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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

01 May 2016

A Calendar Page for May 2016

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For more information about the Bedford Hours, please see our post for January 2016; for more on medieval calendars in general, our original calendar post is an excellent guide.

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Calendar page for May from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-1430, Add MS 18850, f. 5r

All is lovely and bright in these calendar pages for May, in keeping with the joys of this most splendid of months.

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Detail of miniatures of a man going hawking and the zodiac sign Gemini, from the calendar page for May, Add MS 18850, f. 5r

At the bottom of the folio is a typical ‘labour’ for May, albeit one in keeping with the aristocratic emphasis of this manuscript.  On the left is a miniature of a man hawking, clad in luxurious clothing (note particularly the gold-embroidered stockings he is sporting).  He rides a gray horse through a rural landscape with a castle in the distance.  A similar landscape can be found to the right, where two blonde androgynous figures embrace, for the zodiac sign Gemini.  They stand behind a gilded shield, which has been adorned by pricking in an excellent example of gold work.

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Detail of a marginal roundel of the seven Pleiades, from the calendar page for May, Add MS 18850, f. 5r

The rubrics at the bottom of the folio add another dimension of understanding to the other miniature roundels for this month.  On the upper right of this folio is a painting of the seven Pleiades, the mythological daughters of the titan Atlas and a sea-nymph.  The eldest of these daughters is Maia (labelled Maya on the painting), who was the mother of Mercury (Hermes).  The rubric informs us that the month of May is named after May, ‘because the aforesaid Mercury is called the god of eloquence and the master of rhetoric and marketing’ (‘merchandise’).  This must certainly be a very early use of that latter term!

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Calendar page for May, Add MS 18850, f. 5v

The emphasis on aristocratic and/or divine love continues on the following folio.  The rubrics on this folio describe how Honour was married to Reverence, a marriage we can see witness by a group of praying men.   Below this is a scene depicting ‘how the ancient nobles governed the people and the queens loved them’.  A very pleasant image indeed!

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Detail of marginal roundels of the marriage of Honour and Reverence and the governance of a city, from the calendar page for May, Add MS 18850, f. 5v

-  Sarah J Biggs

30 April 2016

Fit for a King’s Sister

Looking for a story about an exiled princess who married a count called Drogo? Forget Daenerys: the real story revolves around Godgifu.

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Initial B from a Gospel-book, England (Canterbury?), 11th century, Royal MS 1 D III, f. 9r

The British Library has recently digitised an intriguing 11th-century Gospel-book. This manuscript is full of surprises: a red-eyed figure pops out of an arcade surrounding some canon tables. An initial in red and orange decorated with criss-crossed and curly patterns jumps out at the start of the Pater Noster. In other parts, the manuscripts seems to be unfinished, with blank spaces left for initials which were never completed. And at the bottom of a page with a giant initial ‘B’, a 13th-century monk left a useful note, which claims that this 'text [belongs to] the church at Rochester, through Countess Goda.’

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Canon tables, from Royal MS 1 D III, f. 4r

‘Countess Goda’ can probably be identified with Edward the Confessor’s sister, called Godgifu or Gode. Although she was the daughter of Æthelred the Unready and Emma of Normandy, little is known about Godgifu herself. Like her brothers, she probably spent some time in exile on the Continent in the years before and after her father’s death in 1016. At some point, she married Drogo (sometimes spelled Dreux), count of Vexin, with whom she had three sons, including Walter (or Gautier) of Vexin and Ralph the Timid, Count of Hereford, who accompanied his uncle Edward the Confessor to England and supported Edward throughout his reign. When Drogo died in 1035, Godgifu married Eustace II, count of Boulogne. It is not known when Godgifu died: some scholars suggest she predeceased her brother Edward the Confessor. She should not be confused with her contemporary who was also called Lady Godgifu—or Lady Godiva—who allegedly rode naked through Coventry to protest a toll imposed by her husband Leofric, Earl of Mercia. (At least, that is what the 13th-century chronicler Roger of Wendover claimed.)

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Pater Noster, from Royal MS 1 D III, f. 23v

While Godgifu left England, her manuscript did not, or at least not permanently. The book was in an Anglo-Norman environment by the end of the 11th-century, when an ‘Exultet’ with musical notation was added to the opening pages. Although the text is written in a style associated with English scribes, musicologists have suggested that the music represents the Norman version of the melody.

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Exultet with musical notation, England (Canterbury?), late 11th century, Royal MS 1 D III, f. 7v

The book may have stayed with one of Godgifu’s former manors. After Godgifu’s manor of Lambeth was given to Rochester Cathedral by William Rufus, the book may have been taken to the Cathedral, where it was recorded in the list of books copied or acquired by Alexander, the precentor, soon after 1201.

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Detail of a library inscription, England (Rochester), c. 1201, Royal MS 1 D III, f. 9r

Although little is known about Godgifu today, her name evidently meant something to the 13th-century member of the Rochester community who chose to inscribe it. And while librarians never encourage writing in books, scholars are indebted to this anonymous scribe for giving us a glimpse into the world of Godgifu.

~Alison Hudson

23 April 2016

1000th Anniversary of the Death of Æthelred the Unready

Today marks the 1000th anniversary of the death of King Æthelred II (reigned 978-1016). Æthelred II—often nicknamed Æthelred the ‘Unready’, from the Old English word for 'ill-advised'—has not enjoyed a glowing reputation throughout history. 

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Passage describing Æthelred’s death from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle C-text, England, 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B I, f. 153v

The longest narrative account of Æthelred’s reign comes from a group of entries in the C, D, and E texts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. (The British Library possesses the C and D texts and has recently digitised all its copies of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.) These entries were apparently composed after Æthelred’s death by a single chronicler, who was bitter about the repeated Viking invasions that had dogged Æthelred’s reign and the eventual conquest of England by the Scandinavian leader Cnut. The chronicler blamed Æthelred for many of these tribulations, and summed up Æthelred's life in his entry for 1016 by saying: 'He ended his days on St George's day, and he had held his kingdom with great toil and difficulties as long as his life lasted' (translated by Dorothy Whitelock and others, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Revised Translation (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1961), p. 95).

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Passages describing Eadric Streona’s treachery from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D-text, England, 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B IV, f. 65v

In particular, the chronicler objected to Æthelred’s promotion of the treacherous noble Eadric Streona, who eventually joined Cnut’s forces. He also disapproved of the massive payments which English leaders collected and used to pay Viking forces in return for an end to hostilities. 

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Detail of a list of benefactors including ‘Æðelred [the Unready] Cynge' and 'Cnut Cynge', from the New Minster Liber Vitae, England (Winchester), 1031, Stowe MS 944, f. 25r 

Despite the eventual conquest of Æthelred’s kingdom by Cnut, there are other suggestions that Æthelred was not an entirely incompetent ruler. Æthelred was one of the longest reigning early medieval kings: he ruled for approximately 38 years, even taking into account the period when the victories of the Viking leader Swein forced him into exile in Normandy in 1013 and 1014. By contrast, Æthelred’s father, Edgar the Peaceable, had only reigned for 16 years, and Æthelred’s successor Cnut reigned for 19 years. Æthelred’s longevity, particularly in the context of invasion and disruption, is remarkable.

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Initial at the start of the Gospel of St Luke, from the Cnut Gospels, England, Royal MS 1 D IX, f. 70r

In addition to disruption, Æthelred’s reign also saw a flourishing of artistic production, as evidenced by several manuscripts in the British Library’s collection, which have now been digitised in full. These include the lavishly illustrated and gilded gospel-book pictured above which may have been made during Æthelred’s reign, even though it is known today as the ‘Cnut Gospels’ because charters of Cnut were later added to it around 1018.

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Page from Beowulf, England, c. 1000-1016, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 140r

Similarly, the only surviving manuscript of the longest Old English epic, Beowulf, was copied during Æthelred’s reign, in the early 11th century. Curiously, Beowulf is a Geatish, or Scandinavian, hero, whose story was still being retold in a context of Scandinavian invasions of England. This manuscript contains a number of other notable texts as well, including an Old English poem about the Biblical heroine, Judith.

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Deatil of the opening page of Ælfric’s Life of St Æthelthryth, from Ælfric’s Lives of the Saints, England (? Bury St Edmunds or Canterbury), 1st half of the 11th century, Cotton MS Julius E VII, f. 94v

Indeed, many of the most important works in the corpus of Old English literature were copied during Æthelred’s reign, and some were even produced then. In particular, Æthelred’s reign coincided with the career of Ælfric of Eynsham, one of the most prolific and talented authors of Old English works. Ælfric’s sermons, including his Lives of the Saints, his Grammar, and other texts were widely copied during the 11th century and are still studied in medieval English literature courses today. The British Library has now digitised two copies of the first series of Ælfric’s Catholic Homilies (see Cotton MS Vitellius C V), including the earliest surviving copy (Royal MS 7 C XII); one copy of Ælfric’s Lives of the Saints (Cotton MS Julius E VII); two copies of Ælfric’s Grammar (Cotton MS Faustina A X, Cotton MS Julius A II); a copy of the Old English translation of the Hexateuch, to which Ælfric was a principal contributor (Cotton MS Claudius B IV); and other works which include excerpts from Ælfric, such as a  fragment of a colloquy associated him which was copied into the margins of a grammar book (Add MS 32246).

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Page from a later copy of Ælfric’s Hexateuch, England (Canterbury), c. 1025-1050, Cotton MS Claudius B IV, f. 15v

Æthelred’s reign also coincided with the careers of other noted writers in Old English and Latin, including Wulfstan, bishop of Worcester and archbishop of York, and Wulfstan, cantor of the Old Minster, Winchester. Manuscripts of these men’s work—including some with additions and annotations in Wulfstan of Worcester’s own hand—have also recently been digitised, including Wulfstan of Winchester’s long Latin poem about the miracles of St Swithun (Royal MS 15 C VII).

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Page from the Rule of St Benedict, England, c. 975-1016, Harley MS 5431, f. 44r

These writers were all products of the monastic reform movement which promoted the Rule of St Benedict, uniformity of lifestyle, and high standards of education. Much manuscript evidence of this learning survives, including a plethora of grammar books, glossaries, and texts on subjects from astronomy (Cotton Domitian A I) to Latin epics to hagiography to riddles.

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Page from Prudentius' Psychomachia with illustration and glosses, England (? Bury St Edmunds), c. 980-1020, Add MS 24199, f. 12r

These texts show monks (and possibly nuns and lay people) studying and improving their Latin and even Greek.

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Latin phrase ‘Deo gratias’ written in Greek letters, from  Harley MS 5431, f. 106v

This artistic flourishing was not entirely unrelated to the troubles of Æthelred’s reign. Many members of Æthelred’s kingdom believed that the Viking invasions were divine punishment for lax practices and lack of learning. This view can, for instance, be found explicitly in the writings of another leading intellectual of Æthelred’s reign: Wulfstan, bishop of Worcester and archbishop of York, who wrote several law codes issued in Æthelred’s reign and was a senior administrator for him (and later, for Cnut). Wulfstan’s law codes and his famous ‘Sermon of the Wolf to the English’ blame his countrymen’s lax habits for Scandinavian forces’ recent victories. In the eyes of contemporaries, creating beautiful books to glorify God and educate clerics and lay people may have been one way to combat the country’s moral (and military) woes.

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Page from Wulfstan’s Sermo lupi, England (? Worcester or ? York), Cotton MS Nero A I, f. 110r

Beyond the manuscripts related to art and learning, we have also recently digitised a series of documents which suggest that, in some regions at least, leases and property deals and farming continued apace during Æthelred’s reign. Such documents can be found in an early cartulary of Worcester, such as the Liber Wigorniensis (Cotton MS Tiberius A XIII, ff. 1-118v) and the Ely farming memoranda (Add MS 61735). The memoranda describe farm tools and livestock sent from Ely Abbey to Thorney Abbey, as well as rents payable in eels.

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Grant by King Æthelred to the Bishopric of St David with reversion to Worcester from 1005, from the Liber Wigorniensis, England (Worcester), c. 1000-1025, Cotton MS Tiberius A XIII, f. 118v

Whatever one thinks of Æthelred, it cannot be denied that his reign was a fascinating time in political and artistic history. On 23 April 2016, when so many people around the world are celebrating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, it is worth pausing to remember that it is also the 1000th anniversary of the death of King Æthelred.

~Alison Hudson