Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life


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

25 July 2016

Star Item: An Anglo-Saxon Sketch of the Solar System

When people living over a 1000 years ago looked into the sky, how did they interpret what they saw? Helen Sharman and Tim Peake may be the first two Britons to actually go to outer space, but people living in the British Isles and Europe have been picturing the galaxy for a very long time. We have an idea of how some medieval people thought of the galaxy thanks to a recently digitised 10th-century manuscript that contains an early diagram of the solar system.

Diagram of the planets’ orbits, from Isidore of Seville’s De Natura Rerum, England (St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury?), Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 23v

The accompanying text explains that this diagram represents the ‘position of the seven wandering stars … called planets by the Greeks.’ These are the moon, which orbits closest to Earth; Mercury; Lucifer, ‘which is also called Venus’; the Sun; Vesper, which is also associated with Mars; Foeton, 'which they call Jupiter'; and ‘cold’ Saturn. 

Detail of a diagram of the planets' orbits, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 23r

The diagram and text come from a 10th-century copy of On the Nature of Things (De Natura Rerum) by Isidore of Seville (d. 636). De Natura Rerum is a natural history of the material world. Isidore was inspired by classical writers such as Lucretius (d. c. 55 BC), who sought to combat superstition by offering explanations for natural phenomena.

Phases of the moon, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 20r

Isidore updated his classical models by adding a Christian framework and a series of diagrams to illustrate his text. Manuscripts of De Natura Rerum such as Cotton MS Domitian A I contain so many of these diagrams, which are often circular, that Isidore’s work was often referred to as ‘The Book of Wheels’ (Liber Rotarum).

Diagram of the four elements: earth, air, water and fire, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 13r

Beyond the solar system, the copy of De Natura Rerum in Cotton MS Domitian A I includes diagrams to explain everything from rainbows to latitudes to the humours.

A circular diagram showing the winds linked to the months, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 31r

Many of these diagrams link various natural phenomena. One diagram connects different winds to different months. Another groups each of the four elements with a season, a temperature and one of the four humours: choler (yellow bile), melancholy (black bile), blood, and phlegm.

Diagram of the four humours, elements, and seasons, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f.14r

While concepts such as the humours now seem alien to us, other diagrams in Isidore’s work represent concepts that are still familiar. One wheel depicts five temperate zones by latitude, noting that the poles were colder, uninhabitable regions, and temperatures became warmer as one travelled towards the centre of the map. These diagrams even employ terms which we use today, including ‘Arctic’ and ‘Antarctic’.

Diagrams of the five temperature zones and of latitudes, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 12v

Isidore’s works were widely studied in early medieval Europe. This particular manuscript was made in 10th-century England, but Isidore’s works were known there much earlier. The 8th-century Northumbrian monk Bede even wrote his own version of De Natura Rerum

A diagram representing a rainbow, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 28v

This particular manuscript was probably owned, and possibly made for, a man called Æthelstan, whose collection of books is listed on f. 55v. ‘De Natura Rerum’ is the first book in the list. Æthelstan also owned several works by the 4th-century grammarian Donatus, various treatises on grammar and the art of poetry, and one ‘gerim’, which was possibly a calendar or a text on calculation, ‘which was the priest Ælfwold’s.’ Æthelstan's precise identity is unknown, since this was a common name in late 10th-century England, when this book and list were copied. He probably was not the early 10th-century king called Æthelstan, since the manuscript and its booklist were probably written after King Æthelstan's death in 939. Nevertheless, the Æthelstan of the book list was evidently a man of some wealth: all manuscripts were expensive, and this copy of De Natura Rerum has colour diagrams and a little gold, for highlighting the stars in the solar system. Judging from his booklist, he was also highly educated, with a particular interest in grammar and language.

Booklist, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 55v

As an educated Latinist, Æthelstan would have fitted into some of the most influential circles in 10th-century England. This was a time of great manuscript production and learning, thanks to the encouragement and book collecting of cosmopolitan rulers such as King Æthelstan (d. 939) and of monastic reformers, who sought to increase standards of learning in English religious houses. Æthelstan the Grammarian’s manuscript of De Natura Rerum seems to be related to those developments because it uses the Caroline minuscule script closely associated with the reformed monasteries. However, Æthelstan may not have been a monastic reformer himself: his book list shows he had private property, which was technically forbidden to monastic reformers. Admittedly, this need not disqualify him from having been a reformer: even the notably strict reforming bishop Æthelwold was personally associated with a particular service book.

In the late medieval period, the manuscript was kept in the library of St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury, where it may have been used by members of that institution.

Isidore’s T-O map of Asia, Africa, Europe, Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 37r

Once the deluxe possession of a well educated man, then part of an institutional library, this copy of De Natura Rerum is now available in full online on our Digitised Manuscripts site. Modern people may use it differently, but some of its topics and diagrams — particularly the striking diagram of the solar system — remind us that we are not so very different from early medieval people in the questions we ask about the world around us. 

Drawing of the sun, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 17r

Alison Hudson


Related Content:

Cicero’s Map to the Stars 


22 July 2016

Updated List of Digitised Manuscript Hyperlinks

Add comment Comments (1)

Saints and monsters and centaurs, oh my! Continuing our tradition of releasing roughly every 3 months an updated list of hyperlinks of ancient, medieval and early modern manuscripts digitised by the British Library, we are pleased to present our most up-to-date list here: Download List of Digitised Manuscripts with Hyperlinks, July 2016. For our long-term followers who are interested only in the manuscripts uploaded since the March hyperlist was made, they can be found at the end of this file: Download List of Digitised Manuscripts with most recent uploads at the end, July 2016. You can find all our digitised content on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.

The past few months have seen some major releases on Digitised Manuscripts. We are now close to digitising almost 1500 manuscripts. Highlights of the most recent upload include:

  • A copy of the Gospels translated into Old English, made nearly 1000 years ago.

Opening of St John’s Gospel, from an Old English translation of the Gospels, England (Wessex?), c. 1000–1050, Cotton MS Otho C I/1, f. 70r 

  • The earliest surviving world map which includes a depiction of the British Isles. This manuscript — a scientific miscellany made in England in the mid-11th century — also contains colourful depictions of the labours of the month, of constellations and of the Marvels of the East.

Sagittarius, from a scientific miscellany including Cicero’s Arator, England, 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 37r 

  • A copy of Usuard's Martyrology used at St Augustine's Canterbury and updated there in the 12th and 13th century. One addition commemorates the death of 'Harold, king of the English, and many of our brothers' at the battle of Hastings. 

Historiated initial at the beginning of entries for the month of September, from Usuard's Martyrology, England (St Augustine's, Canterbury), late 11th-early 12th century with later additions, Cotton MS Vitellius C XII/1, f. 139r

This is to name but a few of the recent uploads. And stay tuned: there are many more exciting uploads coming up in the next few months. We’ll publish an updated list in the autumn, but until then please check our Twitter account for announcements about the manuscripts which have most recently been added to Digitised Manuscripts. (Our Twitter account is also good for London Underground-inspired puns and pictures of woodwoses, among other things.)


20 July 2016

Off With His Head

Add comment Comments (2)

As a manuscript curator, one often gets asked, what can we achieve by studying old handwriting? Surely every important document in the British Library's collections has already been published. Surely every manuscript has yielded every clue as to why it was written, and who may have consulted it. 

Sometimes when we do explain what our job entails, people still raise a quizzical eyebrow. Old handwriting is hard to read, isn't it? Am I a graphologist (or whatever it is you call them)? Is it ever possible to gain psychological insight into the people who wrote our documents?

Vesp F XIII, f 273

Certein pointes of weighty matters to be immediately concluded on by my counsell. 18 Januarii 1551 (Cotton MS Vespasian F XIII, f. 273)

The text I am highlighting here goes some way to answering some of those questions. I came across it when I was cataloguing the Cotton manuscripts, one of the foundation collections of the British Museum (and hence the British Library), and home to some of our finest literary and historical treasures: Magna Carta, Beowulf and the Lindisfarne Gospels, to name just three. The document in question is bound with other state papers, and I recognised the handwriting immediately: it is in the distinctive hand of the boy-king, Edward VI of England (reigned 1547–53), the son of Henry VIII. The title, written at the top in Edward's schoolboy hand, explains its purpose: 'Certain points of weighty matters to be immediately concluded on by my council'. The date given is 18 January 1551, that is, January 1552 according to the modern calendar.

What we have here is a memorandum for the meeting of the king's council. I guess it's not dissimilar to the agenda that would have been produced for the first Cabinet meeting of Britain's new Prime Minister, except that some of its items — one of them, in particular — are perhaps slightly more bloodthirsty than we are usually used to. In fact, many of the nine items listed by King Edward for discussion have a certain modern resonance. They deal, for example, with the national debt ('The conclusion for the payment of our debts in February next coming') and foreign trade ('The matter for the steel yard to be so considered that it may be to our profit, and wealth of our subjects.')

Below is a full transcription of this memorandum. It is the third item on the list that really made me raise my own eyebrows. It reads, in modern English:

'The matter for the duke of Somerset and his confederates to be considered as appertaineth to our surety and quietness of our realm, that by their punishment and execution according to the laws, example may be showed to others.'

Vesp F XIII, f 273 detail

Detail of item 3 of Edward VI's memorandum

Now, Somerset's fate remains highly controversial. Edward Seymour, duke of Somerset, was the brother of King Edward's mother, Queen Jane Seymour (the 3rd wife of Henry VIII), and he had been the lord protector at the start of Edward's reign. He fell from grace after rebellions had taken place against his governance of the kingdom, and he was stripped of the protectorship in January 1550. Then, in 1551 Somerset was accused of plotting against the life of the duke of Northumberland; he was arrested on a charge of committing high treason on 16 October 1551, shortly after dining with the king.

Somerset's trial took place on 1 December, at which he argued skilfully against the charges laid against him. He was acquitted of high treason, but convicted of bringing together men for a riot. It was widely expected that Somerset's life would be spared, but on 19 January 1552 (the day after Edward wrote his memorandum), the king and council decided to proceed with the execution. Edward Seymour was taken to Tower Hill on the morning of 22 January and beheaded. Certain of his fellow conspirators were executed on 26 February, but others survived with their lives.

Add MS 88991

A prayer book that once belonged to the duke of Somerset (Add MS 88991), featured in a previous blogpost

The eagle-eyed among you may have realised that, as originally written, King Edward's memorandum did not deal directly with Somerset. As first written, the third item read, 'The matter for the duke of Somerset's confederates to be considered as appertaineth to our surety and quietness of our realm, that by their punishment example may be showed to others.' Edward VI made three substantial changes to this passage. First, he changed the subject from the duke of Somerset's confederates alone to the duke of Somerset AND his confederates; next, he commanded that they be punished AND executed; and thirdly, lending his statement a little gravitas, he ordered that this be carried out according to the laws.

This brings us back to the handwriting of the document under scrutiny. Did Edward change his mind while he was drafting the agenda for his council? Was he really determined to proceed with the execution of his uncle, or was there somebody standing at his shoulder, persuading him to act 'according to the laws'? It's slightly unnerving to think that a 14-year-old boy wielded absolute power in England at this time, and at the royal whim one of his own relatives could be sent to the scaffold. You may sniff, of course, but this is just one of the ways that reading an original manuscript can transform our understanding of the past.

London, British Library, Cotton MS Vespasian F XIII, f. 273

Certein pointes of weighty matters to be immediately concluded on by my counsell. 18 Januarii 1551.

  1. The conclusion for the payment of our dettis in February next coming.
  2. The matter for the stiliard to be so considered that it may be to our profit, and wealth of our subiectis.
  3. The matter for the duke of Somerset and his confederates to be considered as aparteineth to our surety and quietnes of our realme, that by there punishement and execution according to the laws example may be shewed to others.
  4. The resolution for the bishops that be nominated.
  5. Many of our ambassadours diettes to be sent them forthwith.
  6. Dispaching our commissioners to Guisnes to see the state thereof.
  7. Taking some order to the Londoners that they that come to our parliament may not be holly discouraged, empourished or woried with their attendawnce, wich order can not be well taken (as me thinketh) without punishing th'offendours.
  8. The matter for thexchaung to be well wayed and considerid.
  9. The bishop of Durhams matters to be executid according to our laws.


Julian Harrison