Medieval manuscripts blog

76 posts categorized "English"

29 September 2015

Erasmus Manuscript Saved for the Nation

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We are delighted to announce that the British Library has acquired a unique manuscript containing the earliest known translation into English of any work by the great humanist scholar and reformer, Desiderius Erasmus (d. 1536). This volume, which had been the subject of a temporary export bar, is also the only known manuscript of a contemporary English translation of Erasmus’s most popular work, the Enchiridion militis Christiani, or ‘Handbook of the Christian soldier’.  


A contemporary English translation of Erasmus’s Enchiridion militis Christiani, newly-acquired by the British Library (Additional MS 89149, f. 1r)

Erasmus is perhaps best known today for his satire The Praise of Folly, which he wrote to amuse Thomas More (d. 1535), and for his translation of the New Testament from Greek; but the Enchiridion was Erasmus’s first summing up of the guiding principles of his religious life, setting out his vision of a purified, Christ-centred faith based on essential points of doctrine. As a compendium of humanistic piety, it endorsed the lay vocation to holiness in the Christian life. Erasmus’s revolutionary concept, given its first and definitive expression in the Enchiridion, was his elevation of the educated laity as the potential source of new life in a Church and society fallen into decay. The Enchiridion evoked widespread interest throughout Europe and became one of the most influential devotional texts of the early 16th century. Between 1501, when Erasmus wrote the Enchiridion, and 1536 when he died, the original Latin text appeared in more than 50 printed editions. Between 1533 and 1545 there were 13 editions in English, the first being published by Wynkyn de Worde for John Bydell in London. The large number of English printed editions of the Enchiridion demonstrates the importance of its influence in pre-Reformation England.    

Dated 1523, the manuscript was written ten years before the English translation of the Enchiridion first appeared in print in 1533. Two contemporary accounts testify that the religious reformer William Tyndale (d. 1536) translated the Enchiridion into English in 1522 or 1523. To date, there has been no secure evidence that Tyndale’s translation survived but its relationship to the text of the English translation, printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1533, has long been a matter of scholarly debate. The proximity of the date of the Northumberland manuscript to Tyndale’s putative Enchiridion now tantalisingly suggests a potential identification with his ‘lost’ translation. 


Colophon: 'translated oute of latten into englisshe in the yere of our lord god mlvcxxiii [i.e. 1523]' (Additional MS 89149, f. 144v)

The manuscript has been in the Duke of Northumberland’s collection at Alnwick Castle since at least 1872 and its significance was only realised when it was put up for sale last summer. Initially sold to an overseas buyer, a temporary export bar was placed on the manuscript by the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest, on the grounds that it is of outstanding significance for the study of cultural movements towards the Reformation in England, the earliest known translation of Erasmus into English, and of significance for the study of scholastic links between Erasmus and Tyndale. The acquisition of the Erasmus manuscript by the British Library has been made possible thanks to the generous grants from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Friends of the British Library, the Friends of the National Libraries, and an anonymous donor.

The news of the British Library’s acquisition of the manuscript has been welcomed by Alec Ryrie, Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Durham: ‘This manuscript, which seems very likely to be the work of William Tyndale, is one of the most significant new archival discoveries relating to the history of the English Bible and the English Reformation to have been made during my lifetime. Long given up for lost, this brings us closer to the work of a man who was not only one of the heroes of the Reformation but also the single most influential figure in the formation of the modern English language. It's a genuine national treasure, and the British Library is to be congratulated on a stellar new acquisition.’

Dr Claire Breay, Head of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts at the British Library said, ‘I am thrilled that the British Library has secured this very significant manuscript for the national collection. As well as being available to researchers in the Manuscripts Reading Room at the Library, the manuscript has been digitised and is now available to everyone in full online.’

Complete, free digital coverage of the manuscript (now Add MS 89149) is available on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

23 August 2015

Little Ado About Something Rather Significant: William Shakespeare and Magna Carta

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If you were writing a play about the reign of King John, what would be the one scene you could not dispense with? The sealing of Magna Carta at Runnymede, perhaps? Yet, this is exactly the scene that the nation’s greatest playwright William Shakespeare forgot to mention in his play The Life and Death of King John.

Shakespeare's King John

A page from the First Folio of William Shakespeare's The Life and Death of King John, in which John urges Hubert to murder Prince Arthur, "a very serpent in my way"

This notable omission has puzzled scholars for generations. Why would Shakespeare not mention the most significant event in John’s reign? Some have suggested that it is because Shakespeare was unaware that Magna Carta originated with King John in 1215. Given that copies were reissued in 1216, 1217, 1225 and 1297 this could have been an easy mistake for the bard to have made – but unlikely. Shakespeare knew his history. Written in the 1590s during the reign of Elizabeth I, it is more likely that the courtier in Shakespeare was compelled to leave out Magna Carta as too politically sensitive, something that might be construed as criticising the institution of monarchy or tacitly supporting the idea of internal rebellion against the crown. In the aftermath of the long and bloody Wars of the Roses (1455-1487), Tudor political doctrine had little sympathy for baronial rebellion, weak monarchy or internal conflict; while the turbulence of the Reformation made Magna Carta – with its first clause prescribing the freedom of the English Church – a dangerous document to invoke and of more use to recusant Catholics than Protestant apologists. Given the political climate in which Shakespeare was writing it is, perhaps, surprising that he wrote about King John at all.

In writing his play on King John, Shakespeare followed very closely an earlier play by George Peele entitled The Troublesome Reign of King John which, published in 1591, equally failed to mention Magna Carta. For these playwrights John’s story was not one – as it is now – about wrestling rights from a monarch or about making Magna Carta a hallowed symbol of individual liberty. More important for them was how the events in John’s reign exemplified the ever present and dangerous influence a fickle papacy could have on English politics. Throughout Peele’s stridently anti-Catholic The Troublesome Reign, John is represented as patriotically defending the nation against the foreign interference of the Pope. The same is true of Shakespeare's play. Though Shakespeare certainly presents King John as a bad and malevolent king, the play is still tangibly anti-Catholic and the Pope remains an interfering threat. Indeed, in the play King John is eventually poisoned by English monks loyal to Pope Innocent III. This was above all a play which celebrates the Protestant religious settlement, not the liberty of the individual. Given the religious tensions prevalent in Elizabethan England it is unsurprising that Shakespeare would prefer to focus on these religious themes in John’s reign than the sealing of Magna Carta.

Herbert Beerbohm Tree

Painting of Herbert Beerbohm Tree as King John by Charles Buchel, kindly loaned to the Magna Carta exhibition by the Victoria and Albert Museum

Since Shakespeare did not include Magna Carta in his story, subsequent theatre companies have incorporated into their own productions newly written scenes depicting the events at Runnymede in 1215. When, between 20 September 1899 and 6 January 1900 the leading Shakespearian actor Herbert Beerbohm Tree performed King John to some 170,000 spectators at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London, he inserted a new scene at the beginning of Act III that depicted him, as John, granting Magna Carta to the barons. Short excerpts of Beerbohm Tree’s production were filmed to publicise the play, with the surviving footage, including John’s death scene, being the oldest record of Shakespeare on film. Clearly, by the nineteenth century the Great Charter had become a much more important aspect of John’s reign, imbued with a meaning very different from that which it ever had in the 16th century, and scenes depicting it being granted were expected by audiences. As is ever the case with Magna Carta’s story, the document is interpreted and reinterpreted in line with the preoccupations of the present. And for Shakespeare, it just didn’t matter that much!

You can see a copy of Shakespeare' First Folio (1623) in the British Library's major exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, together with the painting of Herbert Beerbohm Tree and the surviving footage of Tree's performance as King John. But hurry, because the exhibition closes on Tuesday, 1 September. You can book tickets online here.

Alexander Lock

16 July 2015

Another Apocalypse Manuscript Digitised

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The British Library has a great collection of Apocalypse manuscripts and we have featured them in a number of recent blogposts. At the end of this post, we provide a list of the best-known Apocalypse manuscripts that have been digitised in recent years. The most recent Apocalypse to be digitised is the rather lesser-known but finely-executed Additional MS 35166, an Apocalypse in Latin with commentary by Berengaudus and a life of St John the Divine, whose visions are recorded in the Book of Revelation.

The earthquake at the opening of the Sixth Seal. Additional MS 35166, f. 9v (detail), England, S.E. (?London), 2nd half of the 13th century

The top half of every recto and verso of the 38 folios (there are a number of leaves missing, from Revelation 10:7 to 16:8) has a miniature, and underneath is a brief passage from the Apocalypse written in black ink, followed by Berengaudus’ commentary in red ink.

The Second Seal: the Red Horse. Additional MS 35166, f. 7v (detail), England, S.E. (?London), 2nd half of the 13th century

The exquisite tinted drawings faithfully portray John's vivid descriptions of his visions. The illuminator has incorporated John into the majority of scenes, which lends a sense of immediacy to the images: the reader witnesses the horror and awe of the Apocalypse alongside him.

Preceding and following the Apocalypse are scenes from the Life of St John. His death at the hands of the Emperor Domitian in a cauldron of boiling oil is depicted here:

John in a cauldron of oil, Additional MS 35166, f. 1v (detail), England, S.E. (?London), 2nd half of the 13th century

The stories from the life of John are from the New Testament Apocrypha and include the tale of a young man who is presented to a bishop by John and becomes his cup-bearer. The young man, riding a white horse, joins a band of robbers and they kill and steal. John is told this by the bishop and rides out to bring the young man back to the bishop.

The young man and robbers stealing and murdering, Additional MS 35166, f. 35r (detail), England, S.E. (?London), 2nd half of the 13th century

This Apocalypse manuscript may have belonged to a religious guild known as the Kalendars, as it is inscribed, ‘Liber Domus Kalendarum’ on the first folio.  The Kalendars were religious guilds of the Middle Ages, composed of clergy and laity, known to have existed in Bristol, Exeter and Winchester in the 12th century.  They met on or around Kalends (the first day of the month), hence the name ‘Kalendars’.

For comparison, here are some images of the opening of the Sixth Seal and the earthquake (Rev. 6:11-15) in several other Apocalypse manuscripts held by the British Library, to give you a sense of the differing styles of illumination:

The Queen Mary Apocalypse

John watching the earthquake, with ruins and fallen stars, and the dead in holes, Royal MS 19 B XV, f 11v (detail), England S. E. (London), or East Anglia, 1st quarter of the 14th century

The Yates Thompson Apocalypse

The earthquake at the opening of the Sixth Seal: six heads in holes in the ground with a river in the foreground and the sun and moon, Yates Thompson MS 10, f. 11r (detail), France (Paris), 1370-1390

The Silos Apocalypse

The opening of the Sixth Seal: Christ enthroned above the dark sun and red moon; below, falling stars and the earthquake, Additional MS 11695, f. 108r, Spain, 1091-1109

The Welles Apocalypse

The opening of the Sixth Seal; the earthquake. At the top, a darkened sun and moon and stars falling from the sky. In the centre, a king, a master and other men hiding in caves. To the right, a building collapsing. To the left, St John is witnessing the scene. Royal MS 15 D II, f 131r (detail), England, c 1310

The Abingdon Apocalypse

The Sixth Seal: St John looking up at a cloud containing the sun and moon; on the right the ruins of a town and men and women in holes in the ground, with fragments of objects falling from the sky. Add MS 42555, f 16v (detail), England, 3rd quarter of the 13th century

- Chantry Westwell


02 June 2015

The Trial of Sir Thomas More

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What does Magna Carta have to do with the English Reformation? Answer: lots. Magna Carta’s first clause claiming that ‘the English Church is to be free and have its rights in whole and its liberties unimpaired’ became a fundamental clause for those who looked for historical precedents in their opposition to the English Reformation and Henry VIII’s religious settlement. ‘The liberties of the Church …guaranteed by Magna Charta’ were referenced by William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1532 in a speech to be delivered to the House of Lords in 1532, that also noted — in a veiled threat to Henry — that those ‘kings who violated them … came to an ill end.’ Warham, however, died before he was able to deliver this speech to Parliament. Had he survived to deliver it, it is likely that he would have come to an ‘ill end’ well before Henry VIII! Later, members of the popular uprising known as the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536 similarly looked to Magna Carta to justify their opposition to Henry’s reforms, demanding in their rough minutes from the conference at Pontefract, ‘That the Church of England may enjoy the liberties granted them by Magna Carta’. It is interesting to note that such invocations of Magna Carta appeared around the same time as the first publication of the Latin and English versions of Magna Carta in 1508 and 1534 respectively. Indeed, given these ever increasing appeals to Magna Carta by opponents of the Reformation, it is little wonder that Thomas Cromwell — Henry VIII’s chief minister — made it a priority to ‘Remembre the Auncyent Cronycle of Magna Carta and how libera sit cam[e] into the statute’. 

First printed Magna Carta

The first printed edition of Magna Carta, 1508

Of all those who invoked Magna Carta against Henry VIII, perhaps the most famous of all was its use by Sir Thomas More at his trial for high treason in 1535. Unable to accept Henry’s religious settlement and unwilling to swear to the Act of Succession, More was imprisoned on 12 April 1534 and tried the following year in July 1535. Though the outcome was a forgone conclusion, More delivered a forceful statement outlining his spiritual position, and invoking the first clause of Magna Carta. Quoting it in Latin, Thomas More told the court that Henry VIII’s reforms were ‘co[n]trary both to the ancient Lawes, & Statutes of our owne Realme not the[n] repealled, as they might well see in Magna Carta; Quod Ecclesia libera sit, & habeat omnia iura integra, & libertates suas illæsas’. Although based as it was on Magna Carta, this defence did not save him and More was beheaded on 6 July 1535.

G_1580-0001    G_1580-0016
The Mirrour of Vertue in Worldly Greatnes, 1626

That we know so much about More’s trial, and his use of Magna Carta in it, is due to the publication in 1626 of a book entitled The Mirrour of Vertue in Worldly Greatnes, or the Life of Syr Thomas More More Knight. Written by More’s son-in-law, William Roper, during the reign of Queen Mary (1553–58), this is reputedly the earliest personal biography in the English language. Marked for its candour, detail and strong loyalty to More, it has influenced all subsequent writing on the former Lord Chancellor. Although it was written by Roper in the 1550s, the accession of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603) precluded the publication of this religiously sensitive biography. It was only published in 1626 by exiled English Jesuits at Saint-Omer who sought to mislead government agents by giving it the imprint ‘Paris’.


Thomas Cromwell's response to Thomas More's use of Magna Carta at his trial in 1535: ‘Item to Remembre the Auncyent Cronycle of Magna Carta and how libera sit cam[e] into the statute’

You can view the items described here in our major exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, on display at the British Library in London until 1 September 2015. You can also read more about them on our dedicated Magna Carta website and in the book that accompanies the exhibition.

Alexander Lock

26 April 2015

The Paston Letters Go Live

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The collection known as the Paston Letters is one of the largest archives of 15th-century English private correspondence, comprising about 1000 letters and documents including petitions, leases, wills and even shopping lists. They offer a unique glimpse into the personal lives of three generations of the Paston family from Norfolk over a period of 70 years -- the family name comes from a Norfolk village about 20 miles north of Norwich. The Pastons rose from peasantry to aristocracy in just a few generations: the first member of the family about whom anything is known was Clement Paston (d. 1419), a peasant, who gave an excellent education to his son William (d. 1444), enabling him to study law. William’s sons and grandsons, two of whom were knighted, continued his relentless quest for wealth, status and land, and their story was acted out against the backdrop of the Wars of the Roses. 

 A 19th-century view of the ruins of Caistor Castle in Norfolk. This 15th-century 'castle' was built for a prominent aristocratic family, the Fastolfs. It passed to the Paston family who occupied it for the next century (British Library KTop XXXI.47)

For the first time, part of the British Library’s large collection of Paston family correspondence and documents has been digitised and is available to view in full. Five volumes containing some of the most studied items have now been published on our Digitised Manuscripts website: four volumes from 1440-1489 (Add MS 43488, Add MS 43489Add MS 43490Add MS 43491) and a volume that contains further material from the second half of the 15th century, together with later correspondence from of the later 16th century (Add MS 33597). One of the most famous items in the Paston collection is the oldest Valentine letter (London, British Library, Additional MS 43490, f. 24), featured on this blog in 2011 when it was displayed in the British Library's Evolving English exhibition.

One of the earliest of the surviving letters, dated 20 April, ?1440, is from Agnes Paston to her husband, William, the patriarch of the family, in which she tells him that their son, John, seems to like the ‘gentilwomman’ that his father has chosen to be his bride, and asks him to buy her a wedding gown in ‘a godely blew or ellys a bryghte sanggueyn [red]’. Her mother has promised to supply the fur to go with it. She ends the letter, ‘Wretyn at Paston in hast … for defaute of a good secretarye’, so it would appear that this letter was written by Agnes herself. Unfortunately we do not know if the bride, Margaret Mautby, liked her gown, but she did marry John later in 1440!

Letter from Agnes Paston to her husband, William Paston, Norfolk, 20 April 1440 (BL Additional MS 43488, f. 4r)

The titles in modern handwriting show that this is the first letter in volume I of five volumes of Original letters, written during the Reigns of Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III…, edited and bound by their owner, John Fenn, the Norfolk antiquary in 1787-89 . The first two volumes were presented by him to King George III (1760-1820) at St James’s Palace in 1787, but then disappeared from view until they were found  in the library of Colonel George Tomline at Orwell Park, Suffolk, around 1890. Tomline was a descendant of the private secretary to William Pitt the Younger, so they may have been in Pitt’s library in the late 18th century, but there is no record of how he obtained them from the Royal library. They were bought by the British Museum in 1933 after the Pretyman-Tomline family put them up for sale at Sotheby’s.

Each letter has the address and remains of a wax seal on the rear.

Verso of the above letter: ‘To my worshepefulle housbond W. Paston be this letter takyn’, Norfolk,  20 April 1440 (BL Additional MS 43488, f. 4v)

Official family business is the major topic of the correspondence. Margaret Paston, nee Mautby, wife of John Paston I (d. 1466), a London solicitor, was left to manage the estates in Norfolk while he pursued land claims against the estate of Sir John Fastolf, a career soldier (d. 1459) and one of the major correspondents of the family. Topics of a more personal nature include family fall-outs, parental nagging, clashes with the aristocracy and parties thrown while parents were away from home. In December 1441 Margaret writes to John to ask him for a new girdle as she has grown ‘so fetys’ (fat): she is 6 months pregnant with their first child, who is born in April 1442.  The letters provide a colourful portrait of medieval provincial society: feckless sons and aging daughters are married advantageously and a manor house is besieged in a land-dispute. Dinner parties are planned and the topics discussed range from local gossip, the problems of cash-flow and the wool trade to the shortage of good servants.

Among the letters and documents is an inventory of ‘Englysshe bokis’ owned by John Paston II (b. 1442, d.1479); unfortunately, the paper has decayed on the right-hand side so the titles are incomplete. Paston’s library included copies of romances that were popular at the time, for example ‘a boke of Troylus’, ‘þe Dethe off Arthur’ and a printed book listed as ‘a boke in preente off þe Pleye of þe… ‘, which has been identified as a copy of Caxton’s printed edition of ‘The Game and Playe of the Chess’, published in 1475. Unsurprisingly there are several books of heraldry, religious and classical texts.

Inventory of books belonging to John Paston II, Norfolk, between 1475 and 1479 (BL Additional MS 43491, f. 26r)

Sometimes the events described in the letters are remarkably familiar. While studying at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, probably in his late teens, John Paston I loses his wallet somewhere between Cambridge and Newmarket! Here is an edition of the letter written by a certain John Gyne, known to the family, who found it on the ‘high weye’. The letter is from a collection that is soon to be digitised, and is transcribed in James Gairdner’s 1904 edition of the letters.



To the worthy and worshipful sir and my good maister, John Paston of Trynyte hall in Cambrigge


Right worthy and worshipfull sir, and my good maister, I comaund me to yow. Like it yow to witte that on the Soneday next after the Ascencion of oure Lord, in the high weye betwex Cambrigge and the Bekyntre toward Newmarket, I fonde a purs with money ther inne. Th’entent of this my symple lettre is this, that it please to your good Maistership by weye of charite, and of your gentilnesse, to witte if ony of youre knowleche or ony other, swich as yow semeth best in your discrecion, have lost swich a purs, and, the toknes ther of told, he shal have it ageyn, what that ever he be, by the grace of oure Lord, Who ever have yow in his blissed kepyng. Wretyn at Sneylewell the Moneday next after the seid Soneday. By youre pover servaunt, John Gyn.

As most of the letters are dated or datable, they are invaluable primary sources for historians and are, in addition, of outstanding interest to linguists as evidence of the English language at a crucial period in its development.  There are 2185 entries from the Paston letters in the Oxford English Dictionary and in Visser’s monumental work,  An Historical Syntax of the English Language (Leiden: Brill, 1972), they are a major source of examples of Middle English usage. One example is found in a letter from John Paston III (John Paston I has two sons called John Paston, just to confuse historians!) to his mother, Margaret Paston, where he informs her that my lord of Oxynforth … sent to my lady of Norffolk by John Bernard only for my mater and for non othyr cawse, myn onwetyng … (‘Lord Oxford sent a message to Lady Norfolk just to raise my business with her and for no other reason, without me knowing’). This construction, myn onweting (literally ‘mine unknowing’), is unfamiliar to us now. In modern English we would use the preposition ‘without’ to introduce an adverbial phrase with a present participle but we would be more likely to replace it with a noun, e.g., ‘without my knowledge’. The vocabulary, too, is interesting. ‘Onweting’ is a form of the Old English verb, ‘witen’, an alternative to ‘cnawan’ (to know), which survives in noun form in Modern English, in the word, ‘wit’ or ‘witless’ but is no longer used as a verb.     

This letter was written in the midst of the confusion surrounding the restoration of Henry VI, who was recrowned the day after it was written, on 13 October 1470. John Paston tells his mother ‘tydyngys’ of the imminent death of the Earl of Worcester, who was to be executed a week later.

Letter from John Paston III to Margaret Paston, London, 12 October 1470 (BL Additional MS 43489, f. 40r)

These 5 volumes are just a part of the large collection of Paston letters in the British Library. Further volumes of the family’s letters and documents are scheduled for digitisation in the future, so watch this space!

Chantry Westwell

13 January 2015

RIP Æthelwulf, King of the West Saxons

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King Æthelwulf, who died on 13 January 858, has been rather overshadowed by his more famous son, Alfred the Great – but did he lay the foundations for Alfred’s success?

Æthelwulf consolidated the West Saxon kingdom, strengthened his family’s rule over Kent and brought Devon and Cornwall under his influence. It seems that he was quite a networker, currying favour with Pope Benedict III and Charles the Bald, the Carolingian emperor. He travelled to Rome in 855 ‘with a multitude of people’, and gave gifts of ‘a fine gold crown weighing 4 lb, … one sword bound with fine gold; four silver-gilt Saxon bowls; one all-silk white shirt with roundels, with gold-studding; and two large gold-interwoven veils’, as well as lavish donations of gold and silver to ‘the clergy, leading men and people of Rome’ (from the Liber Pontificalis: AD 817–891, ed. by R. Davis (1995)).

On his way home, Æthelwulf stopped off at the court of Charles the Bald for three months and married the emperor’s daughter Judith in an elaborate ceremony. His new bride replaced Æthelwulf’s wife Osburh, who had borne all his children, including five sons. It is not known if Osburh had died before this or was discarded in favour of Judith, who was probably only fourteen. Æthelwulf’s connection to Carolingian royalty is referred to many times in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and was no doubt considered a very prestigious move.

Detail from a genealogical roll, showing Æthelwulf (centre), his father Ecgberht, King of the West Saxons (above), King Beorhtric (right), and below, 4 roundels containing his sons, Æthelbald, Æthelberht, Æthelred and Alfred, England, 4th quarter of the 13th century, Royal MS 14 B V, Membrane 1.

Here is an image of King Æthelwulf (in the centre) from a genealogical roll chronicle produced in the reign of Edward I (1272-1307). He is shown against a shiny gold background, with his left hand on his heart. The French text beside him focuses on the gifts of money he gave to the Pope. Beside him is a man on stilts playing a pipe with an animal head.

Text page with West-Saxon genealogy to King Alfred, England, S.E. (Winchester), 4th quarter of the 11th century, Add MS 34652, f. 2v.

This is a leaf that has been detached from Cotton MS Otho B XI, one of the manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It contains an Anglo-Saxon genealogy from King Cerdic (519-534) to Alfred (871-899). On the 7th line, Ecgberht (‘ecbyrht’), father of Æthelwulf, is listed as reigning for 37 years and 7 months (802-839).  He was succeeded by his son: ‘þa feng æþelwulf to his sunu 7 heold nigenteolðe healf gear’ (‘his son Æthelwulf took over the kingdom and held it for the nineteenth half year’, i.e. eighteen and a half years) (lines 8-9). There follows a seven-line list of Æthelwulf’s antecedents with their patronymics: Æthelwulf is ‘ecbyrhting’ (son of Ecbyrht), Ecbyrht is ‘ealmunding’ (son of Ealhmund), Ealmund is ‘eafing’ (son Eafa, who married a Kentish princess) and so on back to ‘cynric cerdiccing’, Cynric, son of King Cerdic, who some believe was a Saxon invader and founder of the dynasty of Wessex.

Stowe Charter 17
Charter of King Æthelwulf of Wessex, England, S. E. (Christ Church, Canterbury), 843, Stowe Charter 17

The earliest surviving charter of a king of Wessex is a grant by King Æthelwulf, dated 28 May 843 (Stowe Charter 17). Æthelwulf gave to his thegn Æthelmod land at Little Chart, Kent, including woods called Theodorice-snad and Beaneccer, and swine-pastures at Ætingden, Lidingden, Meredenn and Uddanh. Attached to the bottom of the charter is a small fragment of parchment containing a note of the witnesses, including Æthelwulf himself and Ceolnoð, Archbishop of Canterbury. This must have been used as an aide-memoire by the scribe when writing up the fine copy.

Æthelwulf was succeeded by his sons Æthelbald, Æthelberht, Æthelred and finally Alfred, his youngest son, who reigned for 22 winters.

- Chantry Westwell

27 December 2014

Saved for the Nation: New Acquisitions in 2014

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During 2014, the British Library has made several new acquisitions. Thanks to such schemes as Acceptance in Lieu, as well as generous funding provided by the Arts Council, the Friends of the British Library and a range of private benefactors, we have been able to save these books for the nation. Each has been conserved and fully digitised, the images being published on Digitised Manuscripts, and so are now available for all to enjoy and study. Just in case you missed them the first time round, let’s take a closer look at each of them:

Catholicon Anglicum 

Opening page, beginning with the exclamation ‘Aaa’, from the Catholicon Anglicum, England (Yorkshire), 1483,
Add MS 89074, f. 2r 

This is the only complete copy of one of the earliest English-Latin dictionaries ever made, and the first such dictionary in which all the words were placed in alphabetical order. From the dialect of some of the words, it appears to have been written in Yorkshire. Last seen in the late nineteenth century when the text was edited, and thought lost to scholarship forever, it had lain hidden in a private collection in Lincolnshire. The Catholicon Anglicum is of outstanding importance for our study both of the English language and English lexicography (which goes back much further than Dr Johnson!). It has been exhibited in the Treasures Gallery since June, as part of a small display about ‘Languages in Medieval Britain’

Mystère de la Vengeance de Nostre Seigneur Iesu Crist 

Detail of a miniature of the murder of Emperor Galba by Otho and his rebels, from the Mystère de la Vengeance de Nostre Seigneur Iesu Crist, southern Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1465,
Add MS 89066/2, f. 79r 

Probably the finest illuminated drama manuscript to survive from the medieval period, this manuscript in two volumes (Add MS 89066/1 and Add MS 89066/2) was acquired from the collection of the Dukes of Devonshire at Chatsworth. It is the most complete copy of the mystery play, Le Mystère de la Vengeance de Nostre Seigneur Iesu Crist, which was written by a Benedictine monk, Eustache Marcadé, in the early fifteenth century. This manuscript ticks all the boxes: it is beautifully decorated and handsomely written; there are surviving records of exactly how much it cost and who made it; and there is an almost unbroken chain of provenance evidence, from its original owner Philip the Good of Burgundy to the present day. It too is on display in the Treasures Gallery; don’t miss your chance to see it! 

John Ponet’s copy of a treatise against clerical marriage 

Frontispiece to John Ponet’s copy of Thomas Martin’s ‘Traictise’, containing Ponet’s annotations and an old library stamp from the Law Society’s Mendham Collection, printed in London, 1554,
Add MS 89067, f. 1r 

This book is a fascinating witness to one of the major doctrinal disputes of the Reformation, and to the personal rivalry between the Catholics Stephen Gardiner and his acolyte Thomas Martin on one hand, and the Protestant John Ponet on the other. Upon Mary I’s accession, Ponet went into exile, settling in Strasbourg. He acquired this book while on the continent, had it interleaved with blank sheets, and then began a point-by-point (and often ad hominem) refutation of Gardner/Martin’s argument. Many of these densely written notes were later printed – but crucially not all of them – affording us an insight into how contemporaries engaged with one another’s arguments and composed their responses during a febrile period in English religious history. 

And finally, our most recent acquisition, which arrived earlier this month: 

Rental of the lands of Worcester Cathedral Priory

The British Library possesses the largest collection of medieval cartularies in Britain. The newest addition to our holdings is a rental that was made for Worcester Cathedral Priory. Dating to 1240 (with some later additions), it contains records of the possessions of this major monastic foundation and the revenues to which it was entitled. It formed the exemplar for the ‘Registrum Prioratus’, dating to the early 14th century, which remains at Worcester Cathedral, as Muniments, A.2. More details of this exciting new acquisition will be coming in the New Year...


- James Freeman

25 October 2014

Lindisfarne Gospels in our Treasures Gallery

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The Lindisfarne Gospels, one of the greatest treasures in the British Library’s collections, is now back on display in The Sir John Ritblat Gallery. This Latin Gospel-book is thought to be the work of one remarkably gifted scribe and artist, who created it around 700 on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, Northumbria. Its importance lies not only in the beauty of its carpet-pages and its miniatures of the four Evangelists, but also in the tenth-century gloss of its text that is the earliest example of the Gospels in the English language.

Colophon added by Aldred, the translator of the Old English gloss, in the Lindisfarne Gospels, England, c. 700,
Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 259r 

According to the colophon added by this translator, Aldred (fl. c. 970), who was provost of the community at Chester-le-Street near Durham, the artist-scribe was a monk called Eadfrith, who was Bishop of Lindisfarne from 698 to 721. The inscription records that Eadfrith ‘wrote this book for God and St Cuthbert and also for all the Saints whose relics are on the island’. It also describes the binding made by Billfrith the anchorite, which included a cover adorned with gold, silver and precious gems.

A Canon table
from Cotton Nero D IV, f. 12v

On display for the next three months are two pages from the canon tables that preface the Lindisfarne Gospels (ff. 12v-13r). These provide readers with a concordance to the Four Gospels, allowing them to locate episodes described by more than one Evangelist. A mistake has been made in Canon 2 (shown), where the name titles at the heads of the three columns have been confused with those of Canon 3 on the facing page. The headings which read ‘Luke’ and ‘John’ have been corrected by a near-contemporary hand to read ‘Mark’ and ‘Luke’. Interlace birds fill the columns and the arch, while a ribbon knotwork design is used for the bases and capitals.

Detail of masons building the canon table in the Echternach Gospels, from the monastery of St Willibrord, Echternach (now Luxembourg), 11th century,
Harley MS 2821, f. 9r

Visitors to the Gallery will be able to compare the canon tables in the Lindisfarne Gospels with those in the Echternach Gospels, made in the monastery of St Willibrord (in modern day Luxembourg) in the eleventh century. The two tables on display (ff. 8v-9r) show elaborate ornamental pillars upon which masons are still working with hammers and chisels.

Detail of a remarkably naturalistic bird and fish from the ‘Golden Canon Tables’, Eastern Mediterranean, 6th or 7th century,
Additional MS 5111, f. 11r

In another case nearby there is also the much earlier ‘Golden Canon Tables’ from the Eastern Mediterranean. Written over gold leaf, these tables are set within elaborately adorned architectural frames, including some finely executed birds and fish. These pages were later trimmed to fit a smaller twelfth-century manuscript of the Gospels, causing the loss of some of these details.

The Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library is open seven days a week, and is free to visit. If you would like to see the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Echternach Gospels or the Golden Canon Tables in their entirety, please see the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site. 


Holly James-Maddocks