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

27 June 2017

Curator, Early Modern Collections

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The British Library is recruiting for a Curator of Early Modern Collections. This is a full time, fixed term position, for six months. Full details of the post and how to apply can be found here.

As Curator of Early Modern Collections, you will assist lead curators in the Department of Western Heritage Collections with preparations for an exhibition on 16th-century British History to be held at the British Library in 2020–21. You will also use your specialist knowledge to catalogue early modern manuscripts and will help to interpret and present the Library’s early modern collections through online resources and engagement with academic and general users.

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Detail from Elizabeth I’s autograph speech dissolving Parliament, in which she rebukes ministers for their unwelcome ‘lip-laboured orations’ on the matter of her marriage and succession, January 1567: British Library Cotton Charter IV. 38 (2)

With a post-graduate degree, or equivalent, in 16th-century British history, you will have research experience using early modern manuscripts and printed books and a personal area of expertise relevant to the British Library’s collection. Strong palaeographical skills, excellent written and oral communication skills in English and the ability to promote the collections to a wide range of audiences are essential.

The deadline for applications is 11 July 2017, and interviews will be held on 20 July  2017.

Curator, Early Modern Collections (reference COL1309)

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The first page of William Cecil’s paper on ‘Things to be considered upon the Scottish Queen coming into England’, May 1568: British Library Cotton MS Caligula C I, f. 97.

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23 June 2017

The language of love (and poetry and history)

Old Occitan or Langue d’oc, the language of Eleanor of Aquitaine and the troubadours, was claimed by Dante to be the perfect language for verse. It is still spoken in southern France and in pockets of Italy and northern Spain. Early genres and themes first developed by the troubadour poets of Provence and the surrounding regions were adopted by French trouveres and German minnesanger. Occitan literature of the 12th and 13th centuries is arguably ‘a primary reference for the medieval literatures of what we now call France, Spain, Italy and Germany’ (Burgwinkle, ‘The troubadours’ (2011)).

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The seven virtues and vices of lovers, from the Breviari d’Amor, mid-14th century; France, S. (Toulouse?), Harley MS 4940, f. 227r

As we mentioned in a previous blogpost, the British Library's earliest manuscript containing Old Occitan is Harley MS 2928, probably copied in the 12th century. Many of our Occitan manuscripts date from the 13th and 14th centuries. The Breviari d’Amor, the Vie de St Honorat and the Somme le Roi  are the most popular surviving texts, along with Chansonniers or collections of lyrics, many of which were copied in Italy and Catalunya. Three of our 14th-century manuscripts, all from southern France, have recently been digitised; two of them contain the Breviari d’Amors and a third is an Occitan version of an illustrated almanac.

The Breviari d’Amors

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The author, Matfre, holding a large book from which he is instructing four crowned figures with books or scrolls, from the Breviari d’Amor, early 14th century; France, S. (Toulouse?), Royal MS 19 C I, f. 7r

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The Devil incites people to the sins of robbery, lust, violence and avarice and brings disaster to a ship at sea, from the Breviari d’Amor, mid-14th century; France, S. (Toulouse?), Harley MS 4940, f. 27r

The Breviari d’Amors is a poetic work composed by Matfre Ermengaud in 1288–1292. Ermengaud described himself as a senher en leys e d’amor sers, in other words a master or doctor of law but also a poet who serves the ideal of love. His work contains a compendium of contemporary knowledge under the umbrella of faith, seen as a manifestation of God’s love.

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The hierarchy of angels adoring the Trinity from the Breviari d’Amor, Royal MS 19 C I, f. 30v

Both volumes in our collections are believed to have been copied in Toulouse in the 14th century. They are filled with remarkable illuminations showing God and Love at the centre of all creation. They are in a unique style associated with southern Europe in this period.

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The Tree of Love from the Breviari d’Amor, Royal MS 19 C I, f. 11v

Scientific topics focus on astronomy and meteorology, while spiritual matters such as theology, angelology, demonology, mystical anthropology, sacred and scriptural studies are treated at length, together with the art of living on earth, and the subject of human love. Love is the metaphysical link between the spiritual realm and the created universe.

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A circular diagram of the planets governing the days of the week, from the Breviari d’Amor, Royal MS 19 C I, f. 53v

For Ermengaud, angels are at the centre of many of the functions governing life on earth.

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The six ages of the world, with an angel in the centre, from the Breviari d’Amor, Royal MS 19 C I, f. 58v

There is a third copy of the Breviari  in our collections and also fully digitised (Yates Thompson MS 31) but it is in Catalan prose rather than Occitan, and was made in Catalunya (probably Girona) towards the end of the 14th century. The style of the illuminations is rather different. There are some rather elegant images of Hell-mouths (always a favourite subject on this blog) that almost look inviting!

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The Christ and the Harrowing of Hell, souls in Purgatory, unbaptised infants in Limbo and the Damned engulfed in flames, last quarter of the 14th century, Spain, E. (Catalonia, ?Gerona ), Yates Thompson MS 31, f. 250r

The Abreujamen de las Estorias

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Synchronic table of kings and emperors of the world with Alexander the Great and Ptolemy from the Abreujamen de las Estorias,  France, S. (Avignon); 2nd quarter of the 14th century (after 1323), Egerton MS 1500, f. 13v

Love, the universe and poetry were not the only topics of Occitan manuscripts. The Abreujamen de las Estorias (Egerton MS 1500) is a diagrammatic chronicle in Occitan, based on the Latin chronicle of Paolino (c. 1275–c. 1344), a Fransiscan friar and diplomat from Venice. It consists of genealogical diagrams with notes and synchronic tables of popes, emperors and kings, including English kings, and it marks the canonisation of Thomas Aquinas in 1323. Of special note is an account of the First Crusade, 'Passazia et auxilia Terre Sancte', inserted in the almanac, with miniatures and maps of Antioch and Jerusalem. This was featured in our recent blogpost on the Crusades.

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A synchronic table of kings including King John of England, Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, Roger of Sicily and Saladin, with scenes from the Crusades, from the Abreujamen de las Estorias,  Egerton MS 1500, f. 53v

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Map of Jerusalem from the Abreujamen de las Estorias, Egerton MS 1500, f. 49r

Brunel listed 11 manuscripts in Occitan then held at the British Museum (now in the British Library) and there are two more in our collections today. Of these 13 manuscripts, 4 have been digitised in full, as described above, and a selection of images of a further 5 are online on our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts:

Egerton MS 945: A liturgical collection in Norman French and Occitan 

Harley MS 3041: Eleucidarium with a page of lyrics in Occitan  

Harley MS 3183: A devotional manual from the Périgord 

Harley MS 4830: Laws of the city of Avignon 

Harley MS 7403: Religious texts, some in Occitan 

The remainder have descriptions in our Archives and Manuscripts catalogue:

Add MS 10323: La vie de St Honorat

Add MS 17920: A Collection of Historical works, formerly part of Egerton MS 1500 

Add MS 22636: Thesaurus Pauperum and a collection of medical texts in Latin, with a fragment of a poem in Occitan 

Chantry Westwell

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Bibliography

Clovis Brunel, Bibliographie des manuscrits littéraires en ancien provençal, Société de publications Romanes et Françaises, 13 (Paris: Librairie E. Droz, 1935).

William Burgwinkle, ‘The troubadours : the Occitan model’, in The Cambridge History of French Literature, ed. by William Burgwinkle, Nicholas Hammond and Emma Wilson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 20-27.

21 June 2017

Stay cool

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This week in Britain, we have been enjoying some hot weather. For inspiration on how to beat the heat, why not turn to the fantastical stories northern Europeans used to tell each other about how people and creatures in warm places kept cool?

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Detail of elephants and a dragon, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England, c. 1310–1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 118v

Examples of such stories can be found in two groups of texts we’ve discussed before on the blog. These are copies of the Marvels of the East, descriptions of weird and wonderful creatures said to live beyond the known world, and bestiaries, collections describing various animals and their habits.

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Panotii, from the Marvels of the East, England, late 10th or early 11th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 104r

The Marvels of the East focus on creatures found in warm climates, such as elephants and camels. The text may have been based on a variety of ancient sources, but like a game of telephone (or Chinese whispers), they had been much distorted by the time it was being copied and illustrated in the early Middle Ages.

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Bas-de-page scene of a grotesque hybrid with a panotii (a monstrous race of men with enormous ears), from the Rutland Psalter, England (London?), c. 1260, Add MS 62925, f. 88v

Among the creatures the text describes are the panotii, people with big ears ‘like fans’. Conveniently, the panotii's ears could also be used as blankets at night. Less conveniently, the panotii were said to be very shy, and they had to pick up their large ears when they ran away from company. 

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Detail of a sciapod, from images of the Monstrous Races from the Arnstein Bible, North-West Germany, c. 1172, Harley MS 2799, f. 243r

Another of our favourite strategies for keeping cool comes from the people known as the sciapodes or sciopods: literally, the ‘Shady-feet’. (H/T to Sjoerd Levelt, who recently noted them on Twitter!) These people were said to lie on their backs and use their giant feet to shield them from the heat of sun. 

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Sciapodes from John Mandeville’s Travels, England (East Anglia), c. 1425–1450, Harley MS 3954, f. 31r

This story continued to capture artists’ and writers’ imaginations, and sciapodes appear in manuscripts and maps throughout the Middle Ages. The story seems to have long roots, as well: the 5th-century BCE writer Scylax is credited with a similar story, which may ultimately be based on retellings of ancient Indian stories. On a day like today, one can certainly see the appeal of the idea!

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Detail of a dragon entangling an elephant, from the Flower of Nature, Low Countries, c. 1300-1325, Add MS 11390, f. 13r

Medieval writers also worried about how dragons coped with heat, given that some were believed to breathe fire. They were said to be born in the hottest parts of the world, where no cool places could be found, even on the mountaintops. There was a medieval tradition that overheated dragons solved their conundrum by eating elephants. According to these authors, elephants had cold blood, which dragons tried to drink to cool their ‘burning intestines’. (Please, please do not try this at home.)

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A dragon biting an elephant, from a bestiary, England (Salisbury?), c. 1225–1250, Harley MS 4751, f. 58v

So enjoy the hot weather, while it lasts, and keep cool!

Alison Hudson

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