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145 posts categorized "Anglo-Saxon"

22 December 2016

A Reindeer Farmer at King Alfred's Court

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This is a story about a gift-giving man, who lived in the ‘north-most’ place and owned 600 reindeer. Sounds like anyone familiar? Well, he wasn't Santa, if that was what you were thinking. The man in question was Ohthere, an intrepid explorer from medieval Scandinavia, who visited the court of King Alfred the Great in the late 9th century and told the king about his travels. We know Ohthere's story from a 10th-century manuscript held at the British Library, recently added to our Digitised Manuscripts site (Add MS 47967).

Reindeer

Detail of a deer from an Old English translation of Medicina de quadrupedibus (England, 11th century): Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 76r.

Ohthere was a wealthy explorer from the area that is now Norway. He travelled around Scandinavia, including areas that today comprise parts of Denmark and Finland, and he sailed ‘as far north as whale-hunters ever go’. He later visited the court of King Alfred of Wessex (871–899), where scholars were keen to learn about his travels. One of these scholars added an account of Ohthere's travels to the Old English translation of Orosius's Historia adversus paganos (History against the pagans). According to this account, Ohthere told Alfred about his travels, explaining that he was curious to see the extreme north, and that he wanted to hunt ‘horse-whales’, or walruses. Walrus ivory was a valuable trading commodity in this period, and Ohthere presented King Alfred with some walrus tusks when they met.   

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Detail of the North Sea from a world map, England, c. 1000-1050, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 56v 

Whoever preserved this story was also curious about Ohthere’s descriptions of where the Angles had lived ‘before they came into this land’ (England). Members of Alfred's court remembered that their ancestors came from mainland Europe, and they wanted to learn more about the lands which they identified as their own places of origin.

As well as describing Ohthere’s travels, the author of this account also described whale-hunting, uninhabited polar ‘deserts’ and different Scandinavian languages. For example, according to Ohthere, the Finnas and the Beormas both spoke basically the same language. The Old English account also described Ohthere’s economic resources, including a herd of 600 ‘tame deer’ called hranas, or reindeer. In particular, Ohthere owned 6 prized ‘decoy deer’, which the Finnas used to lure wild reindeer into captivity. The account also reported that Ohthere was ‘one of the first men on the land’ near his home, and that he received a tribute of animal products from the Finnas.

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Description of reindeer in the Old English translation of Orosius’s Historia adversus paganos (England, c. 1000–1050): Cotton MS Tiberius B I, f. 12v.

Our only written source about Ohthere is contained in an Old English translation of Orosius’s History, whose compiler edited and augmented his source-material. Orosius began with an account of the geography of the known world, which the Old English translator supplemented with extra information about Britain and Scandinavia, including reports by explorers including Ohthere and another seafarer, Wulfstan. This translation may have been composed in the late 9th century, and it survives in copies from the early 10th and 11th centuries.

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Beginning of the description of world geography, from the Tollemache Orosius (England (Winchester?), c. 900–950): Add MS 47967, f. 5v.

Although he may sound like a figure from modern folktales, Ohthere was, in many ways, a myth-buster. While King Alfred is remembered today for fighting Scandinavians (thanks to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Asser’s Life of Alfred, and other texts produced at his court), the story of Ohthere shows a different side of Anglo-Scandinavian relations in the late 9th century. At least one Scandinavian traded with the English and brought gifts to Alfred, and his knowledge was recorded and respected by scholars at Alfred’s court.

Alison Hudson

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21 December 2016

Fake Anglo-Saxon Charters

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The Oxford Dictionaries word of the year for 2016 is ‘post-truth’. But the problem of distributing information that portrays that world as one thinks it should be, rather than sticking to objective facts, is hardly a new one. Gaining and keeping privileges is based on having documentation appearing to be authentic and credible stories surrounding it. This was no less true in the Middle Ages, and it has always been a temptation to tweak it in one’s own favour.

Today, we keep a title deed to demonstrate right to a particular property, or a diploma from an educational institution to demonstrate a particular qualification. This stems from the medieval practice of creating ‘charters’, derived from the Latin word ‘carta’ or ‘charta’, originally meaning a sheet of writing material — ‘Magna Carta’ means ‘the big charter’. Over time, the word came to refer to a formal deed or other legal instrument, since charters were normally issued as a single sheet of parchment.

Cotton Charter XI 11

Writing Old English in the 15th century: Cotton Charter XI 11.

If a document supporting your claim to a piece of land had been destroyed, lost or mouldered away, this posed a liability. You could have a new charter issued to confirm one’s privileges in such instances, but this meant extra expenses and bureaucracy. The privileges of institutions were often based on events that had occurred far beyond the realm of living memory, and they risked lawsuits if it became apparent to outsiders that a claim was ambiguous. The obvious solution was to recreate the charter: to make a forgery.

The intent in such cases was not necessarily malicious; historians often refer to such charters as ‘spurious’ to avoid passing judgement on their creators. Some documents were obviously fraudulent, and known to be so even in the Middle Ages. The most famous example is the Donation of Constantine, which purported to be from the Roman emperor who reigned from 306 to 337, granting vast temporal rights to the papacy. Most charters, however, were based on originals, now usually lost, and they continue to be of value for understanding the past, even if they cannot be taken as authentic documentation.

Add Charter 28657

Still trying to be Anglo-Saxon in the 12th century: Add Charter 28657.

In England, some of the most fascinating spurious charters are those purporting to be Anglo-Saxon. Documentation from this period is scarce, and historians have analysed them to determine which details might be accurate. But whether their contents are true or false, they give a sense of how someone living after 1066 viewed the period before the Norman Conquest. Far from sitting unread, there continued to be interest in understanding the contents and composition of Anglo-Saxon charters, and this expertise was key to making a successful imitation.

Forgers attempted to imitate script; the form of the document, including the seal; and language and formulae. They did so with wildly varying levels of success. Some scribes had a clear sense that the document they were examining was quite different from something they might create in everyday business. Others made no attempt whatsoever to make a charter look like an earlier medieval document, and in some cases do not seem to have understood the function of every aspect of a charter.

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Gothic script taking on aspects of English vernacular minuscule: Harley Charter 43 C 9.

Handwriting is the most obvious indicator of a spurious charter. A document written in Gothic script cannot be an original from the year 900. The cleverest scribes wrote charters in a script after the manner of their own period, but attempting to use the letterforms of an older style, in this case English vernacular minuscule. This was a relatively widespread phenomenon, and can be used as a direct measure for historical literacy, as Julia Crick has shown. Some scribes’ imitations have proven good enough to fool palaeographers into thinking that a document was much older than it really is.

Add Charter 33658

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Anglo-Saxon for show: Add Ch 33658.

Some forgers were also aware of how an Anglo-Saxon charter should physically look. Most understood that it should be a single sheet of parchment, but many forgers failed to create a convincing imitation because they attempted to create the most impressive document they could imagine, rather than something that followed historical precedent. One example is Add Charter 33658, a 14th-century creation that purports to be a grant of King Edgar to Ramsey Abbey, dated 28 December 974. It is copied on a massive sheet of parchment, with far wider margins than any known Anglo-Saxon document, and is clearly designed for show. Someone seems to have had a vague idea that a real charter should be a chirograph. This was a medieval method of authentication: two or more copies of a charter would be written on a single sheet of parchment, a word such as CHIROGRAPHVS would be written along the boundaries between the copies, and they would be cut apart with a wavy line. In cases of doubt, the authenticity of a document could be determined by bringing the copies back together. In this case, the forgers do not seem to have known exactly how a chirograph was meant to work: wobbly semicircles have been cut out of one side, without any inscription. Update, 16 January 2017: We had thought that we had ruled out the possibility of this being a rodent’s work, but Susan Maddock kindly points out that the pattern on the left edge indicates that the charter was stored as a roll, not folded as it is now.

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An 11th-century test forgery of Edward the Confessor’s seal: Cotton Charter XVII 5.

The most impressive aspect of many charters is their seals. Like the texts of charters, some forged seals were based on originals. Westminster Abbey ran a particularly sophisticated forgery operation: they had some charters with the seal of King Edward the Confessor, and made a very close copy of it around the late 11th century, which survives on several surviving spurious charters. One can catch them in the act of perfecting their work with Cotton Charter XVII 5, which appears to be a practice copy, a seal attached to a small blank sheet of parchment. Centuries later, monks were still trying to produce forged charters of Edward the Confessor, but less successfully — Harley Charter 43 E 51, from the 15th century, has what almost looks like a massive Victorian fantasy version of Edward’s seal (113 mm in diameter), showing the king seated in an unapologetically Gothic structure.

Harley Charter 43 E 51

Harley Charter 43 E 51 Seal

Imagining Edward the Confessor in the 15th century: Harley Charter 43 E 51.

Some charters that are physically much newer than their text are, of course, mere copies of a degrading original, and can still be treated as conveying accurate historical details. Historians can tell the difference between these and deliberate forgeries by carefully analysing the language and formulae used, along with known historical details. Today, we are becoming much better at understanding what makes an authentic Anglo-Saxon charter.

Andrew Dunning

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15 December 2016

New Developments in Manuscript Viewers

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As regular readers of this blog will know, we recently announced an exciting new project with the Bibliothèque nationale de France to digitise 400 pre-1200 manuscripts at each institution, generously supported by The Polonsky Foundation.

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Decorated initial ‘Q’(uid) in British Library, Arundel MS 60, f. 53r

IIIF and Search functionality

We thought that some of you might be interested in some of the more technical aspects of the viewer that will be developed by the project team. The teams at both libraries are meeting to develop the viewer, which will use the International Image Interoperability framework (IIIF). Both the Bibliothèque nationale de France and the British Library are founding members of the IIIF Consortium, established in 2015, and have been involved in developing the IIIF specifications in order to promote a standardised way of presenting digital material.

Detailed technical specifications are available here, and are refined continuously. The digitised collections will comply both with IIIF image API 2.0 and IIIF Presentation API 2.0. One of the main goals of the new viewer will be the ability to display manuscripts from either institution side by side. 

We also plan to include a search and browse function enabling users to search for various types of manuscripts. This may be based on the functionality available on Biblissima, described here. Also like Biblissima, it is intended that the website will be bilingual in French and English.

The manuscripts are being digitised now, and we expect to make this viewer available in September 2018. In the meantime, as they are digitised and catalogued, British Library manuscripts can be viewed initially on our Digitised Manuscripts website and later on its successor, and BnF manuscripts on Gallica. At the British Library, we are intending to put up the first batch of manuscripts in the New Year, and we’ll be letting you know further details about this.

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The Annunciation in British Library, Cotton MS Caligula A VII/1, f. 3r

Copyright and download

We plan to include download options for individual images or manuscripts, allowing images to be reused in the public domain without charge. Readers may be surprised to learn that most medieval manuscripts held at the British Library are still in copyright until 2039 under the 1988 Copyright, Designs and Patents Act (as amended). However for unpublished material created many centuries ago and in the public domain in most other countries, the British Library believes making available digital copies of this material to be very unlikely to raise any objections. As an institution whose role it is to support access to knowledge, we have therefore taken the decision to release certain digitised images technically still in copyright in the UK under the Public Domain Mark on our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts website. Further details about this are here. We intend to make these images available on the same terms on the website to be developed by the project. 

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30 November 2016

Turning the Tide

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1000 years ago, on 30 November 1016, the Scandinavian leader Cnut became king of all England following the death of Edmund Ironside. What do you know about King Cnut? Ask a British or Danish person of a certain age, and they’ll probably tell you the story about King Cnut and the sea. According to this story, King Cnut sat on the seashore and tried to command the tide not to touch his feet, but the sea ignored him. This image is still used by modern political commentators to mock politicians who vainly fight against real or figurative tides of change.

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Detail of King Cnut, from the New Minster Liber Vitae, England (New Minster, Winchester), c. 1031, Stowe MS 944, f. 6r.

However, if you come to our display in the British Library's Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery, assembled for the 1000th anniversary of Cnut's conquest, you will not find any references to Cnut turning back the tide. You’ll find a lot of other things, including Beowulf, a charter, a copy of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a copy of Cnut’s lawcodes, and the only known manuscript portrait of Cnut made during his lifetime. But the story of Cnut trying to turn back the tide — the only story most people know about Cnut — is a much later invention, as many scholars have noted in the face of the story's enduring popular appeal.

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Opening page from Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum, England , c. 1400-1450, Arundel MS 46, f. 2r.

The story is often attributed to Henry of Huntingdon’s Chronicle, written more than a century after Cnut died. There is no earlier evidence that Cnut ever tried to command any waves. However, once told the story became very popular, and there are a range of later medieval retellings of this story. 

As some historians have noted, Henry’s account does point us towards an important aspect of Cnut’s career which can be verified: his extravagant piety. In Henry’s account, Cnut used his failure to control the waves to make the pious point that only God has supreme control over nature. According to Henry, after that day on the seashore Cnut never wore his crown again, but instead placed it over a crucifix. Documents and manuscripts from Cnut’s own reign on display in the Treasures Gallery show that Cnut went to great lengths to portray himself as a good Christian king.

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Drawing showing Cnut and his queen donating a cross to the New Minster, from the New Minster Liber Vitae, England (Winchester), c. 1031, Stowe MS 944, f. 6r.

Cnut was known for his lavish gifts to churches. The Treasures Gallery display includes a charter written in 1018 which recorded Cnut giving woodland to the archbishop of Canterbury, at the encouragement of his queen, Emma. The New Minster Liber Vitae, also on display in the Treasures Gallery, lists Cnut as one of the most important benefactors of the New Minster at Winchester. Its opening drawing shows Cnut and his queen donating a jewelled cross to the altar of the New Minster. In the case of the New Minster Liber Vitae, however, Cnut is not giving up his crown along with the crucifix: on the contrary, angels descend to affix the crown to his head. This is perhaps an apt metaphor for kings of England who supported the Church and whose rule in turn benefitted from the Church’s social and cultural support. 

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Cnut gives woodland to Ælfstan Lyfing, archbishop of Canterbury, at the request of Queen Emma (Ælfgifu), England (Eadwig Basan, scribe of Christ Church, Canterbury), Stowe Charter 38.

Cnut may have been keen to highlight his good Christian credentials because he was a conqueror who came from Scandinavia, a region to which Christianity had been introduced relatively recently. It is unlikely that Cnut himself was ever a pagan. However, many English laws and sermons from the end of Æthelred’s reign had framed Cnut’s and Swein’s invasion as an attack by barbarians, a punishment from God for the sins of the English. Not all Anglo-Saxons viewed Scandinavians so negatively: the story of Beowulf, which featured a pagan Scandinavian as the titular hero, was being retold and copied around the time of Cnut's conquest. Nevertheless, after conquering England in 1016, Cnut seems to have been keen to reassure his new subjects that his regime would be a return to business as usual.

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Detail of Emma, from Stowe MS 944, f. 6r.

One point of continuity was Cnut's queen. Cnut married the widow of his predecessor, Æthelred the Unready: Emma of Normandy, or Ælfgifu as the English called her. She appears next to Cnut in the image from the New Minster Liber Vitae, and the author of Stowe Charter 38 emphasized that she was the one gave Cnut the idea to donate the woodland to the archbishop. Cnut also hired the same person to write his laws as had written Æthelred’s laws: Wulfstan, bishop of Worcester and archbishop of York, one of the sermonizers who had denounced Cnut's invasion as divine retribution for the sins of the English. Cnut’s laws of 1020, drafted by Wulfstan, borrow heavily from previous laws of Anglo-Saxon kings. They even command the celebration of English saints, like Edward the Martyr and St Dunstan.

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Detail of Cnut’s Winchester lawcode (also known as I- II Cnut), England, mid-11th century, Cotton MS Nero A I, f. 11v.

So, was Cnut an overconfident king, a committed Christian, a nervous conqueror trying to build bridges with a population who may have viewed him as a divine punishment, or all of the above? Come and see some manuscripts connected to his conquest in the Treasures Gallery (or on Digitised Manuscripts) and decide for yourself. There’s much more to Cnut than the story about him and the sea.

Alison Hudson

@BLMedieval

28 November 2016

Silence is a Virtue: Anglo-Saxon Monastic Sign Language

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Silence was a virtue to the Anglo-Saxon monks of Christ Church, Canterbury who followed the Rule of St Benedict. These monks followed the Rule’s insistence on silence during daily activities outside the divine office, when monks celebrated the liturgy with the singing of psalms and the reading of prayers. By not speaking outside these times the community attempted to lead a way of life that reflected the Benedictine core values of chastity, obedience and humility. Yet a non-communicative way of life would have proved highly impractical for the Canterbury monks. How could one ask for someone to pass the butter at mealtimes or find his underpants while getting dressed in the dormitory? A manuscript produced at Canterbury in the 11th century (now Cotton MS Tiberius A III) reveals how the monks overcame this dilemma.

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Enthroned St Benedict presented with copies of his Rule by monks, Cotton MS Tiberius A III, f. 117v

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Detail of monks looking upward, Liber vitae Stowe MS 944, f. 6r

The manuscript includes the only Old English copy of Monasteriales Indicia (ff. 97r–101v), a form of sign language used by Benedictine monks at times when forbidden to speak out loud. The Indicia features descriptions of 127 hand signs representing books and items used in the divine office, food consumed in the refectory, tools used daily, and persons met in the monastery and outside. The list offers an intimate glimpse of monks’ lives with signs for clothes they wore and actions concerning washing and hygiene. For example, sign 98 states the sign for soap in the bath-house: Ðonne þu sapan abban wille þonne gnid þu þinne handa to gædere, ‘when you want soap, then rub your hands together’. Sign numbers are provided for clarity in the cited edition, Monasteriales Indicia edited by Debby Banham (Middlesex: Anglo-Saxon Books, 1993). Further bathhouse signs are given for a nail-knife (nægel sexes), comb (camb) and washing one’s head (heafod þwean).  We also learn what monks wore under their cowl, as sign 102 states: Brecena tacen [ms. tancen] is þæt þu strice mid þinum twam handam up on þin þeah, ‘the sign for underpants is that you stroke with your two hands up your thigh’.

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Sign number 102 for underpants: Cotton MS Tiberius A III, f. 100v

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Wash and be cleansed: Baptism of Christ with angels carrying towels from Heaven, Æthelwold’s Benedictional, Add MS 49598, f. 25r

The practice of monastic sign language was probably introduced to England in the late 10th century from the powerful abbey of Cluny in Burgundy as part of the reform movement. The Canterbury Indicia borrows many signs from the Cluniac lists, yet differences show the English abbey tailored the list to better suit the Anglo-Saxon community. This can be seen in the food items that are featured. Cluniac monks enjoyed a rich diet including a range of baked goods, several species of fish, spiced drinks and crêpes. In contrast, the Canterbury food list is much less varied, but features local delights such as oysters, plums, sloe berries and beer. Sign 72 for oysters imitates the action of shucking: Gif þu ostran habban wylle þonne clæm þu þinne wynstran hand ðam gemete þe þu ostran on handa hæbbe and do mid sexe oððe mid fingre swylce þu ostran scenan wylle- (‘If you want an oyster, then close your left hand, as if you had an oyster in your hand, and make with a knife or with your fingers as if you were going to open the oyster’). Signs for butter (buteran), salt (scealt or sealt) and pepper (pipor) are also given, which do not feature on the Cluniac lists.

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Sign number 72 for oysters, lines 1–4: Cotton MS Tiberius A III, f. 99v

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Anglo-Saxon feast: The Tiberius Psalter, Cotton MS Tiberius C VI, f. 5v

Evidence demonstrates this monastic sign language was actively practised by monks at Canterbury. The Indicia was adapted from the Latin Cluniac sign lists and composed in Old English, as Latin was a foreign language to most Anglo-Saxon monks. Composing the text in the vernacular ensured it would be understood by readers, particularly children entering the monastery. The manuscript also contains a glossed copy of Ælfic’s Colloquy (ff. 60v–64v), a set of dialogues designed for teaching Latin to monastic students. Furthermore, Benedictine monks in England and France observed a second sign language custom known as finger-counting. A late antique tradition, finger-counting was used in arithmetic to sign from 1 to 1 million, to calculate sums and also to determine the date of Easter each year. For the Anglo-Saxon monks at Canterbury and beyond it was very much a case of talk to the hand!

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Monks counting above a calendar: Arundel MS 155, f. 10v

Alison Ray

@BLMedieval

 

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25 November 2016

It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Supermonk

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While working on the early medieval manuscripts at the British Library, I can’t help notice the sophistication and vision of the people who lived over 1000 years ago. They certainly had different worldviews and priorities from people living today; but I’m constantly surprised by the ambition of some of their inventions and ideas. For example, did you know that the first recorded pioneer of man-powered flight in the British Isles was an Anglo-Saxon monk from Malmesbury Abbey called Eilmer (or in Old English, Æthelmaer) who lived between about 980 and 1070?    

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Opening page of William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Regum Anglorum: Arundel 35, f. 1r. Southern England (Winchester?) 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 12th century.

Eilmer’s life is recounted in the Deeds of the Kings of England by William of Malmesbury; indeed, William may have met him when Eilmer was an old man. According to William, many years earlier Eilmer had attached wings to his hands and his feet and jumped from a tower, travelling at least a ‘stadium’ (possibly 200 metres or 600 feet), before being caught by turbulence and breaking both his legs. Eilmer later claimed his error was not fitting a tail to himself, as well as wings. For comparison, the Wright Brothers’ first flight covered about 120 feet.

Harley MS 603, f. 9r
We have no evidence of what Eilmer’s wings looked like, but some contemporary artists depicted humanoid angels with wings, sometimes flying or floating: the Harley Psalter, Harley MS 603, f. 9r. Christ Church, Canterbury, 11th century.

Eilmer was probably born in the 980s and died after 1066, so his flight probably took place in the 1000s or 1010s. We can guess Eilmer’s lifespan because William of Malmesbury claimed Eilmer had seen Halley’s Comet twice, in 1066 and presumably in 989. Comets were associated with political upheaval, and William dramatically described how, upon seeing the comet in 1066, Eilmer became very upset and prophesied the Norman Conquest:

‘Crouching in terror at the sight of the gleaming star, "You've come, have you?" he said. "You've come, you source of tears to many mothers. It is long since I saw you; but as I see you now you are much more terrible, for I see you brandishing the downfall of my country."’ (William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum, chapter 225, translated by R.A.B. Mynors and others (London: The Folio Society, 2014), p. 248.)

Although 1000 or 1010 is an early date for man-powered flight, Eilmer was not the first human to attempt to fly. The 14th-century writer al-Makkari claimed that the 9th-century Andalusian scholar Abbas ibn Firnas also tried to fly, and also attributed his failure to forgetting to build a tail. Eilmer and Firnas were in good company in this respect: modern reconstructions of Leonardo da Vinci's design for a gilder also failed until a tail was added. Other medieval aviators included the scholar and dictionary-writer al-Jawhari, who reportedly died while trying to fly from the roof of a mosque in Nishapur in what is modern-day Iran in 1003 or 1008. There are even earlier stories about people flying or gliding in China, Ancient Greece and Rome.

Like many of these other early pioneers of flight, Eilmer was also a scholar. Sadly, none of his own writings survive to the present day. However, on Digitised Manuscripts you can see one manuscript which Eilmer himself may have read: an Old English copy of the Gospels (Cotton MS Otho C I/1). This manuscript seems to have been owned at Malmesbury Abbey by the mid-11th century, when an Old English translation of a papal decree relating to Malmesbury was added between the gospels of Luke and John.

Cotton Otho C I!1 ff. 69v-70r
Inserted translation of a papal decree facing the opening page of the Gospel of St John in Old English: Cotton MS Otho C I/1, ff. 69v-70r. England, c. 1000-1050.

Other monks at Malmesbury do not seem to have been amused by Eilmer’s experiments and inventions. Although William of Malmesbury generally respected Eilmer, he chided him for thinking that the ‘fable’ of the Greek inventor Daedalus flying was actually real. Even today, the ‘Birdman of Bognor’ competition for individual flying contraptions features contestants who, for the most part, lampoon the idea of individual flight. Eilmer was not the last human to try to fly, however. His story inspired thinkers from Roger Bacon to John Milton to the 19th-century ornithologist John Wise to 20th-century French scholars. Today, you can see airplanes in the sky above Malmesbury Abbey, some perhaps passing over the exact same stretch where Eilmer first glided.

Alison Hudson

@BLMedieval

31 October 2016

The Devil You Know

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Whether you love it or loathe it, there's no way of avoiding that today is Halloween! Loyal readers of our Blog will have doubtless consulted our informative guide for the perfect costume inspired by illustrations in medieval manuscripts. However, those who favour a more traditional approach may have chosen from popular costumes such as a witch, vampire, ghost or devil. Among these, it is the modern image of the devil which is perhaps most indebted to medieval society. 

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

In the Middle Ages, Jews, Muslims and Christians all acknowledged the existence of the Devil in some form. The Devil was commonly depicted as a beastly figure representing sin, temptation and the embodiment of evil. In western European medieval manuscripts, the Devil was often attributed serpent-like features, such as pointed horns or ears and a long thin tail. These characteristics likely have their roots in the story of the fall of man in the Book of Genesis, and Eve's temptation by a serpent.

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Add 11695, f 40r
Detail of a miniature of Adam and Eve in Paradise from a map of the world: from the Silos Apocalypse, Northern Spain (Santo Domingo de Silos), 1091–1109, Additional MS 11695, f. 40r

When the Devil appears in the New Testament, it is also in the guise of temptation. After his baptism, Christ fasted in the Judaean Desert for 40 days and 40 nights, during which he was tempted by the Devil. Christ managed to refuse each temptation and the Devil was thwarted. This scene is often depicted in illustrated Psalters, such as this 13th-century manuscript. This Devil’s horned head, spiked tail and cloven feet all bear sharp resemblance to features which we associate with devils today. 

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Detail of a miniature of the First Temptation of Christ: from a Psalter, England (Oxford), c. 1200–1225, Arundel MS 157, f. 5v

In medieval manuscripts, the Devil was often accompanied by an entourage of demons who shared a similar appearance to their master. It is possible to see smaller demons following the Devil in the image below, who is being chased away by a monk. The Devil and his demons represent the sin and temptation which the monks were seeking to avoid. Hopefully this aggressive method of resistance was a success for the monk!

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Detail of a bas de page scene: from the Smithfield Decretals, Southern France (Toulouse), c. 1300–1340, Royal 10 E IV, f. 247r

Although these devils share the horned and cloven footed appearance of the Devil in the illustration of the temptation of Christ, they also have marked differences. These devils are clearly brown instead of red, and they lack the fearsome wings and tail of the red devil. The image below depicts another example of this slightly cheeky and light-hearted Devil, who is giving orders to his minions.  

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Royal 19 C I f.33r
Detail of the prince of devils sending out two devils: from a copy of
Matfre Ermengaud's Breviari d'Amor, Southern France (Toulouse), early 14th century, Royal MS 19 C I, f. 33r

In the first part of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, Dante and Vergil arrive at the Gates of Hell and are greeted by the Devil. In illustrated manuscripts of the text, this Devil is portrayed in more serious fashion than the previous examples. The spiked wings, horns, tail and staff gave the Devil an extremely evil appearance, and prophesised the horrors which awaited Dante and Vergil as they descended further into Hell.

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Detail of bas-de-page scene of Dante and Virgil entering the Gates of Hell (left); the lukewarm, stung by insects, holding a banner and Dante and Virgil (centre) addressed by Charon, portrayed as a winged Devil (above right); souls going up a gangplank and Dante lying in a faint, (right) from Canto 3 of the Inferno: Add MS 19587, f. 4r

Additional 19587 f. 58
Bas-de-page scene of Dante and Virgil observing Satan swallowing his victims, with figures of those who betrayed their benefactors, such as Brutus and Judas Iscariot, frozen in ice below, from Canto 34 of the Inferno: Add MS 19587, f. 58r

Just as the devil was depicted in different ways in medieval manuscripts, so too was the entrance to Hell. Equally popular as the Gates of Hell found in Dante’s Divine Comedy was the Hell-mouth. Hell was often shown as a bottomless pit into which sinners were swallowed up through a great jaw. Although classical mythology contains tales of heroes falling into the jaws of monsters and failing to emerge, the significance of this trope in the medieval period lies in Scripture.

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Detail of a bas-de-page scene showing the casting of souls into Hell: from the ‘Taymouth Hours’,
Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 142r

The Hell-mouth represented the fusion of four main images: Hell as an open pit which swallowed sinners; Satan represented as a lion seeking souls to devour; Satan depicted as a dragon spouting flames; and Leviathan, the great sea beast from the Old Testament. To read and see more about depictions of the Hell-mouth, see our previous blogpost delightfully entitled, Prepare to Meet Your Doom.


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Full page miniature of an angel holding the key of the bottomless pit, and a chain attached to the neck of a Devil in a Hell-mouth (Revelation 20:1-3): from a copy of Apocalypse in German, Germany (Thuringia, possibly Erfurt), c. 1350–1370, Add MS 15243, f. 34r

The Medieval Manuscripts team wishes everyone a Happy Halloween. Hopefully,  these images of terrifying (and sometimes cheeky) devils will inspire everyone to keep their frivolities safe and free of sin, lest you be swallowed up by a beastly Hell-mouth and condemned to an eternity of torments!

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St Peter fends off a devil: from the New Minster Liber Vitae, England (Winchester), c. 1031, Stowe MS 944, f. 7r

 Rebecca Lawton

@BLMedieval/@bbeckyL

29 October 2016

Lindisfarne Gospels: Back on Display in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery

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We are delighted to announce that the Lindisfarne Gospels is now back on display in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery.

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Decorated letters and words at the beginning of Jerome’s preface to the Gospels (Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 3r)

Created around 700 on the island of Lindisfarne, the Lindisfarne Gospels is thought to be the work of a single artist and scribe, perhaps a monk called Eadfrith, who was bishop of Lindisfarne from 698 until his death in 722. In addition to the original Latin, the Lindisfarne Gospels includes the earliest known translation of the Bible in English. The Old English translation was added to the manuscript by a monk named Aldred, provost of the monastic community at Chester-le-Street, near Durham, in the 10th century. Aldred wrote the Old English version in small letters above each word of the original Latin.

On display now is part of a series of prefaces to the Gospels, featuring a letter written by Eusebius of Caesaria (d. 339) explaining the organisational tables he devised for the Gospels. These are known as the ‘Eusebian Canons’, which function as a system of cross-reference within the Gospels, and predate the division of the Bible into chapters. Each of the ten canons lists episodes, identified by section numbers, held in common by all four Gospels, or any combination of three, two and only one. In the Lindisfarne Gospels the word ‘Eusebius’ is highly stylised, with intertwined bird heads, and a crouching dog-like animal in the centre of the ‘E’.

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Initial ‘E’ for ‘Eusebius’ (Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 8r)

Prefatory material — explanations of specific translations, letters between theologians, or commentaries by Biblical scholars discussing religious theories, among others — is found in many medieval Bibles. For example, the Lindisfarne Gospels also includes a letter of St Jerome (c. 347–420) to Pope Damasus I (c. 305–384) describing his new translation of the Bible into Latin, which the pope had requested (see the image above). Jerome’s translation, known as the Vulgate, became the standard Latin version of the Bible and is still in use today as the Catholic Church’s official Latin Bible. Jerome’s letter to Damasus, titled the Novum opus (New Work), is a justification and explanation of his work, and can be found at the very beginning of the Lindisfarne Gospels.

The Lindisfarne Gospels is fully digitised on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site, and you can read more about various aspects of the Lindisfarne Gospels in our other blogposts here and here. For conservation reasons, we change the pages on display on a regular basis; so be sure to check back in three months’ time to read about the new pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels on view.

The Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery is free to enter and open to all members of the public. It is open seven days a week. More information, including current opening hours, can be found here.

Taylor McCall

@BLMedieval/@taylorjmccall