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42 posts categorized "Polonsky"

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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12 August 2019

Note-worthy connections: antique shorthand in Carolingian books

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How do you find connections between contemporaneous manuscripts produced in different places? Sometimes the distinctive hand of a particular scribe is found in more than one manuscript, or the illustrations are likely to have been made by the same artist. At other times the makers of the manuscripts are unlikely to have been the same individuals, and yet their overall aspects and layout are strikingly similar—so similar that they are likely to be copies of the same exemplar. A connection of this last type between two 9th-century manuscripts – one in the British Library and one in the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel, Germany – has recently been highlighted as a result of their digitisation.

A page from a medieval manuscript showing decorated symbols
Opening of the Commentaries on Tironian notes (Paris, Saint-Germain-des-Prés, 1st quarter of the 9th century): British Library, Add MS 37518, f. 1r

 

A page from a medieval manuscript showing decorated symbols
Opening of the Commentaries on Tironian notes (Saint-Amand, first half of the 9th century): Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Cod. Guelf. 9.8 Aug.4°, f. 1r

Both manuscripts are copies of the late antique text Commentarii notarum tironianarum (Commentaries on Tironian notes). Tironian notes were an ancient Roman system of shorthand which get their name from their attribution to Tiro (b. 94, d. 4 BC), the slave and personal secretary of Cicero (b. 106, d. 43 BC). They are called notes after the Latin nota, but like the shorthand systems still in use today, they consist of abstract symbols which stand for words and syllables.

The British Library’s early-9th-century copy of this text (Add MS 37518) is one of the 800 manuscripts digitised for The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project. As increasing numbers of manuscripts become available online, it is easier than ever to compare their pages side by side. This is what happened when Joanna Story (Professor of Early Medieval History at University of Leicester and collaborator on the Library’s recent Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms-exhibition) recently researched this manuscript. She recognised the layout of its opening page from elsewhere, namely the near-contemporary manuscript, Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Cod. Guelf. 9.8 Aug. 4°.

Two pages from medieval manuscripts side by side, showing the same layout of symbols
Comparison of the opening pages of the Commentaries: British Library, Add MS 37518, f. 1r, and Herzog August Bibliothek, Cod. Guelf. 9.8 Aug.4°, f. 1r

In the opening pages of both manuscripts, the decorated Tironian symbols and their abbreviations are arranged in the same positions in relation to one another. This makes it clear that they follow the same layout, despite the opening page of Add MS 37518 being left unfinished with only the dagger-shaped symbol for ab heavily outlined in black. At least 20 other early medieval guides to Tironian notes survive, but they rarely have this striking arrangement of the first three symbols. An example of a copy of this text with a different layout, included in a recent blogpost on writing systems, has also recently been digitised (Add MS 21164).

A page from a medieval manuscript showing Tironian symbols
'Purpura' section of the Tironian lexicon: Add MS 37518, f. 27r
A page from a medieval manuscript, showing Tironian symbols
'Purpura' section of the Tironian lexicon: Herzog August Bibliothek, Cod. Guelf. 9.8 Aug.4°, f. 28r


The commentaries contain a lexicon, or list of symbols and their meanings. This part of the text divides the symbols according to either topic or shape. The divisions are signalled by the writing of the first word of a group in capital script. These different groupings tend to begin in almost the same place in both the British Library and Herzog August Library copies (which are of a similar size), which further strengthens the impression that they were copied from a common, or very similar, exemplar.

Despite their roots in Classical antiquity, no antique manuscript examples of the commentaries on Tironian notes or of texts written in Tironian notes survive. Instead, the vast majority of evidence is found in Carolingian manuscripts. The Carolingian dynasty ruled over the territories of the Franks (roughly modern-day France, Belgium, Netherlands and Western Germany) from the mid-8th century, but gradually lost control over these territories throughout the late 9th and 10th centuries.

A winged man holding an open book inscribed with symbols
The Evangelist symbol for St Matthew, holding his Gospel text written in Tironian notes, detail from the Apocalypse miniature in the Moutier-Grandval Bible (Tours, c.830-840): Add MS 10546, f. 499r

The Carolingian interest in shorthand was part and parcel of the revival of learning, art, and book production often known as the Carolingian Renaissance. In the Admonitio generalis (General admonition), an important collection of legislation issued in 789, the most famous Carolingian ruler, Charlemagne (r. 768-814), implored that schools be established for the learning of not only the Psalms, chant, and grammar, but also notae, or ‘written signs’.

Based on the surviving manuscript evidence, certain Carolingian monastic schools took a particular interest in Tironian notes. The scriptorium at Tours seems to have been one of the earliest centres to master this shorthand system, even including it in its famous illustrated pandect Bibles, such as the Moutier-Grandval Bible. Occasionally an entire book might be written in Tironian notes, such as this late 9th-century copy of the Psalms (Add MS 9046), which you can see in the British Library’s current exhibition, Writing: Making your Mark.

A page from a medieval manuscript filled with Tironian notes
Psalm 103 in a Psalter written in Tironian notes (Northeastern France, 4th quarter of the 9th century): Add MS 9046, f. 60v

The schools that produced our two connected manuscripts – Saint-Germain-des-Prés in Paris, and Saint-Amand, in north-eastern France – are c. 200 km apart. That they nonetheless seem to share a common exemplar demonstrates how closely connected Carolingian scholarly communities were.         

Emilia Henderson, with thanks to Joanna Story

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25 July 2019

Marvellous monsters

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Medieval writers typically relied on Classical texts for their knowledge of the world beyond Europe. The Roman and Greek sources which they consulted informed them that legendary people inhabited distant regions. One of the most influential works was the Natural History of the Roman author Pliny the Elder (AD 23–79). Pliny described people with the heads of dogs (Cynamolgi) and four feet (Artabatiae) in Ethiopia, and with horses’ hooves as feet (Hippopodes) in the Baltic.

Image 1 - Pliny  Naturalis Historia

A hybrid figure in Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia (England, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 12th century): Arundel MS 98, f. 85v

The Classical 'monstrous' people also feature in the Etymologies of the Spanish author Isidore of Seville (570–636). Isidore, who considered such strange beings to be signs of God, claimed that Libya was home to the Blemmyae, a headless people who had their mouths and eyes in their chest, and the Antipodes (‘opposite-footed’), a people whose feet pointed upward. In India, Isidore located the dog-headed people called Cynocephali (‘dog-headed’) and the Cyclopes (‘round-eyed’), a people with one eye in the middle of their foreheads. Ethiopia was supposedly inhabited by the Sciapodes ('shade-footed'), having a single leg with a large foot which they used to shade under during extreme heat.

Image 2 - Isidore of Seville

Isidore of Seville depicted at the opening of the Etymologiae (France, 4th quarter of the 12th century): Add MS 15603, f. 1r

Tales of marvellous inhabitants were often included in descriptions of the regions outside Europe. For example, the early 8th-century Cosmography, a fictitious travelogue of a certain ‘Aethicus Ister’, reported that a dog-headed people lived on a northern island above Britain. In Scythia, female warriors known as Amazons reared the cubs of minotaurs (half-man, half-bull) and centaurs (half-man, half-horse) and trained them to fight in war.

Image 3 - Minotaur Cubs in the Cosmographia

‘In solitudinibus catulos minotauros invenisse’ (‘[The Amazons] discovered minotaur cubs in deserted places’, trans. by Michael W. Herren, Cosmography (2011), p. 157), in the Cosmographia (France or England, early 12th century): Harley MS 3859, f. 273r

Testament to the popularity of these tales is a 12th-century Bible from Arnstein Abbey in Germany (Harley MS 2799). On a page that was originally left blank have been drawn seventeen legendary people, including the Cynocephali, Cyclopes, Blemmyae (first row), and Sciapods (third row).

Image 4 - Monstrous Races in the Arnstein Bible

Legendary people added to the Arnstein Bible (Germany, c. 1172): Harley MS 2799, f. 243r

The existence of strange peoples became a popular theme in medieval accounts of Christian conversion. These works signalled that, if even 'monsters' could be taught Christianity, there should be no reason why the entire world could not be converted as well. The so-called Letter of Prester John is an example of this: it purports to be a letter from a priest named John addressed to Manuel of Constantinople and Frederick Barbarossa in 1163. The priest claims to govern a powerful kingdom in India, filled with gold and jewels, and inhabited by strange creatures that have converted to Christianity. The letter claims that the kingdom has:

‘sagitarii, homines agrestes, homines cornuti, fauni, satiri et mulieres eiusdem generis, pigmei, cenocephali, gygantes, quorum altitudo est quadraginta cubitorum, monoculi, cyclopes et a vis, quae vocactur fenix, et fere omne genus animailum, quae sub caelo sunt’.

(‘archers [i.e. centaurs], savage men, horned men, fauns, satyrs and women of the same race, pygmies, dog-headed men, giants whose height is 40 cubits, one-eyed men, cyclopses and a bird which is called ‘phoenix’, and almost every kind of animal which is under heaven’, trans. by Keagan Brewer, Prester John (2015), p. 69)

Image 5 - Monstrous Races in the Letter of Prester John

Unusual races listed in the Letter of Prester John (London, 1st quarter of the 13th century): Add MS 14252, f. 92v

The association between monstrous people and conversion to Christianity perhaps explains why the artist of an early 13th-century English Psalter (Arundel MS 157) chose to paint a figure that looks like a Sciapod at the opening line of Psalm 84:5: ‘Converte nos, Deus salutaris noster’ (‘Convert us, God our saviour’). However, the Sciapod — who appears to be lying upside down in order to find shade under his foot — could also be a pun on the Psalm verse, since the Latin word convertere can be translated both as ‘convert’ and ‘turn upside-down’.

Image 6 - Sciapod in Arundel MS 157

A ‘converted’ Sciapod (England, 1st quarter of the 13th century): Arundel MS 157, f. 182v

 

Clarck Drieshen

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10 July 2019

Jerome and the lion

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

Royal_ms_14_c_iii_f002r detail

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

C6342-08

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

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

Royal MS 17 F VI f101r

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

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

K90030-60a

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

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

K040801

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

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

Add_ms_54782_f278v
St Jerome reading, with the donkey carrying wood guarded by the lion: The Hastings Hours, Ghent or Bruges, c. 1480: Add MS 54782, f. 278v

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

K057602
St Jerome writing with his hand on the lion’s head, at the beginning of his prologue to the Bible: Netherlands, 1492: Yates Thompson MS 16, f. 1r 

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

                                                                                                                                                                Chantry Westwell

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04 July 2019

What inspires you?

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

Add_ms_49622_f194v_detail

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

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

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

Lol

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

 

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

@BLMedieval

27 June 2019

Unexpected encounters of the fragmentary kind

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

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

Image 1 - Bagford Fragment (recto)

Image 2 - Bagford Fragment (verso)

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

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

Image 3 - Stowe MS 3 [I]

Image 4 - Stowe MS 3 [II]

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

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

Image 5 - Roman Ritual Fragment

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

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

Image 6 - Glossary Fragment

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

Image 7 - Texts concerning the Church of England

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

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

Image 7 - Glossed Bible Fragment

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

Image 9 - Tractatus de Libero Arbitrio

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

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

Image 8 - Gospel Readings Fragment

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

Image 11 - Survey of English Counties

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

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

Image 9 - Liturgical Music Fragment

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

Image 13 - Treatise on gunpowder

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

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

 

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

 

Clarck Drieshen & Calum Cockburn

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22 June 2019

Join us at Leeds

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The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200 will be hosting a session at the Leeds International Medieval Congress this year. Join us for a roundtable discussion exploring ways to increase the impact of research on medieval manuscripts within the Research Excellence Framework, using this project as a model.

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The Annunciation to the shepherds (northern France or southern Netherlands, 3rd quarter of the 12th century): Cotton MS Caligula A VII, f. 6v

We would love to see you on Tuesday 2 July at 19:00 for Session 924. You can download our flyer here.

We will have a panel of four:

  • Dr Kathleen Doyle (Lead Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts at the British Library), supervisor of the project.
  • Tuija Ainonen (Merton College, Oxford/The Bodleian Library), who served as the project manager. Tuija is currently Medieval Manuscripts Electronic Catalogue Project Officer at Merton College, working on the migration of its catalogue of medieval manuscripts to the new Oxford digital catalogue, as well as Project Cataloguer on the #PolonskyGerman project at the Bodleian.
  • Dr Alison Ray (Canterbury Cathedral Archives and Library), the project’s web content officer. Alison looks after the medieval and modern collections at Canterbury. She wrote her PhD at UCL on the pecia system of book production.
  • Professor Joanna Story (Professor of Early Medieval History, University of Leicester), who co-supervises with Kathleen a collaborative doctoral student who worked on the project. Jo was an academic advisor of the Library’s recent Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, as well as being co-editor of the exhibition book.

As regular readers of this Blog will know, the England and France Project was an ambitious and innovative project to digitise, promote and interpret 800 manuscripts made in England or France before 1200, generously funded by The Polonsky Foundation. We produced two websites: one with complete digital coverage of all 800 manuscripts hosted by the Bibliothèque nationale de France; the second, hosted by the British Library, seeks to interpret this research for students and the general public, with 30 articles, 11 videos and over 150 general descriptions of specific manuscripts.

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A selection of fishes in a medieval bestiary (England, early 13th century): Harley MS 4751, f. 68r

At the roundtable we will discuss how to demonstrate quantitative and qualitative impact in funded projects, and how to maximise usage and knowledge transfer using social media, blogs and traditional news outlets. We will welcome your questions and comments, and will aim to make this session as interactive as possible. 

 

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06 June 2019

The curse of the spiritual sword

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We have previously reported about our fascination with medieval book curses, added in monastic libraries to ward off thieves and warn careless users. Book curses typically state that those who stole or damaged a book would be spiritually condemned, often including the Greek-Aramaic formula ‘Anathema Maranatha'. For example, during the 12th and 13th centuries monks at Reading Abbey systematically added such curses to their manuscripts containing biblical commentaries (examples include Add MS 38687Harley MS 101 and Harley MS 1246).

Image 1  Reading Abbey's Book Curse  Add MS 38687  f. 150r

Reading Abbey’s book curse in a commentary on Deuteronomy and Joshua (1st quarter of the 13th century): Add MS 38687, f. 150r

We would like to share some new findings that will enable you to protect your favourite books, as well as other prized possessions. One example comes from the so-called ‘Noyon Sacramentary’ (Add MS 82956). This 10th-century manuscript, produced by the monastic community at Noyon Cathedral in northern France, contains masses and prayers for blessings and ceremonies. The manuscript opens with a wrathful curse that would bring down a series of spiritual punishments upon those who stole from or committed any other crime against Noyon Cathedral.

Image 2  Noyon Cathedral's Curse  Add MS 82956  f. 1v

Noyon Cathedral’s ‘Curse of the Spiritual Sword’ (4th quarter of the 10th century): Add MS 82956, f. 1v

The Noyon Cathedral curse begins: ‘excommunicamus eos et gladio sancti spiritus a vertice capitis usque ad plantam pedis transverberamus’ (‘We will excommunicate them and cut through them with the sword of the Holy Spirit, from the top of the head to the sole of the feet').

It then declares that book-thieves would be condemned to burn in the eternal fire of Hell together with Judas Iscariot, perhaps because they, like Judas, committed betrayal for material gain. Finally, to top it off, these thieves were to remain in the darkness of Hell where they would keep the devil company.

Perhaps an even more powerful curse for protecting your belongings comes from a 12th-century lectionary (containing readings from the Gospels for the Mass) from the Benedictine abbey of Tholey in western Germany (Add MS 29276). The curse is preceded by an itemised list of the monastery’s relics and sacred objects: ‘We have in this monastery of St Peter and St Mauritius eight bookcases of silver, four books of silver, and ten chalices’. Protecting this treasure is a curse that the community would collectively cast upon anyone who stole from the monastery:

‘a sancte matris ecclesiae segregamus ac perpetuae maledictionis anathemate condempnamus . sit que maledictus in domo . in agro . veniantque super eum omnes ille maledictiones . quas dominus per moysen in populum divin[a]e legis prevaricatione se esse missurum. Sitque anathema maranatha . id est pereat in secundo adventu domini. Stix sit ei potus. Amen’.

‘We will segregate him from the mother church and condemn him with the eternal curse of anathema: may he be cursed in the house and on the land, and let all the curses that the Lord cast through Moses onto the transgressors of the Divine Law come upon him. May he be anathema maranatha. That means: may he be damned at the Second Coming of Our Lord (the Last Judgement); may the Styx be his drink. Amen’.

Image 4  Tholey Abbey's Curse  Add MS 29276  f. 162v

Tholey Abbey’s ‘Styx-Curse’ (c. 1100–c. 1175): Add MS 29276, f. 162v

This curse encompasses both the eternal sentence to Hell, at the Last Judgement, and the Styx, the principal river of the Underworld. While it may seem unexpected to find a medieval monk referring to the Styx, monasteries gained knowledge about the Underworld through their copies of works such as Virgil's Aeneid . For example, in a 12th-century theological miscellany from the Cistercian abbey of Thame in Oxfordshire (Burney MS 357), the Styx is listed as one of the rivers in Hell, and its name is defined as ‘sadness’ (tristicia).  

Image 5  Thame Abbey's Names of the Infernal Waters  Burney MS 357  f. 4v

The ‘Stix’ among the ‘Names of the Infernal Waters’ (Nomina Humorum Infernalium) (1st half of the 12th century): Burney MS 357, f. 4v

It's clear that some medieval monks were very resourceful when it came to protecting their most precious treasures. The book curses that they devised indicate not only their knowledge of religious and Classical works, but also the importance they attributed to their sacred books and objects.

To learn more about medieval monastic libraries, and how books were acquired, used and stored, see this article on Medieval monastic libraries by Alison Ray, created as part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700–1200. Together with the Bibliothèque nationale de France, we have digitised 800 manuscripts from our collections, which you can learn more about on our dedicated Medieval England and France webspace.

 

Clarck Drieshen

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