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116 posts categorized "Anglo-Saxon"

22 July 2016

Updated List of Digitised Manuscript Hyperlinks

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Saints and monsters and centaurs, oh my! Continuing our tradition of releasing roughly every 3 months an updated list of hyperlinks of ancient, medieval and early modern manuscripts digitised by the British Library, we are pleased to present our most up-to-date list here: Download List of Digitised Manuscripts with Hyperlinks, July 2016. For our long-term followers who are interested only in the manuscripts uploaded since the March hyperlist was made, they can be found at the end of this file: Download List of Digitised Manuscripts with most recent uploads at the end, July 2016. You can find all our digitised content on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.

The past few months have seen some major releases on Digitised Manuscripts. We are now close to digitising almost 1500 manuscripts. Highlights of the most recent upload include:

  • A copy of the Gospels translated into Old English, made nearly 1000 years ago.

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Opening of St John’s Gospel, from an Old English translation of the Gospels, England (Wessex?), c. 1000–1050, Cotton MS Otho C I/1, f. 70r 

  • The earliest surviving world map which includes a depiction of the British Isles. This manuscript — a scientific miscellany made in England in the mid-11th century — also contains colourful depictions of the labours of the month, of constellations and of the Marvels of the East.

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Sagittarius, from a scientific miscellany including Cicero’s Arator, England, 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 37r 

  • A copy of Usuard's Martyrology used at St Augustine's Canterbury and updated there in the 12th and 13th century. One addition commemorates the death of 'Harold, king of the English, and many of our brothers' at the battle of Hastings. 

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Historiated initial at the beginning of entries for the month of September, from Usuard's Martyrology, England (St Augustine's, Canterbury), late 11th-early 12th century with later additions, Cotton MS Vitellius C XII/1, f. 139r

This is to name but a few of the recent uploads. And stay tuned: there are many more exciting uploads coming up in the next few months. We’ll publish an updated list in the autumn, but until then please check our Twitter account for announcements about the manuscripts which have most recently been added to Digitised Manuscripts. (Our Twitter account is also good for London Underground-inspired puns and pictures of woodwoses, among other things.)

@BLMedieval

16 July 2016

Beowulf is Back!

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If you are in London this summer and would like to see the unique manuscript of the most famous poem in Old English, you are in luck! Beowulf is back on display at the British Library in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery. Don’t go looking for Beowulf in one of our literary show-cases, though: Beowulf is currently housed in an ‘Historical Documents’ case, with other manuscripts written in late 10th- or 11th-century England.

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Detail of passage mentioning Grendel’s mother ('Grendeles modor'), from Beowulf, England, late 10th or early 11th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 180r 

You might wonder what Beowulf is doing in a case of historical documents, given that the poem is full of improbable creatures and events, including a swamp monster, a dragon and a swimming competition where the contestants wear chain mail. The pages on display describe how the mother of the monster Grendel, who was slain by the hero Beowulf earlier in the poem, sets out seeking revenge. Nevertheless, historians use this poem for insight both into the early history of Anglo-Saxon England, when the poem may have been first recited, and the late 10th or early 11th century, when the poem was copied down in the only surviving manuscript.

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Detail of a man with glowing eyes, from The Wonders of the East, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 104v

Although the poem contains many fantastical elements, it may contain memories of the social structure, warrior culture and even architecture of earlier Anglo-Saxon societies. The pages on display also describe old warriors singing in a hall with a harp. The existence of such halls, and even such stringed instruments, has been corroborated by archaeological evidence. The way the poet praised Beowulf also shows which qualities the poet and the poet's audience may have valued above others.

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Detail of the constellation Lyra, from Cicero’s Aratea, England (Canterbury or Winchester?), early 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 35r 

The context when the poem was copied down also interests historians. Although the precise date of the manuscript—like almost everything else about Beowulf—is highly debated, some scholars have suggested that Beowulf was copied in the late 10th or early 11th century, before or just after the conquest of England by the Dane Cnut. In this context, it is interesting that an Anglo-Saxon was writing down a poem celebrating Beowulf, who is described in the poem as a Geat or a Scandinavian. The pages of the poem which are on display in the Treasures Gallery may also contain evidence of erasure and rewriting, suggesting the poem's contents were still being tweaked at the end of the Anglo-Saxon period. 

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Miniature of King Cnut and Emma donating a cross to the New Minster, from the New Minster Liber Vitae, England (New Minster, Winchester), c. 1031, Stowe MS 944, f. 6r

So if you are in London, do stop by the British Library to see the Beowulf manuscript and learn more about the context in which it was copied. It is on display alongside other manuscripts relating to Cnut’s conquest of 1016, including the D-text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a copy of Cnut’s 1020 lawcodes, a charter issued in Cnut’s name and what is possibly the only surviving manuscript portrait of Cnut. If you can’t make it to London, you can still see Beowulf and the other books on display on Digitised Manuscripts.

Alison Hudson

07 June 2016

‘I Am an Antichrist’: Demons, Vices and Punks

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The British Library’s new free exhibition, Punk 1976-78 is now open to the public (until 2 October 2016). This exhibition examines Punk’s influence on music, fashion, print and politics in the 40 years since the Sex Pistols came to prominence. However, the Medieval Manuscripts Section is here to tell you that rebellious attitudes and rad hairstyles have been around for much longer than 40 years!

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Wrath fights Patience, from Prudentius's Psychomachia, England, 11th century, Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII, f. 11r

The British Library’s manuscripts depict a variety of medieval rule breakers or expectation-defiers, from colourful fools to rebels who violently challenged social and political norms.

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Detail of Wat Tyler and John Ball leading the Peasants' Revolt, from
Jean Froissart, Chroniques, vol. 2, Low Countries (Bruges), c. 1475-1500, Royal MS 18 E I, f. 165v

One set of medieval rule breakers seem particularly pertinent to the later punk scene: demons and vices. In the opening lines of the Sex Pistols’ controversial debut single ‘Anarchy in the UK’, Johnny Rotten proclaims, ‘I am an antichrist.’ Since Late Antiquity, artists and poets in Western Europe often used imagery of antichrists—opponents of Christ, conceived of as false prophets or demons or vices—to signal countercultural status. The Sex Pistols were, consciously or unconsciously, tapping into a tradition that was over a thousand years old.

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The Antichrist from the Silos Apocalypse, Spain (Santo Domingo de Silos), c. 1091-1109, Add MS 11695, f. 143r

In particular, the British Library is in the process of digitising two sets of texts related to demons, virtues, vices, rulebreakers, antichrists and anarchy. The first are Apocalypse manuscripts, of which we have 19 in our collections, 10 of which have been recently digitised. One of these, Additional MS 19896, a 15th- century Latin copy made in Germany, contains a four-part miniature of the Book of Revelation, Chapter XI, which features a beast often described as the Antichrist:

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Scenes from the Antichrist story, with the Antichrist represented as the beast of the bottomless pit who kills the two witnesses (here Enoch and Elias), followed by the great earthquake, 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Germany, Additional MS 19896, ff. 8v-9r

A parallel version of the Book of Revelation in Latin and Anglo-Norman French verse, also recently digitised (Royal MS 2 D XIII), contains an illustration of the same scenes: vengeance rains down on the Antichrist and the souls of the two witnesses are taken up into heaven.

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The Antichrist kills the two witnesses; the ascension of the witnesses and the persecution of the Antichrist in the great earthquake (Revelation XI: 7-13), early 14th century, England or France, Royal MS 2 D XIII, ff. 23v-24r

Although the fashions and hairstyles do not obviously call to mind the punk asethetic, wild and wacky characters and dress are everywhere, as you will see if you look at our previous blogposts on the Apocalypse manuscripts.

A different take on anti-christs-- in the sense of opponents of Christ-- comes from the second set of manuscripts depicting rule breakers which we are digitising. These are copies of the Psychomachia by Prudentius, a provincial governor-turned-ascetic from Northern Spain (d. c. 413).  This poem describes seven virtues, such as Faith, Chastity and Patience, duelling seven vices, including Worship-of-the-Old-Gods, Sodomy, and Wrath.  In between, the poet digresses with Biblical examples to emphasize that vices oppose what Christ stands for, whereas the virtues will help save souls. We have already digitised one of the illustrated copies of the Psychomachia in the British Library’s collection (Additional MS 24199), made in England in the late 10th and early 11th century.

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Wrath fighting Patience, from Prudentius, Psychomachia, England (Bury St Edmunds?),  c.980-1010, Add MS 24199, f. 10r

In particular, having just seen the Punk exhibition’s cases on punk fashion, some members of the section were struck by the wild hairstyle which the Anglo-Saxon artist gave Wrath. She would not have looked out of place in Vivienne Westwood’s and Malcolm McLaren’s circle 1000 years later (although the illustrator did not intend Wrath to be seen as a trendsetter). Demons, too, were frequently depicted with gravity-defying hairdos and revealing or torn clothing in western medieval art.

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Detail of Pride’s entrance, from Additional MS 24199, f. 12r

But while the punk movement used torn clothing and wild hair as a sign of countercultural rebellion, in the Psychomachia such attire was not, it should be noted, a feature of all vices, nor was it necessarily forbidden from virtues. In the recently digitised copy of the Psychomachia, Pride (Superbia) is depicted with particularly flamboyant and sumptuous attire. Meanwhile, the text describes Faith taking to the field of battle with ‘her rough dress disordered, her arms exposed’ as she faces off against Worship-of-the-Old-Gods (translated by H. J. Thomson, Prudentius, with an English translation (1949), p. 281). The Anglo-Saxon illustrator did depict Faith fully dressed, however, as she crowned a group of martyrs.

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Detail of Faith fighting Worship-of-the-Old-Gods, from Additional MS 24199, f. 4v

There are many other parallels that can be drawn between the punk movement and the medieval period. Indeed, punks themselves sometimes explicitly invoked medieval imagery. Tenpole Tudor’s band name may have been a reference to its lead singer’s name, rather than Henry VIII’s jousting exploits, but their song ‘Swords of 1000 Men’ and its accompanying cover art show how they were inspired by neo-medievalism and also subverted it. If any aspiring punk rockers are reading this, please bear in mind digitised manuscripts from the 1470s and 1000s, as well as albums from the 1970s, as a source of inspiration.

~Alison Hudson and Chantry Westwell

Read more about demons in medieval art:

Demons in a Bible moralisée 

Demons (and a medieval umbrella) in the Harley Psalter

Guthlac the Demon Slayer 

Prepare to meet your doom

26 May 2016

Bede: The Greatest Hits

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On this day in AD 735 the Venerable Bede died in his monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria. Bede is most famous for his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, and is often affectionately known as the father of English history. However, this text was written at the end of a long career, in which Bede wrote many works on hagiography, natural science and theology. When another monk of Wearmouth-Jarrow wrote an account of Bede’s death, he described how Bede continued with his scholarly pursuits right up until his final moments. On the anniversary of Bede’s death, it seems fitting to explore some of Bede’s greatest hits, which can be found within the British Library’s manuscript collections.

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Beginning of the second book from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, England (Wearmouth-Jarrow?), c. 775-825, Cotton MS Tiberius A XIV, f. 39r

The Ecclesiastical History of the English People survives in a number of copies here at the British Library. Our earliest copy of the text can be dated to the late 8th century or the beginning of the 9th century, having been made in the decades after Bede’s death. Although this manuscript was damaged in the Ashburnham House fire in 1731, it is still possible to see ornate features such as the decorated initials above which begin book 2 of the History.

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Opening page of Bede’s Eccesiastical History, England (Southumbria), c. 800-850, Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 5v

Bede’s work was widely copied within a few years of his death and for centuries thereafter. The British Library has a lavishly illuminated, early 9th-century manuscript of the Ecclesiastical History from Southumbria (Cotton MS Tiberius C II), which will soon be available in full on Digitised Manuscripts. We have also recently uploaded a 10th-century copy of the Ecclesiastical History to Digitised Manuscripts (Royal MS 13 C V).

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Page from an Old English translation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, England, late 9th or early 10th century, Cotton MS Domitian A IX, f.11r

The British Library also holds several fragments of an Old English translation of the Ecclesiastical History written in the late 9th or early 10th century, including the recently digitised fragment in Cotton MS Domitian A IX. It is not known exactly when the Ecclesiastical History was first translated into Old English, although it is thought to have been part of King Alfred of Wessex’s programme to provide the ‘books most needful for men to know’ in English in the late 9th century.

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St Cuthbert greeting King Ecgfrith, from Bede’s Prose Life of Cuthbert, England (Durham), c. 1175-1200, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 51r

Bede is also well known for writing biblical commentaries, hagiographies, and poems on religious subjects (such as the recently digitised Add MS 11034). These include both a prose and a verse Life of St Cuthbert. A number of manuscripts of Bede's Lives of St Cuthbert were recently uploaded to Digitised Manuscripts, including a 12th-century manuscript which contains a number of well-known illustrations to the text (Yates Thompson MS 26).

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Image of a scribe, perhaps Bede, from Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 2r

In this same manuscript, the preface to the prose Life of St Cuthbert includes a miniature of a scribe writing at a desk. As it accompanies the preface, the figure within this drawing is often thought to be Bede himself.

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Page from Bede, De natura rerum, England, c. 975-1025, Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 2r

Bede’s scholarly interests were not limited to history, hagiography and theology; he also wrote a number of works describing the natural world. He was the first European to note the relationship between the moon and the tides and he was skilled in very complex forms of mathematics. One of these works was entitled On the Nature of Things, and includes chapters on the creation of the world, and descriptions of astronomical and metrological features. The page above is taken from a 10th-century fragment of this text.

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Page from Bede’s De temporibus illustrated with zodiac symbols, England, c. 1244, Egerton MS 3088, f. 16v

Bede wrote a brief introduction to the subject of computus, which was designed to give its readers basic knowledge of the methods of calculating the date of Easter. This was a tricky subject in Bede’s day, and in this work he used simple Latin and short sentences in order to make the text accessible to a beginner. Pictured above is a 13th-century English copy of the text, and is accompanied by an illustration of four zodiac figures; Aries, Gemini, Taurus, and Cancer.

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Page from Bede's De temporibus illustrated with a diagram of the sun, moon, earth and planets, Egerton MS 3088 f. 17v

In addition to these other works, Bede wrote a number of letters throughout his life. The letter on the page below is a 12th-century copy of a letter written by Bede to Bishop Ecgberht of York only a few months before Bede’s death in May 735. In this letter, Bede is heavily critical of the current state of the Northumbrian Church and outlines various ways in which it could be reformed. Within this letter, Bede explains to Ecgberht that he is writing a letter because he is physically unable to travel to York in order to speak to Ecgberht in person. This gives some sense of Bede’s declining health in the months before his death.

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Beginning of Bede's letter to Ecgberht, England (Durham), c. 1100-1150, Harley MS 4688, f. 89r

Cuthbert, a monk from Wearmouth-Jarrow, wrote an account of Bede’s death in the form of a letter. This letter can often be found in manuscripts of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History such as Harley MS 3680, copied in the 12th century. In his account of Bede’s death Cuthbert included a short poem, which he claimed was composed by Bede in Old English upon his deathbed. The poem translates as:

Facing that enforced journey, no man can be

More prudent than he has good call to be,

If he consider, before his going hence,

What for his spirit of good hap or of evil

After his day of death shall be determined.

Trans. J. McClure and R. Collins (eds), The Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Oxford, 1994), p. 301

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Image of Bede from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, England (East Anglia?), c. 1375- 1406, Arundel MS 74, f.2v

Cuthbert described how, upon hearing this poem, he and his fellow monks shared in Bede’s sorrow. He claims that they ‘read and wept by turns’ or wept continually as they read. Their reaction demonstrates that Bede was heavily valued as a scholar and a teacher at Wearmouth-Jarrow. Perhaps there are also a few modern readers of this blog who will shed a little tear on this anniversary of Bede’s death.

~Becky Lawton

23 May 2016

Size Matters

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The British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website reveals a number of remarkable things in the text and decoration of over 1460 complete manuscripts (and counting). One thing Digitised Manuscripts cannot show you, however, is the actual size of the manuscripts, since our viewer is limited by the size of your screen. Medieval book-makers did not have those limitations, and the British Library’s manuscripts come in all shapes and sizes.

Little and Large 2
The Royal Bible vol. 2, Royal MS 1 E VII, next to the Taverner Prayerbook, Add MS 88991

We recently uploaded a two-volume Anglo-Saxon Bible to Digitised Manuscripts (Royal MS 1 E VII and Royal MS 1 E VIII). These volumes are notable for a number of reasons: first, they form one of only two more or less complete Bibles which were made in England before 1066 and which still survive. Secondly, they are remarkable for their large size, measuring 570 x 350 mm (making it the size of a small child). Here’s one of these volumes next to a 22 cm ruler.

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Front cover of the Royal Bible vol. 2, Royal MS 1 E VIII

Many of the British Library’s largest manuscripts are Bibles or liturgical manuscripts. This makes sense, given these texts’ spiritual importance and the role they might have been expected to play in ceremonies and impressive performances. Other texts exist in large formats, too. Cotton MS Augustus V—which recently travelled to the Everlasting Flame exhibition in New Delhi—contains the Trésor des histoires, a middle French version of an anonymous historical compilation in prose from Creation to the pontificate of Clement VI, with other 14th-century texts interpolated. Like many luxurious manuscripts, it was designed to express the social status of its owner. Such manuscripts were sometimes copied more to be seen than read. Cotton Augustus V was made in Bruges and measures an impressive 480 x 230 mm. Its elaborate fifty-five miniatures show a special concern for the treatment of light. This manuscript was part of King Henry VIII of England’s library: it is the 'item 23' in the 1535 Richmond Palace booklist (February 1535). Its size, the high quality of illumination and script, and the rarity of the text make it a perfect example of a deluxe manuscript intended to display the King’s treasures at court.

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Page with miniature from Trésor des histoires, Low Countries (Bruges), c. 1475-1500, Cotton Augustus V, f. 18r

At the other end of the scale—literally—the British Library recently acquired a very small manuscript, known as the Taverner Prayerbook (Add MS 88991). Probably made for Anne Seymour (b. c. 1497, d. 1587), Countess of Hertford and later Duchess of Somerset, this manuscript contains a number of prayers and beautifully detailed illumination on pages measuring only 70 x 52 mm.

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The Taverner Prayerbook, Add MS 88991, with a 22-cm ruler 

But the Taverner Prayerbook is by no means the smallest manuscript in the British Library’s collection. For example, the tiny Stowe MS 956 may have been worn on a necklace or girdle and is only slightly bigger than a modern postage stamp.

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Portrait of Henry VIII, from Psalms in English Verse, South East England, c. 1540, Stowe MS 956, ff. 1v-2r

In between these, there are many other interestingly shaped manuscripts at the British Library, from long thin almanacs designed to be worn on belts to the earliest surviving ‘pocket-sized’ English law book (Cotton MS Nero A I) to the recently acquired St Cuthbert Gospel (Add MS 89000). That handy manuscript is just slightly larger than a person's palm.

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The St Cuthbert Gospel, England (Wearmouth-Jarrow), early 8th century, Add 89000

You can see the St Cuthbert Gospel and many of the other manuscripts mentioned in this post on Digitised Manuscripts, but remember to check the dimensions listed in the 'Full Display' page: size matters! 

Laure Miolo and Alison Hudson

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Related Content:

 Lady Jane Grey’s Prayer Book

The Ceolfrith Bible

Codex Sinaiticus Online

The Giant Stavelot Bible

06 May 2016

The Scottish Play and the Real Macbeth

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Here at the British Library (writes Julian Harrison) we look after everything from early papyri to the state papers of Tudor monarchs. Our Printed Books colleagues care for no fewer than 5 copies of the Shakespeare First Folio, 2 of which are currently on display in London (Shakespeare in Ten Acts). And that brings us to the topic of today's blogpost: how does the historical Macbeth differ from his portrayal for the stage by William Shakespeare?

King and Pilgrim

Let's start with what we know about the real, historical Macbeth. The most succinct account is found in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry by Professor Dauvit Broun (available to subscribers online), which I summarise here. Macbeth became king of Moray in 1032 when his cousin, Gille Comgáin mac Maíl Brigte, was burnt with 50 of his followers, possibly at Macbeth's instigation. Gille Comgáin had killed Macbeth's father in 1020; intriguingly, Macbeth then married Gille Comgáin's widow, Gruoch (the real Lady Macbeth). In 1040, Duncan I, king of Scots, led a campaign against Moray, culminating in Duncan's death in battle against Macbeth, probably at Pitgaveny near Elgin. As a result, Macbeth then became king of Scots. Macbeth was the first reigning Scottish king to undertake a pilgrimage to Rome, in 1050, where he ‘scattered money like seed to the poor’; and in 1052 he was the first to take Norman knights into his own service. However, in 1054 he was challenged by Malcolm Canmore, Duncan I's now adult son, with the support of a Northumbrian army. A bloody battle took place on 27 July, probably at Dunsinane, after which Macbeth was forced to concede land to Malcolm. Malcolm then challenged Macbeth a second time, and he killed him on 15 August 1057 at Lumphanan in Mar. Macbeth was succeeded as king by his stepson, Lulach, whose father, Gille Comgáin, had been killed by Macbeth.

Mya Gosling Macbeth

Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 1, by the utterly brilliant Mya Gosling (@GoodTickleBrain)

The Chronicle of Melrose

One of the earliest narrative accounts of the life of Macbeth is found in the Chronicle of Melrose Abbey, preserved uniquely in a manuscript at the British Library (and available on our Digitised Manuscripts site). This account was copied around 1174, but it is based on older source material. The Melrose Chronicle has intrigued me for many years (together with Dauvit Broun I found a new fragment of it at the British Library, and our account of the manuscript was published by the Scottish History Society in 2007). The historical Macbeth is mentioned a handful of times in this Melrose text. In 1039 (the chronology is slightly astray) he is said to have usurped the throne upon the death of King Duncan; in 1050 he visited Rome, where he distributed alms; finally, in 1054, Siward, earl of Northumbria, invaded Scotland at the behest of Edward of Confessor, defeated Macbeth in battle (whereupon Macbeth fled), and installed Malcolm in his place. No mention of daggers, witches or windswept heaths, no Banquo, Fleance or Macduff, no Lady Macbeth walking in her sleep. It's all rather disappointing, if you've been brought up on a diet of Shakespeare.

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Cotton_ms_faustina_b_ix_f013r

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References to Macbeth in the Chronicle of Melrose Abbey (London, British Library, Cotton MS Faustina B IX, ff. 12v, 13r, 13v): (a) his succession to the throne in 1039; (b) his pilgrimage to Rome in 1050; (c) his defeat in battle in 1054.

The Tragedy of Macbeth

What, then, do we know about Shakespeare's Macbeth? The play was first printed in the First Folio (1623), published 7 years after its author's death. Indeed, Macbeth is one of several Shakespearean plays whose text would probably be unknown but for the First Folio: other plays published for the first time in 1623 include The TempestTwelfth Night and Julius Caesar. We suspect, however, that Macbeth was written in the early years of the reign of King James I of England (1603–25). James Shapiro has recently argued that it contains echoes of the infamous Gunpowder Conspiracy of 1605 (1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear, Faber & Faber, 2015). James I was patron of the King's Men, Shakespeare's acting troupe, and he had a particular interest in demonology and witchcraft, which underpin Shakespeare's play.

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The First Folio of the plays of William Shakespeare, in which Macbeth was printed for the first time (London, British Library, C.39.k.15)

The Second Murderer's Bowler Hat

The first recorded performance of what is probably Macbeth took place in London in 1611. Over the next 400 years, many leading actors have taken on the rôles of Macbeth and his partner in crime, Lady Macbeth, among them Richard Burbage, David Garrick, Sarah Siddons and, most recently, Michael Fassbender. A stand-out production is often said to be that directed for the Royal Shakespeare Company by Trevor Nunn (1976), starring Ian McKellen and Judi Dench. But two of the most significant versions of Macbeth involved Laurence Olivier: first, the Birmingham Rep production in modern-dress at the Court Theatre in London in 1928 (one member of the audience commented on the Second Murderer's Bowler Hat); and secondly, opposite his wife, Vivien Leigh, at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1955.

Garrick-club-portrait-of-g0743    Vivien Leigh as Lady Macbeth 1955

Portrait of Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth, by George Henry Harlow (1814), copyright Garrick Club, currently on display at the British Library; photograph of Vivien Leigh as Lady Macbeth by Angus McBean, currently on display at the Library of Birmingham

Humming A Gaelic Song

You can see artefacts from the Olivier/Leigh production of Macbeth at the British Library (until 6 September 2016) and at the Library of Birmingham (until 3 September). Contemporary critics were quietly reserved about Vivien Leigh's seductive performance as Lady Macbeth ('more viper than anaconda', wrote Kenneth Tynan), but over time they have revised their opinions, and count it among her finest rôles. Her beautiful, green silk dress and embroidered gown for the part is on display in London, having been kindly loaned by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Meanwhile, some of Angus McBean's photographs of Olivier and Leigh are on show in the Library of Birmingham's Our Shakespeare exhibition (organised jointly with the British Library). Also in Birmingham are other items from the British Library's Olivier archive relating to his proposed follow-up film of Macbeth, possibly the greatest Shakespeare film never made. These include Laurence Olivier's own annotated screenplay for the film. I am especially fond of the direction when the witches appear: â€˜Macbeth is seen to stop. We CUT to him incredulously listening to the prophesies, which seem to emanate from the hills. Banquo rides gently on oblivious of these happenings, humming a Gaelic song.'

Olivier's annotated screenplay for Macbeth

Two pages from Laurence Olivier's annotated screenplay for his never-made film of Macbeth (London, British Library, Add MS 80508), currently on display at the Library of Birmingham

Separating Truth from Fiction

So let's recount: which facts does William Shakespeare get right in The Tragedy of Macbeth?

  • According to Shakespeare, Macbeth stabs to death the sleeping Duncan, who is a guest at Macbeth's castle? Wrong, Duncan dies in battle against Macbeth.
  • Macbeth is Thane of Glamis and Thane of Cawdor. Wrong again, Macbeth is King of Moray (these false titles originated with Hector Boece, whose account was copied in turn in Ralph Holinshed's Chronicles, Shakespeare's chief source for Macbeth).
  • An English army defeats Macbeth at Dunsinane, and he is killed by Macduff. Third time unlucky, alas. There was a battle at Dunsinane, in 1054, but Macbeth remained king for a further 3 years. One fact that Shakespeare does get 'right' is the death of the 'young Siward' during the Northumbrian invasion: this refers to the death of Osbeorn, son of Earl Siward, at the hands of the Scots, though doubtless not in single combat fighting Macbeth.

But then again, why let the facts get in the way of a good story?! Which version of Macbeth do you prefer, the historical alms-giver or the blood-thirsty regicide?

You can comment on this post below or via the @BLMedieval Twitter feed

 

Julian Harrison (@julianpharrison)

 

30 April 2016

Fit for a King’s Sister

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~Alison Hudson

23 April 2016

1000th Anniversary of the Death of Æthelred the Unready

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

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

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

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

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

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Detail of a list of benefactors including â€˜Ã†Ã°elred [the Unready] Cynge' and 'Cnut Cynge', from the New Minster Liber Vitae, England (Winchester), 1031, Stowe MS 944, f. 25r 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~Alison Hudson