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166 posts categorized "Anglo-Saxon"

12 July 2017

The Lindisfarne Gospels in the Treasures Gallery

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As regular readers of this Blog will know, the display of the Lindisfarne Gospels follows a conservation programme recommended by an international committee of experts. When it is out in the Library’s Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery, we turn a page every three months, in order to show visitors a different view of it, and to limit the amount of light on any one opening. In the spring, we displayed one of the book’s wonderful canon tables, but from this month you can see the beginning of the summary for the Gospel of John. 

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Decorated word ‘Johannes’ (John) with the word ‘evangelista’ (evangelist) below, from Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 203v

The Lindisfarne Gospels is one of the most well-known of all English manuscripts, renowned both for the intricacy and beauty of its decoration, and for its importance as the earliest surviving example of the Gospels in English. The Gospels was written by one scribe, who was probably also responsible for the remarkable initials throughout the volume.  According to an inscription added at the end of the manuscript in the late 10th century, that scribe and artist was a monk called Eadfrith, who served as bishop of Lindisfarne from 698 to 721. 

The man who added the inscription, Aldred, the provost at Chester-le-Street just north of Durham, also added Old English words above the Latin text. Throughout the text is divided into two columns, with Aldred’s Old English translation above each Latin word in small letters.

In the opening now on display in the gallery, visitors can see the decorated word is ‘Iohannes’ (John), and just below it, the word ‘evangelista’ (evangelist), which is translated by the English word ‘godspellere’ directly above it. On the opposite page, the opening words of a summary of John’s Gospel ‘In the beginning’ are so highly decorated that they can be difficult to make out: ‘In Prin[cipio]’ with the last part of the word on the next line (The ‘P’ looks a bit like a modern ‘B’).

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Decorated words ‘In Prin[cipio]’ (In the beginning), opening words of John’s Gospel, from Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 204r

If you can’t make it to London to see this display, check it out online on our Digitised Manuscripts site. You can use the terrific zoom feature to really analyse the text and the wonderful initials.

The manuscript is also included as the second entry in a recent publication featuring some of the most beautiful Bibles in the Library’s collections, The Art of the Bible (Thames and Hudson and the British Library, 2016).

Kathleen Doyle

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30 June 2017

Making a good impression

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The British Library does not only contain books — it holds items from ancient Chinese oracle bones to Jane Austen's spectacles. Recently, I've been working with some of the British Library's collection of seals (the wax kind, not the animal kind), and have been particularly intrigued by the seal of St Edith (b. 961x964, d. 984x987), daughter of King Edgar, used by Wilton Abbey throughout the Middle Ages. The text and images on Edith's seal, which was seemingly designed during her lifetime, give a rare contemporary insight into the priorities, identities and possibly even the jewellery of a young princess in late 10th-century England. 

Edith was a member of the royal family and was declared a saint relatively soon after her death, but there are few contemporary references to her. She is not mentioned by name in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and the most detailed accounts of her life were written almost a century after her lifetime.

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Detail of the seal of Edith attached to Harley Charter 45 A 36

Edith was the daughter of King Edgar (r. 958/9-975) and a woman called Wulfthryth. Wulfthryth and Edith both ended up in the nunnery of Wilton; Edgar subsequently married Ælfthryth, the mother of the future Æthelred the Unready. According to her later hagiographer, Goscelin (d. c. 1107), King Edgar arranged for Edith to be educated by two foreign chaplains, Radbod of Rheims and Benno of Trier.

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Detail of a witness list describing Edith's stepmother, 
Ælfthryth, as Edgar’s ‘legitimate spouse’, from the New Minster Refoundation Charter, England (Winchester), c. 966: Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII, ff. 30v–31r

While there are few contemporary references to Edith, one of her possessions may literally have left its mark. A charter for Wilton Abbey dated 1372 bears a seal in Edith’s name. The seal impression features 10th-century artistic styles and it may be an imprint of Edith’s own seal matrix. Here, ‘seals’ refer to wax impressions made with engraved metal or ivory objects, called seal matrice. They conveyed authority, assuring the recipient that they could trust a particular document or messenger. By the late 10th and early 11th century, many elite Anglo-Saxons may have had their own seals, including kings, nobles and churches. However, very few Anglo-Saxon seals survive; only 7 existing seal matrices can be dated before 1066. This impression of Edith's seal gives a rare glimpse into the sorts of seals that may have existed in the 10th century and how this particular woman may have wished to be characterised. 

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Harley Charter 45 A 36

The seal's inscription emphasises Edith's royal status: ‘Sigil Eadgyðe Re[ga]l[is] [Ad]elphe’ (‘The seal of Edith, the royal sister’). Edith’s half-brothers, Edward the Martyr and Æthelred the Unready, reigned from  975 to 978 and 978 to 1016 respectively. The term ‘royal sister’ may also be an oblique reference to Edith’s status as a nun, devoted to Christ the Heavenly king.

The use of the Greek term adelphi or adelpha instead of soror, the more common Latin term for 'sister', also tells us something about the way Edith may have wished to be portrayed. Edith lived in a time when learning and book production were being promoted by wealthy monastic reformers. Obscure, Greek-influenced vocabulary was particularly popular in reformed monasteries. Female houses are now beginning to be acknowledged in the history of the revival of learning with monastic reform, and Edith’s seal shows that she or whoever made it aspired to the standards of the learned elite and their expansive vocabularies.   

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Greek letters transliterating the phrase 'Explicit Liber Psychomachian', from a copy of Prudentius's Psychomachia, England, late 10th or early 11th century, Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII, f. 37r

The seal also depicts a woman, presumably Edith, as its central image. This veiled woman is probably an idealized figure, rather than a specific portrait. Catherine Karkov has noted that her pose, attire and accessories strongly resemble the miniatures of women in the Benedictional made for the monastic reformer St Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester (d. 984), which was probably made around the same time as the seal.

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Miniature of St
Æthelthryth, from the Benedictional of St Æthelwold made by Godeman, England, c. 963–984, Add MS 49598, f. 90v

It's a pity if the seal does not give a clear idea of Edith's appearance, because her fashion sense was legendary for centuries after her death. One of the most memorable anecdotes in Goscelin of Saint-Bertin’s Life of St Edith, written around the 1080s, describes Edith fighting with St Æthelwold over her elaborate attire:

‘Blessed bishop Æthelwold once warned [Edith], with her rather ornate habit… ‘O daughter, not in these garments does one approach the marriage chamber of Christ, nor is the heavenly bridegroom pleased with exterior elegance.’ [Edith replied…] ‘Believe, reverend father, a mind by no means poorer in aspiring to God will live beneath this covering than beneath a goatskin. I possess my Lord, who pays attention to the mind, not to the clothing...’ (Goscelin, Vita S Edithae, chapters 12 and 13, trans. by Stephanie Hollis, Writing the Wilton Women (Turnhout: Brepols, 2004), pp. 42–43)

At this stage, according to Goscelin, Æthelwold conceded defeat. A fire at the monastery vindicated Edith’s dress sense: most of the nuns’ possessions were destroyed but Edith’s fine leather and purple attire was miraculously spared:

‘When they unfolded the garments, made of skin or of purple, and of the everlasting guardian, all the things were found to be as they had been before the fire, unharmed by all the burning… although, from the nature of their material, they ought to have been more inflammable.’

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Copy of the seal of Edith from Harley Charter 45 A 36, Doubleday Cast C. 3

Goscelin may have made this story up: it provided a convenient opportunity for him to compare the unburnt clothes to Edith’s intact virginity. However, he may have learned this story from the community at Wilton, to whom he was the chaplain. If so, the community may have wanted to remember a young princess who dressed exactly as she liked, regardless of a bishop’s disapproval. And the seal matrix itself may itself have been part Edith’s flashy attire: the later impressions show that Edith’s seal matrix had a large handle made to look like acanthus leaves, which could have been attached to a belt or a necklace.

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Detail of the imprint of a handle from Edith’s seal, Harley Charter 45 A 36

The nuns of Wilton remembered Edith for centuries after her death. Her seal was used throughout the abbey’s history, right up until the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The final document showing the last abbess of Wilton using Edith’s seal dates from 1536, about 550 years after Edith died.

Alison Hudson

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21 June 2017

Stay cool

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This week in Britain, we have been enjoying some hot weather. For inspiration on how to beat the heat, why not turn to the fantastical stories northern Europeans used to tell each other about how people and creatures in warm places kept cool?

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Detail of elephants and a dragon, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England, c. 1310–1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 118v

Examples of such stories can be found in two groups of texts we’ve discussed before on the blog. These are copies of the Marvels of the East, descriptions of weird and wonderful creatures said to live beyond the known world, and bestiaries, collections describing various animals and their habits.

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Panotii, from the Marvels of the East, England, late 10th or early 11th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 104r

The Marvels of the East focus on creatures found in warm climates, such as elephants and camels. The text may have been based on a variety of ancient sources, but like a game of telephone (or Chinese whispers), they had been much distorted by the time it was being copied and illustrated in the early Middle Ages.

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Bas-de-page scene of a grotesque hybrid with a panotii (a monstrous race of men with enormous ears), from the Rutland Psalter, England (London?), c. 1260, Add MS 62925, f. 88v

Among the creatures the text describes are the panotii, people with big ears ‘like fans’. Conveniently, the panotii's ears could also be used as blankets at night. Less conveniently, the panotii were said to be very shy, and they had to pick up their large ears when they ran away from company. 

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Detail of a sciapod, from images of the Monstrous Races from the Arnstein Bible, North-West Germany, c. 1172, Harley MS 2799, f. 243r

Another of our favourite strategies for keeping cool comes from the people known as the sciapodes or sciopods: literally, the ‘Shady-feet’. (H/T to Sjoerd Levelt, who recently noted them on Twitter!) These people were said to lie on their backs and use their giant feet to shield them from the heat of sun. 

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Sciapodes from John Mandeville’s Travels, England (East Anglia), c. 1425–1450, Harley MS 3954, f. 31r

This story continued to capture artists’ and writers’ imaginations, and sciapodes appear in manuscripts and maps throughout the Middle Ages. The story seems to have long roots, as well: the 5th-century BCE writer Scylax is credited with a similar story, which may ultimately be based on retellings of ancient Indian stories. On a day like today, one can certainly see the appeal of the idea!

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Detail of a dragon entangling an elephant, from the Flower of Nature, Low Countries, c. 1300-1325, Add MS 11390, f. 13r

Medieval writers also worried about how dragons coped with heat, given that some were believed to breathe fire. They were said to be born in the hottest parts of the world, where no cool places could be found, even on the mountaintops. There was a medieval tradition that overheated dragons solved their conundrum by eating elephants. According to these authors, elephants had cold blood, which dragons tried to drink to cool their ‘burning intestines’. (Please, please do not try this at home.)

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A dragon biting an elephant, from a bestiary, England (Salisbury?), c. 1225–1250, Harley MS 4751, f. 58v

So enjoy the hot weather, while it lasts, and keep cool!

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

06 June 2017

In an artistic league of its own

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No matter how long you’ve worked with medieval manuscripts, there's always one that completely surprises you. One manuscript that has astonished many scholars, and still inspires debate, is the combination of music, texts and images in the mid-11th-century portion of Cotton MS Caligula A XIV, known as the Caligula Troper or Cotton Troper. The Caligula Troper has been described as ‘completely unexpected in a mid-eleventh-century English context’ (T.A. Heslop, ‘Manuscript illumination at Worcester, c. 1055–1065’, in The Cambridge Illuminations: The Conference Papers ed. by Stella Panayotova (London: Harvey Miller, 2007), p. 69). Not only is it illustrated, which is unusual for surviving early English musical manuscripts, but the style of its illustrations is unparalleled elsewhere.

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St Martin identifying a devil trying to disguise himself as Christ, from the Caligula Troper, England (?Western England), mid-11th century, Cotton MS Caligula A XIV, f. 29r

The Caligula Toper is so-called because it was housed in the section of Sir Robert Cotton's library named after the Roman emperor Caligula and it contains the text for tropes: that is, chants which would have been added to the mass on special days, like saints’ days or major holidays. The volume’s slim size — it fits in your palm — suggests it could have been used by a single person, such as a soloist. The text is accompanied by musical notation, called ‘neumes’. Although some neumes look like modern musical notes, they had a slightly different use and functioned more as an aide-mémoire for someone who already knew the tune.

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Tropes for Christmas, from Cotton MS Caligula A XIV, f. 2r

The Caligula Troper also contains illustrations of Biblical scenes and scenes from the lives of the saints mentioned in the text, ‘captioned’ by verses which run around the edges of the images.

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Miniature of Peter being released from prison, to accompany music from the feast of St Peter in Chains, Cotton MS Caligula A XIV, f. 22r

It is these illustrations that make the Caligula Troper so unusual. While the script and the musical notation seem to be English, the style of the illustrations is rather different from the artistic style which dominated de luxe English book productions during the late 10th and early 11th century. This style emphasized curved figures, round faces, and extremely fluttery drapery, as shown in the drawings below, which may have been made at about the same time as or shortly before the Troper.

Tib B V!1 and Titus D XXVII comparanda
Miniature of Orion, from Cicero's Aratea, Southern England, mid-11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 39r; Miniature of the Crucifixion, from Ælfwine's Prayerbook, Cotton MS Titus D XXVII, f. 65v

By contrast, the artist or artists of the Caligula Troper had a very geometric style, especially for the figures’ long faces, stylized hair-dos and triangular or diamond-shaped hemlines. The artist(s)’ use of bold colours, particularly red and yellow, is also striking, given that most surviving 11th-century English manuscripts favoured a range of colours or tinted line drawings. The artist(s) also used tonal modelling, or gradients of colour and shading, in a more decisive way than is found in other surviving English manuscripts.

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A group of virgins, from Cotton MS Caligula A XIV, f. 36r

This contrast can be seen particularly in images like the Ascension or the naming of John the Baptist. There, the artist(s) of the Caligula Troper copied the cast of characters and even the gestures found in late 10th- and 11th-century English manucripts, but with a totally different effect due to the more angular features on the figures and the sharper gradient of colours.

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The Ascension, three ways: ‘Winchester-style’ painting from the Benedictional of St
Æthelwold, England (Winchester or Thorney), c. 963-984, Add MS 49598, f. 64; Cotton MS Caligula A XIV, f. 18r; tinted line-drawing from the Tiberius Psalter, England (Winchester?), mid-11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius C VI, f. 15r

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The naming of John the Baptist, from Cotton MS Caligula A XIV, f. 20v and a detail of the naming of John the Baptist, from Add MS 49598, f. 92v

Because of this unusual artistic style, no one knows for sure where it was made. This manuscript has been associated with various religious houses, including Hereford, Gloucester, and the Old Minster, Winchester. Its date is also debated. Even if we could establish where the Caligula Troper was made, that still does not explain where the artist or artists were inspired to create such distinctive artwork. Some scholars have suggested that they spent time in mainland Europe or had access to continental manuscripts brought by travelling bishops. Others have suggest that the artist(s) were trained at Canterbury, and may even have known Eadwig [Eadui] Basan, the prolific scribe of several gilded service books.

Wherever and by whomever the Caligula Troper was made, Elizabeth Teviotdale has shown that it was used into the 13th-century, possibly at Worcester. Although the 11th-century portion that survives is missing some of its pages, it was added to a 12th-century Troper and Proser by the 13th-century, when the same hand annotated it. By the 12th-century, some musical notations and styles had changed — notably, notation now included lines to help indicate pitches — but the beautiful and unusual 11th-century troper continued to be valued and possibly even used for centuries to come. Thanks to its recent digitisation by The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700–1200, hopefully this distinctive manuscript can continue to intrigue and surprise viewers for many, many years to come. 

Chaque manuscrit est singulier, mais on trouve parfois des manuscrits vraiment sans pareil. Ainsi, le ‘Caligula Troper’ est le seul manuscrit anglais du haut moyen âge qui contient à la fois de la musique et des images. De plus, le style de l’artiste de ce manuscrit ne ressemble pas à ce qu’on trouve dans les autres manuscrits créés en Angleterre au XIe siècle.

Alison Hudson

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03 June 2017

Methods of making Insular manuscripts

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The Medieval Manuscripts section at the British Library is a partner in a new project, ‘Insular Manuscripts AD 650-850: Networks of Knowledge’, funded by the Leverhulme Trust. The first of three international workshops at the heart of this project was held at the British Library on 24th and 25th April 2017. These workshops will support the future study of Insular manuscripts preserved in libraries around the world, which are becoming increasingly accessible via digital facsimiles.

Insular Manuscripts April 2017
Workshop participants at the British Library

The London workshop focused on ‘Methods of making: palaeographical problems, codicological challenges’. Through a mixture of presentations and group discussion, the workshop considered what is known about the origin, production and circulation of Insular manuscripts from AD 650 to 850.

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St Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 60, p.5: Evangelium S. Johannis. Listed as one of the Libri scottice scripti (‘books in Irish script’) in the mid 9th century catalogue of books at St Gallen, Switzerland.

Beginning with the basics, the workshop opened with an examination of what it means to describe a manuscript as Insular. The term ‘Insular’ is used to describe a range of scripts which originated in Ireland in the 6th century. The higher grade manuscripts are characterised by elaborate initial letters decorated with interlace and zoomorphic designs, and smaller initials embellished with red dots.

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St Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 126, p.296: Hieronymus, Commentarii in Matthaeum. In this book an Insular scribe wrote alongside another trained in the local Alemannic script.

The use of Insular script soon spread to Anglo-Saxon England, particularly Northumbria, and was taken to continental Europe by Irish and Anglo-Saxon missionaries where manuscripts written in Insular scripts continued to be produced well into the ninth century. Around 500 Insular manuscripts survive and 75% of these are now in continental European libraries, including about 40% in Germany and 10% in France. Some of these are very well known and are among the greatest treasures to survive from medieval Europe, but many more are much less studied and have much to reveal about the deep cultural connections between England, Ireland and continental Europe in the early Middle Ages.

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A Prayer in elegiac verse, from the Royal Prayerbook, Southern England (Mercia), late 8th or early 9th century, Royal MS 2 A XX, f. 39r

Script is not the only feature of a manuscript which can be described as Insular. The workshop also explored distinctive Insular methods of making and preparing parchment. In the early medieval period, parchment was made from the skin of calves, sheep and goats. Monasteries often used certain skins for different purposes, and established their own methods of preparing and arranging the parchment in book production. By studying these book production techniques, it is possible to reveal important details such as where a manuscript was produced and what resources a monastery could draw upon.

Vnoucek's Parchment
An example of a stillborn lamb's hide mid-way through the preparation process. The bottom half is further advanced in the process to demonstrate that the colour of individual animals did not affect the parchment they produced. Courtesy of Jiri Vnoucek.

The influence of Insular parchment production and arrangement can even be seen in manuscripts which were written in a Roman style using Italian-influenced uncial script, as in the Ceolfrith Leaves, fragments of one of three great Bibles written at Wearmouth-Jarrow in the early 8th century. The Ceolfrith Leaves used calf skin in traditional insular style, but announcing an important discovery, Jiří Vnouček revealed that the sister manuscript known as the Codex Amiatinus (now Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana MS Amiat. 1) was made entirely from goat and sheep skin, mimicking the very best Italian book production in materials as well as script. The decision to produce Codex Amiatinus on Italian-style parchment fits into the overall ‘Romanizing’ character of the codex which was created as a gift for the pope.

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Page from the Ceolfrith Leaves, England (Wearmouth-Jarrow), before September 716,
 Add MS 45025, f. 2r

Our modern understanding of Insular manuscripts and the monasteries which produced them is often defined by luxury manuscripts such as the Ceolfrith Leaves or the Lindisfarne Gospels, but these monasteries would also have produced many more ‘everyday’, utilitarian texts, which rarely survive.

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Beginning of the Gospel of Matthew from the Lindisfarne Gospels, England, c. 700, Cotton MS Nero D IV, f.18v

One example of an ‘everyday’ text which does survive, written in Insular script, is a letter sent from the Bishop of London to the Archbishop of Canterbury in AD 704 or 705. This letter is the earliest original letter written on parchment to survive from the Christian West. Original letters rarely survive because they had no legal value, and so there was less reason to preserve the original. There are clear differences between the cursive Insular minuscule script used to write this letter, and the elaborate Insular majuscule (also known as Insular half-uncial) used to write the Lindisfarne Gospels.

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Letter of Wealdhere, Bishop of London to Berhtwald, Archbishop of Canterbury, London, 704/705,
Cotton MS Augustus II 18

Manuscripts are inherently portable objects and were often taken away from their centre of production. Many manuscripts written in Ireland and Anglo-Saxon England, using Insular script, were exchanged between the two countries and sent to and from institutions on the Continent.

One particular manuscript discussed in the workshop was the British Library’s Irish Pocket Gospel book. This tiny manuscript (130 mm x 105 mm) was produced in Ireland in the late 8th or early 9th century, and had made its way to Anglo-Saxon England by the 10th century. In England, the decoration surrounding some illuminated initials was scraped away and repainted. It is possible to see traces of the original design.

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Incipit of Luke’s Gospel, made in Ireland in the late 8th or early 9th century and reworked in England in the 10th century, Add MS 40618, f. 23

An on-going point of discussion throughout the workshop was the wide geographical reach of Insular manuscripts and the pervasive legacy of their style. The people and places that produced and used these books, and the opportunities for study created by advances in digital technology will be at the forefront of the discussions of the next two workshops to be held in 2018 and 2019.

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Beginning of Book II of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, England, late 8th or early 9th century, Cotton MS Tiberius A XIV, f. 39r

The participation of the Medieval Manuscripts section in the project complements the early medieval focus of recent digitisation projects. Over 175 Anglo-Saxon manuscripts have currently been digitised, and 400 more manuscripts produced before c. 1200 will be digitised thanks to The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700–1200

Becky Lawton

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09 May 2017

Save a prayer for Ælfwine

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Many people — even some historians of more recent periods — think that it is impossible to study small communities or individuals from early medieval history due to a lack of evidence. Certainly, the surviving sources limit what medieval historians can study; nevertheless, there are some manuscripts which illuminate the lives of particular individuals in surprising detail.

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Image of St Peter with a monk at his feet, from
Ælfwine’s Prayerbook, England (New Minster, Winchester), 1020s, Cotton MS Titus D XXVI, f. 19v

For example, we know a relatively large amount of information about Ælfwine, an Anglo-Saxon monk who became abbot of the New Minster, Winchester around 1031 and died in 1057. We know the names of his mother and other relatives and the dates they died. We know which prayers he may have said. We know how he envisioned what God looked like. We know the code he and his friends used (about which more later). We know how he predicted the weather and treated ulcers by eating a dish made from 9 egg yolks, wine and fennel. All of this information is preserved in his tiny prayer book, which survives in two volumes (Cotton MS Titus D XXVI and Cotton MS Titus D XXVII) and has recently been uploaded to the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.  

Measuring a handy 130 × 90 mm, Ælfwine’s prayerbook contains prayers, calendars, extracts from texts on natural phenomena, diagrams, images of religious scenes, medical recipes, a charm for catching a thief, and the largest surviving collection of Anglo-Saxon prognostics (telling the future, or divination), in Latin and Old English.

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Encoded inscription mentioning
Ælfwine and Ælfsige (Aelsinus), Cotton MS Titus D XXVII, f. 13v

We know that this book belonged to Ælfwine and was made in part by another monk called Ælfsige (Aelsinus in Latin) because they are commemorated in a note written in code, between the calendar and the Easter tables. This code approximately involved replacing some vowels with the letter that follows them in the alphabet. Decrypted, it reads, ‘The most humble brother and monk Ælfsige (Aelsinus in Latin) wrote me, may he have boundless health... Ælfwine, monk and also deacon, owns me.’ ('Frater humillimus et monachus Aelsinus me scripsit, sit illi longa salus. Amen... Ælfwinus monachus aeque decanus me possidet'). This inscription also indicates that Ælfsige (Aelsinus) made the book for Ælfwine before he became abbot.

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Image of the Crucifixion with
Ælfwine’s name in a prayer, from Ælfwine’s Prayerbook, England (New Minster, Winchester), 1020s, Cotton MS Titus D XXVII, f. 65v

Although Ælfsige (Aelsinus) is the only scribe mentioned in the inscription, there was at least one other scribe, and possibly an additional illustrator, involved in the creation of Ælfwine’s prayerbook. Once the prayerbook was made, additions were made in further hands to the calendar and the Easter tables, noting the deaths of kings, other monks and Ælfwine’s relatives, and adding texts about the governance of the New Minster.

Although Ælfwine’s prayerbook contains many personal touches, such as the notices of the death of his biological and spiritual relatives, the book was also able to be reused by later readers — with a few alterations. In the late 11th or early 12th century, a female scribe — who may have been a nun of the Nunnaminster — added female pronouns to some of the prayers. We can be sure she was a she, because she left a note in another manuscript (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 451) asking that the scriptrix remain safe and sound forever.

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The masculine peccator changed to feminine peccatrix, from Cotton MS Titus D XXVI, f. 68r

Ælfwine and Ælfsige (Aelsinus) worked together on other books beyond the prayerbook. When Ælfwine became abbot, he commissioned Ælfsige (Aelsinus) and the illustrator of his prayerbook to create the New Minster Liber Vitae, a collection of narrative texts, lists and images celebrating the New Minster’s history and connections. Although the Liber Vitae is a source for much more than Ælfwine’s personal interests, it also contributes to our understanding of Ælfwine as an individual. It suggests how he began his abbacy and the sorts of texts he was interested in preserving and the sorts of connections he and the illustrator wanted to emphasize that his house had. For example, the Liber Vitae begins with an image of King Cnut and Queen Emma making a gift of a cross to the altar of the New Minster. The New Minster Liber Vitae also includes some personal touches related to Ælfwine: a Wulfwynn, presumably his mother, appears in the list of queens and abbesses. It seems she was a queen in his eyes.

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Image of a saintly monk-bishop and a saintly abbot, from the New Minster Liber Vitae, England (New Minster, Winchester), c. 1031, Stowe MS 944, f. 6v

Although Ælfwine and Ælfsige (Aelsinus) were by no means the most prominent churchmen in mid-11th-century England, the manuscripts they left behind give us a valuable window into the lives and interests of this pair of friends and colleagues.  Granted, these manuscripts are not as revealing as diaries or other genres more associated with later periods. Nevertheless, today's readers can still glimpse on Digitised Manuscripts select individuals who lived 1000 years ago.

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Le caractère disparate des sources historiques laisse penser, bien souvent à tort, qu’il est impossible d’étudier le quotidien, les mentalités ou les représentations de communautés ou d’individus. S’il demeure, en effet, difficile de saisir une réalité exhaustive, certaines sources permettent de mettre en lumière un personnage ou un groupe, et par ce fait, d’avoir une idée plus précise et détaillée de leur vie.C’est le cas du livre de prières d’Ælfwine aujourd’hui conservé en deux volumes (Cotton Titus D XXVI and Cotton Titus D XXVII), récemment numérisés et accessibles en ligne.

Ce volume de petit module qui appartint à celui qui fut abbé de New Minster de c. 1031 à sa mort en 1057, nous fournit de précieuses informations. Les noms de sa mère et d’autres membres de sa famille nous sont ainsi connus par ce manuscrit, de même que la date de leurs décès. Ce petit livre atteste évidemment des prières qu’avait coutume de prononcer Ælfwine, mais également de sa pratique de l’astrométéorologie, des pronostics et de ses recettes médicales pour soigner les ulcères.

Ce manuscrit est issu d’une collaboration entre l’abbé de New Minster, le commanditaire, et Ælfsige (Aelsinus), un moine de la même abbaye, qui copia une partie du volume. Celui-ci s’inscrit donc dans une double dimension : communautaire, certains textes étant directement associés au gouvernement du monastère de New Minster, et individuelle, puisque le contenu est étroitement lié aux intérêts et à la personnalité d’Ælfwine.

Ce n’est donc pas un hasard si les deux moines continuèrent leur association dans l’intérêt de leur monastère. Ælfwine commanda ainsi à Ælfsige le Liber Vitae de New Minster, une collection comportant des textes en prose, un cycle d’images et des listes de saints célébrant l’histoire de l’abbaye. Ce Liber Vitae comporte également plusieurs ajouts renvoyant directement à Ælfwine. Il semble donc que le destin personnel de cet abbé se soit confondu avec celui de son abbaye, pour le plus grand plaisir des lecteurs ultérieurs.

Alison Hudson and Laure Miolo

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26 April 2017

Blooming lovely

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Spring is finally here with spells of sunshine, birds singing and flowers blooming! It’s the perfect time of year to explore medieval gardens and their many uses. Gardens during this period were highly practical and used to grow both food produce and medicinal plants. The British Library houses a blooming lovely collection of early medieval texts that reveal the activities of English gardens at this time.

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Miniature depicting vine-cutting beneath the calendar page for February, Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 3v

Illuminated calendars often depict the labours of the months, scenes depicting the rural activities that were commonly performed in the months of the year. A calendar copied in the first half of the 11th-century (now Cotton MS Julius A VI) features line drawing miniatures of the late winter and early springtime activities of ploughing, cutting vines, digging and sowing, and the month of April is accompanied by a scene of Anglo-Saxon noblemen feasting on the fruits of the agricultural labours. Domesday Book records many vineyards in South-East England, but the quality of wine was poor and by the 12th century wine was imported from Bordeaux, the French territory under English rule following the marriage of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Instead, orchards gained popularity in England and apple cider was widely consumed.

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Bottoms up: The Indicia sign for ‘beor’, beer or cider from an Old English copy of Monasteriales Indicia, England (Christ Church Canterbury), 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius A III, f. 100r

Cotton MS Tiberius A III contains an Anglo-Saxon food list in the Monasteriales Indicia (ff. 97r-101v), an Old English sign language for use when Benedictine monks had to keep silence at Christ Church, Canterbury, including during meal times. This food list reveals the foods consumed by the monks at Canterbury and includes a sign for beor, a drink that may be the Old English word for beer or cider. To request beor at meal times, one had to make the following sign: Beores taken is þaet þu gnide þine hand on þa oþre, ‘you grind your hand on the other’, which might stand for pressing apples.

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Reaping the rewards: Miniature depicting feasting beneath the calendar page for April, Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 4v

As well as vineyards, the herbal garden featured prominently in everyday life in early medieval England. Herbs and plants were grown for both culinary and medicinal purposes, to flavour food as well as being prepared for their healing properties. For example, the Old English herbal (now Cotton MS Vitellius C III) lists the chamomile plant, commonly used to flavour drinks, as being used to treat eye pain. This manuscript is the only surviving illustrated Old English herbal, or book describing plants and their uses. It is an Old English translation of Late Antique texts on medicinal properties of plants, and each entry features an illustration of a plant or animal and instructions for preparing it for treatment of specific ailments. The manuscript also contains a work known as the Medicina de quadrupedibus (‘four-legged animals’), and includes a text on the medicinal properties of badgers.

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Entries for chamomile and ‘hart clover’, from an illustrated Old English Herbal, England (? Christ Church Canterbury or Winchester), early 11th century, Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 29v

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A spoonful of honey makes the medicine go down: Recipe for oxymel from England (Bury St Edmunds), late 11th century, Sloane MS 1621, f. 64v

Honey is another foodstuff that was popularly used in medical treatments. An 11th-century English collection of medical recipes (now Sloane MS 1621) includes a recipe for oxymel, a herbal drink made by a mixture of vinegar of honey that was commonly used as a medicine. Bees were likely kept in England from pre-Roman times and the first written evidence of hive beekeeping is recorded c. 705 by Aldhelm, abbot of Malmesbury and later bishop of Sherborne in his work De virginitate, with a reference to hives made of wicker. The British Library has several manuscripts of the prose version of De virginitate, including Royal MS 5 F III.

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Never mind the buzzing: A depiction of beekeeping in the earliest extant manuscript of Clark’s Second-family bestiaries, England, c. 1175-1200, Add MS 11283, f. 23v

Beekeeping was widespread in early medieval England, with hives recorded in hundreds of places in Little Domesday Book which primarily covered the counties of Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk. Honey was also an essential ingredient in mead, the alcoholic drink most popularly associated with feasting. Mead appears in the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, which includes a gigantic mead-hall called Heorot. The British Library holds the only medieval manuscript copy of Beowulf (now Cotton MS Vitellius A XV), produced in Anglo-Saxon England in the late 10th or early 11th century. We hope you feel inspired to try growing your own medieval garden!

Alison Ray

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Opening folio, from Beowulf, England, late 10th century to early 11th century, in Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 132r
 

Le soleil rayonne, les oiseaux chantent et les fleurs commencent à éclore, nous y sommes, c’est enfin le printemps. C’est la période parfaite pour découvrir les jardins médiévaux et leurs multiples vocations! A cette époque, ils ont une dimension pratique et sont destinés à la production de denrées ainsi qu’à la culture d’herbes médicinales. La British Library abrite ainsi une riche collection de textes témoignant d’activités relatives aux jardins.

Les calendriers dépeignent le plus souvent les travaux de la saison et les activités rurales qui y sont attachées : labours, coupe des vignes, plantation des semailles.

Si les vignobles étaient nombreux dans le sud-est de l’Angleterre, la qualité du vin demeurait médiocre. Dès le XIIe siècle, le vin est ainsi importé de Bordeaux, alors terre anglaise du fait du mariage d’Henri  II et d’Aliénor d’Aquitaine. Les vignobles anglais ne rencontrèrent certes pas de succès, mais il en était autrement des vergers, fournissant à la population un délicieux cidre. Le cidre et la bière constituaient les boissons les plus répandues, y compris chez les moines.

Les jardins dédiés aux herbes et aux plantes destinées tant aux soins médicaux qu’à la cuisine faisaient également partie du quotidien au Moyen Age. Ces usages sont décrits dans des herbiers, des œuvres répertoriant les qualités et les usages des différentes plantes. Les manuscrits médicaux sont également loin d’être exempts de recettes à base de plantes.

Le contenu de ces jardins vous a certainement donné des idées de recettes, mais en attendant on ne peut qu’en déduire et en conclure : « il faut cultiver notre jardin » !

 Laure Miolo

 

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21 April 2017

Digitised Manuscripts hyperlinks Spring 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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