Medieval manuscripts blog

78 posts categorized "Anglo-Saxon"

04 February 2014

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

Add comment Comments (0)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Sarah J Biggs

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

09 January 2014

An Even Older View of the New World

Add comment Comments (0)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other medieval maps on loan for the exhibition are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Chantry Westwell

23 December 2013

Medieval Top Ten

Add comment Comments (0)

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

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

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

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

Add MS 15282 f. 296v a80062-21a
Initial word panel Shir (‘song’ inhabited by a unicorn and a bear, from the Duke of Sussex’s German Pentateuch, Add MS 15282, f. 296v

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

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

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

CF034939 jpgcropped
Front binding of the St Cuthbert Gospel, Add MS 89000

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


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

Project Y final desaturated 27.03.13
Image of the Loch Ness Monster, as recovered using RZS©

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

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

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

Harley MS 6563 f. 72r K048420
Detail of a miniature of mice laying siege to a castle defended by a cat, from a Book of Hours, Harley MS 6563, f. 72r

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Sarah J Biggs

06 November 2013

How Does Beowulf Begin?

Add comment Comments (1)


We always like to hear about research that touches on the British Library's collections; and here is a good example. Anglo-Saxon scholars will invariably be familiar with the opening of the epic poem Beowulf, which starts with the word "Hwæt!". You can see the word in question above (the second letter is a wynn, pronounced w-), and you can view the whole manuscript online on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

This word "Hwæt" has puzzled translators for some considerable time, and it has been rendered variously as "What!" by William Morris (1895) and "So!" by Seamus Heaney (1999), among other interpretations. However, new research by George Walkden (University of Manchester) suggests that the context of "Hwæt" has been misunderstood: instead of functioning as a command to listen (along the lines of Hey! Oi you!), Walkden proposes that it should be translated as "How", in the sense of "How we have heard of the might of kings". Dr Walkden's conclusion is based on a close study of the other uses of this word and, if correct, adds a fresh perspective to the opening lines of Beowulf. Perhaps the original audience wasn't so inattentive, after all?

For those of you interested in what the poem would have sounded like, we'd also highly recommend the version by Benjamin Bagby. Or if you'd prefer to hear the opening lines in Hungarian (or French or Telugu), click here! "Listen up"" (as the Beowulf-poet apparently didn't say).

22 October 2013

Lindisfarne Gospels Back in Treasures

Add comment Comments (0)

Regular visitors to the British Library may be aware that some of our greatest treasures are often to be found on display in The Sir John Ritblat Gallery. At the time of writing you can see medieval manuscripts such as Magna Carta, Beowulf and the Luttrell Psalter; and we're delighted to announce that the magnificent Lindisfarne Gospels is a new addition to that list.


Canon table in the Lindisfarne Gospels (London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero D IV, f. 14v).

Now on display in London are two pages from the canon tables which preface the Lindisfarne Gospels. This Northumbrian gospel-book, renowned for its lavish carpet-pages and miniatures of the four evangelists, was made at the beginning of the 8th century, according to a colophon added some 250 years later (f. 259r). The canon tables provide readers with a concordance to the Four Gospels, allowing them to locate episodes described by more than one evangelist. Those tables in the Lindisfarne Gospels are notable for the intricate ornamentation of the columns, and for the rich palette of reds and blues, found elsewhere in the decoration of the manuscript.


Detail of the Lindisfarne Gospels canon table (London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero D IV, f. 15r).

The Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library is open seven days a week, and is free to visit. You may also like to know that the Lindisfarne Gospels can be viewed in its entirety on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

14 October 2013

Anglo-Saxon Medicine

Add comment Comments (0)

Do you suffer from asthma, warts or hiccups? Are you fed up with modern medical remedies? If so, we are pleased to tell you that How to Cure the Plague and Other Curious Remedies, by Julian Walker, has just been published by the British Library.

Here the author describes for us the state of Anglo-Saxon medicine ...


Bald's Leechbook (London, British Library, MS Royal 12 D XVII, ff. 20v-21r).

Medicine in Anglo-Saxon England was a complex mix of charms, the remnants of classical theories and practice, pragmatic folklore, and faith-healing; despite a longstanding reputation for worthlessness, it was perhaps more based on observation than the reliance on astrology and the theory of humours that marked the medicine of the later medieval period. Sometimes the presence of an odd superstition colours the whole, for example in a fairly accurate account of foetal development, which ends by suggesting that a foetus unborn after the 10th month could be fatal to the mother, but mostly on a Monday night. But there are frequent records of practices which are eminently sensible and probably effective.

The oldest surviving medical documents in Old English are from the 9th century, but there is evidence that older texts were not all in Latin. Bald’s Leechbook, Leechbook III and Lacnunga are the most complete texts, all of them in the British Library. Bald’s Leechbook contains some of the best Mediterranean medicine from the 3rd to the 9th centuries, so the learning was by no means isolated. While some of the herbs mentioned in the texts were only available around the Mediterranean, there are directions for the use of materia medica traded from distant areas, frankincense, pepper, silk, ginger and myrrh.

500 years after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west, medical practice relied less on the theories of Galen and Hippocrates, but there remained the process of diagnosis by urine-examination and the therapy of balancing the humours by bleeding. Bloodletting was widely used, sometimes causing infection itself, which was treated by herbal poultices; if the bleeding got out of control it could be stopped with horse-dung. A practical side to the control of infection is seen in the injunction not to let blood in summer, when infection would be most likely. There are warnings against taking too much blood, for example ‘if you let too much blood then there is no hope for his life’; presumably this happened on occasion. 


Anglo-Saxon medical recipes corresponding to Book 2, chapter 59 of Bald's Leechbook (London, British Library, MS Harley 55, f. 1r).

There is little documentation of surgery, compared to other forms of healing, though the archaeological record indicates some successful trepanation, and later there are some gruesome images of how to treat haemorrhoids. The use of splints for broken limbs is mentioned only twice, texts offering salves and poultices as treatment for fractures. Wounds are to be sewn up with silk, which would gradually dissolve – there is even a description of surgery to correct a harelip. Poultices that had antiseptic effects were applied over sutured wounds, with herbs such as lesser centaury used to help healing.

The use of herbs, individually or together, was of great importance in medicine at this time; though there are difficulties in finding exactly corresponding names in the modern flora, many common native plants found some use in medicine. Imported plant matter was often added, so that a recipe in the Lacnunga for a wen salve includes pepper and ginger as well as radish, chervil, fennel, garlic and sage, in a list of 16 plants. Tested through the centuries, herbal remedies connect the past to the present – Bald’s Leechbook contains a recipe for a nettle-based ointment for muscular pain, similar ointments being commercially available now. Leechbook III contains a large number of remedies using only native ingredients; their names are not Anglicised Latin names, implying that this reflects a largely home-grown practice.

Materials other than herbs were also in use. One recipe, quoted in How to Cure the Plague, recommends eating buck’s liver for night vision loss, and indeed the Vitamin A in liver would help this condition. Unlike in Mediterranean medical practice, the use of animal faeces is recommended only rarely, but spittle, snails, urine, worms, weevils and ants are called for, as well as the less startling pigeon’s blood, lard and ale. On occasions the improbable and the feasible were combined, one recipe for a burn including silver filings, bear’s grease, thyme, rose petals and verbena.


Detail of Bald's Leechbook (London, British Library, MS Royal 12 D XVII, f. 20v).

Though learning was largely connected to the church, not all physicians were clerics. Prayers and charms were both used, but possibly the charms were less likely to be adminstered by priests. No doubt many charms worked through assurance and faith. One area that has interested me for a long time is the process of healing by touch at a remove. Bede, writing in the 8th century, tells the story of the death in battle of the Christian king Oswald, whose body was mutilated and set on a stake; people took soil from the place, put it in water, and used this to relieve the sick. While raising questions about the nature of touch and its continuing relevance (the desire to touch celebrities, the fascination of the possessions of the famous), this also provides an exact mirror to germ theory, and a model for both contagion and healing.

In our world of healthcare systems in crisis and general reliance on prescription or non-prescription medicines and a variety of alternative therapies, we are not so far from the charms and prayers, the herbal folklore and amulets of the Anglo-Saxons. Their frequent use of the number nine in healing rituals (charms or prayers are directed to be repeated nine times) may have been a way of marking the period of time for a salve to take effect or a mixture to boil, or may have been a ritual. A shadow of the ritualistic element perhaps survives in directions for antibiotics to be taken ‘three times a day for seven days’.

How to Cure the Plague and Other Curious Remedies is available from the British Library Shop, priced £10 (ISBN 9780712357012).

Julian Walker

23 September 2013

Internship in the Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section

Add comment Comments (0)

The British Library is pleased to be able to offer an internship in the Medieval and Earlier section of the History and Classics Department for a doctoral or post-doctoral student in the History of Art or another relevant subject.


The intern will be involved in all aspects of the work of the Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts section, including responding to enquiries, providing talks for students and patrons, selecting and presenting manuscripts for display in our exhibition gallery, and cataloguing, thereby gaining insight into various curatorial duties and aspects of collection care.  During the internship at the Library, the intern will enjoy privileged access to printed and manuscript research material, and will work alongside specialists with wide-ranging and varied expertise. 

The primary focus of the internship will be to enhance our online Digitised Manuscripts and Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts websites by creating and supplementing catalogue entries for medieval manuscripts and accompanying images, working under the supervision of the Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts.  The internship is designed to provide an opportunity for the student to develop research skills and expertise in medieval and Renaissance art and history, and in presenting manuscripts to a range of audiences. 


The programme is only open to students who are engaged actively in research towards, or have recently completed a PhD in a subject area relevant to the study of pre-1600 illuminated manuscripts who have a right to work in the UK. 


The term of internship is either full time for six months, or part time for twelve months.  Applicants are asked to specify which term they would prefer in the application.  The salary is £8.55 per hour (Full time is 36 hours per week).  The internship will start in November 2013 after relevant security clearances are obtained.

How to apply

Please send an application letter detailing your area of research, the date you would like to start and whether you would like to work full or part time, a CV, and two letters of reference to Dr Kathleen Doyle, Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts, The British Library, by email to kathleen [dot] doyle [at] bl [dot] uk, or by post to 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB, by 20 October 2013.  Interviews will be held in late October, and may include questions about the date, origin, and decoration of a particular manuscript to be shown at the interview.  The internship will start as soon as relevant security checks have been completed.

06 September 2013

Seamus Heaney: An Appreciation

Add comment Comments (0)

It is a week since Famous Seamus sadly passed away. Seamus Heaney, Nobel Laureate for Literature, came to the British Library as part of our Beowulf week in October 2009. In front of an enthralled audience, he read extracts from his award-winning translation of Beowulf. Heaney then listened in turn as Michael Morpurgo and Benjamin Bagby performed their respective versions of the poem, before all three discussed Beowulf under the expert chairmanship of Michael Wood.

Beouwlf panel b_w

The Beowulf event at the British Library in 2009, featuring (from left to right) Michael Wood, Michael Morpurgo, Benjamin Bagby and Seamus Heaney

As a curator at the British Library, it's always rewarding to find ways of making our medieval manuscripts come to life, and to demonstrate how they remain relevant to modern and future generations. Seamus Heaney's participation in our week of Beowulf events was a notable highlight -- how to take an epic written in a long-dead language, and to re-invent and re-interpret it for modern listeners.

Heaney's version of Beowulf had won the Whitbread Prize for Book of the Year in 1999. Around that time, the British Library acquired from him nine typewritten drafts, with handwritten annotations, of the first page of his version of Beowulf (Additional MS 78917). When visiting us in 2009, Seamus Heaney expressed his delight to see examples of his draft displayed alongside the original manuscript of Beowulf, together with paintings loaned by Michael Foreman, the illustrator of Michael Morpurgo's re-telling of the story for children.


A draft of Seamus Heaney's award-winning version of Beowulf (London, British Library, MS Additional 78917).

Before appearing onstage at the British Library, Seamus Heaney had attended the previous evening's performance by Benjamin Bagby, who sings the story of Beowulf and Grendel in the original Old English, to the accompaniment of the harp. I gave Heaney a copy of our Treasures in Focus introduction to Beowulf, and he very kindly signed my own copy of his Beowulf translation. I thanked him for so kindly agreeing to perform in our event; but no, the pleasure was his, he replied, it had been a privilege to see Bagby sing Beowulf, the poem which Seamus Heaney had in turn transformed into a modern masterpiece. It was one of those truly special moments, to witness the coming together of two great poets, wordsmiths who lived a thousand years apart but were united by their love of the poetic form.

The Old English poem Beowulf ends with the burial of the eponymous hero. We can do Seamus Heaney no better compliment than to repeat here the same lines in his own words, with the gracious permission of Faber and Faber, his publishers.

"Then twelve warriors rode around the tomb,

chieftain's sons, champions in battle,

all of them distraught, chanting in dirges,

mourning his loss as a man and a king.

They extolled his heroic nature and exploits

and gave thanks for his greatness; which was the proper thing,

for a man should praise a prince whom he holds dear

and cherish his memory when that moment comes

when he has to be convoyed from his bodily home."


Julian Harrison, Curator of Pre-1600 Historical Manuscripts