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122 posts categorized "Anglo-Saxon"

07 June 2016

‘I Am an Antichrist’: Demons, Vices and Punks

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The British Library’s new free exhibition, Punk 1976-78 is now open to the public (until 2 October 2016). This exhibition examines Punk’s influence on music, fashion, print and politics in the 40 years since the Sex Pistols came to prominence. However, the Medieval Manuscripts Section is here to tell you that rebellious attitudes and rad hairstyles have been around for much longer than 40 years!

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Wrath fights Patience, from Prudentius's Psychomachia, England, 11th century, Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII, f. 11r

The British Library’s manuscripts depict a variety of medieval rule breakers or expectation-defiers, from colourful fools to rebels who violently challenged social and political norms.

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Detail of Wat Tyler and John Ball leading the Peasants' Revolt, from
Jean Froissart, Chroniques, vol. 2, Low Countries (Bruges), c. 1475-1500, Royal MS 18 E I, f. 165v

One set of medieval rule breakers seem particularly pertinent to the later punk scene: demons and vices. In the opening lines of the Sex Pistols’ controversial debut single ‘Anarchy in the UK’, Johnny Rotten proclaims, ‘I am an antichrist.’ Since Late Antiquity, artists and poets in Western Europe often used imagery of antichrists—opponents of Christ, conceived of as false prophets or demons or vices—to signal countercultural status. The Sex Pistols were, consciously or unconsciously, tapping into a tradition that was over a thousand years old.

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The Antichrist from the Silos Apocalypse, Spain (Santo Domingo de Silos), c. 1091-1109, Add MS 11695, f. 143r

In particular, the British Library is in the process of digitising two sets of texts related to demons, virtues, vices, rulebreakers, antichrists and anarchy. The first are Apocalypse manuscripts, of which we have 19 in our collections, 10 of which have been recently digitised. One of these, Additional MS 19896, a 15th- century Latin copy made in Germany, contains a four-part miniature of the Book of Revelation, Chapter XI, which features a beast often described as the Antichrist:

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Scenes from the Antichrist story, with the Antichrist represented as the beast of the bottomless pit who kills the two witnesses (here Enoch and Elias), followed by the great earthquake, 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Germany, Additional MS 19896, ff. 8v-9r

A parallel version of the Book of Revelation in Latin and Anglo-Norman French verse, also recently digitised (Royal MS 2 D XIII), contains an illustration of the same scenes: vengeance rains down on the Antichrist and the souls of the two witnesses are taken up into heaven.

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The Antichrist kills the two witnesses; the ascension of the witnesses and the persecution of the Antichrist in the great earthquake (Revelation XI: 7-13), early 14th century, England or France, Royal MS 2 D XIII, ff. 23v-24r

Although the fashions and hairstyles do not obviously call to mind the punk asethetic, wild and wacky characters and dress are everywhere, as you will see if you look at our previous blogposts on the Apocalypse manuscripts.

A different take on anti-christs-- in the sense of opponents of Christ-- comes from the second set of manuscripts depicting rule breakers which we are digitising. These are copies of the Psychomachia by Prudentius, a provincial governor-turned-ascetic from Northern Spain (d. c. 413).  This poem describes seven virtues, such as Faith, Chastity and Patience, duelling seven vices, including Worship-of-the-Old-Gods, Sodomy, and Wrath.  In between, the poet digresses with Biblical examples to emphasize that vices oppose what Christ stands for, whereas the virtues will help save souls. We have already digitised one of the illustrated copies of the Psychomachia in the British Library’s collection (Additional MS 24199), made in England in the late 10th and early 11th century.

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Wrath fighting Patience, from Prudentius, Psychomachia, England (Bury St Edmunds?),  c.980-1010, Add MS 24199, f. 10r

In particular, having just seen the Punk exhibition’s cases on punk fashion, some members of the section were struck by the wild hairstyle which the Anglo-Saxon artist gave Wrath. She would not have looked out of place in Vivienne Westwood’s and Malcolm McLaren’s circle 1000 years later (although the illustrator did not intend Wrath to be seen as a trendsetter). Demons, too, were frequently depicted with gravity-defying hairdos and revealing or torn clothing in western medieval art.

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Detail of Pride’s entrance, from Additional MS 24199, f. 12r

But while the punk movement used torn clothing and wild hair as a sign of countercultural rebellion, in the Psychomachia such attire was not, it should be noted, a feature of all vices, nor was it necessarily forbidden from virtues. In the recently digitised copy of the Psychomachia, Pride (Superbia) is depicted with particularly flamboyant and sumptuous attire. Meanwhile, the text describes Faith taking to the field of battle with ‘her rough dress disordered, her arms exposed’ as she faces off against Worship-of-the-Old-Gods (translated by H. J. Thomson, Prudentius, with an English translation (1949), p. 281). The Anglo-Saxon illustrator did depict Faith fully dressed, however, as she crowned a group of martyrs.

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Detail of Faith fighting Worship-of-the-Old-Gods, from Additional MS 24199, f. 4v

There are many other parallels that can be drawn between the punk movement and the medieval period. Indeed, punks themselves sometimes explicitly invoked medieval imagery. Tenpole Tudor’s band name may have been a reference to its lead singer’s name, rather than Henry VIII’s jousting exploits, but their song ‘Swords of 1000 Men’ and its accompanying cover art show how they were inspired by neo-medievalism and also subverted it. If any aspiring punk rockers are reading this, please bear in mind digitised manuscripts from the 1470s and 1000s, as well as albums from the 1970s, as a source of inspiration.

~Alison Hudson and Chantry Westwell

Read more about demons in medieval art:

Demons in a Bible moralisée 

Demons (and a medieval umbrella) in the Harley Psalter

Guthlac the Demon Slayer 

Prepare to meet your doom

26 May 2016

Bede: The Greatest Hits

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On this day in AD 735 the Venerable Bede died in his monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria. Bede is most famous for his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, and is often affectionately known as the father of English history. However, this text was written at the end of a long career, in which Bede wrote many works on hagiography, natural science and theology. When another monk of Wearmouth-Jarrow wrote an account of Bede’s death, he described how Bede continued with his scholarly pursuits right up until his final moments. On the anniversary of Bede’s death, it seems fitting to explore some of Bede’s greatest hits, which can be found within the British Library’s manuscript collections.

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Beginning of the second book from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, England (Wearmouth-Jarrow?), c. 775-825, Cotton MS Tiberius A XIV, f. 39r

The Ecclesiastical History of the English People survives in a number of copies here at the British Library. Our earliest copy of the text can be dated to the late 8th century or the beginning of the 9th century, having been made in the decades after Bede’s death. Although this manuscript was damaged in the Ashburnham House fire in 1731, it is still possible to see ornate features such as the decorated initials above which begin book 2 of the History.

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Opening page of Bede’s Eccesiastical History, England (Southumbria), c. 800-850, Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 5v

Bede’s work was widely copied within a few years of his death and for centuries thereafter. The British Library has a lavishly illuminated, early 9th-century manuscript of the Ecclesiastical History from Southumbria (Cotton MS Tiberius C II), which will soon be available in full on Digitised Manuscripts. We have also recently uploaded a 10th-century copy of the Ecclesiastical History to Digitised Manuscripts (Royal MS 13 C V).

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Page from an Old English translation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, England, late 9th or early 10th century, Cotton MS Domitian A IX, f.11r

The British Library also holds several fragments of an Old English translation of the Ecclesiastical History written in the late 9th or early 10th century, including the recently digitised fragment in Cotton MS Domitian A IX. It is not known exactly when the Ecclesiastical History was first translated into Old English, although it is thought to have been part of King Alfred of Wessex’s programme to provide the ‘books most needful for men to know’ in English in the late 9th century.

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St Cuthbert greeting King Ecgfrith, from Bede’s Prose Life of Cuthbert, England (Durham), c. 1175-1200, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 51r

Bede is also well known for writing biblical commentaries, hagiographies, and poems on religious subjects (such as the recently digitised Add MS 11034). These include both a prose and a verse Life of St Cuthbert. A number of manuscripts of Bede's Lives of St Cuthbert were recently uploaded to Digitised Manuscripts, including a 12th-century manuscript which contains a number of well-known illustrations to the text (Yates Thompson MS 26).

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Image of a scribe, perhaps Bede, from Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 2r

In this same manuscript, the preface to the prose Life of St Cuthbert includes a miniature of a scribe writing at a desk. As it accompanies the preface, the figure within this drawing is often thought to be Bede himself.

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Page from Bede, De natura rerum, England, c. 975-1025, Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 2r

Bede’s scholarly interests were not limited to history, hagiography and theology; he also wrote a number of works describing the natural world. He was the first European to note the relationship between the moon and the tides and he was skilled in very complex forms of mathematics. One of these works was entitled On the Nature of Things, and includes chapters on the creation of the world, and descriptions of astronomical and metrological features. The page above is taken from a 10th-century fragment of this text.

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Page from Bede’s De temporibus illustrated with zodiac symbols, England, c. 1244, Egerton MS 3088, f. 16v

Bede wrote a brief introduction to the subject of computus, which was designed to give its readers basic knowledge of the methods of calculating the date of Easter. This was a tricky subject in Bede’s day, and in this work he used simple Latin and short sentences in order to make the text accessible to a beginner. Pictured above is a 13th-century English copy of the text, and is accompanied by an illustration of four zodiac figures; Aries, Gemini, Taurus, and Cancer.

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Page from Bede's De temporibus illustrated with a diagram of the sun, moon, earth and planets, Egerton MS 3088 f. 17v

In addition to these other works, Bede wrote a number of letters throughout his life. The letter on the page below is a 12th-century copy of a letter written by Bede to Bishop Ecgberht of York only a few months before Bede’s death in May 735. In this letter, Bede is heavily critical of the current state of the Northumbrian Church and outlines various ways in which it could be reformed. Within this letter, Bede explains to Ecgberht that he is writing a letter because he is physically unable to travel to York in order to speak to Ecgberht in person. This gives some sense of Bede’s declining health in the months before his death.

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Beginning of Bede's letter to Ecgberht, England (Durham), c. 1100-1150, Harley MS 4688, f. 89r

Cuthbert, a monk from Wearmouth-Jarrow, wrote an account of Bede’s death in the form of a letter. This letter can often be found in manuscripts of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History such as Harley MS 3680, copied in the 12th century. In his account of Bede’s death Cuthbert included a short poem, which he claimed was composed by Bede in Old English upon his deathbed. The poem translates as:

Facing that enforced journey, no man can be

More prudent than he has good call to be,

If he consider, before his going hence,

What for his spirit of good hap or of evil

After his day of death shall be determined.

Trans. J. McClure and R. Collins (eds), The Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Oxford, 1994), p. 301

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Image of Bede from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, England (East Anglia?), c. 1375- 1406, Arundel MS 74, f.2v

Cuthbert described how, upon hearing this poem, he and his fellow monks shared in Bede’s sorrow. He claims that they ‘read and wept by turns’ or wept continually as they read. Their reaction demonstrates that Bede was heavily valued as a scholar and a teacher at Wearmouth-Jarrow. Perhaps there are also a few modern readers of this blog who will shed a little tear on this anniversary of Bede’s death.

~Becky Lawton

23 May 2016

Size Matters

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The British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website reveals a number of remarkable things in the text and decoration of over 1460 complete manuscripts (and counting). One thing Digitised Manuscripts cannot show you, however, is the actual size of the manuscripts, since our viewer is limited by the size of your screen. Medieval book-makers did not have those limitations, and the British Library’s manuscripts come in all shapes and sizes.

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The Royal Bible vol. 2, Royal MS 1 E VII, next to the Taverner Prayerbook, Add MS 88991

We recently uploaded a two-volume Anglo-Saxon Bible to Digitised Manuscripts (Royal MS 1 E VII and Royal MS 1 E VIII). These volumes are notable for a number of reasons: first, they form one of only two more or less complete Bibles which were made in England before 1066 and which still survive. Secondly, they are remarkable for their large size, measuring 570 x 350 mm (making it the size of a small child). Here’s one of these volumes next to a 22 cm ruler.

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Front cover of the Royal Bible vol. 2, Royal MS 1 E VIII

Many of the British Library’s largest manuscripts are Bibles or liturgical manuscripts. This makes sense, given these texts’ spiritual importance and the role they might have been expected to play in ceremonies and impressive performances. Other texts exist in large formats, too. Cotton MS Augustus V—which recently travelled to the Everlasting Flame exhibition in New Delhi—contains the Trésor des histoires, a middle French version of an anonymous historical compilation in prose from Creation to the pontificate of Clement VI, with other 14th-century texts interpolated. Like many luxurious manuscripts, it was designed to express the social status of its owner. Such manuscripts were sometimes copied more to be seen than read. Cotton Augustus V was made in Bruges and measures an impressive 480 x 230 mm. Its elaborate fifty-five miniatures show a special concern for the treatment of light. This manuscript was part of King Henry VIII of England’s library: it is the 'item 23' in the 1535 Richmond Palace booklist (February 1535). Its size, the high quality of illumination and script, and the rarity of the text make it a perfect example of a deluxe manuscript intended to display the King’s treasures at court.

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Page with miniature from Trésor des histoires, Low Countries (Bruges), c. 1475-1500, Cotton Augustus V, f. 18r

At the other end of the scale—literally—the British Library recently acquired a very small manuscript, known as the Taverner Prayerbook (Add MS 88991). Probably made for Anne Seymour (b. c. 1497, d. 1587), Countess of Hertford and later Duchess of Somerset, this manuscript contains a number of prayers and beautifully detailed illumination on pages measuring only 70 x 52 mm.

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The Taverner Prayerbook, Add MS 88991, with a 22-cm ruler 

But the Taverner Prayerbook is by no means the smallest manuscript in the British Library’s collection. For example, the tiny Stowe MS 956 may have been worn on a necklace or girdle and is only slightly bigger than a modern postage stamp.

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Portrait of Henry VIII, from Psalms in English Verse, South East England, c. 1540, Stowe MS 956, ff. 1v-2r

In between these, there are many other interestingly shaped manuscripts at the British Library, from long thin almanacs designed to be worn on belts to the earliest surviving ‘pocket-sized’ English law book (Cotton MS Nero A I) to the recently acquired St Cuthbert Gospel (Add MS 89000). That handy manuscript is just slightly larger than a person's palm.

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The St Cuthbert Gospel, England (Wearmouth-Jarrow), early 8th century, Add 89000

You can see the St Cuthbert Gospel and many of the other manuscripts mentioned in this post on Digitised Manuscripts, but remember to check the dimensions listed in the 'Full Display' page: size matters! 

Laure Miolo and Alison Hudson

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Related Content:

 Lady Jane Grey’s Prayer Book

The Ceolfrith Bible

Codex Sinaiticus Online

The Giant Stavelot Bible

06 May 2016

The Scottish Play and the Real Macbeth

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Here at the British Library (writes Julian Harrison) we look after everything from early papyri to the state papers of Tudor monarchs. Our Printed Books colleagues care for no fewer than 5 copies of the Shakespeare First Folio, 2 of which are currently on display in London (Shakespeare in Ten Acts). And that brings us to the topic of today's blogpost: how does the historical Macbeth differ from his portrayal for the stage by William Shakespeare?

King and Pilgrim

Let's start with what we know about the real, historical Macbeth. The most succinct account is found in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry by Professor Dauvit Broun (available to subscribers online), which I summarise here. Macbeth became king of Moray in 1032 when his cousin, Gille Comgáin mac Maíl Brigte, was burnt with 50 of his followers, possibly at Macbeth's instigation. Gille Comgáin had killed Macbeth's father in 1020; intriguingly, Macbeth then married Gille Comgáin's widow, Gruoch (the real Lady Macbeth). In 1040, Duncan I, king of Scots, led a campaign against Moray, culminating in Duncan's death in battle against Macbeth, probably at Pitgaveny near Elgin. As a result, Macbeth then became king of Scots. Macbeth was the first reigning Scottish king to undertake a pilgrimage to Rome, in 1050, where he ‘scattered money like seed to the poor’; and in 1052 he was the first to take Norman knights into his own service. However, in 1054 he was challenged by Malcolm Canmore, Duncan I's now adult son, with the support of a Northumbrian army. A bloody battle took place on 27 July, probably at Dunsinane, after which Macbeth was forced to concede land to Malcolm. Malcolm then challenged Macbeth a second time, and he killed him on 15 August 1057 at Lumphanan in Mar. Macbeth was succeeded as king by his stepson, Lulach, whose father, Gille Comgáin, had been killed by Macbeth.

Mya Gosling Macbeth

Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 1, by the utterly brilliant Mya Gosling (@GoodTickleBrain)

The Chronicle of Melrose

One of the earliest narrative accounts of the life of Macbeth is found in the Chronicle of Melrose Abbey, preserved uniquely in a manuscript at the British Library (and available on our Digitised Manuscripts site). This account was copied around 1174, but it is based on older source material. The Melrose Chronicle has intrigued me for many years (together with Dauvit Broun I found a new fragment of it at the British Library, and our account of the manuscript was published by the Scottish History Society in 2007). The historical Macbeth is mentioned a handful of times in this Melrose text. In 1039 (the chronology is slightly astray) he is said to have usurped the throne upon the death of King Duncan; in 1050 he visited Rome, where he distributed alms; finally, in 1054, Siward, earl of Northumbria, invaded Scotland at the behest of Edward of Confessor, defeated Macbeth in battle (whereupon Macbeth fled), and installed Malcolm in his place. No mention of daggers, witches or windswept heaths, no Banquo, Fleance or Macduff, no Lady Macbeth walking in her sleep. It's all rather disappointing, if you've been brought up on a diet of Shakespeare.

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References to Macbeth in the Chronicle of Melrose Abbey (London, British Library, Cotton MS Faustina B IX, ff. 12v, 13r, 13v): (a) his succession to the throne in 1039; (b) his pilgrimage to Rome in 1050; (c) his defeat in battle in 1054.

The Tragedy of Macbeth

What, then, do we know about Shakespeare's Macbeth? The play was first printed in the First Folio (1623), published 7 years after its author's death. Indeed, Macbeth is one of several Shakespearean plays whose text would probably be unknown but for the First Folio: other plays published for the first time in 1623 include The TempestTwelfth Night and Julius Caesar. We suspect, however, that Macbeth was written in the early years of the reign of King James I of England (1603–25). James Shapiro has recently argued that it contains echoes of the infamous Gunpowder Conspiracy of 1605 (1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear, Faber & Faber, 2015). James I was patron of the King's Men, Shakespeare's acting troupe, and he had a particular interest in demonology and witchcraft, which underpin Shakespeare's play.

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The First Folio of the plays of William Shakespeare, in which Macbeth was printed for the first time (London, British Library, C.39.k.15)

The Second Murderer's Bowler Hat

The first recorded performance of what is probably Macbeth took place in London in 1611. Over the next 400 years, many leading actors have taken on the rôles of Macbeth and his partner in crime, Lady Macbeth, among them Richard Burbage, David Garrick, Sarah Siddons and, most recently, Michael Fassbender. A stand-out production is often said to be that directed for the Royal Shakespeare Company by Trevor Nunn (1976), starring Ian McKellen and Judi Dench. But two of the most significant versions of Macbeth involved Laurence Olivier: first, the Birmingham Rep production in modern-dress at the Court Theatre in London in 1928 (one member of the audience commented on the Second Murderer's Bowler Hat); and secondly, opposite his wife, Vivien Leigh, at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1955.

Garrick-club-portrait-of-g0743    Vivien Leigh as Lady Macbeth 1955

Portrait of Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth, by George Henry Harlow (1814), copyright Garrick Club, currently on display at the British Library; photograph of Vivien Leigh as Lady Macbeth by Angus McBean, currently on display at the Library of Birmingham

Humming A Gaelic Song

You can see artefacts from the Olivier/Leigh production of Macbeth at the British Library (until 6 September 2016) and at the Library of Birmingham (until 3 September). Contemporary critics were quietly reserved about Vivien Leigh's seductive performance as Lady Macbeth ('more viper than anaconda', wrote Kenneth Tynan), but over time they have revised their opinions, and count it among her finest rôles. Her beautiful, green silk dress and embroidered gown for the part is on display in London, having been kindly loaned by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Meanwhile, some of Angus McBean's photographs of Olivier and Leigh are on show in the Library of Birmingham's Our Shakespeare exhibition (organised jointly with the British Library). Also in Birmingham are other items from the British Library's Olivier archive relating to his proposed follow-up film of Macbeth, possibly the greatest Shakespeare film never made. These include Laurence Olivier's own annotated screenplay for the film. I am especially fond of the direction when the witches appear: â€˜Macbeth is seen to stop. We CUT to him incredulously listening to the prophesies, which seem to emanate from the hills. Banquo rides gently on oblivious of these happenings, humming a Gaelic song.'

Olivier's annotated screenplay for Macbeth

Two pages from Laurence Olivier's annotated screenplay for his never-made film of Macbeth (London, British Library, Add MS 80508), currently on display at the Library of Birmingham

Separating Truth from Fiction

So let's recount: which facts does William Shakespeare get right in The Tragedy of Macbeth?

  • According to Shakespeare, Macbeth stabs to death the sleeping Duncan, who is a guest at Macbeth's castle? Wrong, Duncan dies in battle against Macbeth.
  • Macbeth is Thane of Glamis and Thane of Cawdor. Wrong again, Macbeth is King of Moray (these false titles originated with Hector Boece, whose account was copied in turn in Ralph Holinshed's Chronicles, Shakespeare's chief source for Macbeth).
  • An English army defeats Macbeth at Dunsinane, and he is killed by Macduff. Third time unlucky, alas. There was a battle at Dunsinane, in 1054, but Macbeth remained king for a further 3 years. One fact that Shakespeare does get 'right' is the death of the 'young Siward' during the Northumbrian invasion: this refers to the death of Osbeorn, son of Earl Siward, at the hands of the Scots, though doubtless not in single combat fighting Macbeth.

But then again, why let the facts get in the way of a good story?! Which version of Macbeth do you prefer, the historical alms-giver or the blood-thirsty regicide?

You can comment on this post below or via the @BLMedieval Twitter feed

 

Julian Harrison (@julianpharrison)

 

30 April 2016

Fit for a King’s Sister

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Looking for a story about an exiled princess who married a count called Drogo? Forget Daenerys: the real story revolves around Godgifu.

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Initial B from a Gospel-book, England (Canterbury?), 11th century, Royal MS 1 D III, f. 9r

The British Library has recently digitised an intriguing 11th-century Gospel-book. This manuscript is full of surprises: a red-eyed figure pops out of an arcade surrounding some canon tables. An initial in red and orange decorated with criss-crossed and curly patterns jumps out at the start of the Pater Noster. In other parts, the manuscripts seems to be unfinished, with blank spaces left for initials which were never completed. And at the bottom of a page with a giant initial ‘B’, a 13th-century monk left a useful note, which claims that this 'text [belongs to] the church at Rochester, through Countess Goda.’

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Canon tables, from Royal MS 1 D III, f. 4r

‘Countess Goda’ can probably be identified with Edward the Confessor’s sister, called Godgifu or Gode. Although she was the daughter of Æthelred the Unready and Emma of Normandy, little is known about Godgifu herself. Like her brothers, she probably spent some time in exile on the Continent in the years before and after her father’s death in 1016. At some point, she married Drogo (sometimes spelled Dreux), count of Vexin, with whom she had three sons, including Walter (or Gautier) of Vexin and Ralph the Timid, Count of Hereford, who accompanied his uncle Edward the Confessor to England and supported Edward throughout his reign. When Drogo died in 1035, Godgifu married Eustace II, count of Boulogne. It is not known when Godgifu died: some scholars suggest she predeceased her brother Edward the Confessor. She should not be confused with her contemporary who was also called Lady Godgifu—or Lady Godiva—who allegedly rode naked through Coventry to protest a toll imposed by her husband Leofric, Earl of Mercia. (At least, that is what the 13th-century chronicler Roger of Wendover claimed.)

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Pater Noster, from Royal MS 1 D III, f. 23v

While Godgifu left England, her manuscript did not, or at least not permanently. The book was in an Anglo-Norman environment by the end of the 11th-century, when an ‘Exultet’ with musical notation was added to the opening pages. Although the text is written in a style associated with English scribes, musicologists have suggested that the music represents the Norman version of the melody.

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Exultet with musical notation, England (Canterbury?), late 11th century, Royal MS 1 D III, f. 7v

The book may have stayed with one of Godgifu’s former manors. After Godgifu’s manor of Lambeth was given to Rochester Cathedral by William Rufus, the book may have been taken to the Cathedral, where it was recorded in the list of books copied or acquired by Alexander, the precentor, soon after 1201.

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Detail of a library inscription, England (Rochester), c. 1201, Royal MS 1 D III, f. 9r

Although little is known about Godgifu today, her name evidently meant something to the 13th-century member of the Rochester community who chose to inscribe it. And while librarians never encourage writing in books, scholars are indebted to this anonymous scribe for giving us a glimpse into the world of Godgifu.

~Alison Hudson

23 April 2016

1000th Anniversary of the Death of Æthelred the Unready

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Today marks the 1000th anniversary of the death of King Æthelred II (reigned 978-1016). Æthelred II—often nicknamed Æthelred the ‘Unready’, from the Old English word for 'ill-advised'—has not enjoyed a glowing reputation throughout history. 

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Passage describing Æthelred’s death from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle C-text, England, 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B I, f. 153v

The longest narrative account of Æthelred’s reign comes from a group of entries in the C, D, and E texts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. (The British Library possesses the C and D texts and has recently digitised all its copies of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.) These entries were apparently composed after Æthelred’s death by a single chronicler, who was bitter about the repeated Viking invasions that had dogged Æthelred’s reign and the eventual conquest of England by the Scandinavian leader Cnut. The chronicler blamed Æthelred for many of these tribulations, and summed up Ã†thelred's life in his entry for 1016 by saying: 'He ended his days on St George's day, and he had held his kingdom with great toil and difficulties as long as his life lasted' (translated by Dorothy Whitelock and others, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Revised Translation (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1961), p. 95).

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Passages describing Eadric Streona’s treachery from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D-text, England, 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B IV, f. 65v

In particular, the chronicler objected to Æthelred’s promotion of the treacherous noble Eadric Streona, who eventually joined Cnut’s forces. He also disapproved of the massive payments which English leaders collected and used to pay Viking forces in return for an end to hostilities. 

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Detail of a list of benefactors including â€˜Ã†Ã°elred [the Unready] Cynge' and 'Cnut Cynge', from the New Minster Liber Vitae, England (Winchester), 1031, Stowe MS 944, f. 25r 

Despite the eventual conquest of Æthelred’s kingdom by Cnut, there are other suggestions that Æthelred was not an entirely incompetent ruler. Æthelred was one of the longest reigning early medieval kings: he ruled for approximately 38 years, even taking into account the period when the victories of the Viking leader Swein forced him into exile in Normandy in 1013 and 1014. By contrast, Æthelred’s father, Edgar the Peaceable, had only reigned for 16 years, and Æthelred’s successor Cnut reigned for 19 years. Ã†thelred’s longevity, particularly in the context of invasion and disruption, is remarkable.

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Initial at the start of the Gospel of St Luke, from the Cnut Gospels, England, Royal MS 1 D IX, f. 70r

In addition to disruption, Æthelred’s reign also saw a flourishing of artistic production, as evidenced by several manuscripts in the British Library’s collection, which have now been digitised in full. These include the lavishly illustrated and gilded gospel-book pictured above which may have been made during Æthelred’s reign, even though it is known today as the ‘Cnut Gospels’ because charters of Cnut were later added to it around 1018.

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Page from Beowulf, England, c. 1000-1016, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 140r

Similarly, the only surviving manuscript of the longest Old English epic, Beowulf, was copied during Æthelred’s reign, in the early 11th century. Curiously, Beowulf is a Geatish, or Scandinavian, hero, whose story was still being retold in a context of Scandinavian invasions of England. This manuscript contains a number of other notable texts as well, including an Old English poem about the Biblical heroine, Judith.

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Deatil of the opening page of Ælfric’s Life of St Æthelthryth, from Ælfric’s Lives of the Saints, England (? Bury St Edmunds or Canterbury), 1st half of the 11th century, Cotton MS Julius E VII, f. 94v

Indeed, many of the most important works in the corpus of Old English literature were copied during Æthelred’s reign, and some were even produced then. In particular, Æthelred’s reign coincided with the career of Ælfric of Eynsham, one of the most prolific and talented authors of Old English works. Ælfric’s sermons, including his Lives of the Saints, his Grammar, and other texts were widely copied during the 11th century and are still studied in medieval English literature courses today. The British Library has now digitised two copies of the first series of Ælfric’s Catholic Homilies (see Cotton MS Vitellius C V), including the earliest surviving copy (Royal MS 7 C XII); one copy of Ælfric’s Lives of the Saints (Cotton MS Julius E VII); two copies of Ælfric’s Grammar (Cotton MS Faustina A X, Cotton MS Julius A II); a copy of the Old English translation of the Hexateuch, to which Ælfric was a principal contributor (Cotton MS Claudius B IV); and other works which include excerpts from Ælfric, such as a  fragment of a colloquy associated him which was copied into the margins of a grammar book (Add MS 32246).

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Page from a later copy of Ælfric’s Hexateuch, England (Canterbury), c. 1025-1050, Cotton MS Claudius B IV, f. 15v

Æthelred’s reign also coincided with the careers of other noted writers in Old English and Latin, including Wulfstan, bishop of Worcester and archbishop of York, and Wulfstan, cantor of the Old Minster, Winchester. Manuscripts of these men’s work—including some with additions and annotations in Wulfstan of Worcester’s own hand—have also recently been digitised, including Wulfstan of Winchester’s long Latin poem about the miracles of St Swithun (Royal MS 15 C VII).

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Page from the Rule of St Benedict, England, c. 975-1016, Harley MS 5431, f. 44r

These writers were all products of the monastic reform movement which promoted the Rule of St Benedict, uniformity of lifestyle, and high standards of education. Much manuscript evidence of this learning survives, including a plethora of grammar books, glossaries, and texts on subjects from astronomy (Cotton Domitian A I) to Latin epics to hagiography to riddles.

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Page from Prudentius' Psychomachia with illustration and glosses, England (? Bury St Edmunds), c. 980-1020, Add MS 24199, f. 12r

These texts show monks (and possibly nuns and lay people) studying and improving their Latin and even Greek.

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Latin phrase ‘Deo gratias’ written in Greek letters, from  Harley MS 5431, f. 106v

This artistic flourishing was not entirely unrelated to the troubles of Æthelred’s reign. Many members of Æthelred’s kingdom believed that the Viking invasions were divine punishment for lax practices and lack of learning. This view can, for instance, be found explicitly in the writings of another leading intellectual of Æthelred’s reign: Wulfstan, bishop of Worcester and archbishop of York, who wrote several law codes issued in Æthelred’s reign and was a senior administrator for him (and later, for Cnut). Wulfstan’s law codes and his famous ‘Sermon of the Wolf to the English’ blame his countrymen’s lax habits for Scandinavian forces’ recent victories. In the eyes of contemporaries, creating beautiful books to glorify God and educate clerics and lay people may have been one way to combat the country’s moral (and military) woes.

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Page from Wulfstan’s Sermo lupi, England (? Worcester or ? York), Cotton MS Nero A I, f. 110r

Beyond the manuscripts related to art and learning, we have also recently digitised a series of documents which suggest that, in some regions at least, leases and property deals and farming continued apace during Ã†thelred’s reign. Such documents can be found in an early cartulary of Worcester, such as the Liber Wigorniensis (Cotton MS Tiberius A XIII, ff. 1-118v) and the Ely farming memoranda (Add MS 61735). The memoranda describe farm tools and livestock sent from Ely Abbey to Thorney Abbey, as well as rents payable in eels.

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Grant by King Æthelred to the Bishopric of St David with reversion to Worcester from 1005, from the Liber Wigorniensis, England (Worcester), c. 1000-1025, Cotton MS Tiberius A XIII, f. 118v

Whatever one thinks of Æthelred, it cannot be denied that his reign was a fascinating time in political and artistic history. On 23 April 2016, when so many people around the world are celebrating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, it is worth pausing to remember that it is also the 1000th anniversary of the death of King Æthelred.

~Alison Hudson

20 April 2016

A Firsthand Experience: Great Writers' Handwriting

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Christian Dior once claimed that one could tell more about a person from her perfume than from her handwriting, but we in the Medieval Manuscripts section at the British Library would disagree, particularly as we have recently digitised manuscripts which the author of the text copied in his or her own hand. These include works by famous figures, like Shakespeare and more enigmatic ones, like a poet named Frithegod. 

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Image of a scribe, from Germany (?), mid-12th century, Cotton Claudius A III, f. 30r

Such ‘autograph’ manuscripts from the early modern and medieval periods are rare and often difficult to prove. Features such as spelling, punctution and substantial corrections can all be instructive. The British Library has recently digitised several manuscripts which are generally believed to be autograph copies or contain notes by known scribes.

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Miniature of Margaret of York before the resurrected Christ,
from Nicholas Finet, Dialogue de la Duchesse, Low Countries (Brussels), c. 1468, Additional 7970, f. 1v

For example, one newly digitised manuscript includes the handwriting of Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy. The Dialogue de la Duchesse de Bourgogne à Jésus Christ (Dialogue of the Duchess of Burgundy with Jesus Christ) was a devotional tract written especially for Margaret by her almoner or chaplain, and is discussed in more detail here. Margaret later gave the book to her friend and lady-in-waiting Jeanne de Hallewin, according to a dedicatory inscription written by Margaret herself at the end of the manuscript: ‘margarete dyork de angleterre au done a jane de halevyn dame vessenar et dame de la planc se lyvre...’ Interestingly, at some point Margaret erased the words ‘dyork’ (of York) and instead decided to describe herself as ‘de angleterre’ (of England).

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Dedication in Margaret of York’s hand written c. 1502, from
Additional 7970, f. 140vr

Another notable recent upload to the British Library's website may come from the pen of the most famous English author himself. The Book of Sir Thomas More is the only play script believed to contain Shakespeare’s own handwriting (Harley MS 7368). As noted on this blog in February, Shakespeare helped to revise the Book of Sir Thomas More in 1603 or 1604. The page in his handwriting includes a speech defending immigrants and foreigners against the ‘mountainish inhumanity’ of a mob seeking to banish them during the Evil May Day riots of 1517. Come and see it in person at the British Library’s current exhibition, Shakespeare in Ten Acts, or read more about it on the Library's Discovering Literature site.

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Page containing Thomas More’s speech to the rebels, thought to be written in the hand of William Shakespeare, from the Book of Sir Thomas More, England, c. 1603-4, Harley MS 7368, f. 9r

Shakespeare is not the only notable figure from the history English literature whose handwriting appears in recently digitised manuscripts. The handwriting of two of the most prolific Old English writers—Ælfric of Eynsham and Wulfstan, bishop of Worcester and archbishop of York— have been identified in several British Library manuscripts. For example, some scholars believe that the bossy instructions for deletions and corrections in the earliest surviving copy of the first series of Ælfric’s Catholic Homilies were made by Ælfric himself. In the passage below, the hand associated with Ælfric blocks off a segment of text for deletion, on the grounds that this anecdote is discussed in his ‘oðre bec’ (other book), presumably the Second Series of his Catholic Homilies.

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Detail of annotations possibly in Ælfric’s hand, from Ælfric, Catholic Homilies (First Series), England (Cerne?), 990s, Royal MS 7 C XII, f. 64r

Similarly, several manuscripts contain annotations and underlining believed to be in Wulfstan’s handwriting. These include annotations to a manuscript containing law codes, homilies (including Wulfstan's Sermo lupi) and Wulfstan's work on political and social order, Institutes of Polity (Cotton MS Nero A I) and to material in his letterbook (Cotton Vespasian A XIV), as discussed in a previous blog post.

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Page believed to contain Archbishop Wulfstan's handwriting among others, from Wulfstan's Institutes of Polity, England, c 1000-1023, Cotton MS Nero A I, f 120r

Curiously enough, one of the more substantial additions to the letterbook in Wulfstan’s own hand is a poem praising... an archbishop called Wulfstan. One line of this poem states, ‘[This poem's] beauty is a praise for the kind Bishop Wulfstan, to whom may the Lord be endlessly merciful.’ The poem also acknowledges Wulfstan’s involvement in its production: the last stanza can be roughly translated as, ‘This work was prepared with Archbishop Wulfstan advising. The subtle supervisor [Archbishop Wulfstan] impressed it with his learned thumb.’ It is unclear why Wulfstan wanted to copy out his poem in his own hand. He could have been paying a compliment to its author. He could have been vain or in need of some good PR. Wulfstan may also have been drawn to this poem because he was anxious about the fate of his soul and the poem emphasizes God’s approval of Wulfstan and Wulfstan’s place in heaven. This seems to have been a particular concern of Wulfstan’s in the wake of renewed Viking attacks in the early 11th century, as demonstrated by the contents of the rest of the manuscript. Wulfstan even added an extra line to the poem that approximately translates as, ‘May the Lord give [Wulfstan] the holy kingdom of heaven, and may he protect all those entrusted to him from malignant hosts.’

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Verses written in Archbishop Wulfstan's own hand, from the letterbook of Archbishop Wulfstan, England, c. 1002-1023, Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV, f. 148v

 Recent uploads to Digitised Manuscripts also include a text which may have been copied almost entirely by its author: the Breviloquium Wilfridi, written by a figure called Frithegod (Cotton Claudius A I). The Breviloquium is a poem about an early Northumbrian saint called Wilfrid, written for Oda the Good, a mid-tenth-century archbishop who brought some of Wilfrid’s relics to Canterbury. Its complex structure and obscure vocabulary have led scholars to dub it one of the most difficult pieces of Latin ever written in England.

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Page from Frithegod, Breviloquium Wilfridi, England? (Christ Church Canterbury?), mid-10th century, Cotton Claudius A I, f. 36v

The poem’s author, Frithegod, was probably a monk from the continent—possibly from Brioude, in what is now southern France—who was working for Oda at Canterbury. The script of the British Library’s manuscript of the Breviloquium shows it was copied down in the mid-tenth-century, when the work was first composed, by someone trained on the continent. The substantial nature of some of the corrections also suggests that the text was copied by Frithegod himself.

The way these writers interacted with the texts which they themselves had composed and the corrections they made suggest a whole array of possibilities about how they worked as writers, where they were educated, what their influences were, and even how they perceived themselves. Autograph manuscripts also offer a uniquely intimate connection to people who lived 400, 500, and even 1000 years ago: please click through to Digitised Manuscripts and have a look.

~Alison Hudson

Read More about Previously Digitised Autograph Manuscripts:

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Christine de Pizan’s Book of the Queen

Digitised Manuscripts Update 

Chronicles of Holland Online

Documentary of a Royal Coronation

04 April 2016

Isidore of Seville's Etymologies: Who's Your Daddy?

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Isidore of Seville died on this day in 636. Isidore, who was born in 560, was the bishop of Seville from about 600 to his death. He is better known, however, as an author than as an administrator. His most famous work is the Etymologies, a vast reference work, which functioned as an etymological encyclopaedia. The text was highly influential throughout the Middle Ages. It represents Isidore’s ambitious attempts to condense a huge body of knowledge into a single work.

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Hedgehogs feed their young from a Bestiary attached to Isidore of Seville's Etymologies, c 1200-c 1210, Northern or Central England, Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 8v

As well as containing information on a range of subjects, like mathematics, canon law, philosophy, the human body, geography, ship-building, weights and measures and rhetoric, it also has some excellent (and highly dubious) zoological information. According to Isidore, hedgehogs feed their young by visiting vines, plucking the grapes from the plant and rolling over them in order to impale them on their spines. In the image above we can see the hedgehog doing a sterling impression of a 1970s canapé tray.

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Diagrams of the path of the Sun and the phases of the moon; from Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, England, last quarter of the 11th century, Royal MS 6 C I , f. 30r

Given its ambitious scope, many manuscripts of the work contain a complex extra-textual apparatus to help readers navigate the work. You can see an example of this apparatus – in this case a table of contents – in a ninth century copy of the work, below. (This is not the only ninth century copy held by the library: Harley MS 3941 has also been digitised.) It is for this reason that Pope John Paul II nominated Isidore to be the patron saint of the internet. Isidore is the perfect candidate. Like the internet, his Etymologies contains a large body of information which requires a complex searching mechanism to help you find information about medicine or law or just cool stuff about hedgehogs. 

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Table of contents, Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies, Northern France, 9th century, Harley MS 2686, f. 5r

A particularly striking example of a 'search function' in one copy of the work-- an eleventh-century manuscript (Royal MS 6 C I), probably copied at St Augustine's Abbey in Canterbury-- is the affinity diagrams, laying out the relationships within members of a family. Who exactly is your second cousin twice removed? Fortunately for the reader, a simple chart should sort out the confusion. 'The grandfather of my paternal uncle,' it reads across one line, 'is my propatruus, and I am to him the niece or nephew of his son or daughter'. Relationships are labelled with both the terms for the relative and the term by which he or she would refer to the reader: both grandfather and grandson, both uncle and nephew (or niece!). Just as the world has been diagrammed, so have the intricacies of the family tree.

 

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Chart of familial affinities, from Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, England, last quarter of the 11th century, Royal MS 6 C I , f. 78r

The Etymologies is also famous for its sometimes quirky explanations of the history of words. In some cases, when Isidore takes the word apart based on what it sounds like, the explanation that results can be extremely engaging, if not necessarily true. The Latin word for 'beggar' (mendicus) is now believed to derive from an earlier word meaning 'deformity' or 'lack'.  Isidore, however, speculates a much more charming story, of a 'custom among the ancients' to 'close the hungry mouth and extend a hand, as if speaking with the hand' (manu dicere).

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Etymologies of words beginning with F and G; from Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, Book 10, England, last quarter of the 11th century, Royal MS 6 C I , f. 82r

In other cases, Isidore’s etymologies, while colourful, are spot-on. The one he gives for the words Fornicarius and Fornicatrix (male and female prostitute) explains that these terms come from the Latin word for 'arch' (fornix), and refers to the architecture of ancient brothels. Prostitutes were understood to lie under such arches while practising their trade. This is the same explanation for the word 'fornicate' offered in the Oxford English Dictionary today!

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T-O map of the world, with east at the top, from Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, England, last quarter of the 11th century, Royal MS 6 C I , f. 108v

Isidore's work had an immense influence on later medieval thinkers across Europe. For example, Isidore was the first to explain the layout of the continents in what would become the classic medieval schema, the T-O map. The world is round, with Jerusalem its spiritual as well as geographical centre, standing at the convergence between the three known continents of Asia, Europe and Africa.

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Opening page from Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, Low Countries (Munsterbilsen), c. 1130-1174, Harley MS 3099, f. 1v

Isidore's influence is also suggested by the number of copies of the Etymologies which survive, from every century of the medieval period, across Europe, copied by diverse scribes. We now have no less than ten manuscripts of Isidore's Etymologies available on our Digitised Manuscripts website. As well as those listed above, you can also see Harley MS 3099, which was, somewhat unusually, copied by eight female scribes (see image above). They were Benedictine nuns in the Abbey of Munsterbilsen near Maastricht (now Belgium), working in the period 1130-1174.

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Excerpt from Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, Northern France, late 8th century, Cotton MS Caligula A XV, f. 37r

The earliest digitised copy is Cotton Caligula A XV  which dates from the 2nd half of the 8th century and was made in Northern France. Alongside this, you can see a late 11th-century version (Royal MS 6 C I), an early 12th-century copy (Harley MS 2660), made in the Rhineland , a mid 13th-century copy, Harley MS 6  and our youngest digitised manuscript, which is a mere five centuries old Harley MS 3035.

- Nicole Eddy, updated by Mary Wellesley