Medieval manuscripts blog

127 posts categorized "Anglo-Saxon"

24 August 2016

The Great Medieval Bake Off

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The return of a certain baking contest to British television screens this evening marks the time of year when viewers are struck by a peculiar kind of ‘baking fever’. Typical symptoms include: massively overestimating your own baking talents; buying and using peculiar ingredients you would never usually use; and avidly discussing whose cake had more of a ‘soggy bottom’. This fascination with the baking process and an enjoyment of bread, cakes and pies has long been an important part of society. Baking is, after all, one of the world’s oldest professions, and baking guilds were among the earliest craftsmen guilds established in medieval Europe.

The high level of skill required in the baking craft was certainly recognised in medieval society. In the passage below, the Anglo-Saxon monk, Ælfric, implied that everyone can cook, but it took special skills to be a baker! 'You can live a long time with my skills', he described a baker saying, 'but you cannot live well without them.'

Detail of passage from Ælfric’s colloquy which claims that everyone can cook, but it takes special skills to be a baker (pistor), from marginal additions to a copy of Priscian’s De Excerptiones, Abingdon, 11th century, Add MS 32246, f. 16v

The realities of medieval baking are also depicted in the beautiful illustrations of the Smithfield Decretals. This manuscript contains a collection of 1,971 papal letters, heavily illustrated with scenes which complement the letters and aspects of medieval life. These two illustrations depict two figures, one putting a loaf of bread into the oven and another who waits nearby with a basket of loaves. It is likely that this depicts a communal bread oven, which was popular in the 1300s and allowed all members of the village to bake their own loaves.

Detail of a baker putting a loaf in an oven, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 145r


Detail of a man with loaves in a basket and a baker putting loaves in an oven or taking loaves out of an oven, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 145v

Another illustration from a 14th-century manuscript depicts a rabbit baking its own bread in a miniature oven!


Detail of marginal image of a rabbit, from Lansdowne MS 451, f. 6r

In medieval society, bakers also provided extravagant fare at feasts and celebrations. Feasts were a fundamental part of medieval society and were used to celebrate victories, proclaim social bonds and enjoy the products of the land.

Detail of men feasting, from the Tiberius Psalter, England (? Old Minster Winchester), 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius C VI, f. 5v 

It is easy imagine that preparing for these feasts could be an extremely stressful experience for the cooks and bakers. The illustration below depicts an angry cook brandishing his knife at a member of the service staff.


Marginal illustration from the Luttrell Psalter, Additional MS 42130, f. 207v

Like their modern counterparts, medieval bakers created and used cookbooks, containing recipes and lists of ingredients. A particularly fascinating cookbook was recently discovered here at the British Library, which included recipes for hedgehogs, blackbirds, and even unicorns! The image below, however, is taken from the Forme of Cury, the oldest known instructive cookbook in the English language, dating to the 14th century. The world ‘cury’ is the Middle English word for ‘cookery’. This recipe is for a ‘toastee’, in which two pieces of toasted bread are flavoured with a spiced honey and wine sauce. This cookbook also includes recipes for ‘Pygg in sawse sawge’ or ‘Pig in sage sauce’ and ‘Bank mang’, the predecessor of blancmange.

Recipe for a ‘tostee’, from the Forme of Cury, England, c. 1390, Add MS 5016

Other medieval recipes can be found in the 15th-century cookbook known as the ‘Boke of Kokery’. This manuscript contains 182 recipes, instructing the reader how to ‘hew’ (chop), ‘mele’ (mix), and ‘powdr’ (salt). The page below describes some of the dishes served at a feast for the ordination of the archbishop of Canterbury in 1443. The page also describes a ‘sotelte’ or ‘subtlety’, which was an elaborate sugar sculpture, designed to replicate a biblical scene.


Description of sugar sculptures and other subtleties at a feast for the ordination of the archbishop of Canterbury in 1443, from A Boke of Kokery, England, c. 1443, Harley MS 4016, f. 2r

It is clear that there are many similarities between the medieval and the modern baker. Bakers are still valued members of society, use cookbooks and recipes, and cook for a wide range of functions. One particular difference, however, is the more tolerant approach that modern critics have for bakers whose culinary skills are just not up to scratch. No matter how bad their skills, modern bakers will not be drawn through the streets on the back of a horse with the evidence of their failure tied around their neck.

Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a bad baker being dragged on a horse-drawn hurdle with his deficient loaf of bread around his neck, from the Smithfield Decretals, Southern France (Toulouse?), c. 1300-1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 94r

Neither will modern bakers be strung up for their failures of the kitchen, and meet the same fate as the baker in the image below. This is taken from the illustrated Book of Genesis in the Old English Hexateuch, and accompanies the story of the hanging of the Pharaoh’s baker.


Depiction of the hanging of the Pharaoh’s baker in the Old English Hexateuch, Cotton MS Claudius B IV, f. 59r.

Thankfully to many an aspiring baker, modern society is far more tolerant of the varying talents of bakers and the cakes an loaves that they produce!

Becky Lawton


05 August 2016

Medieval Selfies

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It is tourist season here in London, so while dodging groups armed with selfie sticks and smart phones, it's easy to wish that selfies didn’t exist. (Apologies to anyone whose holiday photos have been accidentally photobombed by a befuddled British Library curator.) But such curmudgeonly attitudes to self-portraitists overlook the fact that selfies have existed for a very long time and offer unique insights into some brilliant and multi-talented artists.

Self-portrait of John Dee, mathematician, astronomer, occultist and adviser to Elizabeth I, from a genealogical roll, England, late 16th or early 17th century, Cotton Ch XIV 1

The Oxford English Dictionary limits the definition of ‘selfie’ to ‘photographic self-portraits’. However, if we extend the definition of ‘selfie’ to cover self-portraits made with pen and ink, selfies have existed in Britain for over 1000 years. One of the earliest known manuscript self-portraits to survive from England was made by St Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury (d. 988), in the 10th century. He depicted himself kneeling before Christ in a manuscript now known as ‘St Dunstan’s Classbook’ (Oxford, Bodleian Library, Auct F.4.32).

How can we tell if an image is a self-portrait? First, we can sometimes identify an artist by analysing brushstrokes, penwork, design or the accompanying handwriting, especially if the artist is well-known or worked on other manuscripts. However, even if we can identify the artist, how can we be sure that an image was intended as a self-portrait, rather than as an image of somebody else? This is where captions come in handy. Most known self-portraits are identified by nearby text which states or suggests that an image depicts its own artist.

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Detail of a self-portrait of Matthew Paris with his name, from the prefatory material to Matthew Paris’s Historia Anglorum, St Albans, c. 1250-1259, Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 6r 

For example, the image above is a self-portrait of the noted medieval writer, scribe, artist and polymath Matthew Paris. We have other manuscripts which are known to have been copied by Matthew Paris, so we can be confident that the first part of this manuscript contains his handwriting and drawing. He also conveniently labelled this self-portrait of him kneeling beneath the Virgin and child: ‘Frater Mathias Parisiensis’.

Self-portrait of Matthew Paris kneeling beneath the Virgin and child, Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 6r 

Similarly, red letters next to two historiated initials in a 13th-century Book of Hours (Add MS 49999) identify the self-portraits of William de Brailes, the book’s artist. William and his workshop are important as some of the earliest known producers of books in England who were not based in a religious institution. Although his self-portraits portray him with a tonsure, William did not depict himself wearing the habit of a religious order, and legal documents from Oxford suggest that he was based at a workshop on Catte Street, at the centre of the Oxford book trade. If selfies never existed, we would know much less about this important figure in the history of book production, and about the way he presented himself.

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Self-portrait of William de Brailes, from the de Brailes Hours, Oxford, c. 1240, Add MS 49999, f. 43r 

In other cases, unlabelled self-portraits have been identified with comparison to labelled self-portraits by the same artist. For example, some scholars claim the image below is a self-portrait of the artist John Siferwas or Cyfrewas (fl. 1380-1421) presenting a work to his patron John, Baron Lovell, because its features and content resemble a labelled self-portrait of Siferwas in the Sherborne Missal. Siferwas drew himself next to the Missal’s scribe, John Whas.

Harley 7026   f. 4v

Left: possible self-portrait of John Siferwas with John, Baron Lovell, from the Lovell Lectionary, Glastonbury?, c. 1400-1410, Harley MS 7026, f. 4v Right: self-portrait of John Siferwas with John Whas, from the Sherborne Missal, Sherborne, c. 1399-1407, Add MS 74236, f. 276v

Other medieval images could be self-portraits, but this is more difficult to prove. Some scholars have argued that the Eadui Psalter contains a self-portrait of its scribe and possible artist, Eadwig (also spelled Eadui) Basan. Eadwig (fl.1012-1023), a monk of Christ Church Canterbury, was one of the most talented Anglo-Saxon scribes, writing charters, the Grimbald Gospels and part of the Harley Psalter, among other works. That said, there is no agreement whether Eadwig really depicted himself in this Psalter and, if he did, which figure he is supposed to be.

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Miniature of monks presenting the Rule of St Benedict to St Benedict, with a prostrating figure, from the Eadui Psalter, Christ Church Canterbury, c. 1012-1023, Arundel MS 155, f. 133r

Some believe the figure kneeling at Benedict’s feet might be a self-portrait of Eadwig. Others argue that the prostrate figure could be a patron or could simply have been copied from an earlier exemplar. Still other historians have argued that Eadwig appears as a member of the crowd presenting a book to Benedict. Nevertheless, some of these figures seem a little slim to be Eadwig: it has been suggested that Eadwig’s second name, basan, was derived from a Hebrew word for ‘the fat’.  Or maybe this was just a very flattering self-portrait!

Whereas modern selfie-takers are often stereotyped as vain and self-promoting, medieval selfies frequently involved a different type of self-promotion, one focused on humility before the divine and saints. In other contexts, medieval artists and writers emphasized the dangers of narcissism and of being too concerned with one’s own appearance. The story of Narcissus, the figure from Greek myth who became obsessed with his own reflection, was retold throughout the Middle Ages, notably in the Roman de la Rose

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Detail of Narcissus, from the Roman de la Rose, Bruges, c. 1490-1500, Harley MS 4425, f. 20r 

So, you can see that self-portraiture is not strictly a modern phenomenon. If you come to the British Library’s current major exhibition, Shakespeare in Ten Acts (open until 6 September 2016), you can even view a possible self-portrait of Richard Burbage, the actor who first played Hamlet, Richard III, Othello and King Lear.

Alison Hudson


25 July 2016

Star Item: An Anglo-Saxon Sketch of the Solar System

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When people living over a 1000 years ago looked into the sky, how did they interpret what they saw? Helen Sharman and Tim Peake may be the first two Britons to actually go to outer space, but people living in the British Isles and Europe have been picturing the galaxy for a very long time. We have an idea of how some medieval people thought of the galaxy thanks to a recently digitised 10th-century manuscript that contains an early diagram of the solar system.

Diagram of the planets’ orbits, from Isidore of Seville’s De Natura Rerum, England (St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury?), Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 23v

The accompanying text explains that this diagram represents the ‘position of the seven wandering stars … called planets by the Greeks.’ These are the moon, which orbits closest to Earth; Mercury; Lucifer, ‘which is also called Venus’; the Sun; Vesper, which is also associated with Mars; Foeton, 'which they call Jupiter'; and ‘cold’ Saturn. 

Detail of a diagram of the planets' orbits, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 23r

The diagram and text come from a 10th-century copy of On the Nature of Things (De Natura Rerum) by Isidore of Seville (d. 636). De Natura Rerum is a natural history of the material world. Isidore was inspired by classical writers such as Lucretius (d. c. 55 BC), who sought to combat superstition by offering explanations for natural phenomena.

Phases of the moon, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 20r

Isidore updated his classical models by adding a Christian framework and a series of diagrams to illustrate his text. Manuscripts of De Natura Rerum such as Cotton MS Domitian A I contain so many of these diagrams, which are often circular, that Isidore’s work was often referred to as ‘The Book of Wheels’ (Liber Rotarum).

Diagram of the four elements: earth, air, water and fire, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 13r

Beyond the solar system, the copy of De Natura Rerum in Cotton MS Domitian A I includes diagrams to explain everything from rainbows to latitudes to the humours.

A circular diagram showing the winds linked to the months, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 31r

Many of these diagrams link various natural phenomena. One diagram connects different winds to different months. Another groups each of the four elements with a season, a temperature and one of the four humours: choler (yellow bile), melancholy (black bile), blood, and phlegm.

Diagram of the four humours, elements, and seasons, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f.14r

While concepts such as the humours now seem alien to us, other diagrams in Isidore’s work represent concepts that are still familiar. One wheel depicts five temperate zones by latitude, noting that the poles were colder, uninhabitable regions, and temperatures became warmer as one travelled towards the centre of the map. These diagrams even employ terms which we use today, including ‘Arctic’ and ‘Antarctic’.

Diagrams of the five temperature zones and of latitudes, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 12v

Isidore’s works were widely studied in early medieval Europe. This particular manuscript was made in 10th-century England, but Isidore’s works were known there much earlier. The 8th-century Northumbrian monk Bede even wrote his own version of De Natura Rerum

A diagram representing a rainbow, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 28v

This particular manuscript was probably owned, and possibly made for, a man called Æthelstan, whose collection of books is listed on f. 55v. ‘De Natura Rerum’ is the first book in the list. Æthelstan also owned several works by the 4th-century grammarian Donatus, various treatises on grammar and the art of poetry, and one ‘gerim’, which was possibly a calendar or a text on calculation, ‘which was the priest Ælfwold’s.’ Æthelstan's precise identity is unknown, since this was a common name in late 10th-century England, when this book and list were copied. He probably was not the early 10th-century king called Æthelstan, since the manuscript and its booklist were probably written after King Æthelstan's death in 939. Nevertheless, the Æthelstan of the book list was evidently a man of some wealth: all manuscripts were expensive, and this copy of De Natura Rerum has colour diagrams and a little gold, for highlighting the stars in the solar system. Judging from his booklist, he was also highly educated, with a particular interest in grammar and language.

Booklist, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 55v

As an educated Latinist, Æthelstan would have fitted into some of the most influential circles in 10th-century England. This was a time of great manuscript production and learning, thanks to the encouragement and book collecting of cosmopolitan rulers such as King Æthelstan (d. 939) and of monastic reformers, who sought to increase standards of learning in English religious houses. Æthelstan the Grammarian’s manuscript of De Natura Rerum seems to be related to those developments because it uses the Caroline minuscule script closely associated with the reformed monasteries. However, Æthelstan may not have been a monastic reformer himself: his book list shows he had private property, which was technically forbidden to monastic reformers. Admittedly, this need not disqualify him from having been a reformer: even the notably strict reforming bishop Æthelwold was personally associated with a particular service book.

In the late medieval period, the manuscript was kept in the library of St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury, where it may have been used by members of that institution.

Isidore’s T-O map of Asia, Africa, Europe, Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 37r

Once the deluxe possession of a well educated man, then part of an institutional library, this copy of De Natura Rerum is now available in full online on our Digitised Manuscripts site. Modern people may use it differently, but some of its topics and diagrams — particularly the striking diagram of the solar system — remind us that we are not so very different from early medieval people in the questions we ask about the world around us. 

Drawing of the sun, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 17r

Alison Hudson


Related Content:

Cicero’s Map to the Stars 


22 July 2016

Updated List of Digitised Manuscript Hyperlinks

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Saints and monsters and centaurs, oh my! Continuing our tradition of releasing roughly every 3 months an updated list of hyperlinks of ancient, medieval and early modern manuscripts digitised by the British Library, we are pleased to present our most up-to-date list here:  Download List of Digitised Manuscripts Hyperlinks, July 2016 . For our long-term followers who are interested only in the manuscripts uploaded since the March hyperlist was made, they can be found at the end of this file:  Download July 2016 Updated Hyperlinks Masterlist. You can find all our digitised content on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.

The past few months have seen some major releases on Digitised Manuscripts. We are now close to digitising almost 1500 manuscripts. Highlights of the most recent upload include:

  • A copy of the Gospels translated into Old English, made nearly 1000 years ago.

Opening of St John’s Gospel, from an Old English translation of the Gospels, England (Wessex?), c. 1000–1050, Cotton MS Otho C I/1, f. 70r 

  • The earliest surviving world map which includes a depiction of the British Isles. This manuscript — a scientific miscellany made in England in the mid-11th century — also contains colourful depictions of the labours of the month, of constellations and of the Marvels of the East.

Sagittarius, from a scientific miscellany including Cicero’s Arator, England, 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 37r 

  • A copy of Usuard's Martyrology used at St Augustine's Canterbury and updated there in the 12th and 13th century. One addition commemorates the death of 'Harold, king of the English, and many of our brothers' at the battle of Hastings. 

Historiated initial at the beginning of entries for the month of September, from Usuard's Martyrology, England (St Augustine's, Canterbury), late 11th-early 12th century with later additions, Cotton MS Vitellius C XII/1, f. 139r

This is to name but a few of the recent uploads. And stay tuned: there are many more exciting uploads coming up in the next few months. We’ll publish an updated list in the autumn, but until then please check our Twitter account for announcements about the manuscripts which have most recently been added to Digitised Manuscripts. (Our Twitter account is also good for London Underground-inspired puns and pictures of woodwoses, among other things.)


16 July 2016

Beowulf is Back!

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If you are in London this summer and would like to see the unique manuscript of the most famous poem in Old English, you are in luck! Beowulf is back on display at the British Library in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery. Don’t go looking for Beowulf in one of our literary show-cases, though: Beowulf is currently housed in an ‘Historical Documents’ case, with other manuscripts written in late 10th- or 11th-century England.

Detail of passage mentioning Grendel’s mother ('Grendeles modor'), from Beowulf, England, late 10th or early 11th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 180r 

You might wonder what Beowulf is doing in a case of historical documents, given that the poem is full of improbable creatures and events, including a swamp monster, a dragon and a swimming competition where the contestants wear chain mail. The pages on display describe how the mother of the monster Grendel, who was slain by the hero Beowulf earlier in the poem, sets out seeking revenge. Nevertheless, historians use this poem for insight both into the early history of Anglo-Saxon England, when the poem may have been first recited, and the late 10th or early 11th century, when the poem was copied down in the only surviving manuscript.

Detail of a man with glowing eyes, from The Wonders of the East, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 104v

Although the poem contains many fantastical elements, it may contain memories of the social structure, warrior culture and even architecture of earlier Anglo-Saxon societies. The pages on display also describe old warriors singing in a hall with a harp. The existence of such halls, and even such stringed instruments, has been corroborated by archaeological evidence. The way the poet praised Beowulf also shows which qualities the poet and the poet's audience may have valued above others.

Detail of the constellation Lyra, from Cicero’s Aratea, England (Canterbury or Winchester?), early 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 35r 

The context when the poem was copied down also interests historians. Although the precise date of the manuscript—like almost everything else about Beowulf—is highly debated, some scholars have suggested that Beowulf was copied in the late 10th or early 11th century, before or just after the conquest of England by the Dane Cnut. In this context, it is interesting that an Anglo-Saxon was writing down a poem celebrating Beowulf, who is described in the poem as a Geat or a Scandinavian. The pages of the poem which are on display in the Treasures Gallery may also contain evidence of erasure and rewriting, suggesting the poem's contents were still being tweaked at the end of the Anglo-Saxon period. 

Miniature of King Cnut and Emma donating a cross to the New Minster, from the New Minster Liber Vitae, England (New Minster, Winchester), c. 1031, Stowe MS 944, f. 6r

So if you are in London, do stop by the British Library to see the Beowulf manuscript and learn more about the context in which it was copied. It is on display alongside other manuscripts relating to Cnut’s conquest of 1016, including the D-text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a copy of Cnut’s 1020 lawcodes, a charter issued in Cnut’s name and what is possibly the only surviving manuscript portrait of Cnut. If you can’t make it to London, you can still see Beowulf and the other books on display on Digitised Manuscripts.

Alison Hudson

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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).

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.

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).

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.

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.

Egerton 3088   f. 16v
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.

Egerton 3088   f. 17v
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.

Harley 4688 f89
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

Arundel ms 74 f2v
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.

Little and Large 2
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.

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.

Taverner Pratyerbook Ruler
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.

Stowe 956 ff. 1v-2
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.

CB with Add 89000
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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