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205 posts categorized "Anglo-Saxon"

26 May 2018

Will the real Venerable Bede please stand up?

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26 May is the heavenly birthday of the Venerable Bede, as he would have put it: that is, it's the anniversary of Bede’s death of 735. Bede is one of the most important figures in early English history, because most of what we know about the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms up to the 8th century comes from his writings. Modern historians rely on Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, but during his lifetime his theological and scientific writings were equally popular and were studied for centuries to come. So who was Bede as a person? Fortunately, his own writings provide some clues, as do those of people who knew him.


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Late 12th-century image of a scribe that may have been intended to depict Bede, from the Lives of St Cuthbert, Durham, 4th quarter of the 12th century: 
Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 2r. It's probably not what Bede looked like, though.

In the final chapters of his magnum opus, the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Bede included a short autobiographical note. He stated that he was in his 59th year, having been born in the territory of the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow, south of modern day Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and presented to the monastery at the age of seven. Bede spent the majority of his life as part of this monastic community, and developed a close relationship to its founders, Benedict Biscop and Abbot Ceolfrith. This autobiographical note also mentions that Bede had written over 38 books, on topics ranging from theology to the art of poetry to mathematics.

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Page including the list of Bede's works, from an early 9th-century copy of the Ecclesiastical History, Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 157v

Further glimpses of Bede’s life appear in his other books. They show that he was a patient teacher, keen singer, devout Biblical scholar and pioneering scientist, who made new discoveries about tides and helped develop a whole branch of mathematics known as computus. In some of these writings, Bede described his life and surroundings more directly. In his old age, Bede wrote an account of the lives of Benedict Biscop, Abbot Ceolfrith and the other abbots of his monastery. Bede described how Benedict Biscop sent for masons from France to build the monastery from stone ‘in the Roman style’, and described Ceolfrith’s departure for Rome with the great Codex Amiatinus in 716. This book will be returning to the United Kingdom for the first time in 1,302 years for the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition (19 October 2018–19 February 2019).

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First page of the earliest copy of Bede’s History of the Abbots: Harley MS 3020, f. 7r

The British Library cares for two manuscripts that were produced at Wearmouth-Jarrow during Bede’s lifetime. These are books that Bede would have seen, and they help paint a picture of his home as a busy intellectual and cultural centre. One of these comprises some leaves that survive from one of the other two Bibles that Ceolfrith commissioned, in addition to Codex Amiatinus. The other is the earliest intact European book: the St Cuthbert Gospel (Add MS 89000), made at Wearmouth-Jarrow in the early 8th century.  

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Front cover of the St Cuthbert Gospel, made at Wearmouth-Jarrow in the early 8th century: Add MS 89000

Bede’s life had its rough patches. After Abbot Ceolfrith left in 716, Bede was so upset that it affected his writing, as he mentions in his commentary on 1 Samuel. In another incident, Bede was accused of heresy in the year 708. He wrote a letter to a monk named Plegwin in which he explains the reasons for this accusation. This letter was preserved in a manuscript copied in the 12th century. The letter implies that Bede had been accused of heresy in Plegwin’s presence, and Plegwin had described this incident to Bede in a previous letter. Bede’s reply expressed his outrage, and explained why the accusation was false. The accuser claimed that in Bede’s Chronica Minora, he denied that Christ had lived in the sixth age of the word, as was commonly believed. Instead, Bede argued that Christ had lived in the seventh age. In the letter to Plegwin, Bede wrote: ‘If I had denied that Christ had come, how could I be a priest in Christ’s Church?’ (translated by F. Wallis, Bede: The Reckoning of Time, p. 405).

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Bede's letter to Plegwin: Cotton MS Vitellius A XII, f. 83r

The most detailed contemporary account about Bede describes him dying. Not long after Bede’s death, a man named Cuthbert wrote a letter to a deacon named Cuthwin. This letter reveals key details about Bede’s activities on the eve of his death. It described how Bede had shared out his few possessions among his brothers at Wearmouth-Jarrow. Among these possessions were exotic items such as pepper and incense. According to Cuthbert, Bede also urged his brothers to finish a copy of the Gospel of St John, which he had been translating into Old English. He also translated some excerpts of the work of Isidore of Seville for the benefit of his students and recited Old English poetry about death to them.  

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Cuthbert’s letter on the death of Bede: Stowe MS 104, f. 112v

After Bede had dictated ‘the last sentence’ to his student Wilbert, he asked to be placed in the spot where he usually prayed. There, ‘on the floor of his little cell, while chanting “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit”, he breathed his last.’

Becky Lawton and Alison Hudson

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24 May 2018

‘The Earth is, in fact, round’

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It’s a major peeve of many medieval historians: the popular belief that people who lived before Christopher Columbus thought that the world was flat. It is actually rare to find groups in the classical, Late Antique and medieval eras who believed in the flat Earth. On the contrary, numerous ancient thinkers, navigators and artists observed that the Earth was round.

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Miniature of the Earth in a circle, with personifications of the four cardinal points, made in England in the 3rd quarter of the 13th century: Egerton MS 843, f. 23r 

The first recorded, unambiguous European references to a spherical Earth are found in the work of ancient Greek philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle. By the time the Roman writer Pliny the Elder was writing the first part of his Natural History around AD 77, the fact that the Earth is a sphere was treated as common knowledge: ‘We all agree on the earth’s shape. For surely we always speak of the round ball of the Earth’ (Pliny, Natural History, II.64).

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Opening page of a much later copy of Pliny’s Historia naturalis, made in Rome in 1457 or 1458: Harley MS 2677, f. 1r

These views continued into the medieval period, since even the changing hours of daylight throughout the year made it evident that the Earth was round. Around 723 or 725, the monk Bede explained to his students:

‘The reason why the same days are of unequal length is the roundness of the Earth, for not without reason is it called ‘‘the orb of the world’’ on the pages of Holy Scripture and of ordinary literature. It is, in fact, a sphere set in the middle of the whole universe. It is not merely circular like a shield [or] spread out like a wheel, but resembles more a ball, being equally round in all directions ...’ (Bede, The Reckoning of Time, translated by Faith Wallis (Liverpool University Press, 1999), p. 91).

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Explanation of the Earth as a sphere, from a copy of Bede, De Temporum Ratione, made in England or Normandy, late 11th or early 12th century: Royal MS 13 A XI, f. 62r  

This belief was also reflected in many medieval maps. Round diagrams of the Earth were included in the works of Isidore of Seville. Meanwhile, a map that was often circulated with the work of the 5th-century writer Macrobius showed the climate zones of Earth divided into northern and southern hemispheres.

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Diagram of the habitable zones of the Earth, from Macrobius, Commentarii in Ciceronis Somnium Scipionis, France or England: Add MS 11943, f. 38v
 

The idea that the Earth was round was not limited to tracts on science and natural history. Much medieval art also depicted the Earth as a sphere. For this reason, depictions of God the Creator often show him holding a compass, a tool used to draw round objects.

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Depiction of God creating the Earth with a compass and scales, from the Tiberius Psalter, Winchester, mid-11th century: Cotton MS Tiberius C VI, f. 7v

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Depiction of God the Creator holding a compass, from a Bible historiale made in Paris and Clairefontaine, 1411: Royal MS 19 D III, f. 3r

Many writers also assumed the Earth was a sphere. Dante’s Divine Comedy even discussed how the shape of the world created different time zones, and how different stars were visible in the southern and northern hemispheres.

Of course, even though earlier thinkers knew the world was round, they did not fully understand how it worked. Without a theory of gravity, Pliny struggled to understand how people who lived in the southern hemisphere did not fall off the world, while Bede denied that anyone lived in the southern hemisphere at all. (Bede was wrong, as you can see in the British Library’s summer 2018 exhibition, James Cook: The Voyages.) 

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Diagrams using human figures to show the round shape of Earth, from a copy of Gossuin de Metz’s ‘L’Image du Monde’ made in Bruges, 1464: Royal MS 19 A IX, f. 42r 

Nevertheless, there is one thing on which most human thinkers, for most of history, have agreed — as Bede put it, 'the Earth is, in fact, a sphere'.

Alison Hudson

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10 May 2018

What's in a name?

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Do you ever sign your name in your books? Is that something you did as a child (as I used to do in my Mr Men books) or is it a habit you've carried over into adulthood? Do you ever inscribe your books in case you lend them, or do you date them as a record of when they were acquired?

One person who regularly signed his books was the politician and antiquary, Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631). Cotton's library of manuscripts was presented to the British nation upon the death of his grandson, John, in 1702, and it now resides at the British Library. Among its many treasures are two copies of Magna Carta as issued by King John in 1215, the sole surviving medieval manuscript of Beowulf, and the state papers of the Tudor monarchs.

I am particularly keen to learn more about how and when Cotton obtained his manuscripts. Much pioneering work on this topic was done by Colin Tite, who died last year, as recorded in his The Manuscript Library of Sir Robert Cotton: The Panizzi Lectures, 1993 (London, 1994), and The Early Records of Sir Robert Cotton's Library: Formation, Cataloguing, Use (London, 2003). Among the evidence for the gradual growth of Robert Cotton's library are the various catalogues compiled during and after his lifetime, his correspondence with other scholars, and the manuscripts themselves. I hope in time to be able to collate all this information. Below are some examples of Cotton's dated signature, starting in 1588 when he was aged just 17, and encompassing manuscripts such as the magnificent Vespasian Psalter, dated in 1599.

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A penitential manual (10th century), signed by Robert Cotton in 1588, aged 17: Cotton MS Vespasian D XV, f. 83v

 

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The Vespasian Psalter (8th century), signed by Robert Cotton in 1599: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 12r

 

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Libellus de primo Saxonum uel Normannorum aduentu (12th century), signed by Robert Cotton in 1600: Cotton MS Caligula A VIII, f. 28r

 

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A Glasgow pontifical (12th century), signed by Robert Cotton in 1604: Cotton MS Tiberius B VIII/1, f. 3r

 

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Honorius Augustodunensis, Gemma animae sive De divinis officiis (12th century), signed by Robert Cotton in 1618: Cotton MS Tiberius C III, f. 4r

 

Among other manuscripts whose acquisition we can potentially date on the basis of inscriptions in the books themselves are:

  • Cotton MS Julius E IV, 'Rob. Cotton Bruceus ex dono Walter Cop militis 1603' (f. 10r)
  • Cotton MS Nero D VII, 'Robertus Cotton Bruceus Liber ex dono vicecomitus sancti Albani 1623' (f. 1r)
  • Cotton MS Vespasian B XXVI, 'Ro: Cotton Cuningtonensis 1602' (f. 1r)
  • Cotton MS Titus A XXII, 'Ro: Cotton / 1596 / Conington' (f. 2v) and 'Robert Cotton / 1598' (f. 286r)
  • Cotton MS Faustina B VII, 'I had this book amongst Mr Talbotts papers 1598' (f. 2r). According to the Oxford Dictonary of National Biography, Thomas Talbot died between 1595 and 1599; this manuscript may indicate that he died around 1598.

Putting all this evidence together, I very much hope one day to be able to continue Colin Tite's magnificent work, so that collectively we understand more about the origins, growth and early usage of Sir Robert Cotton's manuscript collection.

 

Julian Harrison

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01 May 2018

A calendar page for May 2018

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Today is 1 May, which means summer is almost here. Well, it is according to the calendar we are exploring this year, which was made in southern England about 1000 years ago.

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Calendar page for May, from Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 5r

Each day in this calendar has a verse of poetry that describes a notable event associated with that date. These are often saints’ days, but astronomical and other events are mentioned as well. The verse for 9 May, shown below, reads: ‘Here begins the summery heat for 7 multiplied by 13 [days].’ Just to make sure no one missed it, the red text in the margin clarifies: ‘The beginning of summer. It has 91 days.’ That might be a bit much to hope for this year.

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Indeed, in case the weather isn’t feeling quite like summer in 9 days’ time, the poem offers a second possible start date for warm weather: ‘Burning summer is born on the ninth day before 1 June’, namely 24 May (in the first line below).

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Other special days in May were marked out with gold crosses in the margin of this calendar. These include 1 May, the feast of St Philip and James, although the verse for that day is either incomplete or has been erased. 3 May is also marked out: it was the feast of St Helena’s rediscovery of the Cross. There is also a gold cross by 26 May, which commemorates ‘Augustine, who crossed over the curve of this world [died] seven days before 1 June.’  This was a reference to St Augustine, the first archbishop of Canterbury, not St Augustine of Hippo. Early medieval people understood that the world was round, so in art and literature part of the world and its atmosphere were sometimes represented in abbreviated form as a curved shape or arch.

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Detail of an historiated initial showing Christ sitting on the arc of the world, from the Cnut Gospels, England, pre-1019, Royal MS 1 D IX
, f. 66r

In addition to containing a poem for each day of the year, this calendar is also one of only two illustrated calendars to survive from 11th-century England. (The other is Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1.) Each page includes depictions of zodiac symbols and agricultural and social activities. For May, those are Taurus the bull and shepherding respectively. Interestingly, one shepherd is portrayed dressed as a layman, with a beard and short tunic, and two others are portrayed wearing long robes. It is unclear if their attire reflects the exemplar of this manuscript or if their long robes allude to the dress of monks and churchmen at this period. Christian leaders were often compared to shepherds. Today, some clergy are still called ‘pastors’, the Latin word for shepherd.

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Detail of shepherds, from Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 5r

This calendar also includes a wealth of other information from the movements of the moon to the days of the week, as our post from January explains. Thanks to the The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200, you can explore this manuscript in full on the Digitised Manuscripts website.

Alison Hudson

 @BLMedieval

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23 April 2018

The oldest English writing in the British Library?

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Today the British Library holds over 150 million collection items and counting. They include most known languages but many, not surprisingly, are in English. So what is the oldest example of the English language held at the Library? The answer is more complicated than it might appear. Many Old English texts only survive in later copies, while the vast majority of our oldest manuscripts from early medieval England are in Latin, the principal language of learning and writing in western Europe at this period. As Bede wrote in his Ecclesiastical History, completed in 731, 'At the present time, languages of five peoples are spoken in the island of the Britain ... English, British, Irish, Pictish and the Latin languages.'

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The languages spoken in Britain, according to Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Canterbury, 9th century): Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 6v

The English language first developed around the middle of the 5th century. It was based on the languages spoken by immigrants to the British Isles, who came from southern Scandinavia and parts of present-day Germany. These early dialects are collectively called 'Old English'.

The earliest texts in English survive as very short runic inscriptions on metal objects and ceramic pots. The earliest substantial example of English is the lawcode of King Æthelberht of Kent (reigned c. 589–616), but that work survives in just one manuscript (the Textus Roffensis), made in the 1120s. Several Old English manuscripts in the British Library may contain texts that were based on much earlier exemplars and stories, but their dates are uncertain, unlike the lawcode, which can be linked to a particular reign.

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Charter of King Wihtred of Kent, late 7th or early 8th century: Stowe Ch 1

From the mid- to late 7th century, texts written in Latin survive from the region that is now England. One of these-- the second oldest single-sheet charter to survive from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms-- does contain a few snippets of English. This is a charter of King Wihtred of Kent, written between 697 and 712, giving land to St Mary’s Church, Lyminge. The land is described as having ‘very well known boundaries’, including ‘barley way’ (bereueg) and ‘Maegwine’s path’ (meguines paed). These few words are possibly the oldest writing in Old English held at the British Library.

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Detail of the boundaries with Old English names: Stowe Ch 1

Some of the earliest substantial texts in English in the British Library were written down at the end of the 8th century or the beginning of the 9th century. (Other institutions hold earlier examples, such as Old English versions of Caedmon’s hymn). One prayerbook made around 800 includes a translation of the Lord’s Prayer into Old English, along with other notes. It has also been associated with a female scribe or patron, so one of the earliest surviving examples of English may have been written by or for a woman. In the early 9th century, a gloss in Old English was added to parts of the 8th-century Vespasian Psalter (Cotton MS Vespasian A I). From the later 9th-century, there are fragments of the Old English Martyrology, some of the earliest manuscripts in the British Library to contain text primarily in English. The earliest, 'complete' book in English that survives at the British Library may be the Tollemache Orosius, an Old English adaptation of Orosius's History against the Pagans, made around 900. 

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Detail of the Lord’s Prayer in Latin (in black ink) and Old English (written above the Latin text, in ink that now appears brown), in the Royal Prayerbook (Canterbury?, c. 800): Royal MS 2 A XX, f. 11v

Old English texts surviving in later manuscripts range from heroic epics, such as Beowulf and Judith, to legal documents. Scientific texts were written or translated into Old English, and parts of the Bible were translated into Old English. Many of these manuscripts are now available on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site.

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A page from the Old English Hexateuch, depicting Miriam and the daughters of Zion playing harps to celebrate victory over Pharaoh (England, 11th century): Cotton MS Claudius B IV, f. 92v

If you’d like to learn more about the development of the English language, among other things, please come to the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, which runs from 19 October 2018 to 19 February 2019. You can book tickets to the exhibition here. You can also find further articles about Old English and examples of Old English literature on the British Library’s Discovering Literature: Medieval site.

 

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

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

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

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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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