THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

14 posts from March 2014

29 March 2014

The Enemy of All Marriage

Last week, we announced that two important manuscripts had been saved for the nation by the British Library.  One of these – a printed book filled with the manuscript notes of the religious reformer John Ponet (b. c. 1514, d. 1556) – has been digitised in its entirety, and is now available for all to study and enjoy through Digitised Manuscripts (the book is Add MS 89067).  It joins another book annotated by Ponet in the British Library collections: a copy of the 1534 edition of the Historia Danorum Libri XVI (590.k.10).

John Ponet began his career at Queen’s College in Cambridge, where he graduated as Master of Arts in 1535.  Yet no quiet life of scholarship awaited Ponet.  A highly articulate advocate of reformed religion, and an inveterate controversialist to boot, Ponet placed himself at the centre of contemporary doctrinal debates, including the question of whether priests should be permitted to marry.  Like Thomas Cranmer and Matthew Parker, Ponet took a wife well before clerical celibacy was swept away.  He was later arraigned on charges of bigamy, his wife being already betrothed to a Nottingham butcher; he eventually divorced her and married another woman.

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Frontispiece to John Ponet’s copy of Thomas Martin’s ‘Traictise’, containing Ponet’s annotations and an old library stamp from the Law Society’s Mendham Collection, printed in London, 1554, Add MS 89067, f. 1r

This book, published in 1554, is entitled A Traictise declaryng and plainly prouyng that the pretensed marriage of Priestes and professed persones is no marriage, but altogether unlawful, and in all ages, and al countreies of Christendome bothe forbidden and also punyshed.  Written by Thomas Martin, a civil lawyer of conservative religious standing, this book represents an attempt by the regime of Mary Tudor to give intellectual justification to the undoing of doctrinal changes effected during the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI.  Five years earlier, in the year that clerical celibacy had been abolished by act of parliament, Ponet had published A Defence for Mariage of Priestes, by Scripture and aunciente wryters.  Already married himself for at least a year, Ponet set out why ‘marriage and priesthood may stand together’ and how ‘marriage is no hindrance to a godly life’, drawing heavily on St Paul’s advice to the Corinthians to marry in order to avoid the sin of fornication.

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Opening of the first chapter, with Ponet’s annotations in English and Latin in the margins, Add MS 89067, f. 11r

It is Ponet’s extensive manuscript notes alongside the Traictise – in the margins and on blank leaves specially inserted into the book – that transform this book into a witness of the personal battles taking place within religious controversies of the mid-sixteenth century.  Ponet’s rise to the bishopric of Winchester in 1551 had been at the expense of its former bishop Stephen Gardiner.  It is probably no coincidence that the author of the Traictise was employed by Gardiner in his new role as Mary I’s Lord Chancellor.

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Detail of an interleaved page containing Ponet’s annotations in English, Add MS 89067, f. 2r

Declaring on the title-page ‘Martin made me an enemy of all marriage’, Ponet left few leaves unmarked, writing notes in English, Latin and Greek that comprise a blow-by-blow response to the Traictise.  Ponet was evidently keen to garner scurrilous gossip to pepper his response with some ad hominem remarks: ‘Martin played always the fool in Christmas in New College, Oxford’, he noted (see above). 

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Detail of an interleaved page containing Ponet’s annotations in English, Add MS 89067, f. 4r

He often directly addressed Martin in his annotations: ‘Your intent, as appearing by this title of your book, is to prove that the marriage of priests and professed persons is not marriage...you think you have made so profound a resolution in this matter by your canonical wisdom and sophistical cunning...ye may dedicate the first fruits of your fancy as...to a queen...not doubting belike that her grace’s ears will not be offended with your unchaste terms of filthy whoredom, your shameless shifts, [...] lechery et cetera, your ruffian-like talk and loud lies...’. 

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Detail of an interleaved page, containing Ponet’s annotations in English, Add MS 89067, f. 4r

Warming to his theme, Ponet continued, ‘Though the queen be contented with whatsoever you say, yet will learned men overlook you and judge what you ought to say, it is not your net that can hide your nakedness when you dance now as it was when you used to play in New College in Oxford the lords minion fool in Christmas.  Belike there you learned your boldness and lost your wit and did then put off shame and put on impudency...’. 

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Detail of an interleaved page, containing Ponet’s annotations in English, Add MS 89067, f. 5r

Referring to the sacking under Mary of clerics who had legally married under Edward, Ponet wrote, with some sarcasm, ‘Now Mr Doctor ye must make some foul shift for your clients which be put in the possession of such men’s benefices as be deprived without a cause if your sayings be true...’. 

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Detail of an interleaved page, containing Ponet’s annotations in English, Add MS 89067, f. 5r

Ponet predicted that unrest would follow these changes, with attacks made both against priests’ replacements and those responsible, not least because of perceived foreign influence through Mary’s marriage to Philip II: ‘...if now you and your Spanions help not at a pinch, all such new beneficed shavelings [i.e. inexperienced young men] shall be thought to live in open extortion and wrongfully to withhold other men’s goods, for the which great damage is like to ensue not only to them but also to all such as have put out the one without a cause.’

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Page of text, underlined and containing Ponet’s annotations in English and Latin, Add MS 89067, f. 46r
 

Ponet evidently saw the hand of his old adversary Gardiner at work in Martin’s Traictise.  His notes in Add MS 89067 formed the basis of his response, published in 1556, An Apologie fully answeringe by Scriptures and aunceant Doctors, a blasphemose Book gathered by D. Steph. Gardiner...and other Papists...as by ther books appeareth and of late set furth under the name of T. Martin Doctor of the Civile lawes...against the godly mariadge of priests.  Yet this new acquisition contains many other annotations by Ponet that were never printed and remain to be studied in detail.  It thus offers fresh insights into a disputatious and very personal exchange during a febrile period in England’s religious history.

- James Freeman

27 March 2014

Say Your Prayers

A new addition to Digitised Manuscripts comes in the form of Add MS 50005, a Book of Hours in Dutch, which the British Library acquired from the Dyson Perrins collection in the 1950s.  The core of the book was written by one hand, c. 1410-c. 1420, perhaps in Utrecht or Delft.  It contains devotional texts such as the Hours of the Virgin and the Little Hours of the Cross, as well as prayers to the Virgin Mary and Christ, the Crucifix and God.  Whereas Books of Hours made in England or France would have been written in Latin, this example is written entirely in Middle Dutch.  Nor is it unusual; most Books of Hours from the Netherlands are written in the vernacular.

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Historiated initial incorporating the Nursing Madonna (‘Maria Lactans’) at the opening of the Hours of the Virgin, from a Book of Hours in Middle Dutch, Netherlands (?Utrecht or ?Delft), c. 1410-c. 1420, Add MS 50005, f. 8r

The use of Dutch in this way was the outcome of a religious movement known as the Devotio Moderna, which sought to encourage a personal, emotional style of devotion that was accessible to all literate people.  This Book of Hours is decorated with a series of 66 miniatures illustrating scenes from the lives of Joachim and Anna, their daughter the Virgin Mary, and her son Jesus Christ.  The miniatures are lively and expressive: the characters are shown moving, gesturing or performing ceremonial duties.  Being unframed, this sense of activity spills out into the margins, drawing the scenes and the text closer together.

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Miniature of the Disputation in the Temple, Add MS 50005, f. 60v

The miniatures can also be visceral and unsettling.  On f. 59v, under the orders of Herod, and unmoved by the pleas of its mother, a soldier is stamping on an infant and impaling it with his sword; the child’s blood is shown spilling over his boot and onto the grass.  On f. 106v, Christ is tied to a pillar; his torturers are captured mid-swing, one lifting his whip above his head, the other poised to strike a sideways blow on Christ’s already lacerated body, while Pilate is standing in the background, looking on impassively.  The captions directly address the reader and employ the dramatic present tense to pull them into the action: ‘Here does Herod kill the innocent children’; ‘Here they scourge Jesus’. 

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Miniature of the Massacre of the Innocents, Add MS 50005, f. 59v

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Miniature of Christ’s scourging, Add MS 50005, f. 106v

The artist responsible for these miniatures has been identified by James Marrow as ‘The Master of the Morgan Infancy Cycle’.  He is named after his work in M. 866 at the Pierpont Morgan Library, and he is known only through other decorated Books of Hours: Liège, Bibliothèque de l’Université, MS Wittert 35; Utrecht, Universiteitsbibliothek, MS 5.J.26; Berlin, Staatsbibliothek Preussischer Kulturbesitz, MS Germ. oct. 680; and Berlin, Kupferstichkabinet, no. 2302 (a single detached miniature). 

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Miniature of soldiers casting lots for Christ’s garments, Add MS 50005, f. 119v

The insertion of other texts by other hands in this book presents not only a challenge to the boldest manuscript cataloguer, but also insights into how medieval Books of Hours could be customised and augmented.  The book was added to in two stages during the fifteenth century.  The first additions were made around the mid-fifteenth century, almost entirely on the blank recto sides of leaves containing miniatures on the verso.  The interspersing of new texts among the old seems confusing to modern eyes, but it reflects the emendator’s thoughtful approach to what would be appropriate in the book. 

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A note on three things necessary for salvation, the first page of additions made by ‘Hand 2’ in the mid-fifteenth century, Add MS 50005, f. 83r.

Placing some of the inserted prayers on blank leaves at the front of the volume would have avoided the chopping and changing between texts from f. 95r to 138r, but it would have upset the textual hierarchy by moving the Hours of the Virgin to second place in the volume.  The emendator began his or her additions immediately after this most important text in the volume, slotting them among the Little Hours of the Cross so that the new prayers were grouped with those originally placed in the volume.

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A prayer to St Erasmus (‘O heilighe martelaer Christi sinte erasme’), the first page of additions made by ‘Hand 3’ in the second half of the fifteenth century, Add MS 50005, f. 159v.

The second additions were made later in the fifteenth century, more straightforwardly to blank leaves and possibly inserted quires at the end of the volume.  Whereas prayers found earlier in the volume are directed to God, Christ, or the Virgin Mary, these address a variety of saints – St Erasmus, St Katherine, St Agatha, St Stephen, St Agnes and St Francis – that might reflect the particular devotional interests of the book’s owner.  

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Miniature of a laywoman kneeling in prayer before the Virgin and Child, Add MS 50005, f. 155v.

There is no firm evidence of provenance in the manuscript.  The final miniature depicts a laywoman – perhaps the original owner of the book – kneeling in prayer before the Virgin and Child.  A similarly dressed figure is shown attending upon Anna at the birth of Mary (f. 5v), and upon Mary at the birth of Jesus (f. 22v), sitting with the shepherds at the Annunciation (f. 36v), greeting the Magi at the Adoration (f. 45v), and holding a bell-rope at the Purification (f. 46v). 

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Miniature of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, Add MS 50005, f. 5v.

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Miniature of the Adoration of the Magi, Add MS 50005, f. 45v.

The book seems to have remained in female possession, perhaps belonging a Sister of the Common Life, one of the pious lay groups associated with the Devotio Moderna.  An exhortation on the Passion is addressed specifically to a sister – ‘O mijn gheminde suster’ (‘O my beloved sister’, f. 162r) – and includes the phrase ‘soe moecht ghi een ghewarich dienster Christi worden’ (‘may you become a true servant of Christ’, ff. 164r-164v).  It was with this goal in mind that the many owners of this and other Books of Hours pored over their precious manuscripts, reciting the prayers and meditating upon the suffering of their Saviour.

- James Freeman

25 March 2014

Codex Sinaiticus Added to Digitised Manuscripts

Codex Sinaiticus is one of the great treasures of the British Library. Written in the mid-4th century in the Eastern Mediterranean (possibly at Caesarea), it is one of the two oldest surviving copies of the Greek Bible, along with Codex Vaticanus, in Rome. Written in four narrow columns to the page (aside from in the Poetic books, in two columns), its visual appearance is particularly striking.

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Add MS 43725, f 229v, Luke 2:13-2:45.

The significance of Codex Sinaiticus for the text of the New Testament is incalculable, not least because of the many thousands of corrections made to the manuscript between the 4th and 12th centuries.

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Add MS 43725, f 218v, correction to Mark 2:22.

The manuscript itself is now distributed between four institutions: the British Library, the Universitäts-Bibliothek at Leipzig, the National Library of Russia in St Petersburg, and the Monastery of St Catherine at Mt Sinai. Several years ago, these four institutions came together to collaborate on the Codex Sinaiticus Project, which resulted in full digital coverage and transcription of all extant parts of the manuscript. The fruits of these labours, along with many additional essays and scholarly resources, can be found on the Codex Sinaiticus website.

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Add MS 43725, f 68r, decorative colophon at the end of Isaiah.

As part of our ongoing project to make all the British Library’s pre-1600 Western manuscripts available online, we are pleased to announce that those parts of the Codex Sinaiticus held by the British Library can now also be seen on Digitised Manuscripts (Add MS 43725), complementing the 550 Greek manuscripts already available online, including the New Testament volume of Codex Alexandrinus. Over the next twelve months, a further 350 Greek manuscripts will be added to Digitised Manuscripts, in a project funded by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, the A.G. Leventis Foundation, and a range of other donors.

On the Digitised Manuscripts page for Codex Sinaiticus, you will also find an updated catalogue entry, including an extensive bibliography. We hope the availability of this priceless manuscript online will facilitate further study and research.

22 March 2014

Blogtastic!

You may recall that we asked for your help earlier this year, when we asked for your votes in the inaugural National UK Blog Awards (Vote for Us Please). We're delighted to tell you that, thanks to your overwhelming support, we have made the list of finalists in the Arts and Culture category. We understand that more than 16,000 votes were cast in total (not all for us obviously), but we are hugely grateful for your support: every little vote really did count! You can read more about the National UK Blog Awards here.

Benedictional
The Benedictional of St Æthelwold, from our blogpost More Unique Than Most (4 February 2014)

The awards ceremony itself takes place on 25 April. We are dusting off our snappiest suits and poshest frocks, to make a good impression on the night itself. Most of our time we spend hovering over our computers, beavering away to make our collections available online or dreaming up ever more outlandish blogposts (and a thousand other things besides). It's great to know that somebody out there is impressed by what we have been doing.

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Imaging the manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, from our blogpost Gawain Revealed (23 February 2014)

Since the time we asked for your votes, here are some of the stories we have posted on the Medieval Manuscripts Blog. We hope that there will be many more like these to come. Let us know your favourite by tweeting @BLMedieval.

A Medieval Comic Strip

A Papyrus Puzzle and Some Purple Parchment

An Illustrated Guide to Medieval Love

Gawain Revealed

Medieval Drama Acquired by the British Library

More Unique Than Most: The Benedictional of St Æthelwold

She Cares Not a Turd: Notes on a 16th Century Squabble

Two Magnificent Manuscripts Saved for the Nation

Mystere
The Mystère de la Vengeance, from our blogpost Medieval Drama Acquired by the British Library (6 March 2014)

Julian Harrison and Sarah J Biggs

 

20 March 2014

Update to the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts

Here in the British Library’s department of Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts, we work tirelessly to make our collections accessible and better known among scholars and the public.  While much attention focuses on our Digitised Manuscripts resource, let’s not forget about the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts

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Text page fragments in uncial script, from Cyprian’s Epistles, North Africa (Carthage?), 4th – 5th centuries, Add MS 40165A, f. 1r

Recently updated, CIM (as we like to call it) now boasts a total of 4,277 manuscripts and some 36,163 images.  These range from a 4th/5th-century copy of Cyprian’s Epistles, perhaps brought to England by Theodore of Tarsus and Hadrian of Canterbury (Add MS 40165A), to a collection of facsimile manuscript pages produced in 1873 by John Obadiah Westwood, a palaeographer and entomologist (Egerton MS 2263) – with a lot in between.

Since the last update in August 2013, we have been cataloguing Anglo-Norman manuscripts from the Additional collection.  Although some of them only contain only decorated initials, the contents are wide-ranging and filled with surprises.

Here are a few favourites (with more to come, so stay tuned!):

 

The earliest English cookbooks? (Add MS 32085 and Royal MS 12 C XII)

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Puzzle initial, from the legal text 'Sentencia Super Easdem Cartas', England, late 13th or early 14th century,
Add MS 32085, f. 11r.

Both manuscripts contain a varied collection of miscellaneous texts – from prophecies to arithmetical puzzles, from charters to a lapidary – bound together after they were copied.  They have one ingredient in common: collections of recipes in Anglo-Norman French, believed to be the earliest surviving examples of English cuisine.  If you fancy trying your hand at medieval cookery, check out Constance B. Hieatt and Robin F. Jones’s edition and translation.

Some of the recipes are mouth-watering (but no roasted unicorn, sadly), and the names are especially appetising:

Teste de Tourk (Turk’s Head): a type of quiche filled with rabbits and poultry; add eels to ‘enhance’ the flavour!

Nag’s tail: the ingredients include pigs’ trotters and ears, grease and wine.

Sang Dragoun: dragon’s blood is a colourful name for what appears to be rice pudding.

Tardpolene: alas, no tadpoles, but just soft cheese, dates and almonds.

 

Scientific and chiromantic texts (Add MS 18210)

This scientific compilation contains Latin texts by Galen, the ‘Dragmaticon’ of William of Conches (tutor to Henry II), as well as some texts on telling the future.  Two are unique to this manuscript: one on spatulomancy/scapulamancy (divination through the use of a shoulder-bone), and another on haematoscopy (prognostication through the examination of blood).  A less visceral means of forecasting is recorded in a treatise on geomancy, where one must interpret the patterns formed by tossing handfuls of rocks on the ground.  A handy table is provided as a guide:

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Table of patterns, from a treatise on geomancy, England or N. France, c. 1275- c. 1325,
Add MS 18210, f. 93r.

Who wouldn’t want the stones to predict ‘proesces ioie et leesce et richesces et si signifie grant profit’ (nobility, joy, gladness, riches and great profit)?

We have also continued to update and augment entries with further details on the contents, provenance and bibliographies relating to illuminated manuscripts.  Tune in for some further highlights later on.

Don’t forget that it’s possible to find manuscripts in the Catalogue by means other than their shelfmarks.  One can conduct advanced searches by keyword, date range, language, provenance, scribe, artist – and so on!  You can bring together manuscripts of the same period in order to compare decorative styles, or see examples of a specific artist’s work at a glance.  One of the best features is that you can search for keywords within the images (try searching for ‘snail’ and see what comes up!).

The Catalogue also includes virtual exhibitions of British Library manuscripts, and an illustrated glossary (most useful for getting to grips with tricky terminology).  Enjoy!

                                                                                               -  James Freeman and Chantry Westwell

18 March 2014

Two Magnificent Manuscripts Saved for the Nation

We are delighted to announce that the British Library has acquired two major manuscripts, following temporary export bars. One is the Catholicon Anglicum, a 15th-century English-Latin dictionary, and the other is a printed treatise on clerical marriage, owned and annotated by John Ponet, Bishop of Winchester.

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The Catholicon Anglicum, a medieval dictionary newly-acquired by the British Library

Copied in 1483, and still in its original binding, the newly-acquired manuscript of the Catholicon Anglicum (Add MS 89074) is the only complete witness of that text. It had last been seen in 1881, when the text was edited, and its whereabouts were unknown for more than a century. The British Library already holds the only other copy known to survive, Add MS 15562, which is slightly earlier in date but lacks many of its leaves.

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Detail of the Catholicon Anglicum

The newly-acquired dictionary comprises approximately 8,000 Middle English words, each written in red ink, followed by their Latin (and sometimes Greek) equivalents written in brown ink. The use of dialect words by the anonymous compiler indicates that the Catholicon Anglicum was of Yorkshire origin. Entries range from the mundane – for example, ‘a Milne stane’ (a millstone) – to the more conceptually complex – such as ‘a Mynde’. As one of the earliest examples of an English dictionary, the Catholicon Anglicum is of profound importance for the study of the development of both the English language and of English lexicography.

Also following a temporary export bar, the British Library has acquired John Ponet’s personal copy of a 1554 treatise against clerical marriage. Ponet (c. 1514-1556) was a Cambridge academic and a passionate exponent of religious reform, who became Bishop of Winchester under Edward VI in 1551. He had married in 1548, before clerical celibacy had been abolished, and published a treatise the following year, entitled A Defence for Marriage of Priests, by Scripture and Ancient Writers. Upon the accession of Mary I, Ponet went into exile in Strasbourg.

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John Ponet's copy of a treatise denouncing clerical marriage

In 1554, Thomas Martin, a civil lawyer and religious conservative who had recently returned to England, published a refutation of Ponet’s treatise, entitled A Treatise declaring and plainly proving that the pretensed marriage of priests…is no marriage, but altogether unlawful. This new acquisition (Add MS 89067) is Ponet’s own, interleaved and annotated copy of Martin's treatise. Declaring angrily on the frontispiece ‘Martin made me the enemy of all marriage’, Ponet began a point-by-point attack upon Martin’s work and defence of his own, filling the blank leaves and margins with manuscript notes in English, Latin and Greek, which later formed the basis for his own printed response in 1556, An Apology fully answering…a blasphemous book…against the godly marriage of priests.

Full digital coverage of the Catholicon Anglicum and Ponet's book will be made available in the coming months on our Digitised Manuscripts site, and we will also make both items accessible to researchers using our Manuscripts Reading Room. We believe that study of both manuscripts will contribute enormously to knowledge of their respective fields, and anticipate that many researchers will profit from having access to these new acquisitions.

The news of the British Library’s acquisition of Ponet's book has been greeted by Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of the History of the Church at the University of Oxford: ‘I am delighted and relieved that the British Library has stepped in as guardian angel for a very precious book. This printed work has an especial significance for our national history, as it is annotated in manuscript by one of its author's principal enemies. Two major players in England's Reformation have an angry conversation before our eyes, the first married Bishop of Winchester combatting the arguments of his unmarried predecessor-Bishop's Chancellor against clerical marriage. Now this unique document is not just safe in public custody, but will be easily available for all to read.'

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An opening from Ponet's book, showing how he had it interleaved to add his own comments

Ponet's book was offered for auction in the Mendham sale at Sotheby's, London, on 5 June 2013, at which the British Library had bought four lots. The Library's view was that the sale was regrettable, but once it became clear that the sale would go ahead, a decision was made to try to purchase certain lots, in order to preserve some of the Mendham books for the national collection and to maintain public access to them. The dispersal of the collection involved the risk that books hitherto available for research in the United Kingdom would leave the country or disappear into private hands.

Today's announcement comes hot on the heels of our exciting recent acquisition of the Mystère de la Vengeance, a beautiful 15th-century illuminated drama. You can already see images of the Mystère on Digitised Manuscripts (Add MS 89066/1 and Add MS 89066/2).

17 March 2014

The Legacy of St Patrick

The story of Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, is well known: how, as a young man, he was kidnapped from Britain and spent years enslaved as a shepherd in Ireland; and how, after escaping home, he returned to convert the Irish to Christianity. On this St Patrick’s Day, we thought we’d tell you a bit about some of the British Library’s holdings that relate to the life and legend of the saint himself.

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

Two surviving Latin works are now generally believed to be by Patrick, namely the Confessio and his letter to Coroticus. These works are preserved in 8 manuscripts, and one of them is held here at the British Library: Cotton MS Nero E I, part I, ff 169v-174v, contains the Confessio followed by Patrick's letter to Coroticus among a collection of other saints' Lives, copied at Worcester Cathedral Priory in the 2nd half of the 11th century. You can view the Patrick sections of this manuscript, together with all the other manuscripts of Patrick’s works and much more, on the marvellous Saint Patrick’s Confessio website hosted by the Royal Irish Academy.

Patrick was an extremely popular saint throughout the Middle Ages, and was frequently depicted in medieval art. Above is an example taken from a lavishly-illuminated volume of the Lives of the Saints, showing Patrick asleep on a knoll. Next to him is a figure holding a book, who has not so far been identified.

Here is a second example, also from our Royal Manuscripts collection:

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St Patrick standing on a snake in Purgatory: England, 1451 (London, British Library, MS Royal 17 B XLIII, f 132v)

This image comes at the beginning of an account of a vision of St Patrick in Purgatory, as seen by William Staunton of county Durham on Friday, 20 September 1409 (ff 133r-148v). It is one of a number of medieval accounts of St Patrick’s visit to Purgatory, the entrance to which was located, according to legend, on Station Island in Lough Derg. Unusually in this image, the depiction of Patrick in Purgatory is combined with an image of Patrick trampling on a snake, a reference to the traditional belief that Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland.

Patrick’s popularity is also reflected in the numerous later stories, poems and hymns about him written in Irish. There is not space here to detail all of them (you can find a full list in the Index to the Catalogue of Irish Manuscripts in the British Museum), but it’s worth noting the numerous instances of the Ossianic poems Agallamh Oisín is Pádraig (The conversation of Oisín and Patrick) found in later manuscripts, and also the important Egerton MS 93, a 15th-16th century manuscript containing the Tripartite Life of Saint Patrick.

A fitting place to end our survey is this translation of the Latin couplet on the saints buried at Downpatrick, from Egerton MS 146, f 117v (18th-19th century):

hi tres in Duno tumulo tumulantur in uno

Brigida, Patricius atque Columba pius

Rendered into Irish as

Triur naomh sa dún ann aon uaidh taid na luighe,

Naomh Pádruicc clumhail, Naom Colum Cilli is Bríghitt.

(Three saints are lying in one grave in this stronghold, the famous St Patrick, St Colum Cille and Brigid.)

Happy St Patrick's Day, wherever you may be!

Cillian O'Hogan

15 March 2014

The Life of a Mystic

Perhaps the first autobiography ever written in English, this book contains the incredible life story of the female mystic, Margery Kempe, who lived in what is now Kings Lynn, Norfolk from c. 1373 to c. 1440.  The work survives in only one known manuscript, British Library Add MS 61823, written at about the time of her death.  The manuscript’s survival story is nearly as eccentric and action-packed as that of its heroine (on which, see below).  It was owned by the Butler Bowden family and the story goes that when Colonel W. Butler Bowden was looking for a ping-pong bat in a cupboard at his family home near Chesterfield in the early 1930s he came across a pile of old books.  Frustrated at the disorder, he threatened to put the whole lot on the bonfire the next day so that bats and balls would be easier to find in future.  Luckily a friend advised him to have the books checked by an expert and shortly afterwards Hope Emily Allen identified one as the ‘Book of Margery Kempe’, which was previously known only from excerpts printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1501, and by Henry Pepwell in 1521 (where the author is described as ‘a devoute ancres’).  A true miracle!

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Opening page of the Book of Margery Kempe, Add MS 61823, England (East Anglia), c. 1440, f. 1r

Margery Kempe was the daughter of a merchant named John Brunham and at about the age of twenty she married John Kempe, a brewer and chamberlain of Lynn.  After the birth of her first child, she suffered depression, from which she was cured by a vision of Christ.  She had another thirteen children before she finally persuaded her husband to agree that they should live chastely!  She then donned white robes and sought permission from her bishop, who sent her to see the Archbishop of Canterbury, but there is no record that she took formal vows.  In 1413 she left on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, living off charity along the way.  In Jerusalem, she visited Calvary and the Holy Sepulchre, where she was overtaken by a fit of uncontrollable crying , which, together with her roaring in church, brought her fame as a mystic, but also provoked hostility, especially in England on her return.  She was constantly in conflict with the establishment in her town, rejecting the conventional values and materialism of her fellow citizens and breaking her links with her family and society.

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Text page from the Book of Margery Kempe, Add MS 61823, England (East Anglia), c. 1440, f. 6r

As recorded in the book, she set off again on pilgrimage in 1417 to Santiago de Compostela.  On her return from Spain she was accused of heresy several times and imprisoned in Leicester on a charge of Lollardy, and was reportedly mistreated while in prison.  Having argued her innocence before the church authorities on several occasions, she finally was given a letter by the Archbishop of Canterbury, allowing her access to confession and communion.  She returned to Lynn, beset by physical hardships, and lived an intense spiritual life, filled with visions, conversations with Christ and noisy lamentation.  Her husband, perhaps wisely, stayed away, but when he suffered an injury, she nursed him until his death, after which she travelled to Germany with her daughter at the age of almost 60 to see the Holy Blood in Brandenburg and the relics in Aachen.  The last record we have of her is in 1438.  Her book was completed by this time and a ‘Margeria Kempe’, who may be its author, was admitted to the prestigious Trinity Guild of Lynn.  She is thought to have died shortly after this, but there is no record of her death.  The scribe who wrote down this version of Margery’s story identifies himself as Salthows, priest at Lynn in Norfolk and scholars believe this is not the original copy of the work, but was made a little later than the original, perhaps under the author’s supervision. 

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Detail of the Mount Grace Priory ownership inscription from The Book of Margery Kempe, Add MS 61823, f. iv verso

The verso of the first page of the manuscript contains the rubric, ‘Liber Montis Gracie. This boke is of Mountegrace’, and has been annotated by four scribes, probably monks associated with the   Carthusian priory of Mount Grace in Yorkshire.  Some of the notes in the margins give us an idea how the book was read by these monks and suggest why it was preserved by them.  One such note provides marginal headings, pointing to key passages in the text, such as ‘nota de clamore’ when Margery utters her first cry, and here a note with the word ‘mirabile’ (miracle):

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Marginal note in Latin marking a miraculous event in The Book of Margery Kempe, Add MS 61823, f. 40v.

In this passage, Margery is described as being at the Church of St John Lateran in Rome, where she meets a very learned priest, a ‘Dewcheman’ (German) who ‘undirstod non Englycsh ne wist not what sche seyd’, and she could  speak ‘non other language than Englysch’ so they had to speak to each other through an interpreter.  Then, on Margery’s advice, the priest prayed for 13 days, at the end of this ‘he undirstod what sche seyd in Englysch to hym and sche undirstod what that he
seyd. And yet he undirstod not Englisch that other men spokyn’ – a miracle indeed!  But for Margery this was not an occasion to celebrate:  ‘sche sobbyd boistowsly and cryed ful lowde and horybly’. One wonders what the learned priest’s reaction could have been.

Religious eccentric, feminist icon, literary genius, early social reformer – Margery Kempe has been described as all these things by critics approaching her text in different ways.  However we view her, there is no doubt that the work provides an invaluable insight into 15th century urban life and into the religious practices of the period. 

-  Chantry Westwell