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151 posts categorized "Anglo-Saxon"

06 February 2017

A New Opening for the Lindisfarne Gospels

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If in the next few months you visit the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery here at the British Library, you can feast your eyes on a new part of the famous Lindisfarne Gospels (Cotton MS Nero D IV), which we have changed from displaying the letter of Eusebius at the beginning of the manuscript to a page from the Gospel of John at the end:

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 A text page from the Gospel of St John in the Lindisfarne Gospels (Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 239v)

While the new leaves don’t contain the Gospels’ more famous illustrations, such as the Carpet Pages, they are a good example of what the majority of the Lindisfarne Gospels looks like: simple text on a page, highlighted by the use of colours on the initial letters marking the start of many of the Gospel verses.

The pages currently on display are taken from Chapter 12, verses 7-25. The text is divided into two columns, with Aldred’s Old English translation visible above each Latin word in small brown ink. The scribe has decorated some (but not all) of the initials at the beginning of the verses; the lowest decoration is simple colouring in of an initial (i.e. the yellow ‘h’ for ‘Haec non cognoverunt…’), while more effort has been placed into other initials, such as the more elaborate colours and use of decorative points on the ‘In’ of ‘In crastinum autem…’. The Roman numerals in the margins are references to both the number of verse and to the corresponding verses in the three other Gospels.

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Another text page from the Lindisfarne Gospels (Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 240r)

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

And remember, you can view the whole of the Lindisfarne Gospels on our Digitised Manuscripts site. 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.

Taylor McCall

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24 January 2017

Stars in Their Eyes: Art and Medieval Astronomy

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After coming across a familiar-looking diagram of the planets in a 10th-century manuscript a few months ago, I asked my colleagues here at the British Library how cosmology was represented in some of the manuscripts on which they are currently working. The manuscripts they recommended offered a diverse array of ways to represent the planets and stars. Stargazing may have been a common human pastime throughout the ages, but how to depict the night sky was evidently another matter.

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Christine and the Sybil pointing to a ladder from the heavens, from the Book of the Queen, France (Paris), c. 1410-1414, Harley MS 4431, f. 189v

Today, planets are often depicted with a diagram which shows their orbits as a series of concentric circles. This type of diagram may have ancient roots, stretching back to Greek philosophers and astronomers like Ptolemy and Heraclides. Such models illustrated excerpts from the Roman thinker Pliny’s Natural History  in some early medieval manuscripts. Over time, some copies were elaborated to take into account planets’ apparent retrogrades, leading to some spectacular models where planets are given overlapping or even zig-zagging paths. Diagrams using concentric circles were incorporated into medieval authors' works, too. Such a diagram illustrates a copy of Isidore of Seville’s influential text, De Natura Rerum (On the Nature of Things), made in England in the 10th century. These diagrams reverse the positions of the Earth/moon and the sun, and some of the names of the planets are different from the names we use today, but otherwise they are largely recognizable to modern viewers.

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Left:
Diagram of the planets, from excerpts of Pliny’s Natural History, France (Fleury), c. 990-1000, Harley MS 2506, f. 53r; Right: 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.

In some cases, diagrams illustrating Pliny and other classical texts were also combined with theories attributed to Pythagoras about the relationship between musical tones, mathematical ratios and planets' orbits. Hence, a 12th-century diagram includes notes about tonus (tones) in between the planets.

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Diagram of the harmony of the planets, marked with names of Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, and the Moon, following a commentary on Ovid's Metamorphoses, France, c. 1225-1275, Burney MS 224, f. 191v

The concentric model was expanded in later medieval art to include the seven planets and the earth encircled by a layer of ‘fixed stars’ which was held up by angels. The elements of fire, air, water and earth were given their own layers, under the moon.

Yates Thompson 31   f. 66
Circular diagram of the spheres of the Ptolemaic system, including the four elements, the seven planetary spheres, and the sphere of fixed stars, with four angels surrounding them, from Matfré Ermengau of Béziers's Breviari d'Amour, Spain (Gerona?), c. 1375-1400, Yates Thompson 31
, f. 66r 

Other depictions of the ‘spheres’ could be even more elaborate, with Hell at the centre and the throne of God at the outermost layer.

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Full-page miniature of the Universe as a diagram formed of concentric circles, from Gautier de Metz’s L’Image du monde, Low Countries (Bruges), 1464, Royal MS 19 A IX, f. 149r  

But concentric circles were not the only way of depicting star systems in medieval manuscripts. By contrast, the model of the sun, moon and earth, from a 13th-century copy of Bede’s De temporibus, might look a bit alien to modern viewers.

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Page from Bede's De temporibus illustrated with a diagram of the sun, moon, earth and planets,
 England, c. 1244, Egerton MS 3088 f. 17v

Earth is represented by a house-/ tomb-/ reliquary-shaped box at the bottom of the diagram, while the moon is labelled in a roundel above it. According to the annotations on the side, the other roundels include Mercury, Venus and other planets, all the way up to Saturn, ‘in the 7th heaven’. The diagram accompanies a passage explaining ‘why the moon, though situated beneath the sun, sometimes appears to be above it’ (translated by F. Wallis, Bede: The Reckoning of Time (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999), p. 77). While these diagrams look rather different from modern textbook representations of the sun, moon and earth, some of Bede’s text, updating to previous models of the universe, still stands. In particular, Bede is notable for being the first European to observe and record the connection between phases of the moon and the tides of the ocean.

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Diagram of planets’ orbits, from a scientific miscellany, France or England, late 11th or 12th century, Royal MS 13 A XI, f. 143v
 

The diagram in a scientific miscellany made in the late 11th or early 12th century takes yet another approach, mapping planets’ orbits onto a sort of graph. The sun’s regular appearance in the sky here contrasts with the other planets’ (and the moon's) more variable appearances over days, months and years.

  Egerton 845   f. 21v
Astrological drawing of the moon and Zodiac constellations, from a collection of astronomical and alchemical treatises, England, 16th century, Egerton MS 845, f. 21v

Other depictions of cosmology and the stars prioritised artistic creativity over mathematical calculations.

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Two angels turning the axes of the world, from Matfre Ermengaud's Breviari d'amor, France (Toulouse?), mid-14th century, Harley MS 4940, f. 28r

Byzantine manuscripts provide some stunning examples of the planets as personified, depicted containing tiny portraits.

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Planets, from the Theodore Psalter, Constantinople, February 1066, Add MS 19352, f. 135v

Like the concentric model, these personified models were also based on classical sources, which meant that these common themes emerged even in manuscripts produced in distant regions. For example, 11th-century manuscripts from as far apart as Constantinople and England depict the sun as a charioteer.

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A personification of the rising sun, orbs of day and night, and a personification of the setting sun, from the Bristol Psalter, Eastern Mediterranean (Constantinople), 11th century, Add MS 40731, f. 80v

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The chariots of the sun and the moon, from a scientific miscellany, Southern England, c. 1030-1060, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 47r

Maps of the constellations were another way of representing the stars that was classically inspired and widespread in the Middle Ages: see our earlier blog post on Cicero’s ‘map to the stars’. Although the image of a night sky teeming with mythical monsters, ships and heroes contrasts with the model of orderly concentric orbits that began this post, we also use some of the same imagery of constellations today. See the similarities between an early medieval map of the constellations below and an advertisement for Air France which features in the British Library’s exhibition on Maps and the 20th Century (on until 1 March 2017). 

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Map of the constellations of disputed origin, 9th or 11th-century, Northwestern Europe (Northern France? Low Countries? St Augustine’s, Canterbury?), Harley MS 647, f. 21v 

This is just a small sample of the ways the planets and stars were portrayed in medieval manuscripts. It does not even begin to touch on diagrams outlining specific celestial events, like eclipses, phases of the moon and zodiac cycles. Hopefully, however, this post gives a small taste of the myriad of ways medieval people thought about and depicted the heavens. 


Add 8785 f108v
Men observing the stars, from Bartholomaeus Anglicus' De Proprietatibus rerum, 
Italy (Mantua), c. 1300-1310, Add MS 8785, f. 108v

Alison Hudson

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20 January 2017

The Psychomachia: An Early Medieval Comic Book

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What do Captain America, Wonder Woman and a 10th-century Anglo-Saxon manuscript have in common? The answer may be more surprising than you think. The Psychomachia, or ‘War of the Soul’, was composed by the Late Antique poet Prudentius in the 5th century and depicts an action-packed battle between the Virtues and Vices for possession of the human soul. This allegory of good versus evil was hugely popular in the medieval period with about 300 surviving copies of the work, 20 of which were illuminated. Two illuminated Anglo-Saxon copies are held at the British Library (now Additional MS 24199 and Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII) and their illustrations can be compared to our comic books today.

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No need for utility belts: Pride rides down Humility and Hope, with Latin and Old English captions in Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII, f. 15v

These two manuscripts of the Psychomachia were produced in England in the 10th and 11th centuries, and like comics they feature illuminations in bordered frames, frequently accompanied by captions to summarise the often fast-paced plotline. The seven virtues are portrayed as seven female champions of the Christian faith against seven female pagan idolaters, who ultimately claim victory on the battlefield in front of a thousand cheering martyrs. The deaths of each vice are comically violent: Faith beheads Idolatry, Chastity slays Lust with her sword, and Sobriety uses the cross of the Lord to sabotage Indulgence’s chariot before striking her with a flint stone.

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Is it a plane? Sobriety defeating Indulgence as depicted in Additional MS 24199, f. 20r

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Kerpow! Anger’s sword breaks when used against Patience in Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII, f. 12r

Both manuscripts were probably used as classroom aids by Anglo-Saxon monks. Cleopatra C VIII was written at Christ Church, Canterbury, and Additional MS 24199 may later have been owned by the abbey at Bury St Edmunds. These copies of the Psychomachia contain numerous glosses, or commentary writings, that are often present in schoolbooks of monastic communities.

Why would monks and their students study such a graphic text? Although monks lived in a warrior society, they could not take up arms against others and were encouraged to fight a spiritual battle instead. Alcuin wrote a letter to Bishop Higbald and the Lindisfarne community after the 793 Viking attack telling them to ‘be a model of all goodness to all who can see you, a herald of salvation to all who hear you’. Later, the New Minster Refoundation Charter (Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII), probably written by Bishop Æthelwold of Winchester in 966, noted that just as the king fought visible enemies, so too did monks protect the realm by fighting spiritual battles with invisible enemies. Similarly, the Psychomachia conveyed a message to monastic communities that moral combat against spiritual enemies was just as heroic as facing physical opponents in war.

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It’s Clobberin’ Time: Patience undaunted by the vices in Additional MS 24199, f. 8r

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Spiritual combat: Cuthbert of Lindisfarne extinguishing a fire set by a demon, from Chapter 13 of Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert in Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 30r

 

La Psychomachia fut composée au 5ème siècle par le poète Prudence. Ce poème épique met en scène la bataille allégorique des vices et vertus, dont l’enjeu principal est le contrôle de l’âme humaine. Ce “Combat de l’âme” fut largement diffusé tout au long du Moyen Age puisqu’on compte plus de 300 manuscrits subsistants.

Deux d’entre eux sont aujourd’hui conservés à la British Library: Add MS 24199 et Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII. Ils furent copiés en Angleterre, respectivement aux 10ème et 11ème siècles, et présentent une décoration comparable à celles des bandes dessinées actuelles. Chaque scène encadrée illustre l’intrigue, en regard du texte. La vocation pédagogique de ces illustrations suggère que ces manuscrits furent probablement utilisés dans les écoles monastiques. Après l’attaque de Lindisfarne (793), le message délivré n’en devenait que plus clair pour les communautés monastiques: le combat spirituel et moral doit l’emporter sur le glaive.

Alison Ray

Laure Miolo (French summary)

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05 January 2017

A Lasting Impression

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Edward the Confessor, who died on 5 January 1066, may have been the penultimate Anglo-Saxon king of England, but he is also the first English king whose seal, in wax, survives to the present day. An example is found attached to British Library Lord Frederick Campbell Charter XXI 5. A fragile disc of yellow wax measuring 78 mm in diameter, it has been damaged at the edges, but the seated figure of the king can still be discerned in the centre of the disc.

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Writ of Edward the Confessor with seal: Lord Frederick Campbell Charter XXI 5, England, 2nd half of 11th century

On the front of the seal, Edward is depicted sitting on a throne, holding an orb in one hand and what may be a staff of office topped with a cross in the other. On the reverse, Edward is also shown seated, although this time he holds an oblong shape, which may be another staff, orb or book, in one hand. In the other, he holds what may be a sword at an angle.

Lfc_ch_xxi_5_f1 seals both sides
Detail of the verso and recto of the seal attached to Lord Frederick Campbell Charter XXI 5

The seal is attached to a writ with the following text, in which Edward instructs ‘my bishops and my earls and my reeves and all my thegns in the shires in which Archbishop Stigand and the community at Christ Church have land’ to respect the rights, jurisdiction and property of the community, ‘because I have given these rights for the eternal salvation of my soul, as King Cnut did previously. And I will not tolerate that any man breach this, by my friendship’ (full text and translation available at the Electronic Sawyer).

Although Edward’s seal is the first to survive in contemporary wax impressions, Edward was hardly the first Anglo-Saxon or even Anglo-Saxon royal to have a seal matrix. (A matrix is the term for the imprinting device or mould used to create a seal.) Possibly the earliest surviving seal matrix from England is a late 7th or early 8th-century ring, now in Norwich Castle Museum. The ring is inscribed with the woman’s name ‘Balde hildis’. One famous Bathild or Balthild was sold as a slave and eventually married the Frankish king Clovis II (although it is not clear if she was the Bathild to whom the ring refers). By the end of the 8th century or the beginning of the 9th century, King Coenwulf of Mercia’s name was on a lead bulla from which impressions could be made, and which is now in the British Museum

Detatched Seal XXXVIII 5 (1) Contrast
Lead bull of Pope Zacharias: Detached Seal xxxviii 5, Italy (?), c. 741–52

The tradition of using seals with documents stretches all the way back to ancient Mesopotamia, but these early Anglo-Saxon seal matrices may have been inspired by contemporary continental precedents, particularly papal seals. For example, British Library Detached Seal XXXVIII 5 is a lead bull of Pope Zacharias from between 741 and 752. There is no record of when this particular bull arrived in England, but some scholars have suggested it (or one like it) was in England by the late 8th century, because it may have inspired the design of a penny of Offa. Correspondence with continental figures may have required as well as inspired the use of seals in England, since some leaders insisted on them. In the 860s, Pope Nicholas complained that letters which were being sent to him without seals. It may not be a coincidence that a seal of Æthilwald, bishop of Dummoc had a seal matrix by the mid 9th century, now preserved in the British Museum

By the time Edward the Confessor’s writ for Stigand and the church at Canterbury was being sealed, there was a long tradition of using seals in England among both kings and nobles, even though few matrices and fewer impressions survive to the present day. Although Hollywood films frequently portray wax seals being used to close folded letters, to be broken before reading the letter’s contents, the writ of Edward the Confessor shows that Anglo-Saxon seals were frequently attached to a strip of parchment cut from the end of a document, to be preserved as an outward mark of authority. Already in the late 9th century, the Old English adaptation of Augustine’s Soliloquies, traditionally attributed to King Alfred or his court, expected its audience to understand that a lord’s insegel (seal) conveyed authority and identity: ‘Suppose a letter with a seal from your lord came to you; can you say you cannot understand him by that, or recognise his will in it?’

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Resolution of a property dispute at a shire-moot, with detail of the sentence mentioning the seal: Cotton Augustus II 15, England, 990–992

In other cases, messengers may have carried a lord’s seal with them, with or without an attached document. A document from between 990 and 992 claims that Edward’s father, Æthelred the Unready, sent his ‘insegel’ (seal) to a shire meeting ‘by means of Abbot Ælfhere of Bath and greeted all the councillors that were summoned there… and bade and commanded that they should reconcile Wynflæd and Leofwine’, two people engaged in a property dispute. It sounds like Æthelred gave Ælfhere his seal and instructions, without necessarily attaching the seal to a document.  Meanwhile, the document in which this is recorded uses a chirograph, not a seal as means of verifying its duplicate.

Seals could be used to authorise people, as well as documents or verbal instructions. A pact between Æthelred and Duke Richard of Normandy, negotiated with help from the pope, noted that ‘Richard is to receive none of the king’s men, nor of his enemies, nor the king any of his, without his seal’, as part of an joint agreement not to harbour any Vikings. 

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Spurious writ with seal of Edward: Sloane Charter XXXIV 1, England (Westminster), late 11th century

Documents with seals in general, and Edward’s seals in particular, became increasingly important after the Norman Conquest, as the administrators of Domesday surveys tried to reconstruct who had what tempore Eadwardi regis—in the time of King Edward. One of the forms of proof they would accept was a writ with Edward’s seal on it, and Domesday Book records many more sealed writs of Edward than survive today. Of course, not all these documents or seals were necessarily genuine. Even the 11th-century writ in favour of Canterbury with the seal features a different ink and possibly a different, later scribe in the second part of the text, which may have been altered at some point after Edward’s death. Attempts to forge documents and seals in the name of Edward the Confessor continued well into the post-Conquest period, as explored in an earlier blogpost: these elaborate and enormous seals are remarkable for how different they look from the small, yellow seal attached to the 11th-century writ. Although the later forgeries are more elaborate, however, the earliest surviving royal seal from England still makes a lasting impression (pun intended). 

Harley Charter 43 E 51
Forged seal of Edward the Confessor from the 15th century: Harley Charter 43 E 51

Alison Hudson

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24 December 2016

Christmas Coronations

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Throughout the Middle Ages, Christmas was a season of festivities and celebrations, just as it is today. 25 December was certainly a high point of this festive season, beginning the twelve days of Christmas which would last until Epiphany. On three occasions in the early medieval period, the Christmas Day celebrations may have been more extravagant than usual: on Christmas Day in 800, 855 and 1066, merrymakers also celebrated the coronations of the very first Holy Roman Emperor and two English kings with interesting legacies.

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Blessing for Christmas Day in the 'Anderson Pontifical': British Library Additional MS 57337, f. 104r.

On Christmas Day in the year 800, Charlemagne, King of the Franks, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in the city of Rome. This was a momentous occasion in the Christian West, where Imperial authority had ceased to be acknowledged after the fall of the last Emperor of the Western Roman Empire in AD 476. By the end of the 8th century, Charlemagne’s military success had left in him control of a large part of medieval Europe and he had acquired a special relationship with the Pope. By crowning Charlemagne as the first Holy Roman Emperor, Pope Leo III was acknowledging Charlemagne’s secular authority and his role as defender of the Christian faith throughout Western Christendom.

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Detail of a miniature of Charlemagne being crowned emperor, in the second book of Charlemagne's life in Les Grandes Chroniques de France: British Library Royal MS 16 G VI, f. 141v.

Another early medieval king to have supposedly been crowned on Christmas day is King Edmund of East Anglia, who reigned from 855 until his death in 869. Very little is known about Edmund'ss early life, as no contemporary written records survive from his reign. The first-known record focuses more on the circumstances of Edmund's death than his achievements in life. The ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ described how Edmund was killed by the Great Heathen Army of Danes which had recently attacked other parts of Anglo-Saxon England. This is the same Great Heathen Army which was fought off by Alfred the Great of Wessex over the next decade.

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Miniature of Edmund tied to a tree and being shot full of arrows by two Scandinavians: British Library Harley MS 4826, f. 4r.

According to tradition, Edmund died during battle with the Danes after he refused their demands to renounce his Christian faith. This refusal transformed Edmund into a martyr. Over the following two centuries, a popular cult developed around his memory and was centred on the church where his remains were buried. The town which grew around this church was so associated with the cult of St Edmund that it took on his name, becoming the modern-day  Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. In the 10th century, the monks of Ramsey Abbey commissioned Abbo of Fleury to write a Latin account of the saint’s life and early cult. This text was later translated into Old English by the Anglo-Saxon, Ælfric of Eynsham, a well-known writer of many old English saint’s Lives, homilies and biblical commentaries. Much of what is now known about Edmund's early life, including his coronation on Christmas Day, comes from these texts written up to 200 years after his death. It is therefore uncertain where Edmund was indeed crowned on Christmas Day, or whether his later hagiographers deemed this an appropriate date for the coronation of a king who would later be canonised.

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Beginning of the Life of Edmund the Martyr in Ælfric’s Lives of Saints: British Library Cotton MS Julius E VII, f. 203r.

The crowning glory in our series of early medieval Christmas coronations is that of William the Conqueror, who was crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day in 1066. William’s coronation marked the end of Anglo-Saxon rule in England, and the beginning of the Norman dynasty.

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Detail of a roundel of William the Conqueror ('William Bastard'), from a genealogical chronicle of the kings of England, England (East Anglia?), c. 1340–1342: British Library Royal MS 14 B VI, membrane 5.

After his coronation, William set about establishing his authority in his new kingdom. As part of this process, he commissioned an abbey to be built upon the site of the Battle of Hastings. According to 12th-century sources, before the battle, William had sworn to build the abbey in order to commemorate and pray for those who died in combat. A detailed account of this foundation story was written at Battle in the 12th century. The page below is the beginning of an account of the life of William the Conqueror, and depicts William enthroned.

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Historiated initial with William the Conqueror: British Library Cotton MS Domitian A II, f. 22v.

It is extremely likely that these kings, or the people who wrote their legends, consciously chose to the crowned on Christmas Day. Those who celebrated their coronations on 25 December would also be celebrating the birth of Christ, the saviour and King of Kings. This would have added a sense of Divine favour to their rule, and secured their claim to that particular title. The sacred significance of this would not have been lost on the audience of these ceremonies, those who recorded them, and those who read about them throughout history.

Becky Lawton

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23 December 2016

The Medieval Origins of the Christmas Carol

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Most people today think of a carol as any song or hymn related to Christmas. In its origins, it is something both more and less specific than this. It is derived from the Old French word carole, referring to a round of dancers, singing and holding hands. What they sung was not limited to Christmas music, and musicologists often identify a refrain repeated after each stanza as the key feature of an early carol. Not all medieval carols were overtly religious, but most focused on the Virgin Mary or the winter holy days. The association with the season has been magnified over time, and it now less frequently refers to a specific musical form. So how does a carol get from a medieval manuscript to singers on a street corner, buskers on public transport, or loudspeakers in a shopping centre?

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Veni redemptor gentium: Cotton MS Vespasian D XII, f. 34v.

The oldest text still sung today that we would now call a Christmas carol is probably ‘Veni redemptor gentium’, by Ambrose (c. 340–397). Ambrose was once thought to have invented the hymn, although we now know that the form predates him. The history of Veni redemptor is typical of how medieval works become modern popular Christmas carols. In the Middle Ages, it was typically sung to plainchant, and was one of the standard pieces used on Christmas Eve. It can be found in many manuscripts in the British Library, including several that are online, notably Cotton MS Vespasian D XII; Harley MS 2961; and Arundel MS 155. (The Cantus database and the book Early Latin Hymnaries are great starting points for finding such texts in manuscript.) The idea of Ambrose as the creator of the hymn became so popular during the Middle Ages that a large number of poems ended up being associated with him over time; this is one of the few attributions to survive the rigour of modern scholarship.

Veni redemptor gentium in the Eadui Psalter: Arundel MS 155, f. 151r.

‘Veni redemptor gentium’ in the Eadui Psalter: Arundel MS 155, f. 151r.

In the English world, Ambrose’s hymn largely disappeared after King Henry VIII’s split from Rome, but benefitted from a revival of interest in medieval culture in the 19th century. It gained new popularity as ‘Come, thou Redeemer of the earth’, one of several well-known translations by John Mason Neale (1818–66), who was particularly gifted in expressing the meaning of his originals and matching their metres. It is today sung to many different tunes, but is most commonly paired with the music for another medieval carol, ‘Puer nobis nascitur’ (‘Unto us a boy is born’), found in the Moosburg Gradual of 1355–60, as arranged by Michael Praetorius (for ‘Geborn ist Gottes Söhnelein’). What reaches our ears today is the combined contribution of about half a dozen people over time.

Prudentius’s Corde natus ex parentis in the Leofric Collectar: Harley MS 2961, f. 228r

Prudentius’s ‘Corde natus ex parentis’ in the Leofric Collectar: Harley MS 2961, f. 228r.

Another contender for the oldest Christmas carol is ‘Corde natus ex parentis’, by Prudentius (348–c. 413), a Spanish lawyer who became a monk later in life. Like Ambrose’s hymn, it has gone through many layers of filtering and waves of popularity. One can hear it today in several different forms, most based on ‘Of the Father’s love begotten’ (another of Neale’s creations) or ‘Of the Father’s heart begotten’ (by R. F. Davis). The music is usually taken from the Finnish/Swedish book Piae cantiones first published in 1582, compiled by Jacobus Finno, largely from medieval sources. Purists might think this ahistorical; but even in the Middle Ages, words could be sung to many tunes from wildly varying sources.

There are many other medieval texts that remain today widely recognizable Christmas carols. Angelus ad virginem (‘The angel to the virgin’), cited by the Miller in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, is unusual in that it is still frequently sung by choirs, but almost always untranslated; the Middle English translation, ‘Gabriel, fram Heven-King’, is much more obscure. The British Library’s collections include many early carols that almost nobody today has heard of, such as King Henry VIII’s failed classic ‘Green groweth the holly’, found in Add MS 31922.

Henry VIII’s Green groweth the holly: Add. MS 31922, f. 37v.

Henry VIII’s ‘Green groweth the holly’: Add MS 31922, f. 37v.

There is far more to explore in the world of medieval carols in manuscript. Most of the British Library’s holdings can be explored through the Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music. Research into these sources can unearth forgotten classics; The New Oxford Book of Carols was especially successful in stretching what had become a stagnant musical repertoire in the 20th century. Medieval carols can remain successful today because they are inherently flexible, are far removed from today’s commercialism, and encourage the spontaneous combination of many different traditions.

Andrew Dunning

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22 December 2016

A Reindeer Farmer at King Alfred's Court

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This is a story about a gift-giving man, who lived in the ‘north-most’ place and owned 600 reindeer. Sounds like anyone familiar? Well, he wasn't Santa, if that was what you were thinking. The man in question was Ohthere, an intrepid explorer from medieval Scandinavia, who visited the court of King Alfred the Great in the late 9th century and told the king about his travels. We know Ohthere's story from a 10th-century manuscript held at the British Library, recently added to our Digitised Manuscripts site (Add MS 47967).

Reindeer

Detail of a deer from an Old English translation of Medicina de quadrupedibus (England, 11th century): Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 76r.

Ohthere was a wealthy explorer from the area that is now Norway. He travelled around Scandinavia, including areas that today comprise parts of Denmark and Finland, and he sailed ‘as far north as whale-hunters ever go’. He later visited the court of King Alfred of Wessex (871–899), where scholars were keen to learn about his travels. One of these scholars added an account of Ohthere's travels to the Old English translation of Orosius's Historia adversus paganos (History against the pagans). According to this account, Ohthere told Alfred about his travels, explaining that he was curious to see the extreme north, and that he wanted to hunt ‘horse-whales’, or walruses. Walrus ivory was a valuable trading commodity in this period, and Ohthere presented King Alfred with some walrus tusks when they met.   

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Detail of the North Sea from a world map, England, c. 1000-1050, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 56v 

Whoever preserved this story was also curious about Ohthere’s descriptions of where the Angles had lived ‘before they came into this land’ (England). Members of Alfred's court remembered that their ancestors came from mainland Europe, and they wanted to learn more about the lands which they identified as their own places of origin.

As well as describing Ohthere’s travels, the author of this account also described whale-hunting, uninhabited polar ‘deserts’ and different Scandinavian languages. For example, according to Ohthere, the Finnas and the Beormas both spoke basically the same language. The Old English account also described Ohthere’s economic resources, including a herd of 600 ‘tame deer’ called hranas, or reindeer. In particular, Ohthere owned 6 prized ‘decoy deer’, which the Finnas used to lure wild reindeer into captivity. The account also reported that Ohthere was ‘one of the first men on the land’ near his home, and that he received a tribute of animal products from the Finnas.

Cotton_ms_tiberius_b_i_f012v
Description of reindeer in the Old English translation of Orosius’s Historia adversus paganos (England, c. 1000–1050): Cotton MS Tiberius B I, f. 12v.

Our only written source about Ohthere is contained in an Old English translation of Orosius’s History, whose compiler edited and augmented his source-material. Orosius began with an account of the geography of the known world, which the Old English translator supplemented with extra information about Britain and Scandinavia, including reports by explorers including Ohthere and another seafarer, Wulfstan. This translation may have been composed in the late 9th century, and it survives in copies from the early 10th and 11th centuries.

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Beginning of the description of world geography, from the Tollemache Orosius (England (Winchester?), c. 900–950): Add MS 47967, f. 5v.

Although he may sound like a figure from modern folktales, Ohthere was, in many ways, a myth-buster. While King Alfred is remembered today for fighting Scandinavians (thanks to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Asser’s Life of Alfred, and other texts produced at his court), the story of Ohthere shows a different side of Anglo-Scandinavian relations in the late 9th century. At least one Scandinavian traded with the English and brought gifts to Alfred, and his knowledge was recorded and respected by scholars at Alfred’s court.

Alison Hudson

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21 December 2016

Fake Anglo-Saxon Charters

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The Oxford Dictionaries word of the year for 2016 is ‘post-truth’. But the problem of distributing information that portrays that world as one thinks it should be, rather than sticking to objective facts, is hardly a new one. Gaining and keeping privileges is based on having documentation appearing to be authentic and credible stories surrounding it. This was no less true in the Middle Ages, and it has always been a temptation to tweak it in one’s own favour.

Today, we keep a title deed to demonstrate right to a particular property, or a diploma from an educational institution to demonstrate a particular qualification. This stems from the medieval practice of creating ‘charters’, derived from the Latin word ‘carta’ or ‘charta’, originally meaning a sheet of writing material — ‘Magna Carta’ means ‘the big charter’. Over time, the word came to refer to a formal deed or other legal instrument, since charters were normally issued as a single sheet of parchment.

Cotton Charter XI 11

Writing Old English in the 15th century: Cotton Charter XI 11.

If a document supporting your claim to a piece of land had been destroyed, lost or mouldered away, this posed a liability. You could have a new charter issued to confirm one’s privileges in such instances, but this meant extra expenses and bureaucracy. The privileges of institutions were often based on events that had occurred far beyond the realm of living memory, and they risked lawsuits if it became apparent to outsiders that a claim was ambiguous. The obvious solution was to recreate the charter: to make a forgery.

The intent in such cases was not necessarily malicious; historians often refer to such charters as ‘spurious’ to avoid passing judgement on their creators. Some documents were obviously fraudulent, and known to be so even in the Middle Ages. The most famous example is the Donation of Constantine, which purported to be from the Roman emperor who reigned from 306 to 337, granting vast temporal rights to the papacy. Most charters, however, were based on originals, now usually lost, and they continue to be of value for understanding the past, even if they cannot be taken as authentic documentation.

Add Charter 28657

Still trying to be Anglo-Saxon in the 12th century: Add Charter 28657.

In England, some of the most fascinating spurious charters are those purporting to be Anglo-Saxon. Documentation from this period is scarce, and historians have analysed them to determine which details might be accurate. But whether their contents are true or false, they give a sense of how someone living after 1066 viewed the period before the Norman Conquest. Far from sitting unread, there continued to be interest in understanding the contents and composition of Anglo-Saxon charters, and this expertise was key to making a successful imitation.

Forgers attempted to imitate script; the form of the document, including the seal; and language and formulae. They did so with wildly varying levels of success. Some scribes had a clear sense that the document they were examining was quite different from something they might create in everyday business. Others made no attempt whatsoever to make a charter look like an earlier medieval document, and in some cases do not seem to have understood the function of every aspect of a charter.

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Gothic script taking on aspects of English vernacular minuscule: Harley Charter 43 C 9.

Handwriting is the most obvious indicator of a spurious charter. A document written in Gothic script cannot be an original from the year 900. The cleverest scribes wrote charters in a script after the manner of their own period, but attempting to use the letterforms of an older style, in this case English vernacular minuscule. This was a relatively widespread phenomenon, and can be used as a direct measure for historical literacy, as Julia Crick has shown. Some scribes’ imitations have proven good enough to fool palaeographers into thinking that a document was much older than it really is.

Add Charter 33658

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Anglo-Saxon for show: Add Ch 33658.

Some forgers were also aware of how an Anglo-Saxon charter should physically look. Most understood that it should be a single sheet of parchment, but many forgers failed to create a convincing imitation because they attempted to create the most impressive document they could imagine, rather than something that followed historical precedent. One example is Add Charter 33658, a 14th-century creation that purports to be a grant of King Edgar to Ramsey Abbey, dated 28 December 974. It is copied on a massive sheet of parchment, with far wider margins than any known Anglo-Saxon document, and is clearly designed for show. Someone seems to have had a vague idea that a real charter should be a chirograph. This was a medieval method of authentication: two or more copies of a charter would be written on a single sheet of parchment, a word such as CHIROGRAPHVS would be written along the boundaries between the copies, and they would be cut apart with a wavy line. In cases of doubt, the authenticity of a document could be determined by bringing the copies back together. In this case, the forgers do not seem to have known exactly how a chirograph was meant to work: wobbly semicircles have been cut out of one side, without any inscription. Update, 16 January 2017: We had thought that we had ruled out the possibility of this being a rodent’s work, but Susan Maddock kindly points out that the pattern on the left edge indicates that the charter was stored as a roll, not folded as it is now.

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An 11th-century test forgery of Edward the Confessor’s seal: Cotton Charter XVII 5.

The most impressive aspect of many charters is their seals. Like the texts of charters, some forged seals were based on originals. Westminster Abbey ran a particularly sophisticated forgery operation: they had some charters with the seal of King Edward the Confessor, and made a very close copy of it around the late 11th century, which survives on several surviving spurious charters. One can catch them in the act of perfecting their work with Cotton Charter XVII 5, which appears to be a practice copy, a seal attached to a small blank sheet of parchment. Centuries later, monks were still trying to produce forged charters of Edward the Confessor, but less successfully — Harley Charter 43 E 51, from the 15th century, has what almost looks like a massive Victorian fantasy version of Edward’s seal (113 mm in diameter), showing the king seated in an unapologetically Gothic structure.

Harley Charter 43 E 51

Harley Charter 43 E 51 Seal

Imagining Edward the Confessor in the 15th century: Harley Charter 43 E 51.

Some charters that are physically much newer than their text are, of course, mere copies of a degrading original, and can still be treated as conveying accurate historical details. Historians can tell the difference between these and deliberate forgeries by carefully analysing the language and formulae used, along with known historical details. Today, we are becoming much better at understanding what makes an authentic Anglo-Saxon charter.

Andrew Dunning

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