Medieval manuscripts blog

75 posts categorized "Anglo-Saxon"

06 November 2013

How Does Beowulf Begin?

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We always like to hear about research that touches on the British Library's collections; and here is a good example. Anglo-Saxon scholars will invariably be familiar with the opening of the epic poem Beowulf, which starts with the word "Hwæt!". You can see the word in question above (the second letter is a wynn, pronounced w-), and you can view the whole manuscript online on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

This word "Hwæt" has puzzled translators for some considerable time, and it has been rendered variously as "What!" by William Morris (1895) and "So!" by Seamus Heaney (1999), among other interpretations. However, new research by George Walkden (University of Manchester) suggests that the context of "Hwæt" has been misunderstood: instead of functioning as a command to listen (along the lines of Hey! Oi you!), Walkden proposes that it should be translated as "How", in the sense of "How we have heard of the might of kings". Dr Walkden's conclusion is based on a close study of the other uses of this word and, if correct, adds a fresh perspective to the opening lines of Beowulf. Perhaps the original audience wasn't so inattentive, after all?

For those of you interested in what the poem would have sounded like, we'd also highly recommend the version by Benjamin Bagby. Or if you'd prefer to hear the opening lines in Hungarian (or French or Telugu), click here! "Listen up"" (as the Beowulf-poet apparently didn't say).

22 October 2013

Lindisfarne Gospels Back in Treasures

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Regular visitors to the British Library may be aware that some of our greatest treasures are often to be found on display in The Sir John Ritblat Gallery. At the time of writing you can see medieval manuscripts such as Magna Carta, Beowulf and the Luttrell Psalter; and we're delighted to announce that the magnificent Lindisfarne Gospels is a new addition to that list.


Canon table in the Lindisfarne Gospels (London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero D IV, f. 14v).

Now on display in London are two pages from the canon tables which preface the Lindisfarne Gospels. This Northumbrian gospel-book, renowned for its lavish carpet-pages and miniatures of the four evangelists, was made at the beginning of the 8th century, according to a colophon added some 250 years later (f. 259r). The canon tables provide readers with a concordance to the Four Gospels, allowing them to locate episodes described by more than one evangelist. Those tables in the Lindisfarne Gospels are notable for the intricate ornamentation of the columns, and for the rich palette of reds and blues, found elsewhere in the decoration of the manuscript.


Detail of the Lindisfarne Gospels canon table (London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero D IV, f. 15r).

The Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library is open seven days a week, and is free to visit. You may also like to know that the Lindisfarne Gospels can be viewed in its entirety on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

14 October 2013

Anglo-Saxon Medicine

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Do you suffer from asthma, warts or hiccups? Are you fed up with modern medical remedies? If so, we are pleased to tell you that How to Cure the Plague and Other Curious Remedies, by Julian Walker, has just been published by the British Library.

Here the author describes for us the state of Anglo-Saxon medicine ...


Bald's Leechbook (London, British Library, MS Royal 12 D XVII, ff. 20v-21r).

Medicine in Anglo-Saxon England was a complex mix of charms, the remnants of classical theories and practice, pragmatic folklore, and faith-healing; despite a longstanding reputation for worthlessness, it was perhaps more based on observation than the reliance on astrology and the theory of humours that marked the medicine of the later medieval period. Sometimes the presence of an odd superstition colours the whole, for example in a fairly accurate account of foetal development, which ends by suggesting that a foetus unborn after the 10th month could be fatal to the mother, but mostly on a Monday night. But there are frequent records of practices which are eminently sensible and probably effective.

The oldest surviving medical documents in Old English are from the 9th century, but there is evidence that older texts were not all in Latin. Bald’s Leechbook, Leechbook III and Lacnunga are the most complete texts, all of them in the British Library. Bald’s Leechbook contains some of the best Mediterranean medicine from the 3rd to the 9th centuries, so the learning was by no means isolated. While some of the herbs mentioned in the texts were only available around the Mediterranean, there are directions for the use of materia medica traded from distant areas, frankincense, pepper, silk, ginger and myrrh.

500 years after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west, medical practice relied less on the theories of Galen and Hippocrates, but there remained the process of diagnosis by urine-examination and the therapy of balancing the humours by bleeding. Bloodletting was widely used, sometimes causing infection itself, which was treated by herbal poultices; if the bleeding got out of control it could be stopped with horse-dung. A practical side to the control of infection is seen in the injunction not to let blood in summer, when infection would be most likely. There are warnings against taking too much blood, for example ‘if you let too much blood then there is no hope for his life’; presumably this happened on occasion. 


Anglo-Saxon medical recipes corresponding to Book 2, chapter 59 of Bald's Leechbook (London, British Library, MS Harley 55, f. 1r).

There is little documentation of surgery, compared to other forms of healing, though the archaeological record indicates some successful trepanation, and later there are some gruesome images of how to treat haemorrhoids. The use of splints for broken limbs is mentioned only twice, texts offering salves and poultices as treatment for fractures. Wounds are to be sewn up with silk, which would gradually dissolve – there is even a description of surgery to correct a harelip. Poultices that had antiseptic effects were applied over sutured wounds, with herbs such as lesser centaury used to help healing.

The use of herbs, individually or together, was of great importance in medicine at this time; though there are difficulties in finding exactly corresponding names in the modern flora, many common native plants found some use in medicine. Imported plant matter was often added, so that a recipe in the Lacnunga for a wen salve includes pepper and ginger as well as radish, chervil, fennel, garlic and sage, in a list of 16 plants. Tested through the centuries, herbal remedies connect the past to the present – Bald’s Leechbook contains a recipe for a nettle-based ointment for muscular pain, similar ointments being commercially available now. Leechbook III contains a large number of remedies using only native ingredients; their names are not Anglicised Latin names, implying that this reflects a largely home-grown practice.

Materials other than herbs were also in use. One recipe, quoted in How to Cure the Plague, recommends eating buck’s liver for night vision loss, and indeed the Vitamin A in liver would help this condition. Unlike in Mediterranean medical practice, the use of animal faeces is recommended only rarely, but spittle, snails, urine, worms, weevils and ants are called for, as well as the less startling pigeon’s blood, lard and ale. On occasions the improbable and the feasible were combined, one recipe for a burn including silver filings, bear’s grease, thyme, rose petals and verbena.


Detail of Bald's Leechbook (London, British Library, MS Royal 12 D XVII, f. 20v).

Though learning was largely connected to the church, not all physicians were clerics. Prayers and charms were both used, but possibly the charms were less likely to be adminstered by priests. No doubt many charms worked through assurance and faith. One area that has interested me for a long time is the process of healing by touch at a remove. Bede, writing in the 8th century, tells the story of the death in battle of the Christian king Oswald, whose body was mutilated and set on a stake; people took soil from the place, put it in water, and used this to relieve the sick. While raising questions about the nature of touch and its continuing relevance (the desire to touch celebrities, the fascination of the possessions of the famous), this also provides an exact mirror to germ theory, and a model for both contagion and healing.

In our world of healthcare systems in crisis and general reliance on prescription or non-prescription medicines and a variety of alternative therapies, we are not so far from the charms and prayers, the herbal folklore and amulets of the Anglo-Saxons. Their frequent use of the number nine in healing rituals (charms or prayers are directed to be repeated nine times) may have been a way of marking the period of time for a salve to take effect or a mixture to boil, or may have been a ritual. A shadow of the ritualistic element perhaps survives in directions for antibiotics to be taken ‘three times a day for seven days’.

How to Cure the Plague and Other Curious Remedies is available from the British Library Shop, priced £10 (ISBN 9780712357012).

Julian Walker

23 September 2013

Internship in the Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section

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The British Library is pleased to be able to offer an internship in the Medieval and Earlier section of the History and Classics Department for a doctoral or post-doctoral student in the History of Art or another relevant subject.


The intern will be involved in all aspects of the work of the Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts section, including responding to enquiries, providing talks for students and patrons, selecting and presenting manuscripts for display in our exhibition gallery, and cataloguing, thereby gaining insight into various curatorial duties and aspects of collection care.  During the internship at the Library, the intern will enjoy privileged access to printed and manuscript research material, and will work alongside specialists with wide-ranging and varied expertise. 

The primary focus of the internship will be to enhance our online Digitised Manuscripts and Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts websites by creating and supplementing catalogue entries for medieval manuscripts and accompanying images, working under the supervision of the Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts.  The internship is designed to provide an opportunity for the student to develop research skills and expertise in medieval and Renaissance art and history, and in presenting manuscripts to a range of audiences. 


The programme is only open to students who are engaged actively in research towards, or have recently completed a PhD in a subject area relevant to the study of pre-1600 illuminated manuscripts who have a right to work in the UK. 


The term of internship is either full time for six months, or part time for twelve months.  Applicants are asked to specify which term they would prefer in the application.  The salary is £8.55 per hour (Full time is 36 hours per week).  The internship will start in November 2013 after relevant security clearances are obtained.

How to apply

Please send an application letter detailing your area of research, the date you would like to start and whether you would like to work full or part time, a CV, and two letters of reference to Dr Kathleen Doyle, Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts, The British Library, by email to kathleen [dot] doyle [at] bl [dot] uk, or by post to 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB, by 20 October 2013.  Interviews will be held in late October, and may include questions about the date, origin, and decoration of a particular manuscript to be shown at the interview.  The internship will start as soon as relevant security checks have been completed.

06 September 2013

Seamus Heaney: An Appreciation

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It is a week since Famous Seamus sadly passed away. Seamus Heaney, Nobel Laureate for Literature, came to the British Library as part of our Beowulf week in October 2009. In front of an enthralled audience, he read extracts from his award-winning translation of Beowulf. Heaney then listened in turn as Michael Morpurgo and Benjamin Bagby performed their respective versions of the poem, before all three discussed Beowulf under the expert chairmanship of Michael Wood.

Beouwlf panel b_w

The Beowulf event at the British Library in 2009, featuring (from left to right) Michael Wood, Michael Morpurgo, Benjamin Bagby and Seamus Heaney

As a curator at the British Library, it's always rewarding to find ways of making our medieval manuscripts come to life, and to demonstrate how they remain relevant to modern and future generations. Seamus Heaney's participation in our week of Beowulf events was a notable highlight -- how to take an epic written in a long-dead language, and to re-invent and re-interpret it for modern listeners.

Heaney's version of Beowulf had won the Whitbread Prize for Book of the Year in 1999. Around that time, the British Library acquired from him nine typewritten drafts, with handwritten annotations, of the first page of his version of Beowulf (Additional MS 78917). When visiting us in 2009, Seamus Heaney expressed his delight to see examples of his draft displayed alongside the original manuscript of Beowulf, together with paintings loaned by Michael Foreman, the illustrator of Michael Morpurgo's re-telling of the story for children.


A draft of Seamus Heaney's award-winning version of Beowulf (London, British Library, MS Additional 78917).

Before appearing onstage at the British Library, Seamus Heaney had attended the previous evening's performance by Benjamin Bagby, who sings the story of Beowulf and Grendel in the original Old English, to the accompaniment of the harp. I gave Heaney a copy of our Treasures in Focus introduction to Beowulf, and he very kindly signed my own copy of his Beowulf translation. I thanked him for so kindly agreeing to perform in our event; but no, the pleasure was his, he replied, it had been a privilege to see Bagby sing Beowulf, the poem which Seamus Heaney had in turn transformed into a modern masterpiece. It was one of those truly special moments, to witness the coming together of two great poets, wordsmiths who lived a thousand years apart but were united by their love of the poetic form.

The Old English poem Beowulf ends with the burial of the eponymous hero. We can do Seamus Heaney no better compliment than to repeat here the same lines in his own words, with the gracious permission of Faber and Faber, his publishers.

"Then twelve warriors rode around the tomb,

chieftain's sons, champions in battle,

all of them distraught, chanting in dirges,

mourning his loss as a man and a king.

They extolled his heroic nature and exploits

and gave thanks for his greatness; which was the proper thing,

for a man should praise a prince whom he holds dear

and cherish his memory when that moment comes

when he has to be convoyed from his bodily home."


Julian Harrison, Curator of Pre-1600 Historical Manuscripts

27 August 2013

Anglo-Saxon Invasion

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The British Library has one of the most comprehensive collections of manuscripts in Old English, many of which have already been catalogued online with images at the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.  We have recently added catalogue entries and images for the Old English manuscripts in the Additional collection.  There are relatively few of these, but some of these manuscripts contain unique or very important texts.

They are:

Add MS 47967:  The Old English Orosius

Zoomorphic initial (A)'E'(ft) with four heads and interlaced bodies at the beginning of Book III, Chapter i, from the Old English Orosius, England (Winchester), c. 892-925, Add MS 47967, f. 31v


Add MS 37517 The 'Bosworth Psalter'

Opening page of Psalm 101 with a large decorated initial, display capitals, and interlinear gloss in Old English, from the Bosworth Psalter, England (Canterbury?), 4th quarter of the 10th century, Add MS 37517, f. 64v

Add MS 40000:  The 'Thorney Gospels'

Large decorated initial 'Q'(uoniam) at the beginning of Luke's Gospel, with faint interlinear glosses, France (Brittany?), 1st quarter of the 10th century, Add MS 40000, f. 48r

The glosses in the Thorney Gospels, which are extremely faint, can be seen more clearly online by zooming in on the images, than they can in the manuscript itself.  They are above lines 3, 5, 6, 9, 11, 17, 18 and 24; if you are having trouble reading them, you can find details in N R Ker, Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957), no. 131.

Inscription in Old English from the 2nd half of the 11th century referring to the former binding of the manuscript: '+Aelfric 7 wulfwine. Eadgife goldsmides geafen to broperraedenne twegen orn weghenes goldes daet is on pis ilce boc her foruten gewired' (Aelfric and Wulfwine, goldsmiths of Eadgifu, gave for the confraternity two oras of weighed gold which is wired without upon this same book), Add MS 40000, f. 4r

Add MS 23211Fragments of Saxon royal genealogies and a Martyrology in Old English

Fragment with decorated initial from the first page of a martyrology, England (south-west), 4th quarter of the 9th century, Add MS 23211, f. 2r


Add MS 34652:  a leaf from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: the preface with a West-Saxon genealogy from Cerdic (494) to Alfred (899) (f. 2) and a leaf from the bilingual Rule of Chrodegang (chapters 60-62, incomplete) (f. 3)

Text page of Chrodegang's rule with initials and rubric, England (Winchester), 2nd half of the 11th century, Add MS 34652, f. 3v

Add MS 61735Farming memoranda of Ely Abbey (also available on Digitised Manuscripts here, and please check out our recent blog post on the memoranda)

Recto of the 3 strips of parchment containing an inventory and valuation of livestock supplied by Ely to Thorney Abbey and a note of rents (payable in eels!), England (Ely), c. 1007-1025, Add MS 61735


Add MS 40165AMartyrology fragment (ff. 6-7) (also available on Digitised Manuscripts here)

Martyrology fragment written in insular miniscule, England (south-west?), 4th quarter of the 9th century, Add MS 40165A, f. 6v


Add MS 9381Bodmin Gospels (St Petroc Gospels), with records of grants of manumission in Old England and Latin added on blank leaves and in margins

Canon tables with Bodmin manumissions, France (Brittany), last quarter of the 9th century or 1st quarter of the 10th century, Add MS 9381, f. 13r


Add MS 32246Part of Priscian's Excerptiones with Old English and Latin marginal glosses and Aelfric's Colloquy

Add MS 32246 f. 21v K90112-39
Excerptiones with a Latin-Old English glossary, England, 1st half of the 11th century, Add MS 32246, f. 21v

 - Chantry Westwell

21 August 2013

King Athelstan's Books

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Are you tired of the Anglo-Saxons yet? No, we're not either! Those of you who have been engrossed by Michael Wood's recent series, King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons, may have seen the beautiful Athelstan Psalter in last night's programme. We featured this manuscript in a previous blogpost; but it's worth looking at again, and you may like to know that the entire Psalter is available to view on our Digitised Manuscripts site.


The Athelstan Psalter (London, British Library, MS Cotton Galba A XVIII, f. 21r).

The Athelstan Psalter is a curious little book, just large enough to fit into an adult male's hand. The script of the original portion indicates that the manuscript was made in North-East France, in the 9th century; but by the middle of the 10th century the Psalter was in England, where it received a number of accretions, including a metrical calendar and some computistical texts.

The association of this manuscript with King Athelstan, the first king of England (reigned 924–939), is unproved. A note by a later owner, Thomas Dakcombe (d. c. 1572), describes the book as "Psaltirum Regis Ethelstani"; and this is echoed in the list of contents made for Sir Robert Cotton (d. 1631). As Professor Simon Keynes has commented, "the claim of the so-called Athelstan Psalter once to have belonged to the king is based on the slenderest of evidence". Michael Wood himself spoke on the Athelstan Psalter at the British Library's Royal manuscripts conference in 2011, the proceedings of which are shortly to be published by the British Library.

It's amazing how such a little book has survived the ravages of time (it escaped destruction by fire in 1731) to become a modern star in the age of television! Episode 3 of Michael Wood's King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons, entitled Aethelstan: The First King of England, can be viewed on the BBC iPlayer.

Further reading

Simon Keynes, ‘King Athelstan’s books’, in Michael Lapidge & Helmut Gneuss (eds.), Learning and Literature in Anglo-Saxon England: Studies presented to Peter Clemoes on the occasion of his sixty-fifth birthday (Cambridge, 1985), pp. 143–201, at pp. 193–96

Robert Deshman, ‘The Galba Psalter: pictures, texts and context in an early medieval prayerbook’, Anglo-Saxon England, 26 (1997), 109–38

20 August 2013

St John the Evangelist in the Lindisfarne Gospels

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St John the Evangelist in the Lindisfarne Gospels (London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero D IV, f. 209v).

Now on show in Durham, until 30 September 2013, is this miniature of St John the Evangelist in the Lindisfarne Gospels. The page in question prefaces the Gospel of John in this famous, Anglo-Saxon gospelbook. John is depicted sitting on a blue cushion, with a scroll held in his left hand, and with his evangelist symbol (an eagle, imago aequilae) above his head. The pigments are as rich as the day they were painted, a combination of oranges, reds, blues and greens.

The Lindisfarne Gospels is the centrepiece of the Durham exhibition, staged in Palace Green Library, a stone's throw (literally) from the impressive Romanesque cathedral. Also are show are other British Library manuscripts, most notably the St Cuthbert Gospel (which we bought for the nation in 2012 for £9 million), plus treasures from the British Museum, Corpus Christi College Cambridge and other institutions, and items from the Staffordshire Hoard. Catch the exhibition while you can, it's a treat!

You can read more about the exhibition here. And you can see the Lindisfarne Gospels in its entirety on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

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