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141 posts categorized "Anglo-Saxon"

28 November 2016

Silence is a Virtue: Anglo-Saxon Monastic Sign Language

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Silence was a virtue to the Anglo-Saxon monks of Christ Church, Canterbury who followed the Rule of St Benedict. These monks followed the Rule’s insistence on silence during daily activities outside the divine office, when monks celebrated the liturgy with the singing of psalms and the reading of prayers. By not speaking outside these times the community attempted to lead a way of life that reflected the Benedictine core values of chastity, obedience and humility. Yet a non-communicative way of life would have proved highly impractical for the Canterbury monks. How could one ask for someone to pass the butter at mealtimes or find his underpants while getting dressed in the dormitory? A manuscript produced at Canterbury in the 11th century (now Cotton MS Tiberius A III) reveals how the monks overcame this dilemma.

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Enthroned St Benedict presented with copies of his Rule by monks, Cotton MS Tiberius A III, f. 117v

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Detail of monks looking upward, Liber vitae Stowe MS 944, f. 6r

The manuscript includes the only Old English copy of Monasteriales Indicia (ff. 97r–101v), a form of sign language used by Benedictine monks at times when forbidden to speak out loud. The Indicia features descriptions of 127 hand signs representing books and items used in the divine office, food consumed in the refectory, tools used daily, and persons met in the monastery and outside. The list offers an intimate glimpse of monks’ lives with signs for clothes they wore and actions concerning washing and hygiene. For example, sign 98 states the sign for soap in the bath-house: Ðonne þu sapan abban wille þonne gnid þu þinne handa to gædere, ‘when you want soap, then rub your hands together’. Sign numbers are provided for clarity in the cited edition, Monasteriales Indicia edited by Debby Banham (Middlesex: Anglo-Saxon Books, 1993). Further bathhouse signs are given for a nail-knife (nægel sexes), comb (camb) and washing one’s head (heafod þwean).  We also learn what monks wore under their cowl, as sign 102 states: Brecena tacen [ms. tancen] is þæt þu strice mid þinum twam handam up on þin þeah, ‘the sign for underpants is that you stroke with your two hands up your thigh’.

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Sign number 102 for underpants: Cotton MS Tiberius A III, f. 100v

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Wash and be cleansed: Baptism of Christ with angels carrying towels from Heaven, Æthelwold’s Benedictional, Add MS 49598, f. 25r

The practice of monastic sign language was probably introduced to England in the late 10th century from the powerful abbey of Cluny in Burgundy as part of the reform movement. The Canterbury Indicia borrows many signs from the Cluniac lists, yet differences show the English abbey tailored the list to better suit the Anglo-Saxon community. This can be seen in the food items that are featured. Cluniac monks enjoyed a rich diet including a range of baked goods, several species of fish, spiced drinks and crêpes. In contrast, the Canterbury food list is much less varied, but features local delights such as oysters, plums, sloe berries and beer. Sign 72 for oysters imitates the action of shucking: Gif þu ostran habban wylle þonne clæm þu þinne wynstran hand ðam gemete þe þu ostran on handa hæbbe and do mid sexe oððe mid fingre swylce þu ostran scenan wylle- (‘If you want an oyster, then close your left hand, as if you had an oyster in your hand, and make with a knife or with your fingers as if you were going to open the oyster’). Signs for butter (buteran), salt (scealt or sealt) and pepper (pipor) are also given, which do not feature on the Cluniac lists.

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Sign number 72 for oysters, lines 1–4: Cotton MS Tiberius A III, f. 99v

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Anglo-Saxon feast: The Tiberius Psalter, Cotton MS Tiberius C VI, f. 5v

Evidence demonstrates this monastic sign language was actively practised by monks at Canterbury. The Indicia was adapted from the Latin Cluniac sign lists and composed in Old English, as Latin was a foreign language to most Anglo-Saxon monks. Composing the text in the vernacular ensured it would be understood by readers, particularly children entering the monastery. The manuscript also contains a glossed copy of Ælfic’s Colloquy (ff. 60v–64v), a set of dialogues designed for teaching Latin to monastic students. Furthermore, Benedictine monks in England and France observed a second sign language custom known as finger-counting. A late antique tradition, finger-counting was used in arithmetic to sign from 1 to 1 million, to calculate sums and also to determine the date of Easter each year. For the Anglo-Saxon monks at Canterbury and beyond it was very much a case of talk to the hand!

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Monks counting above a calendar: Arundel MS 155, f. 10v

Alison Ray

@BLMedieval

 

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25 November 2016

It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Supermonk

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While working on the early medieval manuscripts at the British Library, I can’t help notice the sophistication and vision of the people who lived over 1000 years ago. They certainly had different worldviews and priorities from people living today; but I’m constantly surprised by the ambition of some of their inventions and ideas. For example, did you know that the first recorded pioneer of man-powered flight in the British Isles was an Anglo-Saxon monk from Malmesbury Abbey called Eilmer (or in Old English, Æthelmaer) who lived between about 980 and 1070?    

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Opening page of William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Regum Anglorum: Arundel 35, f. 1r. Southern England (Winchester?) 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 12th century.

Eilmer’s life is recounted in the Deeds of the Kings of England by William of Malmesbury; indeed, William may have met him when Eilmer was an old man. According to William, many years earlier Eilmer had attached wings to his hands and his feet and jumped from a tower, travelling at least a ‘stadium’ (possibly 200 metres or 600 feet), before being caught by turbulence and breaking both his legs. Eilmer later claimed his error was not fitting a tail to himself, as well as wings. For comparison, the Wright Brothers’ first flight covered about 120 feet.

Harley MS 603, f. 9r
We have no evidence of what Eilmer’s wings looked like, but some contemporary artists depicted humanoid angels with wings, sometimes flying or floating: the Harley Psalter, Harley MS 603, f. 9r. Christ Church, Canterbury, 11th century.

Eilmer was probably born in the 980s and died after 1066, so his flight probably took place in the 1000s or 1010s. We can guess Eilmer’s lifespan because William of Malmesbury claimed Eilmer had seen Halley’s Comet twice, in 1066 and presumably in 989. Comets were associated with political upheaval, and William dramatically described how, upon seeing the comet in 1066, Eilmer became very upset and prophesied the Norman Conquest:

‘Crouching in terror at the sight of the gleaming star, "You've come, have you?" he said. "You've come, you source of tears to many mothers. It is long since I saw you; but as I see you now you are much more terrible, for I see you brandishing the downfall of my country."’ (William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum, chapter 225, translated by R.A.B. Mynors and others (London: The Folio Society, 2014), p. 248.)

Although 1000 or 1010 is an early date for man-powered flight, Eilmer was not the first human to attempt to fly. The 14th-century writer al-Makkari claimed that the 9th-century Andalusian scholar Abbas ibn Firnas also tried to fly, and also attributed his failure to forgetting to build a tail. Eilmer and Firnas were in good company in this respect: modern reconstructions of Leonardo da Vinci's design for a gilder also failed until a tail was added. Other medieval aviators included the scholar and dictionary-writer al-Jawhari, who reportedly died while trying to fly from the roof of a mosque in Nishapur in what is modern-day Iran in 1003 or 1008. There are even earlier stories about people flying or gliding in China, Ancient Greece and Rome.

Like many of these other early pioneers of flight, Eilmer was also a scholar. Sadly, none of his own writings survive to the present day. However, on Digitised Manuscripts you can see one manuscript which Eilmer himself may have read: an Old English copy of the Gospels (Cotton MS Otho C I/1). This manuscript seems to have been owned at Malmesbury Abbey by the mid-11th century, when an Old English translation of a papal decree relating to Malmesbury was added between the gospels of Luke and John.

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Inserted translation of a papal decree facing the opening page of the Gospel of St John in Old English: Cotton MS Otho C I/1, ff. 69v-70r. England, c. 1000-1050.

Other monks at Malmesbury do not seem to have been amused by Eilmer’s experiments and inventions. Although William of Malmesbury generally respected Eilmer, he chided him for thinking that the ‘fable’ of the Greek inventor Daedalus flying was actually real. Even today, the ‘Birdman of Bognor’ competition for individual flying contraptions features contestants who, for the most part, lampoon the idea of individual flight. Eilmer was not the last human to try to fly, however. His story inspired thinkers from Roger Bacon to John Milton to the 19th-century ornithologist John Wise to 20th-century French scholars. Today, you can see airplanes in the sky above Malmesbury Abbey, some perhaps passing over the exact same stretch where Eilmer first glided.

Alison Hudson

@BLMedieval

31 October 2016

The Devil You Know

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Whether you love it or loathe it, there's no way of avoiding that today is Halloween! Loyal readers of our Blog will have doubtless consulted our informative guide for the perfect costume inspired by illustrations in medieval manuscripts. However, those who favour a more traditional approach may have chosen from popular costumes such as a witch, vampire, ghost or devil. Among these, it is the modern image of the devil which is perhaps most indebted to medieval society. 

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Depiction of Mambres with book contemplating Hell’s torments: from a scientific miscellany, England, mid-11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1,  f. 87v

In the Middle Ages, Jews, Muslims and Christians all acknowledged the existence of the Devil in some form. The Devil was commonly depicted as a beastly figure representing sin, temptation and the embodiment of evil. In western European medieval manuscripts, the Devil was often attributed serpent-like features, such as pointed horns or ears and a long thin tail. These characteristics likely have their roots in the story of the fall of man in the Book of Genesis, and Eve's temptation by a serpent.

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Detail of a miniature of Adam and Eve in Paradise from a map of the world: from the Silos Apocalypse, Northern Spain (Santo Domingo de Silos), 1091–1109, Additional MS 11695, f. 40r

When the Devil appears in the New Testament, it is also in the guise of temptation. After his baptism, Christ fasted in the Judaean Desert for 40 days and 40 nights, during which he was tempted by the Devil. Christ managed to refuse each temptation and the Devil was thwarted. This scene is often depicted in illustrated Psalters, such as this 13th-century manuscript. This Devil’s horned head, spiked tail and cloven feet all bear sharp resemblance to features which we associate with devils today. 

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Detail of a miniature of the First Temptation of Christ: from a Psalter, England (Oxford), c. 1200–1225, Arundel MS 157, f. 5v

In medieval manuscripts, the Devil was often accompanied by an entourage of demons who shared a similar appearance to their master. It is possible to see smaller demons following the Devil in the image below, who is being chased away by a monk. The Devil and his demons represent the sin and temptation which the monks were seeking to avoid. Hopefully this aggressive method of resistance was a success for the monk!

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Detail of a bas de page scene: from the Smithfield Decretals, Southern France (Toulouse), c. 1300–1340, Royal 10 E IV, f. 247r

Although these devils share the horned and cloven footed appearance of the Devil in the illustration of the temptation of Christ, they also have marked differences. These devils are clearly brown instead of red, and they lack the fearsome wings and tail of the red devil. The image below depicts another example of this slightly cheeky and light-hearted Devil, who is giving orders to his minions.  

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Royal 19 C I f.33r
Detail of the prince of devils sending out two devils: from a copy of
Matfre Ermengaud's Breviari d'Amor, Southern France (Toulouse), early 14th century, Royal MS 19 C I, f. 33r

In the first part of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, Dante and Vergil arrive at the Gates of Hell and are greeted by the Devil. In illustrated manuscripts of the text, this Devil is portrayed in more serious fashion than the previous examples. The spiked wings, horns, tail and staff gave the Devil an extremely evil appearance, and prophesised the horrors which awaited Dante and Vergil as they descended further into Hell.

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Detail of bas-de-page scene of Dante and Virgil entering the Gates of Hell (left); the lukewarm, stung by insects, holding a banner and Dante and Virgil (centre) addressed by Charon, portrayed as a winged Devil (above right); souls going up a gangplank and Dante lying in a faint, (right) from Canto 3 of the Inferno: Add MS 19587, f. 4r

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Bas-de-page scene of Dante and Virgil observing Satan swallowing his victims, with figures of those who betrayed their benefactors, such as Brutus and Judas Iscariot, frozen in ice below, from Canto 34 of the Inferno: Add MS 19587, f. 58r

Just as the devil was depicted in different ways in medieval manuscripts, so too was the entrance to Hell. Equally popular as the Gates of Hell found in Dante’s Divine Comedy was the Hell-mouth. Hell was often shown as a bottomless pit into which sinners were swallowed up through a great jaw. Although classical mythology contains tales of heroes falling into the jaws of monsters and failing to emerge, the significance of this trope in the medieval period lies in Scripture.

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Detail of a bas-de-page scene showing the casting of souls into Hell: from the ‘Taymouth Hours’,
Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 142r

The Hell-mouth represented the fusion of four main images: Hell as an open pit which swallowed sinners; Satan represented as a lion seeking souls to devour; Satan depicted as a dragon spouting flames; and Leviathan, the great sea beast from the Old Testament. To read and see more about depictions of the Hell-mouth, see our previous blogpost delightfully entitled, Prepare to Meet Your Doom.


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Full page miniature of an angel holding the key of the bottomless pit, and a chain attached to the neck of a Devil in a Hell-mouth (Revelation 20:1-3): from a copy of Apocalypse in German, Germany (Thuringia, possibly Erfurt), c. 1350–1370, Add MS 15243, f. 34r

The Medieval Manuscripts team wishes everyone a Happy Halloween. Hopefully,  these images of terrifying (and sometimes cheeky) devils will inspire everyone to keep their frivolities safe and free of sin, lest you be swallowed up by a beastly Hell-mouth and condemned to an eternity of torments!

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St Peter fends off a devil: from the New Minster Liber Vitae, England (Winchester), c. 1031, Stowe MS 944, f. 7r

 Rebecca Lawton

@BLMedieval/@bbeckyL

29 October 2016

Lindisfarne Gospels: Back on Display in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery

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We are delighted to announce that the Lindisfarne Gospels is now back on display in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery.

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Decorated letters and words at the beginning of Jerome’s preface to the Gospels (Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 3r)

Created around 700 on the island of Lindisfarne, the Lindisfarne Gospels is thought to be the work of a single artist and scribe, perhaps a monk called Eadfrith, who was bishop of Lindisfarne from 698 until his death in 722. In addition to the original Latin, the Lindisfarne Gospels includes the earliest known translation of the Bible in English. The Old English translation was added to the manuscript by a monk named Aldred, provost of the monastic community at Chester-le-Street, near Durham, in the 10th century. Aldred wrote the Old English version in small letters above each word of the original Latin.

On display now is part of a series of prefaces to the Gospels, featuring a letter written by Eusebius of Caesaria (d. 339) explaining the organisational tables he devised for the Gospels. These are known as the ‘Eusebian Canons’, which function as a system of cross-reference within the Gospels, and predate the division of the Bible into chapters. Each of the ten canons lists episodes, identified by section numbers, held in common by all four Gospels, or any combination of three, two and only one. In the Lindisfarne Gospels the word ‘Eusebius’ is highly stylised, with intertwined bird heads, and a crouching dog-like animal in the centre of the ‘E’.

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Initial ‘E’ for ‘Eusebius’ (Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 8r)

Prefatory material — explanations of specific translations, letters between theologians, or commentaries by Biblical scholars discussing religious theories, among others — is found in many medieval Bibles. For example, the Lindisfarne Gospels also includes a letter of St Jerome (c. 347–420) to Pope Damasus I (c. 305–384) describing his new translation of the Bible into Latin, which the pope had requested (see the image above). Jerome’s translation, known as the Vulgate, became the standard Latin version of the Bible and is still in use today as the Catholic Church’s official Latin Bible. Jerome’s letter to Damasus, titled the Novum opus (New Work), is a justification and explanation of his work, and can be found at the very beginning of the Lindisfarne Gospels.

The Lindisfarne Gospels is fully digitised on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site, and you can read more about various aspects of the Lindisfarne Gospels in our other blogposts here and here. For conservation reasons, we change the pages on display on a regular basis; so be sure to check back in three months’ time to read about the new pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels on view.

The Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery is free to enter and open to all members of the public. It is open seven days a week. More information, including current opening hours, can be found here.

Taylor McCall

@BLMedieval/@taylorjmccall

27 October 2016

An African Abbot in Anglo-Saxon England

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To commemorate Black History Month in the United Kingdom, today we remember one of the first Africans to live in Anglo-Saxon England. The man in question was Hadrian (d. 709), the abbot of St Peter’s and St Paul’s at Canterbury, who played a pivotal role in the development of the early Anglo-Saxon Church.

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Bede’s description of Hadrian, beginning column 2 line 18, from his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, England (Canterbury?), c. 825: Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 94r.

According to Bede, whose Ecclesiastical History of the English People was completed in 731, Hadrian was ‘vir natione Afir’ (translated as 'a man of African race' by Bertram Colgrave and R.A.B. Mynors), who spoke both Greek and Latin. Some scholars have suggested that Hadrian was a Berber, and that he came from the area that is now Libya. The evidence for his origin is found in a series of Biblical commentaries (surviving in a manuscript in Milan), derived from notes on Hadrian’s teaching at his school at Canterbury. These commentaries use vocabulary specific to that region, including terms for furniture and a beautiful bird called a porphyrio, 'said to be found in Libya' ('in Libia sit'). 

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Detail of North Africa, from a world map in a scientific miscellany, England, mid-11th century: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 56v.

Hadrian may have been forced to flee the Arab invasions of North Africa, and at any rate he arrived in Italy as young man. In Europe, he had a remarkable career as the emperor’s translator, diplomat and abbot of a monastery near Naples. He arrived in England in 668, sent by Pope Vitalian to accompany Theodore of Tarsus, the newly-appointed archbishop of Canterbury. The two men immediately set about touring the archdiocese, restructuring the English Church by dividing large dioceses into smaller ones, and legislating through regular synods. They also created an internationally renowned school at Canterbury where they may have introduced the study of Greek to the Anglo-Saxons.

Among the students of that school was Aldhelm, later bishop of Sherborne, who was considered a pre-eminent scholar by many of his contemporaries. Aldhelm praised the school in his letters, including one to Hadrian himself, in which he described Hadrian as his 'revered father and respected teacher' and himself as a 'humble pupil of your holiness'. In another letter, Aldhelm scolded his young correspondent for going to study in Ireland when Hadrian and Theodore offered better educational opportunities in England. Certain manuscripts of Aldhelm’s letters have recently been digitised by the British Library and are now available online (Royal MS 6 A VI and Cotton MS Domitian A IX).

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Passage from Aldhelm's letter to Heahfrith where he praises Hadrian as 'endowed with ineffably pure urbanity', the moon to Archbishop Theodore's sun, England (Canterbury?), 1st half of the 11th century: Royal MS 6 A VI, f. 8v.

Judging from commentaries from his school and his students' writings, Hadrian can be credited with introducing Anglo-Saxons to a whole range of ideas, from astronomical thought inherited from Plato and Aristotle to the commemoration of Neapolitan saints venerated at his old monastery in Italy. He may even have influenced Anglo-Saxon literature through types of riddles: Aldhelm also wrote a book of riddles explicitly inspired by the North African writer Symphosius, whose enigmas may have been brought by Hadrian to England.

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Aldhelm's prologue invoking Symphosius, from Aldhelm's Riddles, England (Canterbury?), c. 1000: Royal MS 12 C XXIII, f. 79v.

One of the earliest books known to have been owned in post-Roman Britain also came from Africa, perhaps from Carthage. This book contains a 4th-century copy of letters by another North African, Cyprian. Although this manuscript is now fragmentary, when it first arrived in England it would have been an impressive codex, in fine uncial script and with the Biblical passages picked out in red. This book had come to England by the 8th century, because someone writing in early English script annotated, expanded and added to some of the words. These letters undoubtedly influenced 8th-century Anglo-Saxon writers, including Bede, who quoted from them. Some scholars have suggested that Hadrian himself may have brought this African manuscript to England.

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Detail of one of the earliest books known to have been owned in Anglo-Saxon England, containing the letters of Cyprian, North Africa, 4th century: Add MS 40165 A, f. 2r.

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Details of the letters ‘vr’ added to the manuscript in England by the 8th century: Add MS 40165 A, f. 2v.

According to Bede, Hadrian had been reluctant to come to Kent, so much so that he turned down an offer to be made archbishop of Canterbury and instead nominated several others for that office, including his eventual companion, Theodore. Nevertheless, Hadrian stayed in England for 41 years, and his influence has lasted much longer. He was remembered in saints' Lives at Canterbury later in the Middle Ages, and he helped to shape religious structures and literary traditions which remain in England today.

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Beginning of Goscelin's Life of Hadrian, England (Canterbury), 1st quarter of the 12th century: Cotton MS Vespasian B XX, f. 233r.

Alison Hudson

@BLMedieval

23 October 2016

Fire, Fire! The Tragic Burning of the Cotton Library

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2016 has been a year of anniversaries, some of them more notable than others. Already this year we have commemorated 350 years since the Great Fire of London (1666), the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings (1066), and 1,000 years since the Battle of Assandun (1016). The 285th year since the infamous Cotton Library fire (1731) falls on 23 October, and although this may not be a date that immediately leaps to mind, it is a cause of great sorrow for many medievalists.

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A portrait of Sir Robert Cotton, commissioned in 1626 and attributed to Cornelius Johnson

Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631) was one of the greatest British collectors of manuscripts of all time. His library was vast and of huge national significance, especially when one recounts some of the books and documents it contained: two of the original manuscripts of Magna Carta, the Lindisfarne Gospels, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Cotton Genesis, the state papers of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, the Vespasian Psalter ... one could easily go on. Cotton made his library available to other scholars during his own lifetime, and enabled certain books to be borrowed (which is why some items, such as the famous Utrecht Psalter, ultimately entered other collections). Finally, 70 years after Cotton died, his manuscripts were accepted on behalf of the nation, and in 1753 they formed the first foundation collection of the new British Museum.

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The fire-damaged manuscript of King John's Magna Carta, 1215, rendered almost illegible following the 1731 Cotton fire: Cotton Charter XIII 31A.

Acquiring the Cotton collection for the nation should be regarded as a moment of great rejoicing. This was the first occasion in the British Isles that any library had passed into national ownership, bringing with it such treasures as Magna Carta and the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts assembled by any antiquary. But, sadly, a less joyful event happened in 1731, that threatened to destroy this gift for all time.

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The beautiful Vespasian Psalter, 8th century, one of the many treasures of the Cotton Library: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 30v.

By October 1731, the Cotton manuscripts had been placed for storage at Ashburnham House in London, adjacent to Westminster School. Their former home had been regarded, ironically, as a fire hazard; and so the books had been transferred to the ill-fated (and unfortunately named) Ashburnham House. There, on the night of 23 October 1731, a terrible fire broke out, perhaps starting in a fireplace below the floor where the manuscripts were kept. Despite the efforts of the Deputy Librarian and others, who reportedly were forced to fling scores of books out of the building, a great number of the Cotton manuscripts were badly damaged by the flames and the water used to extinguish them, and a few volumes were destroyed in their entirety. Many unique manuscripts were lost for good, such as Asser's biography of King Alfred of Wessex. The following day, the Westminster schoolboys were said to have gathered fragments of manuscripts floating like butterflies in the wind, some of which have survived until this day (some leaves of the Cotton Genesis, for instance, passed into a collection at Bristol, before being returned to the British Museum in the 1960s).

Cotton MS Fragments XXXII

Boxes containing portions of the manuscripts almost destroyed in the 1731 fire, now classified as Cotton Fragments XXXII.

During the 19th century, a restoration programme was carried out at the British Museum, during which many of the burnt volumes were separated, their pages flattened, inlaid in paper mounts and then rebound. There is a masterful study of this process by Andrew Prescott, in Sir Robert Cotton as Collector, edited by Christopher Wright (The British Library, 1997). Meantime, however, many of Cotton's precious manuscripts had suffered irreversible fortunes. One of the two surviving copies of King John's Magna Carta, 1215, and the only one with the Great Seal still affixed, was rendered illegible as a result of the fire and efforts to save the text, and the seal was reduced to a glob of molten wax. The illustrated Cotton Genesis, already mentioned, suffered severe damage to its illuminations. The pages of Beowulf were burned along their edges, with the result that small portions of the letters reputedly started to crumble, before the volume was inlaid and rebound.

Cotton MS Tiberius E VI

An example of an inlaid Cotton manuscript, following the restoration process: Cotton MS Tiberius E VI.

All of this is extremely tragic, and the story is too detailed and complicated to tell in a single blogpost. Fortunately, the vast majority of the Cotton manuscripts survived the fire, many of them intact: the fate of others is described in an earlier account entitled Crisp as a Poppadom. But today, on 23 October, we should spare a moment to remember the beautiful and historic manuscripts damaged in the Cotton fire, the people who fought valiantly to rescue them, and those who restored them in the 19th century.

Julian Harrison

@BLMedieval/@julianpharrison

 

18 October 2016

Remembering Assandun

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It has been a busy week of anniversaries of early medievalists with an interest in north-western Europe. Last week was the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. This week starts off with the anniversary of another conquest, as 18 October 2016 is exactly 1000 years after the Scandinavian leader Knútr (or Cnut or Canute) defeated Edmund Ironside at the battle of Assandun. While Edmund survived the battle, soon after he agreed to split his kingdom with Cnut, before dying on 30 November and allowing Cnut to take the rest of England into his Anglo-Scandinavian empire.

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The only known manuscript portrait of Cnut and Emma made during Cnut’s lifetime, from the New Minster Liber Vitae, Winchester, c. 1031, Stowe MS 944, f. 6r

Assandun inspired fewer surviving sources than the Battle of Hastings and even less is known about it: in fact, there is some debate about exactly where Assandun was. The battle probably took place somewhere in Essex. Nevertheless, Cnut’s conquest and its aftermath did inspire a variety of interesting sources, from sagas to charters to an early account of a queen’s life. In fact, a whole case in the British Library’s Sir John Ritblatt Treasures Gallery is currently devoted to Cnut’s conquest and reign. So if you are in London any time soon, you can see one version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s account of the Battle of Assandun, with Edmund’s name in capitals, on display.  

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Detail of the account of the Battle of Assandun (spelled Asse(a)ndun), from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D, England, 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B IV, f. 67v

The battle itself still inspired dramatic literary retellings. 11th-century accounts describe Edmund being betrayed by the treacherous Eadric Streona (whom Cnut would later execute before he could turn on him as well), a lengthy period of fighting, and eventual flight by the English as night fell. One of the longest and most spectacular accounts of the Battle of Assandun, complete with invented speeches for leaders on both sides, comes from another manuscript, the Encomium Emmae Reginae (Add MS 33241), which has just been digitised as part of our newly announced project in partnership with the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

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Opening miniature from the Encomium Emmae Reginae showing its writer presenting his work to Queen Emma with her sons looking on, England or France, c. 1040s, Add MS 33241, f. 1v

The Encomium Emmae Reginae is a rather extraordinary text among early medieval manuscripts from north-western Europe. It is a work of praise/propaganda about Emma and her husband Cnut, possibly aimed at disaffected nobles during the reign of her son Harthacnut. Emma (also known as Ymma and Ælfgifu) was a daughter of the count of Rouen: she became the second wife of Æthelred the Unready and in 1017 married the new ruler  of England, Cnut, also as his second wife. Emma may have helped Cnut navigate English politics, as Emily Butler and others have noted: her role was certainly remembered by whoever drafted a charter for Christ Church, Canterbury (also on display in the British Library's Treasures Gallery), which credits Emma with persuading Cnut to make a donation to Christ Church. Likewise, Cnut and Emma are both commemorated in the opening image of the New Minster Liber Vitae, making that image possibly the earliest contemporary manuscript portrait of a queen of England. By contrast, one of the models for that image, from the New Minster Refoundation Charter (Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII), only features the king, Edgar, even though his spouse is mentioned throughout the text. 

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Opening page of the Encomium Emmae Reginae, England or France, c. 1040s, Add MS 33241, f. 2r

Emma’s strategical ability and priorities are hinted at in the text made for her. The Encomium Emmae Reginae commemorates Emma while also trying to exonerate her from any wrongdoing, especially concerning her children from her marriage to Æthelred. It was written by a monk of the monastery of St Bertin, in what is now Northern France, during the joint reign of her sons Harthacnut and Edward the Confessor.  

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'[The Danes] seemed to rage rather than fight. Accordingly the English, turning their backs, fled without delay on all sides, ever falling before their foes, and added glory to the honour of Knutr...', from the Encomium Emmae Reginae, Add MS 33241, f. 41r  (trans. by A. Campbell, Encomium Emmae Reginae (Cambridge, 1998), p. 27)

The British Library’s manuscript of the Encomium Emmae Reginae can now be viewed online, thanks to the generosity of The Polonsky Foundation. The British Library’s copy was for a long time believed to be the only medieval copy in the world, but recently another, later medieval copy was discovered and is now held at the Royal Library in Copenhagen. This version has a different ending, perhaps changed when Edward the Confessor, Emma’s son from her first marriage, became sole king. Attempts to change texts remind us that while battles were important, they continued to be fought in texts and retellings long after. The Battle of Assandun was not an end, but the starting point for the writers of the texts currently preserved at the British Library. 

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Detail of an initial, from the Encomium Emmae Reginae, Add MS 33241, f. 8r

Alison Hudson

@BLMedieval

13 October 2016

And Always After That It Grew Much Worse

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14 October 2016 marks the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. It is sometimes said that ‘winners write the history books’. However, some recently digitised accounts of the Battle of Hastings held at the British Library show that this was not always the case.

Count William came from Normandy to Pevensey on Michaelmas Eve, and as soon as they were able to move on they built a castle at Hastings… There King Harold was killed... and always after that it grew much worse. (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D, 1066).

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Detail of the final lines of version D of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle ('... from England. And Bishop Odo and Earl William stayed behind and built castles far and wide throughout this country, and distressed the wretched folk, and always after that it grew much worse. May the end be good when God wills!'): Cotton MS Tiberius B IV, f. 80v

950 years ago, King Edward the Confessor (1042–1066) died, sparking a contest for the throne of England. Edward was succeeded by his brother-in-law Harold Godwinson, a member of an ambitious political family. King Harold’s rule was soon challenged by the Scandinavian leader Harold Hardrada, who was supported by Harold Godwinson’s own brother Tostig, and William, duke of Normandy. Harold Godwinson defeated Tostig and Harold Hardrada at Stamford Bridge in September 1066, but he was defeated and killed in turn by William at the Battle of Hastings. William took the crown of England and became known as King William I, or William the Conqueror (1066–1087).

Edward and William seals
Left
: seal of Edward the Confessor, from a partially rewritten writ pertaining to the jurisdiction and lordship of Archbishop Stigand and Christ Church Canterbury, allegedly 1052 x 1066 with later interventions, Lord Frederick Campbell Charter XXI 5; 
Right: seal of William the Conqueror, from a confirmation to St Mary's Coventry, allegedly 1070, Add Ch 11205

The Battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest inspired a great deal of historical writing. Over a dozen writers recounted the battle and its aftermath within a century of those events taking place, and the British Library holds manuscripts of many of these texts. These manuscripts represent a variety of perspectives, from an account closely based on the work of William the Conqueror’s personal chaplain, William of Poitiers (Cotton MS Nero A XI); to chronicles from Battle Abbey (Cotton MS Domitian A II), built near the site of the battle; to much later, fanciful legends which claimed Harold survived the battle and went on to live as a hermit on the Welsh border. The British Library has recently digitised several manuscripts composed by writers who identified with the losing, Anglo-Saxon side. 

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Opening of second part of the Vita Ædwardi Regis, England (Christ Church, Canterbury?), c. 1100, Harley MS 526, f. 52r

Early references to the Battle of Hastings can be found in an anonymous Life of Edward the Confessor known as the the Vita Ædwardi Regis. This Life was written for Edward's queen, Edith, in two parts: the second part, which laments the battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest, may have been finished by 1067 and certainly by Edith's death in 1075. This second part begins: 'Amid the many graves, hurt by the death of kings, what, Clio [muse], are you writing now?' (translated by F. Barlow, The Life of King Edward who Rests at Westminster  (London: Thomas Nelson, 1962), p. 56.) Edith was Harold II's sister and, unsurprisingly, the account written for her praises Harold in exaggerated terms, as the best soldier ever and Edward's chosen heir. The sole copy of the Life is preserved at the British Library (Harley MS 526, ff. 38r-57v).

Other Anglo-Saxon perspectives on the battle can be found in the series of related Old English annals known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Of the six surviving versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, four cover the year 1066. Of these four, the two most extensive accounts for the year 1066 (in the C and D recensions of the Chronicle) are held by the British Library and are also now available online. The C version (Cotton MS Tiberius B I), probably compiled somewhere in southern England, offers a lot of detail about the earlier invasions, but frustratingly it cuts off just before the Battle of Hastings.

By contrast, the D version of the chronicle (Cotton MS Tiberius B IV) offers an early account of the Battle of Hastings. This chronicler claimed that William built a ‘castel’ at Hastings before Harold arrived. Harold then gathered a large army, but, according to the chronicler, William attacked before Harold could organise his troops:  

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Description of the Battle of Hastings, Cotton MS Tiberius B IV, f. 80r

King Harold… assembled a large army and came against him at the hoary apple tree. And William came against him by surprise before his army was drawn up in battle array. But the king nevertheless fought hard against him, with the men who were willing to support him, and there were heavy casualties on both sides. There King Harold was killed and Earl Leofwine his brother, and Earl Gyth his brother, and many good men, and the French remained masters of the field, even as God granted it to them because of the sins of the people…  (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D, 1066)

It is not clear how accurate this description of the battle is: there are a mass of contradictory accounts about Hastings, and there is no particular reason to believe this Anglo-Saxon chronicler was an eyewitness. The compilers of this version of the chronicle have been associated with a northern monastery, such as York, or a monastery with northern connections, such as Worcester, and this manuscript may have been written more than a decade after the battle. Nevertheless, this account is witness to the beliefs held by at least one Old English speaker within living memory of the battle.

The compiler(s) of Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D blamed the defeat of Harold’s forces on ‘the sins of the [Anglo-Saxon] people’. However, this Old English chronicler (or chroniclers) was also uncomplimentary about the next regime, concluding the entry for 1066 with the famously pessimistic assessment:

[O]n Christmas Day, Archbishop Aldred consecrated [William] king at Westminster. And…  he swore (before Aldred would place the crown on his head) that he would rule all this people as well as the best of the kings before him, if they were loyal to him. All the same he laid taxes on people very severely… And Bishop Odo and Earl William… built castles far and wide throughout this country, and distressed the wretched folk, and always after that it grew much worse. (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D, 1066).

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End of the entry for 1066, from Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D, England (?Worcester or ?York), Cotton MS Tiberius B IV, f. 80v

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D is the longest Old English account of the battle. By contrast, Anglo-Saxon Chronicle A (now Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 173), sums up the whole year in only two sentences:

In this year King Edward died and Earl Harold succeeded to the kingdom, and held it 40 weeks and one day; and in this year William came and conquered England. And in this year Christ Church was burnt and a comet appeared on 18 April. (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle A, 1066).

This chronicle was probably being compiled at Canterbury in the mid- and late 11th century, hence the reference to Christ Church.

The version of the battle found in Anglo-Saxon Chronicle E (Oxford, Bodleian Library, Laud Misc. 636) is also brief:

Count William landed at Hastings on Michaelmas Day, and Harold came from the north and fought with him before all the army had come, and there he fell and his two brothers Gyrth and Leofwine; and William conquered this country… (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle E, 1066).

This manuscript was made at Peterborough in the 12th century. It was probably copied from a Canterbury manuscript to replace a manuscript lost in a fire in Peterborough’s library in 1116.

These two accounts were not, however, the shortest descriptions of the Norman Conquest in the Old English annals. One set of Easter table annals, also kept at Canterbury in the mid- and late 11th century, did not even mention the Norman Conquest. The lines adjacent to the entry for the date of Easter in 1066 and 1067 simply say, ‘Here King Edward died. Here, in this year, Christ Church burned.’ A later hand has added ‘At this time came William’ (‘her co[m] Willehm’) to the side. One wonders why the original annalist, who wrote the annals up to 1073, did not think the Battle of Hastings was worth mentioning. Equally, why did the later hand amend the entry for 1066?

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Detail from Easter Table Annals, England (Canterbury), late 11th
 century-12th century, Cotton MS Caligula A XV, f. 135r

Between the time the Christ Church Easter table annals were being compiled, the only surviving copy of Vita Ædwardi Regis was copied around 1100, possibly at Christ Church. Meanwhile, the monks at the nearby monastery of St Augustine, Canterbury, also remembered the Battle of Hastings in their martyrology. Under 14 October in this martyrology made at St Augustine’s in the late 11th century, someone noted the deaths of ‘Harold, king of the English, and many of our brothers.’ The entry for each day in the martyrology was supposed to be read out in the daily chapter meeting of the monastery, and so the Battle of Hastings may have been commemorated there every year.

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Entry for 14 October with addition mentioning the death of ‘Harold king of the English and many of our brothers’, from Usuard’s Martyrology, Canterbury (St Augustine’s), c. 1075–1125 with later additions, Cotton MS Vitellius C XII/1, f. 145v

All these accounts of 1066 imply that the fallout from the Norman Conquest was not a simple, clear-cut story of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. The complexity of the situation is revealed by the abundance of differences in their accounts, even though they all identified with or primarily remembered the losing side. While one Old English speaker recorded details like the type of tree near where Harold assembled his troops, others were more concerned with the burning of Christ Church than with the Battle of Hastings, while others did not even mention the battle at all. Moreover, the extent to which any of these writers can be considered ‘losers’ is debatable. The scribes of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles portrayed themselves as ‘wretched’ following the conquest, but they belonged to institutions which still had substantial resources. The martyrology which records the deaths of ‘King Harold and our brothers’ from St Augustine’s Abbey contains finely decorated initials, belying the community’s wealth and cultural creativity in the decades immediately after the Conquest.

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Detail of initial for the month of October, Cotton MS Vitellius C XII/1, f. 143v

These manuscripts disprove the view that only winners write history. The views of people who identified with the losing side at the Battle of Hastings can still be read today, thanks to these British Library manuscripts. This abundance of perspectives on the battle and its aftermath may be one of the reasons the Norman Conquest still continues to fascinate us, 950 years after the sun set on the battlefield.

Sympathy for the losing side at Hastings continued long after the Conquest. In the early 13th century, an account of Harold’s life was produced for Waltham Abbey. If you are interested in learning more about this alternative perspective on the Norman Conquest, you can visit Epping Forest District Museum in Waltham Abbey, which has an exhibition on Harold II: The Life, Legend and Legacy of the Last Anglo-Saxon King of England until 24 December 2016. The British Library is delighted to have loaned the Vita Haroldi (Harley MS 3776) to this exhibition. 

Alison Hudson

@BLMedieval

All translations of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle are taken from D. Whitelock and others, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (London: Eyre and Spottiswode, 1961).