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28 November 2016

Silence is a Virtue: Anglo-Saxon Monastic Sign Language

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alison Ray

@BLMedieval

 

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25 November 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alison Hudson

@BLMedieval

16 November 2016

‘Kett’s Demands Being in Rebellion’

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On 15 November 2016, Sky Arts aired the latest episode of ‘Treasures of the British Library’, with poet Benjamin Zephaniah. This is one of the books he chose.

At Wymondham, Norfolk, a multi-day play was performed annually during the Middle Ages, commemorating the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170. Although the play was banned by King Henry VIII (1509–47) when he broke with Rome, it was revived on 6–8 July 1549. The suppression of their cultural and spiritual lives exacerbated the audience's unrest, since their livelihoods had been threatened by ‘enclosure’, a process of fencing in common land by landowners to transform it into private property. The loss of commons made small farming unsustainable.

Benjamin Zephaniah

Benjamin Zephaniah at the British Library.

The performance of this play in 1549 turned into a uprising, and the crowds began tearing down the hedges that enclosed the land. Robert Kett, one of the landowners originally targetted, became leader of the cause, helping to tear down his own fences. Kett led a march to Norwich, and set up camp in the open space of Mousehold Heath, just outside the city walls. It grew quickly, with accounts estimating that it numbered as many as 16,000 people. This was one of many similar camps across the country.

Kett drew up a list of twenty-nine demands to present to Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, then Lord Protector of England (for the minor King Edward VI). The demands were also signed by Thomas Codd, mayor of Norwich, who had a reputation as a moderate, as well as the past mayor, Thomas Aldrich. A simple plea ‘that from henceforth no man shall enclose any more’ heads the list, but this was not the rebels' only concern, which extended to improving education and reducing corruption. The movement was nonetheless suppressed and Robert Kett was hanged for treason on 7 December 1549; but the Mousehold manifesto endures as a witness to this attempt to propose reasonable solutions to deep-seated problems in society.

We pray your grace that no lord of no manor shall common upon the commons: Harley MS 304, f. 75v.

‘We pray your grace that no lord of no manor shall common upon the commons’: Harley MS 304, f. 75v.

The document in question is preserved in a small bundle of worn paper, folded probably to be delivered by a messenger, now British Library Harley MS 304, ff. 75r–78v. It opens with a list of the names of hundreds and their representatives in Norfolk, Suffolk and the city of Norwich, and the signatures at the end appear to be autographs.

The signature of Robert Kett: Harley MS 304, f. 77r.

The signature of Robert Kett: Harley MS 304, f. 77r.

The document is given the title ‘Keates demaundes beinge in Rebellyon’ (on the final page, f. 78v). Corrections by the scribe show revisions still being made as the sheets were written out from another copy.

There are errors in all published versions of Kett’s demands; the edition below has been corrected against the original manuscript, using the original spelling. Sections of the text whose reading is unclear due to damage are written in square brackets, while corrections are in angle brackets; these draw on earlier published versions of the text (see the bibliography below). Each of the demands is set out in paragraphs as below, but the numbering is editorial.

The Text

  1. |f. 75v| We pray your grace that where it is enacted for Inclosyng that it be not hurtfull to suche as haue enclosed saffren groundes for they be gretly chargeablye to them and that ffrome hensforth noman shall enclose eny more.
  2. We certifie your grace that where as the lordes of ther manours hath byn byn Charged with certen ffre rent the same lordes hath sought meanes to charge ther ffreholders to pay the same rent contrarye to right.
  3. We pray your grace that no lord of no mannor shall comon uppon the Comons.
  4. We pray that prestes frome hensforth shall purchase no londes neyther ffre nor Bond and the londes that they haue in possession may be letten to temporall men as they haue byn wer in the ffyrst yere of the reign of kyng henry the vijth.
  5. We pray that Rede ground and medowe grounde may be at suche price as they wer in the first yere of kyng henry the vijth.
  6. We pray that all marshysshe that ar holden of the kynges maiestie by ffre rent or of eny other may be ageyn at the price that they wer In the ffirst yere of kyng henry the vijth.
  7. We pray that all Busshelles within your realme be of one stice that is to sey to be in mesure viij gallons.
  8. |f. 76r| [W]e pray that [any prest] or vicars that be nat able to preche and sett forth the woorde of god to hys parissheners may be clerely putt from hys benyfice and the parissheners there to chose an other or elles the pateron or lord of the towne.
  9. We pray that the paymentes of castillward rent and blanche fferme and office landes whiche hath byn accostomed to be gathered of the tenamentes where as we suppose the lordes ought to pay the same to ther balyffes for ther rentes gatheryng and not the tenantes.
  10. We p⟨r⟩ay that noman vnder the degre of a knyght or esquyer kepe a dowe howse except it hath byn of an ould anchyent costome.
  11. We pray that all ffreholders and copieholders may take \the/ profightes of all comons and ther lordes to comon and the lordes not to comon nor take profightes of the same.
  12. We pray that no ffeodarye within your sheres shalbe a counceller to eny man in his office makyng wherby the kyng may be trulye serued so that a man beeng of good consyence may be yerely chosyn to the same office by the comons of the same sheyre.
  13. We pray that copie your grace to take all libertie of lete into your owne handes wherby all men may quyetly enioye ther comons with all profightes.
  14. We pray that copiehould londes that is onresonable rented may go as it dyd in the ffirst yere of kyng her henry the vij and that at the deth of a tenante or of a sale the same landes to be charged with an esey ffyne as a capon or a resonable […]ss some of money for a remembraunce.
  15. |f. 76v| We pray that a prest sh[all be a chaplaine] nor no other officer to eny man of honor or wyrshypp but only to be resydent vppon ther benefices wherby ther paryssheners may be enstructed with the lawes of god.
  16. We pray thatt all bonde men may be made ffre for god made all ffre with his precious blode sheddyng.
  17. We pray that Ryvers may be ffre and comon to all men for ffysshyng and passage.
  18. We pray that no man shalbe put by your Eschetour and ffeodarie to ffynde eny office vnles he be holdeth of your grace in cheyff or capite aboue x li by yere.
  19. We pray that the pore mariners or ffyssheremen may haue the hole profightes of ther ffysshynges in this realme as purpres grampes whalles or eny grett ffysshe so it be not preiudiciall to your grace.
  20. We pray that euery propriatorie parson or vicar havyng a benifice of x li or more by yere shall eyther by themselues or by some other parson teche pore mens chyldren of ther parisshe the Boke called the p cathakysme and the prymer.
  21. We pray that it be not lawfull to the lordes of eny mannor to purchase londes frely and to lett them out ageyn by copie of court roll to ther gret advaunchement and to the vndoyng of your pore subiectes.
  22. We pray that no propriatorie parson or vicar in consideracon of advoydin[g] trobyll and sute bet⟨w⟩yn them and ther pore parisshners whiche they daly do procede and attempt shall from hensforth take for the full contentacon of all the tenthes which nowe they do receyue but viij d of the noble in the full discharge of all other tythes.
  23. |f. 77r| [We pray that no man] vnder the degre of es[quyer] shall kepe any conyes vpon any of his owne ffrehold or copiehold onles he pale them in so that it shall not be to the comons noysoyns.
  24. We pray that no person of what estate degre or condicion he be shall from hensforth sell the adwardshyp of eny chyld but that the same chyld if he lyf lyve to his full age shalbe at his owne chosyng concernyng his marriage the kynges wardes only except.
  25. We pray that no matter mannor of person havyng a mannor of his owne shall be non other lordes balyf but only his owne.
  26. Item We pray that no lord knyght nor gentleman shall haue or take in ferme any spirituall promocion.
  27. We pray your grace to gyve lycens and aucthorite by your gracious comyssion under your grett seall to suche comyssioners as your pore comons hath chosyn or to as many of them as your maiestie and your counsell shall apoynt and thynke mete for to redresse and refourme all suche good lawes statutes proclamacions and all other your procedynges whiche hath byn hydden by your Justices of your peace Shreues Escheatores and other your officers from your pore comons synes the ffirst yere of \the reign of/ your noble grandfather kyng henry the seventh.
  28. We pray that those your officers which \that/ hath offended your grace and your comons and so provid by the compleynt of your pore comons do gyue onto those pore men so assembled iiij d euery day so long as they \haue/ remayned ther.
  29. We pray that no lorde knyght esquyer nor gentleman do grase nor fede eny bullockes or shepe if he may spende fforty pou[nds] a yere by his landes but only for the provicion of his howse.

By me Rob’t Kett           Thomas Cod

By me Thomas Aldryche

Further Reading

Fletcher, Anthony, and Diarmaid MacCulloch, ‘Robert Kett and the “rebellions of Commonwealth”’, in Tudor Rebellions, 6th edn (London: Routledge, 2015), pp. 66–89.

MacCulloch, Diarmaid, ‘Kett’s Rebellion in Context’, Past & Present, 84 (1979), 36–59, https://doi.org/10.1093/past/84.1.36.

Russell, Frederic William, Kett’s Rebellion in Norfolk (London: Longmans, Brown, Green, Longmans and Roberts, 1859), pp. 48–56 [text with commentary].

Andrew Dunning
@BLMedieval/@anjdunning

18 October 2016

Remembering Assandun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alison Hudson

@BLMedieval

13 October 2016

And Always After That It Grew Much Worse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alison Hudson

@BLMedieval

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

16 August 2016

Research Curator, Renaissance Literature

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We have a job opportunity here at the British Library, to work on our Discovering Literature online resource, in the field of Renaissance Literature. This is a full time, fixed term contract, for a period of 7 months. Further details can be found here on the Library's recruitment pages.

Discovering Literature was launched in 2014, and showcases the British Library’s literary classics through an exploration of the historical, social and political contexts in which they were written and received. We are seeking highly organised candidates with excellent research skills and experience of working in the cultural sector. The successful applicant will be expected to identify collection material, ensure its safe and timely digitisation, research and author content, and support the creation of article or film content.

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Poems of Sir Thomas Wyatt, 16th century (British Library Egerton MS 2711, f. 67r)

Candidates must have the right to work in the United Kingdom, and the following minimum requirements:

  • Specialist knowledge and research experience using manuscripts and early printed books relevant to the collections at the British Library, evidenced through a post-graduate qualification or equivalent.
  • Strong palaeographical skills.
  • Excellent oral and written communication skills, in particular editorial and web-authoring skills, and evidence of writing and publishing to deadline.
  • Familiarity with British Library catalogues and catalogues of other major research libraries.
  • The ability to work both independently and in a team.
  • High level of time-management skills.

To apply for this post, please visit our recruitment pages.

Closing Date: 28 August 2016 

Interview Date: 6 September 2016 

 

08 May 2016

God as Mother and Julian of Norwich

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In May 1373, a 30 and a half year-old woman lay dying. A local priest arrived to give her the last rites and held a crucifix in front of her. In that moment, however, the woman—Julian of Norwich— experienced a series of visions, ranging from graphic details of Christ’s passion to an image of a humble hazelnut. When she miraculously recovered from her illness, this experience formed the basis for Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love, the first book in English which is known to have been authored by a woman. This book continues to be studied and to challenge theologians today. In particular, Julian is famous for her extended comparison of God to a mother:

'when [a child] is hurt or frightened it runs to its mother for help as fast as it can; and [God] wants us to do the same, like a humble child, saying, "My kind Mother, my gracious Mother, my dearest Mother, take pity on me"' (trans. by Elizabeth Spearing, Julian of Norwich: Revelations of Divine Love (London: Penguin 1998),  p. 144). 

Since some of our American readers are celebrating Mothers’ Day today, it seems like a good occasion to highlight Julian and her writings.

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Description of Julian’s illness and vision in 1373, from a shortened version of Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, England, 15th century, Add MS 37790, f. 97v
 

Julian spent much of her life as an anchoress, or religious recluse, in a room attached to the Church of St Julian at Conisford in Norwich. Her writings do not reveal much about her life before she became an anchoress. The learning she displayed might suggest that she was an educated woman, possibly a Benedictine nun. On the other hand, her descriptions of some crucifixion scenes and her interest in Christ as mother might indicate that she was a mother or had given birth herself. She composed both a long version and a short version of her Revelations (also called The Showings of Julian of Norwich). Julian probably either wrote or dictated the long version around 1393, since she states that it took her 19 years and 9 months (‘twenty yere saue thre monthys’) to fully understand the visions she had in 1373.

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Detail of a crucifixion scene possibly made in Norwich during Julian’s lifetime, from a missal, England (Norwich?), c. 1400-1425, Add MS 25588, f. 109v

Julian’s works seem to have been popular and were copied during her own lifetime. Other mystics, like Margery Kempe, visited Julian’s cell, because she was ‘an expert in such things [i.e. visions] and could give good counsel’ (‘þe ankres was expert in swech thyngys and good cownsel cowd 3euyn’). Her writings give the impression that Julian was a kind and reassuring counselor: she famously stated that God would ensure that ‘All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.’

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Page from Julian of Norwich’s Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love, England, 1625, Stowe MS 42,  f. 5r

If you are in London between now and 31 July 2016, you can see a 17th-century copy of Julian’s Revelations at the Wellcome Collection’s THIS IS A VOICE exhibition. The long version of Julian’s Revelations primarily survives in 17th-century copies, which shows how close this important theologian’s work came to being lost altogether. Julian’s works are being displayed near works of other famous women writers who had visions or heard voices, from Virginia Woolf to Julian's contemporary and acquaintance, Margery Kempe, who wrote the earliest known autobiography of an English person. Mother’s Day is also a good occasion to remember Margery: by her own account, she had 14 children.

~Alison Hudson

23 April 2016

1000th Anniversary of the Death of Æthelred the Unready

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Today marks the 1000th anniversary of the death of King Æthelred II (reigned 978-1016). Æthelred II—often nicknamed Æthelred the ‘Unready’, from the Old English word for 'ill-advised'—has not enjoyed a glowing reputation throughout history. 

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Passage describing Æthelred’s death from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle C-text, England, 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B I, f. 153v

The longest narrative account of Æthelred’s reign comes from a group of entries in the C, D, and E texts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. (The British Library possesses the C and D texts and has recently digitised all its copies of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.) These entries were apparently composed after Æthelred’s death by a single chronicler, who was bitter about the repeated Viking invasions that had dogged Æthelred’s reign and the eventual conquest of England by the Scandinavian leader Cnut. The chronicler blamed Æthelred for many of these tribulations, and summed up Æthelred's life in his entry for 1016 by saying: 'He ended his days on St George's day, and he had held his kingdom with great toil and difficulties as long as his life lasted' (translated by Dorothy Whitelock and others, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Revised Translation (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1961), p. 95).

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Passages describing Eadric Streona’s treachery from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D-text, England, 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B IV, f. 65v

In particular, the chronicler objected to Æthelred’s promotion of the treacherous noble Eadric Streona, who eventually joined Cnut’s forces. He also disapproved of the massive payments which English leaders collected and used to pay Viking forces in return for an end to hostilities. 

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Detail of a list of benefactors including ‘Æðelred [the Unready] Cynge' and 'Cnut Cynge', from the New Minster Liber Vitae, England (Winchester), 1031, Stowe MS 944, f. 25r 

Despite the eventual conquest of Æthelred’s kingdom by Cnut, there are other suggestions that Æthelred was not an entirely incompetent ruler. Æthelred was one of the longest reigning early medieval kings: he ruled for approximately 38 years, even taking into account the period when the victories of the Viking leader Swein forced him into exile in Normandy in 1013 and 1014. By contrast, Æthelred’s father, Edgar the Peaceable, had only reigned for 16 years, and Æthelred’s successor Cnut reigned for 19 years. Æthelred’s longevity, particularly in the context of invasion and disruption, is remarkable.

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Initial at the start of the Gospel of St Luke, from the Cnut Gospels, England, Royal MS 1 D IX, f. 70r

In addition to disruption, Æthelred’s reign also saw a flourishing of artistic production, as evidenced by several manuscripts in the British Library’s collection, which have now been digitised in full. These include the lavishly illustrated and gilded gospel-book pictured above which may have been made during Æthelred’s reign, even though it is known today as the ‘Cnut Gospels’ because charters of Cnut were later added to it around 1018.

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Page from Beowulf, England, c. 1000-1016, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 140r

Similarly, the only surviving manuscript of the longest Old English epic, Beowulf, was copied during Æthelred’s reign, in the early 11th century. Curiously, Beowulf is a Geatish, or Scandinavian, hero, whose story was still being retold in a context of Scandinavian invasions of England. This manuscript contains a number of other notable texts as well, including an Old English poem about the Biblical heroine, Judith.

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Deatil of the opening page of Ælfric’s Life of St Æthelthryth, from Ælfric’s Lives of the Saints, England (? Bury St Edmunds or Canterbury), 1st half of the 11th century, Cotton MS Julius E VII, f. 94v

Indeed, many of the most important works in the corpus of Old English literature were copied during Æthelred’s reign, and some were even produced then. In particular, Æthelred’s reign coincided with the career of Ælfric of Eynsham, one of the most prolific and talented authors of Old English works. Ælfric’s sermons, including his Lives of the Saints, his Grammar, and other texts were widely copied during the 11th century and are still studied in medieval English literature courses today. The British Library has now digitised two copies of the first series of Ælfric’s Catholic Homilies (see Cotton MS Vitellius C V), including the earliest surviving copy (Royal MS 7 C XII); one copy of Ælfric’s Lives of the Saints (Cotton MS Julius E VII); two copies of Ælfric’s Grammar (Cotton MS Faustina A X, Cotton MS Julius A II); a copy of the Old English translation of the Hexateuch, to which Ælfric was a principal contributor (Cotton MS Claudius B IV); and other works which include excerpts from Ælfric, such as a  fragment of a colloquy associated him which was copied into the margins of a grammar book (Add MS 32246).

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Page from a later copy of Ælfric’s Hexateuch, England (Canterbury), c. 1025-1050, Cotton MS Claudius B IV, f. 15v

Æthelred’s reign also coincided with the careers of other noted writers in Old English and Latin, including Wulfstan, bishop of Worcester and archbishop of York, and Wulfstan, cantor of the Old Minster, Winchester. Manuscripts of these men’s work—including some with additions and annotations in Wulfstan of Worcester’s own hand—have also recently been digitised, including Wulfstan of Winchester’s long Latin poem about the miracles of St Swithun (Royal MS 15 C VII).

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Page from the Rule of St Benedict, England, c. 975-1016, Harley MS 5431, f. 44r

These writers were all products of the monastic reform movement which promoted the Rule of St Benedict, uniformity of lifestyle, and high standards of education. Much manuscript evidence of this learning survives, including a plethora of grammar books, glossaries, and texts on subjects from astronomy (Cotton Domitian A I) to Latin epics to hagiography to riddles.

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Page from Prudentius' Psychomachia with illustration and glosses, England (? Bury St Edmunds), c. 980-1020, Add MS 24199, f. 12r

These texts show monks (and possibly nuns and lay people) studying and improving their Latin and even Greek.

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Latin phrase ‘Deo gratias’ written in Greek letters, from  Harley MS 5431, f. 106v

This artistic flourishing was not entirely unrelated to the troubles of Æthelred’s reign. Many members of Æthelred’s kingdom believed that the Viking invasions were divine punishment for lax practices and lack of learning. This view can, for instance, be found explicitly in the writings of another leading intellectual of Æthelred’s reign: Wulfstan, bishop of Worcester and archbishop of York, who wrote several law codes issued in Æthelred’s reign and was a senior administrator for him (and later, for Cnut). Wulfstan’s law codes and his famous ‘Sermon of the Wolf to the English’ blame his countrymen’s lax habits for Scandinavian forces’ recent victories. In the eyes of contemporaries, creating beautiful books to glorify God and educate clerics and lay people may have been one way to combat the country’s moral (and military) woes.

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Page from Wulfstan’s Sermo lupi, England (? Worcester or ? York), Cotton MS Nero A I, f. 110r

Beyond the manuscripts related to art and learning, we have also recently digitised a series of documents which suggest that, in some regions at least, leases and property deals and farming continued apace during Æthelred’s reign. Such documents can be found in an early cartulary of Worcester, such as the Liber Wigorniensis (Cotton MS Tiberius A XIII, ff. 1-118v) and the Ely farming memoranda (Add MS 61735). The memoranda describe farm tools and livestock sent from Ely Abbey to Thorney Abbey, as well as rents payable in eels.

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Grant by King Æthelred to the Bishopric of St David with reversion to Worcester from 1005, from the Liber Wigorniensis, England (Worcester), c. 1000-1025, Cotton MS Tiberius A XIII, f. 118v

Whatever one thinks of Æthelred, it cannot be denied that his reign was a fascinating time in political and artistic history. On 23 April 2016, when so many people around the world are celebrating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, it is worth pausing to remember that it is also the 1000th anniversary of the death of King Æthelred.

~Alison Hudson