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164 posts categorized "Anglo-Saxon"

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.

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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

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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). 

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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15 December 2016

New Developments in Manuscript Viewers

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As regular readers of this blog will know, we recently announced an exciting new project with the Bibliothèque nationale de France to digitise 400 pre-1200 manuscripts at each institution, generously supported by The Polonsky Foundation.

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Decorated initial ‘Q’(uid) in British Library, Arundel MS 60, f. 53r

IIIF and Search functionality

We thought that some of you might be interested in some of the more technical aspects of the viewer that will be developed by the project team. The teams at both libraries are meeting to develop the viewer, which will use the International Image Interoperability framework (IIIF). Both the Bibliothèque nationale de France and the British Library are founding members of the IIIF Consortium, established in 2015, and have been involved in developing the IIIF specifications in order to promote a standardised way of presenting digital material.

Detailed technical specifications are available here, and are refined continuously. The digitised collections will comply both with IIIF image API 2.0 and IIIF Presentation API 2.0. One of the main goals of the new viewer will be the ability to display manuscripts from either institution side by side. 

We also plan to include a search and browse function enabling users to search for various types of manuscripts. This may be based on the functionality available on Biblissima, described here. Also like Biblissima, it is intended that the website will be bilingual in French and English.

The manuscripts are being digitised now, and we expect to make this viewer available in September 2018. In the meantime, as they are digitised and catalogued, British Library manuscripts can be viewed initially on our Digitised Manuscripts website and later on its successor, and BnF manuscripts on Gallica. At the British Library, we are intending to put up the first batch of manuscripts in the New Year, and we’ll be letting you know further details about this.

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The Annunciation in British Library, Cotton MS Caligula A VII/1, f. 3r

Copyright and download

We plan to include download options for individual images or manuscripts, allowing images to be reused in the public domain without charge. Readers may be surprised to learn that most medieval manuscripts held at the British Library are still in copyright until 2039 under the 1988 Copyright, Designs and Patents Act (as amended). However for unpublished material created many centuries ago and in the public domain in most other countries, the British Library believes making available digital copies of this material to be very unlikely to raise any objections. As an institution whose role it is to support access to knowledge, we have therefore taken the decision to release certain digitised images technically still in copyright in the UK under the Public Domain Mark on our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts website. Further details about this are here. We intend to make these images available on the same terms on the website to be developed by the project. 

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30 November 2016

Turning the Tide

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1000 years ago, on 30 November 1016, the Scandinavian leader Cnut became king of all England following the death of Edmund Ironside. What do you know about King Cnut? Ask a British or Danish person of a certain age, and they’ll probably tell you the story about King Cnut and the sea. According to this story, King Cnut sat on the seashore and tried to command the tide not to touch his feet, but the sea ignored him. This image is still used by modern political commentators to mock politicians who vainly fight against real or figurative tides of change.

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Detail of King Cnut, from the New Minster Liber Vitae, England (New Minster, Winchester), c. 1031, Stowe MS 944, f. 6r.

However, if you come to our display in the British Library's Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery, assembled for the 1000th anniversary of Cnut's conquest, you will not find any references to Cnut turning back the tide. You’ll find a lot of other things, including Beowulf, a charter, a copy of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a copy of Cnut’s lawcodes, and the only known manuscript portrait of Cnut made during his lifetime. But the story of Cnut trying to turn back the tide — the only story most people know about Cnut — is a much later invention, as many scholars have noted in the face of the story's enduring popular appeal.

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Opening page from Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum, England , c. 1400-1450, Arundel MS 46, f. 2r.

The story is often attributed to Henry of Huntingdon’s Chronicle, written more than a century after Cnut died. There is no earlier evidence that Cnut ever tried to command any waves. However, once told the story became very popular, and there are a range of later medieval retellings of this story. 

As some historians have noted, Henry’s account does point us towards an important aspect of Cnut’s career which can be verified: his extravagant piety. In Henry’s account, Cnut used his failure to control the waves to make the pious point that only God has supreme control over nature. According to Henry, after that day on the seashore Cnut never wore his crown again, but instead placed it over a crucifix. Documents and manuscripts from Cnut’s own reign on display in the Treasures Gallery show that Cnut went to great lengths to portray himself as a good Christian king.

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Drawing showing Cnut and his queen donating a cross to the New Minster, from the New Minster Liber Vitae, England (Winchester), c. 1031, Stowe MS 944, f. 6r.

Cnut was known for his lavish gifts to churches. The Treasures Gallery display includes a charter written in 1018 which recorded Cnut giving woodland to the archbishop of Canterbury, at the encouragement of his queen, Emma. The New Minster Liber Vitae, also on display in the Treasures Gallery, lists Cnut as one of the most important benefactors of the New Minster at Winchester. Its opening drawing shows Cnut and his queen donating a jewelled cross to the altar of the New Minster. In the case of the New Minster Liber Vitae, however, Cnut is not giving up his crown along with the crucifix: on the contrary, angels descend to affix the crown to his head. This is perhaps an apt metaphor for kings of England who supported the Church and whose rule in turn benefitted from the Church’s social and cultural support. 

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Cnut gives woodland to Ælfstan Lyfing, archbishop of Canterbury, at the request of Queen Emma (Ælfgifu), England (Eadwig Basan, scribe of Christ Church, Canterbury), Stowe Charter 38.

Cnut may have been keen to highlight his good Christian credentials because he was a conqueror who came from Scandinavia, a region to which Christianity had been introduced relatively recently. It is unlikely that Cnut himself was ever a pagan. However, many English laws and sermons from the end of Æthelred’s reign had framed Cnut’s and Swein’s invasion as an attack by barbarians, a punishment from God for the sins of the English. Not all Anglo-Saxons viewed Scandinavians so negatively: the story of Beowulf, which featured a pagan Scandinavian as the titular hero, was being retold and copied around the time of Cnut's conquest. Nevertheless, after conquering England in 1016, Cnut seems to have been keen to reassure his new subjects that his regime would be a return to business as usual.

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Detail of Emma, from Stowe MS 944, f. 6r.

One point of continuity was Cnut's queen. Cnut married the widow of his predecessor, Æthelred the Unready: Emma of Normandy, or Ælfgifu as the English called her. She appears next to Cnut in the image from the New Minster Liber Vitae, and the author of Stowe Charter 38 emphasized that she was the one gave Cnut the idea to donate the woodland to the archbishop. Cnut also hired the same person to write his laws as had written Æthelred’s laws: Wulfstan, bishop of Worcester and archbishop of York, one of the sermonizers who had denounced Cnut's invasion as divine retribution for the sins of the English. Cnut’s laws of 1020, drafted by Wulfstan, borrow heavily from previous laws of Anglo-Saxon kings. They even command the celebration of English saints, like Edward the Martyr and St Dunstan.

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Detail of Cnut’s Winchester lawcode (also known as I- II Cnut), England, mid-11th century, Cotton MS Nero A I, f. 11v.

So, was Cnut an overconfident king, a committed Christian, a nervous conqueror trying to build bridges with a population who may have viewed him as a divine punishment, or all of the above? Come and see some manuscripts connected to his conquest in the Treasures Gallery (or on Digitised Manuscripts) and decide for yourself. There’s much more to Cnut than the story about him and the sea.

Alison Hudson

@BLMedieval

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, England (Christ Church, Canterbury), 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius A III, f. 117v

 

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, from an Old English copy of Monasteriales Indicia, England (Christ Church Canterbury), 11th century, 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: from The Tiberius Psalter, England (Old Minster, Winchester?), c. 1050-1075, 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, from the Eadui Psalter, England (Christ Church, Canterbury), c. 1012-1023,  Arundel MS 155, f. 10v

Alison Ray

@BLMedieval

 

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