Medieval manuscripts blog

19 posts categorized "Scotland"

21 January 2020

Animals on coats of arms

We invite you to explore some of the wildlife that can be found in our heraldic manuscripts. Medieval and early modern coats of arms — visual designs symbolising the heritage and achievements of individuals and families — are teeming with animal life. These animals are depicted according to heraldic conventions, but sometimes they also display fabulous features originating from medieval illustrated ‘books of beasts’, known as bestiaries.

It can sometimes be difficult to understand what these borrowings from the bestiary tradition represent. Luckily, we have a guide book at our disposal, namely the 15th-century Middle Scots Deidis of Armorie (found in Harley MS 6149). This ‘heraldic bestiary’ explains what the behaviours and appearances of animals on coats of arms indicate about the origins of specific families. The manuscript containing the Deidis of Armorie has recently been digitised and can be found on our Digitised Manuscripts site. In this blogpost we'll study some extraordinary heraldic animals up close.

An opening from The Deidis of Armorie, showing coats of arms with animals on them in the margins

The Deidis of Armorie (Scotland, c. 1494): Harley MS 6149, ff. 16v–17r

We start with the heraldic ostrich, happily chomping on its staple food: horseshoes and keys. This imagery originates from the bestiary tradition, which supposed that the animal had remarkable digestive abilities, enabling it to consume and process iron. What does the ostrich's presence on a coat of arms mean? According to the Deidis of Armorie, it signified that the first bearer of these arms ate hard things — in other words, they were as tough as nails — and that they had a defiant nature (‘eite hard thingis and [wes] diffailland of natur’).

An ostrich with a large iron key in its beak

The ostrich as a heraldic crest (England, 17th century): Harley MS 4926, f. 8v

Tigers are often depicted on coats of arms gazing into mirrors. According to bestiaries, this imagery illustrated the method by which robbers could steal a tigress’s cub. The cub-nappers would be pursued by the tigress, but could deceive her by dropping a mirror on the ground. The tigress would stop to look into the mirror, mistake her own reflection for her stolen cub, and start nursing it, allowing the thieves to get away. The Deidis of Armorie claims that those who first bore the tiger on their coats of arms were feigning, cunning and deceitful (‘dissimilit, wyly, and double in his dedis’).

A tiger looking down into a mirror

The tiger on a coat of arms (England, 4th quarter of the 16th century-1st quarter of the 17th century): Harley MS 6106, f. 68v

The heraldic elephant typically sported a tower or castle on its back. This imagery corresponds with the bestiary tale that male elephants were used in battle, and that men built castles filled with armed soldiers upon them. The Deidis of Armorie interprets a coat of arms inhabited by such an elephant as a sign that its first bearer was large and virtuous, and carried great burdens during their life (‘gret of body and of vertu, berand gret birdingis’).

An elephant with a castle with three towers on its back

The elephant on a coat of arms (England, c. 1632): Harley MS 6060, f. 109r

The heraldic pelican is found sitting on its nest while feeding its young with its own blood. Bestiaries told that the father pelican killed his young when they struck him with their wings, and that the mother subsequently revived them with her blood. The Deidis of Armorie explains that whoever first adopted a pelican on his coat of arms took vengeance on his neighbours when they harassed him, but that they were subsequently restored through him as well (‘[þai] wald have vengeance of his nixt nychtpuris quhen þai did oppressioun [bot] nychtburis scalit his blud for till heill þaim of his vengeance’).

A pelican with outstretched wings, piercing its breast with its beak to feed its young, below in a nest, with its own blood

The pelican on a coat of arms (England, 16th century): Harley MS 709, f. 22r

The heraldic panther is another wonderful sight. In line with the bestiary descriptions, coats of arms present it as a friendly animal with multi-coloured spots, issuing ‘flames’ out of its mouth and ears. The latter represent the sweet-smelling belch that the animal was wont to issue after a meal. Although the panther is not part of the Deidis of Armorie, Rodney Dennys (The Heraldic Imagination (Fakenham: Cox & Wyman, 1975), pp. 143–44) has pointed out that heraldic manuscripts sometimes interpret the animal’s multi-coloured spots as symbols for the many virtues of the arms’ bearer.  

A panther with a white fur featuring blue, green, red, and yellow spots, and flames coming out of its mouth and ears

The panther as a heraldic supporter (England, c. 1600-1609): Harley MS 6156, f. 24r

We end our tour with the heraldic salamander. Bestiaries claimed that the salamander was a fire-resistant animal, and so we find it basking in flames of fire on coats of arms. The salamander is not covered by the Deidis of Armorie , but Dennys suggested that its presence on a coat of arms signified that its first bearer had survived great danger. James Douglas (1426–1488), 9th Earl of Douglas and 3rd Earl of Avondale, was among the first to display the animal on his coat of arms, perhaps alluding to his surviving a failed insurrection against King James II of Scotland, and subsequently escaping to England.

The head of a green salamander surrounded by flames of fire

The salamander as a heraldic crest (England, 17th century): Harley MS 5818, f. 13v

If you would you like to see more heraldic animals, and to explore the symbolism behind them, we would encourage you to look out the Deidis of Armorie on Digitised Manuscripts.

The text quoted here can be found in Luuk A. J. R. Houwen, The Deidis of Armorie: A Heraldic Treatise and Bestiary, I, The Scottish Text Society, Fourth Series, 22 (Edinburgh: The Scottish Text Society, 1994).


Clarck Drieshen

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20 September 2019

Mapping medieval Scotland: between politics and imagination

It is unfortunate, but not necessarily surprising, that the earliest surviving topographical map of Scotland should be one designed for invasion. Some of the most accurate maps of pre-modern Europe were made in the context of trade or war, profit or conflict, two operations that required considerable precision. In this particular case, the conflict was the Anglo-Scottish Wars of the 15th century, with the map sitting at the very centre of the long-standing tensions between the two kingdoms. Its maker was a soldier-spy named John Hardyng (1378–1465), who was sent by King Henry V to Scotland on a reconnaissance mission. His primary goal was to collect tactical information about the country in order to plan an attack.

John Hardyng's original map of Scotland

The first version of Hardyng’s chronicle is preserved only in this manuscript, which contains a full-colour map of Scotland; West is at the top: Lansdowne MS 204, ff. 226v–227r.

The outcome of Hardyng’s mission was a chronicle in Middle English verse, completed in 1457. It extended from the mythical foundations of Britain to 1437, and included a detailed map of southern and northern Scotland. There had been other maps which included Scotland, but Hardyng’s were unique. What is remarkable about them is that they focus on Scotland. This might seem insignificant, but in the medieval period it was not at all common to zoom in on a given area. While most other maps show Scotland as the northern part of Britain, Hardyng’s map turned a macro lens on the territory of the Scottish kingdom.

Close-up of Hardyng's first map

A close-up of the first version of Hardyng's map reveals the amazing detail of his cartographic representation: Lansdowne MS 204, ff. 226v–227r.

Having incorporated the results of his espionage in the chronicle, he presented its first version in turn to Kings Henry VI and Edward IV. Hardyng wanted these maps to provide visual support for the strategic planning outlined in the chronicle. As Sarah Peverley has argued, they are more symbolic than tactical, since they offer information about the general state of the country.

Hardyng’s chronicle survives in two versions, an earlier and a later one, each with its own map of Scotland. The two versions of the chronicle are noticeably different. The later version is shorter, more political, but also more popular and more influential than its predecessor. It was this version that was consulted by Shakespeare and John Milton.

The first page of Hardyng's Chronicle

The second version of Hardyng's Chronicle is preserved in 12 manuscripts and traces the history of Britain back to an imagined past: Harley MS 661, f. 1r.

The Scottish map of the second version of the chronicle is more diagrammatic and more intriguing. Like the earlier version, it represents Scottish topography in remarkable detail, with towns, castles, churches and natural features like rivers and marshes. However, it also inter-weaves the text and diagrams in order to explain the significance of many Scottish localities.

Map showing Scottish castles, churches and cities

This map shows a high variety of southern Scottish castles, churches, walled cities and other fortifications.

This three-page map includes both southern and northern Scotland. While the southern part is packed with towns and fortifications, the northern parts are represented differently. The region between the mormaerdoms (medieval Scottish counties) of Strathern and Ros, the larger part of the Scottish Highlands, is represented using text and diagrams. The Highlands are referred to as the lands inhabited by the ‘wilde Scottes’. The map depicts the various mormaerdoms as protected by river courses and flanked by two seas, the Mare Orientale (North Sea) and the Mare Occidentale (the Atlantic). For example, ‘the shires of Marre (Mar) and of Carriocth (Carioch) aff this cuntrey stondeth between two waters'.

Map of the Highlands of Scotland

This map of the Highlands of Scotland has South at the top. It provides an overview of the locations of all the major Scottish shires: Harley MS 661, f. 187v.

But there is something rotten in the North of Scotland. At the far end of Britain, beyond the Orkney Islands, Hardyng located Satan’s infernal abode, the palace of doom. According to the English spy-soldier, the more one moved away from England, the more savage and devilish the inhabitants became, culminating in the source of all evil, at the ends of the Earth, under Scotland’s (and Satan’s) dominion.

Satan's palace in Hardyng's chronicle

This diagram of Northern Scotland explains that 'the wilde Scotrie have their propre mancion' in Pluto (or Satan's) palace: Harley MS 661, f. 188r.

Surrounded by the four infernal rivers (Styx, Phlegethon, Cocytus and Acheron), Satan’s diagrammatic seat of power was a metaphor for Hardyng’s view that the 'wickedness' of the Scots was attributable to Satanic influence.

If you would like to read more about Hardyng’s Chronicle, we would highly recommend these by Sarah Peverley:


Cristian Ispir

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05 September 2018

A letter of a Scottish rebel

In early January 1489, Alexander Gordon, master of Huntly, wrote from Edinburgh to the king of England, Henry VII (1485–1509), soliciting his support against the government of his own king, James IV of Scotland (1488–1513). Alexander's letter is preserved in the Cotton collection at the British Library, and is one of only a small number to survive from late medieval Scotland. The scribe wrote this letter in Scots, in a pre-secretary hand; the master of Huntly himself then ‘subscribit’, sealed and sent it to the English monarch.

The master of Huntly was the eldest surviving son of George Gordon, second earl of Huntly, and his second wife, Annabella Stewart, sixth daughter of James I, king of Scots (1406–1437). The earl of Huntly was the most powerful nobleman in North-East Scotland. He had opposed his nephew James III, king of Scots (1460–1488), during the late 1470s and early 1480s, culminating in his participation in the seizure of the king at Lauder in July 1482, when ‘ye lordis of Scotland … slew ane part of ye kingis housald and other part yai [they] banysyt [banished] … for he wrocht [valued] mair ye consaell of his housald yat war bot sympill na [that were but lowly than] he did of yame yat [them that] was lordis’ (Royal MS 17 D XX, f. 308r). Several other uncles of the king, including James Stewart, first earl of Buchan, played a leading part in imprisoning him and taking power, probably in support of James III’s exiled brother, Alexander Stewart, first duke of Albany, who invaded Scotland with the support of an English army. Huntly changed sides and helped the king to recover his authority and to send Albany and Buchan into exile.

A portrait of James III, king of Scotland, accompanied by his son James Stewart, duke of Rothesay (future James IV), and St Andrew

James III, king of Scotland, accompanied by his son James Stewart, duke of Rothesay (future James IV), and St Andrew, the inside left panel of the Trinity Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes (c. 1478–82): The Royal Collection, RCIN 403260

From the mid-1480s opposition to James III focused on his eldest son, James Stewart, duke of Rothesay. He fled Stirling Castle in February 1488 to join rebels in the South-West led by the Hepburn and Hume families, and then demanded greater authority as heir to the throne. Rothesay’s mother, Margrete of Denmark, was said to have admonished him on her deathbed: ‘nothing achieved by violence, be certain, can endure’ (Giovanni Sabadino degli Arienti, Gynevera de le clare donne, 1489–90). Despite this, the 15-year-old Rothesay entered into open civil war with his father. Huntly and the master of Huntly sided with the king, as did Buchan, who was back in royal favour. King James III was defeated and killed at the battle of Sauchieburn on 11 June, carrying the sword of his illustrious ancestor Robert the Bruce in hope of victory. Huntly and the master of Huntly had been too late to help him on the field, while Buchan had been handed over to the rebels as a hostage during a negotiated truce the previous month. James III was buried beside his queen before the high altar at Cambuskenneth Abbey. Rothesay, now crowned James IV, was present and for the rest of his life he wore an iron belt as an act of penance for the death of his father.

The government of James IV proved to be as narrow-based as his father’s It was dominated by Patrick Hepburn, first earl of Bothwell, and his kinsmen, who attacked the former supporters of the late king, among them Buchan and the master of Huntly. The master thus wrote to Henry VII of England in January 1489, soliciting his aid against those who had ‘falsly slayne’ James III. He described how, he had ‘put me in [and] divours wicht [with] my said soueraine lord [James III’s] frendis and kynnysmen to causs the comittaris of the saide slauthir [murder] to be punyst acording to Iustice and the honor of our realme’, and he petitioned Henry ‘to put to zour [your] hande … in the punyssyng [punishing] of fals and tresonable trattouris’. The master ended by saying that Buchan, Henry’s kinsman, had the authority to negotiate further terms.

The rebellion broke out at Easter 1489, concentrated in the North-East and the West, with the master of Huntly prominent among its leaders, but also a number of others who had fought against James III at Sauchieburn but now felt that they too had been excluded by ‘parciall personis’ (Edinburgh, National Records of Scotland, GD220/2/1, no. 85) from the presence of the young James IV. The rebels demanded that the killing of James III should not go unpunished, that his treasure (which had been embezzled) should be restored to the crown, and that justice should be administered. They wanted parliament summoned to settle their differences. Bothwell responded by bringing a number of them in from the cold, including Buchan, by laying siege to the strongholds of others, and by forcing battle. Fortunately, Henry VII could not intervene because he had a rebellion of his own to deal with in Yorkshire; but Bothwell failed to take the main rebel stronghold, Dumbarton Castle on the Firth of Clyde, and he was constrained to give way to many rebel demands, including the summoning of parliament. Huntly and the master of Huntly were among those restored to favour; however, James III’s killer or killers were never found, never punished, nor was all his treasure recovered.

A page from a 16th-century manuscript, showing a letter from Alexander Gordon to Henry VII

The letter of Alexander Gordon, master of Huntly, to Henry VII: Cotton MS Caligula B III, f. 20r



British Library, Cotton MS Caligula B III, f. 20r

8 January [1489].  Edinburgh.  Alexander Gordon, master of Huntly, to Henry VII.

Richt hee excellande ande mycthy prince I comende my seruice one to zour henez in ye maist hunble ande harty vyss I cane  Ande plessit ye sammyne ramembir of ye thresonable ande Cruel slauthir of my souerane lorde ande kyng falsly slayne be a part of his fals ande vntrew legis the quhilk stude in neyr tendirness of blude ande zour henez to giddir  And becauss of my lautay and allegeans I haif put me in divours wicht my said soueraine lordis frendis and kynnysmen to causs the comittaris of the saide slauthir to be punyst acording to Iustice and the honor of our realme  ffor the quhilk I ande the layf of my lordis and fallowis maist hunbli besekis zour grace to put to zour hande for the teyndirnes of blude yat bess betuix my souerane lorde quhom god assolve ande zour grace ande for the honor that euery anoynted prince and kyng soulde kepe tile vtheris in the punyssyng of fals and tresonable trattouris and with goddis grace and zour helpe the matter salbe reullit to zour gret honor ande our lautais  And forthir in a thir materis my lord of buchquhane is informyt at lentht of al our ententtis and quhat he promit tis in my Name I sal sykkirly abyde yerat to quhom zour grace wil gif ferme credens  The quhilk the trinite preserue ande kepe in honour and prosperite euerlasting  At Edinburtht the viii day off Ianuar subscribit wicht my hande

                                                Zouris at al pou

                                                ar master of



Right high excellent and mighty prince I commend my service unto your highness in the most humble and hearty way I can. And please it the same remember of the treasonable and cruel assassination of my sovereign lord and king falsely slain by a part of his false and untrue subjects the which stood in near tenderness of blood and your highness together. And because of my loyalty and allegiance I have put me and divers with my said sovereign lord’s friends and kinsmen to cause the committers of the said murder to be punished according to justice and the honour of our realm. For the which I and the rest of my lords and fellows most humbly beseech your grace to put to your hand for the tenderness of blood that be between my sovereign lord whom God absolve and your grace and for the honour that every anointed prince and king should keep to others in the punishing of false and treasonable traitors and with God’s grace and your help the matter shall be settled to your great honour and our loyalty. And further in all there matters my lord of Buchan is informed at length of all our intents and what he promise it is in my name I shall certainly abide thereat to whom your grace will give firm credence. The which the Trinity preserve and keep in honour and prosperity everlasting. At Edinburgh the 8 day of January. Subscribed with my hand

                                                Yours at all power

                                                master of




Alan Bryson

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09 June 2018

Sir Robert Cotton's manuscripts added to Memory of the World register

We are delighted that Sir Robert Cotton's collection of manuscripts, held at the British Library, has been added to the UNESCO Memory of the World UK Register. Cotton's library contains many historical and literary treasures of national and international significance, such as Magna Carta, the Lindisfarne Gospels, the only surviving copies of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the autograph papers of a number of British monarchs. Collectively they form a key part of the intellectual heritage of the nation. 

A page from the Vespasian Psalter, showing a historiated initial containing a representation of David and Jonathan.

A page from the Vespasian Psalter, known as Cotton MS Vespasian A I following Robert Cotton's system of arranging his manuscripts in presses named after Roman emperors and imperial ladies. This manuscript, made in Kent in the 8th century, contains an interlinear Old English gloss of the Psalter text: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 31r

Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631) was a politician and antiquarian scholar, who began to assemble his collection of manuscripts as early as 1588, aged just seventeen. Cotton's collecting interests focused on works central to the study of British history, such as chronicles, cartularies, maps and state papers.

A map of Britain by Matthew Paris.

A map of Britain by Matthew Paris, monk and chronicler of St Albans (d. 1259). Scotland is joined to the mainland by a bridge at Stirling, while Kent is located due South of London: Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1

A page from a medieval manuscript containing the Chronicle of Melrose Abbey. 

The Cotton library contains a nationally significant collection of medieval chronicles. The manuscript of the Chronicle of Melrose Abbey, shown here recording (in red ink) the foundation of the monasteries of Rievaulx in 1132 and Melrose in 1136, is the oldest surviving annalistic chronicle from Scotland: Cotton MS Faustina B IX, f. 18r

The importance of these manuscripts for our knowledge of the past cannot be overstated. For example, Robert Cotton brought together the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in the world, including two early copies of Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum and five manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, as well as the earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon charter, dating from AD 679. Many of these manuscripts will be on display later this year in the Library's major Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition (19 October 2018–19 February 2019).

The earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon charter.

The earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon charter, a grant of land by King Hlothhere of Kent to Abbot Beorhtwald and his monastery, dated 679. This document is also sometimes known as the 'Reculver charter' after the place where it was issued: Cotton MS Augustus II 2

After Robert Cotton's death, the library passed in turn to his son, Sir Thomas Cotton (d. 1662), and grandson, Sir John Cotton (d. 1702). In 1702, the Cotton library was acquired by the British government, the first occasion that any library passed into national ownership in Britain – an important step in the creation of a national, public library.

A page from the Gawain Manuscript, showing an illustration of Sir Gawain beheading the Green Knight before the court at Camelot.

The opening of the Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, from the Gawain Manuscript.

Some of the greatest works of medieval English literature are preserved uniquely in the Cotton library, among them the only surviving copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Cotton MS Nero A X/2, ff. 94v–95r

A page from a 16th-century manuscript, containing the text of a document written by King Edward VI.

The Cotton library is integral to our knowledge of early modern British history. This document, written by King Edward VI of England in January 1551/2, is headed 'Certein pointes of weighty matters to be immediatly concluded on by my counsell': Cotton MS Vespasian F XIII, f. 273r. Edward's diary is also held in the Cotton collection: Cotton MS Nero C X, ff. 10–83

Most of the collection survived a major fire in 1731, which formed part of the impetus for the creation of the British Museum in 1753. Some of the manuscripts were damaged significantly in that fire, with a small number being completely destroyed. The volumes in question were restored in the 19th century and they continue to support scientific research into the preservation and digitisation of fire-damaged artefacts.

A page from a manuscript of Bede's Ecclesiastical History, damaged in the Cotton Fire of 1731.

In October 1731, the Cotton library narrowly escaped near-total destruction when a fire broke out at Ashburnham House in London. In the 19th century, it was discovered that the fire-damaged parchment leaves could be inlaid in modern paper mounts, as shown here in a page from Bede's Ecclesiastical History: Cotton MS Tiberius A XIV, f. 39r

Ever since the library's formation, the Cotton manuscripts have been made available for consultation by scholars worldwide. Read more about the Cotton manuscripts in our collection guide.

The opening page of the Coronation Book of King Charles V, showing an illustration of the arrival of the French king at Reims Cathedral. 

The Cotton library is particularly rich in illuminated manuscripts from Britain and beyond. Here is the opening page of the Coronation Book of King Charles V of France, commissioned in 1365: Cotton MS Tiberius B VIII/2, f. 35r 

A page from a medieval manuscript, containing a Latin-Old Cornish glossary.

Many of the manuscripts are written in Latin or in English (including Old English, Middle English and Scots English). Other European languages represented in the collection include Cornish, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Irish, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Welsh. Non-European languages include Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew, Inuit, Persian and Turkish. Here is page from a Latin-Old Cornish glossary, copied in South-East Wales in the 12th century: Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV, f. 8v

You can view many of the Cotton manuscripts on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site. We recommend that, on the homepage, you type into the Manuscripts search box 'Cotton MS' or 'Cotton Ch' in order to see those currently available; more are being added all the time.

A page from a manuscript, showing the text of a letter from Sir Edward Dering to Sir Robert Cotton.

Sir Robert Cotton was closely acquainted with many of the leading scholars and collectors of his day. In this letter, Sir Edward Dering (d. 1644) sent him the charter of King John dated at Runnymede, now known as Magna Carta, and preserved as Cotton Charter XIII 31A: Cotton MS Julius C III, f. 143r

A cutting from the Breviary of Margaret of York, incorporating a mounted papyrus fragment of a homily on the Four Gospels by Pope Gregory the Great.

Cotton was renowned for rearranging his manuscripts and for preserving pages from other books and documents. Prefacing a gospelbook is this cutting from the Breviary of Margaret of York, which in turn incorporates a mounted papyrus fragment of Gregory the Great, Homiliae XL in Evangelia, dating from the late 6th or 7th century: Cotton MS Titus C XV, f. 1r

The British Library's two manuscripts of Magna Carta, issued by King John in 1215 and both forming part of Sir Robert Cotton's library, were inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World International Register in 2009. We are thrilled that this whole manuscript collection of national and international importance has now been recognised by UNESCO. We hope that the Cotton library will continue to inspire research into the rich cultural and historical heritage of the British Isles. Access the full list of inscriptions on the UNESCO Memory of the World UK Register.

Tickets for the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, featuring a number of the Cotton manuscripts, can be purchased online.


The UNESCO logo




31 January 2018

Discovering our medieval literature

Are you enchanted by Chaucer, bewitched by Beowulf or mesmerised by Malory? Did you know that the earliest autobiography in English was written by a woman, or that several different languages were spoken and written in medieval Britain? You now have the chance to learn more about our rich literary heritage, with the launch of the British Library's Discovering Literature: Medieval webspace, making nearly 1,000 years of our literary history freely available online.

A decorated page from Christine de Pizan's The Book of the City of Ladies, with a half-page illustration showing Christine presenting her book to Isabella of Bavaria.

Christine presenting her book to Isabeau of Bavaria, 'The Book of the City of Ladies', Christine de Pizan, Harley MS 4431, f. 3r

Bringing together over 50 unique medieval manuscripts and early print editions from the 8th to 16th centuries, Discovering Literature: Medieval presents a new way to explore some of the earliest works and most influential figures of English literature. From the first complete translation of the Bible in the English language to the first work authored by a woman in English, the website showcases many rarities and ‘firsts’ in the history of English literature. Some of the highlights include:

A page from the Beowulf Manuscript, showing part of the text of the Marvels of the East, with an illustration of a man with a dog's head, known as Cynocephalus.

The mythical Cynocephalus, a man with a dog-like head, in the 'Marvels of the East', which appears in the 'Beowulf' manuscript, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 100r

The new website features medieval drama, epic poetry, dream visions and riddles, and includes works in Anglo-Latin, Anglo-Norman French, Old English, Middle English and Older Scots. We are especially pleased to be able to showcase the works of a number of female writers, such as Julian of Norwich, Marie de France, Margery Kempe and Christine de Pizan, and to include engaging human stories, such as that of the Tremulous Hand of Worcester. Users of the site will be able to encounter the first work of theatre criticism in English — the Tretise of Miraclis Pleyinge (a Lollard sermon against mystery plays) — and the story of Caedmon, a shy cowherd and the first named English poet (in an early manuscript of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History).

A page from a medieval manuscript, showing a text known as the Tretise of Miraclis Pleyinge.

The first work of theatre criticism in English, the Tretise of Miraclis Pleyinge, Add MS 24202, f. 14r

Discovering Literature: Medieval contains more than 20 articles exploring themes such as gender, faith and heroism, written by poets, academics and writers including Simon Armitage, BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinker, Hetta Howes, and David Crystal. We are equally thrilled to have worked with other institutions to host their own treasures on our site, giving a broader sense of the richness and diversity of medieval literary production.

A page from a manuscript of Lydgate's Lives of Saint Edmund and Saint Fremund, showing an illustration of King Henry VI kneeling before St Edmund's shrine.

Henry VI praying at the shrine of Saint Edmund, 'The Lives of Saint Edmund and Saint Fremund', John Lydgate, Harley MS 2278, f. 4r

Discovering Literature is a free website aimed at A-Level students, teachers and lifelong learners, providing unprecedented access to the British Library’s literary and historical treasures. Also featured on the site are collections relating to Shakespeare and the Renaissance, the Romantic and Victorian periods, and 20th century literature. The project has been generously supported by Dr Naim Dangoor CBE The Exilarch’s Foundation, along with the British Library Trust and the British Library Patrons. Further development of the project is being supported by the Garfield Weston Foundation, Mark Pigott KBE KStJ, Evalyn Lee, Luci Baines Johnson and Ian Turpin, The American Trust for the British Library, The John S Cohen Foundation, The Andor Trust, and Allan and Nesta Ferguson Charitable Trust.

Mary Wellesley

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25 January 2017

Address to a Medieval Haggis

Today we celebrate the birthday of Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns (1759–1796). Robert Burns was born in Alloway, a small village near the river Doon just south of Ayr in south-west Scotland. He was made famous by his innovative volume of verse, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, first published in Kilmarnock, Ayrshire in 1786. Burns is perhaps best known for composing the poem ‘Auld Lang Syne’, which is to this day sung to ring in the New Year. Every year on 25 January, Scotland and the world celebrate his literary legacy by hosting Burns Night suppers with delicious treats such as neeps and tatties, and the famous Scottish dish of haggis. The British Library holds one of the oldest known recipes for haggis in a text composed around 1430, the Booke of Curtassye (now Sloane MS 1986). The recipe for ‘hagese’ features in English verse along with references to potages, roasted meats and humble pie. The whole collection is translated here.

Address to hagese: one of the earliest recipes for haggis, Sloane MS 1986, f. 55r

For hagese

The hert of schepe the nere thou take
    Thou bowel noȝt thou schall forsake
On the turbilen made & boyled wele
    Hacke all togeder wit gode parsole
Isop saueray thou schall take then
    And suet of schepe take in I ken
Wit powder of peper & egges gode wonne
    And seth hit wele & serue hit thenne
Loke hit be saltyd for gode menne
    In wynter tyme when erbs ben gode
Take powder of hom I wot in dede
    As saueray mynt & tyme full gode
Isop & sauge I wot by the rode

The town of Ayr appears as ‘Aier’ in the 16th-century Nowell-Burghley Atlas, 
Add MS 62540, f. 4r

If you are inclined to try a more exotic haggis, look no further than this 15th-century English recipe for pudding of porpoise that appears in a cookbook of extravagant banquets (now Harley MS 279). Prepared in the same manner as traditional haggis made with sheep’s stomach, one must mix porpoise blood, porpoise grease, oatmeal, salt, pepper and ginger, then stuff the ingredients into the porpoise stomach before cooking. Perhaps this dish should be served with a side of 'dolphinoise' potatoes?

Great chieftain o’ the porpoise pudding-race! Recipe for 'puddyng of purpaysse' in Harley MS 279, f. 32v

However you choose to celebrate Burns Night, remember to raise your dram to the Scottish bard!

Bagpipes, from the Hours of the Earls of Ormond, England (London), c. 1460, 
Harley MS 2887, f. 29r

Alison Ray

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10 May 2014

Our Favourite Map

What's your favourite map? This is our's (at least, today it is, next week we'll doubtless have a different one).

Cotton_ms_claudius_d_vi_f012v Studio c02661-02

Look closely, and you can just about discern the shape. Can you guess what it is yet? It's a medieval view of Britain, one of four surviving maps by Matthew Paris, historian and cartographer at St Albans Abbey. Scotland is shown at the top, joined to the rest of the British mainland by a bridge at Stirling ('Estriuelin pons'). Moving southwards are depicted two walls, one dividing the Scots from the Picts (the Antonine Wall) and the other the Scots from the English (Hadrian's Wall). Along the spine of the map is a series of English towns, including Newcastle ('Nouum castrum'), Durham ('Dunelmum'), Pontefract ('Pons fractus') and Newark ('Neuwerc'), culminating with London, Rochester, Canterbury and Dover ('Douera'), a castle located in the centre of the South coast of England. Wales ('WALLIA') is sited in just about the right place, with a sequence of jagged lines representing Mount Snowdon ('Snaudun'); diagonally opposite is Norfolk and Suffolk, and the towns of Norwich (a metropolis, no less), Lynn and Yarmouth.

This particular map is now bound separately (London, British Library, MS Cotton Claudius D VI, f. 12v), but it once belonged to a manuscript of the Abbreviatio Chronicorum of Matthew Paris, dating from the 1250s. There are less complete maps of Britain by Matthew Paris in two other St Albans' manuscripts held at the British Library, Royal MS 14 C VII and Cotton MS Julius D VII, and in another at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge (MS 16). You can read more about these maps in Suzanne Lewis, The Art of Matthew Paris in the Chronica Majora (Aldershot, 1987), pp. 364-72; but meanwhile here are some more details of the version in Cotton Claudius D VI. It's worth bearing in mind that Matthew Paris did not have satnav, GPS or an A-Z, and that he had never visited the vast majority of the places recorded on his maps.

Cotton_ms_claudius_d_vi_f012v Studio c02661-02

Cotton_ms_claudius_d_vi_f012v Studio c02661-02

Cotton_ms_claudius_d_vi_f012v Studio c02661-02


Julian Harrison

08 April 2014

Fore! The British Library's Golf Book

The 2014 Masters starts at Augusta this week (that's golf for the uninitiated). And what better way to kick things off -- to mangle a sporting analogy -- than with this famous image from the Golf Book. The modern game of golf has its origins in 15th-century Scotland, when King James II had it banned, in order that his subjects should devote more of their time to practising archery. There were, however, other ancient and medieval games which resembled the game of golf, from China, Persia and Rome, among other places. Some say that golf developed from cambuca (chambot in French), a game played with a stick and a wooden ball that was taken up in the Low Countries and Germany.

A game resembling golf in the Golf Book (London, British Library, MS Additional 24098, f. 27r).

We very much doubt that the modern golf professionals playing at Augusta will care for these niceties. But they might be interested to see this page from the British Library's Golf Book (Add MS 24098, available in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site). We have featured this manuscript before, most notably as our calendar for 2013 (see the month of September) and in the post A Good Walk Spoiled. The splendid book in question was made at Bruges around the year 1540, and the illumination is attributable to the famous Simon Bening (d. 1561) and his workshop.

You may wonder if the players in the bas-de-page scene are engaged in golf or in a game similar to cambuca. But we do suspect that the name "the Cambuca Book" would never have taken on, don't you agree? Watch out for those flying golf balls ...

Julian Harrison

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