Medieval manuscripts blog

15 posts categorized "Women's histories"

24 January 2023

PhD placement on Medieval Women

Are you a PhD student working on topic relating to medieval women? We are now advertising an opportunity to do a placement with us in the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section at the British Library in 2023.

The student will assist us with preparing for the British Library's Medieval Women exhibition. The exhibition, scheduled for October 2024–February 2025, will focus on recovering medieval women’s voices, visions and experiences. It will tell their history through their own words, show them through their own images, and uncover their lives through original manuscripts, documents and objects.

A medieval manuscript page, with a large miniature, text and a floral border
Christine de Pizan writing in her study, with the goddess Minerva standing outside, from Christine de Pisan, Le livre des faits d'armes et de chevalerie: Harley MS 4605, f. 3r

The student will be supervised by the lead curator of the exhibition and will assist with key tasks in its development. These will include researching particular themes, exhibits and historical figures within the exhibition, assisting with the production of the exhibition book (e.g. assembling images, proof-reading), producing promotional materials (e.g. writing blogposts and content for the Library’s website) and helping to liaise with other teams at the British Library (such as Publishing, Conservation, Marketing).

This opportunity is offered as part of the annual British Library PhD Placement Scheme. Placements must take place between June 2023 and March 2024, and are offered for 3 months full-time or up to 6 months part-time.

The scheme is open to all current PhD students registered with a UK university. International PhD students are eligible to apply, subject to meeting any UK visa/residency requirements. Please visit our call for applications page for more information and details on how to apply.

The deadline for applications is 5pm on Monday 20 February 2023.

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10 January 2023

Jane Segar, an artist at the Elizabethan court

For modern readers, New Year is a time of reflection and resolution, as we bask in the aftermath of the Christmas celebrations and look ahead to the work of the coming months. But for the Elizabethans, New Year was also a time for gift-giving. Throughout her reign, Queen Elizabeth presided over 45 New Years gift-giving ceremonies, where she was the recipient of numerous extravagant gifts from her courtiers and admirers. This blogpost looks back over 400 years to the New Year period of 1589 and a particularly special present intended for the Tudor Queen herself. This gift is a beautiful slim volume (now Add MS 10037) called ‘The Divine Prophecies of the Ten Sibylls’, made by the hand of a woman called Jane Segar. The manuscript has recently been digitised as part of our Medieval and Renaissance Women project thanks to the generous funding of Joanna and Graham Barker.

The upper cover of Jane Segar's gift volume, embroidered in red velvet and gold and silver lace, featuring painted enamel panels.

The upper cover of Jane Segar’s ‘Divine Prophecies of the Ten Sibylls’: Add MS 10037

Little is known about the identity of Jane Segar, except that she seems to have been part of a family of artists and creatives active around the turn of the 17th century. Her brothers were the painter Francis Segar (b. 1563, d. 1615), and the herald and officer of arms Sir William Segar (b. c. 1554, d. 1633), who painted a number of surviving portraits of high-profile members of the Elizabethan court. William walked in the Queen’s funeral procession upon her death in 1603.

A portrait of William Segar from an illustrated depiction of the funeral procession of Elizabeth I.

A portrait of William Segar in the funeral procession of Elizabeth I: Add MS 35324, f. 36v

Although Jane herself is almost wholly absent from the historical record, it is clear she was an accomplished artist in her own right. Not only was she the scribe of Add MS 10037, she was most likely responsible for its illumination, as well as its beautiful embroidered binding.

Four details from the upper and lower covers of Jane Segar's embroidered and painted volume.

Details within the binding of Jane Segar’s ‘Divine Prophecies of the Ten Sibylls’: Add MS 10037

The binding itself is made from red velvet, handstitched in gold and silver lace, together with enamelled and gilt glass panels that enclose inset illuminated paintings. The paintings teem with decorative elements: laurel wreaths and golden foliage; Roman soldiers sat beneath green pavilions; a nude woman and a satyr (a mythological woodland spirit with goat's ears, legs and a tail, but a human torso), as well as pairs of leopards, small dogs and putti (nude male children, conventionally depicted with wings). The lower cover (whose panel is now unfortunately damaged) also features the date of the manuscript’s production, ‘1589’. Meanwhile, at the very centre of each panel appears a large cartouche, inscribed with a cluster of strange symbols painted in gold, whose appearance is closer to that of runic or Arabic characters than Roman letters. (For a description and discussion of the iconography, see Susan Frye, Pens and Needles: Women's Textualities in Early Modern England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), pp. 90-92.)

The central cartouche of the upper cover of Jane Segar's gift, featuring mottos written in Charactery.

The symbols of Charactery painted in the central cartouche on the upper cover of Jane’s book: Add MS 10037

The meaning of these symbols is revealed at the very beginning of the book, in a prose preface to the main text written and signed by Jane herself and dedicated to Queen Elizabeth. Jane explains that her gift to the Queen is her own work, ‘the handyworke of a maiden your majesty’s most faithful servant … graced with my pen and pencell’, and that it is written in a script she has only recently learnt, which she describes as ‘that rare Arte of Charactery’.

The opening dedication to Jane Segar's Prophecies of the Divine Sibylls.

Jane Segar’s Prologue to ‘The Divine Prophecies of the Ten Sibylls’: Add MS 10037, f. 1r

‘Charactery’ was a system of scribal shorthand (the ancestor of our own modern-day shorthand), a method of writing rapidly that substitutes characters, abbreviations or symbols for sounds, words and phrases. It was invented by Timothie Bright (b. 1551, d. 1615), a physician and clergyman. Bright published a treatise on the subject called Characterie. An Arte of shorte, swifte, and secrete writing by charactere in 1588, only a year before Jane made her own gift; like her, he also dedicated his work to the Elizabethan monarch. Bright's treatise seems to have been popular at Elizabeth’s court, at a time when ciphers and coded language were standard elements of diplomatic communications and spycraft.

A contemporary letter by Mary, Queen of Scots, written in cipher.

A contemporary letter by Mary, Queen of Scots, written in cipher: Cotton MS Caligula C II, f. 67r

Evidently, Bright’s shorthand had enough of a recognisable audience at the royal court for Jane to use it in her own work. The cartouches on the enamelled panels of her gift to the Queen use the symbols of his treatise to encode a pair of mottoes — ‘God and my right’ and ‘Evil be to him that evil thinks’ — as well as the initials of the Queen’s royal title ‘E.R.’ (Elizabeth Regina). Although the enamel panel on the book’s lower cover is now damaged and its cartouche obscured, similar encoded mottoes must once have been painted there as well.

The appearance of Bright’s shorthand is not limited to the volume’s decorative covers alone. It also forms an integral element of the text. Segar’s ‘Divine Prophecies of the Ten Sibylls’ consists of a set of 11 poems written in English. Ten of these poems purport to be verse 'translations' of prophecies concerning the Virgin Mary and the birth of Christ, each attributed to one of the Sibyls, legendary prophetesses from Greek and Roman legend and literature. The subject of prophecy (or divination) was one particularly favoured by Queen Elizabeth, who often consulted with astronomers, alchemists and occultists, most prominent among them her advisor John Dee (b. 1527, d. 1608/09).

One of the 'Divine Prophecies of the Ten Sibylls', transliterated into Charactery.

One of the ‘Divine Prophecies of the Ten Sibylls’ written in Charactery: Add MS 10037, f. 5r

In her volume, Jane provides the English text for each verse prophecy alongside a facing transliteration in Charactery, the initial letters and symbols of both versions lined with gold ink, along with the purported date each prophecy was made (for a further discussion of the poems, see Deirdre Serjeantson, 'Translation, Authorship, and Gender: The Case of Jane Seager’s Divine Prophecies of the Ten Sibills', in Elizabethan Translation and Literary Culture, ed. by Gabriela Schmidt (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2013), pp. 227–54). The ‘prophecy’ below, for example, is attributed to the Sibyll Cimmeria and details elements of the reception of Christ’s birth. It specifically mentions the Adoration of the Magi, who came to Bethlehem and lay before Christ gifts of frankincense, gold and myrrh, the theme of gift-giving an appropriate one for a book itself intended as a gift by its maker. 

An opening from the Divine Prophecies of the Ten Sibylls, showing the prophecy for Cimmeria in English and Charactery.

The prophecy of the Sibyll ‘Cimmeria’ in English and Charactery: Add MS 10037, ff. 4v-5r

The final poem in the volume is an address from Jane directed to Elizabeth herself. It similarly features the two versions of the verse text in English and Charactery side-by-side, but here Jane expresses her admiration for the Queen and wishes that she could divine for her a happy future:

    Lo thus in breife (most sacred Maiestye)
    I haue sett downe whence all theis Sibells weare:
    what they foretold, or saw, wee see, and heare,
    and profett reape by all their prophesy.
    Would God I weare a Sibell to divine
    in worthy vearse your lasting happynes:
    then only I should be Characteres
    of that, which worlds with wounder might desyne
    but what need I to wish, when you are such,
    of whose perfections none can write to much.

(Edited in Jessica L. Malay, 'Jane Seagar's Sibylline Poems: Maidenly Negotiations through Elizabethan Gift Exchange', English Literary Renaissance, 36 (2006), 173-93)

The final poem in the manuscript, written in English and a facing transliteration in Charactery.

The final poem in the manuscript, dedicated to Queen Elizabeth by Jane and dated 1589: Add MS 10037, ff. 11v–12r

We know little of what happened to Jane Segar after 1589 or whether her embroidered book ever reached Elizabeth. But it remains a remarkable testament to the skill of a female artist and scribe on the fringes of the Elizabethan court, and a gift that we would all be lucky to receive. We hope you enjoy reading through its pages online.


Calum Cockburn

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

07 December 2022

From Julian of Norwich to Eleanor Cobham: more magnificent manuscripts online

Readers of this Blog may know about out ambitious project to digitise a selection of manuscripts, rolls and charters connected with Medieval and Renaissance Women. Here we reveal another ten volumes that are now available online, including important literary manuscripts, a guide for female recluses, obituary calendars, and a volume with its own embroidered bookbinding.

The opening page of the obituary calendar of the abbey of St Quirinus

The obituary calendar of the abbey of St Quirinus: Add MS 15456, f. 2r

This selection notably includes two complete copies of the Long Text of The Revelations of Divine Love by the English mystic Julian of Norwich (d. after 1416). Julian's work is an account of her reflections on a sequence of visions of the Crucified Christ, experienced while lying on her sickbed with a near-fatal illness in 1373. It survives in both a short and long version and represents one of the earliest known works in English by a named woman. Very few copies of Julian’s work now remain, and the only complete copies of the Long Text date from after the end of the medieval period. This includes both of our manuscripts (Sloane MS 2499 and Sloane MS 3705), which were made by English recusant nuns living in France in the 17th and 18th centuries.

A page of the manuscript of the Revelations of Divine Love

The Revelations of Divine Love (Long Text) by Julian of Norwich: Sloane MS 3705, f. 2v

Julian of Norwich was an anchoress, one of a number of medieval women who for religious reasons withdrew from secular society. Another manuscript included in the project is a work known as the Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous monastic rule (or manual) written for anchoresses. This work was originally composed in Middle English in the early 13th century, apparently for three sisters who chose to enter the contemplative life, but the text was also copied and translated into many languages, including Anglo-Norman French. One of the earliest translations survives as Cotton MS Vitellius F VII, where it appears as part of a compendium of devotional works and prayers. An inscription at the back of the volume indicates that it was once owned by Eleanor Cobham (b. c. 1400, d. 1452), Duchess of Gloucester, who was infamously sentenced to life imprisonment after she was charged with necromancy.

The fire-damaged manuscript of Ancrene Wisse

The opening of the Anglo-Norman version of Ancrene Wisse, damaged in the Ashburnham House fire of 1731: Cotton MS Vitellius F VII, f. 2r

Another significant manuscript now online is the Felbrigge Psalter (Sloane MS 2400). This 13th-century Psalter is named after one of its later owners, Anne Felbrigge, a nun from the Franciscan abbey of the Annunciation of St Mary, Bruisyard (Suffolk), who signed her name in the book and added the obits (death-days) of her mother and father in the Psalter’s calendar. Anne may also have been responsible for the manuscript’s beautiful embroidered binding (dated c. 1300–1330), handstitched in coloured silks and silver gilt thread, with panels depicting scenes of the Annunciation and Crucifixion on the upper and lower covers. This binding is one of the earliest embroidered examples known to survive.

The upper cover of the Felbrigge Psalter

The upper cover of the ‘Felbrigge Psalter’, featuring an embroidered panel depicting the Annunciation: Sloane MS 2400

Many of the manuscripts in the project were made by female scribes. One is a copy of the Vitae Patrum et Verbis Seniorum (Lives and Sayings of the Fathers), an encyclopaedic work comprised of writings on the Desert Fathers and Desert Mothers of early Christianity. This manuscript (Add MS 22562) was written in 1449 by two scribes, Ava Trici and Gheeza Ysenoud, nuns of the convent of St Margaret at Gouda, who identify themselves in a closing note at the end of the text. In a delightful detail, the two sisters explain that they were given the parchment for the volume by a certain Nicolaus de Wyt, prior of the nearby Augustinian convent of St Michael in Schoonhaven.

The opening page of a manuscript written by two nuns at Gouda

The opening of the Vitae Patrum et Verbis Seniorum, written by Ava Trici and Gheeza Ysenoud: Add MS 22562, f. 2r

This volume was one of at least 70 housed at St Margaret’s by the end of the medieval period. Another manuscript digitised in our project is the convent’s chapter book (Harley MS 2939). The manuscript opens with a necrology, or obituary calendar, inscribed with the names of many of the community’s members, and to be consulted at the convent's daily chapter meetings.

The obituary calendar of the abbey of Gouda

A page from the obituary calendar of the chapter book of St Margaret’s, Gouda: Harley MS 2939, f. 5r

At the beginning of the project, we invited our readers to suggest manuscripts they were keen to be digitised. Among the requests were for us to include items relating to the economic management of female religious houses. Two such items are a census and a list of rents and payments (Add MS 21072 and Add MS 21177) owed to St Mary Magdalene’s Abbey in Cologne, a house of sisters of the Penitential Order of Mary Magdalene. This Order was established as a refuge for former sex-workers, an act that caused outrage at the time.

A page from the Cologne census

A page from the census of St Mary Magdalene’s Abbey in Cologne: Add MS 21072, f. 8r

Here is a list of the most recent items to have gone online:

Add MS 15456

Obituary calendar of the Abbey of St Quirinus, Neuss

Neuss (Germany), 1421–17th century

Add MS 21072

Census of St Mary Magdalene’s Abbey, Cologne

Cologne (Germany), 2nd half of the 14th century–1st half of the 15th century

Add MS 21177

Revenues and expenses of St Mary Magdalene’s Abbey, Cologne

Cologne (Germany), late 13th century

Add MS 22562

Vitae Patrum et Verbis Seniorum, written by Ava Trici and Gheeza Ysenoud

Gouda (Netherlands), 1449

Cotton MS Vitellius F VII

Ancrene Riwle and other texts

England, 1st quarter of the 14th century

Harley MS 2939

Chapter book of the convent of St Margaret in Gouda

Gouda (Netherlands), 3rd quarter of the 15th century

Royal MS 19 C VII

Geoffroy de la Tour-Landry, Le Livre du Chevalier de la Tour-Landry

Northern France, middle of the 15th century

Sloane MS 2400

'The Felbrigge Psalter'

Northern France, 2nd quarter of the 13th century–3rd quarter of the 13th century

Sloane MS 2499

Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love (Long Text)

Cambrai or Paris (France), c. 1650

Sloane MS 3705

Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love (Long Text)

Cambrai or Paris (France), 1st half of the 18th century

The opening page of Le Livre du Chevalier de la Tour Landry

The decorated opening of Le Livre du Chevalier de la Tour Landry: Royal MS 19 C VII, f. 1r

Stay tuned for more updates from our project as we continue to digitise more manuscripts. We are very grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for supporting Medieval and Renaissance Women.


Calum Cockburn

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

29 November 2022

The Lady of Las Huelgas

On 31 December 1313, infanta doña Blanca of Portugal (b. 1259, d. 1321), the first-born daughter of Alfonso III, King of Portugal (r. 1238–1248), and granddaughter of Alfonso X the Wise, King of Castile (r. 1252–1284), made charitable donations to various religious houses, churches and hospitals in Castile. Collectively, her donations amounted to over 20,000 maravedís (the currency of the Castilian Kingdom), a small fortune at the time. The details of Blanca’s grants are recorded in a document housed at the British Library (Add Ch 24806), written in Spanish and affixed with her personal seal. This is one of three original charters made at the time. The others are now in the Archivo de la Catedral de Burgos and the Archivo del Monasterio de Las Huelgas respectively. The charter held at the British Library has recently been digitised as part of our Medieval and Renaissance Women project and it can now be viewed online for the first time.

The charter of Blanca of Portugal

Grant of Doña Blanca of Portugal: Add Ch 24806

The principal beneficiary listed in the charter is the Cistercian abbey of Las Huelgas de Burgos, a royal foundation established by the Castilian king, Alfonso VIII (r. 1158–1214), and Leonor Plantagenet (b. 1160, d. 1214), his wife. From its foundation, Las Huelgas was known as a female convent with strong ties to royal women. Many members of the Castilian royal family professed there as nuns, and some of them performed the role of the Lady or señora of the Abbey.

The particularities of this role changed throughout the centuries, but fundamentally it allowed royal women to hold influence over the abbey and to ensure its preeminent position as a religious and economic centre in the kingdom. The responsibility for the abbey’s religious rule and day-to-day running remained with the abbess. Blanca became the Lady of Las Huelgas in 1295, after professing as a nun at the monastery at the request of her uncle, King Sancho IV (r. 1284–1295).


A portrait of Blanca (her name is spelled 'BRANCA') in the ‘Portuguese Genealogies’ (16th century): Add MS 12531/3, f. 9r

Blanca gave generous sums of money to the women of Las Huelgas. Her charter includes detailed instructions of how much money each woman was to receive yearly:

A la abbadesa, dozientos maravedís; a cada una de las monjas, çient maravedís, a cada una de las que fueren para monjas, setenta marevedís; a cada una de las freyras, quarenta maravedís; a cada una de las que fueren para freyras, veynte e çinco marevedís. E mando que den cada anno a tres para ser monjas a cada una trezientos maravedís.

‘To the abbess, 200 maravedís; to each nun, 100 maravedís; to each novice, 70 maravedís; to each freyra [a type of nun], 40 maravedís; to each woman preparing to be a freyra, 25 maravedís. And I order that every year they give to three women who want to join the convent as nuns 300 maravedís’.

Photograph of the abbey of Las Huelgas de Burgos

The abbey of Santa María la Real de Las Huelgas, Burgos, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The other significant beneficiary of Blanca’s donations was the nearby Hospital del Rey. Like the abbey of Las Huelgas, the Hospital del Rey had been founded in the 12th century by King Alfonso VIII and Queen Leonor, and its connection with the royal family continued throughout the medieval period. The hospital received 6,000 maravedís in Blanca’s bequests, to be spent on the care and nursing of the poor, as well as to buy livestock to feed them. Many other religious institutions also benefited from Blanca's grant, including the church of Santa María in Burgos, the church of Santa María in Briviesca, the monastery of Santa Clara of Alcocer in Guadalajara, the monastery of Santo Domingo de Caleruega in Burgos, as well as the lepers of San Lázaro and the ‘emparedadas’ (anchorites) in Burgos.

A map of the beneficiaries of Blanca’s donations

A map of the beneficiaries of Blanca’s donations, courtesy of ArcGIS StoryMaps

Blanca’s donations were an attempt to guarantee her personal legacy and spiritual salvation. Alongside her grants, she provided specific instructions about how she wanted to be remembered by the religious community of Las Huelgas, where she was buried after her death in 1321. Most notably, she arranged for the sisters to commemorate the vigil and the anniversary of her death with 12 wax candles every year, which were to weigh exactly 10 pounds (‘cada çirio de diez libras de cera’). On the anniversary itself, the monastery had to distribute food-alms to the poor, made up of bread, wine and meat. During the year, eight chaplains had to give prayers for Blanca’s soul every day.


The tomb of Blanca of Portugal at Las Huelgas, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Blanca’s grant functioned as a display of the piety and patronage expected from a royal infanta and the Lady of Las Huelgas. It also demonstrates how, through their donations, women were able to change the social and economic landscape of the territories over which they ruled.

The seal of Blanca of Portugal

Blanca of Portugal’s fragmentary seal: Add Ch 24806

We are extremely grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for their generous funding of Medieval and Renaissance Women. We will publish more updates about the project on this Blog over the coming months.


Paula Del Val Vales


08 November 2022

The expenses of Queen Eleanor of Castile

A Psalter, a silver belt, brooches and clasps, Parisian jewels, brown bread from Cologne, nuts and pears: these are all items that Queen Eleanor of Castile (r. 1272–1290) bought between September 1289 and December 1290. Eleanor was the queen consort of the English king, Edward I (r. 1272–1307), and her wardrobe account (Add MS 35294), compiled by her treasurer, John of Berewyk (fl. 1279–1312), contains a set of her receipts and expenses from the final year of her life.

This manuscript has recently been digitised as part of our Medieval and Renaissance Women project and it can now be viewed online.

The opening page of the wardrobe account

The first page of Eleanor’s wardrobe account: Add MS 35294, f. 3r

This account may seem humble in appearance, but it opens a window into the world of Eleanor’s court, her household, and her day-to-day life. The expenses listed range from the most mundane and everyday items, such as her food, payments to her messengers, and the maintenance of her horses, to the incredibly lavish and luxurious, including purchases of jewels, pearls and Venetian glasses. The payments are expressed in pounds, shillings and pence. Here is a typical entry, in this case recording the queen’s purchase of writing materials:

An excerpt from the wardrobe account of Eleanor of Castile

Parcamenum. xvj die Februarii ibidem pro parcameno empto ad letteras Regine et ad libros Garderobe. xxd.

'Parchment. 16 February [1290], in the same place. For parchment bought for the letters and wardrobe books of the queen, 20 pence.'

Entry from 16 February 1290 recording expenses on parchment: Add MS 35294, f. 6v

Between 1289 and 1290, Eleanor bought ink and several rolls of parchment for her letters and wardrobe accounts, as well as red wax to seal her letters, and gold for illuminating her manuscripts. The queen even had an illuminator in her retinue, Godfrey ‘pictor’, who was responsible for decorating her books and is also mentioned in the accounts. All these purchases demonstrate that Queen Eleanor was an avid reader and writer, a woman interested in the patronage of illuminated manuscripts, and that she was in frequent contact with her networks through the exchange of letters.

A number of Eleanor’s letters have survived to the present day. They include another letter digitised and catalogued as part of our Medieval and Renaissance Women project, dating from 1280, in which Eleanor granted power to William de Verges, yeoman, to do fealty in her name to Guy, Count of Flanders, for the land that had fallen to her by hereditary right.

A letter of Eleanor of Castile

Letter of Eleanor of Castile with her seal, sent to Guy, Count of Flanders: Add Ch 8129

Eleanor’s wardrobe account also provides insight into her personal interests. Her treasurer recorded payments that relate to the queen’s homeland — the kingdom of Castile — and that show Eleanor’s longstanding connection to her native kingdom. For example, one entry indicates that the queen bought vestments and tunics of Spanish cloth (‘de panno Ispannie’), while another shows that Eleanor bought gum for the illumination of her manuscripts from the Iberian Peninsula (‘gumma alba de Ispannia’). The wardrobe account also records payments made to the queen’s own fowler (or bird hunter), as well as the purchase of birds (avibus, volucres). This shows the queen’s interest in hunting, which she continued to practise until the end of her life.

Image from an illuminated manuscript showing a woman hunting deer

Bas-de-page of the Alphonso Psalter (c 1284–1316), depicting a crowned woman hunting, suggested to be Eleanor of Castile: Add MS 24686, f. 13v

The final entries from Eleanor’s wardrobe account include several payments relating to the queen’s death on 28 November 1290, when she was 49 years old, as well as the arrangements made for her funeral between November and December 1290. Eleanor’s treasurer notably paid 7 pence to buy a bushel of barley, used as part of the procedure of embalming the queen’s body (‘pro uno bussello ardei empto ad ponendum in corpus Regine’). This was a common practice for English medieval monarchs. The wardrobe account even records Eleanor's death, with a small marginal note in Latin that reads ‘decessus regine’.

Eleanor's tomb effigy at Westminster Abbey, showing her head and shoulders

The queen’s effigy from her tomb: courtesy of Westminster Abbey

We are extremely grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for their generous funding of Medieval and Renaissance Women. We will publish regular updates about the project on this Blog over the coming months.


Paula Del Val Vales

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

13 October 2022

A Pardoner’s Tale

Purgatory weighed heavily on the minds of many medieval Christians. Each sin they committed in life meant they would spend longer in Purgatory before ascending to Heaven. For the famous poet Dante Alighieri (c. 1265–1321), Purgatory could involve great suffering, with the prideful crushed under stones and the envious having their eyes sewn up.

A detail from a highly decorated manuscript of the Divine Comedy, showing Dante and Virgil before the Gates of Purgatory.

Dante and Virgil at the gates of Purgatory (left); Dante speaking with one of the Proud, who are punished in Purgatory by carrying heavy stones (right): Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 84r

A whole industry grew up around minimising one’s time in Purgatory. Monasteries and chantries prayed for the dead, in the hopes that this would speed their journey to Heaven. But another method was to get an indulgence. These could be earned through certain acts, like making a pilgrimage to a particular shrine, or simply buying one from various collectors appointed by the Church. In return, people believed that the indulgence gave certain spiritual benefits, such as absolution from part of a person’s sins, which meant a shorter time in Purgatory. The funds from the sale of indulgences sometimes went towards specific projects, like the construction of a cathedral, or to support particular monasteries, hospitals or religious orders.

One of the manuscripts digitised as part of the Library’s Medieval and Renaissance Women project is just such a document. Stowe Ch 607 is an indulgence issued in 1439 to two sisters, Margery and Anna Dicks, which allowed them to choose their own confessor who could offer a full remission of sins. Although hand-written, this indulgence was mass produced, with blank spaces left for the names of whoever bought it. The text states that their money would go towards the conversion of the Greeks (that is, from Greek Orthodox to Roman Catholic Christianity) and the defence of Christendom’s frontiers.

A manuscript leaf with a fragmentary red seal showing the torso of a robed man and a knotwork border.

An indulgence of Pope Eugenius IV, issued by Peter de Monte to Margery and Anna Dicks, 1439: Stowe Ch 607

This particular indulgence was issued in the name of Pope Eugenius IV (r. 1431–1447) by Peter de Monte (c. 1400–1457), the controversial papal collector for England from 1435 to 1441. At the time of the Reformation, indulgence collectors were often accused of corruption by Protestants like Martin Luther, whose Ninety-Five Theses (1517) was written in response to the collector Johann Tetzel, but such men also came in for criticism in the 1400s. The Pardoner of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales carried several fake relics, from a collection of pig bones to a pillowcase which he claimed was the Virgin Mary’s veil, selling them to gullible village priests. Dissidents like the Lollards and many church reformers also criticised indulgences and those who sold them. Thomas Gascoigne (1404–1458), who was chancellor of Oxford University in the 1440s, wrote that people could buy indulgences ‘for an offering of ale, and others for a loathsome act of sin; and others had baskets full of letters of indulgence to sell them throughout the country to whoever wanted to buy them.’

A portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer inside a capital ‘T’, holding an open book in his hands and wearing a grey robe with red hose and shoes.

A portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer in a manuscript of The Canterbury Tales: Lansdowne MS 851, f. 2r

In 1444, Peter de Monte was to be investigated by the archbishop of Canterbury and two other churchmen, following rumours that he had received huge sums of money from these indulgences, but had sent only a small amount to the papal coffers. Later, Gascoigne named de Monte as one of the corrupt sellers of indulgences, calling him a ‘very arrogant Lombard’ (he was actually Venetian). Gascoigne alleged that some people had received indulgences from de Monte in return for ‘false carnal pleasure’, and he claimed that when de Monte lost a game of football, he would give the winner a sealed indulgence instead of money.

A letter from Peter de Monte to William Buggy, vicar of Soham, Cambridgeshire, bound into The Book of Margery Kempe.

A letter from Peter de Monte in the Book of Margery Kempe: Add MS 61823, f. vii recto

We know little about Margery and Anna, not even the amount they paid for their indulgence (which would have been based on their wealth and status). A partial indulgence, that remitted only certain sins, could easily cost a skilled tradesman a week's salary. The type purchased by Margery and Anna (known as a plenary indulgence) would have cost considerably more. We can only assume that they believed in its effectiveness of shortening the time they would spend in Purgatory. As this indulgence was issued in support of the Crusades, and in unifying the Latin and Greek churches, the sisters may have held an interest in supporting the defence and expansion of Latin Christendom, a cause that was widespread in late medieval England.

Although Peter de Monte was investigated by the papacy, he seems to have escaped punishment for his corrupt activities. He was nominated bishop of Brescia, in northern Italy, in 1442, taking up his post in 1445. He withdrew from secular politics following the death of Eugenius IV in 1447, focusing on his bishopric until he died in 1457.

The British Library's Medieval and Renaissance Women digitisation project is in full swing. We are publishing regular updates about the project's progress, and about the manuscripts, rolls and charters that we are digitising, and that will be shared online with you over the coming months. See this blogpost for our most recent report.


Rory MacLellan

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27 August 2022

Help us decipher this inscription

Do you fancy yourself as some sort of medieval detective? Then this might be just the right thing for you.

Hot off the press is this ultraviolet image of one of the manuscripts in our Medieval and Renaissance Women project, the cartulary of Coldingham Priory. You can read more about the project in this blogpost and you can view the cartulary in full on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site (Harley MS 6670). The cartulary was made in 1434 for the Cistercian nuns of Coldingham in Scotland, and it contains copies of a number of documents, including a charter of Alexander II, King of Scots (r. 1214–1249), and several of the Earls of Dunbar. A note at the end of the volume (f. 55v) reveals that the nuns asked John Laurence, a public notary, to make a transcript of their charters, because of their age and out of fear of English invasion, which meant they were more susceptible to burning or other accidents.

A page of the Coldingham cartulary with an inscription at the top, revealed under ultraviolet light

While we were cataloguing the manuscript, we noticed this late medieval note in the upper part of the page at the end, that someone has tried to erase, very effectively as it happens. But what does it say? We'd love your thoughts. Is it an ownership inscription of some kind, or does it give an insight into how the cartulary was made or used?

If you are able to read some or all of the words, please pop a comment into the box below or contact us on Twitter @BLMedieval. We'd be extremely grateful for your help. Here is a detail of the inscription, and you can see what it looks like with the naked eye here (Harley MS 6670, f. 57v).

Highlight of the inscription


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25 August 2022


Earlier this year we announced our major Medieval and Renaissance Women project (you can read more about it in this blogpost.) Thanks to generous funding from Joanna and Graham Barker, the British Library is digitising many of its manuscripts, rolls and charters connected with women from Britain and across Europe, and made between 1100 and 1600.

A page from a medieval manuscript of Hildegard von Bingen's collected works, featuring a decorated border and initials in gold.

The prologue of Hildegard von Bingen’s Liber divinorum operum (Add MS 15418, f. 7r)

We have some great news to report: the first batch of ten manuscript volumes is now available to view online. They include copies of the works of Hildegard von Bingen and Christine de Pizan; a manuscript illuminated by the German nun Sibilla von Bondorf; two witnesses of Le Sacre de Claude de France; a Dutch prayer-book designed to support young women's literacy; and two cartularies (one secular, the other religious). 

A page from a manuscript of The Rule of the Minorite Order of Sisters of St Clare, featuring an illustration of the Virgin Mary and Child, and a bishop, painted by Sibilla von Bondorff.

The Virgin Mary and Child with a bishop, perhaps St Giles, painted by Sibilla von Bondorf, a German nun and artist (Add MS 15686, f. 1r)

A page from a medieval manuscript of a work of Christine de Pizan, showing an illustration of Christine writing at her desk and the armoured goddess Minerva outside.

Christine de Pizan writing in her study and the goddess Minerva, at the beginning of Christine’s Le livre des faits d'armes et de chevalerie (Harley MS 4605, f. 3r)

A full list of the published manuscripts is provided at the end of this post. We'll reveal more on the Blog in the coming months. Hopefully this initial selection whets your appetite for the treats in store!

An illustration from a Middle Dutch prayer-book, showing a group of girls learning in a classroom, with a teacher holding a wooden paddle.

An illustration of girls learning to read in a classroom, from a Middle Dutch prayer-book (Harley MS 3828, f. 27v)

A brief word about how we've chosen the manuscripts. In February, we asked readers of the Medieval Manuscripts Blog to recommend items that were most relevant to their research and to the themes of our project, such as female health, education and spirituality. The feedback was astonishing — we received over 60 suggestions of manuscripts from nearly 30 researchers and other members of the public — and we'd like to take this opportunity to thank each and every one of you for your enthusiastic responses. We then compared these nominations with other collection items held at the Library, taking into consideration factors such as the contents and date of each manuscript, its direct relevance to the lives of medieval and Renaissance women, and whether the manuscript's condition makes it suitable for digitisation. We've also strived to be as representative as possible by including manuscripts from different regions of Europe (and in different languages), as well as from the whole period 1100–1600.

Add MS 15418

Hildegard von Bingen, Liber divinorum operum

England, 15th century

Add MS 15686

Rule of the Minorite Order of Sisters of St Clare, illuminated by Sibilla von Bondorf

Swabia, c. 1480

Add MS 29986

Le Miroir des Dames (an anonymous French translation of Durand de Champagne's Speculum dominarum)    

France, 1407–1410

Cotton MS Titus A XVII

Le Sacre, Couronnement, et Entrée de Claude de France

Paris, 1517

Harley MS 3828

Middle Dutch prayer-book

Southern Netherlands, c. 1440-c. 1500

Harley MS 4605

Christine de Pizan, Le Livre des faits d'armes et de chevalerie

London, 1434

Harley MS 6670

Cartulary of Coldstream Priory

Coldstream, 1434

Royal MS 19 B XVI

Le Miroir des Dames (an anonymous French translation of Durand de Champagne's Speculum dominarum)    

Northern France, 1428

Stowe MS 582

Le Sacre, Couronnement, et Entrée de Claude de France

Paris, 1517

Stowe MS 776

Cartulary of the estates of John de Vaux and his daughter and co-heiress Petronilla de Narford

England, 14th century


A page from a manuscript of Le Sacre de Claude de France, showing an illustration of the French Queen's coronation.

The Coronation of Claude de France at St Denis in 1517 (Stowe MS 582, f. 18v)

A page from the Cartulary of Coldstream Priory, showing the text of a charter, with a marginal drawing of a lion in red and black ink.

The cartulary of Coldstream Priory (Harley MS 6670, f. 22r)


Julian Harrison and Calum Cockburn

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