

 

Calum Cockburn

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval, #PolonskyPre1200

 

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

In collaboration with

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Supported by

The Polonsky Foundation logo

03 March 2019

Guess the manuscript 127

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

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

Guess

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

 

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08 February 2019

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms and the BnF

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One of the many wonderful things about our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition is that roughly half of the manuscripts and objects on display are on loan from other institutions. Six fascinating manuscripts in the show have kindly been loaned by the Bibliothèque nationale de France. This varied group includes a 7th-century calendar, an unusually shaped psalter, and a pontifical that features musical notation …

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The Echternach  Gospels: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS lat. 9389, f. 76r

One of these six manuscripts is a beautifully decorated insular gospel book, known as the Echternach Gospels. We know that this gospel book was in Echternach, modern-day Luxembourg, by the first half of the 8th century, but scholars have debated whether the manuscript was produced in Echternach, in Ireland or in Northumbria. Some people have compared its script to the Durham Gospels, which are thought to have been produced in Northumbria. On the other hand, some think the Echternach Gospels were produced in Ireland because the text is close to the 9th-century MacDurnan Gospels from Armagh. The founder of Echternach, a Northumbrian monk Willibrord, is known to have had connections to Ireland. His mission set out from Rath Melsigi, Co. Carlow, in the 690s, and Irish books and scribes likely played an important role in the early development of Echternach.

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The Calendar of Willibrord: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS lat. 10837, f. 39v

The founder of Echternach, Willibrord, was one of many Anglo-Saxon missionaries who travelled to the Continent to convert the pagans to Christianity. Manuscripts would have travelled to the Continent along with these missionaries. A manuscript that reflects this movement is the Calendar of Willibrord, also on loan from the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Entries in this calendar reflect Willibrord’s Northumbrian origins and Irish training, as well as additions made during his time on the Continent. This page, for the month of November, has notes in the margin referring to Willibrord’s life, including his journey in 690 ‘across the sea to Francia’.

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A collection of saints' Lives: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS lat. 10861, f. 2r

Another manuscript on loan from the Bibliothèque nationale de France is a 9th-century collection of saints' Lives, which contains accounts of the lives of two saints and narrative descriptions of the lives of sixteen early Christian martyrs. The enlarged, decorated ‘P’ on this folio begins Philippus apostolus, which introduces the account of the life of the Apostle Philip. Although the script of this manuscript suggests that it was copied in Canterbury, the parchment appears to have been prepared and arranged in a Continental style. This testifies to the close connections between Canterbury and Continental scriptoria in the early 9th century.

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The Paris Psalter: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS lat. 8824, ff. 3v–4r

The Bibliothèque nationale de France has also loaned the Paris Psalter to Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. The psalms had a central role in liturgy and personal devotion, and were widely known and studied in Anglo-Saxon England. However, the Paris Psalter is unusually tall and thin compared to other, contemporary psalters.

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Boethius, De Consolatione Philosophiae: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS lat. 6401, f. 13v

Also on loan is a copy of works by Boethius that illustrates the close links between England the monastery of Fleury (near Orléans, France). The style of script suggests that work began on the manuscript in England in the late 10th century, but the manuscript had reached Fleury by the early 11th century. One text in this manuscript is Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. The full-page painting above is of French workmanship, and shows the seated female figure of Philosophy, holding a snake, surrounded by birds and armed soldiers. The style of armour of these soldiers bears strong similarities to that of the Bayeux Tapestry.

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The Sherborne Pontifical: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS lat. 943, f. 10r

Another manuscript loaned by the Bibliothèque nationale de France provides an important insight into the performance of music in Anglo-Saxon England. This manuscript was likely made at Canterbury, but had come to Sherborne by the 990s and is now known as the Sherborne Pontifical. A bishop would read from a pontifical during ceremonies such as the consecration of kings, bishops, churches or relics. Instructions regarding the movement for the ceremony are written in larger black letters, whereas the chants are written in smaller black text, with musical notation added above. 

We are delighted to have been able to partner with the Bibliothèque nationale de France in The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700–1200In turn, we are extremely grateful to the Bibliothèque nationale de France for lending these fascinating manuscripts to our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, where they will be on display until 19 February 2019. Tickets to the exhibition are selling fast, buy them here.

 

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06 February 2019

Medieval myths and legends

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What do King Arthur, Stonehenge and the Loch Ness Monster have in common? You can currently find them all in the British Library's Treasures Gallery, in a display devoted to medieval myths and legends.

King Arthur is literally the stuff of legend. We have no contemporary historical sources that provide clear-cut evidence for his existence, so we are forced instead to rely on snippets of information. One of these is provided in the chronicle known as Annales Cambriae (‘the Annals of Wales’), the oldest version of which survives in a post-Conquest manuscript.

According to Annales Cambriae, in the year 572 ‘the Battle of Badon [took place], in which Arthur carried the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders for three days and three nights; and the Britons were victors.’ At the bottom of the column is recorded a battle at Camlann, in which both Arthur and Mordred (‘Medraut’) fell. But the historical value of these annals is open to question, since the manuscript was made several hundred years after the events it describes.

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Arthur's battles in Annales Cambriae (England or France, 12th century): Harley MS 3859, f. 190r

This manuscript was recently digitised as part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700–1200.

The building of Stonehenge is equally open to question. This 14th-century manuscript of the Roman de Brut contains an early drawing of the famous monument. The text states that the stones came from Africa, from where they were taken by giants to Mount Killaraus in Ireland. The giants poured water over them, which they then used to cure their sick. When Merlin wished to create a memorial to 460 Britons killed by the Saxons, he used magic to transport the monument to England. Merlin is shown here, either taking down the stones in Ireland or reassembling them at Stonehenge.

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Stonehenge in the Roman de Brut (England, 14th century): Egerton MS 3028, f. 30r

So what of the Loch Ness Monster? The earliest record of its existence is in the Life of St Columba (died 597), founder of the monastery of Iona in the Inner Hebrides, who played a key role in the conversion of Scotland to Christianity. Written by Adomnán of Iona (died 704), this account describes the saint’s miraculous powers.

On one famous occasion, Columba witnessed the burial of a man who had been killed by a water beast. When the monster attacked another swimmer, Columba made the sign of the cross and it fled in terror. According to the text, this encounter took place in the River Ness, which flows from the loch, rather than in Loch Ness itself.

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The Loch Ness Monster in the Life of St Columba (England, 12th century): Add MS 35110, f. 122r

Another fabulous tale was related by Gerald of Wales (died 1223), who visited Ireland on three separate occasions and wrote this account of its customs and legends. At Kildare he saw a magnificent gospel-book, which had supposedly been dictated to its scribe (shown in the lower margin) by an angel. Gerald wrote, ‘if you look closely, you will not hesitate to declare that this book must have been the work not of men but of angels.’

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A gospel-book said to be the work of angels in the Topographia Hiberniae (England, 13th century): Royal MS 13 B VIII, f. 22r

Finally, we come to a morbid miracle, preserved in the Chronicle of Mann and the Isles. This is the only medieval manuscript to survive from the Isle of Man, describing the history of the Irish Sea region, as well as stories of local miracles. Here the chronicle tells how St Maughold punished a warrior named Gilla-Coluim, who had planned to steal some cattle grazing near his church. Summoned by a crowd of wailing women, Maughold promptly appeared to the thief in a dream and struck him a mortal blow with his staff. Gilla-Coluim died early the next morning, tormented by a swarm of flies.

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A miracle worked by St Maughold in the Chronicle of Mann and the Isles (Rushen Abbey, 13th century): Cotton MS Julius A VII, f. 38r

All five manuscripts, containing all five myths, can be viewed in the Sir John Ritblat: Treasures of the British Library Gallery, open seven days a week. Which is your favourite?

 

Julian Harrison

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

31 January 2019

The Ascension in Anglo-Saxon England

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Many fine examples of medieval art can be found in the pages of manuscripts. These illuminated books reflect the huge variety of artistic expression present in England and France during the early Middle Ages, as discussed in more detail on our new Medieval England and France, 700-1200 website. Biblical events provided the inspiration for many illustrations in these manuscripts, but medieval artists often interpreted these scenes in different ways. The Ascension of Christ was one biblical event whose representation changed in the course of the Middle Ages.

According to biblical accounts, Christ ascended to Heaven 40 days after his resurrection, leaving his disciples to continue his work on Earth (Luke 24:51; Acts 1:9-11). The event was frequently discussed in the writings of the Church Fathers, most notably St Augustine of Hippo (354–430), St Jerome (347–420) and other early Christian authors. It quickly became a significant feature in the Christian calendar, as one of the major feast-days celebrated in the course of the year, alongside Pentecost, Easter and Christmas. 

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The Ascension of Christ, on an added leaf in the Galba Psalter, Reims (France), 1st quarter of the 9th century (additions England, 1st half of the 10th century): Cotton MS Galba A XVIII, f. 120v

Christ’s Ascension was a popular subject in early medieval art. There were at least three different ways of representing the scene in English manuscript illumination by the 11th century. One was to depict Christ in an almond-shaped frame in the sky (also known as a mandorla or aureola), supported by angels who carried him to Heaven. One illustrator adopted this design in an added page in the Galba Psalter, a book of Psalms reputedly given to the Anglo-Saxon King Æthelstan (reigned 924–939). Christ appears with a halo, enthroned in majesty, with angels on either side. He holds a book in one hand, while the other faces outwards to display his open palm and the wound left by the nail of the Crucifixion. The actual moment of Ascension has already taken place. Christ gazes at his disciples on earth, and appears much as in contemporary and later medieval images of the Last Judgement, where the focus is on the glory of his divinity.

Other depictions of the Ascension from the Anglo-Saxon period show a more active Christ, who climbs unaided across the clouds to reach Heaven. An illustration in the lavishly decorated Benedictional of St Æthelwold represents a bearded and radiant Christ in profile, walking through the air. His arm reaches up to the extended hand of the Father that descends from the frame above. The artist even managed to capture the movement in Christ’s clothes as he ascends, his robes fluttering, almost ruffled by the wind.

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The Ascension of Christ from the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, Winchester, c. 971–984: Add MS 49598, f. 64v

Around the turn of the first millennium, a new type of Ascension image developed from these artistic traditions, becoming a standard iconography in the decoration of liturgical and devotional manuscripts in England. Such images attempted to depict the exact moment that Christ vanished from the Earthly realm into the presence of God and to represent only the lower half of his ascending body, at the last moment of his human incarnation. This iconography is sometimes referred to as the ‘Disappearing Christ’.

One example is found in the 11th-century Caligula Troper, recently digitised for the British Library by The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project. The Troper is a liturgical manuscript that contains the text and notation for chants added to the mass on feast days (for the manuscript’s use and unusual provenance, see this earlier blogpost). It also includes a series of illustrations of English saints and the Apostles, and biblical stories such as the naming of John the Baptist and the Ascension itself. In its representation of the Ascension, Christ’s upper body disappears into the clouds and the frame of the image itself. His arms, head and face are hidden from our sight and the gaze of the disciples, with only his legs and bare feet visible.

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The Disappearing Christ from the Caligula Troper, England (Worcester?), 2nd half of the 11th century: Cotton MS Caligula A XIV, f. 18r

The iconography of the ‘Disappearing Christ’ may have been linked to an earlier exegetical tradition that maintained that Christ did not need help from Heaven in his ascent, but used his own divine power (Gregory the Great, Homilia 29; Bede, Homilia II.15). We notice that the celestial beings that appear on either side of the scene in the Caligula Troper do not carry Christ’s body. Instead, they raise their hands in adoration at his return, their heads craned upwards in much the same way as the watching disciples. The clouds offer Christ no support in his climb. They appear above his feet and he rises through them to Heaven.

The ‘Disappearing Christ’ motif also appears in the Tiberius Psalter, a late Anglo-Saxon manuscript that contains a series of illustrations from the Old and New Testament. In the Psalter’s representation of the Ascension, a notably independent Christ rises to Heaven. The artist has chosen to omit the company of angels, as well as the Hand of God and the mandorla, so that the focus is on Christ and his disciples. The caption at the top of the page is barely legible because of the damage the manuscript sustained in the Cotton library fire in 1731. The Latin reads Hic ascendit Christus ad caelos (Here Christ ascended to Heaven). Meanwhile in the centre, the artist introduces a new detail to the scene: Christ leaves behind a crown and an open book in the hands of his disciples, a signal to them to carry on his work and spread his teachings on earth.

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The Disappearing Christ from the Tiberius Psalter, Winchester, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 11th century: Cotton MS Tiberius C VI, f. 15r

You can see all four of these manuscripts in person at the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition (on until 19 February 2019). Demand is high so we strongly recommend that you book your tickets in advance.

 

Calum Cockburn

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval #PolonskyPre1200

 

 

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project                                                       

In partnership with

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Supported by

The Polonsky Foundation logo

 

27 December 2018

Cats, get off the page!

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The British Library’s current free exhibition, Cats on the Page, celebrates the role that cats have played in literature and book illustration. In the interests of fairness and balance, we thought that we should point out the shameful times when cats on the page were a very literal problem for our medieval manuscripts. Join our manuscript detectives for some crime-scene reconstruction.

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A 12th-century copy of Gregory the Great, Registrum epistolarum, from the cathedral priory of St Andrew, Rochester: Royal MS 6 C X, f. 19v.

Ellie: What a CATastrophe! This 12th-century copy of Pope Gregory the Great’s letters is covered in muddy paw-prints.

Kate: Judging from the position of the four muddy paw-prints, it looks as though a crafty cat jumped onto the corner of the page. Did it step away backwards or was it lifted off carefully before it could get any further? A couple of the prints are quite distinct and not scuffed, as you’d expect if the cat had struggled or been pushed off the page.

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Royal MS 6 C X, f. 19v (detail).

Ellie: Perhaps the crime scene looked something like this evangelist portrait of St Mark from a Flemish Book of Hours. The picture shows St Mark as a scholar writing in a domestic setting, his books piled up by his side. He’s so absorbed in his work that he hasn’t noticed the cat prowling in the background. Let’s hope that this furry intruder keeps its paws to itself.

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Evangelist portrait of St Mark in a Flemish Book of Hours, c. 1500: Add MS 35313, f. 16v.

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An English copy of Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae, from the 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 12th century: Burney MS 326, f. 104v.

Kate: Another cat may have been a little less lucky. This 12th-century copy of Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies may show signs of a human/feline struggle. One muddy paw-print is very clear at the top of the page, but the others, which number perhaps ten or more and cover about half of the written page, are severely scuffed. It seems that the cat did not want to be evicted from the nice seat it had found, while the reader may not have been so pleased to see dirty marks all over a fine copy of the Middle Ages’ greatest encyclopaedia!

Ellie: Or maybe there’s another explanation. In the Etymologies, Isidore wrote that cats are called ‘mousers’ because they are troublesome to mice, or ‘cats’ because they are good at catching things. Perhaps the feline troublemaker who prowled across this page was pursuing a mouse at the time. We know that in the Middle Ages, cats were kept mostly for their rodent-catching abilities. Perhaps we are looking at the traces of a high-speed cat-and-mouse chase through the monastic library?

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A cat toys with a mouse in the margins of the Luttrell Psalter, England, 1325–1340: Add MS 42130, f. 190r.

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A compilation of Middle English poetry, 1457–c 1530: Royal MS 18 D II, f. 205v.

Ellie: These verses in Middle English offer guidance on how to lead a wise and virtuous life. The poet included words of wisdom such as ‘make no wronge informacion’, ‘Meddill litill’ and ‘grownde thyn entent upon charite’. But they forgot to mention one important piece of life advice — always keep your books out of reach of cats.

The two paw-prints in the middle of the page suggest that the feline felon leapt onto it from afar. It is pawsible — I mean, possible — that the guilty culprit was a pet of Henry Algernon Percy, earl of Northumberland, who ordered this part of the manuscript to be made between c. 1516 and 1527.

Kate: Although all these manuscripts date from the Middle Ages, we cannot say for certain when the cats made their mark. Manuscripts could be read and used for centuries, by monastic communities, wealthy families and later collectors. Any one of these might have found a pesky feline brushing up against their manuscript.

Ellie: Sounds like these crimes against manuscripts will have to remain unsolved.

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A calendar scene for January in a Flemish Book of Hours, c. 1500: Add MS 35313, f. 1v (detail). Not content with ruining its owners’ books, this cat is now contemplating their roast dinner.

If you love cats and books, we highly recommend visiting the British Library’s free exhibition, Cats on the Page, open until Sunday 17 March 2019.

Two of these manuscripts — Burney MS 326 and Royal MS 6 C X — have been digitised for the Polonsky Foundation England and France 700-1200 project. To find out more about medieval cats, take a look at our previous blog post, or learn about medieval views on animals through the Polonsky Foundation project article, ‘Beastly tales from the medieval bestiary’.

 

Eleanor Jackson and Kate Thomas

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

In partnership with

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Supported by

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26 December 2018

All I want for Christmas is ... Domesday Book

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What did you do over Christmas? Peel sprouts? Wrap (and unwrap) presents? Sing carols? 

At Christmas in 1085, King William the Conqueror had other things on his mind. It was on that occasion that he chose to commission the famous survey whose results are preserved today in Domesday Book. We may revere this for its record of life in 11th-century England, but William's contemporaries sometimes thought otherwise, as this early account demonstrates.

‘William, king of the English, ordered all the possessions of all England to be described, in fields, in men, in all animals, in all manors from the greatest to the smallest, and in all payments which could be rendered from the land of all. And the land was troubled with much violence as a result.’ 

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Continuation of the Chronicle of Marianus Scotus: Cotton MS Nero C V, f. 158v

So reads an addition to Marianus Scotus’s Chronicon, found in a manuscript made in the 1080s. It’s not clear exactly which violent incidents the chronicler had in mind, but discontent with the Domesday survey is recorded in other sources. For example, a 12th-century copy of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle complained that William the Conqueror ‘sent his men over all England into every shire … There was no single hide nor virgate of land, nor indeed … one ox nor one cow nor one pig which was left out, and not put down in his record’ (translated by D. Whitelock and others, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1961, pp. 87–88).

Writing later in the 12th century, Richard fitz Nigel, the royal treasurer (d. 1198), reported that the English called the book Domesdei, the Day of Judgement, because its decisions, like those of the Last Judgement, could not be appealed.

Great Domesday Book is currently in the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, on loan from The National Archives. It is displayed next to a draft of the text for the South-West counties (Exon Domesday, loaned by Exeter Cathedral) and a list of questions that the commissioners should ask (loaned by Trinity College, Cambridge), as follows:

  • What is the manor/estate/place called?
  • Who owned it in the time of King Edward [the Confessor, 1042–1066]?
  • Who owns it now [1086]?
  • How many hides are there?
  • How many plough teams belong to the lord?
  • How many plough teams belong to the men of the manor?
  • How many villans [a type of peasant] are there?
  • How many cottars [a type of peasant]?
  • How many slaves [servi]?
  • How many freemen?
    How many sokemen?
  • How much woodland?
  • How much meadow?
  • How much pasture?
  • How many mills?
  • How many fish ponds?
  • How much has been added or taken away?
  • What was it worth?
  • What is it worth now?
  • How much did each freeman have then?
  • And now?
  • How much did sokeman have then?
  • And now?
  • All this is to be given three times: what it was in the time of King Edward, what it was when King William gave it, and what it is now [1086].

This process was used to gather information about 13,418 places in England and a few in what is now Wales. Domesday Book mentions over 269,000 people, from the king and his family to slaves, oxmen and swineherds. It describes 48 ‘castles’, over 60 abbeys and cathedrals, over 300 parish churches, around 6,000 mills, and about 45 vineyards, not to mention markets, mints, woods, inland and coastal fisheries, salt pans, lead working, quarries and potteries.

Great-Domesday-161_E31-2-2-f304v-Great-Domesday-Book-Yorkshire

Great Domesday Book (image © The National Archives)

The extent of this survey and its level of detail were quite extraordinary in northern Europe. But it did not cover absolutely everyone and everywhere in England: women are notably underrepresented. Nor was all the information collected used. The cows and pigs mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle were largely left out of the final version of Domesday Book, although they appear in the earlier draft for the South-Western counties, today known as Exon Domesday. 

Domesday Book has remained in the possession of the English administration since the time it was made. If you’d like to see Great Domesday in person, hurry to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, on until 19 February at the British Library.

The Chronicle of Marianus Scotus has been digitised as part of our Polonsky Foundation England and France 700-1200 project.

Alison Hudson

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