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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

20 March 2018

Call the medieval midwife

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Tucked away in a 14th-century encyclopaedia and bestiary is an oath written alongside a black cross. The person who made it had borrowed the book, and identified themselves as ‘abestetrix heifmoeder’ (echoing the Latin ‘obstetrix’, meaning ‘midwife’). Midwifery was as vital in the medieval world as it is today. Medieval manuscripts can provide a variety of evidence for the hardships, mysteries and triumphs of this historic profession.


Detail of an oath written by a midwife: Add MS 11390, f. 94v

Accounts of famous births from history are often accompanied by illustrations of the birthing chamber, depicting midwives and their female companions. This image accompanies the account of the birth of St Edmund in John Lydgate's Lives of SS Edmund and Fremund. The new mother lies in bed, tended by her companions, while the baby is warmed before the fire.

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Miniature of the birth of St Edmund, from Lydgate's Lives of SS Edmund and Fremund, England, 1434–1439: Harley MS 2278, f. 13v

The caesarean birth of Julius Caesar is frequently illustrated in medieval accounts of his life. Many of these illustrations depict men performing the caesarean, most likely because of the more surgical nature of the procedure. However, it may not have been uncommon for midwives to perform a caesarean themselves. These two illustrations of Caesar's birth depicts a midwife pulling the baby from the mother, accompanied by a female attendant, and the same birth, with a man playing the midwife's role.

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Miniature of the birth of Julius Caesar, showing a female midwife: Royal MS 16 G VII, f. 219r


Miniature of the birth of Julius Caesar, showing a man performing the caesarean: Royal MS 16 G VIII, f. 32r

Information on pregnancy and childbirth was also included in medical treatises. Copied into one 15th-century manuscript is a gynaecological text taken from Gilbertus Anglicus’ Compendium of Medicine. The text is accompanied by illustrations of foetuses in the womb, depicted in a variety of unusual positions. It is difficult to determine whether this work would ever have been consulted by a woman. The manuscript's first known owner was Richard Ferris, sergeant surgeon to Elizabeth I, the queen who famously never married or had children. 


Roundels showing various foetal presentations: Sloane MS 2463, f. 218v

Books may not have been an unusual sight in the birthing chamber, as women were known to have had texts read aloud to them while they were in labour. The Passio of St Margaret was a popular choice. St Margaret is thought to have emerged from a dragon's womb ‘unharmed and without any pain’, and came to be widely regarded as the patron saint of women in childbirth. Many manuscripts of the Passio of St Margaret are accompanied by instructions to bless the expectant mother with a copy of the Passio to secure the safe delivery of her child.


Miniature of a woman lying in a bed screened by a curtain, with a swaddled infant held by a midwife (the miniature has been smudged by kissing): Egerton MS 877, f. 12r

In the 14th century, relics of St Margaret’s girdle were often used as birthing aids. One 15th-century amulet roll (Harley Ch 43 A 14), which is thought to have been used as a birth girdle, contains a text in Middle English invoking the protection of the Cross, specifically referencing childbirth. This invocation was likely read aloud, perhaps by the midwife, as the girdle was worn by the expectant mother. Invocations to aid pregnancy and childbirth were also used in the Anglo-Saxon period. The Old English Lacnunga contains a charm to be used by women who struggled to carry a child to term. The text includes a set of prose introductions and a series of short poems intended to be recited aloud in a ritual process: 

Se wífman, se hire cild áfédan ne mæg, gange tó gewitenes mannes birgenne and stæppe þonne þríwa ofer þá byrgenne and cweþe þonne þríwa þás word:
þis mé tó bóte Ã¾Ç½re láþan lætbyrde,
þis mé tó bóte Ã¾Ç½re swǽran swǽrbyrde,
þis mé tó bóte Ã¾Ç½re láðan lambyrde.

'Let that woman who cannot nourish her child walk to the grave of a departed person and then step three times over the burial, and then say these words three times:
this as my remedy for the hateful late birth, this as my remedy for the oppressive heavy birth, this as my remedy for the hateful lame birth.'

(translated by Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie, The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records: A Collective Edition (New York, 1942))


A charm for ‘delayed birth’ in Lacnunga: Harley MS 585, f. 185r

It is difficult to prove that midwives were literate or regularly consulted texts in the medieval period. However, many medical manuscripts often included information regarding childbirth and the written word was certainly not out of place in the birthing chamber. The midwife who made the oath to return the book may not have been the only member of her profession to be borrowing books in the 14th century.


Becky Lawton

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17 March 2018

Medieval lucky charms

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Today is St Patrick’s Day, and to celebrate all things Irish we are exploring medieval Irish charms in the British Library's collections. The use of protective charms in Ireland can be traced back to the early medieval period, and possibly to St Patrick’s own lifetime.


St Patrick asleep, with a figure holding a book, France, 2nd quarter of the 13th century: Royal MS 20 D VI, f. 213v


Text page of the lorica of St Patrick, 15th century: Egerton MS 93, f. 19r

A lorica is a medieval Christian charm or prayer that will grant Divine protection when invoked. In classical Latin, the word ‘lorica’ refers to a protective breastplate worn as armour by Roman soldiers. The lorica of St Patrick, or St Patrick’s Breastplate, was supposedly composed by the saint himself to celebrate the victory of the Irish Church over paganism. The British Library houses one of only three surviving medieval copies of this charm, in a 15th-century manuscript containing an account in Middle Irish of St Patrick’s life (now Egerton MS 93). The lorica is also composed in Middle Irish, and is formed of seven verses beginning Attoruig indiu nert triun togairm trinoite (‘I arise today through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity’). A preface accompanies the lorica in an 11th-century manuscript known as the Liber hymnorum (Trinity College Dublin MS 1441), which states that the prayer was written to safeguard St Patrick and his monks against deadly enemies and would protect anyone who read it from devils and sudden death.


Text page of the lorica of St Fursey: Add MS 30512, f. 35v

Another notable protective charm is attributed to St Fursey (d. c. 650), an Irish monk from modern day Co. Galway and the first recorded Irish missionary to Anglo-Saxon England in c. 630. The only known copy of St Fursey’s lorica survives in a Middle Irish collection of theological works composed in the 15th and 16th centuries, known as the Leabhar Uí Maolconaire (Add MS 30512). Like the lorica of St Patrick, St Fursey’s prayer invokes the power of the Holy Trinity to protect one against evil. The text begins Robé mainrechta Dé forsind [f]ormnassa (‘The arms of God be around my shoulders’).


Head, shoulders, knees and bones: the opening of the lorica of Laidcenn to protect the body, late 8th or early 9th century: Harley MS 2965, f. 38r

Protective Irish charms also survive in medieval English manuscripts, such the Book of Nunnaminster (Harley MS 2965), produced in Mercia in the late 8th or early 9th century. This manuscript contains the earliest known copy of the lorica of Laidcenn (d. c. 660), a monk and scholar at the monastery of Clonfert-Mulloe in modern day Co. Laois. The text was copied in Latin, and invokes the protection of individual limbs and body parts from demons, including the eyes:

Deliver all the limbs of me a mortal

with your protective shield guarding every member,

lest the foul demons hurl their shafts

into my sides, as is their wont.

Deliver my skull, head with hair and eyes.

mouth, tongue, teeth and nostrils,

neck, breast, side and limbs,

joints, fat and two hands.

In the same manuscript, Laidcenn’s lorica is accompanied by a prayer against poison. These many surviving protective charms give new meaning to the saying, ‘the luck of the Irish’!


A charm against poison: Harley MS 2965, f. 37r


Alison Ray

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Edition and translation of the preface and lorica of St Patrick: Whitley Stokes & John Strachan (eds.), Thesaurus palaeohibernicus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1903), vol. 2, pp. 354–58.

Translation of the lorica of St Fursey: John Ó Ríordáin, The Music of What Happens (Dublin: The Columba Press, 1996) pp. 46–47.

Edition and translation of the lorica of Laidcenn: Michael W. Herren, The Hisperica famina (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1987), vol. 2, pp. 76–89.

14 March 2018

Augustine’s De Trinitate in London and Paris

Two manuscripts of Augustine’s treatise on the Trinity, both dating between 1120 and 1150, have recently been digitised as part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project. One is from St Albans Abbey (now British Library Egerton MS 3721); the other, containing the full text of De Trinitate, was made at an unknown location in England (now Bibliothèque nationale de France ms latin 12204).


The opening page of Augustine's De Trinitate, England (St Albans), between 1119 and 1146: British Library Egerton MS 3721, f. 9r


The opening page of De Trinitate, England, 1120–1130: Bibliothèque nationale de France ms lat. 12204, f. 2r

One of the most influential theologians of the early Church, St Augustine (354–430) became bishop of Hippo in present-day Algeria in 395. An extensive collection of his writings survive, in which he tackled the key theological questions of his time and interpreted them in a personal and practical way. His works were widely copied in medieval monastic scriptoria: after the Bible, they are the most common works listed in their library catalogues. For example, the library of Lorsch in Germany contained 98 volumes of Augustine out of a total of 590, and of 204 books in the inventory of Reading Abbey around 1192, 18 were the works of Augustine, more than double that of any other author.


Augustine enthroned, in a cutting from a Gradual or Antiphoner, Italy (?Cremona), 3rd quarter of the 15th century: British Library Additional MS 38897C

Augustine devoted nearly thirty years of his life to his 15-book treatise on the Trinity, in which he emphasised the resemblance between God and man and the ultimate role played by faith. In monastic communities such as Norwich and Fécamp in Normandy, there are records of it being read at mealtimes throughout the week following Trinity Sunday. At Reading, several copies were kept in the dormitory for use in the refectory, according to a late-14th-century list of books.

In Egerton 3721, the text of De Trinitate is incomplete, ending at book 15, chapter 8. It is preceded by a calendar and a short excerpt from Augustine’s De doctrina christiana.


A page from the calendar: Egerton MS 3721, f. 7v

This is a small work-a-day book, thicker but not much bigger than a smartphone, and written in Protogothic script. It is datable between 1119 and 1146, based on entries in the calendar. In the main text there is one rather smudged gold initial at the beginning (f. 9r) and a few decorated initials in red and green. Paragraph numbers and marginal notes have been added in some books, in others only the book and chapter numbers are supplied.


De Trinitate's book and chapter numbers: Egerton MS 3721, f. 72r

Halfway down the final page, De trinitate ends abruptly, and is followed by a short hymn, Cives celesti patriae, based on a meditation on the twelve stones that form the foundations of the heavenly Jerusalem. Each stone is assigned a different colour, to which a moral or physical meaning is attached. The final three verses are missing.


The end of De Trinitate and the opening lines of Cives celesti patriae: Egerton MS 3721, f. 86r

The copy of De Trinitate in BnF ms lat. 12204, also made in England, was recorded in the 15th century in the library of the abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, an important religious and cultural institution then located just outside Paris.


Initial ‘D’ with birds and a dragon-like creature at the beginning of St Augustine’s letter no 174 to Aureius: BnF lat. 12204, f. 1v

It is a larger manuscript than Egerton 3721, written in two columns and with more elaborate decoration. The book divisions are marked by ornate initials, some containing fantastic creatures.


A large initial with zoomorphic decoration at the beginning of book 5 of De Trinitate: BnF lat. 12204, f. 52v

Although the two manuscripts were made around the same time, the script in the Paris manuscript is more compact, as these images of the same passage from the first chapter show.

Egerton_ms_3721_f010r     Augustinus_Hipponensis_De_Trinitate_Augustin_2v(sain_btv1b10542349s

A comparison of the script of Egerton MS 3721, f. 10r, and BnF lat. 12204, f. 2v

The Paris volume is approximately three times larger than its counterpart, roughly the dimensions of an A4 page, and it shows marks of regular usage. There are notes, glosses and symbols throughout its margins, some in formal script in red or black, others mere jottings and aides-memoire.


A page from De Trinitate, showing marginal notes and symbols: BnF lat. 12204, f. 69v 

The format and marginal notes provide keys to the way the two manuscripts may have been used at their respective institutions, both well-established and important abbeys close to the cities of London and Paris. The first was probably for personal study, whereas the second may have been read in the refectory.


Chantry Westwell

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