THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

149 posts categorized "Anglo-Saxon"

12 October 2016

England and France, 700-1200: Manuscripts from the Bibliothèque nationale de France and the British Library

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We are delighted to announce a new project to open up further the unparalleled collections of illuminated manuscripts held by the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France. In a ground-breaking new collaborative project the national libraries of Britain and France will work together to create two innovative new websites that will make 800 manuscripts decorated before the year 1200 available freely. The Bibliothèque nationale de France will create a new bilingual website that will allow side-by-side comparison of 400 manuscripts from each collection, selected for their beauty and interest. The British Library will create a bilingual website intended for a general audience that will feature highlights from the most important of these manuscripts and articles commissioned by leading experts in the field. Both websites will be online by November 2018.

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Illuminated initial 'B'(eatus) and full border at the beginning of Psalm 1, Canterbury, early 11th century (British Library Arundel MS 155, f. 12r).

Before the introduction of printing to Europe, all books were written by hand as manuscripts. The most luxurious of these were illuminated, literally ‘lit up’ by decorations and pictures in brightly coloured pigments and burnished gold leaf. All manuscripts — whether they are luxurious biblical or liturgical manuscripts, copies of classical literature or patristic, theological, historical or scientific texts — are valuable historical documents that can deepen and expand our understanding of the political, social and cultural life of the eras in which they were made. Their research value is inestimable.

The British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France have two of the largest collections of medieval manuscripts in the world. As a result of France and England being so closely entwined through periods of war, conquest and alliance and, in the medieval period, both nations claiming territory in France at times, both libraries have particularly strong holdings of French manuscripts produced in France or in Britain (but written in French or Latin).

This new project will add to the growing numbers of manuscript material available in full online as part of wider programmes to make these cultural treasures available to everyone around the world. At the British Library, over 8,000 items are currently available on our Digitised Manuscripts website. Similarly, thousands of items are available from the Bibliothèque nationale de France collections on its website, Gallica.

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Roly Keating, Chief Executive of the British Library and Marc Polonsky of The Polonsky Foundation signing the agreement for the project.

This exciting project is made possible by a generous grant from The Polonsky Foundation. Dr Leonard Polonsky remarks that 'our Foundation is privileged to be supporting these two leading institutions in preserving the riches of the world's cultural heritage and making them available in innovative and creative ways, both to scholars and to a wider public'.

The Polonsky Foundation is a UK-registered charity which primarily supports cultural heritage, scholarship in the humanities and social sciences, and innovation in higher education and the arts. Its principal activities include the digitisation of significant collections at leading libraries (the British Library; the Bibliothèque nationale de France; the Bodleian Library, Oxford; Cambridge University Library; the New York Public Library; the Library of Congress; the Vatican Apostolic Library); support for Theatre for a New Audience at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, New York; and post-doctoral fellowships at The Polonsky Academy for the Advanced Study of the Humanities and Social Sciences at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. Its founder and chairman, Dr Leonard S. Polonsky, was named a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) for charitable services in 2013.

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Tuija Ainonen, Project Curator, Roly Keating, Chief Executive of the British Library, Kristian Jensen, Head of Collections and Curation of the British Library, Rachel Polonsky, and Marc Polonsky viewing a manuscript of the Gospel of Mark (British Library Royal MS 4 D II).

The focus on the digitisation project will be on manuscripts produced on either side of the English Channel between 700 and 1200. The manuscripts from this period open up a window on a time of close cultural and political exchange during which scribes moved and worked in what is now France, Normandy and England. Decorated manuscripts containing literary, historical, biblical and theological texts will be included, representing the mutual strengths of the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Online access to these manuscripts will support new research into how manuscripts — and people — travelled around Europe in this period. New connections will be made possible by studying the two collections side by side.

For example, the manuscripts selected will include a number of illuminated Gospel-books, providing a witness to the changing tastes, influences and borrowings reflected in the books’ design and script. So a 9th-century, a 10th-century and a late 12th-century Gospel-book all have colourful illuminated initials with geometric patterns, floral decoration or animals heads, yet their execution is very different. The script, colours, style and subjects of the illumination all provide clues to the time and place of their composition. With the digitisation of manuscripts all these features may be studied and enjoyed in detail.

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Decorated initial ‘I’(nitium) from western France, perhaps Brittany or Tours, 9th century (British Library Egerton MS 609, f. 46r).

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A book of Gospels from Thorney Abbey, originally produced in France, possibly Brittany, in the early 10th century, but which made its way to the abbey by the late 10th or early 11th century (British Library, Add MS 40000 f. 34v)
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Illuminated initial 'I'(nitium) with dragons and human masks in medallions, England or France, late 12th century (British Library, Royal MS 4 D II, f. 2v).

As well as making 800 manuscripts freely available online, the project will be part of a wider programme of activities aimed at researchers and the general public. A number of the manuscripts digitised will be displayed in a major international exhibition on Anglo-Saxon England to be held at the British Library from October 2018 to February 2019, which will highlight connections between Anglo-Saxon England and the Continent. Manuscripts included in the project may also feature in another major exhibition to be held at the Musée de Cluny in Paris focusing on Merovingian manuscripts, opening on 26 October 2016.

A conference at the British Library will coincide with the Anglo-Saxon exhibition (December 2018), and a project conference will be held at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. We will also produce an illustrated book showcasing beautiful and significant manuscripts from the collections. Another output will be a film on the digitisation project that, together with the other aspects of the public programme, will open up new paths into our collections for a variety of audiences.

We look forward to working closely with our colleagues at the Bibliothèque nationale de France on this exciting project to enhance access to and understanding of the written cultural heritage of England and France.

Tuija Ainonen, Project Curator

@BLMedieval

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07 October 2016

Die Another Day? The Vita Haroldi at Waltham Abbey

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14 October 2016 marks the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings and the beginning of the Norman Conquest of England. One of the most iconic but also most debated parts of that battle was the death of the Anglo-Saxon king, Harold. Was he killed by an arrow to the eye as Amatus of Monte Cassino claimed and as may be shown on the Bayeux Tapestry? Was he hacked to bits, as recounted by Guy of Amiens? Or was he shot with arrows and then put to the sword, as described by Henry of Huntingdon?

One medieval tale, currently on display at Epping Forest District Museum in Waltham Abbey until 24 December 2016, has a very different version of events: it claims that Harold did not die at all. The manuscript in question, British Library Harley MS 3776, forms part of the Epping Forest exhibition on Harold II: The Life, Legend and Legacy of the Last Anglo-Saxon King of England

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Opening page of the Vita Haroldi, Waltham Abbey, 1345–c. 1370, Harley MS 3776, f. 1r

In the early 13th century, an account of Harold’s life was produced for Waltham Abbey, the church which claimed to hold Harold’s remains and where Harold may have been regarded as a saint. This text, which survives only in a 14th-century copy (Harley MS 3776), claims Harold was merely wounded at Hastings. In this version of events, he escaped and recovered with the help of a ‘Saracen lady’ at Winchester and travelled to Saxony and Scandinavia to try to get military support to retake the throne. Eventually Harold returned to England in disguise and lived out his life as a hermit in a cave before dying at St John’s Church in Chester. 

There is no reason to give any historical credence to this claim that Harold survived Hastings. Nevertheless, the form and content of this vita are fascinating insights into post-Conquest literature and memory-making. Laura Ashe and Stephen Matthews, among others, have shown that this unusual vita contains aspects of both hagiography and chivalric romance. Harold may have lost the battle of Hastings, but he succeeded in being remembered by some as both swashbuckling and saintly, even centuries after his death.

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Miniature depicting the Battle of Hastings and Harold’s body being carried to Waltham Abbey, from the Grande Chronique de Normandie, Brussels, c. 1460–1468, Yates Thompson MS 33, f.167r

If you are interested in learning more about Harold and how he was remembered, you can visit the newly refurbished Epping Forest District Museum in Waltham Abbey. Harold II: The Life, Legend and Legacy of the Last Anglo-Saxon King of England is on until 24 December 2016. The British Library is delighted to have loaned Harley MS 3776 to this exhibition.

Alison Hudson

@BLMedieval

05 October 2016

Reading and Writing Greek in Britain

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The Greek language has a long history in the British Isles. The earliest surviving examples of Greek text found in Britain date from its days as a Roman province, on multi-lingual curse tablets now held by the Museum of London. Although located at the north-western extreme of the Roman Empire, Britain nonetheless saw its share of Greek-speaking soldiers and civilians living within its shores.

It is less clear what happened to any Greek-speakers remaining in Britain after the Romans withdrew around 410. However, by the 7th century, we have clear evidence once again of prominent Greek speakers on the island, when Theodore of Tarsus was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. Few in the medieval Latin west could read Greek, but there is clear evidence from early on of an awareness of the importance of Greek as the original language of the Gospels, in particular. So, for instance, we can find Greek letters used occasionally in the Lindisfarne Gospels. At the incipit of the Gospel of Matthew, the word ‘Filii’  (‘son’) is written once with an F and once with a Greek letter Φ instead.

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The incipit from the Gospel of Matthew in the Lindisfarne Gospels contains the Greek letter Φ in place of an F in the word ‘Filii’. Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 27r. England (Lindisfarne Priory), c. 700.

The Athelstan Psalter, an Anglo-Saxon manuscript written in Francia and taken to England shortly afterwards, contains Greek prayers transliterated into Latin letters. These examples indicate that even if Greek was not widely understood, its significance as the language of the early Church was recognised by scholars and clergy in medieval Britain. More information about knowledge of Greek in the early medieval West can be found in an article on the British Library’s new Greek Manuscripts Project Website.

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Greek Litany and sanctus written in Latin letters. Athelstan Psalter, Cotton MS Galba A XVIII, f. 200v. North-East Francia, 9th century.

The revival of interest in Greek learning in the West during the Renaissance also had an impact on Britain. Schoolboy compositions in Greek written and presented to members of the royal family during the Tudor era are now kept at the British Library. These make it clear that Greek was being taught in some public schools, but as Matthew Adams shows in his article on this topic, its availability varied and depended on a number of factors. There was considerable suspicion of the Greek language in the early 16th century as a result of the appearance of Erasmus’ edition of the Greek New Testament, and the study of Greek was briefly associated with heresy. After the accession of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603), however, who was herself a keen student of Greek, the language regained favour and began to be taught more widely in schools.

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The Etheridge Encomium, presented to Queen Elizabeth in 1566. Royal MS 16 C X, f. 1r. England, 1566?

Over the following centuries, increasing interest in Greek in Britain saw the arrival on the island of many manuscripts and printed books in that language. Some notable figures whose collections are now in the British Library from this period include Hans Sloane and Robert Harley. But it was the 19th century, and the great increase in philhellenism resulting from the rise of the Grand Tour, sympathy for the Greek War of Independence, and other factors, that saw the most interest in Greek literature and Greek manuscripts in Britain. Many British aristocrats travelled to Greece and Greek monasteries in the Eastern Mediterranean, and returned with substantial collections of manuscripts. The acquisitions of some of these figures are detailed in an article on British collectors of Greek manuscripts.

These are only a few instances of the long history of knowledge of Greek in Britain. Many more can be found in our collection items, or in the articles to be found on our new Greek Manuscripts Project Website.

Cillian O'Hogan

@BLMedieval/@CillianOHogan

25 September 2016

The Ceolfrith Leaves Are 1300 Years Old

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25 September 2016 marks the 1300th anniversary of the death of Abbot Ceolfrith of the Anglo-Saxon monastery at Wearmouth-Jarrow. This means that three sets of fragments in the British Library have had their 1300th birthday. Abbot Ceolfrith is most well-known for the trip he intended to make to Rome at the end of his life, to present a majestic manuscript to the pope. Sadly, Ceolfrith passed away at the grand age of 74 before he reached the Holy City, and the manuscript he brought with him on his journey never found its way to Rome. The manuscript was instead kept at the Abbey of the Saviour, Monte Amiata in Tuscany, before it moved to its current home, the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence.

This legendary manuscript is now known as the Codex Amiatinus, and is famous for its great size, extravagant design, and for being the oldest complete copy of the Vulgate Bible in existence. The manuscript is over 48cm tall, weighs 35kg and has more than one thousand pages. As can be seen in the photograph below, it was an extremely impressive manuscript and was designed to make a statement.

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The Codex Amiatinus on display, photographed by Maxence

What makes the achievements of the monks at Wearmouth-Jarrow even more remarkable is that they not only produced the Codex Amiatinus, but also two more copies of this great Bible. In Bede’s History of the Abbots he described how Abbot Ceolfrith had commissioned three copies of the Bible, ‘one of which he took with him as a present when he went back to Rome in his old age, and the other two he bequeathed to his monasteries’ (trans. by J.F. Webb, in D.H. Farmer (ed.), The Age of Bede, (London, 1983).) Within the collections here at the British Library are a number of fragments which are believed to be the remains of the two bibles which remained in Anglo-Saxon England.

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Page from the Middleton Leaves, England (Wearmouth-Jarrow), before September 716, Add MS 45025, f. 3v

These show that in addition to their magnificent size, the interior of these pandects was also designed to be visually impressive. The script and decorative images were specifically chosen to replicate an Italian design. This Italian style of script was different in many ways to another script which was commonly used in Northern England at the same time. Can you spot the differences between this script used in the Codex Amiatinus and Ceolfrith Leaves and the script used in an early copy of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History?


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Left: detail of script from the Greenwell Leaf, England (Wearmouth-Jarrow), before September 716, Add MS 37777, f. 1v; Right: 
Detail of script from Bede, Ecclesiastical History, England (Southumbria or Wearmouth-Jarrow?), c. 875-925, Cotton MS Tiberius A XIV, f. 15r

The British Library’s fragments all survive in the form of single leaves of parchment and are catalogued under three separate references, Add MS 45025, Add MS 37777 and Loan MS 81. These fragments have all taken rather unique and remarkable journeys from the scriptorium at Wearmouth-Jarrow into the collection here at the British Library. The fragments in Additional MS 45025, more commonly known as the Middleton Leaves, were discovered being used as covers for deeds pertaining to the lands owned by the Willoughby family of Wollaton Hall (Nottinghamshire). These fragments were bought from Lord Middleton in 1937 by the Friends of the National Libraries for the British Museum. A previous blog post also discussed the possible link between these fragments and a ‘great Bible’ given to the monks of Worcester by King Offa of Mercia in the 8th century. 

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Add MS 45025, f.6r.

This fragment represents both stages in the lifecycle of these pieces of parchment. The parchment contains an extract of the Book of Kings in the original script, with its characteristically Italian style which can still be seen in the Codex Amiatinus today. In the upper margin it is also possible to see the later annotations made to the parchment when the leaf was used by the Willoughby family to wrap land grants. Fragments of manuscripts have often been reused in creative ways, as discussed in this blog post

When viewing these leaves on Digitised Manuscripts, it is easy to forget that they were once part of two great Bibles which would have matched the magnificent size and splendour of the Codex Amiatinus. These three Bibles would have been an extraordinary feat of craftsmanship, using a wealth of resources to produce, and would have been extremely impressive to those at the height of Anglo-Saxon and Italian society. The Codex Amiatinus and its two sister pandects are most definitely among brightest lights of intellectual achievement which shine from the supposed ‘Dark Ages’.

Rebecca Lawton

@BLMedieval

Further reading:

Another incredibly important manuscript which was supposedly produced by the monks of Wearmouth-Jarrow was the St Cuthbert Gospel. This is a copy of the gospel of St John, which was produced in honour of St Cuthbert in the late 7th century and was buried within his coffin. This manuscript shows the same beautiful uncial script found in the Codex Amiatinus. More information about how this manuscript came to reside in the care of the British Library can be found two previous blog posts.  

24 September 2016

British Libraries: The Panizzi Lectures 2016

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Every year since 1985, the British Library has hosted a series of lectures on the history of the book. These lectures are known as the Panizzi lectures in honour of Sir Anthony Panizzi (1797–1879), an Italian immigrant and patriot who became the Keeper of Printed Books and later Principal Librarian of the British Museum. He doubled the reading room’s staff and number of printed books, transforming the British Museum’s library into a world class institution.

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Miniature of a seated scribe (possibly Bede), from Bede’s prologue to his prose Life of Cuthbert, Northern England (Durham), c. 1175-1200, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 2r

This year, the Panizzi Lectures are being delivered by Dr Rowan Williams, Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and former archbishop of Canterbury, on the subject of ‘British Libraries: the literary world of post-Roman Britain’. Dr Williams’s lectures will focus, in turn, on the libraries and books which influenced ‘Gildas and the Invention of Britain’; ‘Bede and the Invention of England’; and 'Nennius and the Invention of Wales’.

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Opening page of Bede’s Eccesiastical History, England (Southumbria), c. 800-850, Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 5v

The British Library holds several early copies of the texts on which the lectures will focus. For example, our manuscript of Gildas’s De excidio et conquestu Britanniae (‘On the ruin and conquest of Britain’) is now available on Digitised Manuscripts (Cotton MS Vitellius A VI). Apart from a shorter, 9th-century fragment that survives in Bibliothèque Carnegie de Reims, MS 414, this 10th-century copy is the oldest surviving copy of Gildas’s admonition of British leaders for their sins and defeats. This copy was rescued from the Ashburnham House fire of 1731, hence the fire and water damage to its pages.

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Detail of a page from Gildas, De excidio, England, mid-10th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A VI, f. 14v

Several copies or fragments of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People are also available on Digitised Manuscripts, such as Royal MS 13 C V and Egerton MS 3278. These include Cotton MS Tiberius A XIV which, although not the very earliest copy of the Ecclesiastical History, is among the important early witnesses of Bede’s work. The manuscript was made sometime in the late-8th or early 9th-century, within a few decades of Bede’s death. Although this manuscript could arguably have been made in either Southumbria or Northumbria, some scholars have linked it to Bede’s own monastery at Wearmouth-Jarrow. This manuscript might therefore have belonged to one of the most notable early British libraries, as well as demonstrating that monastery’s output.

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Page from Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica, England (Wearmouth-Jarrow?), c. 760–830, Cotton MS Tiberius A XIV, f. 20v

The British Library also holds several copies of the Historia Brittonum (which used to be attributed to Nennius), an account of the history of Britain from the alleged settlement of the island by Trojan refugees to about 829 AD. One of the earliest of these manuscripts is Harley MS 3859

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Account of St Patrick’s life from the Historia Brittonum, England or France, Harley MS 3859, f. 186r.

To learn more about these historical texts, come to the Panizzi lectures on Monday 10 October, Wednesday 12 October, and Monday 17 October at 18.15 in the British Library’s Conference Centre, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB. There is free admission and no ticketing: seats will be available on a first come, first served basis. Hope to see you there!

@BLMedieval

29 August 2016

Monster Monday

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You may have noticed the recent trend for naming days on Twitter. We've had #WorldElephantDay, #InternationalDogDay and even #nationalburgerday (seriously, who makes this stuff up?!). So, without more ado, we've decided to make a stand and to reclaim Mondays as our very own #MonsterMonday. (You know it makes sense.)

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A man without a head, with eyes and a mouth in his chest (a blemmye): Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 102v

For the inaugural #MonsterMonday (the trademark application is in the post), we thought we'd kick off with the Marvels of the East, from the copy that forms part of the famous Beowulf manuscript. A quick advert for our Digitised Manuscripts site here: you should know that you can view digitised images of Beowulf and hundreds of the British Library's other medieval manuscripts, for free and online, from the comfort of your own office/living room/bathroom, 24/7. The manuscript of the Marvels of the East featured here was made sometime around the year AD 1000, most likely during the reign of King Æthelred the Unready (978–1016) or his successor, King Cnut (1016–35). Sadly, it was damaged during the Cotton Library fire of 1731, but the pages containing the images of fantastic beasts are mostly intact, even when the parchment has warped under the intense heat of the flames.

Which monsters do you recognise here? We'd love you to tweet us your favourites, to @BLMedieval, and to join in our little game of Monday mayhem, using the hashtag #MonsterMonday. Otherwise, someone else will come up with an equally daft idea, like #GlobalTurnipWeek, and we wouldn't want that to happen, would we?

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A serpent and a two-horned beast: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 99r

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A cynocephalus (a man with a dog's head): Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 100r

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A man 15 feet high with white bodies and two faces: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 101v

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A beast-headed man, holding a human leg and foot, alongside a person with long hair: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 103v

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A man with ears like winnowing fans: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 104r

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A woman with long hair: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 105v

 

Julian Harrison

@BLMedieval/@julianpharrison

24 August 2016

The Great Medieval Bake Off

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Becky Lawton

@BLMedieval/@bbeckyL

05 August 2016

Medieval Selfies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alison Hudson

@BLMedieval