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159 posts categorized "Anglo-Saxon"

21 April 2017

Digitised Manuscripts hyperlinks Spring 2017

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From ancient papyri to a manuscript given by the future Queen Elizabeth I to King Henry VIII for New Year's Day, from books written entirely in gold to Leonardo da Vinci's notebook, there is a wealth of material on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site. At the time of writing, you can view on Digitised Manuscripts no fewer than 1,783 manuscripts made in Europe before 1600, and more are being added all the time. For a full list of what is currently available, please see this file: Download PDF of Digitised MSS Spring 2017. This is also available in the form of a spreadsheet (although this format can not be downloaded on all web browsers): Download Spreadsheet of Digitised MSS Spring 2017 .

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Image of St Æthelwold, King Edgar and St Dunstan, at the beginning of a copy of the Regularis Concordia, England (Canterbury?), mid-11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius A III, f. 2v

If you are looking for something more specific, there are separate lists of Greek manuscripts, pre-1200 manuscripts digitised thanks to funding from the Polonsky Foundation and manuscripts written or owned in England before 1066.

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Image of the patron, Lord Lovell, and possibly the artist, John Siferwas, from the Lovell Lectionary, Southern England (Glastonbury?), c. 1400–1410, Harley MS 7026/1, f. 4v

If you'd like to know how to make the most of Digitised Manuscripts, we highly recommend this blogpost. Downloadable images of portions of our manuscripts can also be found on our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts (which allows for searches by image content, origin, scribe, etc) and on the British Library's Collection Items pages, which includes the only known playscript to contain William Shakespeare's handwriting and the burnt copy of Magna Carta

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The Anastasis, from the Melisende Psalter, Eastern Mediterranean (Jerusalem), c. 1131–1140, Egerton MS 1139, f. 9v  

Please follow us on Twitter, @BLMedieval, to get the latest news about our digitisation projects, exhibitions and events. 

05 April 2017

An illustrated Old English Herbal

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Plant-based remedies were a major feature of Anglo-Saxon medicine. Thanks to our current digitisation project with the BibliothĂšque nationale de France, funded by The Polonsky Foundation, one of the British Library’s earliest illustrated collections of such remedies has just been digitised.

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Entries for chamomile and ‘hart clover’, from an illustrated Old English Herbal, England (? Christ Church Canterbury or Winchester), c. 1000–1025, Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 29v

This manuscript (Cotton MS Vitellius C III) is the only surviving illustrated Old English herbal, or book describing plants and their uses. (There are other, non-illustrated manuscripts of the same text, for example in Harley MS 585.) The text is an Old English translation of a text which used to be attributed to a 4th-century writer known as Pseudo-Apuleius, now recognised as  several different Late Antique authors whose texts were subsequently combined. The manuscript also includes Old English translations of Late Antique texts on the medicinal properties of badgers (framed as a fictional letter between Octavian and a king of Egypt) and another on medicines derived from parts of four-legged animals. Together, the herbal and the text on four-legged animals are now known as part of the so-called 'Pseudo-Apuleius Complex' of texts.

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A man and a centaur presenting a book to a figure in a blue veil or hood, captioned 'Escolapius Plato Centaurus', from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 19r

Each entry features an illustration of a plant or animal; its name in various languages; descriptions of ailments it can be used to treat; and instructions for finding and preparing it. Remedies for poisonous bites were marked out with drawings of snakes and scorpions. For instance, a snake appears near the entry for sweet basil, called ‘snake plant’ (naedderwyrt), because it was reported to grow where snakes were found and to be useful against injuries caused by snakes. 

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‘Snakeplant’, from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 57r

Although it might seem like a practical guide to finding plants and preparing remedies, this manuscript's uses are debated. First, the illustrations are not always very useful for identifying plants and animals in the wild: take, for example, these depictions of strawberries and elephants.

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‘Streawberian’, from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 33v

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A monkey and elephant, from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 82r

Secondly, the texts include plants and animals from Mediterranean regions and beyond which are not known to be native to the British Isles, such as cumin and licorice. Scholars debate whether the Anglo-Saxons knew these plants through trade or whether the early medieval climate could have permitted such plants to grow in England. Alternatively, the scribes and artists could simply have copied them from their Mediterranean source. The text sometimes explicitly acknowledges that plants are best found in distant regions. For example, ‘dragonswort
 is said that it should be grown in dragon’s blood. It grows at the tops of mountains where there are groves of trees, chiefly in holy places and in the country that is called Apulia’ (translated by Anne Van Arsdall, in Medieval Herbal Remedies: The Old English Herbarium and Anglo-Saxon Medicine (New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 154). The Herbal also includes mythical lore about some plants, such as the mandrake, said to shine at night and to flee from impure persons. To pick it, the text claimed you needed an iron tool (to dig around it), an ivory staff (to dig the plant itself up), a dog (to help you pull it out), and quick reflexes.

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A mandrake, from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 57v

However, while this manuscript’s exact uses are debatable, it continued to be used into the 16th century: later users added numbers to the table of contents, some recipes and variants of plants' names in Latin, Anglo-Norman French, and English. Eventually, a later copy of Peter of Poitiers’ Chronicle and a 9th-century copy of Macrobius’s Saturnalia were bound with the herbal. The volume may once have belonged to William Harvey (b. 1578, d. 1657), who discovered the circulation of blood. Some of his own recipes — featuring ‘licoris’, ‘cinemon’ and opium — are found at the end of the volume.

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Recipe for ‘A Diet Drinke’ in the hand of William Harvey, 1624, Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 140v

__________

Le printemps s'annonce et en Angleterre les jardins commencent Ă  renaĂźtre. La British Library vient de numĂ©riser un manuscrit rempli d’images de plantes (et d’animaux). Ce manuscrit (Cotton MS Vitellius C III) contient des textes mĂ©dicaux attribuĂ©s Ă  Pseudo-ApulĂ©e: un herbier, qui prĂ©cise les usages mĂ©dicaux des plantes, et aussi un texte qui concĂšrne les usages mĂ©dicaux des animaux. Tous ces textes sont traduits en vieil anglais.

Ce manuscrit est le seul exemple d’un herbier anglo-saxon illustrĂ©. Les images dĂ©peignent les plantes et les animaux dĂ©crits dans le texte.  Cependant, les images des fraises et de l’élĂ©phant rĂ©vĂšlent un certain manque de vraisemblance de la part de l’artiste.

MalgrĂ© cela, plusieurs lecteurs ont utilisĂ© ce manuscrit: il y a des additions dans des mains datant de l'onziĂšme jusqu’au seiziĂšme siĂšcle. Il est possible que William Harvey, le mĂ©decin qui a dĂ©couvert les lois de la circulation du sang, l’ait possĂ©dĂ© : des recettes mĂ©dicales, dans sa propre main, se trouvent maintenant Ă  la fin du manuscrit. Aujourd’hui, ce volume contient aussi une copie du Compendium historiae de Pierre de Poitiers.

 

Alison Hudson

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24 March 2017

Digitising our manuscripts from Anglo-Saxon England

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Strong is he who tastes the power of books;
he who has possession of them is always the wiser.

Bald biĂ° se Ă°e onbyregeĂ° boca crĂŠftes;
symle biĂ° Ă°e wisra Ă°e hira geweald hafaĂ°.

— Solomon and Saturn II, lines 238–246 (translated in J. Neville, Representations of the Natural World in Old English Poetry (Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 198).

The British Library holds the world’s largest collections of books made or owned in England between the end of Roman Britain and the Norman Conquest of 1066. These books trace the development of writing, society, economy, government and religion from the 7th to the 11th centuries. We are delighted to announce that 175 of these manuscripts can now be viewed in full online on our Digitised Manuscripts website. We’ve produced a complete list of the Anglo-Saxon manuscripts available as of March 2017. The list is available here as a spreadsheet (although this format does work with all web browsers): Download Copy of All Anglo-Saxon Digitisations March 2017

Many of these manuscripts have been digitised in the last year in memory of Melvin R. Seiden. Others have been digitised thanks to the generosity of a variety of other funders.

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Detail of canon tables, from the Royal Bible: England (Canterbury?), early 9th century, Royal MS 1 E VI, f. 4r

The manuscripts available on Digitised Manuscripts certainly corroborate the Old English poet’s claim that ‘books are glorious’. They range from mesmerising illuminated Insular Gospel-books to four of the manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to fragments of scribbled farming memoranda. The list includes not only books that were made in England, but works whose annotations show they were owned in England before 1066. For example, the oldest book known to have been owned in England in this period was made in Africa

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End of Gospel excerpts and beginning of a prayer of Gregory the Great, with an illuminated initial, from the Book of Nunnaminster: Mercia, late 8th or early 9th century, Harley MS 2965, f. 16v

Don’t panic if your favourite manuscript is not yet on the list. More are being digitised all the time, including under The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the BibliothĂšque nationale de France, 700-1200.

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Depiction of Mambres with a book: from a miscellany, England, mid-11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1,  f. 87v

You can stay in touch with our progress by reading this blog or by checking our regular Twitter updates.

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

16 March 2017

Our First 100 Polonsky Pre-1200 Manuscripts Are Now Online

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The first 100 manuscripts are up! The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the BibliothĂšque nationale de France, 700–1200 is celebrating its first digitisation milestone. 100 manuscripts from the British Library have now been added to our Digitised Manuscripts site for you to explore!  A full list of the 100 digitised manuscripts with links to the viewer can be found here:  100 MSS Online.

These manuscripts cover a wide variety of topics and images from the Project’s focus of AD 700–1200 (you can read more about the Project or listen to the French interview of Matthieu Bonicel, Head of Innovation at the BnF). Some of the highlights include lavishly illuminated Gospels, like the PrĂ©aux Gospels from early 12th-century Normandy, with its amazing miniatures of the Evangelists and luxurious canon tables.

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Canon table with Evangelist surrounded by dragons and overgrown vines. The Préaux Gospels, Add MS 11850 f. 10v

A Rule of St Benedict datable to 1129 from the Benedictine abbey of St Gilles, in the diocese of NĂźmes, opens with a gilded image of four tonsured men. The marginal letters in gold leave no doubt that this is St Benedict presenting a book (undoubtedly the Rule) to his disciple St Maurus. According to the account in the Life of St Maurus, St Maurus was responsible for establishing the Benedictine order in Francia (modern-day France).

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The opening folio of the Rule of St Benedict, Add MS 16979, f. 21v

The manuscripts now fully digitised also include plenty of material that requires a certain level of specialist knowledge to interpret. For example, a table similar to a graph sheet from a turn of the 12th century manuscript from Canterbury provides information for calculating the correct date of Easter and other movable feasts, in addition to scientific observations related to calendars, meteorology, astronomy and the keeping of time. Added material shows that the tables were still in use in the 15th century!

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Table for calculating the date of Easter, from Egerton MS 3314, f. 31v

Another fascinating manuscript is a 9th-century text on the liberal arts: grammar, rhetoric, music and astronomy from Lotharingia (covering modern day Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, some eastern areas of France and western areas of Germany). How many students has this Lady Rhetoric seen with her wide eyes; how many readers have been intimidated (or amused) by her unimpressed expression?

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A diagram of rhetorical argument, Harley MS 2637, f. 12r

We hope you enjoy exploring these exciting manuscripts. Happy discoveries!

Tuija Ainonen

Partez  Ă  la dĂ©couverte de 100 manuscrits antĂ©rieurs Ă  1200 grĂące au projet The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the BibliothĂšque nationale de France, 700-1200.

Nous sommes ravis de vous annoncer l’achĂšvement de cette premiĂšre Ă©tape, qui consiste en la publication des 100 premiers manuscrits entiĂšrement numĂ©risĂ©s, sĂ©lectionnĂ©s par la British Library. Ceux-ci seront disponibles en ligne, sur notre site internet Digitised Manuscripts. Une liste complĂšte de ces volumes pourvue d’un lien vers l’interface est fournie ici: 100 MSS Online.

Venez dĂ©couvrir l’extraordinaire richesse de ces manuscrits, couvrant une pĂ©riode de 5 siĂšcles (entre 700 et 1200). Ces derniers prĂ©sentent une importante variĂ©tĂ© d’Ɠuvres et d’enluminures. Voyagez dans diverses rĂ©gions et Ă©poques au travers de ces manuscrits. Vous apprĂ©cierez ainsi l’EvangĂ©liaire des PrĂ©aux (XIIe siĂšcle), somptueusement dĂ©corĂ©, ou la rĂšgle de saint BenoĂźt, provenant de l’abbaye de Saint-Gilles, prĂšs de NĂźmes (1129), et sa reprĂ©sentation magistrale de saint BenoĂźt et son disciple saint Maur. Les collections ayant trait  aux arts libĂ©raux ainsi que les manuels pĂ©dagogiques fournissent Ă©galement de prĂ©cieux tĂ©moins de l’enseignement et du renouveau de ces disciplines. Un  manuscrit du IXe siĂšcle originaire de Lotharingie est ainsi reprĂ©sentatif de l’instruction Ă  l’époque carolingienne. Nous espĂ©rons que vous apprĂ©cierez cette sĂ©lection et qu’elle vous mĂšnera Ă  de nombreuses dĂ©couvertes. Bonne visite !

Laure Miolo (French summary)

                                                                                                                                Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

 

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14 March 2017

Insular Manuscripts AD 650-850: Networks of Knowledge

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The Medieval Manuscripts Section at the British Library is a partner in a new project, ‘Insular Manuscripts AD 650-850: Networks of Knowledge’, funded by the Leverhulme Trust. The project will establish an international research network to advance understanding of knowledge exchange and cultural networks in early medieval Europe through analysis of the surviving Insular manuscripts made in Ireland and Anglo-Saxon England, and in continental monasteries founded by English or Irish missionaries. There are about 500 of these manuscripts, 75% of which are held in libraries in continental Europe.

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Page from the Royal Prayerbook: Southern England (Mercia), late 8th or early 9th century, Royal MS 2 A XX, f. 17r

The research network will bring together academics, curators and digital specialists at a time when increasing numbers of these manuscripts are being digitised in full and made available online. The project will run three workshops which will contribute to the development of an open-access, online research resource and other published outputs. The first workshop, ‘Methods of making: palaeographical problems, codicological challenges’, will be held at the British Library on 24–25 April 2017. In 2018, a workshop will be held in Galway and Dublin on ‘Networks of knowledge then and now: digital potential’, and in 2019 the final workshop in Vienna will be on ‘Knowledge exchange: people, places, texts’.

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Detail of a decree of the Council of Clofesho on the abolition of the archbishopric of Lichfield: Southern England (?Canterbury or London), c. 803, Cotton MS Augustus II 61 

The project is being led by Professor Joanna Story of the University of Leicester, and is a collaboration with the British Library, the BibliothĂšque nationale de France, Trinity College Dublin, the National University of Ireland, Galway, and the Institut fĂŒr Mittelalterforschung, Österreichishche Akademie der Wissenschaften, Vienna. To follow the progress of the project, see the website

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A late example of insular half uncial in a list of kings, including Charlemagne (Karlus) and his treasurer, MĂŠgenfrith. From the Durham Liber Vitae: Northumbria, 1st half of 9th century, Cotton MS Domitian A VII, f. 15v

 

Claire Breay, Head of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts, and Co-Investigator in the Networks of Knowledge Project

Leverhulme

09 March 2017

England and France 700-1200: Franco-Saxon Manuscripts in the Ninth Century

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The British Library and the University of Leicester invite applications for an AHRC-funded PhD studentship on ‘Franco-Saxon manuscripts in the ninth century’. The project is offered under the AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnership programme, and will be co-supervised by Joanna Story, Professor of Early Medieval History at Leicester, and by Dr Kathleen Doyle, Lead Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts at the British Library. This full-time studentship, which is funded for three years at standard AHRC rates, will begin on 1 October 2017, and will be based at the British Library in London.

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A decorated initial in a Franco-Saxon gospelbook, Tours, 2nd half of the 9th century (British Library Add MS 11849, f. 27r)

The studentship

The successful candidate will undertake a PhD thesis on Franco-Saxon Manuscripts in the Ninth Century that centres on analysis of illuminated manuscripts produced in northern Francia. Manuscripts held at the British Library will be central to this project.

In the later 9th century monasteries in the Pas de Calais, at Saint-Amand, Saint-Bertin (Saint-Omer), Corbie and Saint-Riquier, produced manuscripts that are characterised by the use of a highly distinctive style of ‘Franco-Saxon’ illumination. These monasteries were places of great power, wealth and patronage in the 9th century, and were ruled by abbots who had close links to the Carolingian court. Proximity to the Channel coast, and to the trading emporium of Quentovic (Étaples) — which lay not more than a day’s ride from both Saint-Riquier and Saint-Bertin — meant that there were also longstanding political, cultural, economic and religious connections with Anglo-Saxon England. These links to places and people of power are made manifest in the deluxe manuscripts that were produced in these monasteries in the later 9th century, which combined the measured aesthetic of Carolingian epigraphic display scripts with an idiomatic use of Insular decoration.

The project offers the opportunity both for detailed historical research and direct engagement with early medieval manuscripts that may also reveal connections between England and France through their texts, decoration, script and methods of manufacture. The project will focus on books in the British Library, and on those codices that exemplify the Franco-Saxon style housed in London and elsewhere. The successful student will work with the supervisors to develop the project in ways that complement and extend the student’s existing skills-set and interests.

This AHRC collaborative studentship arises from a new international digitisation initiative, funded by The Polonsky Foundation, to digitise 800 illuminated manuscripts relating to ‘England and France, 700–1200’ that are held at the British Library and the Bibliothùque nationale de France (BnF) in Paris. That digitisation project creates unique opportunities for the successful candidate to this studentship competition, via training and outreach opportunities (e.g. writing catalogue entries, manuscript descriptions, blog-posts), and by examining aspects of the art history, codicology, palaeography and historical context of production and patronage of relevant manuscripts held at the British Library, and potentially also in Paris.

We are seeking to recruit a highly promising student who will relish the opportunity of combining academic research with the experience of working as part of a professional team of curators and researchers. This studentship is likely to appeal to individuals with a background in early medieval history, book history, literature and language, classics, or in applying interdisciplinary methods for understanding early medieval material culture. Prior experience of research using early medieval manuscripts will be an advantage, and the successful applicant will be able to demonstrate skills commensurate with career stage in relevant medieval and modern languages and palaeography. A commitment to communicating the results of research to a wider public audience is a key asset in the context of the British Library’s digitisation and exhibition programmes.

Subject to AHRC eligibility criteria, the scholarship covers tuition fees and a grant (stipend) towards living expenses. The national minimum doctoral stipend for 2017/18 has been set by Research Councils UK at £14,553. In addition the student has access to up to £1,000 per annum from the British Library for research-related costs, and to Student Development Funding (equivalent to an additional 6 months of funding per studentship) to allow time for the student to take up further training and skills development opportunities that are agreed as part of the PhD programme. The student also will benefit from staff-level access to the British Library’s collections, expertise and facilities, as well as from the dedicated programme of professional development events delivered by the British Library in tandem with the other museums, galleries and heritage organisations affiliated with the Collaborative Doctoral Partnership scheme.

How to apply

Further information about this collaborative research project (including academic and eligibility criteria), and full details on how to apply can be found in the further particulars, here: http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/history/postgraduate/collaborative-doctoral-award-opportunities.

Informal Enquiries

Informal enquiries about this collaborative project can be sent to Professor Joanna Story: js73@le.ac.uk 

 

Closing Date:              Monday 10 April 2017, 12:00 (midday, London time)

Interview Date:          5 May 2017, at The British Library, London

23 February 2017

Old English 'Spell' Books

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In the list of books bequeathed by Bishop Leofric of Exeter (d. 1072) to his cathedral, one entry might, at first glance, take a modern reader by surprise: a ‘ful spelboc’, or a full spell book.  This is not, however, evidence that the learned bishop was dabbling in magic. In Old English, spell just meant ‘saying’ or ‘speech’.

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Different sorts of ‘spells’: miniature of Cuthbert preaching from a copy of Bede's Prose Life of Cuthbert. England (Durham), c. 1175–1200, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 22v

The term ‘spell’ had a range of meanings in Old English. As a noun, it could mean story, discourse or message. For example, it was applied to the tale told about Beowulf, a story (spel) crafted skilfully by a ‘boast-laden man, mindful of songs’. Old English writers also used spell to refer to learned discourses or works of history. Spell could also mean news or message, as in the English translation of the Greek Î”áœÎ±ÎłÎłÎ­Î»ÎčÎżÎœ (euangelion): ‘gospel’, or ‘good spell’. As a verb, it meant ‘to talk’ or ‘to converse’. (Ironically, the modern English verb ‘to spell’ actually comes from the French Ă©peler, although that also has a proto-Germanic root.) 'Spells' only seem to have become associated with magic much later: according to the Oxford English Dictionary, one of the first recorded use of ‘spell’ to mean magical incantation was in 1579, in Edmund Spenser’s Shepheardes Calendar. In Old English, terms like galdor or seiĂ°r seem to have been used for incantations and charms, in some contexts. In the case of Leofric’s spell book, then, ‘spell’ probably referred to speeches or sermons in Old English, intended to instruct listeners about Biblical and church history and to inspire them to think about their own lives.

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The word ‘spel’ from Beowulf, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 152r

Although some items on Leofric’s list have been identified with manuscripts which survive to this day (including a collectar and a book of riddles and poetry), scholars have yet to agree on whether any surviving books of Old English sermons are Leofric’s ‘ful spelboc’. The British Library does, however, possess a few sermons which were copied at Leofric’s Exeter, in the opening folios of Cotton MS Cleopatra B XIII. These include sermons for different times of year, like the second Sunday after Easter, sermons for special occasions, like the dedication of a church, and other sermons that could have been used at any time. It ends with a promise a king was supposed to make at his consecration, to uphold justice and protect his people. These folios are now followed by a life of St Dunstan and a later history.

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Sermon on the beginning of creation, Cotton MS Cleopatra B XIII, f. 13r

In addition to the sermons in Cotton Cleopatra B XIII, the British Library has many other Old English ‘spellbooks’, including some of the earliest known copies of Ælfric’s sermons and books of Old English sermons produced several decades after the Norman Conquest, showing the continuing use of Old English (such as Cotton MS Faustina A IX).

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‘Understand that the Devil has led this nation astray for many years, and that little loyalty has remained among men!’
Copy of the Sermon of the Wolf to the English with Wulfstan’s own annotations, Cotton MS Nero A I, f. 110r

Reading these Old English sermons, one can see how they fit the many meanings of ‘spell’, in Old and Modern English. They often include retellings of exciting stories: contrary to the modern stereotype about sermons being boring, these Old English sermons feature cases of mistaken identity, cross-dressing monks, miraculous animals, and more. These sermons were also supposed to act like modern magical spells, in the sense that they were intended to change the speakers’ world by persuading listeners to alter or stop their behaviours: see the bombastic ‘Sermon of the Wolf to the English’, written by Archbishop Wulfstan of Worcester-York during the Second Viking Age. These speakers and their spells knew the power of words, even without any magical force behind them.

So if you use words in any form today, remember: you are casting spells, in the oldest sense of the word. Use them well!

 

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

21 February 2017

Medieval Shelfies

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Our colleagues in the British Library's publishing team (otherwise known as @bl_publishing) recently spent a day managing the Library's Twitter account. Throughout the day, they encouraged followers to send in their shelfies, i.e. selfies of their bookcases. Sharing shelfies has recently become a popular social media trend among bibliophiles and literature enthusiasts. However, the appreciation of the aesthetic value of books and bookcases is not just a modern day phenomenon. Medieval manuscripts contain many images which depict books being stored in various styles of bookcases and shelves. Certain physical features of manuscripts themselves can also suggest how books were stored to be both visually attractive and accessible for the reader. 

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Miniature of Cornificia (Corinse) in her study, from a Flemish translation of Christine de Pizan's Cité des dames ('De Lof der Vrouwen'), Bruges, 1475. British Library Add MS 20698, f.70r

Most depictions of bookcases in medieval manuscripts can be found in images of scribes writing in a scriptorium. Within these images it is rare to see books stored with their spines facing outwards as is common today. There is evidence that books were stored in a number of different ways, such as stacked on top of one another or placed side by side. In the image below, the Dominican friar and author Vincent of Beauvais is pictured writing at his desk, surrounded by books stored with their covers on display (or easily covered by a green curtain). This method of storage may have been used for luxury books with lavish, embellished bindings. A previous post on our blog, discussing detached bindings in our collections, provides an idea of how decorative book covers could be.

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Detail of a miniature of Vincent of Beauvais sitting at a desk and writing his book, from Le miroir historial (a French translation of his Speculum historiale, translated by Jean de Vignay), Bruges, 1479-1480. British Library, Royal 14 E I volume 1, f.3r

Alternatively, books could be placed flat or even stacked on top of each other, as in the famous image of the Old Testament scribe and priest, Ezra. Behind Ezra is a special kind of book-cupboard, in which the books were laid flat next to one another. This image is taken from the Codex Amiatinus, a complete copy of the Bible which dates to the early 8th century. This manuscript was written in the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow, on the north-eastern coast of modern-day England, and was intended as a gift for Pope Gregory II. Wearmouth-Jarrow was also home to the Venerable Bede, who would have been writing in the scriptorium at the same time as this manuscript was being produced. It is possible that the bookcase and writing desk in the image were inspired by those at the scriptorium at Wearmouth-Jarrow in the 8th century.

Ezra
The 'Ezra miniature’, from the Codex Amiatinus, Wearmouth-Jarrow, c, 716. Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Amiatino 1

These images do not show the titles of the books on display, unlike modern shelfies. For that sort of shelfie from the medieval period, there are booklists or inventories, which record the books held at a particular library or institution. These lists are extremely useful for scholars trying to reconstruct the contents of ancient and medieval libraries which have been separated or lost over time. By understanding the contents of medieval libraries, it is also possible to identify specific texts which influenced the work of medieval authors.

Harley 50   f. 48v
List of books from the Augustinian priory of St Mary, Bridlington, Yorkshire. The list is headed ‘Books of the big book-cupboard’ ('Libri magni armarii'). Rubrics separate lists of books by Ambrose, Hugh of Saint-Victor and Anselm, while others are grouped as glossed books or small books (the latter perhaps on shallower shelves). From a glossed copy of St Mark's Gospel, Northern England, c. 1150-1200. British Library, Harley MS 50, f. 48v

Booklists also provide an insight into the interests of individual patrons of books and libraries. For example, the booklist below was copied into a 10th-century manuscript and records the collection of an otherwise unknown Æthelstan. The contents of this list suggest that he was interested in works of grammar and rhetoric.

Cotton MS Domitian A I f.55v
List of Æthelstan’s books, England, c. 940-980. British Library Cotton MS Domitian A I, f.55v.

The physical appearance of manuscripts can also suggest how they were stored, and what medieval bookcases might have looked like. In a previous post, we discussed an unusual 12th-century manuscript which still retains the fur of the animal skin used for its binding. The binding also features small metal roundels and some metal bosses which protrude from the cover. These metal roundels may have been added to protect the books and provide support when they were stored in bookcases.

DSCF9954
Detail of the cover of a glossed copy of Genesis, England (Rievaulx Abbey), 12th century, Add MS 63077

Meanwhile, this 9th-century Gospel-book provides a clue that it may have been stored with its fore-edges facing out.  While the titles of modern books are written on books' spines, because we usually store books with spines facing out, the title of this book is written on the edges of the pages.

Egerton_ms_768_fse004r
Detail of the title added to the fore-edge of a Gospel-book containing the Gospels of St Luke and St John, Corvey?, c. 875-900. British Library Egerton MS 768

An item in the British Library's collection of papyri also helps our understanding of the appearance of ancient libraries. Below is a small papyrus label which dates to the 2nd century, and was attached to a papyrus containing the words of Baccylides, a Greek lyric poet. These labels would have been attached to papyrus scrolls in order to make specific texts easier to find within larger collections.

Papyrus 2056
A 2nd-century papyrus fragment of Bacchylides retains its parchment label, used to identify the volume on a bookshelf. British Library Papyrus 2056

The word 'shelfie' is a portmanteau combining the words shelf and selfie. A previous post on medieval selfies demonstrated that self-portraiture was popular long before the rise of front facing cameras and selfie sticks. Shelfies, too, clearly have a history that is older than the creation of the Twitter hashtag!

Becky Lawton

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