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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.

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.  

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.

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. 

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.  

'[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. 

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

Alison Hudson


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).


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
: 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. 

Opening of second part of the Vita Ã†dwardi 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 Ã†dwardi 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:  

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).

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?

Cotton Caligula A XV f135r
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 Ã†dwardi 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.

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.

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


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.


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.

ADD 3779 f97V
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.

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.’

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. 

Tiberius B I AEthelred's death
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 Ã†thelred'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).

Tib B IV f65v Eadric
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. 

Detail of a list of benefactors including â€˜Ã†Ã°elred [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. Ã†thelred’s longevity, particularly in the context of invasion and disruption, is remarkable.

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.

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.

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).

Hexateuch Tiberius B V 15v
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).

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.

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.

Harley 5431 Greek
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.

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 Ã†thelred’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.

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

20 April 2016

A Firsthand Experience: Great Writers' Handwriting

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Christian Dior once claimed that one could tell more about a person from her perfume than from her handwriting, but we in the Medieval Manuscripts section at the British Library would disagree, particularly as we have recently digitised manuscripts which the author of the text copied in his or her own hand. These include works by famous figures, like Shakespeare and more enigmatic ones, like a poet named Frithegod. 

Image of a scribe, from Germany (?), mid-12th century, Cotton Claudius A III, f. 30r

Such ‘autograph’ manuscripts from the early modern and medieval periods are rare and often difficult to prove. Features such as spelling, punctution and substantial corrections can all be instructive. The British Library has recently digitised several manuscripts which are generally believed to be autograph copies or contain notes by known scribes.

Miniature of Margaret of York before the resurrected Christ,
from Nicholas Finet, Dialogue de la Duchesse, Low Countries (Brussels), c. 1468, Additional 7970, f. 1v

For example, one newly digitised manuscript includes the handwriting of Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy. The Dialogue de la Duchesse de Bourgogne à Jésus Christ (Dialogue of the Duchess of Burgundy with Jesus Christ) was a devotional tract written especially for Margaret by her almoner or chaplain, and is discussed in more detail here. Margaret later gave the book to her friend and lady-in-waiting Jeanne de Hallewin, according to a dedicatory inscription written by Margaret herself at the end of the manuscript: ‘margarete dyork de angleterre au done a jane de halevyn dame vessenar et dame de la planc se lyvre...’ Interestingly, at some point Margaret erased the words ‘dyork’ (of York) and instead decided to describe herself as ‘de angleterre’ (of England).

Dedication in Margaret of York’s hand written c. 1502, from
Additional 7970, f. 140vr

Another notable recent upload to the British Library's website may come from the pen of the most famous English author himself. The Book of Sir Thomas More is the only play script believed to contain Shakespeare’s own handwriting (Harley MS 7368). As noted on this blog in February, Shakespeare helped to revise the Book of Sir Thomas More in 1603 or 1604. The page in his handwriting includes a speech defending immigrants and foreigners against the ‘mountainish inhumanity’ of a mob seeking to banish them during the Evil May Day riots of 1517. Come and see it in person at the British Library’s current exhibition, Shakespeare in Ten Acts, or read more about it on the Library's Discovering Literature site.

Page containing Thomas More’s speech to the rebels, thought to be written in the hand of William Shakespeare, from the Book of Sir Thomas More, England, c. 1603-4, Harley MS 7368, f. 9r

Shakespeare is not the only notable figure from the history English literature whose handwriting appears in recently digitised manuscripts. The handwriting of two of the most prolific Old English writers—Ælfric of Eynsham and Wulfstan, bishop of Worcester and archbishop of York— have been identified in several British Library manuscripts. For example, some scholars believe that the bossy instructions for deletions and corrections in the earliest surviving copy of the first series of Ælfric’s Catholic Homilies were made by Ælfric himself. In the passage below, the hand associated with Ælfric blocks off a segment of text for deletion, on the grounds that this anecdote is discussed in his ‘oðre bec’ (other book), presumably the Second Series of his Catholic Homilies.

Detail of annotations possibly in Ælfric’s hand, from Ælfric, Catholic Homilies (First Series), England (Cerne?), 990s, Royal MS 7 C XII, f. 64r

Similarly, several manuscripts contain annotations and underlining believed to be in Wulfstan’s handwriting. These include annotations to a manuscript containing law codes, homilies (including Wulfstan's Sermo lupi) and Wulfstan's work on political and social order, Institutes of Polity (Cotton MS Nero A I) and to material in his letterbook (Cotton Vespasian A XIV), as discussed in a previous blog post.

Page believed to contain Archbishop Wulfstan's handwriting among others, from Wulfstan's Institutes of Polity, England, c 1000-1023, Cotton MS Nero A I, f 120r

Curiously enough, one of the more substantial additions to the letterbook in Wulfstan’s own hand is a poem praising... an archbishop called Wulfstan. One line of this poem states, ‘[This poem's] beauty is a praise for the kind Bishop Wulfstan, to whom may the Lord be endlessly merciful.’ The poem also acknowledges Wulfstan’s involvement in its production: the last stanza can be roughly translated as, ‘This work was prepared with Archbishop Wulfstan advising. The subtle supervisor [Archbishop Wulfstan] impressed it with his learned thumb.’ It is unclear why Wulfstan wanted to copy out his poem in his own hand. He could have been paying a compliment to its author. He could have been vain or in need of some good PR. Wulfstan may also have been drawn to this poem because he was anxious about the fate of his soul and the poem emphasizes God’s approval of Wulfstan and Wulfstan’s place in heaven. This seems to have been a particular concern of Wulfstan’s in the wake of renewed Viking attacks in the early 11th century, as demonstrated by the contents of the rest of the manuscript. Wulfstan even added an extra line to the poem that approximately translates as, ‘May the Lord give [Wulfstan] the holy kingdom of heaven, and may he protect all those entrusted to him from malignant hosts.’

Verses written in Archbishop Wulfstan's own hand, from the letterbook of Archbishop Wulfstan, England, c. 1002-1023, Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV, f. 148v

 Recent uploads to Digitised Manuscripts also include a text which may have been copied almost entirely by its author: the Breviloquium Wilfridi, written by a figure called Frithegod (Cotton Claudius A I). The Breviloquium is a poem about an early Northumbrian saint called Wilfrid, written for Oda the Good, a mid-tenth-century archbishop who brought some of Wilfrid’s relics to Canterbury. Its complex structure and obscure vocabulary have led scholars to dub it one of the most difficult pieces of Latin ever written in England.

Page from Frithegod, Breviloquium Wilfridi, England? (Christ Church Canterbury?), mid-10th century, Cotton Claudius A I, f. 36v

The poem’s author, Frithegod, was probably a monk from the continent—possibly from Brioude, in what is now southern France—who was working for Oda at Canterbury. The script of the British Library’s manuscript of the Breviloquium shows it was copied down in the mid-tenth-century, when the work was first composed, by someone trained on the continent. The substantial nature of some of the corrections also suggests that the text was copied by Frithegod himself.

The way these writers interacted with the texts which they themselves had composed and the corrections they made suggest a whole array of possibilities about how they worked as writers, where they were educated, what their influences were, and even how they perceived themselves. Autograph manuscripts also offer a uniquely intimate connection to people who lived 400, 500, and even 1000 years ago: please click through to Digitised Manuscripts and have a look.

~Alison Hudson

Read More about Previously Digitised Autograph Manuscripts:


Christine de Pizan’s Book of the Queen

Digitised Manuscripts Update 

Chronicles of Holland Online

Documentary of a Royal Coronation

28 March 2016

Updated List of Digitised Manuscripts’ Hyperlinks

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What are these Easter bunnies (or hares) hurrying towards?

Detail add_ms_31840_f003r
Detail of hares, from Roman de la Rose, France, c. 1325-1375, Add MS 31840, f. 3

 An updated list of all the early and medieval manuscripts digitised in full by the British Library! Every quarter, we try to publish a list of all the medieval manuscripts uploaded to the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website. The most recent list can be found here: Download List of Digitised BL AMEMM Manuscripts by Shelfmark, March 2016. And, by special request from our friends on Twitter, a list of manuscripts with the most recent digitisations at the end can be found here: Download List of Digitised BL AMEMM Manuscripts with More Recent Uploads at the End, March 2016.

  Detail royal_ms_12_c_xxiii_f100v
Riddle about an elephant, from Aldhelm’s Riddles, England (Canterbury?), c. 970-1020, Royal MS 12 C XXIII, f. 100v

Particular highlights uploaded in the past three months include:

5 illustrated copies of the book of Apocalypse (or Revelation)

All 4 of the British Library’s copies of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

More than 3 manuscripts of the Roman de la Rose

2 collections of material related to the cult of St Cuthbert

One 1,000-year-old collection of riddles (Royal MS 12 C XXIII).

The one and only copy of the Dialogue de la Duchesse (Add MS 7970)


Miniature of Christ appearing to Margaret of York, from the Dialogue de la Duchesse, Low Countries (Brussels), c. 1468-1477, Add MS 7970, f. 1v

With several different digitisation projects under way, new manuscripts are regularly uploaded to Digitised Manuscripts. In order to get the latest news about our digitisation, please consult our Twitter page,, where we announce the most recent uploads to Digitised Manuscripts.

Happy Viewing!

Related Content:

Previous List of Hyperlinks

Anglo-Saxon Digitisation Project Now Underway

New Digitisation Project and Positions

More information on Apocalypse Manuscripts

04 March 2016

Cnut Manuscripts Now in the Treasures Gallery

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The Vikings are back! To commemorate the 1,000th anniversary of the conquest of England by King Cnut in 1016, one exhibition case in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery (free admission, Monday to Sunday) is currently devoted to a variety of different sources from his reign.

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

The new display includes two charters, a list of benefactors from the Liber Vitae of the New Minster, Winchester, the account of Cnut’s defeat of Edmund Ironside in the ‘D’ version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and the earliest surviving copy of Cnut’s law codes issued at Winchester in 1020 or 1021.

Section of Cnut’s law codes, from I-II Cnut, England, second half of 11th century, Cotton Nero A I, f. 11v

Apart from the two charters, all these manuscripts are now available on our Digitised Manuscripts website, but it is well worth seeing these variously sized manuscripts in person, if you are in London: for example, the law codes on display are the earliest surviving example of a ‘pocket-sized’ volume of English laws. So if you get the chance, do pop into the Treasures Gallery to learn more about what was happening 1,000 years ago!

Alison Hudson