THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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108 posts categorized "English"

22 September 2017

Inside the Tudor court

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The House of Tudor reigned over England for almost a century and a quarter, and is renowned for its displays of indulgence. King Henry VIII (1509–1547) is especially associated with having led a luxurious and decadent lifestyle: he is thought to have squandered a large part of the treasure amassed by his father, King Henry VII (1485–1509), on banquets and festivities. Even so, their account books show that the Tudor kings, including Henry VIII, were very much interested in book-keeping, and did not simply throw money around at will. Such behaviour was thought to have a corrupting effect — it was portrayed as a shower of coins in a near-contemporary prayer-book commissioned by William of Hastings (d. 1483), Master of the Royal Mint.

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A shower of coins in the borders of a prayer to the Three Kings, in the Hastings Hours: Add MS 54782, f. 43r

The British Library has recently digitised four account books of Kings Henry VII and Henry VIII. These two kings clearly kept track of their income and expenses by inspecting their account books. This is indicated by the fact that three of the account books, (partially) written by John Heron (1470–1522), Treasurer of the Chamber, include the kings’ signatures at the end of several of their entries.

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The signature of King Henry VII, 1499–1505: Add MS 21480, f. 10v

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The signature of King Henry VIII, 1509–1518: Add MS 21481, f. 4v

The household books give us an insight into the life and activities at the courts of Henry VII and Henry VIII. They contain records with payments for many types of labourer and artisan: gardeners, such as the ‘moletaker’; cooks, such as the ‘Frenche coke’ employed by Henry VIII; tailors, such as the ‘yeman of the robes’ and the ‘fethermaker’; falconers; trumpeters; crossbow makers and maintainers, known as the ‘grome of the crosbows’; clockmakers, such as Nicholas Kratzer, a German astronomer who was commissioned by Henry VIII to design an astronomical clock for Hampton Court; engravers, referred to as  the ‘graver of precious stones’; courtiers; soldiers; secretaries; ambassadors and other officials. They also document material goods, such as horses and greyhounds, as well as spiritual goods, such as alms and prayers.

One account book (Add MS 21481) contains a letter dated 23 January 1512 (ff. 347r–348v), in which Henry VIII orders John Heron to make payments to Gilbert Talbot (1452–1517), Lord Deputy of Calais, and Edward Poynings (1459–1521), military commander and diplomat, for ‘certain men of arms and houses in Flanders for our war’s purpose’ [‘certain men of armes and hooysse in fflaunders for oure werres use’] in preparation for a campaign against France. But the books also give insight into the kings' personal lives. For example, we can see that Henry VIII, several years after the annulment of his marriage with his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, was still making payments directly to her and her treasurer Wymond Carewe, for ‘her officers and certain gentlewomen an gentlemen’ [‘her Officers and certeyn gentilwomen and gentilwomen’]. 

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An entry for a payment to Anne of Cleves, 1543–1544: Add MS 59900, f. 70v

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An entry for a payment to Wymond Carewe for the household of Anne of Cleves, 1543–1544: Add MS 59900, f. 63r

You can explore the world of the Tudor court for yourself by viewing the following household books online:

King Henry VII’s household book for the years 1499-1505

King Henry VII's household book for the years 1502-1505

King Henry VIII’s household book for the years 1509-1518

King Henry VIII's household book for the years 1543-1544

 

Clarck Drieshen

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04 September 2017

Ping pong merrily on high

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In 1934, two exceptional discoveries in the history of medieval studies were made. And they were both made by accident.

In July 1934, Walter Oakeshott, a teacher at Winchester School, decided to go looking for some interesting book bindings in the Fellows’ Library, at the suggestion of his friend, James Basil Oldham. He was keen to look at some manuscript bindings. The manuscripts were kept separately from the books, in a safe in the Warden’s bedroom. Oakeshott wrote that this safe had

'a legendary reputation with me since not so many years before a knowledgeable visitor who had made his way into it had recognised in the bedside mat, a magnificent piece of Tudor tapestry … probably woven for the occasion of the christening of Prince Arthur, Henry VII’s eldest son in Winchester Cathedral.' 

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Image of the 'Roses Tapestry', formerly known as a bedside mat, Winchester College

Opening the safe, Oakeshott felt immediate ‘disappointment’. There were no interesting bindings. He decided to glance at the manuscripts nonetheless. One of them was ‘clearly about King Arthur and his Knights’, but it was lacking a beginning and an end. Oakeshott ‘made a vague mental note’ of the manuscript and moved on to the next one.

What Oakeshott had stumbled on was the only known manuscript of Thomas Malory’s great work of Arthurian legend, the Le Morte Darthur — the last major work on Arthurian legend to be produced in the Middle Ages, but also the first and only text in Middle English to recount the entire legend of Arthur from his birth to his death. It was only when, a few weeks later, he was preparing for a visit from the Friends of the National Libraries that Oakeshott returned to the safe and realised the significance of what is now called ‘the Winchester Manuscript’, British Library Add MS 59678.

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The first surviving folio of Thomas Malory's 'Le Morte Darthur', Add MS 59678, f. 9r

When Oakeshott made his discovery, the only surviving copy of this text was a print by England’s first printer, William Caxton (c. 1422–c. 1491). The manuscript is not the original one made by the author, but its version of the text is thought to be closer to the original.

*

Later that summer, in September 1934, another chance discovery was made. This time, the discoverers were not even looking for books, but ping pong balls. Maurice Butler-Bowdon described how he was playing ping pong with some friends at his family’s Georgian house near Chesterfield and how,

'one of us trod on the Ping Pong ball and my father went to the cupboard to get out a replacement and it was soon apparent that he was having difficulty in finding either a ball or a tube of balls … There was in there an entirely undisciplined clutter of smallish leather books.'

Ping pong

Image courtesy http://elsebremsrejsefond.dk/?page_id=856

Butler-Bowdon recounted his father’s exasperation at this pile of book-clutter: ‘I am going to put this whole ­­­­­––– lot on the bonfire tomorrow and then we may be able to find Ping Pong balls & bats when we want them’. Thankfully, the books were not burnt before one of them in particular had been identified: its cover ‘had been eaten away, presumably by a mouse’. It was none other than the lost Book of Margery Kempe, which had previously only been known in seven pages of extracts printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1501. How the manuscript came into the possession of the Butler-Bowdons is unclear — they apparently owned it in the late 18th century, but before the Reformation it belonged to the Carthusian brothers at Mount Grace Priory in Yorkshire.

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The opening folio of  the 'Book of Margery Kempe', Add MS 61823, f. 1r

The Book of Margery Kempe, Add MS 61823, is sometimes called the earliest autobiography in English. Margery lived in the East Anglian town of Lynn in the early 15th century and was at various times a horse-mill owner and a brewer, but later in her life she became a visionary and mystic. She was also the mother of 14 children. Her remarkable Book is a window into the life of an ordinary, middle-class person in a prosperous town in late-medieval England but, perhaps more importantly, it is a rarely-opened window into medieval female experience.

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Never judge a book by its mouse-eaten cover: the chemise binding of Add MS 61823, the 'Book of Margery Kempe'.

 

At the end of the essay in which he describes his extraordinary encounter with the Malory manuscript, Oakeshott compares his discovery to the biblical story of King Saul, who was sent to seek his father’s lost asses:

'We are told that Saul the son of Kish went out to seek his father’s asses and found a kingdom. The fate of the literary detective is comparable only in that, if he finds anything at all, he will find something different from that for which he is looking. It is seldom a kingdom … The asses almost always prove obstinately elusive. Certainly I did not, on this occasion, find them. All I could tell Oldham was that there were no bindings on the manuscripts to interest him.'

The lesson of this remarkable year in literary history is clear: you must always keep searching, because you might find something magical, beneath a mouse-eaten cover, while looking for something quite different altogether.

I have been reading more about these stories of discovery as part of my writing and research for the medieval section of the library’s Learning site, Discovering Literature, which will go live early in 2018. The site ties in with a new on-site adult learning course, Discovering Literature: Beowulf to Chaucer, which will run over six weeks, on Tuesdays, from 24 October 2017. The final session of this course will feature a rare opportunity to work with original manuscripts from the British Library. You can find the course description and booking form here. Places are now down to the last few, so please book as soon as you can.

Mary Wellesley

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18 August 2017

Discovering Literature: Beowulf to Chaucer

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What should you do when your Christmas is rudely interrupted by a Green Man, wielding an axe? How should you respond when a monster nightly terrorises your home? And what is the best way to entertain 29 travellers on the road to Canterbury? 

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Chaucer's pilgrims on the road to Canterbury, from 'The Siege of Thebes', by John Lydgate, England, 1457–60, Royal MS 18 D II, f. 148r


These are just some of the questions we’re going to be exploring in our latest on-site adult learning course, ‘Discovering Literature: Beowulf to Chaucer’, which offers students of any level the opportunity to learn more about the literature of medieval England. It contains Arthurian legends, dream-visions, dragons, chatty pilgrims and talking books. From the first great epic of English poetry, Beowulf, to the captivating tales of Geoffrey Chaucer, over six weeks participants will consider iconic works in Old English, Middle English and Anglo-Norman French, exploring the rich diversity of literary production in medieval England. We’ll be looking at works of comedy as well as of religious devotion, alongside haunting texts that explore the pain of adultery, loss and social exile.

Beowulf

Detail of the opening words of Beowulf, beginning 'Hwæt' ('Listen!), from Beowulf, England, 4th quarter of the 10th century or 1st quarter of the 11th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 132r.

The course uses original texts in translation but, with expert guidance, you’ll also be led through close-readings of selected passages in their original languages. The course runs over six weeks, on Tuesdays, from 24 October 2017, and the final session will feature a rare opportunity to work with original manuscripts from the British Library’s collections.

The course is available to 16 participants only, and places are limited, so book as soon as possible. The full course description and booking form is available here.

Mary Wellesley

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15 August 2017

Call for papers: Manuscripts in Anglo-Saxon England

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Manuscripts in Anglo-Saxon England

A postgraduate and early career symposium on the book culture of early medieval England before 1100

On Saturday 15 December 2018 the British Library will be holding a postgraduate and early career symposium on Manuscripts in Anglo-Saxon England. The symposium follows an international conference taking place on 13 and 14 December 2018. Both events are being held during a major exhibition on Anglo-Saxon England which will open at the British Library in October 2018. We expect that there will be a reduced joint registration fee for the conference and symposium for students and unwaged early career researchers.

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The Vespasian Psalter, 8th century: British Library Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 31r

Proposals for papers are invited from advanced postgraduate students and early career researchers. We wish to encourage paper proposals from a wide variety of institutions. This symposium is intended to foster discussion about books, documents, the uses of writing, the transmission of ideas, the survival of evidence, and intellectual contact within and beyond Anglo-Saxon England. Manuscripts that were made or used in Anglo-Saxon England should be central to all proposals.

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Liber Wigorniensis, early 11th century: British Library Cotton MS Tiberius A XIII, f. 77v

If you would like to submit a proposal, please complete the attached form (Download 2018 Anglo-Saxon Symposium CFP) and send it to Claire Breay (claire.breay@bl.uk) by 1 December 2017. Decisions will be announced by 2 February 2018.

Claire Breay

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08 August 2017

Illuminated manuscripts for polyglots

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Here at the British Library we have just completed our latest digitisation project, with over 100 manuscripts added to our website between January 2016 and July this year. The project, funded by a private donor, has focused on collection items in French and other European vernacular languages that are notable either for their illuminations or for texts of particular interest. A list of the manuscripts digitised in this project is available at online: Download French and Vernacular Illuminated project digitisation list. Here are examples of some of the most remarkable items from our collections newly available on Digitised Manuscripts.

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God with the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist, surrounded by angels and cherubim, a winged woman with a crown addressing a council of the Church, the four Evangelists and scenes from the Old and New Testament in roundels, from the Bible Historiale, France, Central (Paris), c.1420, Add MS 18856, f. 3r

Manuscripts in French

Among the numerous French manuscripts digitised are the Library’s remaining copies of the Roman de la Rose, a popular French allegorical poem beginning with a dream-vision of love, and developed by a second author into a discussion of the philosophical and scientific knowledge of the day. There are now 14 copies of this very popular text on Digitised Manuscripts. For details of the Rose manuscripts in our collections, see our blogpost, ‘Everything’s coming up Roses’.

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The Lover’s dream, from Roman de la Rose, France, Central? (Paris?), c. 1380, Add MS 31840, f. 3r

Some of the most beautifully-illuminated manuscripts in French tell familiar stories from the Bible and the classical past, allowing for imaginative depictions of well-known episodes and characters like Alexander the Great. The first image in this post is of a Bible Historiale, an illustrated collection of Bible stories and commentary. The Roman d’Alexandre is another example.

 

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The coronation of Alexander and the wedding banquet of King Philip and Cleopatra, from the Roman d’Alexandre, Low Countries, 1st quarter of the 14th century. Harley MS 4979, f. 17v

Anglo-Norman is the version of French that evolved in England after the Norman Conquest, and in the 14th century it was still being used alongside Middle English and Latin. This volume is a compilation in all three languages, believed to have been produced in the Hereford area around 1320–1340, with an assortment of religious, mathematical, legal and astrological texts. This book is copied in an everyday cursive script with only minor decoration, but it is of great importance for the unique texts it contains, including the only known manuscript copy of the Romance of Fulk le Fitz-Warin, recipes in Anglo-Norman French and macaronic verses (with alternating lines in French, Latin and English).

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Macaronic satirical verses from a prose and verse miscellany, England, Central (Hereford), 1st half of the 14th century, Royal MS 12 C XII, f. 7r

Manuscripts in Middle English

Manuscripts containing key Middle English texts have also been included in this project: we have digitised 8 of these, including works by Chaucer, Lydgate and Gower.

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Detail of a miniature of the discovery of Edmund's head with a scroll with gold inscription 'heer heer herr', with a wolf guarding it, and a man blowing a horn, from John Lydgate's Lives of Saints Edmund and Fremund, between 1461 and c. 1475, England, S. E. (Bury St Edmunds?), Yates Thompson MS 47, f. 54r

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A Carthusian anthology of theological works in English includes works on contemplation by Julian of Norwich and Richard Rolle, 
'The myrroure of symple saules' a Middle English translation of a French text by Marguerite Porète, from the ‘Amherst Manuscript’, England, mid-15th century, Add MS 37790, f. 137r

Among the manuscripts digitised is a copy of the Canterbury Tales, with the spurious ‘Tale of Gamelyn’, not written by Chaucer, but of particular interest for the themes it shares with the contemporary Ballad of Robin Hood.

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Prologue and opening lines of the Squire’s Tale from the Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, England; 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 1758, f. 68r

 

Manuscripts in other European vernacular languages featuring in the project include:

Middle Dutch

This version of the Medea legend in Middle Dutch has some extremely graphic images of Medea’s horrific actions and is followed by a work on the game of chess.

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Jason, Creusa and her father, the King of Corinth are seated at the wedding table; Medea enters with four dragons and tears her son to pieces in front of them, from Medea and Dat Scaecspel (Chess Book) in Dutch, Add MS 10290, f. 138r 

Jacob van Maerlant’s Middle Dutch work, Der naturen bloeme (The Flower of Nature) is a natural encyclopaedia and bestiary in verse, written around 1270 at the request of the nobleman Nicolaas van Cats to contain all available knowledge about the natural world. Almost every page is illustrated, with some creatures more easily identifiable than others. This manuscript seems to have been a lending copy, and it is also notable for its book curse.

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A page from Der Naturen Bloeme  featuring a steer, a mole and other creatures, c 1300–c 1325, Netherlands, Add MS 11390, f. 25v

 

Occitan (Langue d’Oc) and Catalan

The Breviari d’Amor, composed by Matfre Ermengaud in 1288–1292 in Occitan (or Langue d’Oc, the dialect of Southern France), is a poem containing a compendium of contemporary knowledge under the umbrella of faith, and seen as a manifestation of God’s love. Ermengaud describes himself as a senher en leys e d’amor sers, in other words a master or doctor of law but also a poet who serves the ideal of love.

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The Tree of Love or 'Arbre d'Amor', with the figure of 'Amors Generals' at the centre, from the Breviari d’Amor in Occitan, early 14th century, France, S. (Toulouse?), Royal MS 19 C I, f. 11v

The work was adapted into Catalan prose. This magnificent copy comes from the collection of illuminated manuscripts formerly belonging to Henry Yates Thompson.  

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The Offices of the Angels from the Breviari d’Amor in Catalan prose, Spain, E. (Catalonia, Gerona?); last quarter of the 14th century, Yates Thompson MS 31, f. 39v

Two other Yates Thompson manuscripts, MS 47 (see above) and MS 21, a copy of the Roman de la Rose have also now been digitised. For information on this collection, see the virtual exhibition in our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.   

Mantuan dialect of Italian

The extremely influential scientific work, De proprietatibus rerum, was compiled in the 1240s by a Franciscan, Bartholomeus Anglicus (Bartholomew the Englishman), for the instruction of his fellow Franciscans. This copy was translated from Latin into Mantuan for Guido dei Bonacolsi (d. 1309).

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Map of the world, supported by Christ, with the Continents depicted as different buildings, from De proprietatibus rerum, Italy, N. (Manua), c 1300–1309, Add MS 8785, f. 315r

A home-grown alphabetical encyclopaedia in Latin

Encyclopaedias have been a theme running through this project: to the De nature and the Breviari above, we can add the Omne Bonum, a huge alphabetical reference work compiled in the 14th century by the Englishman James le Palmer, who was clerk of the Exchequer under Edward III. Most of the entries are illustrated.

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‘Ebrietas’ (Drunkenness), from the Omne Bonum, England, S. E. (London), c. 1360–c. 1375,  Royal MS 6 E VII/1, f. 1r

For further details, see our recent blogpost that accompanied the digitisation of these manuscripts. 

lluminated Apocalypse Manuscripts

And last but not least, the Apocalypse (the biblical book of Revelation with a commentary) was among the most popular works of the medieval period, and numerous illustrated copies were produced in England. 11 manuscripts in Latin, French or Middle English, and some in dual-language versions, have been digitised in this project, so that all 20 illuminated copies of the Apocalypse in our collections are now online. See our recent blogpost ‘The End of the World as we know it’ for the complete list.

This copy is in three languages, with the main text in Latin, a verse translation and prose commentary in Anglo-Norman French and an added paraphrase in Middle English prose.

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The dragon attacks the mother and child, from the Apocalypse in three languages, England, 2nd half of the 13th century, Add MS 18633, f. 22v

Chantry Westwell

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27 June 2017

Curator, Early Modern Collections

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The British Library is recruiting for a Curator of Early Modern Collections. This is a full time, fixed term position, for six months. Full details of the post and how to apply can be found here.

As Curator of Early Modern Collections, you will assist lead curators in the Department of Western Heritage Collections with preparations for an exhibition on 16th-century British History to be held at the British Library in 2020–21. You will also use your specialist knowledge to catalogue early modern manuscripts and will help to interpret and present the Library’s early modern collections through online resources and engagement with academic and general users.

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Detail from Elizabeth I’s autograph speech dissolving Parliament, in which she rebukes ministers for their unwelcome ‘lip-laboured orations’ on the matter of her marriage and succession, January 1567: British Library Cotton Charter IV. 38 (2)

With a post-graduate degree, or equivalent, in 16th-century British history, you will have research experience using early modern manuscripts and printed books and a personal area of expertise relevant to the British Library’s collection. Strong palaeographical skills, excellent written and oral communication skills in English and the ability to promote the collections to a wide range of audiences are essential.

The deadline for applications is 11 July 2017, and interviews will be held on 20 July  2017.

Curator, Early Modern Collections (reference COL1309)

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The first page of William Cecil’s paper on ‘Things to be considered upon the Scottish Queen coming into England’, May 1568: British Library Cotton MS Caligula C I, f. 97.

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17 May 2017

Digging for the past at Norton Priory

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Despite the trail of desolation left by the dissolution of the monasteries in England and Wales beginning in 1536, former monastic sites remain among the most beautiful places to visit in Britain. The Norton Priory Museum and Gardens, thought to be the most extensively excavated monastic site in Europe, has long been known for its spectacular grounds. In August 2016, the museum opened an entirely new building, adding a fascinating interpretation of the site that shows just how much we can understand about the past, even when it appears that little is left on the surface.

Plan of Norton Priory by Randle Holme: Harley MS 2073, f. 107r.

Plan of Norton Priory, probably by Randle Holme: Harley MS 2073, f. 107r.

The dissolution of the monasteries in England and Wales was one of the most significant upheavals of British society — it is estimated that one in fifty adult males were in religious orders at the outset of the 16th century, and within a generation these people, their functions, and their lands had to be absorbed elsewhere. Nonetheless, the process of the dissolution is still little understood. Although it has often been thought to have been a decisive blow, executed purely out of the greed of King Henry VIII, the reality is somewhat more complicated and was the result of years of agitation. This is exemplified in a letter of Piers Dutton to Thomas Cromwell, on loan from the British Library and now on temporary display at Norton Priory.

Sir Piers Dutton claimed descent from the same Dutton family that had been a supporter of the priory (and later abbey) since the 12th century, but sought to take control of Norton for his own purposes. The first Act for the Suppression of the Monasteries applied only to houses worth £200 or less, under which Norton fell. It seems unlikely that this could have occurred without falsification of documentary evidence, which Sir Piers could have accomplished as a royal commissioner for Cheshire.

Letter from Piers Dutton to Thomas Cromwell, 3 August 1536: Harley MS 604, f. 60r.

Letter from Piers Dutton to Thomas Cromwell, 3 August [1535?]: Harley MS 604, f. 60r.

The chronology of the letter has been debated, as Dutton only gives the date as 3 August: it was first published as being from 1534, but has been proposed to be from 1535 or even 1536. Certainly, when it was written, the closure of Norton was not yet finalized. It has recently been emphasized that the initial Act of 1536 should be read as aiming at the reform of the monastic system, and not its total destruction.

Sir Piers writes to Cromwell that he has arrested the abbot of Norton, Thomas Birkenhead, and other canons, though he does not explain why. It may relate to his attempt in 1535 to accuse the abbot of counterfeiting money. Meddling with Norton is not enough: he also seeks to put forward Dom ‘Rondull Wilmyslow’ (or Randulph Wilmeslowe) as abbot of Vale Royal, a Cistercian monastery, after the death of its abbot in 1534 or 1535:

Please it \your/ gud mastership my duetie remember this to aduertise you that I haue taken the bodies of thabbot of Norton Robert Jannyns and the straunger a connyng Smythe two of the seid abbottes seruantes also Randull brereton baron of the kynges excheker of chestre and John hale of chestre merchuant and haue theym in my custody and kepyng⸝ And the rest I entende to haue as spedely as I can and to be with you with theym god wylling in all convenyent spede as I possiblie may. Moreouer I haue causet dan Rondull wilmyslow the moncke of the Valle royall to cum vp to you⸝ for whom I spake vnto your gud mastership whiche is a gud religious man dyscrete and wel groundet in lernyng and hathe many gud qualites most apte to be a master of a religious howse then any other moncke of that howse Wherfore it may \please/ your gud mastership to be his gud master toward his preferrement that he may be admitted master of the same And that I did promyse your mastership this seid Moncke will accomplishe accordyngly. Wherfore I beseche your mastership that this berer and the seid moncke may resorte vnto you from tyme to tyme to knowe youre pleasure therin ensuryng you what ye do for me or my frende all is your owne as knowithe our lord god who mercifully preserue you At dutton the iiide day of auguste By youres assured

                                                         Perus
                                                         Dutton K.

He did not achieve his aims: the abbot was cleared of charges, and John Harware (or Harwood) instead became the new abbot of Vale Royal. Sir Piers attempted to have Abbot Thomas executed at the dissolution of the priory, but eventually he became a secular priest, and like other monastics was paid off with a state pension. This letter is a glimpse into the complexity of the often undocumented machinations that surrounded abbeys leading up to their closure.

Norton Priory itself had a tumultuous few centuries ahead of it, but today makes a delightful visit. It is still graced by a splendid 14th-century statue of St Christopher, and the grounds cover nearly fifty acres. The gardens from the monastery and later residents are now kept in top condition. Its new museum is truly innovative, combining cutting-edge archaeological, historical, and even medical research, and presenting it in accessible terms to both young and advanced audiences. We very much hope that you are able to visit Norton Priory, and to see our wonderful document while it is on display until 1 August 2017.

Updated 30 May 2017 to reflect debates surrounding the dating of the letter; thanks to Dr Andrew Abram of Manchester Metropolitan University for pointing out references earlier omitted.

Andrew Dunning

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13 April 2017

Chaucer hitteth the Web

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It has been a warm few days in London and at the British Library we feel that Spring has sprung. Spring is, of course, a time when it rains sweet rain and little birds stay up all night singing amorous songs. Or so Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1343–1400) would have us believe. And we see no reason to doubt that this is what happens. So, to celebrate the arrival of Spring, we have digitised one of our manuscripts of Geoffrey Chaucer's collection of pilgrims' stories, The Canterbury Tales. In the image below you can see the famous opening lines, which read,  ‘Whan that aprille with his schowres swoote / The drought of marche haþ perced to þe roote’ [When that April with his showers sweet/ The drought of March has pierced to the root'].

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The opening of the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales: Harley MS 7334, f. 1r.

The Canterbury Tales was written at the end of the fourteenth century and tells the story of a group of 29 pilgrims who meet while travelling to the shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury. To pass the time on the journey, they decide to each tell two tales to the assembled company on the journey there and the journey home. The result is regarded as a master-work of medieval literature.  The Tales, however, are unfinished. The poem never describes the return journey and not all the pilgrims who appear in the poem's prologue end up telling a tale. The prologue describes a plowman among the company, for example, whose tale is nowhere to be found. The poem survives in 92 manuscripts -- some of them only tiny fragments and others beautifully decorated masterpieces. Yet none of these manuscripts date from Chaucer's lifetime. Trying to work out what Chaucer intended has been a headache for editors for over a century.

The number of pilgrims' tales and their ordering differs between the copies, so debate continues to swirl concerning the relationships between these manuscripts. The manuscripts do not only vary in the order of the stories included: some copies include additions that were not Chaucer's work. Both Harley MS 7334 and Harley MS 1758 include the 'Tale of Gamelyn' as a conclusion to the 'Cook’s Tale', which breaks off after only 58 lines in most copies. Someone was evidently uncomfortable with such untidiness, and made an attempt to tie off the loose ends.

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The Cook’s Tale: Harley MS 1758, f. 45v.

Some people have argued that the Canterbury Tales is intentionally unfinished, that Chaucer deliberately left such hanging ends, to encourage readers to engage with their own tales. Whatever the truth might be, it did not dampen the work’s popularity. Chaucer died in 1400 and in the century after his death he was celebrated by poets like Thomas Hoccleve (c. 1368–1426) and John Lydgate (c.1370–1450), who wrote about him as the father of English literature. One of the earliest portraits of Chaucer appears in a manuscript of Thomas Hoccleve’s Regiment of Princes, Harley MS 4866, which is now online.

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Chaucer with a rosary in Thomas Hoccleve’s Regiment of Princes: Harley MS 4866, f. 88r.

John Lydgate was such a super-fan of Chaucer that in his poem, The Siege of Thebes, he imagines himself bumping into the Canterbury Tales pilgrims on their road to Canterbury. 

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Lydgate bumping into Chaucer's pilgrims, from 'The Siege of Thebes', by John Lydgate, Royal MS 18 D II, f. 148r

The Canterbury Tales was among the first books to be printed in English. William Caxton printed the Tales in 1476 or 1477. It appears to have sold well — he brought out a new edition in 1483, complete with woodcut images of the pilgrims. Both versions are available for comparison through the British Library's Treasures in Full website.

After the Reformation, the incompleteness of the Tales gave later writers an opportunity to reframe Chaucer's work.  A fake anti-Catholic story called ‘The Plowman’s Tale’ was added to The Canterbury Tales and reprinted in various editions of Chaucer’s works throughout the 1540s and 1560s. This gave some people a rather odd idea about Chaucer's intentions. The protestant historian John Foxe (1516/17–1587) wrote in his Actes and Monuments that by reading Chaucer, people in a bygone age were ‘brought to the true knowledge of Religion’. 

Recent years have produced a trove of riches for those studying the Canterbury Tales. The most highly regarded manuscripts of the work, the Hengwrt Chaucer and the Ellesmere Chaucer, are already online. These are believed to have been written by Adam Pinkhurst, a scribe who knew Chaucer personally. But there is still more to learn about the text beyond these two books and we hope that by making another manuscript available digitally, more discoveries might be made. 

Mary Wellesley & Andrew Dunning

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