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80 posts categorized "Anglo-Saxon"

20 March 2014

Update to the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts

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Here in the British Library’s department of Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts, we work tirelessly to make our collections accessible and better known among scholars and the public.  While much attention focuses on our Digitised Manuscripts resource, let’s not forget about the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts

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Text page fragments in uncial script, from Cyprian’s Epistles, North Africa (Carthage?), 4th – 5th centuries, Add MS 40165A, f. 1r

Recently updated, CIM (as we like to call it) now boasts a total of 4,277 manuscripts and some 36,163 images.  These range from a 4th/5th-century copy of Cyprian’s Epistles, perhaps brought to England by Theodore of Tarsus and Hadrian of Canterbury (Add MS 40165A), to a collection of facsimile manuscript pages produced in 1873 by John Obadiah Westwood, a palaeographer and entomologist (Egerton MS 2263) – with a lot in between.

Since the last update in August 2013, we have been cataloguing Anglo-Norman manuscripts from the Additional collection.  Although some of them only contain only decorated initials, the contents are wide-ranging and filled with surprises.

Here are a few favourites (with more to come, so stay tuned!):

 

The earliest English cookbooks? (Add MS 32085 and Royal MS 12 C XII)

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Puzzle initial, from the legal text 'Sentencia Super Easdem Cartas', England, late 13th or early 14th century,
Add MS 32085, f. 11r.

Both manuscripts contain a varied collection of miscellaneous texts – from prophecies to arithmetical puzzles, from charters to a lapidary – bound together after they were copied.  They have one ingredient in common: collections of recipes in Anglo-Norman French, believed to be the earliest surviving examples of English cuisine.  If you fancy trying your hand at medieval cookery, check out Constance B. Hieatt and Robin F. Jones’s edition and translation.

Some of the recipes are mouth-watering (but no roasted unicorn, sadly), and the names are especially appetising:

Teste de Tourk (Turk’s Head): a type of quiche filled with rabbits and poultry; add eels to ‘enhance’ the flavour!

Nag’s tail: the ingredients include pigs’ trotters and ears, grease and wine.

Sang Dragoun: dragon’s blood is a colourful name for what appears to be rice pudding.

Tardpolene: alas, no tadpoles, but just soft cheese, dates and almonds.

 

Scientific and chiromantic texts (Add MS 18210)

This scientific compilation contains Latin texts by Galen, the ‘Dragmaticon’ of William of Conches (tutor to Henry II), as well as some texts on telling the future.  Two are unique to this manuscript: one on spatulomancy/scapulamancy (divination through the use of a shoulder-bone), and another on haematoscopy (prognostication through the examination of blood).  A less visceral means of forecasting is recorded in a treatise on geomancy, where one must interpret the patterns formed by tossing handfuls of rocks on the ground.  A handy table is provided as a guide:

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Table of patterns, from a treatise on geomancy, England or N. France, c. 1275- c. 1325,
Add MS 18210, f. 93r.

Who wouldn’t want the stones to predict ‘proesces ioie et leesce et richesces et si signifie grant profit’ (nobility, joy, gladness, riches and great profit)?

We have also continued to update and augment entries with further details on the contents, provenance and bibliographies relating to illuminated manuscripts.  Tune in for some further highlights later on.

Don’t forget that it’s possible to find manuscripts in the Catalogue by means other than their shelfmarks.  One can conduct advanced searches by keyword, date range, language, provenance, scribe, artist – and so on!  You can bring together manuscripts of the same period in order to compare decorative styles, or see examples of a specific artist’s work at a glance.  One of the best features is that you can search for keywords within the images (try searching for ‘snail’ and see what comes up!).

The Catalogue also includes virtual exhibitions of British Library manuscripts, and an illustrated glossary (most useful for getting to grips with tricky terminology).  Enjoy!

                                                                                               -  James Freeman and Chantry Westwell

27 February 2014

Slavery and Sainthood in Cornwall

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Copied in a scriptorium in Brittany in the early 9th century, this Gospel Book, new to our Digitised Manuscripts site, is referred to as the Bodmin Gospels, or the St Petroc Gospels.  Both these names are references to its place of origin; it was originally used for the swearing of oaths upon the altar of the Priory of St Petroc in Bodmin, Cornwall.  Within these Gospels are recorded 51 grants of manumission (records of the freeing of slaves) which occurred between 950 and 1025.  It is one of the most important records of early Cornish Christianity, and the written records are of great interest to paleographers and students of the Cornish language.  Though they are written in Latin and Old English, many of the names mentioned within them are Celtic, such as Wurci (from Welsh Gwrgi, meaning ‘man-dog’) and Modred (after that well-known villain, King Arthur’s nephew).

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Decorated initials 'IN(ITIUM)' with 'I' forming interlace pattern border at the beginning of Mark's gospel, France (Brittany), early 9th century; annotations: Cornwall, 2nd half of the 9th centur, Add MS 9381, f. 50r

The Priory of St Petroc, Cornwall, was founded by Celtic monks some decades before St Augustine came to England in 593.  According to his legend, Petroc, a Welshman of noble birth, having completed his education in Ireland, set out in a small boat with a few followers towards the middle of the 6th century.  Though filled with zeal, they were an indecisive bunch, as they seem to have had no destination in mind, and so asked God to set their course.  The winds and tides brought them by pure chance (or divine will?) to the Padstow estuary, where Petroc founded his first monastery.  Again, he seems to have had some difficulty in making up his mind, as a short time later he packed up and moved everyone to Bodmin, where he remained until his death at a very great age.  The monastery at Bodmin was recorded in Domesday Book and later became an Augustinian priory.

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Victorian glasswork of St Petroc of Cornwall, from his church in Bodmin, 19th century.  Image via Wikipedia Commons.

St Petroc is one of the patron saints of Cornwall, and though he may perhaps appear indecisive, his legend is in the swashbuckling tradition, including, at one point, travel to India and the taming of wolves.  He is usually pictured with a stag (not particularly imaginative for a British saint) and his feast day is June 4.  His relics, stolen and carried off to Brittany by a dastardly Breton in 1177, were restored to Cornwall by Henry II, but were then tossed in to the sea when the monastery was sacked in the Reformation.  The beautiful ivory casket in which they were kept survived and is still on display at St Petroc's church in Bodmin.

We know that this Gospel-book (Add MS 9381) was at St Petroc’s monastery from the 940s.  It does not contain elaborate decoration, and is obviously a ‘workaday’ copy; at the end of the manuscript there are tables of Gospel readings for use throughout the year.  There is an unfinished composition at the beginning of John’s Gospel and several large decorated initials in red and brown (see f. 50 above), but no Evangelist portraits. 

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A frame with five roundels and interlace panels, probably intended for a 'Christ in Majesty' miniature, Add MS 9381, f. 108v

The principal decoration is in the Canon tables (ff. 9r-13v), which have Celtic interlace and zoomorphic decoration; see the bird-like creature on the right in image below. A note inserted between the arches records the presence of the book at the altar of St Petroc’s and its use there:

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Canon tables with records added, Add MS 9381 f. 13r

The inscription reads:

Hoc est no[men] illius mulieris .i. medguistyl cum p[ro]genie sua .i. bleiduid, ylcerthon, byrchtylym; quos liberaverunt cleri s[an]c[t]i petroci sup[er] altare illius petroci, p[ro]
remedio eadryd rex, & p[ro] animab[us] illor[um]; coram istis testib[us] comayre p[re]spiter grifiud p[re]spit[er] etc..

(This is the name of the woman Medguistyl with her offspring Bleiduid, Ylcerthon and Byrchtylym who were freed by the clerics of Saint Petroc on the altar of this St Petroc’s for the souls of Eadred the King and for their souls, before these witnesses, Comuyre the priest etc…)

Of course we know nothing of this woman and her three children with unpronounceable names, but it does make you wonder what the lives of these slaves would have been like in the ninth century.  Where were they from, how did they come to be slaves, and why were they freed?  We have no answers to these questions.

Sometimes the stories revealed by the records in the margins are a little more detailed, as is the following one in Old English:

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Records of manumissions, Add MS 9381 f. 8r

Her kyð on þissere bec þæt Aelsig bohte anne wifmann Ongynedhel hatte & hire sunu Gyðhicael æt  þurcilde mid healfe punde æt thære cirican dure on Bodmine & sealed Aelsige portgereva & Maccosse hundredesmann iiii pengas to tolle.  Þa ferde Aelsig to þe þa men bohte ynd nam hig & freode uppan Petrocys weofede æfre saclesl On gewitnesse þissa godera manna þæt wæs Isaac messepreost & Bledculf m.p. & Wunning m.p. & Wulfger m.p. & Grifiuð m.p. & Noe m.p. & Wurþicið m.p. & Aelsig diacon & Maccos & Teðion & Modredis sunu & Kynilm & Beorlaf & Dirling & Gratcant & Talan & gif hwa þas freot abrece, hebbe him wið Criste gemene.  Amen.

(Here is made known on this book that Aelsig had bought a woman Ongynedhel and her son Gyðhicael from þurcilde with half a pound at the church door at Bodmin, and paid to Aelsige the reeve and Maccos the hundredsman four pennies for toll.  Then Aelsig did what he had bought them for, and freed them on Petroc’s Altar, free of any liability.  On the witness of these good men: Isaac the mass-priest & Bledculf….. And if anyone should violate this freedom, may he lose Christ’s protection. Amen).

This shows that sometimes people bought slaves so that they could set them free and that in this case a toll was paid to the King or his representative for the pleasure of doing so – not terribly magnanimous on the part of His Majesty!

The names are also of interest.  Seven of them are Anglo-Saxon, including the freer of the slave, the reeve and hundredsman - in other words, those in authority, as you would expect.  Aelsige was a very popular name, as it is shared by three people (it does have more of a ring to it than John or David – perhaps it will make the list of the most popular names again one day!). Nine of the names, including the two slaves’, are Celtic and 2 are from the Old Testament - Isaac and Noe, or Noah.

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Chapter list of Matthew’s Gospel written in Caroline minuscule with added manumissions in Latin and Old English, Add MS 9381 f. 7v
                                                                                                   

Last but not least, the palaeography of this manuscript has long been of interest to scholars. The original gospels are written in a continental Caroline minuscule, the standard script used in France in this period.  Cornwall, however, was part of the Celtic world and so a form of Insular minuscule was used there in the ninth century.  The earliest manumissions are thought to date from the time of King Edmund (941-946), by which time Anglo-Saxon minuscule seems to have been widely adopted, though there is limited evidence and scripts varied considerably.  The additions in the Bodmin Gospels are mostly in Anglo-Saxon minuscule, but some of the later ones contain perhaps the earliest examples of Cornish Caroline script.  Notable are the Caroline ‘a’ and ‘g’, which are used even in the inscriptions in Old English. The contrast between the scripts is clearly visible in the above image, with additions by three different scribes. The full digital images now available online make this manuscript more accessible for palaeographical study.

- Chantry Westwell

04 February 2014

'More Unique Than Most': the Benedictional of St Æthelwold

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We are absolutely thrilled to announce the recent upload of the Benedictional of St Æthelwold to our Digitised Manuscripts site.  This manuscript, Add MS 49598, is one of the British Library’s greatest treasures, and is a masterpiece of Anglo-Saxon art.  As a notable professor of our acquaintance once said, ‘All medieval manuscripts are unique, but the Benedictional of St Æthelwold is more unique than most.’

The uniqueness of this manuscript begins with its text.  A benedictional contains the various blessings pronounced by a bishop throughout the ecclesiastical calendar, and its specialised nature makes it comparatively rare among medieval manuscripts.  It is even more uncommon for such texts to include a cycle of illumination, and the Benedictional of St Æthelwold is the earliest such illustrated manuscript in existence. 

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Historiated initial ‘O’(mnipotens) of Christ in Majesty, preceding the benediction for the Octave of the Pentecost (or Trinity Sunday), from The Benedictional of St Æthelwold, England (Old Minster, Winchester), 963-984, Add MS 49598, f. 70r

As might be obvious from its title, this benedictional was created for one of Anglo-Saxon England’s greatest clerics, St Æthelwold.  He was born in Winchester about the year 909, and entered the church as a young man.  He eventually became Abbot of Abingdon, and in 963 was appointed to the bishopric of Winchester, a vitally important religious institution in this period.   Æthelwold embarked on a programme of building and renovation at Winchester, which culminated in a splendid re-dedication ceremony of the cathedral in the year 980.  Æthelwold was renowned as a scholar, and was responsible for a number of glosses, commentaries, and translations of religious texts; he was so well-regarded that the future King Edgar was sent to study with him.    

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Full-page miniature of the baptism of Christ, preceding the benediction for Epiphany, Add MS 49598, f. 25r

The Benedictional of St Æthelwold was created between 963 (the time of Æthelwold's appointment to the see of Winchester) and 984 (the year of his death).  It was written throughout by a single scribe named Godeman, who was responsible for a number of other related Winchester manuscripts from this period.  The text of this Benedictional appears to have been a deliberate attempt to synthesize the two main contemporary forms of this type of text, the Gallican and the Gregorian, and it is likely that the creation of this hybrid was initiated and closely supervised by the erudite Æthelwold.  Indeed, many of the blessings included are only found in the English tradition; that for the feast of St Ætheldreda, for example, appears to be a work of Æthelwold himself. 

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Full-page miniature of St Ætheldreda [Æthelthryth], holding a book and a flower, at the beginning of her benediction, Add MS 49598, f. 90v

It is not clear who created the magnificent illuminations that are included within the folios of the manuscript, but some scholars maintain that this work should be attributed to Godeman as well. They are certainly perfect examples of the famous Winchester style, which features elaborate acanthus sprays in the borders, vibrant lines, and a lavish use of gold. 

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Beginning of the poem describing the creation of the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, Add MS 49598, f. 4v

We know as much as we do about the creation of the Benedictional of St Æthelwold in large part because of an extraordinary poem, written in gold letters across two folios, which precedes the benedictional proper.  This poem tells us that ‘The great Æthelwold, whom the lord had made patron of Winchester, ordered a certain monk subject to him to write the present book … He commanded also to be made in this book many arches well adorned and filled with various figures decorated with manifold beautiful colours and with gold.’  It continues with a description of Æthelwold’s motivation in creating this book: ‘that he might be able to sanctify the people of the Saviour by means of it… and that he may lose no little lambkin of the fold’.  The poem concludes with a prayer for the soul of St Æthelwold, and, in the final lines, for that of the scribe responsible for it: ‘Let all who look upon this book pray always that after the term of the flesh I may abide in heaven. Godeman the writer, as a suppliant, earnestly asks this.’ 

A few more images from this magnificent manuscript are below; please spare a thought for Godeman and St Æthelwold as you scroll through its glories!

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Full-page miniature of the Annunciation, preceding the benediction for the first Sunday in Advent, Add MS 49598, f. 5v

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Full-page miniature of the Second Coming of Christ, preceding the benediction for the third Sunday in Advent, Add MS 49598, f. 9v

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Full-page miniature of the Ascension of Christ, preceding the benediction for Ascension, Add MS 49598, f. 64v

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Full-page miniature of St Benedict, preceding the benediction for his feast, Add MS 49598, f. 99v

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Miniature of a bishop, probably St Æthelwold, pronouncing an episcopal blessing on a congregation of monks and clerics (possibly related to the dedication of Winchester Cathedral in 980).  This miniature appears unfinished but is probably deliberately so; perhaps to indicate the importance of the dedication blessing, Add MS 49598, f. 118v

- Sarah J Biggs

The Medieval Manuscripts Blog is delighted to be shortlisted for the National UK Blog Awards (Arts & Culture category). For more information about the nomination, see the Awards website.

09 January 2014

An Even Older View of the New World

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Our recent blog post An Old World View of the New got us thinking about other sources of New World images from within our medieval collections.  One excellent example, currently on exhibition in Australia (more below), can be found in Harley MS 2772, which we’ve recently fully-digitised and uploaded to our Digitised Manuscripts site.  This manuscript is a collection of fragments of Latin texts, including Macrobius’ Commentary on Cicero's Somnium Scipionis (The Dream of Scipio).  Included in the commentary on the ocean is one of the earliest maps ever produced.  It is a round diagram of the earth showing the known and unknown lands and oceans, including Italy and the Caspian Sea.

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Diagram of the earth and oceans, Harley MS 2772, Germany 11th century, f. 70v

Although this is an eleventh-century copy, the map was first created in the early 5th century, when Macrobius originally wrote his commentary.  Most of the maps made at this time focused on the known world of the Roman Empire, but Macrobius was interested in the idea that other parts of the earth might be inhabited.  Starting with a commentary on Cicero’s work, in which Scipio views the earth from the heavens in a dream, he writes at length on the nature of the planet and its peoples.  He argues against the biblical world-view that Noah’s three sons populated Asia, Europe and Africa, and that, as he had no other son, the remainder of the earth must be uninhabited. 

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Detail of a diagram of the earth and oceans, Harley MS 2772, Germany 11th century, f. 70v

This diagram divides the earth into five zones, the extreme north and south which are labelled ‘INHABITABILIS’ (uninhabitable), the torrid zone at the Equator with its boiling hot sea, ‘RUBRUM MARE’ (red sea) and in between the two temperate zones.  The one in the north is ‘TEMPERATA NOSTRA’ (our temperate zone), with Italy at the centre and bordered by the Caspian Sea and the Orkney Islands (‘ORCADES’).  To the south is ‘TEMPERATA ANTETORUM’, which probably means something like ‘outside temperate zone’, i.e. outside the known world an area which is not designated as unpopulated.

So could this be the earliest map of the antipodes? The Australians certainly think so! A current exhibition in The National Library of Australia in Canberra entitled Mapping our World: Terra Incognita to Australia features this manuscript from the British Library. 

Other medieval maps on loan for the exhibition are:

The Anglo-Saxon World Map, one of the earliest surviving maps from Western Europe, which shows nothing further south than Ethiopia, and after that there are only monsters.

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Anglo-Saxon world map, England (Canterbury) 2nd quarter of the 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B V, f. 56v

The Psalter World Map, a very small but detailed depiction of the earth with Jerusalem at the centre in a book containing a collection of psalms and prayers, made in south-east England in the mid-13th century.  As this is a religious work, God and the angels preside over the earth.

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Psalter World Map, England,  c. 1265, Additional MS 28681, f. 9r

And finally, the map from Higden’s Polychronicon (or universal history) from Ramsay Abbey focuses on England (in red), but contains details of provinces and towns in Europe, Asia and Africa.

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Map of the World from the Polychronicon, England, c. 1350, Royal MS 14 C IX, ff. 1v-2

Of course, Australia does not appear on any of the above, and it is not until the 16th century that an unknown southern continent ‘Terra Australis’ or perhaps even the ‘Londe of Java’, as depicted in Henry VIII’s Boke of Idrography can be found.

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Jean Rotz,
Map of the Two Hemispheres, France and England, 1542, Royal 20 E IX, ff. 29v-30

The exhibition catalogue contains these and many more gorgeous reproductions of maps of the world and Australia, including coastal maps and diagrams by the early settlers.  Please have a look at Mapping our World: Terra Incognita to Australia (Canberra: National Library of Australia, 2013), and as always, you can follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval.

- Chantry Westwell

23 December 2013

Medieval Top Ten

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It’s that time of the year when we all look back at what we have accomplished (and also when we so frequently resort to clichés like ‘it’s that time of year’).  It has been a fantastic 12 months for our blog, due in large part to our fabulous readers.  We thought we’d take this chance to highlight our ten most popular posts, which were chosen by you (or at least chosen by your clicks!).  In true countdown fashion, we’ll start with:

10.  Anglo-Saxon Treasures Online the announcement about our department’s very first uploads to Digitised Manuscripts (it seems so long ago!); we were off to an excellent start with the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Old English Hexateuch.

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Beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, from the Lindisfarne Gospels, Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 27r

9.  Hebrew Illuminated Manuscripts Online an exciting announcement about the inclusion of more than 100 Hebrew manuscripts to our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts site, with a full list of hyperlinks included!

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Initial word panel Shir (‘song’ inhabited by a unicorn and a bear, from the Duke of Sussex’s German Pentateuch, Add MS 15282, f. 296v

8.  Robert the Bruce Letter Found at British Library a post highlighting the exciting discovery by Professor Dauvit Broun, University of Glasgow, of a previously-unknown letter from Robert the Bruce to Edward II.

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Detail of the letter from Robert the Bruce to Edward II, Cotton MS Titus A XIX, f. 87r

7.  St Cuthbert Gospel Saved for the Nation a celebration of the British Library’s acquisition of the late 7th century St Cuthbert Gospel after the most successful fundraising campaign in the Library’s history.  Now in our collections as Add MS 89000, you can now view the fully-digitised manuscript online.

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Front binding of the St Cuthbert Gospel, Add MS 89000

6.  White Gloves or Not White Gloves not to wreck the surprise or anything, but the answer (almost always) is not.

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5.  Loch Ness Monster Found at British Library another amazing discovery by our unstoppable research team! We’ll just leave it at that.

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Image of the Loch Ness Monster, as recovered using RZS©

4.  Hwæt! Beowulf Online we were thrilled to publicise the digitization of one of the Library’s great treasures, the Beowulf manuscript (Cotton MS Vitellius A XV; click the link for the fully-digitised version).  And many of you seemed equally thrilled!

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Detail of the opening words of Beowulf: ‘Hwæt!’ (‘Listen!’), Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 132r

3.  Lolcats of the Middle Ages far and away the most popular post from our on-going series on medieval animals – for obvious reasons, we think.

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Detail of a miniature of mice laying siege to a castle defended by a cat, from a Book of Hours, Harley MS 6563, f. 72r

2.  Knight v Snail this piece on the prevalence of images of knights fighting snails in the margins of 13th and 14th century manuscripts was great fun to write, and it was even more enjoyable to see the fantastic response it received.  It set a British Library record for the most hits in a single day, was picked up by the Guardian, and most gratifying, many of you wrote in with some excellent thoughts on this mysterious marginalia; thank you so much! 

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Detail of a knight battling a snail in the margins of a 14th century Psalter, Add MS 49622, f. 193v

So now, with no further ado, we come to…

1.  Unicorn Cookbook Found at the British Library:  the discovery of this gem of a manuscript, shrouded in secrecy for months, met with an amazing reaction when it was finally revealed on 1 April 2012, and it continues to be a perennial favourite.

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Detail of a unicorn on the grill in Geoffrey Fule’s cookbook, Additional MS 142012, f. 137r

Thanks from all of us in the Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts section!  Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter: @BLMedieval.

- Sarah J Biggs

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.

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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.

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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 ...

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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. 

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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.

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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