THE BRITISH LIBRARY 

Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

Introduction

What do Magna Carta, Beowulf and the world's oldest Bibles have in common? They are all cared for by the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section. This blog publicises our digitisation projects and other activities. Follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval. Read more

11 February 2016

The Earliest English Poet

Add comment Comments (0)

 Today is the feast day of Caedmon, the first known English poet. As well as being the first named poet in the English literary tradition, he is also a significant figure in the history of people who hate singing in public, people who develop new talents later in life, and of cowherds.

 Caedmon’s work and the story of his life are described in the Ecclesiastical History of English People written by the eighth-century monk, Bede. An eighth-century manuscript of this work-- which was possibly even copied at Bede’s own monastery of Monkwearmouth-Jarrow-- has recently been uploaded to our Digitised Manuscripts website as part of our Anglo-Saxon digitisation project. Sadly, it was damaged in the Ashburnham House fire in 1731, but it is still somewhat legible. In it, Bede gives us some biographical detail about Caedmon. Although we might imagine that English’s first poet would have been a highly educated individual, Caedmon was, in fact, a cowherd at the monastery of Whitby who did not take religious orders ‘until he was well advanced in years’. In this sense, Caedmon is a remarkable figure in Bede’s history, as he is one of the few non-elite figures to get a mention.


Cotton_ms_tiberius_a_xiv_f025r
Detail of initials from Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, England (Wearmouth-Jarrow?), mid-8th-early 9th century, Cotton Tiberius A XIV, ff. 25r

Little in Caedmon’s early life suggested that he might become one of the greatest poets of his age. Ever the retiring type, he was so shy about singing or speaking in public that, according to Bede, when people began singing at parties, he would leave ‘as soon as he saw the harp approaching him’ (Bede, Ecclesiastical History, iv.24).

Cotton_ms_tiberius_a_xiv_f144r
Page containing Bede’s account of Caedmon, from Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, England (Wearmouth-Jarrow?), mid-8th-early 9th century, Cotton Tiberius A XIV, ff. 144r

It was only later in life that he began to write verse and compose song. Bede recounts how one night, when he was sleeping in the cowshed, Caedmon had a vision. When he woke, he remembered the song he had sung in his dream, and astounded everyone at the abbey with his beautiful poetry. Later on, he would impress the monastery’s leaders, including the abbess St Hilda, with his capacity to compose verse on complex theological topics which the monks and nuns discussed with him. (Caedmon might make a suitable patron saint for interdisciplinary work.)

Unfortunately all but one of Caedmon’s poems are lost. The sole surviving example is known as Caedmon’s Hymn and survives in manuscripts of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. Some manuscripts provide a Latin translation, while others give a Latin translation and an Old English version. The different Old English versions use various regional dialects, including Northumbrian and West Saxon. One of the manuscripts containing the West Saxon version of this very precious literary fragment is British Library Cotton MS Otho B XI. The manuscript was unfortunately also damaged in the fire of 1731, but an early modern transcript of it survives (British Library Additional MS 43703). In Old and Middle English c. 890-c.1450, Elaine Treharne translates Caedmon's hymn into modern English as:

'Now we ought to praise the Guardian of the heavenly kingdom,

The might of the Creator and his conception,

The work of the glorious Father, as he of each of the wonders,

Eternal Lord, established the beginning.

He first created for the sons of men [children of earth in West Saxon version]

Heaven as a roof, holy Creator;

Then the middle-earth, the Guardian of mankind,

The eternal Lord, afterwards made

The earth for men, the Lord almighty.'

The hymn is a work in praise of God. It grabs the reader from its opening word ‘Nu’, meaning ‘Now’, making the poem feel immediate.  From there it proceeds to celebrate all of creation in a mere nine lines. Like all Old English verse, it uses musical alliteration. It closes, powerfully, with the word ‘allmectig’, ‘Almighty’, in praise of God.

Cotton_ms_tiberius_a_xiv_f079v


Detail of an initial from Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, England (Wearmouth-Jarrow?), mid-8th-early 9th century, Cotton Tiberius A XIV, ff. 79v

Bede’s point, in his story about Caedmon, is that poetry is transformational, mystical and god-given. For, according to Bede, ‘no other English poets could compare’ with Caedmon, the humble late-comer not trained by human teachers, whose poetry in turn transformed and inspired those who read it in the Anglo-Saxon period and beyond.

~ Mary Wellesley and Alison Hudson

 

 You May Also Like:

Monsters and Marvels in the Beowulf Manuscript

Read about one of the library's treasures, the Beowulf Manuscript, which contains the earliest epic poem in English literature as well as some monsters and marvels. 

Beo shrink

 

Anglo-Saxon Invasion

Read about important fragments of Old English which have been digitised by the library. 

Orosius shrink

06 February 2016

Medieval Library Rules

Add comment Comments (0)

Today is National Libraries Day. Here's a guide to proper behaviour in the library. 

Rule No. 1: No Pets

Please do not bring your pets to the library. That includes pet rabbits and tame doves. 

Add_ms_34294_f196v

St Gregory the Great in his study.  Hours of Bona Sforza, Milan, c. 1490–4. Add MS 34294, f. 196v

Sometimes pets get carried away and like to get involved, which may damage the collections. 

Add_ms_18850_f024r

St Mark in his study. The Bedford Hours, Paris,c. 1423–30. Add MS 18850, fol. 24r 

So, even the most well-behaved of pets is not allowed. 

 Christine

Attributed to the Master of the Cité des Dames and workshop and to the Master of the Duke of Bedford, Christine de Pizan,
various works (the Book of the Queen), Paris, c. 1410–c. 1414;  Harley MS 4431, f. 4r


Rule No. 2: Silence Please. 

 Please do not disturb other library users by playing obscure musical instruments in the reading rooms. 

Musical

Musicians in a study. Attributed to Maître François, Valerius Maximus, translated by Simon de Hesdin and Nicholas de Gonesse, 'Les Fais et les dis des Romains et de autres gens', Paris, between 1473 and c. 1480; Harley MS 4375, f. 151 v

Rule No. 3: Use Appropriate Book Supports.

(Although if you are able to make use of an angel, that is also permissible.) 

Add_ms_34294_f007r

St Matthew in his study. Hours of Bona Sforza, Milan, c. 1490–4; Add MS 34294, f. 7r

Rule No. 4: Keep your desk tidy. 

Ensure there are no lemons or bishops' mitres in your work area. 

Desk tidy crop

Bonaventure, a biographer of Francis of Assisi, in his study. Attributed to Stefano Lunetti, Bonaventure, Legend and Life of Francis of Assisi (with Miracles), Florence, 1504; Harley MS 3229, f. 26r

More images of medieval readers in their studies and libraries will be available in April when the British Library is publishing Medieval and Renaissance Interiors, by Eva Oledzka. 

 ~ Mary Wellesley

 

04 February 2016

Anglo-Saxon Chronicles Now Online

Add comment Comments (0)

We are pleased to announce that four of the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon Chronicle manuscripts have been digitised in full as part of our Anglo-Saxon manuscripts digitisation project and are now available on our Digitised Manuscripts website:

 

Cotton_ms_tiberius_b_iv_f080v
'Always after that it grew much worse': end of the entry for 1066, from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D-text, England, mid-11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B IV, f. 80v 

The term ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ refers to a series of annalistic chronicles, arranged by year, which were written primarily in Old English between the 9th and 12th centuries. These annals record information on a huge variety of subjects from major battles and Viking invasions to famines and agricultural issues, from ecclesiastical restructurings to notes on the death of notable people from across Britain. Some annals even include poems about kings and battles. Although all the annals share some core text—the so-called ‘common stock’, which seems to have been compiled at some point during the reign of Alfred the Great— each text of the Chronicle has its own variations, omissions, and additions. It is therefore perhaps more correct to speak of ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicles’, as Simon Keynes has suggested.

The manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle are still known by the letters assigned to them in the 19th century. They are:

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle A: the earliest surviving copy, now Cambridge, Corpus Christ College, MS 173, contains entries written at different times between the 9th and early 11th centuries, with a 12th century continuation. It is sometimes known as the ‘Parker Chronicle’, after Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury, who gave large parts of his collection of manuscripts to the University of Cambridge and particularly to Corpus Christi College, whose Parker Library is named after him.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle B: Cotton MS Tiberius A VI, copied in the late 10th century. This chronicle covers the period between 60 BC and 977 AD. It is sometimes called the ‘Abingdon Chronicle’ or ‘Abingdon Chronicle I’ because one of its last entries refers to Abingdon. Along with the C- and D-texts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, it also contains a series of annals known as the ‘Mercian Register’, which recount the activities of Æthelflaed, lady of the Mercians, in the early 10th century. The Mercian Register provides an important contrast to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle itself, which focuses on the exploits of West Saxon kings, at the expense of other perspectives.

Cotton_ms_tiberius_a_vi_f030r
Page with the start of the Mercian Register, from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle B-text , England, c.977-1000, Cotton MS Tiberius A VI, f. 30r

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle C: Cotton MS Tiberius B I, copied in the eleventh century and related to the B-text.

Cotton_ms_tiberius_b_i_f125r
Page from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle C-text, England, 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B I, f. 125r

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D: Cotton MS Tiberius B IV, copied in the mid-late eleventh century. The added information it contains about Worcester and York has led some scholars to suggest it was written in the North or based on a ‘Northern Recension.’

  Cotton_ms_tiberius_b_iv_f066r
Page with the start of the entry for 1016, from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D-text, England, mid-11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B IV, f. 66r

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle E: copied and compiled in the twelfth century at Peterborough Abbey, and sometimes known as the ‘Peterborough Chronicle’. It is currently in Oxford, Bodleian Library, Laud Misc 636.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle F: Cotton MS Domitian A VIII, written in the late 11th century at Christ Church, Canterbury. This is notable for being a bilingual version of the chronicle, with Latin versions of each annal following the Old English versions.

  Cotton_ms_domitian_a_viii_f032r
Page from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle F-text, England (Canterbury), late 11th century, Cotton MS Domitian A VIII, f. 32r

Additionally, several fragments of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle survive, which are kept at the British Library. These include the G fragment (in Cotton MS Otho B IX and Cotton MS Otho B X), which seems to contain early entries but was burnt in the Ashburnham House fire of 1731. Additionally, H, also known as the Cottonian Fragments, is contained in Cotton MS Domitian A IX.

The British Library has also recently digitised a separate series of Easter table annals that were kept and compiled at Canterbury in the mid-and late-11th century. These annals notably did not mention the Norman Conquest, although a later hand added ‘Her co[m] Willelm’ to the annal for 1066.

Cotton_ms_caligula_a_xv_f135r
Detail from Easter Table Annals, England (Canterbury), late 11th century-12th century, Cotton MS Caligula A XV, f. 135r

All these manuscripts have had varied and colourful histories, which are reflected in the medieval additions and early modern annotations scattered throughout, and in the modern period some of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle manuscripts have been bound with other interesting texts which we have now digitised as well. These include the 11th-century copies of the Old English version of Orosius’s Historia adversus paganos and the poems Maxims II and the Menologium (in Cotton Tiberius B I); the earliest surviving fragments of the early twelfth-century Latin legal compilation Quadripartitus and a list of Welsh cantrefi (in Cotton Domitian A VIII); cartularies from Ely and Gloucester (in Cotton Tiberius A VI and Cotton Domitian A VIII, respectively); and a variety of anonymous late medieval and Anglo-Norman chronicles, all now available online.

Cotton_ms_domitian_a_viii_f162r
Scutum Dei Triangulum, England, mid-15th century, Cotton Domitian A VIII, f. 162r

~ Alison Hudson