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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

26 March 2017

The medieval origins of Mothering Sunday

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Mothering Sunday falls every year on the 4th Sunday in Lent, also called Mid-Lent Sunday or Refreshment Sunday, referring to its sense of respite halfway through this season of fasting and penitence. The modern recognition of this day came about through the efforts of Constance Adelaide Smith (1878–1938), who worked as a dispenser of medicine in Nottingham, and drew directly on pre-modern traditions. She soon found that the medieval conception of motherhood and the celebration of it was both rugged and diverse.

The Virgin Mary hands off baby Jesus and tackles the devil (in the Taymouth Hours, c.1325–40)

The Virgin Mary hands off baby Jesus and tackles the devil, in the ‘Taymouth Hours’, c.1325–40: Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 155v.

Smith had taken note of the Mother’s Day movement in the United States, promoted by Anna Jarvis and first proclaimed nationally in 1914, ‘as a public expression of our love and reverence for the mothers of our country’, to be held on the 2nd Sunday in May. She was inspired by these efforts, but was not herself a mother, and argued for a deeper, more inclusive definition of mothers and mothering.

Tellus and Ecclesia, the personifications of Mother Earth and the Church (c.1075): Add MS 30337, f. 3r.

Tellus and Ecclesia, the personifications of Mother Earth and the Church, c. 1075: Add MS 30337, f. 3r.

A short book appeared under the pseudonym ‘C. Penswick Smith’, The Revival of Mothering Sunday, in 1921 (revised 1932), as well as a sequel in 1928, with chapters exploring various facets of mothering: ‘The Church – Our Mother’; ‘Mothers of Earthly Homes’; ‘The Mother of Jesus’; and ‘Gifts of Mother Earth’. With these she collected a body of evidence for the traditions surrounding Mid-Lent Sunday, which ranged from the practice of daughters visiting their mothers – especially important for those engaged as domestic servants away from home – to the gifts of simnel cakes or wafer cakes. Smith aimed to show that there was already an international tradition of honouring mothers of all types on the 4th Sunday in Lent, and this only needed to be strengthened through official recognition.

The Virgin Mary punches the devil in the face (c.1240): Add MS 49999, f. 40v.

The Virgin Mary punches the devil in the face, c. 1240: Add MS 49999, f. 40v.

These various customs came from the medieval recognition of this day as ‘Laetare Sunday’. In the Middle Ages, many Sundays were referred to by their introit, or the first words of the Mass. On Mid-Lent Sunday, it also had a reference to mothering:

Rejoice, Jerusalem, and come together, all you that love her; rejoice with joy, you that have been in sorrow, that you may exult and be satisfied from the breasts of your consolation.

Laetare Hierusalem et conuentum facite omnes qui diligitis eam; gaudete cum laetitia, qui in tristitia fuistis, ut exsultetis et satiemini ab uberibus consolationis uestrae.

The readings for the day in the Sarum rite included Galatians 4.21–31, including the line ‘Jerusalem … is our mother’. The association of food with the day seems to be linked to John 6.1-14, the story of the feeding of the five thousand. On this Sunday, there was a relaxation of the rule against playing the organ. Simnel cake has been associated with the day for centuries, though its exact origins are foggy: ‘simnel’ is derived from Anglo-Norman simenel, ‘fine wheat flour’, itself apparently derived from the Classical Latin simila, a wheat flour. (The word was borrowed again from Anglo-Norman into medieval Latin as simenellus.)

Multitasking mum in the Cité des Dames of Christine de Pizan (1475): Add MS 20698, f. 63r.

Fredegund addressing her troops in a Dutch translation of Christine de Pisan, The Book of the City of Ladies, 1475: Add MS 20698, f. 63r.

A custom developed during the Middle Ages of making a procession to one’s ‘mother church’ on this day, usually the local cathedral. This could sometimes get out of hand, as Robert Grosseteste (c.1170–1253), the bishop of Lincoln, warned against in his Letter 22.7: ‘In each and every church you should strictly prohibit one parish from fighting with another over whose banners should come first in processions at the time of the annual visitation and veneration of the mother church. […] Those who dishonour their spiritual mother should not at all escape punishment, when those who dishonour their fleshly mothers are, in accordance with God’s law, cursed and punished with death’ (Letters of Robert Grosseteste, trans. by Manello and Goering, p. 107).

Mothers were honoured in many other different ways. Abbots’ mothers are included in the list of queens and abbesses in the New Minster Liber uitae (Stowe MS 944, f. 26v). One Wulfwyn was the mother of the monk Ælfwine, who became abbot in 1031 or 1032; he also noted her death in his prayer book (Cotton MS Titus D XXVI and Cotton MS Titus D XXVII). Margaret of Antioch was often considered the patron saint of pregnant women, escaping unscathed from no less than the bowels of a dragon, according to legend.

Margaret of Antioch with a dragon, often considered the patron saint of pregnant women (1440s): Yates Thompson MS 3, f. 282v.

Margaret of Antioch with a dragon (1440s): Yates Thompson MS 3, f. 282v.

Mothering in the Middle Ages was multifaceted, complex and difficult — rather like today. Intellectuals compared it to the very work of God. Around 1395, Julian of Norwich famously compared God to a mother. Robert of Cricklade could uncontroversially write around 1238, ‘Do you seek the presence of a mother? Just as a mother comforts her children, so will I comfort you, says the Lord [Is. 66:13]’ (On the Marriage of the Prophet Jacob 1.20: Royal MS 8 E II, f. 22v). We can all agree: mothering is pretty awesome, and deserves to be celebrated.

Andrew Dunning

24 March 2017

Digitising our manuscripts from Anglo-Saxon England

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Strong is he who tastes the power of books;
he who has possession of them is always the wiser.

Bald bið se ðe onbyregeð boca cræftes;
symle bið ðe wisra ðe hira geweald hafað.

— Solomon and Saturn II, lines 238–246 (translated in J. Neville, Representations of the Natural World in Old English Poetry (Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 198).

The British Library holds the world’s largest collections of books made or owned in England between the end of Roman Britain and the Norman Conquest of 1066. These books trace the development of writing, society, economy, government and religion from the 7th to the 11th centuries. We are delighted to announce that 175 of these manuscripts can now be viewed in full online on our Digitised Manuscripts website. We’ve produced a complete list of the Anglo-Saxon manuscripts available as of March 2017.

Many of these manuscripts have been digitised in the last year in memory of Melvin R. Seiden. Others have been digitised thanks to the generosity of a variety of other funders.

Detail of canon tables, from the Royal Bible: England (Canterbury?), early 9th century, Royal MS 1 E VI, f. 4r

The manuscripts available on Digitised Manuscripts certainly corroborate the Old English poet’s claim that ‘books are glorious’. They range from mesmerising illuminated Insular Gospel-books to four of the manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to fragments of scribbled farming memoranda. The list includes not only books that were made in England, but works whose annotations show they were owned in England before 1066. For example, the oldest book known to have been owned in England in this period was made in Africa

End of Gospel excerpts and beginning of a prayer of Gregory the Great, with an illuminated initial, from the Book of Nunnaminster: Mercia, late 8th or early 9th century, Harley MS 2965, f. 16v

Don’t panic if your favourite manuscript is not yet on the list. More are being digitised all the time, including under The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200.

Depiction of Mambres with a book: from a miscellany, England, mid-11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1,  f. 87v

You can stay in touch with our progress by reading this blog or by checking our regular Twitter updates.

Alison Hudson

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21 March 2017

Omne Bonum (All Good Things)

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‘Virtually all good things [are] contained herein.’ That's how the author of the text known as Omne Bonum described his work. Omne Bonum is a huge encyclopedia, whose compiler (and scribe), James le Palmer, sought to compile all the knowledge of his time, arranged alphabetically for the use of ‘simple individuals who wish to seek out the precious pearls of learning’. There are 1350 entries arranged under the 23 letters of the medieval Latin alphabet, with each letter comprising a book. Over 750 of these entries are accompanied by historiated initials. The 1094 pages are divided into two volumes, held at the British Library and each surviving in two parts: Royal MS 6 E VI/1, Royal 6 E VI/2, Royal 6 E VII/1, Royal 6 E VII/2, all now fully digitised.  The illustrations, a gold mine of visual information about the medieval world, were already highlighted on our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. The whole manuscript can also be viewed on Digitised Manuscripts, not just the illustrations but the entire text, with all its complex components.

Page with entries from Domesticus (servant) to Dominus bonus (good master), from James le Palmer's Omne Bonum, England (London), c. 1360-c. 1375, Royal MS 6 E VI/2, f. 546r

Contents of the Omne Bonum

At the beginning of the first volume is a cycle of 109 tinted drawings, 4 to a page, illustrating all the important Bible stories from Creation to the Ascension of Christ, followed by a short series of visions, including the Vision of Saints Benedict and Paul (see below). The text includes excerpts from Gregory the Great’s Dialogues and Augustine’s De Genesi ad litteram.

Christ’s miracles: the loaves and fishes, the widow’s son, healing the blind, and walking on water, from Omne Bonum, England (London), c. 1360-c. 1375, Royal MS 6 E VI/1, f. 10r

R 6 E VI!1 ff 15v-
Vision of St Benedict and St Paul: f. 15v: Saint Benedict pointing to the soul of Bishop Germanus being carried up to Heaven (above), the conversion of Saint Paul (below); f. 16r: the face of God in radiance (above), St Benedict and St Paul kneeling (centre), a man and a woman kneeling before a circular diagram of the universe with the Garden of Eden at the centre, from Omne Bonum, England (London); c. 1360-c. 1375, Royal MS 6 E VI/1, ff. 15v-16r

This biblical section is followed by the alphabetical entries, which cover a wide range of subjects:


The first entry, ‘Absolucio’ is typical of many in that the subject is theological and a creative solution has been found to illustrate an abstract concept. The Church hierarchy is portrayed in that the Pope is shown absolving bishops and a priest absolving a layman. In the accompanying text, priests are warned against demanding excessive penance when absolving members of their flock.

Absolucio (Absolution), from Omne Bonum, England (London), c. 1360-c. 1375, Royal MS 6 E VI/1, f.19r

Though there is a focus on theology, church history and hagiography, reflecting the main concerns of the 14th-century author, a wide range of subjects is covered, including:


This example of a legal argument taken from Hostiensis or Henry of Segusio’s Summa is of ‘accidental mishap’, whereby a monk who carries a sword to defend himself against pagans cannot help it if he happens to kill a pagan who he encounters when going about his daily business. The image shows a monk looking extremely pleased with himself, having plunged what appears to be a gargantuan metal object right through the body of an innocent-looking and rather well-dressed young man.  Could this really be termed ‘accidental’ or is ‘fortuitous’ a better description?

Casus fortuitus (Accidental mishap), from Omne Bonum, England (London), c. 1360-c. 1375, Royal MS 6 E VI/1, f. 228v

Morality and the human condition

Some images bring a wry smile to the modern reader, though the intention of the medieval illuminator was almost certainly not to amuse. Below, a prospective bride who is being given a ring looks extremely dissatisfied with her gift, while the young man seems very pleased with himself.

Donacio propter nupcias (Bridal Gift), from Omne Bonum, England (London), c. 1360-c. 1375, Royal MS 6 E VI/2, f. 553r

Science and natural history

Science and natural history were also discussed. Some of these entries also had moral purposes, as the devil in the image below stands for the use of astrology for magical or superstitious practices which are condemned, whereas study of the stars is recommended for physicians and farmers, who will put it to good use. The accompanying text is based on the writings of Gratian, one of the many sources included in this compendium of knowledge.

Royal 6 E VI f. 396v
Constellacio (Constellation), from Omne Bonum, England (London), c. 1360-c. 1375, Royal MS 6 E VI/2, f. 396v

The author also described different animals. In the image below, the puppies are rather cute, with Dalmatian-like spots, but the beaver is a weird hybrid creature with the head and paws of a dog and tail of a fish, reflecting the description in the text of ‘fins and tail like a fish’.

Catuli (puppies) and castor (beaver), from Omne Bonum, England (London), c. 1360-c. 1375, Royal MS 6 E VI/1, f. 244r

Volume 2 of the set begins inauspiciously, the first entry being Ebrietas (Drunkenness). The image shows six drunken louts misbehaving, one of them being sick on the ground.

Royal 6 E VII f. 1
Ebrietas (Drunkenness), from Omne Bonum, England, S. E. (London); c. 1360-c. 1375, Royal MS 6 E VII/1, f. 1r

The remarkable compiler and scribe of the Omne Bonum was James le Palmer (b. 1327). He was king’s clerk in the Exchequer from 1359 and was granted a pension by Edward III in 1375.  He did not have time to finish his ambitious work, perhaps as he was trying to compile it in his spare time, and although some illustrations were added by a later owner, the text was never completed. The second volume begins at ‘E’ and there are relatively few entries for letters after ‘M’.

The final entry is Zacharias, with three entries representing three individuals, Pope Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist and the Old Testament prophet, each with a historiated initial. Instructions to the illuminator can be seen in a faint cursive in the margins, but they are not in the hand of le Palmer, and the artist, who was a later contributor, does not follow them closely; for example, in the upper left margin the note reads ‘Sit h[ic] papa & p[ro]ph[et]a’ (Here to be a pope and prophet) but the artist has drawn a pope and a king, illustrating the adjoining text, which tells of Pope Zacharias deposing a French king who was ‘inutilis’.

Page with entries for Zacharias, from Omne Bonum, England (London), c. 1360-c. 1375, Royal MS 6 E VII/2, f. 532r

We would like to thank Lucy Freeman Sandler, whose remarkable study and scholarly edition of these unique manuscripts has provided the major source of information for our catalogue entry and this blogpost. For any further information on the author, illuminators, contents and context of this work, we refer our readers to:

Lucy Freeman Sandler, Omne Bonum: A Fourteenth-Century Encyclopedia of Universal Knowledge, 2 vols (London: Harvey Miller, 1996).     

Chantry Westwell

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