Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

30 posts categorized "Women's histories"

25 March 2023

Medieval and Renaissance Women: full list of the manuscripts

Rejoice! Over the past year, we've been hard at work digitising and cataloguing manuscripts connected with Medieval and Renaissance Women. We can now announce that all the manuscript volumes are online, no fewer than 93 (NINETY-THREE) of them. Many of these items were nominated by the readers of this Blog. We know that these manuscripts will support research into a wide variety of subjects that are close to our heart — women authors, female patronage and book ownership, women's health, education and business dealings, female spirituality, to name a few.

A portrait of St Birgitta of Sweden, seated and writing her book, beside a bishop.

St Birgitta of Sweden, sitting and writing in a book, from a copy of her Revelations (Cotton MS Claudius B I, f. 117r)

You can download the full list here, with links to the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site. There, you'll be able to peruse these manuscripts in full and for free from the comfort of your own living room, office or jacuzzi (perhaps don't try this at home).

PDF: Download Medieval_and_renaissance_women_digitised_vols_mar_2023

Excel: Download Medieval_and_renaissance_women_digitised_vols_mar_2023 (this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers)

A decorated page, with full borders in colours and gold, showing the arms of Margaret Beaufort.

An indenture between Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond, and John Islip, Abbot of Westminster Abbey (Lansdowne MS 441, f. 3r)

We've also been digitising a significant number of our charters and rolls relating to Medieval and Renaissance Women (218 charters at the last count and 25 rolls). We will make a separate announcement when all of these are online — many of them already are, if you have been following this Blog carefully (most recently Claim of thrones and Mary had a little lamb).

An illuminated initial, showing a women looking at her face in a mirror.

The opening of a chapter on skin care from Le Regime du Corps (Sloane MS 2401, f. 47r)

We would like to take this opportunity to thank Joanna and Graham Barker for their generous funding of Medieval and Renaissance Women, and essentially for making this all possible. We'd also like to thank our colleagues — the project co-ordinators, cataloguers, conservators, imaging technicians, digital specialists and fundraisers — who have been beavering away behind the scenes to bring this project to fruition.

The opening of the proceedings of the trial of Joan of Arc.

The proceedings of the trial of Joan of Arc (Egerton MS 984, f. 3r)

From the works of Christine de Pisan, the first European woman to make her living from writing books, to treatises dealing with pregnancy, from cartularies and obituary calendars to the writings of Hildegard of Bingen and Birgitta of Sweden, not to mention the trial proceedings of Joan of Arc, we invite you to explore this wonderful and eye-opening collection.

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23 March 2023

Mary had a little lamb

One of the more unusual manuscripts digitised for the British Library’s Medieval and Renaissance Women project is Cotton Roll XIV 8: a year-long menu for the 15-year-old Princess Mary (the future Queen Mary I) and her household, in 1531.

A manuscript divided into six columns, with some tears and damage to the membrane.

The lunch menu for Mary and her household on Christmas, New Year’s Day and Twelfth Night: Cotton Roll XIV 8

This manuscript gives us a fascinating insight into the food eaten not only by Mary herself, but also by her household officials and servants. It is divided into six columns. The first column lists the dishes given to Mary and the second those for her lord president, chancellor, chamberlain, vice-chamberlain, steward, treasurer, comptroller, and other leading councillors. The third column is for her senior household officials, the cofferer, the clerk of the comptroller, the clerk of the kitchen, and the marshal. The fourth column is for gentlemen and gentlewomen. The titles of the final two columns have been torn off, but they were probably for Mary’s more junior servants and staff.

A portrait of Mary as a young girl with red hair, a headdress, and a black gown. At the bottom is a parchment scroll reading “The emperour”.

A portrait of Princess Mary, attributed to Lucas Horenbout (Hornebolte), c. 1525: courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 6453

The manuscript lists many dishes that may be unfamiliar to us today, such as pottage (a thick stew), brawn (meat boiled in spices and jelly, eaten cold), and bakemeats (pastry dishes, savoury or sweet, such as pies or tarts). More recognisable foods are pork, custard and blancmange. One of the most common meats is poultry, including chicken, swan, goose, partridge, snipe, crane, pheasant and heron.

The menu begins with Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, and Twelfth Night (6 January), the culmination of the Christmas season. On these days, Mary was to have two courses at each meal, with over 10 dishes per course at lunch and about 8 dishes at dinner, including roast swan, venison, pike, brawn, heron, rabbit, pheasant, sturgeon, crane, lamb, partridge, blancmange, custard and tarts. For lunch, she also had a boar’s head ‘solemnly served’. This was the traditional centrepiece of a Christmas feast for royal and noble households and it was usually seasoned with rosemary and bay leaves. Mary would be served this same menu on the feasts of All Saints (1 November) and the Purification (2 February), with the exception of the boar’s head. In contrast, the lowest of her household servants would have just five dishes at lunch, eating pottage, meat, pig or goose, veal or pork, and bakemeats.

After Christmas, the manuscript moves on to the menu for Sundays and feast days, and then for the others day of the week. The dishes are quite similar but fewer in number. Mary still had two courses at each meal, usually totalling 14 dishes at lunch and 10 at dinner. For the lowest servants in her household, only one course of two or three dishes was served. The exceptions to this rule were Fridays and Saturdays, when Catholics were supposed to eat fish instead of meat. On those days the menu lists a wide array of different fish, including plaice, haddock, cod, salmon, bream and lampreys.

A feast held in a hall. In the foreground, entertainers and a jester talk while musicians play. In the back, a servant brings in a new dish.

A miniature of a feast from a Book of Hours ('The Golf Book') (Bruges, c. 1540): Add MS 24098, f. 19v

Our manuscript sheds light on the meals eaten at a royal court and how the food differed according to social status. Mary herself and her chief officials enjoyed a wide selection of dishes, while those at the lowest end of the scale were offered a much smaller range. The impression is of a wealthy court, with the princess feasting on a wide array of foods.

But 1531 was a difficult year for the princess. Her father, Henry VIII, banished her mother, Katherine of Aragon, from court in favour of his mistress, Anne Boleyn, who kept Mary away from Henry. Mary’s health declined and she suffered several illnesses. Although Mary might not have enjoyed the food listed here as much as in a typical year (she was unable to keep her food down for three weeks in the summer), this manuscript does give us a valuable insight into the food eaten by her household just two years before she fell further out of favour. In 1533, Henry divorced her mother and married Anne Boleyn. In response, the princess’s household was reduced from over 160 servants to just two. The following year, Mary was declared illegitimate. She would not again enjoy the lavish feasts described in this menu until she became queen of England in 1553.

We are grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for their generous funding of Medieval and Renaissance Women.

 

Rory MacLellan

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

16 March 2023

Claim of thrones

Who was the first Queen of England in her own right? Matilda? Lady Jane Grey? Mary? Does Isabel of Portugal spring to mind?

To set the scene. On 21 May 1471, King Henry VI of England (r. 1422–1461, 1470–1471) died at the Tower of London, the prisoner of his rival Edward IV (r. 1461–1470, 1471–1483), the first Yorkist king. Henry had no surviving heirs, and his death took place during the Wars of the Roses, a time of political turmoil in England. For over a century, the English throne had been disputed by two rival families: Lancaster and York.

Amidst this conflict, and only a month after Henry VI’s death, Isabel of Portugal (b. 1397, d. 1471), dowager Duchess of Burgundy, laid a claim to the English throne. In a solemn document issued on 17 June 1471, Isabel declared herself universal heiress of the late king. The charter in which Isabel claimed her rights to the crown of England (Add Ch 8043) has been digitised for our Medieval and Renaissance Women Project.

The document in which Isabel of Portugal claimed the crown of England

Isabel of Portugal claims her rights to the crown of England and declares herself universal heiress of Henry VI, the late king: Add Ch 8043

Isabel of Portugal, dowager Duchess of Burgundy, was the daughter of João I, King of Portugal (r. 1385–1433), and Queen Philippa of Lancaster (b. 1360, d. 1415). Through her maternal lineage, Isabel shared a common ancestor with King Henry VI of England: John of Gaunt (b. 1340, d. 1399), Duke of Lancaster. John of Gaunt was Isabel’s grandfather and Henry VI’s great-grandfather. It was on the grounds of this consanguinity (the kinship of two individuals characterized by the sharing of common ancestors) that Isabel made claim to the English throne.

Page of an illuminated manuscript showing John of Gaunt and his relationships with the ruling houses of Portugal and Europe

John of Gaunt and his relationships with the ruling houses of Portugal and Europe, including Isabel of Portugal (in red, right-hand margin), from the ‘Portuguese Genealogies’ (16th century): Add MS 12531/3, f. 10r

The charter was signed by Isabel herself, and it was validated by two notaries, Hugo de le Val and Matheus de Hamello, clergymen of the city of Arras in France (‘presbiter canonicus Atrebatensibus’). These notarial marks, together with Isabel’s signature, conferred legal validity upon this document.

Close-up of Isabel’s signature and two notarial marks

Close-up of Isabel’s signature and two notarial marks: Add Ch 8043

However, Isabel did not hold on to her claim to the English throne for long. Only a few months later, on 3 November 1471, she ceded her rights to her son, Charles the Bold (b. 1433, d. 1477), Duke of Burgundy. At this time Isabel was 74 years old, and she died soon afterwards, on 17 December 1471, in the town of Aire-sur-la-Lys in France. The Yorkist king, Edward IV, ruled over England until 1483, surviving both Isabel and Charles the Bold, mother and son.

Manuscript page with a miniature of Charles the Bold, son of Isabel of Portugal, and his court

Charles the Bold, son of Isabel of Portugal, and his court: Yates Thompson MS 32, f. 14r

Although her claim never succeeded, this document demonstrates that Isabel of Portugal tried actively to take advantage of a time of political instability and unrest in England, in order to advance her own position and, more hopefully, that of her son. Isabel was well aware of her lineage to the late Henry VI, and at a time of turbulence and doubt during the Wars of the Roses, she did not hesitate to assert herself as universal heir.

We are grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for their generous funding of Medieval and Renaissance Women.

 

Paula Del Val Vales

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

14 March 2023

A deathbed confession

One of the more unusual documents digitised as part of the British Library’s Medieval and Renaissance Women project is Add Ch 67394, a sworn testimony by four men that they had been told the deathbed confession of a woman called Alice of Hulton. It is the missing piece in a 600-year-old case involving an affair, a divorce, and a lovechild.

A small charter with four red seals attached

Declaration by Brother John Bradfield, Robert of Hebton, William Brechton of Ekygan and John Fogg of Bradshaw, regarding the deathbed confession of Alice of Hulton, 20 December 1447: Add Ch 67394

Alice of Hulton had been the lover of Robert of Pilkington, lord of Rivington in Lancashire. A soldier who fought in France in the Hundred Years War, Robert had testified in the famous Scrope v Grosvenor case in the Court of Chivalry in 1386. But he had his own legal problems to worry about.

Robert had married a different Alice, Alice of Astley, in 1379, but this was annulled in July that same year, as Alice of Astley was distantly related to Alice of Hulton, with whom he had had a relationship in 1367. He then married Katherine de Aynesworth in 1383 and they had seven children together. Despite this seemingly stable marriage, Robert spent the 1390s transferring his estates to various trustees, both within and without his family, seemingly to protect them from an unknown rival claimant. The reason for this takes us back to Alice of Hulton.

As it turned out, Robert’s second wife, Katherine, was also a cousin of Alice of Hulton, requiring him to secure a dispensation from the Pope in 1403 to confirm the validity of his marriage. On top of this, Alice of Hulton and Robert of Pilkington had a daughter, Imania, born out of wedlock in the late 1360s. Robert married Imania off to Roger of Bolton in 1385, seemingly forgetting about her until she and Roger had a son in the 1390s, also named Robert. Pilkington’s legal manoeuvres in the 1390s were his attempts to stop Imania’s son, his grandson, from having any claim on his lands. With the papal dispensation confirming his marriage in 1403, Pilkington died that year probably safe in the knowledge that his family’s estates were now secure.

A family tree of Alice of Hulton and Alice of Astley, showing their connections and links to Robert of Pilkington

Family tree of Alice of Hulton and Alice of Astley, from John Pilkington, The History of the Pilkington Family and its Branches from 1066 to 1600 (Liverpool, 1912), p. 221

So why was Alice of Hulton's testimony important in 1447, 44 years after Pilkington's death? That's because two years previously, in 1445, Imania's son, Robert son of Roger of Bolton, appeared in court to try and claim Rivington as the son and heir of Imania, over Pilkington's children by Katherine.

The case must still have been live in 1447, when these four men put their seals to this certificate. In it, they say that, while Alice of Hulton lay dying, William of Lener had heard a Richard French of Bolton proclaim that the divorce between Pilkington and Alice of Astley had been done under a false pretext, implying that Richard believed Pilkington and Alice of Hulton had not slept together. Lener said that Alice of Hulton swore that this was a lie, and that 'she would swear before almighty God at the day of doom that she had known part of the body of the said Robert in fleshly deed of sin'.

Despite Alice’s deathbed confession recorded in this document, her grandson Robert was unsuccessful in securing part of the estates of his grandfather, Robert of Pilkington. Rivington remained in the Pilkington family until it was sold in 1605. This small document is part of a fascinating story of the complexities of medieval marriage and inheritance, and preserves one woman’s attempt to tell her own story about her relationship with a powerful local lord.

We are grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for funding our Medieval and Renaissance Women project.

 

Rory MacLellan

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

06 March 2023

Where there's a will

One of the benefits of our Medieval and Renaissance Women project is that we have been able to focus on groups of documents that have features in common. Individually, these documents provide insight into the lives (and after-lives) of particular named women; collectively, this evidence is all the richer for revealing social trends and patterns of behaviour. Into this category falls a number of wills of women from the 13th to the 16th centuries, from England, Flanders and Germany.

The cover of the will of Elizabeth Ayrer of Nuremberg

The cover of the will of Elizabeth Ayrer of Nuremberg, 1534: Add Ch 74114

A full list of the women's wills digitised as part of this project is given at the end of this blogpost. They number 22 individual wills, some with probate certificates, and a commission by the archbishop of Canterbury to administer a will. It's more than likely that many of the women in whose names these wills were issued would have been obliterated from the historical record if these documents had not survived.

The women named in these wills came from different walks of life but they had shared experiences. In each case, they wished to make provision for their possessions and property after they had died, and to make arrangements for the salvation of their souls. Many of them are described as widows. Does this mean that, as they had no husbands to inherit their goods, it was more incumbent upon them to set out who should be the beneficiaries?

Several women were keen to stipulate where they should be buried. In 1318, Gunnilda atte Denne requested that her body be buried in the churchyard of St Peter Newdigate, and she made a bequest to that church for her obit mass (Add Ch 17295). In 1504, Katherine Cooke prescribed that her body be buried in the chapel of St Mary at St Michael the Archangel’s church, Lewes, next to the tomb of John Cooke, her husband (Add Ch 18791). She also left money for the maintenance of her tomb, for masses for her soul, and to Agnes Chamber, her daughter. In 1411, Margery, the widow of John Todenham, knight, left her body to be buried in the chancel of the Austin Friars, Thetford, next to the tomb of Elizabeth Homgrave, her daughter (Add Ch 24243).

The will of Gunnilda atte Denne

The will of Gunnilda atte Denne, 1318: Add Ch 17295

We can also gain insights into the wider social circles and support networks of medieval and Renaissance women. For instance, in 1342, Elizabeth, the widow of Thomas Paytfyn of Heddingley, made bequests to her brothers' children and to her siblings (Add Ch 16789). In 1500,  Joanna Lane, widow of Nicholas Lane of Snape, made bequests to her daughters, her goddaughter, and her goddaughter’s family (Add Ch 26317). In 1360, Katherine de Bassi of Tournai, wife of the late Baldwin du Bas, made payments to parish priests, hostels, hospitals, the sick, her relatives and those of her husband (Add Ch 75719). Katherine was here providing for the salvation of her soul, but one imagines that the people listed in her bequest deserved her favour in one way or another.

The will of Katherine de Bassi of Tournai

The will of Katherine de Bassi of Tournai: Add Ch 75719

It is possible to gauge from this documentary material that particular women may have had significant accomplishments, or moved in particular circles. We know, for example, that Margery de Crek was the founder of Flixton Priory. In her will, dated the morrow of the feast of St Luke the Evangelist (19 October), 1282, she left her body to be buried in the church there, which she had founded in 1258 (LFC Ch III 1). She made other bequests to this convent, to the bishop of Norwich, and to her family. One of the most detailed wills we have digitised, comprising 3 membranes folded into bifolia and sewn together, is that of Elizabeth Ayrer, widow of Sebald Neyrer of Nuremberg, dated 1534, and which was certified by the Burgomeister and council of that city (Add Ch 74114). In her will, dated 14 July 1574, Agnes Fearne made provision to establish a free school and a bedehouse at Wirksworth (Derbyshire) (Wolley Ch XII 31). We know that her sister’s stepson and Anthony Gell, one of her executors, founded the school and bedehouse in 1576.

Lfc_ch_iii_1_f001r

The will of Margery de Crek, founder of Flixton Priory, 1282: LFC Ch III 1

In one instance, a will survives of a woman who was subsequently declared intestate. On 18 March 1455, Sibylla Frances of Dunwich committed her body in her will to the Franciscans of Dunwich, besides making bequests to them, the parish church of Shaddingfield(?), and Peter Codon, the son of Robert Codon (Add Ch 10392). Other records show that by 1457 Sibylla was intestate, implying that her will had either been lost or that it had been deemed invalid. In other words, leaving a will was no guarantee that the woman's wishes be carried out to the letter.

Add Ch 6290

Will of Joan Ward, widow, of St Saviour’s Parish, Southwark (1544)

Add Ch 10392

Will of Sibylla Frances of Dunwich (1455)

Add Ch 16789

Will and probate certificate of Elizabeth, widow of Thomas Paytfyn of Heddingley (1342)

Add Ch 17295

Will and probate certificate of Gunnilda atte Denne (1318)

Add Ch 18791

Will and probate certificate of Katherine Cook of St Andrew’s parish, Lewes (1504)

Add Ch 19146

Will and probate certificate of Margaret, widow of John de Covert (1367)

Add Ch 24243

Will and probate certificate of Margery, widow of John Todenham, knight (1411)

Add Ch 26317

Will and probate certificate of Joanna Lane, widow of Nicholas Lane of Snape (1500)

Add Ch 28766

Will of Isabella Russell, widow of John Churchhay of Frome (1361)

Add Ch 60433

Will and probate certificate of Margaret Hervy of Ryburgh (1508)

Add Ch 65797

Commission by Thomas Bourgchier, archbishop of Canterbury, to administer the will of Emota Newton, widow (1481)

Add Ch 70581

Will of Margaret Canon (1424)

Add Ch 70587

Will of Margery Loqmer, widow of John Loqmer of Newington-next-Hythe (1473)

Add Ch 70593

Will and probate certificate of Joanna Chiltern, widow, wife of John Chiltern of Newington-next-Hythe (1481)

Add Ch 70601

Will and probate certificate of Agnes Leigh, widow, of the parish of Cheriton (1516)

Add Ch 74114

Will of Elizabeth Ayrer, widow of Sebald Neyrer of Nuremberg (1534)

Add Ch 75719

Will of Katherine de Bassi of Tournai (1360)

Add Ch 77153

Will of Isabella Storke, wife of William Denton of the diocese of Ely (1496)

Egerton Ch 8256

Will and probate certificate of Agnes Sowle (1465)

LFC Ch III 1

Will of Margery de Crek (1282)

Wolley Ch XII 31

Will of Agnes Fearne, widow, of Wirksworth (1574)

Wolley Ch XII 31a

Probate certificate of the will of Agnes Fearne (1575)

The British Library is immensely grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for the funding of our Medieval and Renaissance Women project.


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02 March 2023

Venusse was her name

How were royal children brought up in the Middle Ages? A manuscript newly digitised as part of our Medieval and Renaissance Women project supplies us with clues. Add MS 37656, a household account book compiled in 1305 by John de Claxton, keeper of the wardrobe, demonstrates how women were in charge of key aspects of the care of two medieval princes, Thomas of Brotherton (b. 1300, d. 1338) and Edmund of Woodstock (b. 1301, d. 1330).

The opening page of the household account

The household account of Princes Thomas and Edmund: Add MS 37656, f. 1r

Thomas of Brotherton and Edmund of Woodstock, afterwards Earls of Norfolk and Kent, were the fifth and sixth sons of King Edward I (r. 1272–1307), and the first by his second marriage to Margaret of France (b. c. 1279, d. 1318). At the time when this household account was compiled, the princes were four and three years old respectively. and lived primarily in the royal residences at Ludgershall (Wiltshire), under the supervision of a governess (‘magistra’) named Lady Edelina de Venusse. Lady Edelina was in charge of the princes' upbringing, wellbeing and provisioning, and she played a key role in their education. She was in charge of administering their household, and even had a damsel at her service.

Royal_ms_14_b_vi_f007r

The children of Edward I in a genealogical roll (Thomas of Brotherton and Edmund of Woodstock are on the right: Royal MS 14 B VI, f. 7r

Together with Lady Edelina, another nine women are mentioned in this account. One of them is none other than Mary of Woodstock, Thomas and Edmund’s older half-sister, who was a nun at Amesbury Priory but spent significant periods of time visiting and living with her younger siblings. The other women named in this record are mostly unknown, and this account is almost certainly the only evidence of the roles they played within the royal household. Among them are three nurses or nursemaids, two women assistants, a washerwoman, and the damsel who served Lady Edelina. Here is list of all the women mentioned in the household account:

  • Lady Mary of Woodstock, nun of Amesbury and the sister of Thomas and Edmund.
  • Lady Edelina de Venusse, governess (‘magistra’) of the princes’ household.
  • Mabel of Raunds, Thomas’ nurse (‘nutrix’).
  • Perretta de Poissy, nursemaid (‘berceressa’) of Edmund.
  • Erembourga, nursemaid (‘berceressa’) of Thomas.
  • (Unnamed) damsel of Lady Edelina.
  • Annis of Northampton, woman assistant (‘muliere coadjuvante’).
  • Pernell de Boweys, woman assistant (‘muliere coadjuvante’).
  • Matilda, washerwoman (‘lotrix’).
  • A certain Joanna, who is said to be 'the daughter of Isabella'.

These women not only provided the care and upbringing of the young princes, but they were also the recipients of numerous gifts and pieces of clothing. For example, Lady Edelina, Mabel the nurse, and Erembourga and Perretta, the nursemaids received coloured cloth to make corsets for themselves. Queen Margaret also ordered gifts valued at £12 13s 4d for Edelina, Mabel and Perretta as a reward for the work they had undertaken in caring for Thomas and Edmund.

A page from the household accounts

The entries recording the gifts to Edelina, Mabel and Perretta (the first paragraph of this page): Add MS 37656, f. 4v

The household account also records a series of objects and items that were bought for the royal children, providing us with a glimpse of day-to-day life during their early childhood. One of the entries records that a certain Martin the Minstrel was given 2 shillings as compensation for his services, but also for the repair of his drum, which had been broken by Thomas and Edmund, presumably when they were playing with the instrument. It is also noted that, during a time when Edmund was ill, sugar candies, apples, pears and, notably, a urinal were purchased for him. The princes also enjoyed the company of a pet ferret that was bought for them to catch rabbits.

A photograph of Ludgershall Castle from the air

An overhead view of Ludgershall Castle, home to the prince and their household, courtesy of English Heritage

This household account of Thomas and Edmund provides an invaluable insight into the roles played by women in the upbringing of the royal children. It also demonstrates how female care-providers could be highly regarded and amply rewarded, in the royal household at least.

We are extremely grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for their generous funding of Medieval and Renaissance Women.

 

Paula Del Val Vales

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

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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15 January 2023

Wheel of approval

Medieval rulers often issued documents, such as privileges, grants and mercies, to assert their sovereignty. Castile was no exception to this rule. The most solemn type of document produced by the medieval Castilian chancery was known as the ‘privilegio rodado’ (literally, ‘privilege with a wheel’). One such charter is a confirmation of a grant of lands issued on 30 December 1254 by the Castilian royal couple Alfonso X of Castile (r. 1252–1284) and Violante of Aragon (b. 1236, d. 1300/1). This charter (Add Ch 24804) 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 confirmation grant by Alfonso X of Castile and Violante of Aragon, with the wheel at its centre and with a leaden seal affixed at the bottom

The confirmation grant by Alfonso X of Castile and Violante of Aragon: Add Ch 24804

Alfonso X’s interest in books, scholarship and the promotion of arts, history, law and literature was well known by his contemporaries, so much so that his patronage earned him the moniker ‘The Learned’ or ‘The Wise’. He had married Violante of Aragon, the daughter of King Jaume I of Aragon and Violante of Hungary, in 1246, when he was still heir to the throne. Together, Alfonso and Violante ruled for over thirty years, although their marriage became strained after the death of their heir, Fernando de la Cerda, in 1275.

An illuminated image showing Alfonso X on the left, Violante of Aragon in the middle, and their son, Fernando de la Cerda, all sitting on thrones

Alfonso X and Violante of Aragon with their son, Fernando de la Cerda: Archivo Histórico Nacional, Códices, L. 1002, f. 23r

The recently digitized ‘privilegio rodado’ was co-issued by both monarchs, which means that they granted it jointly. Both their names, Alfonso and Violante, are highlighted equally in the charter. Moreover, the use of the diplomatic formula ‘reigning as one’ (‘regnante en uno’) emphasised the importance of the female members of the royal family, including Violante and the royal daughters in the issuing clause of the charter. Hence, the use of the phrase ‘reigning as one’ reflected the participation of both members of the royal couple in the affairs of the kingdom.

A detail from the charter issued by Alfonso and Violante

‘Rey don Alfonso regnante en uno con la Reyna doña Yoland mi mugier et con mis ffijas’ ('King Don Alfonso reigning as one with Queen doña Violante, my wife, and my daughters'): detail of Add Ch 24804

King Alfonso X regulated extensively the structure of the ‘privilegio’ and how it needed to be granted, as described in the ‘Siete Partidas’, one of several legal codes produced throughout his reign. (You can read more about this treatise in our blogpost on the law-code of Alfonso.)

Detail from an illuminated manuscript, showing King Alfonso, sitting on a throne on the left, dictating to a scribe, the middle of three figures on the right

King Alfonso dictates to a scribe: Add MS 20787, f. 1v

In the ‘Siete Partidas’, Alfonso X established the various elements that ensured the legal validity of the ‘privilegio’, and which bestowed it with an impressive appearance. The most striking element was the ‘signo rodado’, a wheel at the very centre of the charter. King Alfonso details in the ‘Siete Partidas’ that this should be ‘a flourish, in the shape of a circle’, which ought to include in the middle ‘the name of the king who bestows the grant, and outside of the latter should be signed by the name of the standard-bearer and of the royal steward’ (Siete Partidas, Partida III, Title XVIII, Law II).

In the inner circle of our charter we can read: ‘SIGNO DEL REY DON ALFONSO’, that is, the sign of King Don Alfonso.

In the outer circle: ‘DON IVAN GARCIA MAYORDOMO DE LA CORTE DEL REY LA CONFIRMA + EL ALFEREZIA DEL REY VAGA’, that is, the steward and the standard-bearer of the King confirm it.

Alfonso X’s ‘signo rodado’ confirming the charter

Alfonso X’s ‘signo rodado’ confirming the charter: Add Ch 24804

Other elements that bestowed the ‘privilegio’ with legal validity were the ‘chi-ro’ or ‘christogram’ at the beginning of the charter, as well as the extensive witness list of lay nobles and ecclesiastical magnates. In this instance they included the Moorish kings of Granada, Murcia and Niebla. Once written, the charter was sealed with a leaden seal, affixed by a silken cord. The original silk threats have survived on our document, together with the seal that shows the arms of Castile and Leon, namely a castle and a lion.

Obverse and reverse of the leaden seal attached to the grant

Obverse and reverse of the leaden seal attached to the grant: Add Ch 24804

Throughout the Middle Ages, charters, grants and documents were dated using different dating systems, In Castile, the customary system was the ‘Era Hispánica’ or Spanish Era. However, the dating clause could also include a reference to an extraordinary or unusual event which happened in that year. In this case, the charter is also dated ‘in the year in which Edward, first-born son and heir of King Henry III of England (r. 1216–1272), was knighted by King Alfonso X in Burgos’, that is, in 1254. Lord Edward, son of Henry III (and the future King Edward I), had travelled to Burgos to be knighted before his wedding to Eleanor of Castile, half-sister of Alfonso X, King of Castile. Hundreds of people gathered in Burgos for that occasion.

The dating clause of the charter

The dating clause of the charter, which reads: ‘en el anno que don Odoart ffijo primero et heredero del Rey Henrric de Anglatierra recebió cavallería en Burgos del rey don Alfonso’: Add Ch 24804

The striking wheel, the magnificently preserved seal and the original silk threads make this charter a particularly fine example of a ‘privilegio rodado’, and a rare survival within the British Library’s collections.

We are extremely grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for their generous funding of Medieval and Renaissance Women.

 

Paula Del Val Vales

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