THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

18 posts from August 2015

29 August 2015

Magna Carta Virtual Tour

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy has been the most successful exhibition ever staged by the British Library, with in excess of 100,000 visitors. But we are aware that many, many more will never be able to see it in person, before the exhibition closes to the public on 1 September. A full record of the exhibits is available in the catalogue (edited by curators Claire Breay and Julian Harrison) and, in a first for the British Library, on our dedicated Magna Carta website. And here's another way to see our popular exhibition, in virtual form — we hope you enjoy it!

The exhibition opens with a short introductory film, featuring some of the people associated with Magna Carta over the centuries and the key items visitors are going to see ...

Magna Carta Exhibition 01 (credit Tony Antoniou)

Magna Carta Exhibition 02 (credit Tony Antoniou)

The first item in the show (our poster boy, of course) is this statue of Geoffrey de Mandeville (one of the barons who rebelled against King John in 1215), on loan from the Houses of Parliament ...

Magna Carta Exhibition 03 (credit Tony Antoniou)

Here is King John's family-tree (being shown to HRH The Prince of Wales by co-curator Julian Harrison) ...

Magna Carta British Library 01

The medieval section of our exhibition was designed to take the shape of the nave of a church ...

Magna Carta Exhibition 04 (credit Tony Antoniou)

This coin hoard, borrowed from the British Museum, dates from the early years of King John's reign (1199–1216) (interesting fact: John's coins bear neither his own name or portrait, since the design was retained from the coinage of his father, Henry II) ...

Magna Carta Exhibition 05 (credit Tony Antoniou)

These are the slippers of Hubert Walter, John's first archbishop of Canterbury, found in his tomb when it was opened in 1890 ...

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The Statute of Pamiers dates from 1212, and provides a contemporary parallel to Magna Carta (we borrowed it from the Archives nationales in Paris) ...

Magna Carta Exhibition 06 (credit Tony Antoniou)

A replica of King John's tomb, at Worcester Cathedral, stands at the end of the 'nave' ...

Magna Carta Exhibition 07 (credit Tony Antoniou)

John's head on his tomb is flanked by Saints Oswald and Wulfstan, and his sword is unsheathed, a sign that he was still at war with his people when he died in 1216 ...

Magna Carta Exhibition 08 (credit Tony Antoniou)

King John's tomb was opened at Worcester Cathedral in 1797, and certain of his body parts removed by visitors, including these two teeth and what is reputed to be John's thumb-bone ...

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During the 13th century several revised versions of Magna Carta were issued by the kings of England (as co-curator, Claire Breay, is showing HRH The Prince of Wales) ...

Magna Carta British Library 02

In the foreground visitors are looking at the Forest Charter and the Savernake Horn (the more keen-eyed of you may spot a film of Professor David Carpenter, a leading Magna Carta expert, on the screen in the background) ...

Magna Carta Exhibition 09 (credit Tony Antoniou)

We're now in the English Liberties section of our exhibition, dealing with the 16th and 17th centuries (here is a painting of Shakespearean actor Herbert Beerbohm Tree, borrowed from the Victoria and Albert Museum) ...

Magna Carta Exhibition 10 (credit Tony Antoniou)

Foxe's Book of Martyrs, open at a page showing the alleged poisoning of King John by a monk of Swineshead Abbey ...

Magna Carta Exhibition 11 (credit Tony Antoniou)

In the room named Colonies and Revolutions is one of the exhibition's star items, Thomas Jefferson's autograph manuscript of the United States Declaration of Independence (borrowed from New York Public Library) ...

Magna Carta British Library 03

And just for good measure we also have on show the Delaware copy of the US Bill of Rights (borrowed from the US National Archives) ...

Magna Carta Exhibition 12 (credit Tony Antoniou)

This painting of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was kindly loaned to our exhibition by the Musée Carnavalet in Paris (and on the back-wall are two prints of The Contrast, comparing British and French liberty at the time of the French Revolution) ...

Magna Carta Exhibition 13 (credit Tony Antoniou)

Here in the Radicalism and Reform room of our exhibition is this Chartist poster, advertising a meeting at Carlisle in 1839 (loaned to us by the UK National Archives); next to it is an engraving of the procession which delivered the Great National Petition to the House of Commons in 1842 ...

Magna Carta Exhibition 14 (credit Tony Antoniou)

The Empire and After room opens with these paintings of St Helena and the fort at Calcutta from the British Library's India Office collections (on the back-wall is a photograph of Mohandas aka Mahatma Gandhi as a young lawyer in South Africa) ...

Magna Carta Exhibition 15 (credit Tony Antoniou)

The Treaty of Waitangi of 1840 (being shown to HRH The Prince of Wales by researcher Alex Lock) is often referred to as the 'Maori Magna Carta' ...

Magna Carta British Library 04

In 1941 the British War Cabinet, led by Winston Churchill, considered giving the United States of America what was described as 'an old piece of parchment, of no intrinsic value whatever, rather the worse for wear) in order to persuade the Americans to join World War II (these are the Cabinet papers in question, borrowed from The National Archives) ...

Magna Carta British Library 05

Heading towards the end of the exhibition is this wall featuring a modern English translation of the clauses of the 1215 Magna Carta ...

Magna Carta Exhibition 16 (credit Tony Antoniou)

Sir Robert Cotton (d. 1631) owned two of the original manuscripts of King John's Magna Carta, one of which was sent to him by Sir Edward Dering, Lieutenant of Dover Castle, in 1630 ...

Magna Carta Exhibition 17 (credit Tony Antoniou)

And here is the final item in the exhibition, one of the British Library's original manuscripts of the 1215 Magna Carta (here being viewed by HRH The Prince of Wales, Claire Breay and British Library Chief Executive Roly Keating).

Magna Carta British Library 06

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, the largest exhibition ever devoted to the Great Charter, is on at the British Library in London from 13 March until 1 September 2015

26 August 2015

British Museum Loans in Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy

As the British Library's major exhibition Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy draws to a close — it's been an amazing 5 months — we'd like to take this opportunity to showcase some of the key British Museum loans in the display. The Library and the Museum have a long, shared history and a very close working relationship; and so we were absolutely delighted when the British Museum so kindly agreed to lend us some amazing objects for our exhibition. We're very grateful to our counterparts in the Departments of Coins and Medals, Prehistory and Europe and Prints and Drawing for making this possible. It's another great example of collaboration between two national institutions (here's another blogpost about the loans from The National Archives). Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy would not have been the same without these key loans from our friends at the British Museum.

We hope that you enjoy reading about these British Museum loans and that, if you're in London, you have the chance to see them before the exhibition closes on 1 September. You may like to know that they can still be viewed in virtual form after that date on our dedicated Magna Carta website.

BM-Seal Robert Fitz Walter

The seal matrix of Robert fitz Walter (British Museum 1841,0624.1): this, one of the finest silver seal matrices in existence, was used by Robert fitz Walter (d. 1235), one of the chief organisers of the baronial rebellion in 1215. Lord of Little Dunmow in Essex and holder of Castle Baynard within the city of London, fitz Walter styled himself during the rebellion as ‘Marshal of the Army of God’. His seal shows him triumphing over a dragon or basilisk; on a separate shield in front of the horse are the arms of the de Quincy family, once thought to represent a fellow rebel, Saer de Quincy (d. 1219), Earl of Winchester, but more probably added later in the 13th century when the matrix was re-used by one of fitz Walter’s descendants.

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Double-edged sword (British Museum 1858,1116.5): this 13th-century sword has gained an added notoriety recently, since it was the subject of our blogpost focusing on its mysterious inscription. The sword itself was found in the River Witham, Lincolnshire, in July 1825, and was presented to the Royal Archaeological Institute by the registrar to the Bishop of Lincoln. Weighing 1.2 kg (2 lb 10 oz), and measuring 964 mm (38 in.) in length and 165 mm (6½ in.) across the hilt, it has a double-edged blade and, if struck with sufficient force, could have sliced a man’s head in two.

BM-Beckett Casket

Reliquary depicting Thomas Becket's martyrdom (British Museum 1854,0411.2): King John, like his father, Henry II, had an often very strained relationship with the Church. The martyrdom of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December 1170 cast a long shadow over the years leading up to the granting of Magna Carta. This champlevé enamel casket, made in Limoges, shows in the lower register Becket standing before an altar while an assailant attacks him with a sword; above Becket is placed in his tomb in Canterbury Cathedral.

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Engraving of Stephen Langton showing the coronation charter of Henry I to the barons (British Museum 1830,612.88): this image represents a scene in which Stephen Langton, archbishop of Canterbury (d. 1228), purportedly showed a copy of Henry I’s Coronation Charter to an assembly of barons in the abbey church at Bury St Edmunds. Although attired in medieval clothing, the drawing of each baron in the engraving was based on their 19th-century descendants, drawn from life. Their hair styles, replete with sideburns, betray their true era.

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King John Delivering Magna Carta to the Barons (British Museum 1877,0609.1832): the majority of visitors to our exhibition are probably oblivious to this 18th-century print's sorry history. Reproducing a painting by John Hamilton Mortimer (d. 1779), the print imagines the scene of the granting of Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215. The engraving from which this print was produced was begun by William Wynne Ryland in 1783, but later that year he was convicted of handling forged bills and was hanged at Tyburn in London. Ryland’s widow, Mary, raised a subscription for this print to be published in her husband’s memory.

  BM-Savernake Horn

The Savernake hunting horn (British Museum 1975,0401.1): this hunting horn must win the competition as the most beautiful object in our Magna Carta exhibition. Positioned in the section of the show which deals with the Forest Charter, the horn belonged to the Wardens of Savernake Forest, Wiltshire, but was made in Italy, of elephant ivory. The top band is divided into 16 compartments, 12 of which depict hunting dogs and animals of the chase. The remaining four compartments contain engraved figures of a king and a bishop, each with a hand raised, together with a forester blowing a horn, and a seated lion.

Embleme-englands-distractions-1658-AN00481667-001-1     BM-Embleme of Englands Distractions 1690

The Embleme of England's Distractions, 1658 and 1690 (British Museum 1848,0911.242, 1932,1112.4): this celebrated engraving, known unofficially as ‘Cromwell Between Two Pillars’, underwent a transformation between these two versions, published in 1658 and 1690 respectively. The original version, attributed to William Faithorne the Elder (d. 1691), depicted Oliver Cromwell (d. 1658), the Lord Protector, upholding the rule of law and the Protestant faith. The pillar on the right is decorated with allegorical figures of England, Scotland and Ireland, that on the left with several legal ideals, among them ‘Magna Charta’. The original print was reworked by Joseph Claver in 1690, when Cromwell’s head was replaced with that of King William III (r. 1689–1702). In the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution (1688–89), Jacobite opponents to the new regime likened the new monarch to Cromwell, since they considered both men to be illegitimate usurpers of the English Crown. By refashioning the engraving with William III’s head, the meaning of the print had been fundamentally altered.

Illustration-british-liberty-french-liberty-AN00038445-001
The Contrast (British Museum 1861,1012.47): originally engraved by Thomas Rowlandson (d. 1827) in 1792, this print contrasts the virtues of ‘British Liberty’ with the dangers of Jacobin ‘French Liberty’. Comprising two roundels, Britannia is depicted on the left holding ‘Magna Charta’ and the scales of Justice, with a lion reposing peacefully at her feet. On the right, a gruesome French Medusa, carrying a trident impaled with hearts and a severed head, tramples a decapitated corpse underfoot, with a man hanging from a lamp-post in the background.

BM-Jug_English Liberty   BM-Jug_French Liberty

Earthenware mug depicting British and French Liberty (British Museum 1982,1101.1): this 18th-century earthenware mug from Staffordshire reproduces Thomas Rowlandson’s engraving of The Contrast. The image was transfer-printed on to the mug, using an innovative decorative technique introduced in 1753.

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Porcelain figure of John Wilkes (British Museum 1887,0307,II.46): this figurine is our Loan Registrar's favourite item in the exhibition. John Wilkes (d. 1797) had been imprisoned for libelling King George III in 1763. Shown hand on hip, Wilkes poses nonchalantly among symbols of English liberty. The plinth upon which he leans has two scrolls, one inscribed ‘Magna Carta’ and the other ‘Bill of Rights’; at his feet a putto holds a Phrygian cap and a treatise on government by John Locke (d. 1704).

BM-Runnymede Column

Design for a column at Runnymede (British Museum 1952,0403.3): imagine if this column had ever been erected on the floodplain at Runnymede! Proposed by the followers of the statesman, Charles James Fox (d. 1806), some £1300 was subscribed to fund the erection of a statue to King William III (r. 1689–1702) atop an enormous Doric column, dedicated to the Glorious Revolution. This drawing by William Thomas is its only material legacy.

BM-Hanging fox
Revolution Pillar (British Museum 1868,0808.5828): Charles James Fox didn't get off lightly with the proposed scheme to build a column at Runnymede. He was lampooned by his opponents in this contemporary print, which depicts a fox hanging from a gibbet and excreting ‘Runny Mead’ from its backside!

BM-New Cure for Jackobinism
A New Cure for Jackobinism (British Museum): in 1810, Sir Francis Burdett, MP (d. 1844), was imprisoned in the Tower of London for breaching parliamentary privilege. His imprisonment caused an outcry, and many popular prints represented him, Magna Carta in hand, as a noble defender of English liberty. Hand-coloured by Charles Williams, this print depicts Burdett behind bars in the Tower menagerie, appealing to King George III (r. 1760–1820) who scrutinises him through his glass. Presenting a paper bearing the inscriptions ‘Magna Charta’ and ‘Trial by Jury’, Burdett declares ‘Magna Carta violated’; the King’s guide explains that Burdett ‘raves much about a thing call’d Magny Charty, which some say is nothing but nonsence’.

BM-Great National Petition
Procession Attending the Great National Petition to the House of Commons (British Museum 1880,1113.2756): during the 19th century the Chartists campaigned to have the franchise extended to working men. They presented several petitions to Parliament, the largest of which, submitted in 1842, was written on paper some 6 miles (10 km) long and weighed over 48 stone (more than 300 kg). The petition contained the signatures of 3,317,702 people, one-third of the adult population of Great Britain. The central view of the print shows the great Chartist procession that accompanied the petition along Whitehall to Parliament, with flags unfurled proclaiming ‘Reform’ and ‘Liberty’.

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Inkstand in the form of King John's tomb (British Museum 1987,0609.1): we love this novelty inkstand, made by Chamberlain & Co. (later known as the Worcester Royal Porcelain Company) during the 19th century. This example is based on a famous local monument, namely the 13th-century tomb of King John in the choir of Worcester Cathedral. The inkstand is made of bone china, with the effigy of John on the lid, flanked by St Oswald and St Wulfstan. The base is in the shape of the tomb chest, and contains cavities for three inkwells, together with a pen-tray. A decorated version of the inkstand cost four guineas in 1841; a version altered to form a paperweight also sold for four guineas, with a ‘stone colour’ version of the same priced at two guineas. The inkstand is of considerable antiquarian interest because it depicts the effigy with its original, medieval colours, traces of which were still visible until 1873 when the monument was gilded.

Engraving-burnt-BM-Magna-Carta

Engraving of the burnt Magna Carta (British Museum 1861,0513.331): this is probably one of the most important items in our Magna Carta exhibition, since it replicates the original condition of one of the four surviving copies of the 1215 Magna Carta, before that manuscript was damaged by fire in 1731. This engraving was published by John Pine (d. 1756) in 1733, by command of the commissioners appointed to investigate that fire. The coats of arms of King John's barons around the edge of the text are an embellishment, added by Pine. 

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, the British Library's current major exhibition, closes on 1 September 2015 (late openings have now been extended to Monday-Thursday).

Julian Harrison, Co-curator, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy

24 August 2015

Shameful and Demeaning: The Annulment of Magna Carta

Today, 24 August 2015, marks an important date in history, one overlooked in this year of anniversaries (the Battle of the Somme, Waterloo, Agincourt, the De Montfort Parliament). For on this day 800 years ago, Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) issued a bull in which he described Magna Carta as 'shameful, demeaning, illegal and unjust', before declaring what we now call the Great Charter to be 'null and void of all validity for ever'.

Bull of Innocent III

The bull of Pope Innocent III declaring Magna Carta null and void (British Library Cotton MS Cleopatra E I, ff. 155-156)

We have this unique papal bull annulling Magna Carta, issued on 24 August 1215, on display in the British Library's Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy exhibition. When taking guests around, I often joke on reaching the bull that here the show ends, despite the fact that they have 800 years of Magna Carta's legacy still to encounter. (A brief history lesson: after King John died in October 1216, with many of the barons again in rebellion and a French army having invaded England, and with a new 9-year-old king, Henry III, on the throne, a revised version of Magna Carta was issued in order to get the barons back on side, reviving the document in a single stroke.)

King John was a particularly devious ruler, and he clearly believed that, by sending messengers to his overlord, the Pope, the kingdom of England would be rid of Magna Carta. John was right, to a certain degree; but little did he realise that Magna Carta incorporated an adaptability that made it useful in many different ways to succeeding generations. I suspect in any case that both John and the barons would be horrified if they knew we were celebrating their peace treaty 800 years after that event (the terms of Magna Carta in 1215 applied only to the elite of society, the nobles and barons). Pope Innocent may have shared their opinion, but his attempt to stop the Great Charter in its tracks only had limited effect.

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy is on at the British Library until 1 September 2015 (and entry is free for under 18s).

 

23 August 2015

Little Ado About Something Rather Significant: William Shakespeare and Magna Carta

If you were writing a play about the reign of King John, what would be the one scene you could not dispense with? The sealing of Magna Carta at Runnymede, perhaps? Yet, this is exactly the scene that the nation’s greatest playwright William Shakespeare forgot to mention in his play The Life and Death of King John.

Shakespeare's King John

A page from the First Folio of William Shakespeare's The Life and Death of King John, in which John urges Hubert to murder Prince Arthur, "a very serpent in my way"

This notable omission has puzzled scholars for generations. Why would Shakespeare not mention the most significant event in John’s reign? Some have suggested that it is because Shakespeare was unaware that Magna Carta originated with King John in 1215. Given that copies were reissued in 1216, 1217, 1225 and 1297 this could have been an easy mistake for the bard to have made – but unlikely. Shakespeare knew his history. Written in the 1590s during the reign of Elizabeth I, it is more likely that the courtier in Shakespeare was compelled to leave out Magna Carta as too politically sensitive, something that might be construed as criticising the institution of monarchy or tacitly supporting the idea of internal rebellion against the crown. In the aftermath of the long and bloody Wars of the Roses (1455-1487), Tudor political doctrine had little sympathy for baronial rebellion, weak monarchy or internal conflict; while the turbulence of the Reformation made Magna Carta – with its first clause prescribing the freedom of the English Church – a dangerous document to invoke and of more use to recusant Catholics than Protestant apologists. Given the political climate in which Shakespeare was writing it is, perhaps, surprising that he wrote about King John at all.

In writing his play on King John, Shakespeare followed very closely an earlier play by George Peele entitled The Troublesome Reign of King John which, published in 1591, equally failed to mention Magna Carta. For these playwrights John’s story was not one – as it is now – about wrestling rights from a monarch or about making Magna Carta a hallowed symbol of individual liberty. More important for them was how the events in John’s reign exemplified the ever present and dangerous influence a fickle papacy could have on English politics. Throughout Peele’s stridently anti-Catholic The Troublesome Reign, John is represented as patriotically defending the nation against the foreign interference of the Pope. The same is true of Shakespeare's play. Though Shakespeare certainly presents King John as a bad and malevolent king, the play is still tangibly anti-Catholic and the Pope remains an interfering threat. Indeed, in the play King John is eventually poisoned by English monks loyal to Pope Innocent III. This was above all a play which celebrates the Protestant religious settlement, not the liberty of the individual. Given the religious tensions prevalent in Elizabethan England it is unsurprising that Shakespeare would prefer to focus on these religious themes in John’s reign than the sealing of Magna Carta.

Herbert Beerbohm Tree

Painting of Herbert Beerbohm Tree as King John by Charles Buchel, kindly loaned to the Magna Carta exhibition by the Victoria and Albert Museum

Since Shakespeare did not include Magna Carta in his story, subsequent theatre companies have incorporated into their own productions newly written scenes depicting the events at Runnymede in 1215. When, between 20 September 1899 and 6 January 1900 the leading Shakespearian actor Herbert Beerbohm Tree performed King John to some 170,000 spectators at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London, he inserted a new scene at the beginning of Act III that depicted him, as John, granting Magna Carta to the barons. Short excerpts of Beerbohm Tree’s production were filmed to publicise the play, with the surviving footage, including John’s death scene, being the oldest record of Shakespeare on film. Clearly, by the 19th century the Great Charter had become a much more important aspect of John’s reign, imbued with a meaning very different from that which it ever had in the 16th century, and scenes depicting it being granted were expected by audiences. As is ever the case with Magna Carta’s story, the document is interpreted and reinterpreted in line with the preoccupations of the present. And for Shakespeare, it just didn’t matter that much!

 

Alexander Lock

22 August 2015

Anglo-Saxon Charters Internship

We are very pleased to be able to offer an internship in our Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts Section, researching and cataloguing the British Library's collections of Anglo-Saxon charters. This position is suitable for post-graduates or post-doctoral students in early medieval history, Anglo-Saxon studies or another relevant subject.
 
Add Ch 19801 face
 
Charter of Bishop Ealdred of Worcester granting Dodda, his minister, the lease for life of land at Bredons Norton, Worcestershire, 1058 (British Library Additional Charter 19801)
 
The primary focus of the internship will be to enhance the Library's Digitised Manuscripts site, by creating and revising existing catalogue records for around 200 Anglo-Saxon charters in Latin and Old English. The intern will also assist, where relevant, with preparation for the Library's forthcoming Anglo-Saxons exhibition, working under the supervision of the Curator of Pre-1600 Historical Manuscripts.

In addition, the intern will be involved in other aspects of the work of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts Section, including responding to enquiries and engaging with the public through this Blog, and they will gain insight into various curatorial duties and aspects of collection care. The intern will enjoy privileged access to printed and manuscript research material, and will work alongside specialists with wide-ranging and varied expertise.

This internship is designed to provide an opportunity for the student to develop research skills and expertise in early medieval history, and in presenting manuscripts to a range of audiences.  Previous interns have provided feedback that they felt a valued member of the team, gained professional confidence and developed their career by carrying out a 'real' job with specific duties.
 
Harley Ch 43 C. 3 face
Charter of King Edgar granting Æthelflæd, matrona, land at Chelsworth, Suffolk, 962 (British Library Harley Charter 43 C 3)

The programme is only open to students who are engaged actively in research towards, or have recently completed, an MA, MPhil or PhD in a subject area relevant to the study of Anglo-Saxon charters or manuscripts, and who have a right to work in the United Kingdom. The selection process may include questions about the date and origin of a particular charter to be shown at the interview.

The term of this internship is full time (36 hours per week over 5 days) for 6 months or to 31 March 2016, depending on the start date. The salary is £9.15 per hour. The internship will ideally start on 5 October 2015 or as soon as relevant security checks have been completed.    

To apply, please visit www.bl.uk/careers quoting vacancy ref: COL00231 and upload a CV and Cover Letter. The Cover Letter should include answers to the following three questions:

1.  Please give examples of your experience in cataloguing or describing Anglo-Saxon charters or manuscripts.

2.  Please provide examples of your experience in writing about your research for a general audience.

3.  Please give an example of how you have adapted your own communicating style to deal with different people and situations.

 
Closing Date: 3 September 2015
Interview Date: 11 September 2015

21 August 2015

When Tristan met Lancelot

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Tristan swearing an oath and being accepted as a knight of the Round Table. Add MS 5474, f. 27v, France, N., 4th quarter of the 13th century

Who was the best knight ever to wield lance or sword? Was it Lancelot, whose love for Queen Guinevere spurred him on to no end of daring-do? Was it his son, Galahad, so pure-hearted that he could even be entrusted with the Holy Grail? Or was it perhaps Tristan, a dab-hand on the tournament circuit, but also a masterful musician? These are some of the questions at stake in the Old French prose Tristan, composed before 1235 in northern France. Its authors took their raw material from the 12th-century verse romances of Tristan and Iseult, but they fused it with the cast, setting and indeed much of the narrative of the so-called Lancelot-Grail Cycle. The result was a runaway success. The prose Tristan was transmitted in French across much of medieval Europe, inspiring translations and retellings of the Tristan legend in several other European tongues.

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Historiated initial depicting Luce del Gast, one of the authors to whom the prose Tristan is attributed in manuscripts. Add MS 23929, f. 1r, Italy, N. (Padua or Bologna?), 1st quarter of the 15th century

About a quarter of the c. 85 manuscripts of the prose Tristan that survive today were produced in Italy. This list includes Add MS 23929, the first of two volumes discussed here. The first part of this manuscript (ff. 1r-64r) was copied in a regular rotunda script of the late 14th or early 15th century. To judge by the large opening historiated initial depicting the author at work and the 14 smaller ones marking the beginning of chapters, it was made in north-eastern Italy, perhaps in Padua. The volume’s binding lends credence to such a localization: the motifs impressed into the leather, which include suns and dogs, tell us that in the 15th century it was just down the road in Mantua in the library of the Gonzaga family. Indeed, the first part of the manuscript may well be one of more than a dozen Arthurian prose romances listed in the Gonzaga inventory dated 1407. Even with their sizeable collection of Tristan manuscripts, however, the Gonzaga clearly hadn’t had enough of Tristan’s exploits: after the inventory was made, further episodes were added in a different hand (ff. 64r-86v).

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Small historiated initial illustrating Tristan’s birth. Add MS 23929, f. 37v, Italy, N. (Padua or Bologna?), 1st quarter of the 15th century

The Medieval Francophone Literary Cultures Outside France Project has aimed to trace some of the literary traffic between France and Italy in the Middle Ages, but inevitably some mysteries remain. Add MS 23929 is unusual among the surviving prose Tristan manuscripts made in Italy because it preserves the first part of the romance, including a prologue attributed to the unidentifiable Luce del Gast and the tale of Tristan’s distant (and equally adventure-prone) ancestors. Only after recounting Tristan’s family history does this version give us the story as it begins in other manuscripts of Italian origin, relating Tristan’s birth, his arrival at the court of his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall, and his potion-induced love for the Irish princess, Iseult. The francophilia and bibliophilia of the Gonzaga family may go some way to explaining the presence of the first part of the prose Tristan in Mantua, but the full details escape us for now.

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A note in Italian at the end of the manuscript points to the continuation of the story in another volume. Add MS 23929, f. 86v, Italy, N. (Padua or Bologna?), 1st quarter of the 15th century

Additional MS 23929 ends with Iseult’s disastrous honeymoon: shortly after marrying King Mark she is abducted by the Saracen knight Palamedés and will only be reunited with her husband thanks to Tristan’s intervention. A note in Italian tells us that the adventure continues in another volume, which seems to have been listed in the Gonzaga inventory of 1407 but has not survived.

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Tristan outperforms fourteen knights of the Round Table. Add MS 5474, f. 74r, France, N., 4th quarter of the 13th century

In marked contrast to Add MS 23929 is a second prose Tristan manuscript in the British Library’s collections. The text of Add MS 5474 was written in a smaller and rather more angular script, pointing to production in northern France in the (very) late 13th century. Its language bears all the hallmarks of the prestigious Picard scripta of Old French. The conclusions we might draw from the text, moreover, are corroborated by the 26 framed miniatures illustrating the volume: these were in all likelihood painted by the artist responsible for Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, fonds français 110, a Lancelot-Grail manuscript made c. 1295 in the County of Artois or the Cambrésis. There is relatively little evidence of production of Tristan manuscripts in Paris before 1300, but to the north and north-east – beyond the boundaries of the kingdom of France – it was thriving.

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Lancelot escaping in his underpants after being tricked into sleeping with King Pellés’s daughter. Add MS 5474, f. 150v, France, N., 4th quarter of the 13th century

Like several other surviving volumes, Add MS 5474 begins about a third of the way through the romance, with King Mark shamefully ambushing Yvain of the White Hands (and feeling pretty smug about it, too). The ensuing narrative, with its countless jousts and tournaments, is dominated by the spectacular Tournament of Louveserp, at which Tristan even outshines Lancelot, and by the story of the Quest for the Holy Grail, which sees Galahad come to prominence. Add MS 5474 bulks up the Grail story with passages borrowed from the Agravain section of the Lancelot-Grail Cycle (ff. 144r-162v). In one of these interpolated episodes, illustrated in the above miniature, Lancelot makes a hasty getaway from Guinevere’s chambers, dressed only in his underwear. He had been tricked into sleeping with the daughter of the guardian of the Holy Grail. Hardly becoming of a Grail knight!

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The ‘Voir Disant’ lay, which spreads the unvarnished truth about King Mark throughout the land. Add MS 5474, f. 73r, France, N., 4th quarter of the 13th century

The prose of the Tristan is punctuated throughout by letters, laments and lays in verse. Like the song above, which denounces King Mark as ‘muck and filth’ (to put it politely), these more ‘lyrical’ moments are often easily spotted in manuscripts thanks to their layout as lines and stanzas of poetry, as opposed to the long-lines of prose. The master composer and performer of songs is, of course, Tristan himself. And it is while playing one of his lays on the harp in Iseult’s bedchamber that the villainous Mark murders him. But is Tristan’s musicianship enough for him to be crowned best knight that ever was? You’ll have to explore the prose Tristan to find out...

 - Huw Grange (University of Cambridge)

20 August 2015

The Constitution of the Athenians and the History of Athenian Democracy

Building the Ancient City: Athens and Rome begins tonight on BBC2. The first episode includes footage and discussion of the Constitution of the Athenians (Papyrus 131).

While a great many important texts have survived from antiquity, many others have been lost to us. These we know only from sporadic quotations and mentions in extant works, leaving us to wonder what they might have been able to teach us about the ancient world.

For many centuries, Aristotle’s Constitutions, and in particular the Constitution of the Athenians, was numbered amongst the most important of these. According to Diogenes Laertius, Aristotle and his school collected the constitutions of 158 Greek city-states and wrote commentaries on each of them. Of these 158 commentaries, 68 are mentioned by name in other sources, clearly marking the Constitutions as a significant work in antiquity. In addition, the Constitution of the Athenians itself was known from 90 separate quotations, setting it apart from the others in terms of its importance to philosophers, historians, and other scholars in antiquity. Aristotle himself gave us evidence for the existence of the Constitutions, stating at the end of his Nicomachean Ethics that his Politics would be based in part on the “collected constitutions”.

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The beginning of the surviving portion of the Constitution of the Athenians. Papyrus 131, f 1v. Egypt (?near Hermopolis), c 100.

In light of this, the discovery of nearly the whole text of the Constitution of the Athenians at the end of the nineteenth century was monumental. In 1879, two leaves of a papyrus codex, dating from the fourth century, were acquired by the Ägyptisches Museum in Berlin. These contain fragments of the Constitution of the Athenians with marginalia. Then, in 1889, three papyrus rolls, dating from the late first century, were found in Egypt by E. A. Wallis Budge, an assistant at the British Museum. These were sent back to London and accessioned as Papyrus 131. A fourth roll followed in 1890, but unfortunately, this was far more damaged than the other three. Frederic Kenyon, later Director and Principal Librarian of the British Museum, but then a young assistant in the Department of Manuscripts, was able to identify the text of the papyrus as the Constitution of the Athenians. Unfortunately, the papyrus lacks the opening sections of the work, which are believed to have dealt with legendary figures such as Ion and Theseus. Kenyon’s first edition was published in 1891, along with an English translation.

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The second surviving roll of the Constitution of the Athenians. Papyrus 131, f 3v. Egypt (?near Hermopolis), c 100.

The importance of this text for our understanding of the development, nature, and challenges of Athenian democracy cannot be overstated, and it has remained an object of scholarly study since its discovery. It recounts the history of Athenian legal and political institutions down to 403 BC and analyses their form and quality in the 330’s and 320’s – it should be noted that it does not declare or create these institutions, as a modern reader may imagine given the title ‘Constitution.’ Instead, along with other Classical texts, particular those by Herodotus, Xenophon (who also has a Constitution of the Athenians credited to his name), and Thucydides, the work gives us a clearer picture of Athenian history and government.

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The fragmentary fourth roll containing the Constitution of the Athenians. Papyrus 131, f 5v. Egypt (?near Hermopolis), c 100.

It should be noted that since the work’s publication, its attribution to Aristotle himself has been debated – not least because the style of the work is quite different from that found elsewhere in Aristotle. The fact that the work is in a different genre from the rest of Aristotle’s works may, however, be enough to explain the stylistic variance. Certainly, the ancient sources unanimously credit the work to him. Whether written by Aristotle himself or not, the text remains a significant primary source for Classical Athens, and a treasured piece of cultural history.

-          Andrew St. Thomas

19 August 2015

Handlist of Greek Manuscripts in the British Library

The completion of the third phase of the Greek Manuscripts Digitisation Project is as good a time as any to release to this world a handy spreadsheet containing details of the Greek manuscripts held by the British Library. The spreadsheet includes a brief description of the content and links to Digitised Manuscripts and to the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts where the material has been digitised; it also notes which printed catalogue (Richard’s Inventaire or the 1999 Summary Catalogue) describes the item. Almost all the items listed are described in full on the main British Library Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue. Items in bold in the handlist are cared for by our colleagues in Asian and African Collections. Finally, links are included to the relevant entry on Pinakes, the important database for Greek manuscripts run by the IRHT in Paris.

- Cillian O'Hogan

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The most recent manuscript to be acquired by the British Library, Add MS 82957, f 1r. Eastern Mediterranean (Constantinople), 2nd half of the 11th century