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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

17 September 2018

Two new charters from Ramsey Abbey

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In 2017, we were delighted to receive the gift of two 12th-century charters from Ramsey Abbey, generously donated to the British Library by Abbey College, Ramsey. These two charters have been conserved and photographed, and they can now be viewed on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

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The charters were presented on behalf of the Trustees of the Ramsey Foundation by Robert Heal, Gordon Mather and a group of students from Ramsey Abbey College, pictured here with 
Andrea Clarke and Andrew Dunning of the British Library

Ramsey Abbey was one of the wealthiest and most influential monasteries in medieval England. It was founded by Oswald, bishop of Worcester and later archbishop of York, probably in the late 960s. With help from his benefactor, the nobleman Æthelwine, Oswald turned Ramsey into a major economic force and intellectual centre. It was even briefly home to Abbo of Fleury, one of the leading intellectuals in western Europe, who taught there for two years in the late 980s.

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Detail from the earliest account of the foundation of Ramsey (Ramsege), in Byrhtferth of Ramsey’s Vita sancti Oswaldi, written c. 996–1002 and preserved uniquely in the Cotton-Corpus Legendary, Worcester, 3rd quarter of the 11th century: Cotton MS Nero E/1, f. 11v

Most of our information about Ramsey's early years comes from one of Abbo’s students, Byrhtferth, a talented mathematician, author and teacher in his own right. The British Library has the only surviving copies of Byrhtferth’s Lives of St Oswald and St Ecgwine, as well as parts of three manuscripts that seem to have been based on the handbook he used in his teaching: Cotton MS Nero C VII, ff. 80–84; Harley MS 3667 + Cotton MS Tiberius C I, ff. 2–17; and Cotton MS Tiberius E IV. Ramsey remained an important intellectual centre throughout the Middle Ages, particularly for the study of Hebrew. 

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Byrhtferth’s diagram of the groups of four elements he believed made up the universe, copied at Peterborough, c. 1120–1140: Harley MS 3667, f. 7r

These artistic and intellectual achievements were financed by careful estate management, land acquisitions, protection of the abbey’s rights, record keeping and accounting. The monks kept track of their income and accounts by making charters and other documents, ensuring that the texts could be easily located. The large amounts of documentation surviving from Ramsey make it one of the best places to study life in medieval England, as shown in Ramsey: The Lives of an English Fenland Town, 1200–1600.

The first charter presented to the British Library (Add Ch 77736) is a notification of King Henry I of England (1100–1135), issued at Falaise between 1133 and 1135. It states that William de Houghton, Henry’s chamberlain, has restored to Ramsey Abbey the estate of ‘Bradenache’ (presumably Brandish Wood), along with land at Gidding. This charter features an impression of Henry's Great Seal, in white wax. Its text was also copied into one of the surviving Ramsey Abbey cartularies, Cotton MS Vespasian E II, f. 12r.

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Notification by King Henry I: Add Ch 77736

The second charter (Add Ch 77737) is King Henry II's confirmation of this same grant, issued at Lincoln. Among the witnesses is Thomas Becket, the king’s chancellor (a position he held from 1155 until 1162).

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Confirmation by King Henry II: Add Ch 77737

Until now, these charters had probably remained within a single hectare for the better part of a millennium. Most of Ramsey Abbey’s archives and library were dispersed at the abbey's dissolution in 1539. The British Library now holds the largest segment of their remnants, among which are many charters and cartularies and nineteen manuscripts, including the famous Ramsey Psalter. These two charters seem to have remained on the site, and were owned beyond living memory by Ramsey Abbey School, a grammar school first documented in 1656.

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The Great Seal of King Henry I: Add Ch 77736

We are extremely grateful to Abbey College for its splendid gift to the nation.

 

Alison Hudson and Andrew Dunning

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

14 September 2018

Wynflaed and the price of fashion

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Some of the most interesting texts in the British Library’s collections have deceptively unassuming appearances. For example, this fragile piece of parchment is the closest equivalent of the Vogue wardrobe for early medieval England. Written in Old English, it is one of the earliest wills which survive from England in the name of a woman only. It details bequests made by a noblewoman called Wynflæd sometime before the late 10th or early 11th century, and it describes her wardrobe as well as her estates, slaves, metalwork, livestock and familial relationships. 

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Will of Wynflæd, England, late 10th or early 11th century: Cotton Ch VIII 38

We can’t be sure as to Wynflæd's exact identity. One of King Edgar’s grandmothers was called Wynflæd, but this will could pertain to someone else with the same name. What we do know is that our Wynflaed was a widow, and that she had a daughter called Æthelflæd and a son called Eadmer. We also know that she was rich. Her will mentions several estates, bands of tamed and untamed horses, slaves, many coins, livestock, items in gold and silver, and even books (annoyingly for us, no further information is given). The compiler of her will described some of the other items, such as Wynflæd's ‘wooden cups decorated with dots’ and her ‘red tent’. Anglo-Saxon nobles often travelled around — Wynflæd may have had to travel to manage her estates — and they stayed in tents when doing so. The Durham Collectar, for instance (Durham Cathedral Library MS A.IV.19), mentions that some of its text was written before tierce (around 9 a.m.) on Wednesday, 10 August 10, ‘for Ælfsige the bishop [of the community of St Cuthbert] in his tent’ while he was travelling in Dorset.

Wynflæd's will also gives details about her attire, from her engraved bracelet to linen gowns to caps and headbands. Such detailed descriptions of clothes are relatively unusual in Old English texts. A particularly striking item among Wynflæd’s clothes is a ‘twilibrocenan cyrtel’. This garment has been alternatively interpreted as a ‘badger-skin dress’, an embroidered dress or even a dress that was only worn twice. Gale Owen-Crocker and Kate Thomas have already discussed Wynflæd’s clothes, if you’d like to learn more.

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A badger? Detail of a decoration around a flaw in parchment, from the Tollemache Orosius, England (Winchester?), late 9th or early 10th century: Add MS 47967, f. 62v

Wynflæd may have taken religious vows towards the end of her life, but that does not seem to have impeded her fashion sense. Her will mentions a ‘holy veil’ and at the beginning it focuses on her donations to an unspecified church. This church seems to have housed women, since the first part of the will also specifies bequests to ‘slaves of God’ there with female names such as Ceolthryth, Othelbriht and Elsa. At least one of these names appears again towards the end of the will as the recipient of some of the finer pieces in Wynflæd's wardrobe: Ceolthryth was to receive ‘whichever she prefers of her black tunics and her best holy veil and best headband’ (translated by D. Whitelock, Anglo-Saxon Wills, Cambridge, 1930, p. 15). Nor were these the only fashionable religious women or nuns in late 10th-century England, if later stories about St Edith are to be believed.

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A holy veil? An angel presents Queen Emma with a veil, from the New Minster Liber Vitae: Stowe MS 944, f. 6r

Wynflæd’s will highlights another important aspect of fashion history: who made the clothes. Wynflæd not only bequeathed her clothes to her relatives, but she also bequeathed the people who made them. To Eadgifu (possibly her granddaughter), she gave ‘a woman-weaver and a seamstress, the one [also] called Eadgifu, the other called Æthelgifu’. One gets the impression that her granddaughter Eadgifu was a favourite: she also received the ‘best bed-curtain’, ‘best dun tunic’, best cloak and an ‘old filigree brooch’, among other objects.

Eadgifu the weaver and Æthelgifu the seamstress were not so lucky. While Wynflæd freed some of her slaves in her will, these two may have been condemned by their skill. They are two of only four slaves whose professions are specified in the will, the others being a wright and a cook called Ælfsige. Wynflæd was — and is — not alone in exploiting garment makers. To this day, the fashion industry has an uncomfortably close relationship with exploitation and poor labour conditions in many parts of the world.

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Detail of the names of Eadgifu (Edgyfu) and Æthelgifu (Æþelyfu): Cotton Ch VIII 38

Although Cotton Ch VIII 38 is a copy of the original will, it shows signs of how such a document might have been used.  It is a single sheet, folded carefully in half, then lengthways, and then again into thirds, as if it has been used and been put away for safe keeping.  The interlinear additions to the text are also intriguing: as these are meaningful pieces of text, rather than occasional words, they are clearly not just the result of scribal error, but were intended as clarifications, or to add extra information.  For example, when Wynflaed bequeaths her cloak, an extra word is added to specify which one: it is 'hyre beteran mentel' (her better cloak).  Many of these additions are concerned with what would happen to Wynflaed's slaves.  The will specifies that 'at Faccombe Eadhelm and Man and Johanna and Sprow and his wife … and Gersand and Snel are to be freed,' with Sprow and his wife added between the lines; while elsewhere, where 'aelfferes dohtor' (Aelffere's daughter) is given to Aethelflaed, someone has added 'þa geonran' (the younger) between the lines, specifying which one of his daughters was to be Aethelflaed's slave.  Needless to say, these additions had serious consequences for the futures of Sprow, his wife, and of Aelffere's daughter.

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Detail of folds and interlinear additions: Cotton Ch VIII 38

The British Library's major exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, opens on 19 October 2018: tickets and further details are available here.

 

Alison Hudson and Kate Thomas

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

11 September 2018

Births, births and (more) births

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In 1490, the curate of St Theodor in Basel, Switzerland, began compiling a register of the baptisms he performed at the church. The handwritten portion of the manuscript begins with a note in his hand: it records the year, 1490; the purpose for which the register was kept (‘ad inscribendum pueros baptisatos’); and his name, Johann Ulrich Surgant. The first entry, underlined in red, is for a baptism performed on 13 July, the feast day of St Henry (also known as Henry II, Holy Roman Emperor): a boy named Henry Falkner – after his father, it seems, rather than his beatified namesake. 

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Detail of the opening entries in the baptismal register of the church of St Theodor, Basel: 
Egerton MS 1927, f. 8r 

This register was maintained at the church for a little short of 250 years, with the last entries being made in 1737. In 1620, when the volume begun by Johann Ulrich Surgant was full, a second one was acquired. These two manuscripts – Egerton MS 1927 and Egerton MS 1928 – are a valuable resource for anyone pursuing prosopographical or genealogical research for families in Basel across four centuries. You can also study them in detail on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.

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Printed page from a Missale Basiliense, containing the ceremonies performed in preparation for the use of the baptismal font: 
Egerton MS 1927, f. 7r 

Surgant evidently sourced the blank volume locally. Inserted at the beginning are several printed pages from a Missale Basiliense printed by Michael Wenssler in 1488 (the British Library holds a complete copy at IB.37136; ISTC im00651500). These comprise a calendar, with the main religious feasts printed in red ink, and the ceremonies and prayers performed in preparation for the use of the baptismal font. These contents were of obvious utility in such a volume and illustrate that the book was designed and acquired with this specific purpose in mind.

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Front binding showing exposed oak boards, blind-stamped pigskin and metal clasps: Egerton MS 1927

The cover is characteristic of late 15th-century Swiss bindings, with blind-stamped pigskin covering a third of the front and back oak boards. Using the Einbanddatenbank, it is sometimes possible to identify the craftsman responsible, but in this case, none of the tools used on the covers of Egerton MS 1927 are a match for known binders or workshops in that region.

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Detail of an entry recording the baptism of Christiana Foxe, 22 September 1555: 
Egerton MS 1927, f. 115r 

These registers are of particular interest to anyone studying the protestant religious communities in Switzerland during the 16th century. The martyrologist John Foxe (b. 1516/17, d. 1587), of Acts and Monuments fame, spent at least four years of his exile in Basel, before returning to England in October 1559. The earliest evidence of his arrival in the city is an entry in this very register, on 22 September 1555: ‘to John Foxe, the Englander, a child, called Christiana’. Along with other Marian exiles, Foxe rented rooms in the Clarakloster, a former convent. The first of his daughter’s godparents was a fellow resident: Thomas Bentham (b. 1513/14, d. 1579), who became Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield under Queen Elizabeth I.

 

James Freeman (Medieval Manuscripts Specialist, Cambridge University Library)