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192 posts categorized "Anglo-Saxon"

17 April 2018

Naming a royal baby

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With the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge expecting their third child any day now, the question on many people's lips is: what will the baby's name be? In the light of our upcoming exhibition on Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, we have a few medieval suggestions for naming the royal baby.

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The naming of John the Baptist depicted in the Cotton Troper: Cotton MS Caligula A XIV, f. 20v

In the case of the present-day British royal family, most of their names are derived ultimately from Biblical sources (Elizabeth), classical sources (George, Philip) or Continental medieval sources (William, Charles). Prince Edward's name, popular throughout English and British royal history, is instead of Anglo-Saxon origin and was then spelled Eadweard, meaning 'blessed guardian'. Rather appropriately, the modern Edward was made Earl of Wessex on his marriage.

The nobility of the kingdom of Wessex, which later became the nobility of all England, favoured names beginning with E(a)d- and Alf- and Æthel- sounds. Many personal names at that time were made up of two parts. Typically, the first would be something like Ead- (blessed), Wulf- (wolf), Ælf- (elf), Æthel- (noble) or Byrht-(bright), all of which could be used for both male and female names. The second part was gendered: -flæd (dwelling), -thryth (strength), -gi(e)fu (gift), -wynn (joy) and -burh (castle, town) are all female name-endings, whereas male names could end with a word such as -stan (stone), -ric (power), -weard (guardian), -wine (friend) or -ræd (advice). It is not known how much thought the Anglo-Saxons gave to the derivations of their names, but we do know that some of them enjoyed a good pun on their name, including Archbishop Wulfstan ‘the Wolf’ of York.

A range of possible medieval names for the new royal baby can be found in the will of a wealthy woman called Wynflæd, who owned lands and slaves mostly in the south-west of England in the 10th or 11th century. Many of her beneficiaries had one of these two-part names, such as Eadwold, Cynelufu and Æthelflæd (her own daughter), although others had one-part names, such as Else.

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Wynflæd's will: Cotton Ch VIII 38

Anglo-Saxon nobles may have preferred ‘Eds’ and ‘Alfs’ and compound names, but that doesn’t mean that those are the only early medieval precedents for royal names. If new parents are feeling daring, they might be inspired by this early 9th-century lists of kings, including names such as Woden, Ocga, Wihtgils, Saebald and Ida.

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List of Northumbrian kings: Cotton MS Vespasian B VI/1, f. 109r.

Likewise, the Durham Liber Vitae, complied from the 9th to the 12th century, records the names of many kings and nobles. These include not just Anglo-Saxon names, such as Aðelstan (Æthelstan) and Adgar (Edgar), but also those of the Norse kings of England such as Cnut (Canute) and Suain (Sweyn). If William and Kate prefer to take their inspiration from the Scottish side of the family, the Liber Vitae also records the names of kings of Scotland, such as Duncan, Alexander and Malcolm. Malcolm III's queen, Margaret, is named below their daughter Matilda, who was the consort of King Henry I of England and was originally baptised as Edith.

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List of kings and nobles in the Durham Liber Vitae: Cotton MS Domitian A VII, f. 15v

Having more than one name was certainly not unique among royalty at this time. For instance, the second consort of King Æthelred II was Emma of Normandy, who adopted the name Ælfgifu after coming to England. Confusingly, Ælfgifu was also the name of Æthelred's first wife. After his death, Emma was married to King Cnut: the Encomium Emmae Reginae, written in praise of the queen, depicts her receiving the book from its author, in the presence of her sons Edward the Confessor and Harthacnut, whose names are equally significant as well. Edward the Confessor was her son with Æthelred, and his name follows West Saxon royal naming conventions. By contrast, Emma's son with Cnut was given the overtly Scandinavian name Harthacnut. The manuscript of the Encomium Emmae Reginae Add MS 33241, has been digitised as part of the The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project.

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Encomium Emmae Reginae: Add MS 33241, f. 1v

With all these manuscripts to hand, we can offer plenty of early medieval ideas for naming the new royal baby. Will it be called Æthelflæd or Aðelstan? We can't wait to find out.

 

Kate Thomas and Alison Hudson

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02 April 2018

A calendar page for April 2018

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It's April, which means it's time to party. At least, in a calendar page for this month, made about 1,000 years ago, a party is in progress: men are drinking and chatting, seated on an ornate couch.


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Detail of feasting, from a calendar page for April: 
Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 4v

The artists of the two surviving, illustrated calendars from early 11th-century England both depicted scenes of feasting on the calendar page for April. They may have chosen to depict feasting in April because Easter often falls in that month. Indeed, in Old English, April was called Eáster-mónaþ (Easter month). Easter was a major holiday in early medieval western Europe, on a par with Christmas. Surviving sources mention it was also an occasion for political gatherings and grand ceremonies such as coronations and important royal meetings, where law codes were issued and other announcements made. For example, the prologue of the first law-code of King Edmund (reigned 939–946) states that Edmund called a meeting of a great number of nobles and churchmen in London, ‘during holy Easter-tide’ (‘halgan easterlicon tid’: Cotton MS Nero A I, f. 87v).  

Closer examination of the image reveals a number of intriguing details, from spears and shields to a variety of drinking vessels. The left-most figure (see a detail below) pours liquid from a jug into a drinking horn. Archaeological examples of early medieval drinking horns have been found throughout northern Europe and beyond. In the centre, two men are holding drinking vessels with stems.

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Detail of a jug and drinking horn:
Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 4v

The image may also hint at some types of objects which do not survive in the archaeological record. The seated figures are perched on cushions. Likewise, elaborate couches with sculptures of animals, if they were made of wood, would not have survived. However, it can not be proved if this scene, and the one in a related calendar, were imitating the way parties and furniture were depicted in classical art, or if these scenes were intended to represent contemporary furnishings.

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Detail of a calendar page for April: Cotton MS Tiberius V B/1, f. 4v


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Calendar page for April:
Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 4v

In addition to the illustration of the ‘labour’ of the month, the calendar page for April has the information and decoration found on other pages in this calendar. The zodiac symbol — Aries — appears in a roundel at the top. Information about the date, astronomical cycles and days of the week are highlighted in rows of red, green, blue and gold. 

There is something slightly different about this page. Unlike the pages for February and March, only one feast is marked out with a gold cross in the margin of the page for April, at the very end of the month. The day marked out is 30 April, which, according to this calendar, was ‘the first day [Noah’s] Ark was carried out of the waves onto solid [ground]’ (‘Pridie transfertur arca densissima abundis’).  The lack of gold crosses earlier in the month might have something to do with the association of April and Easter, since Holy Week and Easter took precedence over other feasts. They could not be marked in this reusable calendar because their dates changed. However, the latest date Easter can fall is 25 April, so the feast of Noah’s Ark could safely be celebrated on 30 April.


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Detail of a depiction of Noah's Ark, made around the same time as the calendar: from the Old English Hexateuch, Southern England, 11th century:
Cotton MS Claudius B IV, f. 15v

For more on this calendar (and details about when you will be able to see it in person), please click here. For previous years’ calendar pages, and for explanations of medieval calendars, please click here.

Alison Hudson

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29 March 2018

Bathtime for monks

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It’s almost Easter. Have you had your bath yet? If you were a reformed monk or nun and lived in England over 1,000 years ago, this was a pressing question. Everyone in their communities was supposed to wash before the elaborate church services and celebrations for Easter. Instructions for these baths were preserved in the Regularis Concordia (Unified Rule), a political manifesto and supplement to the Rule of St Benedict, probably written by Bishop Æthelwold of Winchester (d. 984).  

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Christ washing his disciples’ feet on Maundy Thursday, from a Psalter made in 11th-century England: Cotton MS Tiberius C VI, f. 11v

According to the Regularis Concordia, on the Saturday after Good Friday, ‘if they can, the helpers [ministri] or boys [pueri] shall shave and bathe themselves.’ If there wasn’t enough time for all the monks to wash on Saturday, some could bathe after Vespers on Good Friday.

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Instructions for monks bathing and shaving before Easter, from the Regularis Concordia, made in Southern England (Canterbury?), mid-11th century: Cotton MS Tiberius A III, f. 20r

Washing was also a part of ceremonies before Easter. According to the Gospels, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet the night before he was killed. Monks re-enacted this on Maundy Thursday (the day before Good Friday), when the monks were supposed to wash the feet and hands of poor people from the community and to offer them food and money. This ceremony was known as the Mandatum, after one of the Biblical passages quoted in music for the ceremony: 'A new commandment (mandatum novum) I give unto you: That you love one another, as I have loved you' (John 13:34). 'Mandatum' is the root of 'Maundy', which is why the Thursday before Easter is still known as ‘Maundy Thursday’ in Britain.

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Detail of an monk washing three poor men’s feet while a crowned figure distributes alms, from the Harley Psalter, England (Canterbury), 11th century: Harley MS 603, f. 66v

Abbots also washed the monks' feet ahead of Easter. The Regularis Concordia stipulated that after Vespers on Maundy Thursday, ‘the brothers shall then have their meal … but they must carefully wash their feet first … [T]he abbot shall wash the feet of all [the monks] in his own basin, drying and kissing them …’ The monks then washed their hands. And, of course, Easter celebrations were also a time associated with the symbolic washing of baptism. 


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Instructions for the Mandatum on Maundy Thursday, from the Regularis Concordia: Cotton MS Tiberius A III, f. 17v

This is not to suggest that monks and nuns did not bathe at other times of year. The manuscript that contains the Regularis Concordia also includes a guide to monastic sign language with many signs related to bathing. Among these are the signs for nail-knife, comb and washing one’s head. Bathing was presumably a regular occurrence, since so many specific signs were developed for it. 

'When you want soap, rub your hands together': a curator demonstrates a possible interpretation of the sign for soap from the Monasteriales Indicia

Bathing was also a topic discussed in monks' school texts, as part of a dialogue that was designed to help young monks learn Latin, known as the Colloquy of Ælfric Bata. In this text, the teacher upbraids the boys for not having washed and for being unshaven, while the boys complain there is no one to help them bathe and they don't have soap, shears and razors. The teacher then calls for a washer immediately to arrange baths for the whole monastery. This dialogue also suggests that Saturday is a good day for baths. Incidentally, Ælfric Bata may have used the manuscript that is now Cotton MS Tiberius A III: his name is inscribed on one of the pages

The Regularis Concordia is preserved in two surviving manuscripts, now contained between Cotton MS Tiberius A III and Cotton MS Faustina B III. It is not clear that all its stipulations were always followed, even by the most fervent of Bishop Æthelwold’s students. Nevertheless, some of its details — such as the instructions for bathing before Easter — are striking. Even 1,000 years ago, it was important to look your best for a holiday.

Alison Hudson

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27 March 2018

If you’ve got it, flaw-nt it

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Nobody’s perfect, not even manuscripts. Since parchment is made from animal skins, the pages often have holes of varying sizes. Some of these may have been caused by an insect bite that expanded when the skin was stretched during parchment production. Other holes may have been created during other stages in the parchment-making process itself. Medieval scribes still often used this ‘flawed’ parchment. Sheets of parchment were time-consuming and expensive to produce, so some scribes embraced the flaws they found, with creative results.

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Detail of a decorated flaw from the Tollemache Orosius, England (Winchester?), late 9th or early 10th century: Add MS 47967, f. 62v

The creativity of the late 9th- or early 10th-century scribe of the Tollemache Orosius (Add MS 47967) came to the fore whenever they came across a hole in the parchment. In one instance the flaw was turned into a creature, perhaps a badger, a sheep or a mole. 

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Verses about zodiac signs, where the ‘o’ in ‘capricornus’ is created by a flaw in the parchment, from a calendar, England, 1st half of the 11th century: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 3r 

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Detail of Aquarius drawn around a hole in parchment, from the other side of the page in the mid-11th century calendar, England (Canterbury?): Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 3v

The 11th-century scribe and artist of the 'Julius Work Calendar' demonstrated not one but two solutions to dealing with a flaw in parchment. On one side of a page, the scribe used a round hole as a substitute for the ‘o’ in capricOrnus.  On the other side, the scribe or artist used the same hole to represent the negative space under Aquarius’s arm as he pours a jug of water. Unfortunately, we cannot fully appreciate the artist’s and scribe’s ingenuity today, since this page was warped by the Cotton Fire. This means the proportions of the image and letters have shrunk, and the second ‘c’ in capricornus is barely visible.

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Detail of a page from the Echternach Gospels, early 8th century: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, lat 9389, f. 17r

Sometimes, scribes got so caught up in creatively decorating holes they forgot about the text they were supposed to be writing. Jo Story of the University of Leicester has pointed out that the scribe of the Echternach Gospels was so distracted by making the hole in the parchment into a bird that they missed out a whole clause! They had to go back and add it in the margin between the columns.

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Not all flaws were decorated although depending on how you hold the page, they can provide sneak peeks of other decoration; detail of a flaw in a 12th-century copy of
Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Brittaniae: Add MS 15732, f. 26v (photo credit Jessica Pollard)

Not all holes in manuscripts were decorated. Nevertheless, it is tempting to wish that sometimes there were more flaws in the parchment, just to see what kind of creative solutions the scribes would have come up with.

Have a look through the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website and let us know if you have any other favourite examples of scribes or artists who made a virtue out of imperfection.

Alison Hudson

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23 March 2018

Cracking a medieval code

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Cryptography is not something we normally associate with medieval manuscripts. But some medieval scribes understood the basics of code-making: constructing text using a cypher to be decoded and understood only by authorized parties. Anglo-Saxon scribes were masters at this, without the ‘espionage’ and political edge that cryptography would later acquire in the early modern period. The interest in code may be related to the popularity of riddles for which Anglo-Saxon England is famous. In some instances, codes were placed at the end of a manuscript as a way to record information relating to how a manuscript was produced and the people who were involved in its production. A colophon, as this information is called, was the preferred place for encrypted information in the Middle Ages.

For instance, as we wrote in a previous blogpost, a scribe called Ælfsige left his name in code, as well as that of the book's owner, in the colophon of Cotton MS Titus D XXVII:

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The encrypted colophon: Cotton MS Titus D XXVII, f. 13v

The cypher consists of replacing vowels with the neighbouring consonants in the alphabet. The word Aelsinus (Latin for Ælfsige), the scribe’s name, was here encoded as ‘Flsknxs’ (in medieval manuscripts, the letter ‘s’ resembled the letter ‘f’). 

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The book belonged to a fellow monk called Ælfwine (Ælfwinus in Latin), whose name was encrypted as ‘Flfƿknp’. This time, the cypher is slightly different. ‘P’ here replaces ‘us’. The first letter that looks like 'p' in this inscription is the runic letter 'wynn', which early English writers sometimes used to represent the 'w' sound.

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The encrypted text is much longer and explains that Ælfsige, ‘the most humble brother and monk’, wrote the book and that ‘Ælfwinus, monk and deacon’, owned it.

This cryptic art continued in the late Middle Ages. In a manuscript produced in France in the second half of the 12th century, containing medical works (Egerton MS 2900), the scribe used the same kind of cypher to mark the end of his copying effort, and not without effect.

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The colophon follows the inscription ‘Explicit liber’ (The book ends [here]): Egerton MS 2900, f. 102v

The last line, crossed through in red ink (a form of medieval highlighting), reads: ‘'Dkgnxs fst ppfrbrkxs mfrcfdf sxb’. The scribe also marked off the sentence from the rest of the text with red-and-blue line fillers, as shown in the image below.

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The encrypted text is highlighted: Egerton MS 2900, f. 102v

This encrypted message can be decoded using the same consonant-for-vowel technique, which yields the following text: ‘Dignus est operarius mercede sua’. The Latin comes from the Gospel of Luke (chapter 10, verse 7) and states that ‘the worker is worthy of his reward’.

In a late 11th- or early 12th-century French manuscript (Royal MS 13 A XI), the scribe included Bede's explanation about how numbers can be substituted for letters based on their order in the alphabet. They can then be communicated via a system of finger-reckoning. Bede explained that, ‘if you wish to warn a friend who is among traitors to act cautiously, show with your fingers [the signs for] 3, 1, 20, 19, 5 and 1, 7, 5; in this order, the letters signify ‘act cautiously’ (caute age in Latin) (Royal MS 13 A XI, f. 33v). The finger signs from 1 to 9000 are presented in a reference table.

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The sign-language of finger-reckoning: Royal MS 13 A XI, f. 33v

Bede also assured his readers that, if ‘greater secrecy is demanded,’ the Greek alphabet can help with a stronger level of encryption. The number values for Greek letters could be correlated with the Latin alphabet; any Latin word could thus be written in Greek code, based on their order in the alphabet and the number value of the relevant Greek letter.

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Coding basics, with Greek letters being assigned a number value: Royal MS 13 A XI, f. 34r

 

Cristian Ispir

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20 March 2018

Call the medieval midwife

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Becky Lawton

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17 March 2018

Medieval lucky charms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deliver all the limbs of me a mortal

with your protective shield guarding every member,

lest the foul demons hurl their shafts

into my sides, as is their wont.

Deliver my skull, head with hair and eyes.

mouth, tongue, teeth and nostrils,

neck, breast, side and limbs,

joints, fat and two hands.

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

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

 

Alison Ray

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Sources:

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

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

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

08 March 2018

Epic women

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When many people think of Old English epics, they tend to think of Beowulf: an almost all-male story of warriors doing battle against monsters. However, did you know that some of the longest heroic poems in Old English have female central characters? Three epic Old English poems are named after and centre on women: Judith, Juliana and Elene. These poems are preserved in three of the four major Old English poetic codices, which will be displayed together for the first time during the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the British Library (19 October 2018–19 February 2019).

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Page from Judith, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 205r

Perhaps the most action-packed story is Judith. Only one, fragmentary copy of the poem survives, in the same manuscript that contains the only surviving copy of Beowulf. The surviving copy begins when Judith, a beautiful Jewish heroine, is summoned to the bedroom of the enemy general Holofernes. She finds Holofernes drunk and beheads him with a sword. She and her maid then sneak out of the camp with his severed head, which Judith then presents in front of the walls of her city while giving a rousing speech to the troops:

‘Here, you heroes renowned in victory, leaders of men, you can gaze unobstructed at the head of the most despicable heathen war-maker, lifeless Holofernes, who of all people caused us the most loss of life, bitter pain ... I drove the life out of him through God’s help. Now I want to request of every man of this citizenry, every shield-bearer, that you prepare yourselves without delay for battle after the God of origins, that compassionate king, send from the east his bright light. Bear forth your linden shields before your breast, garments of mail and bright helmets into the crowd of attackers …’ (translated by R. D. Fulk, The Beowulf Manuscript (Harvard, 2010), pp. 311–13).

Cotton_ms_vitellius_a_xv_f206v
Part of Judith’s speech, quoted above, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 206v

Two more lengthy Old English poems are named after women: Juliana and Elene, both of which were written by Cynewulf. Judging by the form of Old English he used, Cynewulf probably came from Mercia, and he lived during the 9th century. Unusually for an Old English poet, he ‘signed’ his works with puns based on the runes used to spell his name. Juliana survives only in the Exeter Book (Exeter Cathedral MS 3501) and Elene survives only in the Vercelli Book (Vercelli, Biblioteca Capitolare, CXVII). 

Juliana is the story of a beautiful Roman from Nicomedia, who catches the eye of Eleusias, ‘a rich man of noble lineage, a mighty prefect’ (translated by Charles W. Kennedy, Juliana (Cambridge, Ontario, 2000), p. 2). Juliana’s father, Africanus of Nicomedia, is delighted when Eleusias wants to marry Juliana, but Juliana herself is less thrilled: she publicly refuses to marry him unless he converts to Christianity. Furious and humiliated, Eleusias has Juliana tortured and thrown in prison. While in prison, Juliana encounters a demon in disguise. She catches the demon and beats it up. Although the pages which describe Juliana’s fight with the demon are missing (the text breaks after the words, ‘she seized upon that devil’), when the text resumes it is clear that Juliana has physically and intellectually bested the demon, who is forced to confess all his plans and crimes, crying out:

‘Behold, thou hast afflicted me with painful blows, and in truth I know that, before or since, never did I meet, in all the kingdoms of the world, a woman like to thee, of more courageous heart, or more perverse … Clear it is to me that thou wouldest be in all things unashamed in thy wise heart’ (translated by Kennedy, Juliana, p. 12).

Stowe MS 944  f. 7r
A demon and souls in Hell, from the New Minster Liber Vitae, England (New Minster, Winchester), c. 1031, Stowe MS 944,  f. 7r

Juliana eventually releases the demon, who encourages Eleusias to order Judith’s death. When he fails to kill her with boiling lead (which does not even harm her clothes), he eventually has her beheaded. Cynewulf notes that Eleusias eventually dies in a shipwreck, while Juliana’s memory endures.

Cynewulf also wrote a poem about Elene, or Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, who allegedly rediscovered the True Cross in Jerusalem. Cynewulf portrays Elene debating, browbeating (and eventually torturing) whole committees of Jews and Christians to tell her the location of the True Cross.

Vercelli Book f. 121r
Opening of Elene, Vercelli, Biblioteca Capitolare CXVII, f. 121r

Of course, there are female characters in other epics, such as Grendel’s mother in Beowulf and Eve in the Genesis poems. Women's voices also appear in shorter Old English poems and elegies, like the Wife’s Lament. We might also draw attention to Prudentius’s Psychomachia, a Latin text written in northern Spain that became popular in early medieval England. The Psychomachia features an all-female cast, who are personifications of feminine abstract nouns. To learn more about the role of women in medieval literature, please have a look at the British Library’s new Discovering Medieval Literature site.

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Hope and Lowliness behead Pride, from Prudentius’s Psychomachia, England, late 10th and early 11th century, Add MS 24199, f. 15v

We should also admit that there is no such thing as gender equality (or other types of equality) in Old English literature. For example, it may not be to modern audiences' tastes that both Judith and Juliana fixate on their subject’s virginity. But it is still worth noting that, over a thousand years ago, women had a starring role in some of the earliest English epics.

Alison Hudson

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