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

20 September 2017

Where's Walter?

Add comment Comments (0)

There was once a scribe named Walter, a canon and deacon who lived at Cirencester Abbey in the latter part of the 12th century. And that is practically all we know of him. With little biographical information, is it possible to make personalities of the past feel closer? Studying Walter’s handwriting can actually take us a little bit further. He is known to us from his meticulous scribal work and the marginal notes that he made in surviving manuscripts.

Walter’s hand appears throughout an exceptionally early copy of the letters of Thomas Becket (Cotton MS Claudius B II), dating to the 1180s, both in the main text and in the margins. (We have recently digitised this manuscript as part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project, and it can be viewed in full on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.) Walter’s notes compare the manuscript’s text to that of another rescension, which he calls his exemplar or the alius liber, the ‘other book’. His heightened editorial interest in this text suggests he was keenly aware of the political importance of Becket’s letters, assembled only a few years earlier by Alan of Tewkesbury, and which laid out the murdered archbishop’s dispute with King Henry II (1154–1189). According to Michael Gullick, Walter probably worked on the manuscript over several years, in a self-directed campaign (‘A twelfth-century manuscript of the letters of Thomas Becket’, in English Manuscript Studies 1100–1700, 2 (1990), pp. 1-31).

Cotton_ms_claudius_b_ii_f049r

Margaret or Matilda? Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 49r

Walter's notes highlight disparities between the two books. For instance, on one page a Latin note appears in the margin beside a rubric stating that the following letter is from ‘Thomas the Archbishop of Canterbury to Margaret Queen of the Sicilians’. It tells us that in his other book, in alio libro, the text names her as Matilda, Matildi. As a Queen of Sicily named Margaret actually lived between 1135 and 1183, we can conclude that, in this instance, the version we are looking at here is more accurate than the ‘other book’. Walter placed a line and a dot above the ‘in’ of his note (which is abbreviated). The same symbol appears above the word ‘Margerete’ in the rubric, to help match them up.

Cotton_ms_claudius_b_ii_f233v
A decorative ‘S’: Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 233v

The notes are not mere musings. This is demonstrated both by their meticulously composed content and their decorative treatment. For example, now and again Walter added a coloured initial to the manuscript. Again, we can tell what part of the text this note relates to from matching symbols in the margin and in the text proper (look to the left of the green ‘T’). In some cases, Walter even arranged his notes in an elaborate shape.

Cotton_ms_claudius_b_ii_f080r

Diamonds are forever: Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 80r

For instance, this diamond with stepped sides and ornate finials shows particular commitment to the decorative cause. But there is one delightful glimpse in this manuscript of fallibility. Finding a mistake can sometimes feel like meeting the person behind the script for the first time. So let’s ‘find’ Walter.

Cotton_ms_claudius_b_ii_f177r

Cotton_ms_claudius_b_ii_f177r

Mistakes may be rare, but they can allow us to glimpse the personality behind the pen: Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 177r

In column two of one page about half-way through the book, Walter carefully outlined and ruled a triangle, filling it with neat lines of script. When proof-reading the text, however, he must have kicked himself. Drawing a line from the top of the triangle to the space beneath the first column, he directed the reader to a confession in chastened cursive script: ‘I should have written this note here.’

Hello, Walter.

 

Cotton MS Claudius B II est une compilation des lettres de Thomas Becket. Cet article présente des notes marginale de Walter de l’abbaye de Cirencestre et l'erreur qui l’a poussé à ajouter, ‘Je devais écrire cette note ici’.

 

Amy Jeffs

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

Supported by

The Polonsky Foundation logo

19 September 2017

Richard the Lionheart in Speyer

Add comment Comments (0)

A major new exhibition devoted to Richard the Lionheart has recently opened in Speyer, to which the British Library is pleased to have loaned three of our magnificent medieval manuscripts. The books in question can be viewed in Richard Löwenherz: König-Ritter-Gefangener (Richard the Lionheart: King, Knight, Prisoner) at the Historisches Museum der Pfalz until 14 January 2018. Alongside precious artefacts such as the Cross of Henry the Lion, the exhibition features the Psalter of Henry the Lion, Matthew Paris's Chronicles of England and pages from an illustrated, verse chronicle. Here we tell you a little more about the stunning Psalter on loan to the Speyer exhibition.

In February 1168, Henry the Lion, Duke of Bavaria and Saxony (b. 1129, d. 1195), married the 12-year-old Princess Matilda of England in Minden Cathedral. Matilda provided an important political connection for Henry: she was the third child and eldest daughter of King Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and she had four surviving brothers, including Richard the Lionheart. The ducal couple had five children, the last of whom was William of Winchester, who was born while Matilda was in England, as his epithet suggests. Matilda died a few days before her father, in the summer of 1189, so she did not live to see her brothers, Richard the Lionheart and John, become kings of England. Nevertheless, her descendants also became kings: the current English royal family is descended from William of Winchester through the ducal house of Brunswick-Lüneburg and the royal house of Windsor.

Image 1_lansdowne_ms_381!1_f010v

Representation of the Crucifixion with a portrait of Henry and Matilda (below), from Lansdowne MS 381/1, f. 10v 

A portrait of Henry and Matilda is preserved in an image that originally formed part of a luxury copy of a Psalter (British Library Lansdowne MS 381/1). The ducal pair appear below a representation of the Crucifixion, and opposite the Resurrection. They are identified with their names and titles ‘Henricu[s] dux’ (Duke Henry) and ‘Mathilt[a] ducissa’ (Duchess Mathilda) just above them, and each holds a scroll with a text appropriate to the scene above, from the Feast of the Inventio Crucis (the Finding of the Cross). Henry’s scroll reads ‘Adoram[us] te xre [Christe] et benedicim[us] tibi’ (We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you), while Matilda’s declares ‘Salva nos xre [Christe] salvator p[er] virtute[m] crucis’ (Save us, O Saviour Christ, by the virtue of the Cross).

Image 2_lansdowne_ms_381!1_f005v

Calendar page for the month of September portraying the zodiac symbol of Libra and the month’s labour of wine-making, from Lansdowne MS 381/1, f. 5v

Only eleven leaves from this small Latin Psalter are preserved, but they give an indication of just how splendid the book must have been originally. Psalters include the book of the Psalms, but also other texts that add to the book’s devotional character, such as a calendar, which provided its user with information about saints’ days and other holidays. In the Psalter of Henry the Lion, six months of the calendar survive, showing the saints’ days for June to December. In most Psalters the Canticles and personalized prayers and litanies follow the Psalms, but these are not among the surviving leaves of the Henry the Lion Psalter.

Image 3_lansdowne_ms_381!1_f011r

Representation of the Resurrection, from Lansdowne MS 381/1, f. 11r

Particularly opulent Psalters, like this one, also featured full-page devotional images, usually placed before the Psalms. Two such paintings survive in the Henry of Lion Psalter (the Annunciation and the Presentation), but, more unusually, full-page scenes also appear at important divisions of the Psalms itself. For example, the Duke and Duchess were placed right before the beginning of Psalm 101, as is clear from the text on the other sides of the Crucifixion and Resurrection scenes. This is an important position in the book, at a division of one of the so-called ‘three fifties’, dividing the Psalms into three groups, and at a point where a donor portrait sometimes appears.

Image 4_lansdowne_ms_381!1_f008v

Opening of Psalm 1 with foliated initial of ‘B’(eatus vir), from Lansdowne MS 381/1, f. 8v

The decoration and painting in the Psalter is of high quality, and includes precious materials. Moreover, the beginning of Psalms 1 and 101 and the calendar pages are written on a stained or painted purple background, and written in liquid gold ink. Purple is replete with both imperial and spiritual references; certain Roman emperors famously reserved the use of purple clothing for themselves, and books, too, written on purple were high-status objects. In a Christian context, the purple also may refer to the blood of Christ’s sacrifice, while the gold and silver reflected the preciousness of the sacred text itself. The richness of the illumination is appropriate as well to the status of the book’s princely owners.

The Psalter of Henry the Lion together with the Chronicles of England (Cotton MS Claudius D VI) and the illustrated verse chronicle (Cotton MS Vitellius A XIII/1) can be viewed in person at the Historisches Museum der Pfalz in Speyer until 15 April 2018. We would be delighted if you were able to visit the exhibition; but if you can’t get to Germany, you can also see all three manuscripts online in full on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts website.

Kathleen Doyle

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

15 September 2017

Fragmentarium and the burnt Anglo-Saxon fragments

Add comment Comments (0)

Have you ever been intrigued by the survival of fragments of medieval manuscripts, used perhaps as waste in later bookbindings, or damaged in catastrophic events such as the Ashburnham House fire? The recent launch of Fragmentarium (the Digital Research Laboratory for Medieval Manuscript Fragments) will enable many of these fragments to be analysed in greater detail, and in some cases to be digitally reunited. The British Library is one partner in this project, alongside institutions and collections from Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Norway, Switzerland, the USA, the Vatican and the United Kingdom. As the project states, 'Fragmentarium enables libraries, collectors, researchers and students to publish images of medieval manuscript fragments, allowing them to catalogue, describe, transcribe, assemble and re-use them.'

Some of our readers may have come across the story of the Ashburnham House fire of 23 October 1731. This tragic event left a number of manuscripts in the famous collection of manuscripts assembled by Robert Cotton in an extra-crispy state. After a remarkable conservation effort undertaken in the 18th and 19th centuries, many of these volumes did not look so bad, all things considered, as you can see for yourself with Beowulf. But some of these manuscripts did not fare so well — to the naked eye they often resemble something approaching a burnt biscuit!

Cotton MS Otho A X, f. 1v, as it looks in person.

Cotton MS Otho A X, f. 1v, as it looks in person

The burnt Cotton fragments are among the most evocative artefacts of medieval culture, both for the tragedy of their destruction and the mystery of their contents. Many of the surviving leaves remain critical to scholarship, often containing unique texts or their earliest known copies. Work on other fragments at the British Library has already shown that multispectral photography can make it possible to extract more information from what survives. The burnt leaves remain vulnerable, and so it is critical that digital techniques be used to document and preserve their present state.

Cotton MS Otho A X 1v_PSC-blendwith17-5770

Cotton MS Otho A X, f. 1v: a blend of photographs taken across light spectra

For several decades, technology has been applied to improve the readability of the Cotton fragments. In the early 1950s, ultraviolet photography was applied to Æthelweard’s Chronicle (in Cotton MS Otho A X and Cotton MS Otho A XII) in order to make new sense of a handful of pages. The same process was also used with Cotton MS Otho A I. At the time, however, these photographs did not achieve wide dissemination due to the limitations of publishing in print.

Multispectral imaging setup at the British Library.

Multispectral imaging setup at the British Library

The recent application of multispectral photography has enabled us to recover more details of these fragments, and with reconstructed colour. At the same time, regrettably but inevitably, this technology has revealed that, in the course of half a century, the condition of these fragments has sometimes deteriorated. A few volumes that seemingly could be read without technological assistance only a few decades ago have details that today are difficult to read with the naked eye. In some cases, the volumes are so fragile that they can only be issued in the British Library's Manuscripts Reading Room with special curatorial permission.

We are currently publishing key remnants of some of the burnt Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in the Cotton collection on Fragmentarium. Dr Christina Duffy, the British Library's Imaging Scientist, has photographed over a hundred of these fragments and has skilfully processed them to make their reconstruction as legible as possible. The results will be available under a Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication. Fragmentarium has also built the capacity into their site to handle multiple images of a single folio — rare but critical functionality for dealing with multispectral imaging, since the images you will see are a scientific but also very much a human reconstruction.

Andrew Dunning

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval